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"So, Gwen," said Jesse. "I apologize for not meticulously filling you in on every tiny little detail about the logistics of the situation while we were fleeing for our lives."

Gwen held still, probably trying to parse what he'd said. Hanna kicked Jesse's shin viciously under the table.

"Ow!" said Jesse, and kicked back at her, but mostly missed. "What? I thought from what you said that I'd done something horrible and needed to beg forgiveness."

"Don't mind him," Hanna said to Gwen. "He's referring to the fact that I got a little bit irritated with him for dropping you off with me without having told you anything helpful."

"Oh," said Gwen. "I-- he told me some things."

"See!" Jesse said, triumphantly and maybe a little too loudly; Gwen seemed to shrink slightly, hunching her shoulders.

"Quit putting her in the middle," Hanna snapped. "She's not comfortable with it."

"These two really do like each other, you know," said Quen, his voice noticeably quieter than either Hanna's or Jesse's, and speaking only to Gwen. "They just express it by yelling. If it goes on much longer, you and me can head to the kitchen and eat their dessert."

"I'm sorry," said Hanna, lowering her voice too, and Jesse gave Gwen an apologetic smile. Gwen didn't exactly smile back, but her shoulders relaxed. "He's right. Jesse's great. I love Jesse."

"Aw," said Jesse. "I love you too, you violent shrew. Although I think I loved you more when I was your client and you were actually nice to me."

"That was my first mistake," said Hanna, at the same time as Gwen said, "He was your client?"

"Briefly," said Jesse.

"Very briefly," said Hanna. "He didn't have the patience to be counseled for long. That was three years ago, when he and Quen first got here. Quen listened to me for a little longer."

"Hanna's the one who bullied the medical school into taking me on, a couple of years back," Quen said, still speaking to Gwen. "They have a special program for-- exceptional circumstances-- but they weren't sure about me. But once they let me take some tests and I scored all right--"

"You scored brilliantly," Jesse corrected.

"--Hanna came to this meeting with me and just talked and talked," said Quen, "and finally they agreed to take me on. Maybe just to get her to go away, but it worked, and-- I think I might just make it through."

"Top scores in the class," said Jesse, in a long-suffering but faintly adoring tone. "Top scores. Talk about exceptional circumstances. They should fall on their knees and thank you for signing on."

"What were you doing before that?" Gwen asked.

Quen smiled. "This and that. I worked in shops, mostly-- and in restaurants, and caf├ęs. Tended bar at night. And read when things were slow. I didn't really have a plan, I just-- liked to read."

"Medical textbooks," said Jesse. "You liked to read medical textbooks. He'd come home and give me examinations," he told Gwen. "Very thorough physicals."

"I didn't hear you complaining," Quen teased, and Jesse laughed. Gwen smiled, and took a sip of the wine Jesse had poured her without asking; her eyes widened slightly as it went down, as they had at her first sip of black coffee.

"That's wine," Hanna told her, and Gwen looked up at her quickly, as if waiting for instructions. "It's up to you whether you want to drink it-- I just wanted you to know what it was."

Gwen nodded; she didn't take another sip right away, but once conversation had turned elsewhere again, she drank cautiously. Hanna had already refused a glass; she didn't drink when she was going to drive, and she'd driven Gwen over here, picking her up from the facility, trying not to stare at how great she looked in her evening-out clothes. Hanna didn't know if it was her imagination or not that Gwen had already filled out a little in the past week, but she certainly looked happier and healthier than she had when she'd arrived, and she talked more, though she wasn't what you'd call a chatterbox.

"Thank you for inviting me," she said to Hanna as she slid into the passenger's seat, smiling broadly enough to crinkle up her eyes; if nothing else, her smile had definitely filled itself out over the past eight days. "I'm looking forward to seeing Jesse again."

"He'll be thrilled to see how well you're doing," said Hanna, turning the key in the ignition. "And you'll like Quen, too. How was work?"

"Fine," said Gwen, without much interest. "Oh, Hanna? I get my first paycheck next week, and Faye said I should open a bank account. Will you help me?"

"Of course," said Hanna, beaming. "Your first paycheck! We should have a celebration lunch. What day?"

"Thursday," said Gwen. "I'd love to have lunch. I-- well--"

She broke off, and Hanna glanced over, alert; Gwen looked a little flustered. "What?"

"I just-- well, I was going to say-- but I already owe you money," said Gwen. "For the clothes and everything. I'm going to pay you back right away, once I have-- well, checks, and everything."

"I know," said Hanna. "I saw you write everything down in your little black book, remember. But what were you going to say?"

"Just that-- when I can afford it-- I could--" Gwen hesitated again, looking up at Hanna rather shyly. "When our, um, five lunches are over-- I could buy us lunch. Sometime. If you're not too busy."

"I'd like that," said Hanna, after a quick check with her conscience, which seemed to be clear; after all, it would probably be a huge boost to the girl's self-confidence to treat Hanna to a meal. Hanna could accept the prospect of spending time with Gwen without it being a purely selfish pleasure. Like this meal with Jesse and Quen; there was no reason to feel as if she were conning Gwen into an utterly inappropriate date, not when Gwen already knew Jesse. And could use a friend like Quen. Everyone could use a friend like Quen.

"I think I'd like to work at Open Collar eventually," Quen was saying now, as Gwen took another slow, lingering sip of her wine. Hanna tried not to worry over the fact that Gwen's eyes were already a little brighter than usual, her pale skin flushed, her lips reddish and slightly parted. "I mean, it might be good to have a doctor there who knows from slavery."

"Quen, you can't work for a nonprofit agency," said Jesse. "I'm counting on you to get filthy rich off private practice and support my broke ass."

Quen laughed. "Right. Because there's no way you could get a more lucrative job if you didn't care about doing some good in the world."

"Me?" said Jesse, hazel eyes widening to an approximation of innocence. "I'm just in it for the cheap thrills and the gunslinging, right Hanna?"

"Yep," said Hanna, watching Gwen drain her wineglass. Jesse glanced over too, but in a rare flash of good sense, didn't offer her a refill. The wine seemed to make Gwen quieter than usual, or maybe that was just her shyness in the face of company, especially such talkative company as Jesse. When, after a dessert that Gwen barely touched, Hanna suggested they go home, Gwen nodded readily.

"Okay," she said, and turned to Jesse and Quen. "Thank you so much for such a lovely dinner. It was so wonderful to meet both of you."

"You, too, kid," said Jesse, smiling back. "Don't be a stranger."

"I won't," said Gwen, her eyes crinkling again with the breadth of her smile, as Jesse reached to clasp her hand. "Thank you."

In the car on the way back to the facility, Gwen was very quiet, and Hanna, not sure how she was feeling but anxious not to smother her, stayed quiet too, until Gwen asked rather wistfully, "Do you think they liked me?"

"Of course," said Hanna.

Gwen nodded thoughtfully. "I liked them too."

"Everybody likes Quen," said Hanna. "We like him so much we even put up with Jesse."

"I like Jesse," Gwen protested. "He saved me."

"I guess he did, at that," said Hanna, pausing at a stop sign. "He does good work, yeah."

"So do you," said Gwen, and Hanna smiled sideways at her before she accelerated. They rode the rest of the way back to the facility in silence.

Once there, Hanna parked, turned the car off, and put her hand on the door handle, but before she could open it, Gwen reached out and put her hand on Hanna's arm. Hanna went hot enough to melt at the soft, firm touch.

"I had a dream, last night," said Gwen, and the heat turned into a cold chill all over Hanna's body; she was remembering her own dream: scarlet silk, scarlet lips, warm arms around her neck.

"I dreamed," said Gwen, her voice soft, childlike, the voice of a girl just waking, rubbing sleep from her eyes, "my hair was long again. It used to come down to my waist-- although it's not really thick enough for that. But my first mistress liked it. She used to brush it, and braid it-- she had ribbons and jewels and things, that she would put in it. But at first it was just me, in the dream, and my hair was long-- and thick, and shining. More than it ever was. It was beautiful."

Hanna held still. The hand remained on her arm, its clasp firm and steady and neither tightening nor loosening, as if Gwen had told it to hold its position, and then forgotten about it.

"My first mistress," said Gwen, still in that soft dreaming voice, and hesitated. "She-- came in. She was smiling. She used to always-- she liked to surprise me, with presents, or-- things. She'd hide them somewhere and wait for me to find them. She was smiling like-- like when she did that, like when I'd found something that she'd hidden for me. In the dream. And she said, 'Do you like it?'

"I guessed she'd-- done it, somehow. Put my hair back on. Or made it grow out-- and she always said that, 'do you like it?' I mean, it wasn't a real question, it was never-- I mean, how could you say 'no'?"

Hanna said nothing, thinking only, with painful clarity, How could you say yes?

"And anyway," Gwen was saying, her face still and inward with the telling of the dream, "I didn't know if I liked it or not. It was beautiful. More beautiful than my hair ever really was. I was in front of a mirror-- she had mirrors all over-- and I just looked at it, in the mirror. And she came and stood behind me and smiled, in the mirror, and-- that's all I remember."

"Who cut your hair?" Hanna asked quietly.

"My second mistress," said Gwen, looking puzzled, as if this were beside the point. "She said it was too much trouble. It was, once I had to take care of it myself. Anyway, it's better short. It never really looked like-- well, like in the dream."

"How would you like to have it, do you think?" Hanna asked. "Eventually. Now that you can decide for yourself."

"Hanna," Gwen said.

Hanna made herself look into the girl's face, the little pointed chin, the sharply defined cheekbones, the warm gold of her eyes. "Yes."

Gwen's hand tightened the tiniest bit on her arm as her lips-- flushed with the wine, the hot sweet color of the inner petals of a fuschia-- opened, and the softest possible voice, all quiver and dream, said, "I know you want me."

Hanna couldn't pull in breath to answer, to ask what she should have asked; she just shook her head, voicelessly, pointlessly. Gwen paid no attention.

"I can tell," she said, her voice still low, but firmer now, not the husky false sweetness of Hanna's dream where she'd said the same thing. "But it's not your fault. That I can tell, I mean. You haven't ever done anything-- but I-- well. I have a lot of practice."


"Wait," said Gwen; her cheeks were blotched and tight with too much blood, from the wine or from embarrassment or-- something. "I just wanted to tell you that it-- well. I'm-- I--" She took a wavering breath. "I wanted to-- thank you. For not doing anything. Or saying anything. Or-- making me. I mean, of course you wouldn't make me, that's not what I mean-- but you won't even-- ask. Because it wouldn't be appropriate. Or-- right."

"No," Hanna tried to say; her voice still didn't really work, and it came out more of an O-shaped croak, but Gwen nodded.

"I know," she said, and stroked Hanna's arm a little. Hanna wondered when Holden Larssen was going to show up to this particular nightmare. Gwen's low, sweet voice was adding, "So I know you'd never-- ask. Even though you know-- that if you did--"

"If I did," said Hanna. "Could you say no?"

Gwen hesitated, which was answer enough; Hanna said, "It doesn't matter. It won't happen."

"I owe you so much," Gwen said, sounding as if she were apologizing. "And if you asked me--" She hesitated for a minute before she went on slowly, "I only know-- one way, to-- be pleasing."

Hanna winced.

"See," said Gwen. "I can't even say it without making it sound-- like that. You want me, and I could-- I'd be-- whatever you wanted. But that isn't-- you're right-- that isn't right, is it? That isn't how it should be."

"No," said Hanna, too loudly this time, and Gwen nodded.

"I know," she said. "I know because of you. Because you won't."

Hanna nodded without speaking. Gwen studied her for a moment, her golden eyes molten in the wine-flushed face, and then said, "We should go inside."

"You should get to bed," Hanna agreed, and cleared her throat. "Do you want me to walk you in?"

"Will you?" Gwen asked.

Inside, at the door of bedroom number one, Gwen hesitated with her key in the lock and said, again, "Hanna?"

Hanna waited.

"On the first day," said Gwen, "you said you didn't mind-- holding me. As long as it wasn't-- sexual. Is that different, now? Now that you-- well--"

"I don't think so," said Hanna slowly, into the pause. "Not if you needed it."

"If it's too much to ask," Gwen began.

"It's not," said Hanna. "You mean now?"

"Just for a minute," said Gwen.

Hanna nodded.

Gwen unlocked the door, and Hanna followed her into the bedroom. Gwen sat down on the bed, and Hanna sat next to her, close but not touching; Gwen was the one who closed the gap, nestled up to Hanna's side, and Hanna put an arm around her. Gwen let her head drop, with a slow weighty roll, as if it were very heavy, onto Hanna's shoulder. They sat like that in silence for a little while, Hanna's heart beating quick and light, feeling the warm, trusting weight of the slender body pressed to hers.

"Hanna," Gwen whispered, after a while. "If you want-- I will."

"No," said Hanna, squeezing Gwen's shoulder gently. "You won't."

The silence lengthened, after that, as the realization crept closer, settled delicately down, that Hanna was going to have to be the one to pull away and get up. When it was inevitable, she did.

"Sleep well, dear," she said softly, and Gwen looked up at her, but didn't answer. Hanna smiled at her, then turned and walked out without looking back, closing the door carefully behind her.


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May 2011

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