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Sean was an oddly soothing presence in Rita's office, even though they didn't speak. Where Kyle would have become restless, or reached for a book off Rita's shelf to occupy himself, Sean seemed perfectly content to sit and listen as Rita made calls, or talked to Leah and Bonnie. Even when she was writing or reading silently, Sean didn't show any inclination to fidget.

"Would you like a book?" she asked him once, and he shook his head, smiling up at her. It should have been awkward, being the focus of his undivided attention, but it wasn't; it was almost reassuring, as if everything she was doing had his silent approval, even though he couldn't possibly understand what it all meant.

She was startled, after a couple of hours, when a knock came at her office door.

"Come," she called, and the door opened to reveal Kyle, to Rita's further surprise. Kyle didn't make a habit of knocking on doors she had closed, any more than the other men did; he usually waited for them to open on their own.

He looked serious, and smelled clean and damp; he'd showered since she'd seen him last, but the glow of sexual release on him was unmistakable, especially since she was more than familiar with it by now. She made an effort to smile at him, but he didn't smile back.

"What is it?" she asked curiously.

"May I speak with you alone?" he asked, rather formally.

"Now?"

"Please."

"All right," said Rita. "Come in. Sean, dear, you may go."

Sean got obediently to his feet.

"Thank you for taking me to see my parents," he said.

"You're welcome," said Rita. "Run along. If I want you later, I'll send for you."

Sean nodded, and left.

Kyle closed the door behind Sean and knelt down at Rita's feet, though further away than Sean had been kneeling for most of the afternoon. The juxtaposition was made odder and more uncomfortable by the physical resemblance between them; she couldn't help making comparisons, even though she knew she shouldn't. She missed Kyle, even with him at her feet, and it didn't help that he was relatively fresh from sex with someone else, or that he was looking at her with a strangely distant, resolute expression.

"What is it?" she asked again. "Are you all right?"

"Thank you for taking us to the clinic," said Kyle. "And for-- your generosity. In general."

Rita noted the "us," which was fair enough, she supposed, but Kyle's tone was strange, tight, as if he were forcing the words out.

"You're welcome," she said. "Was that all?"

"No," said Kyle, and looked at her, hard, as if trying to read her face. "When we were in the clinic, I talked to a man who was being considered as a potential father. He was there to get his sperm checked out."








Sean started to go back to his room, and then changed his mind and decided to go downstairs and exercise a little; he was stiff from sitting at Rita's feet all this time. On the way down the stairs, to his slight dismay, he met Carol coming up.

"Hi," she said, and Sean bowed his head and shoulders, hoping his humility and contrition for the disobedience she'd witnessed would come across. "It's okay. I won't hurt you. You went to see your mother today, right?"

Sean nodded cautiously.

"My mother's dead," said Carol. "She died when I was little."

Sean nodded again, hoping that was the right reponse.

"I'm not supposed to talk about it," said Carol, who was staring at Sean with a strange intensity. "You seem more-- settled down."

Sean didn't know how to respond to that, so he just stood still until she continued past him and went up the stairs without another word. Then, his heart beating a little faster than normal, he went on down the stairs to the men's exercise room.

To his surprise, Drew was in there, running a treadmill that was going much faster than Sean usually saw them. Drew was sweaty and red-faced; as soon as he saw Sean, he switched the treadmill off and said, panting, "Did you just come from the magistra?"

"Yes," said Sean.

"Is Kyle there?"

Sean nodded.

"Shit," said Drew. "Did he say anything while you were there?"

"Just that he wanted to talk to her alone," said Sean, increasingly alarmed. "Why, what's wrong?"

"He's a fucking idiot, that's what's wrong," said Drew, and slumped back against the treadmill. "Men don't have enough trouble-- he's got to go borrowing more. Listen, if you found out your protectrix did something you thought was weird, what would you do?"

"Um," said Sean. "Nothing?"

"Right!" Drew flung out a hand. "Because it's none of your fucking business, right? But Kyle's idea of the smart thing to do is run off and ask her why she did it!"

"That's not good," said Sean, although he guessed he'd done the same thing with his mother sometimes. But a mother was different-- at least, his mother had been different. Maybe Kyle figured Rita was different, too.

"And things were going so well," said Drew, turning the treadmill back on and starting to run. "What kind of a mood is she in?"

"Good," said Sean. "I think."

"Well, there's that at least," said Drew as he jogged steadily. "Maybe it'll be okay. If he has the goat sense to be respectful and not argue with her-- she doesn't have a quick temper, at least. But she sure as hell can be scary."

"She likes him a lot, though," said Sean, trying to be reassuring.

"Yeah," said Drew. "For sure."










"So," said Kyle. "Did you ever get my sperm tested?"

Rita was silent for a few moments, and then said, "Yes."

"You didn't tell me," said Kyle, rather obviously.

"No."

"When did you--"

"As soon as I had a sample," said Rita.

Kyle considered that. "So not until after I was officially your stud."

"Those tests aren't always reliable," said Rita. "I hoped-- and I liked you so much-- I just thought it might work, anyway."

"So the test showed--"

"It showed it was unlikely you'd be able to fertilize an egg," said Rita. "But unlikely isn't the same thing as impossible. And I wanted so much for it to be possible. I thought-- it might work."

"So it's definitely my fault," said Kyle. "That we couldn't conceive."

Rita shook her head. "We still don't know that for certain. We won't know, really, unless Sean and I are able to conceive."

"So you've tested Sean's sperm?"

"Yes," said Rita. "I got a sample the first day he was here. His look fine."

"Unlike mine," said Kyle.

Rita sighed. "I'm sorry, Kyle."

"You should be," said Kyle.

She lifted her eyebrows slightly.

"You should have told me," said Kyle, too angry to be cautious. "You shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. For two years. You let me pin my whole future on the hope of a baby with you, when you knew the whole time that it probably wouldn't work."

"It was my future too," said Rita quietly. "And my baby. I am under immense social pressure to conceive a daughter and heir."

"So wasn't it convenient that you could keep secretly thinking it was my fault you didn't have one?"

"Careful," said Rita, but Kyle wasn't in a mood to be careful.

"You think I'm not under immense social pressure to father a child?" he asked with bitter emphasis. "You're the magistra no matter what. I'm nothing. And you know what, that would be fine, if I hadn't spent the last two years thinking I was going to be the father of the magistra's daughter. If you'd ruled me out right away, I could have settled down and just-- accepted-- that I was nothing, that I'd always be nothing."

Rita's eyes were bright as she asked softly, "You'd rather we hadn't had the last two years?"

"If things were going to turn out like this," Kyle said, glaring up at her, "I'd rather I'd never met you."

Then the pain hit him, and he doubled over, every nerve ending on fire, curled into a fetal ball of agony.

Before he had time or breath to start screaming, it ended. Kyle didn't uncurl; he lay on his side, twitching and struggling for breath, understanding only that any pain Rita had ever inflicted on him before had been the mildest of warning signals in comparison to what had just happened to him, and that he might be about to die.

Instead of more pain, or oblivion, there was a flash of light that was blinding even through his closed eyes, and what sounded like a miniature thunderclap, and then a smell of burning. Kyle forced his eyes open in time to see Rita, still seated in her chair, bend down and pull off one of her shoes-- her other foot, he saw dazedly, was already bare-- and then toss it into the air. At the peak of its arc, her hand shot out in its direction, as if she were throwing something else after it. There was another blinding flash and crack, and the smell of smoke; the shoe vanished in midair, and a tiny shower of ash rained onto the carpet.

It took Kyle a moment to realize that the warm wetness spreading outward from his groin and down his legs was because he'd just pissed himself.

Breathing hard, Rita leaned down and grabbed Kyle's foot-- he jerked violently in reflex, but she didn't seem to notice-- yanked off his sandal, and tossed it into the air; she made the throwing motion again, and almost before the shoe had disintegrated into ash, dropped forward in the same motion onto her hands and knees on the floor, where she knelt, panting, her wide eyes fixed on the black-speckled carpet.

After a while, she turned towards Kyle's huddled body and laid a hand on his back. Kyle nearly swallowed his tongue before he realized the hand was just a hand.

"I'm sorry," said Rita, her voice wavering a little. "I'm so sorry, Kyle. Can you speak? Just say yes if you can."

Kyle moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue and whispered obediently, "Yes."

"All right," said Rita, and he could hear her draw in a deep, even breath. "Don't worry. I won't hurt you again. I'm sorry. I-- overreacted."

Kyle lay still, urine cooling and growing itchy on his legs and crotch.

"But it's all right," Rita continued. "I'm going to send you away."

She sounded so perfectly calm, even gentle, that Kyle couldn't even hope the words were an empty threat, and he could still barely speak, let alone apologize or plead coherently. Instead, he started, silently, to cry.

"Oh, Kyle--" In an instant, Rita was pulling his quivering body up into her arms, half in her lap, holding him tightly, piss-soaked jeans and all. "Don't, sweetheart. It's for the best."

"No," Kyle rasped, his weight resting against her, her soft breasts and silk robe, the familiar shelter of her arms and the "sweetheart" giving him sudden, fierce hope that she might still relent and keep him under her protection. "Please-- please--"

"Shhh," said Rita, stroking him. "It's all right."

"No," Kyle cried. "I'm sorry--"

"Shhh," said Rita again. "Don't. I'm not angry with you. Not now. It's not that." She drew in breath and added, "I'm not angry now-- but a moment ago, I-- I wanted to kill you. And I could have. It would have been-- very easy. Easier than it was to-- not kill you. Do you understand? It was hard, not to kill you. I had to--" She made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob, and added, "I'm sorry about your shoe. I had to do-- something. Destroy something."

Kyle leaked tears quietly onto her breast, listening.

"And all because you hurt my feelings," she said softly. "That's not-- it's not all right. It's too intense. The way I feel about you. The way you can hurt me. And make me want to hurt you. It isn't safe, Kyle. For you, or for me either. I should have realized sooner. It's not as if I didn't have my sister's example to learn from."

Kyle wanted to say something about how Emily's was the last example Rita should be following, but he couldn't get it out; he managed, "Emily?"

"No," said Rita, and then, quickly, "I mean, yes. Because she's right, about some things. It's not-- it's not natural, for a woman to be so-- emotionally invested-- in a man. I should have listened to her. But I never really understood, before. Don't be afraid, Kyle. I won't send you to a center. I'll find you a new protectrix. Someone who'll be good to you. And who'll protect Drew, too. He can go with you-- I think that's best. You'll be all right."

"Rita--" Kyle got his arms around her and clung to her, weakly, and she didn't push him away; she cuddled him closer.

"Please understand, dearest," she said softly. "It's the only way to keep you safe. And me, too."

"No," Kyle repeated desperately, and she held him even tighter.

"I'm sorry, Kyle," she said again, and Kyle, at the pain and tenderness in her voice, shut his lips on more useless pleas and let Rita hold him close, rocking him gently, like a mother.
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