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[personal profile] maculategiraffe
Thank you very much to everyone who's been reading and commenting. I'm currently working on a big "replies to comments" post, but in the meantime, please know how much I value each and every word of feedback. You guys keep me going. Thank you so much.

Sean was perched nervously on the edge of a deep, comfortable chair in the little living room where Rita had taken him before. Drew and Kyle were side by side on a couch, Kyle's head resting on Drew's shoulder, Drew gently stroking Kyle's arm; Nick and Jonas sat on another couch, saying nothing.

No one had eaten much at dinner; they'd all been quiet and stunned at the news that Kyle and Drew were both being sent away for reasons that were still not entirely clear to Sean. Kyle had certainly behaved very badly, and been punished, so it made a little sense that he was being sent away, horrifying though it was. But Sean really didn't understand why Drew was being sent away, too, unless Rita thought Drew had been a bad influence on him, in which case they probably wouldn't be sent together. And Sean also didn't understand why Drew didn't seem to be upset at the fact that he was losing his protectrix, or angry at Kyle when it was clearly Kyle's fault. He seemed entirely focused on comforting and soothing Kyle, as if Kyle were suffering something that Drew wasn't.

Kyle had cried some over dinner, and Drew had been the one to draw him away from the table and bring him here; after clearing away their uneaten food, Jonas and Nick had silently followed. Sean, not knowing what else to do, followed too, and watched as Drew gently dried Kyle's tears, and kissed him on the forehead, and hugged him, and said reassuring things about how Rita would find them a good protectrix. Eventually, Kyle had seemed to relax, though he was still very pale.

"You really don't hate me," he said to Drew now, and Drew shook his head.

"I'm happy here," he said, "but I'd only be upset about leaving if I had to leave you, too."

Kyle looked up at him, blinking, and Drew squeezed his arm.

"I see how it is," said Nick, and Kyle smiled a little at him. "Shit. We're going to miss you, you know? Both of you."

Kyle nodded and swallowed hard, grimacing as if trying not to start crying again.

"Yeah," said Jonas seriously. "We will. But, Kyle? Maybe Drew's right-- maybe this is the best thing."

Kyle shook his head miserably. "No. I don't want to leave."

"I know," said Jonas, "but... Kyle, she's a woman. Men don't just pair off with women and live happily ever after."

"My mother and father did," said Sean, and all the other men looked up as if they'd forgotten he was there. Sean shifted nervously in his seat, wishing he hadn't said anything.

"Okay," said Jonas after a moment, "but-- no offense or anything-- but your mother's not very high-rank. She's not a magistra. Nobody's looking at her to set an example. Do you even have any siblings?"

Sean shook his head.

"See," said Jonas, "she didn't even try for a daughter. She didn't need to. Nobody cared if she had one. It's different with Rita."

Sean nodded, since Jonas seemed to expect some response from him, and Jonas continued, turning back to Kyle, "Besides, you said she's worried she's going to kill you by accident. Not every woman is that powerful. I bet Sean's mother would have to really try to kill a man, you know?"

Sean wasn't sure if that was an insult to his mother or not, but it was probably true, so he didn't say anything.

"So let me rephrase," said Jonas. "Men don't just pair off with magistras and live happily ever after."

"He's right," said Drew to Kyle. "She's been a good protectrix, but if she isn't sure she can be that any more, then this is the best thing she can do for you. Make sure you have a good protectrix, even if it isn't her."

Kyle sighed and subsided back against Drew's shoulder.

"Still," he said. "I should have just kept my fucking mouth shut."

"No argument here," said Nick grimly, but Jonas shook his head.

"I don't know," he said. "She must have been simmering, ever since you asked about being with Drew. You just happened to set her off today, but if it wasn't today it would have been some other day, you know? And maybe it would have been worse."

"I guess," said Kyle.

Drew kissed him, very softly, on the side of his head, next to his eye. Kyle shivered a little, then was still.

Nick said, after a pause, "So who do you think might take you?"

"Well," said Kyle, still draped against Drew. "She suggested Leah."

"Nice," said Nick.

"Uh, I kind of shot that down."

Nick squinted. "Why?"

"I don't know," said Kyle. "I could tell her I changed my mind. Leah's nice, I guess."

"You guess?" Jonas rolled his eyes in disbelief. "You ever hear that rhyme-- 'Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little brunette assistants to the magistra are made of?' And she loves you."

"I just-- it's too close to home," said Kyle distractedly. "Leah's always over here."

"You'd rather have a stranger?"

"I don't know," said Kyle, his mouth starting to quiver again. "I don't know what I want. This morning everything seemed so okay."

"Emphasis on seemed," said Jonas, not ungently. "But yeah. Well--"

He froze, looking up, and Sean looked up too; his heart skipped a beat when he saw Emily in the doorway. Seeing her, Kyle shrank instinctively against Drew, and Nick and Jonas drew defensively closer to each other, too. Sean wished he had someone to shrink against.

Emily didn't seem to notice him, though, or Nick and Jonas either; she stood in the doorway, looking at Kyle and Drew with a speculative expression.

"May I come in?" she asked formally.

The men looked at her. Emily rolled her eyes.

"I know this is your little safe space," she said, "so I'm asking. Either invite me in, or come somewhere else, or I'll just go. I don't want to talk from the doorway."

"Come in," Kyle said finally, and Emily nodded, came in, dragged a chair to face the couch where Kyle and Drew were sitting, and sat down, still completely ignoring Nick, Jonas, and Sean.

"I'm here to make you an offer," she said. "Both of you. I know Rita's withdrawing her protection-- oh, don't panic, she hasn't withdrawn it yet, you're still safe as little bunnies in a burrow. She knows I'm talking to you, but-- again-- this is just an offer. You're perfectly free to refuse. In fact, I think Rita's expecting you to refuse."

Kyle didn't move or speak; he just sat looking at Emily. Drew moved a little closer to Kyle, settling his arm more firmly around Kyle's slighter shoulders.

"If you accept," said Emily, "I'd become your protectrix, and you'd work for me over at the men's center-- the same one where Sean was."

Kyle still didn't move, but he looked white as a sheet, and his eyes were wide and wet. Sean didn't blame him; the very idea, even if it was true that Kyle was free to refuse, was nightmarish. Having Emily as a protectrix would be bad enough, but being at a center as well, and that particular center--

"I don't know how much you know about what we're doing over there," Emily was saying, "but essentially, we're trying to make it more livable. You could help."

Kyle started to say something, stopped to clear his throat, and then didn't say it.

"You may speak," said Emily. "If you've got questions, I'll try to answer them."

"How?" Kyle asked, and cleared his throat again. "How could we help?"

"You'd be in charge of keeping order among the unprotected men," said Emily. "Not ultimately in charge-- you'd report to a female superior-- but I want male guards to have the most direct contact with the men. I don't want the women getting emotionally involved. You'd be welcome to get emotionally involved, as long as it didn't interfere with your duties."

"What would our duties be?" Kyle asked.

"As I said, mainly keeping order," said Emily. "You'd have the authority for minor disciplinary measures, and you'd be expected to refer more serious matters to a woman--"

"So we'd be spying for you," said Kyle.

Sean flinched, expecting Emily's anger at the interruption and insolence, but Emily just raised an eyebrow.

"If I were interested in masculine gossip," she said, "I'd have more trustworthy methods in place than asking other men to carry tales. As it happens, I'm only interested in making sure the center is a safe, sustainable, and orderly environment-- for everyone involved. That's where you come in. Or-- if you turn me down-- a man like you."

"What kind of man am I?" Kyle asked, without smiling, and Emily answered just as seriously.

"Well, you're reasonably intelligent," she said, "and you get along well with other men. It would have been easy for you to avoid them or make yourself unpleasant when Rita favored you so highly, but you obviously chose otherwise. You even sleep in the dormitory by choice. And you're not a bully, or he--" she jerked her head at Sean, who jumped-- "would have brought it out in you."

"I did bully him," said Kyle flatly, without looking at Sean.

"A little at first, maybe," said Emily, with a slight, dismissive gesture. "But it didn't take long before you got protective. And you," she said to Drew, "--well, you've got potential, too."

Drew watched her without speaking.

"I wouldn't spoil you the way Rita does," Emily continued, looking back at Kyle, "and I'm sure, if you ask her, she'll find you a protectrix who will. If that's what you want-- someone else to pet you and coddle you the way my sister has for the past two years-- then tell me, and I'll tell her, and she'll find you a nice new nest. You won't hurt my feelings. I can tell you this, though," she added, meeting Kyle's steady gaze. "With me, you'd be making yourself useful."

Kyle looked at Drew, but Drew still didn't say anything; he just put his hand in Kyle's and squeezed it.

After a long pause, during which Sean became overly aware of the sound of his own breathing, Kyle said to Emily, "May I have some time to think about it?"

"You may," said Emily. "Talk to my sister about your alternatives. Talk to Sean about the center. Talk to Drew. Let me know what you decide."

Kyle nodded again. "Thank you for your offer."

"You're welcome," said Emily. "Thank you for considering it."

Without further ceremony, she got up, turned, and walked out, shutting the door gently behind her, leaving a stunned silence in her wake.

"Time to think about it?" said Nick finally, his voice higher than usual. "Have you completely lost your mind? What the fuck is there to think about? This is Emily--"

"Shhh!" Jonas punched Nick hard on the arm, looking at the closed door.

Nick lowered his voice as he continued, "Emily, loather of men? Loather of you in particular? Is this ringing any bells?"

"She didn't sound like she loathed me just now," Kyle pointed out, and Nick flung his arms up in the air, narrowly avoiding elbowing Jonas in the throat.

"Because she's trying to get you!" he hissed. "Rita wouldn't just sign you over, because even she is aware that her sister is fucking psychotic on the subject of men, so Emily has to try to make it sound good if she's going to get you for her very own little pain pet!"

"Kyle, he's right," said Jonas, his voice nearly a whisper. "Emily's dangerous. And if she's your protectrix-- and Drew's-- come on, Kyle. Think about it. Rita won't be able to save you anymore."

"Rita's dangerous, too," said Kyle, looking at Drew instead of Jonas. "At least with Emily I'll know how careful I have to be."

"I don't believe I'm hearing this," said Nick.

Kyle shook his head. "I didn't say yes. I-- maybe-- I just want to think about it. I'm not thinking all that clearly right now."

"That's for damn sure," said Jonas quietly.

Kyle looked at Drew again. "What do you-- am I crazy?"

"Not crazy," said Drew carefully, after a moment. "But if I had to pick between Leah and Emily--"

"But you do!" Nick protested. "This is your deal, too, Drew! Just say no! He can't go without you, can he? Isn't that the deal?"

"Yeah," said Jonas. "Drew, man, you've got to dig in your heels on this one. I think the magistra fried his amygdala."

"I think Kyle and I should talk," said Drew. "Alone."
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