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Gwen looked at Alix with her golden eyes flat and wary, her face a mask. She was perched on one end of the couch in Hanna’s office, her hands clasped primly in her lap; Hanna sat at the other end, her body angled towards Gwen’s, watching her for any signs of distress or unease. Alix was sitting in a chair opposite the couch, smiling gently.

"I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you before," said Alix. "My husband may have explained the situation to you. Or Jesse?"

"Yes," said Gwen quietly. "You were at the hospital. Stalling for time. Thank you for that."

"You're welcome," said Alix. "But I don't want you to feel you bear me any obligation-- the more so, because I have a favor to ask you."

Gwen nodded. "Hanna told me."


"No," said Gwen. “I’m sorry, but no. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

"All right," said Alix. “I understand. Thank you for considering it."

Gwen nodded. "I did. I thought about it. But I just-- I want to move on. I don't want to be involved in anything-- back there."

"Of course," said Alix. "I do understand, dear. And I wish you the very best in your new life."

Gwen smiled then, shyly, showing white, small teeth. "Thank you, Ms. Jamesen. And will you-- will you thank your husband for me? And the, um, the rest of them-- tell them, will you please, that I'm very grateful to them, for their kindness. The-- the one with blue eyes, and the woman with red hair. And the little dark one."

"I'll tell them," said Alix. “I know they all remember you fondly, even if they didn’t get to spend much time with you.”

"And," said Gwen, and shifted nervously. "Tell-- tell Bran-- thank him for-- for what he did."

Alix put her head on one side. "I will. May I ask what he did?"

"When they had guns," said Gwen, and her voice had gone a little unsteady. "I mean, it was Jesse and his-- his group. But I didn't know that then. I-- I don't think he did either. Bran. Not at first. But he put himself-- in front of me. Between me and the, the people, with the guns."

"Ah," said Alix softly.

"I remembered his name," said Gwen, "because he was-- he had me-- behind him-- and the man-- it was Jesse, but I didn’t know-- he said, get away from her, she's coming with us. And Bran wouldn't. And then Jesse said, 'Bran, for fuck's sake, I'm trying to help.' And Bran looked at him, and then he said, oh my gods, and then he said to me, he said it was okay, and he-- he let them-- take me." Gwen swallowed.

"Gwen," said Alix. "I'm so sorry you went through that."

"No," said Gwen. "I mean. He didn't just say no, when Jesse had the gun, and told him to move. He said-- he said-- 'You'll have to kill me first.'" She looked at Hanna. "So I thought-- when he said it was okay-- I thought, I guessed, I didn't know how, but I thought it must really be-- okay."

Hanna looked at Alix. "I never met Bran."

"No," said Alix vaguely. "He was after your time."

"So why would he offer to die for a girl he'd never met before?"

"I don't really know," said Alix, "except that-- I imagine he must have identified with you a bit, Gwen, knowing what you'd been through. With Dunaev. And he has a strong protective streak anyway-- with all our younger slaves. Once he even helped a boy run away-- or sneak off, really, he was planning to come back-- but Bran lied to cover for him, lied to Holden, which if you knew Bran-- well, it probably didn't take much more courage to step between Gwen and a loaded gun."

Gwen nodded. "He's very afraid of-- your husband?"

"Not of Holden," said Alix. "Of losing him. Losing his love. Holden is the center of his world. I'm sure he'd rather die than be-- cast out."

"These master-slave romances are always so healthy," said Hanna.

Alix sighed. "You think it's sick to love someone else more than your own life?"

"Not as such," said Hanna. "But there's a difference between being willing to die for someone, and thinking you'd die without them."

"Well," said Alix. "Probably. But I wouldn't say they aren't connected." She looked at Gwen. "I'll pass along your messages, dear. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me."

"You're welcome," said Gwen. "Thank you for understanding."

"I do," said Alix, and rose. "It was lovely to meet you. And thank you, Hanna."

“Sure,” said Hanna, as she and Gwen both stood. “You’re coming back to my place, right?”

She intercepted a startled glance from Gwen as Alix said, “Yes, if I’m still welcome. I appreciate your offer-- it will be more comfortable than sleeping on a train.”

“Sure,” said Hanna again. “No problem.”

“I’m not much of a decorator,” she said later, in preemptive self-defense, as Alix followed her through the door; her little apartment, seen through Alix’s eyes, seemed newly bare and cheerless. It was true she didn’t spend any more time here than she needed to; her real life was elsewhere, not only at the office but everywhere else she conducted her work, and at Quen and Jesse’s cozy little place, with its spicy cooking smells and furniture always a little warmed by other bodies. Hanna’s apartment was a place to wash, dress, eat quickly and sleep grudgingly; it served its purpose, but she’d never seen much point in spending time on prettifying it.

“It’s lovely,” said Alix, without apparent insincerity. “It must be wonderful to have a place all your own. I’ve never lived alone.”

“I like my privacy,” Hanna agreed curtly, supposing it was true enough; she’d certainly relished this place when she first got it, the door with a lock to which no one else held a key, the knowledge that no one could come in, or come near her, ever again, without invitation. In the beginning, anyway, it had felt like something she could never savor enough. If she hadn’t spent much time savoring it in recent memory, that was because, again, she had better things to think about. More important things. Like her clients. Like Gwen.

“I’ll try to stay out of your way,” said Alix, closing the door behind her. “It’s very kind of you to invite me.”

“Well, you let me stay at your place,” said Hanna, and Alix smiled faintly.

“Under slightly different circumstances,” she said. “I’m sorry we never got to know each other, Hanna.”

“Yeah, shame,” Hanna answered, in a tone that she hoped would close the subject; if Alix thought Hanna’s invitation to spare her the cost of a hotel room had also been an invitation to become bosom friends, Hanna wanted that notion off the table as quickly as possible. “You can sleep on the couch out here. Put your stuff anywhere. There’s food in the kitchen; you can help yourself. I don’t really cook. I mean, not like Jesse does, where we sit down at a table and all that.”

“Neither do I,” said Alix, smiling again. Her smileyness was starting to get on Hanna’s nerves. She wouldn’t have minded so much if they seemed like nervous smiles, some misguided attempt to smooth over an incredibly awkward encounter, but Alix didn’t even seem uncomfortable; her smiles looked genuine, as if she found Hanna amusing, or enjoyable.

Hanna didn’t want Alix Jamesen enjoying her.

“Is this not even a little bit uncomfortable for you?” she demanded, wheeling around on Alix abruptly, with an anger that didn’t feel abrupt at all; it had been pulsing in her since she first set eyes on this woman. “Aren’t you ashamed?”

For the second time, Hanna saw Alix in what passed for her as a loss of countenance; again her cheeks flushed lightly, and her throat pulsed as if she’d swallowed something.

“Ashamed...” she said, in a low, hesitant voice. “No... not really, no. You think I should be? Ashamed? About you?”

“You owned me,” said Hanna. “You chained me up. You gagged me. Your husband slept in the same bed as me. I was sixteen.”

“We did our best,” said Alix, her eyes downcast, a sad witness before an unjust, hectoring prosecutor. “I’m sure we made mistakes. And for those mistakes, I apologize. But I don’t really know what regrets I should have concerning you in particular, Hanna. Or what shame. We actually helped you. And you help others in your turn. Aren’t you-- isn’t what we did for you-- one of the things we don’t have to be ashamed of?”

“”I have nightmares about your husband,” said Hanna, accurately if not perhaps quite truthfully.

“I’m sorry,” said Alix. “Is there anything-- well, anything I can do?”

“You can leave me alone,” said Hanna, and when Alix looked as if she were about to stand up, “No, I don’t mean leave, you can stay here, that’s fine. I just mean-- stop trying to be friends with me. I don’t want you to be my friend.”

“All right,” said Alix. “I can do that.”

“And stop smiling at me.”

Alix’ mouth contorted oddly, the corners twitching and then pulling sharply downward; she was so obviously trying to comply that Hanna didn’t know whether to laugh or slap her. She did neither.

“Do you need to borrow pajamas?” she asked instead.

“Only if you don’t want me sleeping naked on your couch,” said Alix. “Though you might find that poetically just. You could tie me up and gag me for the night, too, if you like.”

“Isn’t it nice that you can joke about the trauma you and your husband inflicted on me as an adolescent,” said Hanna.

Alix canted her head. “Who says I’m joking?”

“Oh, you really think I keep chains around the house?”

“I think you seem like a resourceful young woman.”

And you seem like a lunatic, Hanna answered silently, contenting herself out loud with, “I’ll get you some pajamas.”

When Alix came out of the little bathroom, dressed in the scoop-necked gray cotton jersey shirt and baggy plaid cotton pants Hanna had dug out of the least-often-accessed corner of her pajama drawer, Hanna remarked, “You do scar easily.”

"Yes, well," said Alix, sitting back down on the couch opposite Hanna, and looking down at the livid, angular lines of scar tissue visible on the exposed portion of her chest. “I don’t know if you ever noticed, but all my own shirts have high necks.”

“Yeah,” said Hannah, adding, as Alix pulled down the worn cotton-jersey pajama top to expose the word etched onto the fair, tender-looking skin, “Oh.. oh gods.” She wanted to look away from the name, but couldn't.

"Yes," said Alix. "You see, I can sympathize with your views on slaves brainwashed into thinking they love their masters."

Hanna reached out, almost without volition, and touched her finger lightly to the central join of the letter K. Alix tensed, but didn't pull away.

"How old were you?" Hanna asked, tracing her fingertip over the raised scar, and the skin around it, which had rumpled into goosebumps. Touching Alix was surreal; for all the concepts she embodied-- slave owner, slave trainer, Holden Larssen’s wife-- she was still only flesh and blood. Scarred flesh. Warm blood. Hanna’s finger, with a will of its own, pressed harder to feel the pulse of it.

"Eighteen," said Alix, her voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I was-- eighteen.”

“And you loved him?” Hanna asked, brushing her fingertips lightly against the length of the scar, as if to clarify who she meant-- Nikol-- and Alix nodded, her eyes very green in the lamplight.

“I did,” she said. “While I belonged to him. And-- after. In a way. For a while.”

"You could probably have used some counseling too, huh?" said Hanna, knowing she should take her hand away, but feeling an odd reluctance.

"That would have been nice," Alix agreed, and the smell of her hair-- fresh and cool as a recently rained-on meadow-- teased at Hanna's awareness. Hanna leaned forward for a moment, scenting her as unselfconsciously as a dog, and then came to her senses and pulled back, clasping her hands defensively against her own stomach.

“So could I,” she said brusquely. “Still. I’ve got issues.”

Alix half smiled, then stopped, as if remembering Hanna’s earlier admonition, and frowned instead. “Don’t we all.”

“Yeah,” said Hanna, as Alix let the cloth of the pajama top go so that it covered most of the scar again. “Uh, so, there’s no really good way to ask this, but are you coming on to me?”

“Maybe a little,” said Alix gravely. “Subtly, you know. So you can pretend not to notice, if you want.”

Hanna squinted. "Why?”

"Well," said Alix thoughtfully, her eyes resting on Hanna. "You’re very attractive. And I’m in an emotionally vulnerable state, what with travelling alone, and putting together plans to free the woman who’s been legally bound to me for longer than I’ve been married, and radically re-imagine the business that’s been my life’s work and the basis of my marriage, and fight the entire social and legal structure of my homeland, and most likely permanently alienate the man whose name is still etched on my chest. And you’re a link to a past that I’m now getting very nostalgic over-- as well as a symbol of the future I’m doing my best to embrace. And you’re very attractive."

“You mentioned that,” said Hanna.

“It bears repeating.” Alix leaned back against the sofa cushions, looking bizarrely relaxed. “Besides, what have I got to lose? Gwen’s already turned me down. You could throw me out, but then I’d just catch the train a few hours earlier than I’d planned. Nothing that happens in this country is quite real.”

“It’s real to me,” said Hanna.

“The country is,” said Alix, “but maybe I’m not. Not quite. In the morning, I’ll be gone. Like a dream. Probably no stranger than other dreams you’ve had.”

Hanna thought of her recent dreams. "Probably not."

She put her hand out again and nudged aside the few inches of cloth that obstructed Alix's left breast. She cupped it in her palm and massaged it lightly; it was soft but not limp, the breast of a middle-aged woman who had never nursed a child. Alix' eyelids dropped, and her breathing quickened.

"What do you want?" Hanna asked her quietly, still kneading the scarred breast. "What do you want from me?"

"Hmm," Alix sighed, her eyelids still lowered over unfocused eyes. "Well. What do you want, Hanna? What do you want from the woman who used to own you? What do you want from Holden Larssen's wife?"

Hanna felt her lip pull back from her teeth, and her grip on Alix's breast tightened abruptly. Alix's eyes didn't move, but her mouth curved into a smile.

"You fucked me up," Hanna said, even more softly. "You and your husband. And all the others. I am so fucked up."

"So am I," said Alix, and closed her eyes all the way. "But I'm free now. And so are you. Free women, both of us. We can do anything we want."

"Anything we want," said Hanna, and her mouth was on Alix's smiling one, so hard that she expected to taste blood, but didn't.
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