Clarke stood by the windows of the conference room, a thin trail of smoke leading up from his cigarette as he tapped on his phone.
‘Um,’ Stef said as she closed the door. ‘You wanted to see me?’
Clarke lifted his head, tilted it to the left, then turned halfway towards her. ‘You’re not even going to throw a “sir” on the end of that question? Interesting. Sit.’
Stef looked down the conference table – which was set up to seat twelve, saw Clarke’s abandoned paperwork at one seat, then moved to sit across from that. The chair squeaked as she sat down, and she folded her hands in front of her.
‘I’ve been appraised of the situation,’ Clarke said as he slipped his phone into his pocket. ‘And I have some follow-up questions.’
Stef stared down at the table. Questions. More questions. Not answering questions hadn’t stopped her from reliving it almost every moment, but articulating it aloud only made it worse. ‘I thought Jane and Crawford covered everything.’
Clarke rounded the table, pulled the chair to her left away, and leaned against the table. ‘You’ve been questioned on what happened, from an Agency security point of view. From the perspective of releasing information, from tracking down the members of a Solstice installation that shouldn’t have existed. I have that information.’ His hand dropped to the table, his cigarette mere inches from her, and she yanked her hands back, unwilling to have another cigarette extinguished on her body.
‘I’m interested,’ Clarke said as he stamped out his cigarette on the glass top of the table. ‘In matters, let’s say, of a more personal nature.’
She frowned, and stared down at the table, unwilling to ask for clarification.
‘I have to view all of the agents I work with as commodities. A lot of what I do is information trading, but sometimes…an agent may be included as part of that trade. It’s fashionable to fuck an agent, after all, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make a deal go through.’ He chuckled. ‘Sometimes, the agent themselves isn’t even involved, Kelly – you met him yet? He’s got three kids he doesn’t know about, because some fae liked the look of him, and wanted him to father her children. It’s nothing but a requirement to get a…donation, and because of that, we have permanent eyes in-’
‘I don’t think you asked me here to give a sperm sample,’ she said dully, keeping all of the emotion out of her voice that she could without tripping a /serious.
He laughed again, and something about the sound made her feel uncomfortable.
‘Quite,’ he said. ‘Now, from reading your file, Mimosa, I know you come from wealth. I would wager you have some idea of how stocks work, that certain acts make a company more valuable, and some things less so?’
‘That’s economics 101,’ she said.
‘Precisely, now, what’s your stock value looking like?’
This finally made her look up. ‘Huh?’
His hand reached out, and his thumb caught in the hollow under her chin, keeping her face looking towards his. ‘Did any of them fuck you?’
She tried to wheel back from him, but he slid from the table and closed the distance, towering over her. ‘Simple question, Mimosa. You were held captive, you’re at least nominally a woman, did any of them fuck you?’
She slapped his hand away, and felt tears stinging her eyes. ‘No,’ she said, the word thick in her mouth.
‘Because if there’s video, then your worth to me has just dropped through the floor. I mean, it’s enough that Magnolia’s done porn, if there was video, then-’
‘No,’ she said again, unable to articulate anything more than a single syllable.
He let go of her face. ‘If you’re lying,’ he said, ‘you’ll pay.’ He placed another cigarette in his mouth, and the end flared to life without a lighter. ‘That’s all for now, clear out.’
Stef nearly ran from the conference room, tripping over her feet in an effort to get away from Clarke. From his smell. From his questions. From his sickly penny-pinching appraisal of her situation.
‘Did any of them fuck you?’
He’d used the word “fuck” like it hadn’t been anything. Like he wouldn’t have been surprised at any answer she’d given. Like he-
‘Did any of them fuck you?’
She turned sharply to the left, and knocked the swinging bathroom door open with her head, the pain barely registering as she stumbled towards the sink and threw up. There was enough in her stomach that the vomiting lasted for a while. The ability to throw up, sadly, hadn’t been removed along with some of her other human weaknesses.
She pressed the back of one hand to her mouth, and lifted her head in the direction of the door, and required it locked – it would give her the privacy she needed, at least until she could muster the thought to shift back to her office.
There was a quiet schop noise as the puke that hadn’t made it down the sink disappeared, and the bathroom cleaned itself.
‘Did any of them fuck you?’
He hadn’t hurt her. Not like that.
She reached for her tie and, stiffly, pulled it away.
She walked forward on dead, zombie-stiff legs, leaned against the far wall – the one that was a full-length mirror, and slid to the ground, her legs splayed untidily in front of her.
She reached for the top button on her shirt, and felt tears dripping off her chin.
He would have-
‘Did any of them fuck you?’
‘Stop it, stop it, stop it.’ She hung her head forward, threading her fingers through her hair, spinning it tight, holding it so tight it would tear from her skull if she sat up too quickly.
She undid the first button, then the second and third before her hands shook too badly to articulate fine movement.
It was her uniform. It meant safety. It was supposed to be safe. It wasn’t meant to rip so easily. It wasn’t meant to-
‘Stop it, stop it, stop it.’
She required the shirt away, and she started to shake.
He’d ripped her shirt off. He’d stripped her, and she hadn’t been able to stop him. He’d looked at her, touched her and ridiculed her in front of the Solstice, and she hadn’t even been brave enough to say “no”. Hadn’t been able to stop him. Hadn’t been able to stop his hands from touching her, feeling her scars, and-
And cutting away her bra, shanking another piece of her dignity.
Bras were unnecessary, were…a frivolity, were a piece of clothing she rarely bothered to buy, and rarely bothered to wear. There wasn’t enough there to warrant the waste of time, energy and money. There was nothing there to see.
There was nothing there to see, except for when the bra was gone, it had felt like they had seen so much.
She reached up and with a touch, required away the bra.
The tears came in full force now.
She reached up a hand and laid a hand on her chest, her fingertips lightly touching where his teeth had broken skin.
No one had ever touched her. Despite what everyone at school had believed. Despite what the papers had reported. Probably not the first sex scandal to be reported without any sex taking place and likely not the last, but it had been pervasive, and it had stuck hard.
The world had thought she had fucked a prince, interestingly, it hadn’t even fucked her reputation – it had even made some of the girls back off and treat her as something other than a nerdy piece of dirt to be kicked aside.
Gossip, as always, took on a life of its own. Stef of the stories was sexy, fancy-free and a contender to be a princess.
Stef of the real life was…not.
Her fingertips were wet.
She looked down, expecting to see the wetness of tears, but saw red.
Stef leaned back, her fingers feeling thick and uncoordinated as they reached for her belt.
For a moment, as he pulled the belt away, she’d been sure that he was going to-
The Solstice had expected him to-
He wouldn’t have. He stopped. He wouldn’t have. He had to go this far. Had to show them how disgusting I am. Had to- So they wouldn’t want to-
She leaned forward, and threw up on her own legs.
She’d been a piece of meat. The play-acting was to make her seem rancid.
Time passed, the blood on her chest became tacky, and the half-hearted vomit on her pants soaked through to the floor. The floor cleaned itself, her uniform, and half-exposed body didn’t.
The door to the bathroom swung open, and she let out a soft cry. She couldn’t cover herself, she couldn’t clean herself, she couldn’t- Couldn’t anything. Whatever force had kept her doing, had given her the courage and resolve to be okay in Ryan’s presence, and to talk to Curt had fled, leaving her hollow, immobile, and nothing like a person at all.
Half-focused eyes saw a black-and-white blur.
Magnolia knelt in front of her, and her pants were immediately cleaned, the smell of vomit being replaced with the neutral chemical-vanilla of the bathroom. A hand was placed on her arm, and a soft T-shirt replaced her uniform shirt and vest. Her hand slipped up, and continued to scratch at her breast, as if trying to claw out the memory of Curt’s mouth.
Stef whimpered as the world skewed around her. A shift. A shift she hadn’t processed. She looked around – saw a couch, saw a table, and saw Magnolia.
‘What-’ words seemed to fail her. ‘What- What do you want?’
Magnolia took a few steps closer. ‘When you were in Russia.’ She paused, then took another step closer. ‘Mimosa, look at yourself.’
Stef shook her head, slowly bringing her head down, and looked at the blood that was already colouring the new shirt.
‘Mimosa, did someone rape you?’
Stef started, and began to curl into herself, wrapping her arms around herself, trying to hide herself from Magnolia. ‘Not- Quite,’ she whispered.
Magnolia wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and lead her to couch. Stef allowed herself to be pulled along. Whatever the bird wanted to do to hurt her, she had no energy, no impetus to stop her.
‘Tell me what happened,’ Magnolia said, as she slowly began to pat her hair.
Stef closed her eyes. It didn’t seem like Mags wanted to hurt her. It could be a false sense of security. It could be-
Magnolia continued to pet her hair – it was different to when Ryan fuzzled her hair, but it was still comforting.
She couldn’t talk to Ryan. She couldn’t talk to Curt. She- This wasn’t the kind of thing that could be brought up in amongst gaming references with Jonesy. She had- No-one to talk to. No-one to even-
Stef lifted her legs onto the couch, and leaned against the bird-girl.
‘You- Curt- You know that much. That stuff- It hurt- It hurt but I can process it. But before that- There was a Solstice.’ The truth was too much to…truth. There could be honesty without truth. ‘He got to me first.’ Too-recent memories burned as she tried to blur Curt’s face. Tried to imagine it was anyone but him holding her down, exposing her for the world to see, threatening to-
She started to cry, and cringed, expecting Magnolia to hit her, hurt her, start laughing at her. Crying hadn’t worked in the limit tests, crying had only made them come at her twice as hard.
One of Magnolia’s hands continued to pet her head, the other held her securely around the shoulders, held her together, just like Ryan did when she was sad.
‘You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, Mimosa,’ Magnolia said, ‘but take it from someone who knows, sometimes it helps to put it into words. Making it quantifiable makes it manageable.’
Stef opened her mouth, and worked her lips for a moment. It truly wouldn’t take many words to describe it, but it felt too large, like once it was out, nothing could ever-
‘He stripped me. He groped me. He bit me.’ She stared at the wall opposite them, trying to burn a hole in it with sheer willpower. ‘He didn’t- It was just that- I was lucky.’ She felt her shoulders shaking. ‘I looked up the statistics. I was lucky, and I don’t have the right to-’ She pulled away from Magnolia. ‘He didn’t rape me, so I don’t even know why I’m acting like this.’ She stood, and started to walk in small circles.
‘Mimosa,’ Magnolia said, a firm, motherly tone in her voice, ‘this isn’t the kind of thing that demands to be graded on a curve. Abuse is abuse, and assault is assault.’ The magpie looked away. ‘You can count yourself lucky in some ways, if you want, but that doesn’t change what happened to you. It’s still shitty. It still sucks. And if you could dream, you’d be dreaming about it. Assault is like death, there’s no wrong reaction to have to it.’
Stef crossed her arms so tightly across her chest, she felt her lungs contract. ‘What did you do?’
It took Magnolia a moment to meet her eyes. ‘Which time?’ Magnolia stood, then stepped up onto the couch, and perched on the back, in a way that surely should have made it tip over. She rested her hands on her knees, her head bobbing in an oddly birdlike, raptor-like way. ‘For me, there’s a lot of rationalisation involved. There were a lot of situations I agreed to, because the alternative was starving, or freezing, or missing out on my cut of a take. You do all you can to stop being present in a moment, but it’s rare that you can push yourself out of it, because they don’t do let you. The point is to hurt, and if there’s no one home to hurt, then what’s the point?’
She slowly sat in front of Magnolia, who lowered her legs until her feet were on the cushions of the couch. Her fingers slipped into Stef’s hair, and she felt Magnolia’s hands moving in the familiar rhythms of hair being parted for braiding.
‘Tight or loose?’ Magnolia asked.
‘Tight,’ she said. ‘And isn’t this really girly?’ she asked.
‘And what the hell is wrong with girly?’ Magnolia asked, but there was no anger in her voice.
Stef closed her eyes, and just let herself feel the sensation of Magnolia’s fingers in her hair. A week ago, she would have been screaming at the very idea of Magnolia touching her. A week ago, touch would have meant pain.
This part was almost harder.
She let out a long, deep breath.
‘I’ve never- Never done anything- Never been with-’ There was the taste of bile in her mouth. ‘I’ve never- The first time- The first time I’ve ever been touched, and it was to hurt me.’ The tears came thick, fast, emotions spilling from her mouth, her eyes, her heart, as every part of her seemed to weep and expel the demons of the memory. ‘I’ve never had sex. I’ve never had a fumble in the servant’s quarters. I never had a dirty weekend in Kings Cross. I’ve never been interested, and now- And now it’s gone. Now whenever – if ever – I do- All I’ll be thinking about is- Pain and shit and- That it wasn’t my choice.’ She leaned forward, and threw up, vaguely aware that Magnolia was holding her hair back.
She wiped at her mouth, then scrubbed her tongue with the cuff of her shirt, doing anything to get the taste out of her mouth, to make movement, to try and stop herself from thinking.
One requirement later, she had a glass of water, and she sipped at it, then refreshed her skin – which cleared the remainder of the taste. The carpet cleaned itself with a quick schop sound, and everything was – on the surface – perfect again.
‘I almost feel,’ she said after a long moment, ‘like maybe I should- Go out and get it over with. So that I have memories of my own. Something to override what happened. So that if I ever choose to- Prophylactic good memories so that I have something else to think of, and not some shit-stained mattress in Russia.’
‘I know bunnies that work with aces, if that’s what you truly want.’ Magnolia resumed running her fingers through Stef’s hair. ‘I hope I’m not being presumptive, assuming that you’re ace, but that’s just how you read to me. What variety of cake, that I don’t know, if you care to share…’
She looked up, towards the bird-girl. ‘Mags?’
‘I kind of feel like Curt for asking this, but was any of what you just said English?’
‘Bunnies are fae sex workers who specialise in virgins. And aces…How do you identify?’
Magnolia made hmm’ing noises for a moment. ‘I’m trying to figure out how to phrase this in a way that will make sense to you. Do you like anyone…in the pants way? Are you- Have you ever been sexually attracted to anyone?’
Stef squirmed. ‘I’m- I’m broken. I don’t work like that. In that way. Nothing- Works.’
‘Lack of attraction isn’t a flaw, it’s a point on the spectrum.’
She twisted her fingers in her hair. ‘I know that’s true for some people. But I’m- Just trust me okay, I’m broken.’
‘Would you rather have cake or sex?’
She gave Magnolia a confused look. ‘Is that, like, even a question?’
‘Congratulations, Mimosa, I think you’re asexual. So again, I know bunnies if you want some measure of sexual contact. They do everything from hand-holding to full-service. Jones can probably get you a coupon if you go with a chain sexporium.’
Stef began to tap her fingers against her thumbs. ‘Sex has never interested me. I’ve always- Always thought- Maybe I would, one day. I’m scientifically interested in it, if nothing else. I’m…disgusted by it. I know I wouldn’t get anything out of it. I don’t work. I physically don’t work.’ She was telling Magnolia this, when she’d never told anyone else as adult. It felt…right, somehow, that this conversation existed outside of the rest of their relationship. A relationship built on hate and fear and pain. This was different. This was almost a conversation between equals. Or something like equals. ‘I always thought I might. Now I feel like I have to. I want some agency. I want some control.’
Magnolia crooked a finger under Stef’s chin, then laid a small kiss on her cheek. ‘You have the right to do whatever you want, or to have people do to you whatever you want. The only thing I would caution is making a split-second decision. Don’t let how you’re feeling make you make a decision that you’re going to regret. You’ve had years of making the choice to not have sex, there’s other ways to reclaim your agency, other than by doing something that, by your own admission, disgusts you.’
‘I don’t feel like I have the option to make a sensible choice anymore.’ She rested her head against the hollow of Magnolia’s neck. ‘I feel-’ she reached for a word, but nothing seemed to come to mind.
‘Tainted?’ Magnolia suggested. ‘Like there’s something dirty under your skin, and no matter how hard you scrub or scratch, you still end up feeling…icky.’
Stef pulled her legs up onto the couch. ‘Hey, Mags?’
Tears slipped onto her cheeks. ‘Can I just stay here? Just for another couple of minutes?’
Stef closed her eyes, and forced herself to try and breathe. Slowly, she felt her body slipped down against Magnolia’s, her head ending up in the bird’s lap, and felt sleep come.