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Phoenix’s clothes were still soaking when she stood there, dripping on his carpet, her skin pebbling and cold, but she didn’t move, barely even blinking as he stared at her, leaning against his desk, that finger still against his arm. He kept her there for so long, never moving, those Implants flickering so furiously, but then he smiled, reaching down into his chair to pick up a towel and throw it at her. She caught it, drying off her face and wrapping it around her shoulders, and finally she could breathe, but then he came close, his breath hot on her skin as he laughed, a laugh that was almost a hum and came out of his nose, the corners of his lips twitching. He looked like he was about to say something, the light in his eyes shining so bright, those lips twitching even quicker, but then he turned back around, going to his desk and leaning against it.

“I almost didn’t let you,” he said. “Everything is locked, you understand? That code means nothing if it’s not me typing it in.” Phoenix nodded at him, wiping her face again with the corner of that towel and watching him. “Lift up your shirt,” he said, and she stared at him a moment, her forehead lining in a crease, but then she lifted it, the leathers a little stiff, her fingers a little clumsy as she showed him what was left of her bruise. He stared at it, nodding a short nod, those Implants flickering even quicker, and then he cleared his throat. “Two weeks on half-rations or the rod,” he said, and she could already feel her stomach burning. He looked at her, his head tilting to the side as he stared. “If you’re going to play a part, you have to commit,” he said. “Cassie will think I’m weak if I let you get away with that without punishing you, so chose, two weeks on half-rations or the rod. It’ll take about four hits from me to make that bruise come back.”

She studied him, her eyes never blinking, that burning spreading, but she’d known that this was how this was always going to end, so she asked, “Which one makes more sense?”

He smiled, a small, soft smile, his head tilting even further. “The rod, but you’re the one who’ll have to live with it, Phoenix, you choose.”

She nodded, her mouth so dry, her heart racing. “The rod.”

Her mouth went even drier when he was standing in front of her and she could hear that crackle of current, so she closed her eyes, waiting for her bands to pull, waiting for all of this to be over.

“Tell me when,” he said, and her eyes flicked open, her forehead lining in a crease. She didn’t want to do this, but she had to, she knew that, it all made sense, so she nodded. She gasped when he hit her, already seeing that white light, her skin on fire and burning. “That was one, just breathe,” he whispered.

“Just do it,” she said, her voice so tight, her face scrunched up in a wince. She gasped again, a gasp that almost turned into a scream, but turned into a hiss instead, her hand clutching at her chest, tears in her eyes. “Now!”

All she saw then was that white light, so soft, so gentle, almost peaceful, but then she felt that tingling in her chest and thighs, a tingling that was then a burning and those tears fell. He didn’t wait for her the next time, that light blinding her, that gasp already a whimper by the time he’d lifted her. She wanted to scream, she wanted to cry, but all she could do was lie there, trembling as he knelt beside her, making as though to stand up, but she couldn’t uncurl her fingers from the fabric on his chest and let him go, so he hummed, reaching into his pocket and pulling out one of those flasks.

“This one will only work for a few hours,” he said, already coating his fingers. “You’ll have to go down after that.”

She tried to nod, but it came out something more like a twitch, her breathing so quick like short little gasps, her cheeks wet with tears. He hummed again, those fingers so soft and gentle against her skin, that burning turning into only a warmth and she gasped. He was rubbing it into her temples then, his thumbs drying her cheeks, that oil making her close her eyes, and then she felt his breath on the skin of her neck, somehow so hot, somehow so cold, and she heard him whisper in her ear, “I liked watching you make deals.”

She didn’t know what to say then, her eyes flicking open, her chest heaving. He was still leaning over her, his face buried in her neck, his back and shoulders so stiff, and she couldn’t tell if she was shaking because of the rod or because of him when he hummed, sitting up straighter, his thumb trailing her lips, and then he laughed, a short, airy laugh, and he shook his head.

“You dare use that code again,” he said, his voice so soft, his eyes shining so bright.

“Why-?” she started, but that was all she could get out before there were tears in her eyes again.

“Hmm, you’d better stay quiet,” he said. “You think you can manage that?”

She woke gasping, her fingers digging into his shoulders, her face buried in his neck.

“It’s alright, Phe, we’re almost back,” he said, and she shook her head, closing her eyes to stop herself from crying, feeling him rest his chin against the side of her head and sigh.

He laid her down so gently, sitting on the bunk beside her and brushing the hair back from her face, but she didn’t know why he was so sad or why that light in his hazel eyes sometimes shone so brightly and sometimes went so dim.

“I’ll stay,” he whispered. “Just say if you need something.”

She watched him slide to the floor, resting his back against her bunk and she heard him sigh again as he turned to her, his forehead furrowed into a tight crease. He looked like he wanted to say something, that crease growing deeper, his eyes shining brighter, but then he only turned all the way around, resting his head on her bunk and reaching for her hand. It felt so warm when he squeezed it, her breathing a little quicker, her heart somehow lighter.

“Don’t get in trouble anymore, Phe. What were you thinking? You trying to get yourself killed?” he asked, and she shook her head, not knowing what she could say to him even if she could find her voice, and then he sighed again. “You excused from training tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, and he looked away, his eyes closing, that crease growing deeper.

“Stop getting into trouble.”

“Belfire,” she said, and those eyes flicked open. “If something does happen to me-,”

“It won’t, Phe.”

“If something happens to me, will you keep looking for Iris?”

He lifted his head then, his voice so soft and quiet when he said, “Nothing’s going to happen to you, I promise.”

“You can’t know that, not for sure,” she shook her head. “Just-, just promise me you’ll keep looking for her.”

He looked at her, staring at her for so long she wasn’t sure he was going to say anything back, but then he sighed. “Of course, I will,” he said. “But I can’t promise that I’ll still be here. If I am,” he nodded. “I will, I promise.”


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