Miro kept his features frozen, but he couldn’t stop trembling. It was just a kiss. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter, he repeated in his head, over and over. Underneath that conscious appeal to reason, panic seethed. And when they make you fuck her, what will you say then? ‘It’s only rape. It doesn’t matter’? Why are we here why are we doing this Divine, Guide, help me. I just want to be safe. He closed his eyes and breathed Ardent in, fought to steady himself. She was still clear, pure, radiant.
And called me a toy.
She has a part to play too. You gave it to her. Don’t complain that she’s doing it.
Divine, what have I done?
Ardent held him protectively against her chest, arm across his collarbone, her fingers stroking the curve of his shoulder. Like a pet. But a beloved pet, one to be protected, cherished. She and her queen were talking, but his mind couldn’t process the words. Fallen took Jinokimijin and strolled away; Miro wasn’t sure where they went.
Abruptly, the twilit world of the glass ship and its celebratory inhabitants vanished around them, replaced by Ardent’s quiet, well-lit apartment. The teleport was so unexpected that Miro staggered. Ardent steadied him, turning him to face her as she went to one knee before him. The collar and leash fell from him to land on the floor with a clatter. He looked at Ardent blankly as she peered up into his face. “Miro, honey, talk to me. How are you holding up?” He tried to recall the last thing that she’d said before the teleport, and realized it had been “I’ll be back in a whisker-twitch.”
“I’m fine,” he said, the lie automatic, mechanical. “Why did we leave?”
“Because I’m worried about you. You’re still shaking.”
Miro raised a hand, watched his fingers tremble in the air. “So I am.”
“Sugar, it’s my party and I gotta go back there. But you don’t have to. You can stay here, where it’s safe. And you can always message me if something comes up.” She laced her strong, blunt fingers through his and clasped his hand, cupping his cheek with her other. “Wanna stay?”
Yes. He fell forward into her arms, knees buckling as she took his full weight with the stability of an anchor. Still kneeling, she cradled him close, one hand stroking his head and neck. He gasped, half a sob. “Mom can’t leave. She’s stuck there. With her.”
“Mom? Wait, you mean Jinokimijin?”
He nodded, chin rubbing against her muscular brown shoulder. “Jinokimijin likes being female too, so got to be Mom as well as Dad. The Sun Queen was useless for either. I have to go back. She’s trapped at Fallen’s side; surely I can manage at yours.”
“It’s not a competition to see who can suffer the most, Miro. I’m sorry. I should’ve stopped her, done something sooner—”
“No, no, you did well. That’s how we’re supposed to play it.” He clung to her. I’m the one failing at my part. Falling apart. Guide, the Path is hard. Please help me. “You did exactly as I wished. Your intervention was timely and well-explained.” Miro meant the words as he said them, and felt steadier for it. More like himself, as if the Guide were setting his feet back on the Path, as if Ardent was a Divine gift to lean upon as he walked it.
“Mph.” She stroked his back, unconvinced.
Reluctantly, he pulled back to look at her face. “We should return, before anyone wonders why you left.”
Ardent snorted. Her grip slackened but she didn’t let him go. “Let ’em wonder. You sure about this, sugar?”
Miro took a deep breath, held it in, released it. “I am. Thank you.” He touched his fingertips to her jawline, his hand steady again. “For asking. For getting me out for a moment. It helped more than you can know. But we should go back. I want Mom to know she’s not alone.”
Ardent crinkled her broad nose as she stood again. “All right. But I want us to have a signal, if you need me to get you out of there again. Like this.” She touched her pinky finger to her thumb. “You do this and I’ll know you’re in trouble. And if I have to unchain you again and we get separated, then you message me if you can’t see me or if you’re not sure I can see you. All right?”
He nodded, smiling. “Yes. Thank you.”
“Mph.” She conjured the leash and collar upon him again, and they ported back to the gathering.
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