A Negative Peace
“And on that leaf, there was a bug, a rare bug, a twinkling bug. And the bug on the leaf and the leaf on the stem and the stem on the plant and the plant in the dirt and the dirt in the bed and the bed in the garden and the garden on the ship and the ship in the sky, and the bright stars glow all around all around and the bright stars glow all around.”
- from “Twinkling Ship”, traditional spacer song
Yan had her alarm set for five and a half hours after she went to bed, so that she would be awake enough to jump the First Star as soon as it was ready to move again. As the alarm buzzed in her ear underneath her pillow, she realized just how miserable her life would be, starting now, if this was all the sleep she would reasonably be able to expect.
She shut off the alarm and lay there in the semi-darkness, staring up at the ceiling for a second, reluctant to get out of bed. Sylva had her arm draped across Yan's chest, and Yan enjoyed the warm, comforting weight of it.
The captain's bedroom was remarkably clean and free of personal affectations, probably because whoever had been the captain of the First Star lived on the planet most of the time. This was to Yan's benefit, because she would have found it unbearably weird to take over a room that someone else had clearly been living in, rather than just occupying. It was simply large and neat, as one would expect from the position of the captain of First Sandreas's personal ship.
Yan's ship, now.
Yan rolled slightly, trying to extract herself without disturbing Sylva. That was not to be, though. Sylva grabbed the fabric of Yan's undershirt (she hadn't brought pajamas, so was simply sleeping in her underwear). “Don't go,” Sylva said.
“I have to jump the ship,” Yan whispered. She rolled back around so that she could face Sylva. The only light in the room was the glow of various electronics scattered around, and the soft red glow that marked the doorway.
“Ten more minutes,” Sylva said, voice sleepy. “I don't want you to go.”
“I'll come right back,” Yan said. She reached over toward Sylva and stroked a piece of loose hair off her face. Underneath the covers, she tangled their bare legs up together. Yan enjoyed the smooth feeling of skin touching skin. There was no violence here, no pain, just the two of them laying in the darkness.
Sylva smiled, but still protested. “You'll be awake when you come back.”
“I'm awake now.”
“You won't want to stay with me when you're awake,” Sylva said. “You'll say you're feeling restless, and that you have things to do, and you can't be here...”
“Shhh,” Yan said, and put her finger over Sylva's mouth. Sylva licked it. Sylva's protests were valid, though, no matter how little Yan wanted to admit it. She had spent too much time slipping out of bed while Sylva was still in it and wandering around by herself, even so far back as when she was with the Mother. Iri had just told her that Sylva was upset with her. Maybe Yan should take Iri's words to heart, and give Sylva what she was asking for. “You know I love you, right?” Yan asked.
“I love you too,” Sylva said.
“I know you do,” Yan said. “But I just wanted to make sure that you knew. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Sylva. You're the best thing in my life.” Her breath caught in her throat.
Yan realized that she wasn't lying. She had been taking Sylva for granted since they became friends as ten year olds, because she had always been there, a bright star in her life, always hanging on no matter what. Sylva was her closest confidant, her oldest friend, and the least complicated and most loving relationship she had. Yan's eyes had been opened to many things over the past few days, and she was finding that she had been ignoring Sylva as well as all the horrors of the world.
“I don't know why you love me, but I'm so glad that you do,” Yan said. “I don't know what I would have ever done without you. I don't deserve you.”
Sylva grabbed Yan's hand. “Don't be fucking crazy,” Sylva whispered.
“I'm not crazy,” Yan protested. “I'm telling you the truth.”
“You don't know why I love you?”
Yan felt rather helpless, lying there. She couldn't tell if Sylva was angry at her for saying that, or how she was supposed to explain the way she felt. Yan did not feel particularly lovable, now or ever. The best she had generally hoped for was to be needed, to be a part of something greater, which was always the appeal of giving herself away. She had always tried so hard to be needed, to find a place in the workings of the world, on her family's ship, at the Academy, in her apprenticeship.
“You're the smartest, strongest, most incredible person I've ever met,” Sylva said. She reached across the tiny gap between them to touch Yan's cheek, her thumb brushing across Yan's cheekbone. “I think I had a crush on you from the moment I met you, maybe.”
“But I didn't even do anything,” Yan said.
“You were my friend,” Sylva said, as if that explained it. “And you were wonderful. You always have been.”
They were both silent for a moment, resting there in the dark and the warmth of each other.
“You know, when I told you that I loved you, I thought I was about to wreck everything that we had. I was throwing ten years of being with my best friend down the drain,” Sylva said. “I thought you might hate me.” Sylva's voice was so quiet, and her hand didn't stop moving on Yan's cheek.
“God, why?” Yan asked.
“Because I'm not-- I'm not anything. And you were about to go do something great, and I could never match that. But I had to say something before you left me behind, or it would have killed me forever.”
“I would have never left you behind,” Yan said. “I never wanted to, anyway. And I'm sorry that you thought that I would.” There was a chorus ringing in Yan's brain, chanting over and over that she did not deserve Sylva's love, but there was an equally loud one in Halen's terrible voice, telling her that the question of what anyone deserves is one that only God can answer.
“I was being crazy,” Sylva said with a half laugh. “You don't even know how crazy I was being.”
“Maybe I was too. I think I probably loved you, but I didn't even know it. I would have done anything for you, even then, if you had asked,” Yan said. She remembered again why Sylva was somewhat upset at her. “I-- Are you mad at me for this? Being here, Kino, I mean.”
“No.” Sylva's thumb continued its gentle meandering across Yan's face. “I wish I could kill Kino myself, but I'm not mad at you.”
“If you ever want me to, I will,” Sylva said. “I'm not nearly as nice as you are.”
“Please don't say that,” Yan said.
Sylva frowned in the darkness, and her hand stopped moving. Yan reached towards her. “It's all a mess, Sylva.”
“I was just trying to make things better,” Yan said. “I don't know.”
“It's okay. I understand,” Sylva said, though her stillness indicated that she didn't, not really.
Yan struggled to find something to say that would make it better. “Anything I did for Kino I would do for you a hundred times over. A thousand times. I just never want to need to,” Yan said. “I hope I never have to.”
“You would do anything for me?”
“So will you stay here a little bit longer?” Sylva asked. “Please?”
“I have to go jump the ship,” Yan protested, but it was an empty protest.
“A little bit longer won't matter.”
“Just a little longer.” Yan rolled toward Sylva even more, propping herself up on her elbows and straddling Sylva's waist. Sylva giggled a little bit, put her hands on Yan's hips, and Yan leaned down to kiss her.
After Yan extracted herself from Sylva's loving clutches, showered, and jumped the ship, she felt a lot better and more optimistic about their shared situation. She took a long walk all around the First Star, taking stock of the resources at their disposal. There were a couple dogfighters and shuttles, a good stock of ordinance, a machine shop and supplies to keep the ship in good repair, plenty of food, and an unused greenhouse space. None of it was surprising, and she was sure there were other things she missed during her cursory inspection, but it was a start.
Overall, it was clear that the First Star was designed with a few specific goals in mind. Its top priority had been to take Sandreas and a small crew/entourage around the Empire quickly and safely. Its secondary purpose, which Yan was very grateful for, was to act as a self sustaining escape route for Sandreas (and perhaps others), should the occasion arise. Thus the ship was stocked with enough ready to eat food to last until the greenhouse could start producing enough to sustain the ship's occupants. The prospect of setting up the ship's farm, of getting her hands in the dirt, made Yan smile, despite everything else. She had always liked working in the Dreams' greenhouse.
Her meandering tour of the ship concluded, Yan found herself in the kitchen, where Sylva was making a pot of coffee and looking through the pantry for cereal.
“It took you this long to get dressed and come find breakfast?” Yan asked, mildly teasing as she leaned in the doorway.
“Not all of us want to put on the same dirty clothes we were wearing yesterday,” Sylva said, looking askance at Yan. It was true that Yan was wearing her dirty Iron Dreams uniform, though, to be fair, she had scrubbed the majority of the blood out in the sink before she showered. Sylva had managed to find a plain white button down and black pair of pants, though neither of them even remotely fit. She had the buttons popped and the sleeves and pant legs cuffed dramatically. It was certainly a look.
“When we meet up with the Dreams, we can get some clothes from them,” Yan said.
“That's our plan?”
“We're jumping towards Byforest, so unless something goes wrong between here and there, yes.”
“Cool,” Sylva said. “I love your family.”
Yan rolled her eyes. “Seen Iri this morning?”
“She stuck her head in and said she'd be here in a bit. I've been trying to figure out what she'd want for breakfast.”
“I'm sure she's not too good for cereal like the rest of us.”
The coffee finished, so Yan poured herself a mug. She was searching around for the sugar and creamer when Iri made her appearance. Yan couldn't see her at first, because she was blocked by the door of the refrigerator, but her voice was loud and familiar.
“Morning,” Iri said. “Sleep well?”
Yan closed the industrial fridge and turned to look at her. She was slightly surprised to see Kino in tow. Yan hadn't expected Kino to join the rest of them for casual meals, and she wasn't really sure how she felt about that.
“Fine,” Yan said. “Coffee?” She held up the creamer.
“Sure, thanks,” Iri said. Yan poured coffee for all of them, including Kino, who stood in the back of the room and made no indication that she wanted anything.
The kitchen, being meant only for preparing food and not for dining, had a stainless-steel island in the middle of it. It was intended only for prep, but that didn't stop Sylva from finding a few stools stacked in the back of the pantry and arraying them for the group to sit on. Leaning on the island sucked the warmth out of Yan's arms, and she was grateful to the hot cup in her hands. She poured herself a bowl of cereal, which she began to eat dry, picking out the pieces with her fingers.
They all sat in a somewhat awkward silence for a while. Sylva snuck glances at the other three-- questioning ones to Iri, tiny smiles to Yan, and a barely restrained glower at Kino.
Iri, always the one to keep the ship steady, broke the silence in between sips of her coffee. “So, what's the plan, Captain?” she asked.
“Being a captain with a crew of three is hardly anything. You don't have to keep mentioning it.”
“Don't spacers vote for their captains?” Sylva asked. “I didn't vote for you.” She smiled as she said this.
“Raise your hand if you vote for Yan to be captain,” Iri said gamely, raising her hand. Sylva also raised hers with a continued smile, and even Kino timidly put her hand up. Yan's cheeks burned with embarrassment. “Well, looks like it's three to one. Very democratic of us, I'd say,” Iri said with a laugh.
“It's only because I'm the only one who knows how to fly the ship,” Yan grumbled.
“Not true,” Sylva protested.
“That's as good of a reason as there is,” Iri said. “After all, even if you weren't the captain, you'd be able to take us wherever you wanted to go, and no one could stop you. Speaking of, did you tell Sylva where we're headed?”
“Yeah, Byforest,” Sylva said. “To meet up with the Dreams.”
“Given any thought to anything after that?” Iri asked.
“Not yet,” Yan said. “I know I don't want to go back to Emerri, and I don't want to spend my whole life hiding, but I don't know. I don't know.” She felt like a video clip stuck in a loop, helplessly repeating the same thoughts and phrases over and over.
“Figuring that out can wait,” Sylva said. “There's no need to decide your whole life in the next thirty seconds.”
Yan drummed her fingers on the side of her coffee cup. “How stupid would it be for me to try to get in contact with the Mother?” Yan asked.
Sylva and Iri glanced at each other. “Very,” Sylva said. “For one thing, she might be, er, no longer together, considering the situation. For another, I don't really like the Mother that much. Also, I don't want to tangle with the Gatekeeper, who's still sitting in orbit around their planet. From what I've seen, the First Star is way smaller than the Bellringer was.” Iri nodded along at all of Sylva's points.
“I could sneak--”
“No,” Sylva said.
“Let's put a pin in that for now,” Iri said. “We can figure that out when we're done dealing with your family. Why do you want to talk to the Mother?” Immediately after declaring the topic closed, Iri opened it again, which was really a classic conversation tactic if Yan had ever seen one.
“Because I don't think she hates me,” Yan said. “And because I owe her, I guess. And because-- well-- if I abandoned the Empire at least a little bit because of all that. Yeah,” Yan finished, rather pathetically, laying her hands palm up on the table.
“Okay,” Sylva said, skepticism written across her face. “I guess we can talk about that later.”
“Do you have any more immediate plans?” Iri asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Yan said. “We're about two jumps away from Byforest, so we'll be there by the end of the day. We need to prepare the message we're going to leave for my family.”
“I'll take care of that,” Iri said.
“Great. Uh, I'd also like to compile a list of like, resources that we have, and what needs to be repaired. I took a look around this morning, but a detailed inventory would be nice.”
“Ship's documents should have that somewhere,” Iri said.
“Another thing,” Yan began, feeling more confident with her plans now that she was back in the realm of concrete, actionable steps. “If we're going to be spending a long time here, on the ship I mean, we'll need to get the greenhouse up and running. That's a pretty big project, but it doesn't need to be finished right away, just started. So if someone could take a look at that and figure out what our priorities should be, and maybe make a schedule...”
“I can make that plan, see what's going on,” Sylva volunteered.
“Great, thanks,” Yan said, giving her a smile. Sylva beamed back. “I'll help out too. Put all my Academy biology courses to use, for once.” Sylva laughed at that.
“Anything else?” Iri asked.
Yan considered for a second. There was one other thing, but she didn't know if she actually wanted to ask anyone for it. Her face must have betrayed her thoughts, because Iri stared at her and raised her eyebrow. “Spit it out,” Iri said.
Yan hesitated a second longer. “How much do you trust me?” she asked, looking between Iri and Sylva.
“How is that even a question?” Sylva asked, incredulous. “Isn't it obvious?”
“No, I mean-- argh. Do you trust me with your life?”
“Are you planning to kill us or something?” Iri asked with a gentle smile.
“No, ah, how do I explain this?” Yan ran her hand over the back of her neck, a nervous impulse.
“Take your time,” Iri said. Both Sylva and Kino had their eyes on her. Yan looked down into her cereal.
“Sandreas and Halen, and a bunch of other people, they can use the power to control somebody else's body. I think, just in case, I need to learn how to do that, so that it would be a fair fight, if it-- if I was ever in that situation again.”
“You want to learn how to puppet people?” Iri asked. “Are you asking for someone to practice on?”
“I wouldn't put it exactly like that.”
“Sounds sexy,” Iri said and nudged Sylva with her elbow. Sylva blushed and coughed into her cup of coffee. Yan resisted the urge to groan.
“You can practice on me,” Kino said, the first words she had spoken that morning. “I owe you my life.”
“What? No,” Yan said. Kino hadn't even been in her mind as an option. The thought of it struck an immediate panicked chord in Yan's heart. For one thing, Kino was the only one on the ship close to her level with the power, and she didn't want it to immediately turn into a power struggle. For another...
“Why not?” Iri asked. “She's offering.” Yan looked at her, and could see immediately that Iri both understood Yan's reservations and was going to drag those reservations out into the light. Her eyebrows were lifted in that tiny, knowing way, and she stared Yan directly in the eye. Neither Sylva nor Kino seemed to catch the too-light tone in Iri's voice.
Yan tried to minutely shake her head at Iri, trying to get her to back down, but Iri simply tightened her lips into a thin smile. Yan gave up and tried to give Iri what she wanted.
“Kino, you and I-- we both...” It was suddenly very hard for Yan to speak. “We already know what it's like to be held down by someone else's power.” She left off the crucial second half of that statement, which was knowing what it was like to also be tortured during that vulnerable state. “I wouldn't-- I can't put you through that again, and...” Yan trailed off.
“I owe to to you,” Kino said simply. She was holding her coffee in her right hand; her left was underneath the island and out of sight.
“And?” Iri asked.
Yan's mouth froze shut. The trailing end of her sentence had been something cruel, and she had stopped herself before she admitted it. She looked between Iri, Kino, and Sylva. Iri was leaning forward ever so slightly, waiting for Yan to speak. Kino was still and expressionless, ready to take on this burden that Yan had no desire to give to her. Sylva seemed mostly confused, and she glanced between the other three, clearly not catching on to the reason behind the tension in the air.
“You can practice on me,” Sylva said, trying to cut the issue down. “But greenhouse should probably take first priority.”
“I still want to know why Kino isn't an option,” Iri said, shutting Sylva down with a look.
“Oh,” Sylva said, and fell silent.
Yan looked at her cereal bowl, picked up a piece, and crumbled it between her fingers. Everyone was silent, waiting for her, but she couldn't find the best way to string the words together.
Iri wasn't going to give up, though, since she seemed to have taken it upon herself to be Yan's therapist, or whatever. Yan squished another piece of cereal like a bug.
“I'm still so fucking angry at you, Kino,” Yan said finally. “I don't want to be. I wish I could be some sort of perfect person who isn't angry and destroyed by all of this, but I'm not. I'm just not.”
“You're more than justified in being angry,” Sylva said, a slight note of triumph in her voice. “God knows I am.”
“That's okay,” Kino said.
“It's not that I'm mad at you, okay? That would be one thing,” Yan said, voice abruptly rising in volume and pitch. There was a panic settling in, and her stomach churned and her heart beat inordinately fast. “I can be mad, and I can sit here and it's fine. I'm fine!”
She was lying to herself.
She wished someone would step in and stop her, but Iri kept leaning in and nodding, and Sylva only looked mildly concerned. Kino was just watching her with the same flat expression. Yan's mouth was an out of control shipping container-- she was unable to stop it now, and she felt herself watching helplessly from behind the glass, outside herself, as she careened toward a truth that she didn't want to admit, a truth that lived in the darkest corner of her own heart.
“But if we're in a room together, and I have all that power over you--” Yan choked slightly. “I don't know if I could stop myself from hurting you.”
There it was. There was a moment of silence. Yan stared first straight ahead, then down at her coffee, unable to look anyone in the eye. The truth of who she was in her heart was out now. Everyone knew she was not a good person.
“It's okay,” Kino said, voice very, very quiet. “We have to trust each other.”
“It's not you I don't trust!” Yan hit her fist on the cold table with a dull thud. The feeling of it brought her slightly back into her body. She looked around. Iri was very contemplative. Sylva had edged herself closer to Yan in a protective gesture. Kino was still looking at her with wide eyes, and when Yan looked back, she couldn't understand what she found there.
“I trust you,” Kino said. “And even if you did hurt me, I'd deserve it.”
“It's not a question of what anyone deserves!” Yan's head was pounding. She felt like she had just said that to Sylva. “It's what's right and wrong, and it's what kind of person I can trust myself to be. I don't want to hurt you because that would be wrong, and I know that, but-- fuck--”
Yan's hands were balled into fists, and tears were gathering in the corners of her eyes. She squeezed them shut, wishing that she could hide herself, wishing desperately that she wasn't the monster that was herself. Her good mood from earlier had completely collapsed, and she didn't have anyone to blame for that aside from her own thoughts.
Sylva put her hand on Yan's back, rubbing up and down in slow, gentle circles. Yan's breath steadied, just a little. “I think you're a good person,” Sylva said. “Better than you deserve.” It was clear even with Yan's eyes closed that Sylva was addressing Kino.
“Sylva,” Iri said, her voice slightly warning.
“It's okay,” Kino said again, like that was her mantra that she had to keep repeating to make it true.
“No, you know what?” Sylva began. “It's not okay!” Sylva was mad now, and the hand that had been comforting on Yan's back turned protective and clawlike. “Yan was kidnapped, and drugged, and malnourished, and held in solitary confinement for more than a month, and she was tortured, and she had her brain taken over by a fucking hive, and it's all because of you! Just because Yan has some sort of life debt to repay to someone else that she gave to you--”
“Sylva,” Iri cut in again, more sharply this time.
“Doesn't mean that I have to--”
“Sylva, that's enough!” Iri's voice was hard. “This isn't about you,”she said through gritted teeth. “So step back.”
Sylva did lean back, breathing hard, and her hand fell off of Yan's shoulder.
How come Iri got to be the only one holding things together? She was able to keep her mouth shut and her problems to herself. If Iri had issues with the rest of them, she didn't say it, and she was there to deal with everybody else's troubles. Yan trusted that Iri wasn't going to offload her own private issues onto the table in between them all, not now, maybe not ever. That silence was clearly a gift that Iri was giving, but she wished that gift didn't come only because of Yan's own disaster. She wished that there was even footing between them.
Yan stood up, leaving her half finished breakfast on the island. She looked around helplessly at the three other women, and the mess that they had made of the air between themselves. Her face was pleading for a moment, but she didn't know exactly what she was pleading for. Then she turned and left.
Even though the First Star was a small ship, it was still plenty large for one person to disappear into. Yan wandered around alone for a while. She knew the others were probably giving her space. She didn't know what she felt over the whole mess of a conversation. Bad, mostly, but the specific kind of bad was eluding her. Contrary to every rational impulse, she wished Halen were here, so that he could hold her and show her what her feelings meant through the lens of his own. That was stupid, though.
If Yan thought she was a bad person for maybe, hypothetically, in some sort of situation that she didn't even really logically want, hurting Kino, then what was Halen? Yan couldn't answer that question, and she didn't want to. Once again, she was turning away.
She found herself finally in the greenhouse, as she knew she inevitably would. She was worried, or maybe anticipatory, that Sylva would be there, but there was no sign of her. The greenhouse wasn't as calm of a refuge as Yan had hoped; she had forgotten that there wasn't much actually growing, so it was mostly long empty beds waiting to be planted, with the tending robots covered in cloth and lined up along the walls, waiting to be activated. Looking for something to do, Yan assigned herself a task of finding seeds, and setting up at least one bed with something growing.
She fiddled with the humidity, preparing the atmosphere of the greenhouse to receive plants. Immediately, the air felt warmer and sweatier as the life support blasted sprays of water into the air.
It wasn't hard. Everything was very well labeled and organized, probably because it had never been used. Yan found a pair of gardening gloves and got started preparing a bed for some soybeans. It was calming, normal work. Just her, the rich darkness of the dirt, the whir of the air filters.
The peace couldn't last, of course. The last person that Yan wanted to see, Kino, hovered in the doorway. “Hey,” Kino said.
Yan, her hands still in the dirt, kneeling on the ground, looked up. “Hey.” She wasn't sure what to say, what to think, what to feel.
Kino walked over and knelt across from Yan, on the other side of the raised bed. She had a new bandage wrapped around her left hand; Yan wondered if she had changed it herself or if Sylva had changed it for her, upon coercion from Iri. It probably didn't matter.
“I'm sorry for upsetting you earlier,” Kino said.
“Please don't start,” Yan said. “I really can't handle any of that right now.”
There was silence between them. Yan dug her finger into the dirt, placed a bean seed in. Ideally, she would have started the beans in cups, but she wanted to get things planted, and it wasn't as though they were wanting for nursery space. She patted the dirt down around it, then moved on, poking another hole a good few centimeters away.
“Do you think I would hurt you?” Yan asked, breaking the silence.
“No,” Kino said.
“If you were going to, you would have already,” Kino said. That was a fairly pragmatic view of things.
“I mean, I did, kinda,” Yan said, thinking of how she had failed to give Kino any pain medication. Kino shrugged.
“A negative peace is at least not a war,” Kino said, clearly quoting something. It might have been some part of the theology that Yan didn't recall, or a book she hadn't read. Yan looked at her, pursed her lips, shoved another bean into the dirt.
“Is that what we have? A negative peace?”
They were silent again.
“Would you feel better if you trusted yourself?” Kino asked.
“If I trust myself about one thing, I'll probably find a new thing to worry about,” Yan said. “Maybe there's just something wrong with me.”
Kino shook her head. She reached across the bed and poked a hole in the dirt. Yan filled it with a seed. They repeated that process several times.
“I want you to practice on me,” Kino said finally. “I think it would be good.”
“I somehow doubt that it would be,” Yan said dryly. “Even if it goes well, which, there's only so well something like that could go.” She felt much calmer now, after some time by herself, she could discuss it without her heart beating its way out of her chest.
“It could be.”
“I don't know what your deal is, Kino,” Yan said, stopping and putting her hands on the side of the bed. “I don't know if you're trying to punish yourself for some reason, or trying to get me to go through some sort of complicated transaction in order to make yourself feel better, I don't get it.”
Kino looked down into the dirt. “I don't know. It's complicated.”
“We have to stop owing each other,” Yan said. “I think it's killing us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Can we just call it even? I know it's not, but can it be?”
“I don't know which one of us you think is getting the worse end of the deal.”
Yan looked down at the dirt, confused for a second, then laughed. “I don't know, I guess.”
“Okay,” Kino said. “But I still want to help you.”
Yan sat back on her haunches and looked across the dirt at Kino. “Sylva already said she would, and honestly, even if she didn't, I changed my mind. I don't want to do it at all.”
“That's a lie.”
“Only on the practical level.” Yan knew that she needed to learn to do it, to protect herself, but the emotional toll of it felt like it could be too much.
“You do better when you're working on things practically,” Kino said.
“Yeah. But there's more than just that,” Yan said.
“Think about it like any other task.”
“Would you be able to think about it like any other task?”
“I wouldn't ask anyone to practice on,” Kino said. “So it doesn't matter.”
“Do you think that it's wrong that I'm asking for that? It feels so wrong.”
“No, or I wouldn't be volunteering,” Kino said. “But no one trusts me here, so there wouldn't be a point.”
They were quiet again for a moment. Kino had poked a whole row of holes, so Yan scooted along and put seeds into all of them.
“Let's just try it,” Kino said quietly. “Not because I owe you, not because you need to prove anything, just because it's something that needs to be done.”
“Are you really sure?” Yan looked across at her. They were on neutral ground here, it made it slightly easier to figure all this out. There wasn't the added pressure of Iri and Sylva. Yan loved them deeply, both of them, but they certainly added pressure to the dynamic. Kino, for all her faults, and for all the weird mixed up feelings that she caused, gave Yan plenty of space to breathe.
“I don't think you'll be able to do it first time, anyway,” Kino said, pragmatic as ever.
“What should I make you do?” Yan asked.
“Just this,” Kino said, and poked another hole in the dirt. She held her right hand out, loose, but with her finger pointing downward. Yan stared at it for a second.
“What if I break your other hand?” Yan asked.
“You won't break my hand,” Kino said, as gently as her flat voice seemed to allow.
Yan sat down on the ground, crossing her legs. She looked across at Kino, who continued to hold her arm out, waiting.
The power came up to her easily, humming in her brain, tingling along her nerves. Using the power had to be purposeful, and she liked having a purpose. Carefully, she reached out toward Kino. She was slippery, like a cool breeze that Yan couldn't quite get her hands around.
“Can you feel that?” Yan asked.
“You're not doing anything,” Kino said. She was right; Yan was simply touching the surface of Kino's being, not even trying to grab at her. That was easy, but Yan didn't quite want to take the next step.
“Go ahead,” Kino encouraged. “It's okay.”
She kept saying that, but Yan was pretty sure things were not okay. Even so, Yan tried to close the power around Kino's arm, just like she would around a rock, or a piece of fabric. She could easily seize the hem of Kino's short sleeve shirt, but as she closed around Kino's arm, the power bucked at her madly, sending a deep revulsion through her at the feeling of invading another person. Startled, Yan dropped the power and reeled backward slightly.
“I felt that,” Kino said. “Good job.”
“I feel like I'm going to be sick,” Yan said. She hated that. She hated it a lot. There was a spigot attached to the corner of the planting bed, meant for feeding the sprinkler system. Yan opened it for a second and cupped her hand to drink some of the cool water. It was rusty from disuse, but the taste and feeling of it soothed her, at least momentarily.
“You can do it,” Kino said. She continued to hold her arm out for Yan to take.
“You want me to try again?” Yan asked.
So she did. This time, knowing more what to expect, Yan held on through it. She was very, very, very careful not to let her thoughts wander. There were only a few short jumps, she knew, between hearing Halen's voice whispering in her ear, and imagining that she was Halen, and hurting Kino, standing over her with a knife. The distance between each of those things was so small. She kept the power tightly contained to her conscious mind, and she kept her conscious mind on the task at hand, and nowhere else.
Even just holding the feeling of Kino's arm in her mind made Yan start to sweat. It was so hot and alive, throbbing in the power. It felt, not like an extension of herself, but like the universe was tying them together. Imposing her will upon it, or trying to, felt like she was breaking a contract that the universe had written for her, on the ways that one should behave towards other living beings. It felt viscerally wrong, in a way that nothing else had ever before. Yan was sure that some kids at the Academy always tried to do this to each other-- Yan had never been tempted because not using the power on others was something the masters stressed, but even if she had, she would have wanted to stop immediately. The only thing that kept her going was determination, and the knowledge that Kino would keep telling her to go on.
The deep, deep revulsion made her mind crawl away from what she was trying to do. It distracted her, filled her with crawling, nasty thoughts. On top of that, it was so hard to grip Kino's arm and move it. It was like nothing else. She couldn't understand how the Green King, or Halen, or anybody else did this easily. She never thought she would get used to it. She wanted to give up.
But she gave it one more push, and her effort paid off. Kino's arm twisted and jerked down towards the dirt, and her finger plunged halfway in.
Yan released the power, and it fled from her with relief. Letting go of Kino was a weight off her chest. She was sweating, and her arms and legs felt cold, as though all the blood had rushed out of them. Her breath came in frantic pants, and she looked up at Kino.
Kino smiled. “See?”
Yan opened the spigot of water and stuck her head underneath it.