Archive for September, 2012

2296: Bubbles + Wash Away Your Sins

Posted: September 1, 2012 by Kelly in stories, the world

Bubbles

She knows what she looks like. She knows how people see her, trudging around the Compound in ripped jeans and a hoodie, her tongue coloured from her shockingly blue slurpee. Minutes before she’d been bouncing along with the music on her ridiculously large headphones.

If it walks, talks and acts like a surly teenager, it must be a surly teenager. Unless you’re on floor twelve to fifteen in sector West-five of the compound, in which case it can only be Valentina Marin, rosy cheeked and often surly, but only a teenager in her passport. Besides, she’s sixteen. That makes her an adult in a lot of places. She’d been an adult at twelve in the Lowlands, so, really.

What the hell was Hugh on about anyway? /Get lost, kid?/  she mouths silently, her brow creased in an angry frown. “Kid? Seriously?” She rants angrily at the empty hallway, “Who the fuck are you even calling a kid, asshole. I’m older than half the girls you fuck.”

/Which, by the way, is disgusting./

“It’s so unfair.” she says, fully aware of how childish that sounds. But damn it, she had plans! It was the season finale of Silver Skies, and if she wanted to watch that on the 180 degree screen then she should be allowed to. It’s not as if they were even doing anything with the screen right now. She tosses her hair over her shoulder. “Asshole!” she echoes her earlier statement, kicking at the wall for emphasis.

Of course she hits the metal rung on the bottom, sending a resounding ‘boing’ through the hallway. So much for sneaking up to Stender’s apartment stealthily. She imagines the resonance travelling down the hallway, echoing through the entire building.

That’s when she realizes she’s been listening to footsteps approach for at least fifteen seconds. Two pairs, walking in stride. The first set she recognizes easily, as they belong to Stender. She would recognize his steps everywhere. The other pair belong to a woman whom she’s not familiar with. The stride is too short to be Sybil, too strong to be one of Hugh’s /special friends/, and basically too unfamiliar to be anyone but Irina Weisz, Stender’s new associate.

They’re at least another ten seconds away from rounding the corner and spotting Val. She closes her eyes for a moment, taking in the cadence of Irina’s footsteps. They’re self-assured. Confident. Stender had told her about Irina before he hired her. He’d told her a little about her past and the bombing she had endured. Valentina can’t detect a single trace of that part of her history in her footsteps. She mentally adds ‘determined’ to the list of character traits she can discern from Irina’s footsteps.

By the time Stender and Irina round the corner Val is leaning against the wall, the straw of her slurpee between her lips. She can feel Irina’s eyes on her. Reading her. Weighing her. A feeling she had become used to within a week of living in the compound. She meets Irina’s eyes boldly, tracing over the scars on her face and the confidence in her stance. Val grins, knowing her teeth and tongue are probably blue. “Hi.” she says, her eyes flitting between Stender and Irina.

Irina’s eyes seem to crinkle slightly as she sizes Valentina up. “Hi.” she offered finally. Next to the woman Stender smirks, and waves at her. /What a dork./ Val thinks, fondly. At least his sudden appearance would save her the trouble of having to break into his home without permission.

Just as Stender opens his mouth, no doubt to introduce Irina, Val interjects: “Stender, can I watch Silver Skies in your pad? Your tv is much bigger than mine.” /and Hugh kicked me out of the controlroom./ She doesn’t add that last part, although she is sure Stender can probably guess it.

Stender offers her his frowny face that generally means something along the lines of: ‘is your homework done?’. /Season. Finale./ She thinks at him. He has to let her watch the season finale.

After a few tense seconds he shrugs. “Sure, whatever. Don’t touch my terminal though, or I’ll…”

She laughs at that, which causes a little start in Irina. “Yeah yeah, you’ll kick my butt. I know. I’d like to see you try.” She doesn’t quite roll her eyes. Stender chuckles at her, and it’s a good thing she knows he’s not mocking her, or he’d get his butt kicked right in front of the new lady.

Speaking of whom… Stender half turns towards the other woman. “Valentina, I’d like you to meet my new associate, Irina Weisz.”

Valentina looks her up and down, as if she hasn’t already assessed Irina Weisz. She offers Irina her least threatening smile, and tries not to squeeze too hard as she shakes her hand. “Nice to meet you.” she says, proud of the way it doesn’t sound like a question. Stender knows all about this woman already. Her background checks came up… well, not clean, but definitely not dirty enough, or she wouldn’t have been in the compound at all.

Stender’s voice pierces the few seconds of tense silence. “Irina, this is my protegée, Valentina Marin.”

Valentina tries not to beam at being called his protegée. Irina’s lips quirk again as she offers her own greetings. Then Stender has to move along because of some business deal that he told her all about in the past months, and Valentina is running because /oh my god!/, Silver Skies is going to start any second now.

And if she ends up touching Stender’s terminal after all… well, she does have a ‘surly teenager’ reputation to live up to.

 

Wash away your sins (and go home)

She watches his every move as he circles around her, occasionally ducking in and out of her reach to test her defences, to draw her out. They’re solid. She’s not worried. He should be. There’s a drop of sweat making its way down his face, on its way to join to little rivulets already running down his back and chest.

“Getting tired?” she asks. She knows what she sounds like. Mocking. She can’t help it, not even with him. It’s a reaction bred into her on the streets. It’s her way of testing his defences. Her way of drawing him out. He doesn’t deserve it. Stender is in excellent shape. He doesn’t need her to grind him down further, but she can’t help it. If it was up to her she would whittle him down to the bone, until he’s sharp enough to cut people with a look.

He smirks at her, and she wonders if he already can. “Barely getting started.” He growls at her, aiming a kick at her chest that would have knocked her over for sure. It would have knocked the breath right out of her, left her gasping on the floor.

Too bad it didn’t even get close. “I don’t know, boss. Getting kind of slow there.” She twists out of his range easily, blocks a punch aimed for her throat and knees him in the ribs. She only holds back a little. He nearly doubles over, wheezing a little. She arches an eyebrow at him, daring him to complain or give up. He grins at her, oddly proud even though he’s getting his ass handed to him by a sixteen year old.

“Not a chance.” He says, launching another assault at her. A fine combination of kicks and punches. Any one of those could knock her out if it lands. They don’t. Rule number one down on the streets. Don’t get hit. Rule number two, retaliate without hesitation. She kicks the inside of his knee, sending him sprawling on the mat.

Rule three, don’t let him get back up. She pounces, landing square on his chest and driving the air out of his lungs. His eyes widen comically as she backhands him across the face. That’ll leave a mark. He grunts and winces. Valentina shakes her head. “Beaten again. If only the world could see you now. Stender the Magnificent, brought low by a sixteen year old girl, again.” She places her hands on his chest and leans forward a bit, deliberately putting a little pressure on ribs that might just be a little bruised. “‘though I suppose it’s not that shocking anymore, considering I’ve been handing your ass to you for the past years.”

Stender laughs and resorts to a shameless tickle-attack. Valentina definitely does not squeal as she tries to get away from his hands. “No, Stender! Bad Stender!”

She has her legs wrapped around his head and is trying to choke him into submission when she hears the door to the gym open. Stender’s hand is on her thigh, patting frantically to signal that yes indeed, Val is victorious again. She slides back on his chest, grinning widely. Footsteps approach the mat. She doesn’t have to look around to see who it is.

“Hi Irina.” she says, sounding chipper and not even remotely out of breath. Unlike Stender, who is panting like an overworked racehorse. Irina clears her throat. Val turns around to look at her now, and for a second she thinks she sees a flash of discomfort on the older woman’s face. Then Stender pushes her off and she sprawls on her back on the mat with a disgruntled ‘oof’.

Stender’s voice is rough when he talks to Irina in muted towns. Something about an acquisition or a hostile takeover. He’d told her about it earlier today, but she can’t quite remember what it was about. Regeneration something? The corner of her mouth twitched into a smirk. Stender might benefit from one of those, if his limp is anything to go by.

With a yawn Valentina arches her back into a round bridge, her hands and feet flat on the mat, before throwing her legs up, flipping over and landing gracefully on her feet. She can feel Irina’s green eyes on her, but she ignores them. Loads of people are surprised by her agility. She shrugs a little as she picks up her water bottle. /Guess it doesn’t fit with the lazy teenager stereotype./

By the time she’s finished the bottle Irina is on her way out of the gym, her footsteps determined. Angry almost. /Huh/ She turns to Stender, who does not look as if he’s getting ready for another round. “Done already?” she asks him, trying to hide her disappointment. She can barely get him to spar once a week with him as it is.

He offers an apologetic shrug. “I’m afraid it can’t wait. Silcom is going down as we speak. Time to go shake some hands and sign some papers.”

Apparently she’s not hiding her pout as well as she means to, because Stender is by her side in a second, wrapping a sweaty arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I promise I’ll make more time to train after the acquisition is done. I know how you worry about me.” That last bit is said in such a mocking tone that Val can’t do anything but plant her elbow in his already bruised ribs.

“Ass.” she mutters while Stender groans. “You’re just chickening out because I was kicking your butt.”

Stender smiles at her, and she forgives him. That’s how it always is. “Tell you what, I’ll make it up to you. I won’t frown at Tyler when he picks you up this Saturday.”

She pretends to swoon. “Oh. my. god! You’re going to be civil to my date?” Valentina hides her grin behind the wiping away of fake tears. “I never thought I’d see the day!.”

He swats at her with his towel, and she doesn’t even try to dodge it very much. “I never said I’d be civil, I said I wouldn’t frown. Though why that boy seems to think I’m going to kill him is beyond me. He should be more worried about you.”

Val’s mouth opens in pretend-shock. “Me?! I would never hurt a man with such dashing blue eyes as Tyler.” She bats her eyelashes at Stender for a moment before tackling him to the mat again. “I. Am. Harmless.” She grinds out while making sure he ends up in his board meeting with another bruise on his face. That ought to teach him.

~

The sun shines brightly through the windows of Stender’s home. Wall to wall windows, because Stender likes the view. Not that Stender ever enjoys the view, because Stender is always working. Valentina flops down on the floor in front of the couch and groans. “I am so fucking bored.” she tells no one in particular.

No one in particular, because there’s no one around. Which is totally the opposite of how it should be, because Stender is supposed to be around. He is supposed to be around to help her with her stupid Portuguese lessons, because he insists that she needs to learn that stupid language, because ‘significant parts of the world speak it, Val, and if you want to have a place in the corporation in the future then you’re going to have to speak your languages.’ /ugh!/

And generally speaking she doesn’t mind learning new languages at all. Or other things. It had taken her a while to get interested in her education, but after her ‘I don’t need no dumb schooling’-phase in the first month following her arrival in the compound, she discovered she quite enjoyed it. But Portuguese is just so damned difficult, and Stender is supposed to help her with her pronunciation. What was she supposed to do now, go to Hugh?

“Hah. How about no?” she asks the empty space around her. Not that she dislikes Huey, even if he is a massive creeper, but he doesn’t have the same kind of patience Stender does. Valentina stretches, her shirt riding up her stomach as she twists into the sunlight. “Guess I’ll take a nap.” she mutters.

She can’t be out for more than ten minutes when she hears the door to the livingroom open. A frown creases her brow. That’s not Stender. Whoever just entered the room freezes when they see Valentina on the floor. She opens an eye, frowning at the intruder. “Oh hey!” she chirps when she sees Irina. “Is Stender with you?”

There’s a look on Irina’s face that she can’t quite identify, although she’s starting to recognize it. Val shrugs. Must be uncomfortable around teenagers, or something.

Irina shakes her head. It looks comical from Valentina’s upside down perspective. “Uh. No. He said he’d meet me here.” she half turns away from Val, “But I guess he’s not here yet?” The other woman looks around the room, as if she expects Stender to materialize out of this air. Wouldn’t that be a neat trick?

“No, he’s not. He’s late. He was supposed to be here like… hours ago.” Val complains. In reality it’s more like ten minutes, but Irina doesn’t have to know about that. The woman is staring beyond Val’s face now. At her bared stomach. Val looks down at it as well, wondering what’s got Irina frowning so hard. She sees a bruise just above her hipbone. “Oh, huh…” she softly brushes her fingers over it, wondering where she got it from. She’d taken a tumble against a wall earlier when she overestimated a jump.

She coughs, feeling a little embarrassed as she tugs her shirt down. Christ, Irina must think she’s such a klutz. But really, it wasn’t her fault that the floor had just been polished.  ‘Slippery when wet ‘-signs, people. They work.

Irina is giving her that look again, that frowny, disconcerned, angry thing that flits over her face as she pulls her eyes away from Valentina’s face. Val raises an eyebrow at her, daring her to say something.

The moment is broken when Stender bursts into the room. “Oh hey” He says, grinning when he sees Irina and Val. Then he looks at Val again. His grin fades. “Well, guess what I forgot.” he offers, not looking apologetic at all.

Val leaps to her feet and rounds on him, punching him hard on the arm. “Oh, My. God. You did not! I’ve been here for like, hours!” Stender has the good grace to wince, even though she’s sure he knows she hasn’t actually been here that long. “What happened to ‘I have important things to teach you, Valentina.’? And ‘I have to prepare you for the future, Valentina.’?” She flops down on the couch and throws a pillow at him. “Ugh! I can’t believe you.”

She can hear Stender shuffling his feet behind her. “I know, I know. I’m a horrible, disreputable man and you should never have come with me.” He bends over the couch and kisses her on the top of her head. She forgives him. She catches sight of Irina in the reflection of the television. For a moment it looks like she’s pale as a sheet, and almost swaying on her feet. Val frowns.

When she turns around Irina looks composed, if a little pale. Val shrugs. Probably off her head on stimms. She knows how people can get around those large business deals. Speaking of which… “So, Silcom, right?”

Stender shrugs, looking apologetic now. Val shakes her head fondly. “You owe me.”

He laughs and ruffles her hair. “Alright. I’ll make it up to you later.” If Val flounces out of his house after that, well… She’s supposed to be the immature one, after all.

~

“Oh God, I am such a stereotype.” She says, standing in front of Stender’s full length mirror in shock and horror. This isn’t working. This isn’t working /at all!/ Sure, her hair looks nice and her make-up looks fine and her shirt’s quirky, cute and green with a funny Silver Skies quote and Tyler is going to think she is such a spaz.

“Stender?!” she half-squeals in panic. His head pops round the corner about half a second later. He looks a little worried as he scans the room, looking for the reasons behind the squeal. She never squealed.

“What is it?” he asks, his voice as ripe with worry as the frown on his face.

Valentina looks at him and gestures at herself. He looks her over. He shrugs. “This!” Val exclaims when she gets no further response from him. “This is wrong! I look like an idiot and a geek and Tyler is going to hate it and why didn’t you tell me sooner that I look like a twelve year old and oh God he’s going to be here any minute and…”

Stender’s hands wrap around her shoulder. “Hey, relax. You look fantastic, and Tyler is an idiot if he doesn’t think so too.” He tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear and smiles at her. Val immediately shakes her head, letting the strand fall back in her face. He smirks. “Also, Tyler’s a bigger Silver Skies fanboy than you are. Isn’t that why you like him in the first place?”

“Well, yeah…” Val mutters, glancing back at the mirror. /Ok… maybe it’s not a complete disaster…/

With a sigh Stender pulls her in a tight hug against his chest. “My little Val, all grown up and going on dates. I’m so proud.” The amusement is thick on his voice. Val tries to wriggle out of his grasp.

“Oy, this isn’t my first time out with a boy, you know. I’m not a toddler, I know how to do this.” She complains. Stender pulls her back against his chest, squeezing her tightly.

“Shush. You’re ruining my moment here.” He says, smirking. She doesn’t have to see his face to know that he’s smirking. She pushes at him again, and they mock-wrestle for a moment. It’s just another play-fight in their endless series of play-fights, none of which end with Stender’s bones broken. Val understands the difference between the games and reality.

Stender has his hands wrapped around Valentina’s wrists, and Valentina is about half a second away from hooking her ankle around his and tripping him when there’s a cough from the doorway. Val turns, and sees Irina look at her, a little wide-eyed and a little pale. She grins and takes the opportunity to trip Stender, who lands on his ass with a satisfying ‘oof’’.

“Hi Irina!” she says, beaming at the other woman, who doesn’t seem to share her glee over the situation.

The other woman clears her throat and lets her eyes travel from Valentina to Stender, and back again. She barely moves, but her entire posture radiates discomfort. Stender doesn’t seem to notice as he’s picking himself up from the floor. “You have the legal files?” he asks instead. Irina has a pad in her hand, which probably contains all the files Stender ever wanted. He offers Irina a pleased smile and wanders into his office.

Irina remains standing where she is, her entire body vibrating with restless energy. Valentina looks at her, keeping her expression blank. The older woman opens her mouth as if she wants to say something, before closing it again. She shakes her head slightly, almost as if she’s arguing with herself.

“Hey, ehm… Irina? Do you think this make-up is too much for a first date?” Val asks out of the blue, because damn it, Stender is her friend and all but he doesn’t understand woman things at all. Irina stares at her as if she’s sprouted a second head, and Val is forced to remember Stender’s speech about not involving all of his employees in social time. She blushes furiously.

“Oh God, sorry, this is awkward, right? It’s just that… well… I have a…” She stutters.

Irina offers her the tiniest hint of a smile. “Date, yes. Stender may have mentioned as much.” She looks at Valentina again, and this time it feels like she’s actually seeing her. There’s something cool and weighing about her gaze. After a moment she shakes her head. “You look just right for a first date, I’d say. Not that I’ve been on one of those lately.”

Valentina scratches the back of her head, suddenly feeling awkward and young in a way she hasn’t felt in ages. “I guess you don’t get a whole lot of free time, huh? Stender really ought to be less of a demanding boss sometimes, you should have a social life too.” Her eyes are locked on Irina’s face when she mentions Stender, so she sees the tiny twitch in Irina’s mouth.

It means something. She knows it does. She’s seconds away from putting her finger on the sore spot when the doorbell rings. All thoughts of what could be on Irina’s mind vanish instantly. She grins at the other woman, before bolting out of the room. This is going to be the best night ever.

~

Val rubs hard over the red skin of her knuckles, trying to get rid of the stains on them. Underneath the stains the skin is turning pink. It’ll be sore in the morning. /Good./ she thinks to herself, her mouth twisted in an angry pout.

She’s sitting in the hallway outside of Stender’s house, her knees pulled up to her chest. She doesn’t want to cry. She’s shed most of her tears years ago, and doesn’t want to waste the ones she has left on a worthless boy like Tyler.

“Asshole.” She hisses, beating the ground next to her. The concrete of the compound hallway doesn’t give, but she barely feels the impact over the sharp sting of her embarrassment and the bitter throb of betrayal. She lets her head fall back against the wall and swallows. Her throat feels tight. She swallows again, trying to shake the feeling of being close to tears. “God… I’m so fucking pathetic.” she whispers, her bottom lip quivering. She blinks against the tears that fill her eyes to the brim before spilling over to her cheeks with a choked sob.

She doesn’t even notice when the door next to her opens. “Val, what?” Before she can rub her tears away with her sleeve Stender is on the floor in front of her, taking her face in his hands and brushing her tears away with his thumbs. “Hey… what’s wrong?” His voice is so soft and so full of worry, it busts a dam in Valentina. She reaches out to him and clings to him as she cries.

He shushes her, his hands moving over her back in comforting circles. Later he carries her inside, letting her lie down on his couch. She clings to a pillow while he sits on the floor by her head, softly brushing her hair out of her face. He doesn’t make her talk about what happened, which is probably why she ends up telling him anyway.

“It all started out so well,” Her voice is barely more than a whisper. “We went to see that movie, with that guy from Silver Skies. It was amazing.” her mouth twists in a wry little smile. “Then he said a couple of his buddies were hosting a party in D-sector, and he wanted me to come and I thought why not? I’ve never… I never did that before.”

She shrugs, an awkward motion on the couch. “So we went there, and it was nice at first. He introduced me to all his friends, and they were ok. Then he wanted to give me ‘the tour’.” She rolls her eyes at the last two words. “And I’m thinking ‘well, that’s weird, he doesn’t even live here.’ I’m such an idiot.”

Stender shushes her again, his fingers steadily caressing her hair. “What happened next, Val?” his voice is deceptively calm, but she can see in his face that he’s angry. It’s a comfort, knowing that he would never let something happen to her.

“He took me to a guestroom. Kissed me, which was nice.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “Then he wanted more. At first I thought ‘ok, he’s hot, I like him’, but then it didn’t feel right. I mean, I barely know him, right? So I told him to stop. And then he wouldn’t.”

Stender’s fingers tense in her hair. She reaches up and takes her hand in her own. “Val.” he says, his voice strained. She shushes him this time.

“Then we had a discussion about consent. He said I was begging for it, and that he had a right to because he paid for the movie and got me drinks. I said he was delusional if he thought that consent works that way. He insisted.” Val’s mouth twitches into a minuscule smile. “I broke his nose, collarbone and two of his ribs. No means no, right?”

Stender swallows. “Right.” he echoes. “I’m going to kill him.” he says then, his tone as light and airy as it had been when he mentioned he would break Silcom into a thousand pieces.

Silence hangs heavy between them for a moment, before Val breaks it with a sigh. She sits up and rubs at her eyes. It’s an angry gesture. “Don’t be ridiculous. God, Stender… are you even listening? I broke his /face/!” She looks at her hands. “He was just some stupid kid trying to make a move and I broke his bones. Who the fuck does that?”

Her tears have all but dried on her cheeks when she turns to look at Stender. “I can’t do this.” she finally says. “I can’t…” she plucks at the Silver Skies t-shirt she’s wearing. “And it’s not fucking fair, because I want it.”

Stender looks at her as if she’s just sprouted another head. “What do you want?” his hand is resting on her knee, and he’s giving her that look that means he wants to give her everything in the world, just to make her happy. She can feel tears welling up in her eyes again, but she forces them down.

“I can’t be a normal kid, Stender. I know that’s what I’m supposed to be, and it’s really great that you’re giving me a chance, but I can’t do it. I can’t go on dates and geek out over shows and bands and go to college and pretend that I’m something I’m not. I can’t switch this off.”  She rubs at her knuckles, slightly red from fighting earlier. “I just… I can’t… and I’m sorry if that’s… if you’re disappointed, but I’m not… this person.”  She’s rambling now, and she knows it.

Stender squeezes her knee softly. “Hey… I’m not disappointed. God, no… I’m never disappointed in you Val.” She searches his eyes and finds only the truth there. He offers her a wry little smile. “I just thought that you wanted this. Being a kid, having a normal life… I thought you deserved a little normality in your life, after your childhood.”

Val laughs wryly. “What childhood?”

“My point exactly.” Stender chuckles, his hand still on her knee. “But it’s… I should have seen it sooner.” He half shrugs. “Would’ve saved poor Tyler a world of hurt.”

With a groan Valentina lets her head fall back against the couch. “Fuuuuuck… he’s totally going to press charges, isn’t he? And I can’t even blame him, because I’m a fucking psychopath. I could’ve… kneed him in the groin or something. Thrown my drink in his face. There are like… six million acceptable ways to respond to something like that, but I go with excessive violence, because that’s all I can do.”

“Hey.” Stender says, giving her knee a firmer squeeze. “Don’t worry about it, ok? Tyler’s dad works for me, and we’ll work something out between the two of us. Tyler won’t go to the enforcers, and once he’s healed up it’s not going to be anything more than a bad memory for him.”

“But what about me?” She asks, her voice as small as it’s ever been. “What am I supposed to do?”

Stender gets up and sits down next to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “You’re going to be you. Keep up with your studies, and leave the rest to me. I’m sure I can find something for you to do around the Corporation. You’ve got skills. Maybe Irina can teach you a few things about money-management too.”

Val scoffs. “I don’t think Irina likes me. She keeps giving me weird looks. Like, serious side-eye, you know?” She demonstrates, presenting Stender with a fairly decent interpretation of Irina’s quizzical look.

“Huh, really? I hadn’t noticed that yet. She’s probably confused. You are the strangest protegée in the history of all…” he doesn’t get to finish that sentence because Valentina plants an elbow in his stomach. He doubles over with an oomph. “See my point.” he wheezes after a minute. She grins at him.

“You wouldn’t want it any other way. Hey, can I crash here? I don’t feel like heading back to my place. I think my closet exploded over my bed or something. Gonna have to clean that up in the morning.”

Stender yawns, looking more exhausted than Val feels. “Sure. Don’t stay up all night watching Silver Skies reruns. Unless you’ve decided you don’t like that anymore either.”

She throws a pillow at his head. “Fuck you, man, Silver Skies is awesome.”

~

In the morning Valentina manages to avoid a small catastrophe by chasing Stender out of the kitchen before he can ruin all of the pancakes. He has the nerve to look offended. “Fuck off, dude. You have many talents, but cooking is not one of them. Now get lost before you burn the kitchen down.”

He grumbles, but shuffles back into his bathroom anyway. “And stop grouching! I’m not the one who books morning meetings on Saturday!” Val shouts after him. She can practically hear him sulk on the other side of the door.

A wide grin splits her face as she flips a pancake. Unlike Stender, she can bake pancakes like a boss. And unlike Stender, she has nowhere to be that morning, and every intention of never leaving the house in the light of day again. A flush of embarrassment spreads on her face as she imagines running into Tyler or one of his friends now.

/Then they’d run the other way./ Val’s mouth twitches into a sullen pout. The pancake in front of her sizzles over the fire.

“Not a good date?” A woman’s voice interrupts her thoughts. Val’s head shoots up, and she finds herself eye to eye with Irina, who had just walked into the kitchen, looking for all the world like she wakes up perfectly dressed in her business suit, unlike the rest of the human race.

Val bites her lip and shakes her head.  “No, not really. Well, it started out alright, but it totally bombed towards the end.”

Irina arches a graceful eyebrow at her. “Oh?” It’s an invitation to share more. Val knows she probably shouldn’t take it, but finds herself compelled to share anyway.

“Yeah, uh…” she rubs at the back of her neck with one hand, feeling a blush rise to her cheeks. With the other hand she flips the pancake. “He… uh… wanted more than I did, so that was… uhm… awkward. And then I kind of broke his face.” she mumbles the last bit, hoping Irina will overhear.

No such luck, of course. “You… broke his face?” Both eyebrows were up towards her hairline now.

“Well, uhm… and his collarbone and his rib. Because… no is no, right? And boy, do I know how to say no.” Valentina shuffles her feet. “But I felt pretty strongly about it, you know? And it’s not like I’ve never… I mean, yeah, I have, so it’s not that I didn’t want him to deflower me or that I wanted to wait for marriage or something archaic like that. I just… didn’t feel like it with him. And that’s ok, right? Just because I’ve done it before doesn’t mean I have to want to do it with every guy who buys me icecream, right? And I didn’t want him that way.”

It takes Val a moment to work up the courage to look up. She’s absolutely sure that the other woman is judging her, either for leading Tyler on, or for using completely unnecessary force to tell him to back off. When she finally looks up, Irina’s face is pale and her lips are pressed together in a tight line.

/Oh shit…/ Val thinks, flinching slightly as she prepares for the scolding of a lifetime. When Irina speaks though her voice is perfectly calm.

“Valentina…” the other woman pauses momentarily, and when she continues her voice is slightly hoarse, “Has Stender ever…” There’s a long pregnant pause as Val waits for the other woman to continue.

“Has Stender ever… what?” she prompts. As the last word echoes through the kitchen realization dawns on her. All the looks Irina had shot her way. The way she had looked like she was ready to start a fight and throw up at the same time when she had seen Stender and Valentina play-wrestle.

“Oh God no!” Valentina exclaims, dropping the spatula in her hand. Her eyes are comically wide and she’s sure she’s gaping like a fish. “No!” she emphasizes again, glancing at the bathroom door behind which Stender disappeared. She hopes he’s not listening through the door, or she’ll surely die of embarrassment.

Irina arches another eyebrow at her. It’s an expressive gesture, which tells Valentina that the other woman isn’t convinced yet. And why would she be? Val doesn’t have to look down to know what she looks like. She’s wearing one of Stender’s shirts over a pair of shorts that she’s growing out of. She only wears them when she’s sleeping these days, but even if Irina knows that, it doesn’t make it any better.

She exhales slowly and picks up the spatula. The pancake is still salvageable. Thank God for small favors. “It’s nothing like that.” she says, keeping her voice calm as she looks Irina in the eye. “I’ve known Stender since I was thirteen, and he has never touched me inappropriately. We’re close, but we’re not like that. He’s my friend.” She shrugs slightly. “Sometimes I think he’s my only friend. Other times I know he is.” She chews on her bottom lip, a nervous gesture she hasn’t shown in years.

“But?” Irina prompts, as if she still doesn’t believe her. Valentina understands, she really does. Between what Stender has told her about Irina’s past and what Val is able to guess herself, it can’t have been a walk in the past. Of course she’s mistrusting of people in positions of power. Of course she suspects things when she finds Stender’s protegée half-dressed in his kitchen on a Saturday morning.

“But he’s more than that.” She confesses, glancing at the bathroom door again. “He’s my family. Not like a father or a brother, or even an uncle. He’s family in the way that I know he has my back, unconditionally. I trust him more than I trust myself. He knows me better than anyone else. I would do anything for him, and he would do the same. But he’s not my lover, or my boyfriend, or my sugardaddy or whatever.” She bites out those last words, flinching a little at her own vehemence and the way Irina seems to waver a little.

The spatula clatters on the kitchen counter again. “You have to understand, by the time Stender found me I had been on my own for years. I’m an orphan. I grew up on the streets. I was a fighter, and a thief and a killer when I needed to be. I wasn’t a virgin by the time he found me. I’d already learned a million different ways to say no, but he never offered, or asked, or demanded it of me, and neither did I.”

She sighs, half turning away from Irina. “And I don’t know what else I can say to convince you of that. I know what it looks like, with the playwrestling and me being over here more than I am at my own place. But it’s not.” She glances up briefly, noting the shuffling noises from the bathroom that indicate Stender is seconds away from emerging. “And I need you to trust me on that.”

Seconds filled with an uncomfortable silence tick away before Irina shrugs, and slides into one of the kitchen chairs. “I’m fine with it if you are…” she starts, sounding as if she’s choosing her words carefully, “But if there’s ever anything you do want to tell me, let me know.”

Valentina presses her lips together for a moment before nodding, tensely. “Ok.” she says, her voice a little rough. Opposite to her Irina offers the tiniest hint of a smile.

“Ok.” The older woman offers. The bathroom door opens and Stender strides out, looking perfectly put together as always, as if his associate didn’t just accuse him of molesting his young protegée. Although to be fair, he probably hadn’t heard a word of that.

“Ok?” he echoed, glancing between the two women in his kitchen, and for a moment Valentina wonders if he’s playing the clueless act up. She knows how sharp he is.

“I’m taking Val up on her offer for pancakes.” Irina deadpans, looking equally composed. Val can’t hide the surprised smile on her face, and doesn’t even try.