From the author: A con man. An immortal demigod. A chance at love that could save the universe. Good King Lyr is a slow-burn, genderfluid, ownvoices romance novel, serialized each week.
Anais woke to a cool hand on his face. He shifted and opened his eyes.
Barenin leaned over him, Aezthena face impassive. No, it would be the ship-Barenin.
He pushed himself up. "What time is it? And—where am I?"
He wasn't on the bridge anymore. This was another shades-of-white egg-shaped room, and he lay on a bed in the center of it. The air had a sterile scent about it that was apparently universal everywhere. "Sickbay," he said, answering his own question, and lay back down. His head ached horribly, but the rest of him felt...lighter. More refreshed. His thoughts were clearer.
Had the hologram carried him from the couch to sickbay? Blinked him here like had happened when he'd boarded the ship? "Still no doors," he muttered, scanning the near-empty chamber. "These Aezthena need to work on their design skills."
The ship-Barenin made a small sound. Nearly a snort. They came around the bed, an almost-smile tugging at their lips.
Anais blinked at them. That was an uncannily Barenin-like smile. The soul beneath the mask.
His breaths came faster. He checked his internal clock. And sat up fast again when he saw it was several hours past what it should have been.
"Barenin!" He gripped Barenin's wrist as they sat down beside him. Emotion flowed to him, tentative and Aezthena cool.
Relief flooded Anais as everything that had happened before he'd passed out rushed back to him. But he couldn't handle everything. He could handle Barenin.
They were here. They weren't in that gaping maw anymore. They were safe.
He rested his head on Barenin's shoulder, waiting for the ringing in his ears to stop. For the pounding of his blood to slow.
Sickbay. Oh gods, he was in sickbay.
Anais jerked back and looked down at his hands. They were brown. Human brown, not the pale of Aezthena hands. A quick, scattered inventory of his mind found only the memory implant. He sagged back against Barenin. Their body was cool beneath their soft gray shirt. He glanced up into gold eyes shifting with fractal flecks, then quickly away again.
How much did they know? What had the ship told them?
Barenin brushed back a lock of his hair, lightly kissing his cheek. The touch brought different emotions with it. Guilt, and a deep sense of something he couldn't identify. And he knew, from thoughts shared between them that he couldn't place, that Barenin knew about his decision at the last. That he really would have gone through with it, too. If he'd had to.
And that he was so glad he hadn't had to. So glad it hurt that his hands were still his own. Maybe the first time in his life he'd been genuinely happy to see his own, non-altered self.
They would have to talk about this later. And they would have to talk about what Barenin had done to him later, their betrayal, no matter how noble the cause. But not now. Not now.
"The planet," he whispered. "Denz Dayar. Is it still there?"
"The Dayarans are safe," Barenin said, wrapping an arm around his back to pull him closer. Their voice was inflection-less. But their emotions were not. Relief flooded Anais for a second time, and more than a share of it wasn't his own. "Thank you."
That thanks was coming dangerously close to things Anais didn't want to talk about right now.
Anais shifted, noticing for the first time that this room, unlike the bridge, wasn't silent. There was the faintest background hum. Was it medical machinery? Or was it the engines?
"Where are we? Are we still at Denz Dayar?"
"We're traveling through Kaireyeh," Barenin said. And at his sharp intake of breath, "Don't worry. Aezthena Kaireyeh travel isn't like human Kaireyeh travel. We have perfected it. We are safe."
Anais hissed. "Yeah. I know that. I know that. I just—haven't been in it before. All right. We made it out. And..." Barenin had said the Dayarans were safe. But the memories of watching that world disappear in blackness were too raw, too vivid in his mind.
"Here." Barenin held out a hand and a holo appeared above it, showing a world shrouded by folds of rippling black space. Shrouded, but still there. "This was from right before we left. It will take a few hours for the Kaireyeh space around the world to settle. After that, to anyone observing, it will only look like fractured spacetime. Any Aezthena who sees it in the meantime will stay clear, and should suspect that the planet is an after-image or a time mirage, an effect of a Kaireyeh explosion. That does happen sometimes."
Anais nodded. And nodded again. "All right. All right, we did good, then."
"Yes, we did good."
There was little satisfaction in either their voice or their emotions. Anais thought, after all he'd learned in the last few days, and after his chat with Sela—gods, and he was not ready to analyze that right now—he understood why. This was one battle won in a war Barenin had been fighting for millennia. And that war was still close to coming to a head. Delayed, maybe. But a sense of dread hung over Barenin like dark matter.
Sela now had the means to build Yfeni generators. And Anais knew Barenin well enough now to know they trusted Sela to be Sela, and no more than that. Sela would be on their side for a time...until she wasn't.
Anais shivered. Sickbay was cold, and he only wore his loose, borrowed Dayaran under-robes. Either Barenin or the hologram had removed the outer layers. To better scan him? Anais saw a few odd-shaped bits of equipment around the room, nothing he could identify, but nothing that would have clued him in to this being a medical facility without the smell and the bed.
"Am I—" he touched his head. He didn't want to ask about the brain damage, which twisted at his gut.
"Your brain function has returned to normal," Barenin said.
Anais also didn't want to ask how that had been accomplished. So he didn't.
He reached and brushed his fingertips over Barenin's cheek, pushing back a single, silver curl that had escaped the knot at the back of their neck.
"I'll be fully Aezthena for some days," they said. "Maybe a few weeks. Being around the Yfeni generators that long made me lose my ability—temporarily—to focus human. Things like that have happened before with high concentrations of Kaireyeh. I am not concerned, except as it applies to you."
Anais shrugged. "As long as there's air and heat in the ship, I'm fine."
He bit his lip.
Barenin didn't respond, their emotions starting to dam.
"Barenin. Let's not talk about it. Not now. I just—we're alive, okay? We're alive. The Dayarans are alive. I don't care if you're human or Aezthena, just be who you need to be—but can we just...just..."
He licked his lips then turned Barenin's head and kissed them. When he'd kissed them before, they'd been partially Aezthena. But this was something new. This was warm lips on ice, that hesitated the barest moment before responding with a hunger that surged through their touch, threatening to overwhelm him.
Anais pulled back. Felt Barenin's instant regret, their starting to cycle into self-recrimination.
"No," he said. "Don't do that. We'll learn, all right? We will learn."
He was fairly certain Aezthena couldn't cry. But the way they looked at him, the lingering rawness of emotion, made him think that if they could have, their eyes would be glistening just now.
He was going to stay with Barenin. He'd just then made up his mind—except, he'd known he would stay with them since the first few days. And maybe, truly, since they'd danced around him as Por.
They had a lot to work through. A lot. But yes, Barenin was worth it. Worth everything he'd ever had or worked for. Even the identity implant that he'd thought was the one thing worth having in his life. The only thing that might make the pain inside a little more bearable.
He didn't ask about it now, whether it was still in tact, or if it had been destroyed. Or if Barenin could make him a new one.
Later. Another conversation for later.
He leaned back into them and Barenin wrapped their arms around him.
Anais spent the next day exploring the ship. It was more than just a bridge and a sickbay, fortunately, and was able to shift itself into different configurations at will to look like a Messegian freighter, or a frigate from the Tanek Consortium, or any number of other layouts Barenin had programmed into it. There were thousands. It made Anais, ever the confidence man, giddy.
Barenin had sensed the sparse, white design of the Aezthena ship—not to mention doors that didn't open except through mental interaction—made Anais nervous, so they'd let him choose the layout he wanted. Anais reconfigured the ship into a Tre Qir luxury yacht, emphasis on the luxury. Plush lounges, a well-stocked galley, and a bridge whose chairs actually didn't suck if you sat in them for more than an hour. He'd spent the two hours the reconfiguration had taken wandering the shifting corridors, watching cool white designs meld into angular cabins filled with fineries.
And a captain's cabin with a bed that rivaled the king's on Denz Dayar.
Barenin sat on the bed, Aezthena-pale skin poking out of their green silk robe.
Anais stood beside the bed, his shirt half-unfastened, hand frozen over his racing heart.
They'd kissed in the spacious lounge. The kisses had intensified to exploration. To a burning need.
"Not here," Barenin had said softly, and pulled him to their cabin. Where they now were, with Anais frozen, heat quivering in his body.
He met Barenin's gold eyes. They were still fully Aezthena. They were strong enough they could hurt him if they weren't careful, though he knew they wouldn't. As an Aezthena, they had infinite control over every muscle in their body.
He warmed further at the thought until his arousal was painful.
They'd kissed more than once throughout the day, but this was the first time they'd taken it further.
Anais wasn't a virgin. Not by any stretch of the definition. But he still stood frozen, caught in a panic that was escalating.
He was ready. He wanted this, and wanted Barenin. He knew that with everything he was.
He was also terrified. Maybe a little because they were Aezthena—fully Aezthena in that moment—and that was new. He didn't know what it would be like to be with an Aezthena. Barenin was impossibly graceful. And impossibly old. His wondering a few days before about what kind of experience they had now turned into worry about his comparative lack thereof.
Which was stupid, he told himself.
Barenin waited. Because they were Aezthena. Because time meant something different to them than to him. And because they could feel the emotions roiling off him.
They'd feel his emotions when he was with them. And that, more than anything else, was the problem.
Anais was still in his own skin. His baseline genetic self. He no longer had the indigo face-obscuring paint, though he'd found a case of cosmetics in one of the reconfigured washrooms and edged the contours of his face a little further from their actual planes. He'd had to do that much.
He hadn't asked about the implant yet, if it had survived the mission on Denz Dayar, or if not, if Barenin could build him a new one. That still brought things too close to the surface he didn't want to deal with.
The silence was lengthening, and Anais forced a laugh. "I...sorry. It's been a while. I'm—"
He stopped. Whatever he'd try to cover his fear with, Barenin would know it was a lie.
He had to tell Barenin what he was truly terrified of. What he knew they would see if he slept with them, because with that much contact, that much intensity, he knew their emotions and thoughts would bleed over. Barenin would see how he saw himself in those moments, with every partner he'd ever had. How he had to imagine himself to get through the act of making love. To find any pleasure at all. To not hate himself during it.
He looked at the floor, curling his fingers into his hands. "I'm...listen. This is going to sound—" Would it sound strange, to them? To Barenin, who was sitting here with a grace that leaned toward femme but not exactly, fine silver hair peaking from the folds of the robe on their flat chest?
And how much of what he needed to say did they already know?
He swallowed. "I haven't told anyone." He didn't want to say it. He'd never voiced these words out loud. He'd barely told himself. "I—when I'm with someone, I—I don't feel like I should be a man. Okay? I mean, I don't—"
His face heated and he turned again, pressing his palms to his eyes.
Every time he'd ever slept with someone, he'd been someone else. He'd been in character. And he'd learned, gradually and through a lot of turmoil, that the only way he could be with someone was to imagine himself with a different body. With different sensations, a different way of being. A different—not male—way of being. This thing he'd buried so deeply, this thing that had pushed him to risk it all to buy the identity implant. To hide further and deeper. To run from and never have to analyze any further than when it showed up during sex, and he could deal with the hours of guilt and self-loathing that came afterwards. As long as no one knew. As long as he could bury it again and go back to being safely male.
And here he was in his own baseline genetic skin. No persona, no masks beyond the barest cosmetics. And no way to hide his thoughts from someone he cared about, from the only person he'd ever truly cared what they thought about him.
Anais turned away. He was shaking harder now, uncontrollably. The heat in his body cooling with the panic.
He heard the bed shift behind him, and cool fingers brushed his own, catching them. The tiny pressure of something pressed into his palm.
Looking down, he saw the black bead of the identity implant. Bile rose in his throat. If Barenin had it the last few days, why had they waited until now to give it to him? But then, why had he not got up the courage to ask if they still had it?
He reached to the back of his neck and with trembling hands pressed the bead against the skin, giving it the initiation tap. He felt like a junky getting a much-needed fix. The only fix. He shuddered as the implant pinched while entering the skin, his nerves lighting with fire as it reintegrated with his body. Then the sensation faded.
Anais stood there, panting, not turning it on. Because turning it on felt like a betrayal, somehow. Barenin had kissed him and brought him here as his baseline self. They were expecting him as he was.
Gods. Gods, was there any way he could make any of this right?
"Anais," Barenin said, "you were first attracted to me as Por. Right now, I'm not Por. Are you any less attracted to me?"
He bit his lip hard, shook his head.
Barenin reached for his hand again and he stiffened at the touch. But he let them pull him back to sit beside them on the bed.
"I understand," they said quietly. Still no inflection in their voice. Because they were still Aezthena.
A different kind of heat flared in him. "How can you possibly understand? You're not even human, Barenin." He flinched at the words as they left his mouth. But he didn't apologize. He tensed in on himself, looking away. His desire was almost cooled enough to be gone. To delay whatever they'd been about to do for another day. Or, maybe never. Maybe he should leave after all.
Maybe he wasn't ready to be understood.
But his hand was still in Barenin's and he felt their Aezthena emotions. He'd gotten better in the last days at interpreting them to human analogues. Right now there was a steady sense of solidarity.
"I understand you're not ready to talk about it," they went on. "And that's all right. It took me almost forty years to accept who I was. And even then, it took longer to not be self-conscious about it. And it's still hard. I still don't always understand it, or appreciate when my sense of gender shifts, or the dysphoria that comes with it. Gods, the dysphoria." He felt more than saw the grimace, but the feeling of it was intense.
"To me, you are Anais," Barenin said. "You are whoever you say you are. I need only the you in this moment. The next moment after that, you will be different, because we're always different moment to moment. And if you need to turn the implant on, please do so. Appearances mean little to me."
He shuddered, his shoulder brushing theirs.
Yes, he'd been raised without gender, and he'd had no context to either accept or not accept that. He'd used neutral pronouns—everyone on his station had. And then he'd accepted, when he was twelve and in the worst situation of his life, the label of "boy." And it had been a grounding, it had been armor, and it had never stopped being armor, despite it fitting at all the wrong angles. But no, he wasn't ready to take off that armor. And he wasn't ready to say more than he already had. And he wasn't ready to be with anyone as his baseline self, even if they'd see his thoughts, however unintentionally, when they were together. He needed that physical armor, too.
Anais tapped the implant, one of the sequences he'd programmed early on and had decided would be a good getaway alias. He waited through the shift. The body was lean, more muscular than his own, with a runner's physique. Dark hair fell in a disheveled wave across his face. He knew the face Barenin would see: handsome, dimpled, free of the lines and cares that had worn into his own features. A man that anyone even remotely attracted to men would be attracted to.
Barenin's lips drew up in that almost-smile. "Better?"
He coughed, and knew a blush was coloring cheeks paler than his own. He should have made the skin on this persona darker, dammit.
But Barenin hadn't been mocking him. And their eyes hadn't left his. They weren't checking him over. And maybe they could see through the implant, or maybe not.
They leaned toward him and stroked his cheek. The back of his neck. Pulled him closer and gave a slow, gentle kiss before pulling back and searching his eyes again.
He shuddered, a different kind of shudder. He had his armor. And if they picked up on his mental imagery...well, it wouldn't be a surprise.
He felt no judgement from Barenin. No aversion. And no wish to pry further.
Anais closed his eyes, feeling tears start to stream. Was this what it felt like to be understood? Truly understood?
Was this, just maybe, what it felt like to be loved?
"Can we just...can we lay side by side? Just that? Just—"
Barenin drew him further onto the bed, further into the plush of covers, and held him until he shivered from their lack of warmth. But he didn't move away.
37: Beautiful and Dangerous
He woke with Barenin's arm still draped over him, and he didn't give himself time to think. He rolled over and pressed his lips to theirs, feeling their answering pressure. Then he kissed their neck and they shifted, unfastening their robe. They hadn't been asleep. Aezthena rarely slept.
Their skin was cold enough that he shivered again, but his body was ablaze. Barenin's movements held no passion but unspeakable grace and care. And...gods.
After, Anais lay beside Barenin, his body humming in a way he wasn't sure it ever had. Sweat clung his hair to his forehead. Thoughts drifted like lazy clouds, like motes in a crowded station thoroughfare. Warm and light and so very real.
Barenin did not sweat. They watched him with their golden eyes, the flecks shifting in slow, swirling patterns. They didn't smile. But their arm rested on his. Skin on skin. Remembered contact. Present touch.
That was beautiful, they said, their thought carrying over to him on a wave of something he translated as deep contentment. A balancing of unsteady variables.
You are beautiful, he wanted to say, but didn't. His heart was hammering again. Because it was hitting him now that he'd just slept with Barenin Lyr, and he was on their ship, and they'd scarred spacetime and hidden a planet, and there may or may not be Aezthena coming after them. And he had just made love to Barenin Lyr. And while he didn't think they were fully in love with him yet, and while he didn't think he was fully in love with them yet, either, they'd both come closer to that traitorous vulnerability.
Sela's words came back to him, sharp as knives. "It's what they do, child. Barenin sacrifices what they love for what they think is the good of all. They think they're only sacrificing their own needs. They think they're doing this for your own good. They care for you, and they know this will poison that. They sent you here anyway. Barenin thinks losing their happiness is a small price to pay, that you will be better off without them."
They hadn't yet talked about what had happened at Denz Dayar. What had happened with Anais on the ship, and Sela.
Barenin withdrew their arm, breaking their most immediate connection. Had they heard Sela's words in his thoughts, or felt the sentiment behind them? They'd felt Anais' own conflict, certainly.
He stifled a groan and reached for their hand. "Barenin—"
They sat up, then disappeared, reappearing at the end of the bed already dressed, their silver hair loose but now combed.
The distance between them, that impassable gulf, was back.
A hot lump rose in Anais' throat. No, no, no. Barenin couldn't shut him out now. Not now. Not after this moment of culmination. Of such vulnerable synchronicity.
After his choice. After knowing he would stay. That he had to. That Barenin, maybe, was good for him in a way that no one else could be.
He'd known, through every moment they'd made love, that Barenin was seeing the images in his mind. How he really saw himself. How he wished he could be, but knew would tear down too much of the persona he'd built up for himself to change. Barenin knew everything about him. And they'd kissed him just as fiercely.
Barenin glanced at him, then left the sleeping cabin, orange perfume lingering.
"Barenin!" He shoved off the covers and reached for his discarded clothes, pulling them on in quick, vicious tugs. He shivered in the cold as he dressed. Barenin kept the ship cooler than he liked. In all their concessions to him—changing the ship, taking pains to speak out loud rather than non-verbally, here in their own environment—they hadn't made that one for his comfort. Maybe that was for them. Or maybe it was another signal, another damned message they were trying to send that he shouldn't be here. That they were too different to be together.
But then why had they slept with him? Why had they wanted to—and Barenin had definitely wanted that as much as he had.
"Barenin, don't shut me out. Please!" He aimed the thought at them as hard as he yelled it, and he knew they'd hear it.
It's what they do, child. Barenin sacrifices what they love for what they think is the good of all. Anais tried to shove away the memory of Sela's words. Barenin thinks losing their happiness is a small price to pay, that you will be better off without them.
"Barenin!" he heard the note of desperation in his voice as he skidded into the corridor. Had they gone to the bridge?
An image flashed in his thoughts of the observation lounge. An invitation, but it had no emotion behind it.
Damn it, Barenin. Why were they shutting him out now? Had they been as comfortable as they'd seemed with what he'd revealed about himself? About...what he kept buried? Had it been his self imagery during—were they disgusted with him after all?
His cheeks burned and his eyes burned and he just barely kept himself from running to the observation deck.
Had this been a dalliance? Had they just used him and would now discard him? Had he bared his deepest secrets and now Barenin would leave him to pick up the pieces?
He deserved it, after all. It's what he'd done to so many others, so many times. He deserved to be discarded.
He broke into a run just before the observation lounge and barreled through the hatch as it slid silently aside. Then he skidded to a stop, panting, bare feet cold on the corrugated metal deck. There was no carpet in the observation lounge. No furniture except for a long, low couch that curved around the room, facing the huge window at the fore of the ship.
Except, the windows weren't showing what he'd thought was outside the ship. That should be the white-blue streaks of Kaireyeh, dizzying to any human observer. Instead, the windows showed a planetary system with a nearby red gas giant, the background full of unrealistically-colored wisps and clouds of a nebula.
Anais stared at it, baffled and derailed. A holographic projection. It had to be.
Barenin stood with their hands clasped behind them, back stiff, staring out at the projected scenery. Anais wondered if it held some significance to them, or if it was random scenery—random, he decided.
Catching his breath, he hesitantly approached to stand beside them. Fresh from the depth they'd shared, he could sense the distraction in their thoughts. The need for fewer variables. Whatever this scene was, it was calming to them.
"Barenin," he said, "we have to talk about it." All of it. From that day, from the day before. Everything they'd both been setting aside.
Barenin didn't move. "I reviewed what the ship saw and felt. I know what Sela said about me, and what she did to you, and how you both reacted."
Anais waited, expecting an apology for their manipulation of events, or a denial that what Sela had said was true. Neither came. Instead, Barenin turned to him.
"I'll leave you at Emirac Station when we come out of Kaireyeh, with enough credits to keep you going for quite a while. And, you have the identity implant."
Anais swallowed, glancing down at hands that were paler than his own. He'd forgotten he'd changed into his getaway persona. He felt suddenly very self-conscious in this form. This role that wasn't really a role. This role that was a barrier. A pretty shield.
He reached up to the back of his neck.
"You don't have to turn it off," Barenin said softly. Their voice held more inflection than an Aezthena's should. They were trying to simulate their humanity.
He dropped his hand. "You don't have to be more human with me. Barenin--" He stepped closer, and though they didn't visibly stiffen, he could sense that ghost of their emotions, a tightening of their walls.
"I'll keep my promise to watch over you," they said. "I'll keep you safe from a distance. I let you down, Anais. Sela is right. I will always let you—"
"To hell with that." Anais gripped their arm. "I know what you are. You keep saying we're the same but trying to show me how different you are from me, how different you are as Aezthena, but I know what you are." He gripped their arm harder and hissed out, "You're me. Maybe you're smarter, and faster, and stronger, and can breathe without oxygen, I don't know, but deep down where it counts? You're hurt, and you don't want to be hurt anymore."
Barenin turned to him, so expressionless, walls so closed that the lack of anything was like a slap. "You asked the ship to turn you Aezthena. No, Anais. You can never, ever be like me. I won't let you."
"That's not your choice," Anais said.
Now their eyes gathered a storm.
But he blazed on. "You're not the only one who covers years of pain with trying to do something right. Just something. To balance it all out. And you're not the only one with an ego the size of a galaxy who's also fragile as glass. And you're not the only one who's been broken, again and again and again. So stop trying to break me, Barenin. I won't, as best I can, break you. You are—"
His throat closed and he coughed.
Still no expression from Barenin. "Are you finished?" They casually pulled their arm from his grip. As if the gesture meant nothing.
His heart was tearing. He could feel the ripping of its pieces. And he pulled them back into place with everything he had, because he knew this tactic, too. The devastation that would make him feel a little better, because he'd justify it as well-placed anger. He always justified it somehow.
"No," he said hoarsely. "No, I'm not. Because yes, we have stuff to work through. A lot of it. But you're worth it, Barenin. And...I think I'm worth it, too."
He was shaking, out of breath. His body sheened in a fresh coat of cold sweat.
Barenin stared at him for what felt like a lifetime. Then they looked down. Licked their lips. Swore a sharp, vulgar oath. "I need to focus human right now, and I can't."
"I don't care, Barenin," Anais said, exasperated. "I don't care if you're human or Aezthena."
"I don't understand," Barenin said, flat voice rising. "I understand your logic, but not your reasons. I understand on a thought-level, but the math does not add up, Anais. I have so much more pain than you ever could have. It doesn't add up."
Anais flared anger at the surface insinuation and forced himself to look beneath it. Barenin wasn't saying his pain wasn't relevant. They were saying they would drag him down. That no, they didn't think their worth could ever reach back up to his. They were saying there was no comparison to their own experiences. And in some ways, that was true.
"Pain is an infinite variable," Anais said. "There is no quantifying pain. All pain is equally painful, and equally important."
Barenin tilted their head. Recalculating?
After a moment, they said, "Truly? You are still truly willing to stay? With me? On my ship?"
Had they really thought he'd just sleep with them and leave? Had they been paying no attention at all to what he felt?
Yes, they had. Maybe they hadn't wanted to believe it. Maybe they'd still thought they were saving him by pushing him away.
Anais gripped their hands. They didn't need the contact to read his emotions, but this was him giving them permission. "Yes, Barenin. I want to stay. With you. On your ship. It is, incidentally, a very nice ship."
No, no, not the humor. Barenin wouldn't understand the humor.
They began to pull away.
He pulled their hands back. "Please. Do you want me to stay?" And his stomach quivered at the answer, suddenly afraid it might not be what he'd thought. What he'd hoped.
They studied him, eyes coldly calculating. Still daring him to be repelled by who they were. What they were.
"I have not lived with a human in my Aezthena focus for centuries," they said. "And the last time did not end well."
A bitter pain. Sharp self-hatred.
Anais squeezed their hands harder. In their Aezthena focus, it would hardly be a pressure. But they'd feel his intent.
"I have never—" he choked on the words, then forced them out "—ever kissed anyone without a role, without more than base cosmetics, with nothing but my baseline self. Except you."
He trembled, now clenching their hands as an anchor. "And I've never told anyone else why. No, Barenin, you are not the only one who has big fucking issues with yourself. Or your body. Or manipulating those around you. Or being too gods-damned clever for your own good, and then finding yourself too entrenched in whatever mess you've made not to wing it through." He swallowed. "And you aren't the only one to push anyone who gets too close to you away." His voice came out breathy on the last, a gasp. "No, I don't love you yet. But I think I will. I think it's growing more even now."
Barenin finally took a breath. And no, there was still no emotion in their bone-white face, but there wouldn't be. Shouldn't be, in this Aezthena focus. But their walls eased, and some of what they were feeling came back through. The most tentative, fragile awareness of self. And of him. And of what they might be together.
What are we, Anais? they asked. What are we, really?
"Adrift," he whispered. "But maybe it's okay to be adrift together."
They bowed her head, lips stretching a tight line.
"Just...talk to me, Barenin. Trust me. And..." He looked down at himself again. Still not in his own body. "...and I'll try to do the same."
"When you're ready," they said.
"When I'm ready," he agreed, a tension inside him easing. They would let him stay. He could feel the uncoiling in them as well. They would let him be who he was. And maybe he wasn't his baseline self. Maybe he was this combination of all the roles he played. Unspooled, multi-faceted.
Maybe Barenin was, too.
He'd have time to unpack that later. By himself, or with Barenin. Or likely a bleed of both. Because he was increasingly sure that the closer they became, the fewer walls would remain between them. And...he was okay with that.
A peace he didn't expect settled over him, and it wasn't from Barenin. Or at least, not from their soothing.
They saw him. They saw all of him. And maybe in that moment they didn't fully understand him, but they didn't look away.
And he wasn't looking away from them, either. Flaws and beauty and titanium all combined into the most singular person in the universe. A person who knew him better after these last few days than anyone had in his life. A person he wanted to know fully.
They shifted closer by unspoken accord.
Barenin leaned their forehead against his. In the body he wore, he was a few centimeters taller than them. He grimaced and reached behind him, tapping the implant off. Yes, he needed to shift through roles. Through ideas. Through personalities. But not now.
As his baseline self, they were almost the same height. Their forehead pressed against his, and he leaned back. A mutual agreement. A mutual beginning of trust.
May I touch your thoughts? they asked. Deeper than the upper levels?
As an Aezthena would, they were asking. He felt their yearning, their shuddering need for an intimacy deeper than most humans could bear.
He nodded against them, and let whatever fragile human walls he'd managed to build crumble.
Their mental touch was like a cool breeze, taking extreme care. Memories, thoughts, and emotions surfaced as they brushed them, always hesitating for his permission before they looked deeper. Never taking their eyes off him, waiting for the signal that this intrusion was too much.
He waved Barenin away from some memories, but for most, let them see the places in his life. The high points. The pains. The loneliness. The ecstasy of a job well done.
Then they began to share moments from their own life. From when they were human-focused, mostly. Memories of family. Young children playing in sunlight, hands combing leaves off a hedge row as they ran. Of walking through a garden so exquisitely beautiful it pulled them from a years' long depression into feeling like they might go on. Of injecting themself with poison, only for their nanites to edge them Aezthena and filter it out. And the despair that had followed.
They showed him, because they had seen the impact their last treaty speech had on him, what they'd felt during that speech. Their racing fear that it wouldn't be enough. That they couldn't stop the end of everything. That they would always, inevitably, fail to keep the Aezthena from fracturing the universe. And showed him when they were twelve and first kissed a boy.
Barenin untwined their minds slowly, a gradual waking to the present. They were clutching each other, and their breaths, for a few moments, were completely in sync.
The shifting lights of the projected nebulae around them played in Barenin's eyes. Their lips quirked in that almost-smile. And it somehow felt more real than it should be. There was feeling behind that smile, however inhuman. No mask, just soul.
"Thank you," they whispered, just as Anais had opened his mouth to say the same.
He breathed out a laugh. Then leaned into them as they wrapped an arm around him. They faced the holo of the planet and the nebula and the stars beyond. It wasn't real. But he and Barenin—they were real. So very real, and very alive.
It would be all right. Anais didn't know how any of this would work out. But then, he'd never needed a solid plan before and saw no reason to change that now.
He smiled. So they'd take things one day at a time. One totally new, beautiful, dangerous day at a time.
Thank you, so much, for reading this book! <3 This is the end of this book, but not the end of the story! I'm working on sequels, and there will be more adventures, romance, and self-discovery for Anais and Barenin to come. Read on for updates on that, notes on how this story came to be, and bonus art!