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This story is rated 'spicy' and may contain racy or violent material. Click to read this content!
Ressa crept through the hall she was used to striding down, and hated herself.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
She didn't meet people's eyes, if she could help it - not even Bai's. Especially not Bai's. The shame and helplessness only seemed worse against the flicker of concern she could read on his face, so she perfected a distant smile and avoided him like everyone else.
'You have to tell him,' she chided herself, flinching at the sound of a male voice that wasn't Urti, but the thought of it made her chest hurt. She kept imagining how Bai would take it, knowing that his friend was tangled up in the blackmail and murder -
"Head of Files?"
Ressa startled so hard that she dropped the folders she was carrying, and spun to face License Manager Lalya with her heart hammering in her chest.
"Ressa!" Lalya said with a low laugh. "I didn't mean to startle you." She bent gracefully to pick up the folders with a rustle of skirts. Seeing Lalya's masculine figure in women's clothing had become normal over the last few months. Ironically, Ressa had stopped wearing skirts, the last tenday, at the same time most women were switching to them from pants as the weather warmed. For all the good it did her...
"I was just... cloud-headed," Ressa said, kneeling to help pick up the scattered paper. "I... should be paying more attention."
"Monitor Urti's looking for you," Lalya said gently, and Ressa's hand froze on the paper she was tucking back into the correct folder.
Of course he was. She had avoided the monitor successfully the past two days, but Lalya wasn't the first to let her know that Urti had some 'business' that he needed to discuss with her privately... hidden away in the Sensitive Files room, where the door could be locked and Ressa would run out of excuses. Her skin crawled.
"Are you feeling all right?" Lalya asked anxiously, and Ressa ducked her head.
"I... no, not really." It was too much, suddenly, and Ressa said in a panic, "Tell Urti I've gone home early, I'm not feeling well." She took the rest of the folders in a jumble from Lalya and stood, not caring for the forms she was crushing. "I'm... sorry, just a headache. Or something I ate, maybe. I'll fill out a medical leave form when I get back in."
She fled Lalya, and the Licensing Office, taking a circuitous exit from the building to avoid running into anyone she might have to talk to. She took the long way back to her housing, too, walking rather than catching the cablecar, tired and heartsick but restless in the legs.
She took the stairs to her rooms two at a time; they were in modest housing, but pleasant, and she had a choice corner apartment with a view of the city on an upper floor. A shower would wash away the dirty, sticky feeling - at least for a little while. A shower, and a book to escape to... the lock failed to open beneath her key, and Ressa realized in alarm that her key had met no resistance - her rooms were already unlocked. The anxiety that lurked just below her skin flared up again as she opened the latch cautiously. Had she simply forgotten to lock behind her that morning?
"You've been avoiding me," Urti said chidingly, sprawled out in one of her reading chairs. The sick tilt to her world that Ressa had come to expect at the sound of his voice made her stomach churn... but something else happened beneath it.
She turned to her coat rack with every nerve jangling, trying to give every impression of coolness and composure as she unwound her scarf and unbuttoned her coat. She wanted to keep the coat on, but recognized it for a flimsy, false protection, even as she recognized the second feeling in her gut: anger.
This was her home, how dare he come here, make his demands on her here. How dare he.
"Do you think no one will notice if we sneak off to the files room every day?" she scoffed, though a quaver in her voice betrayed her. "Don't be a fool." That was stronger, better. "I presume you wanted to be circumspect."
For just a moment, Urti's face betrayed him with a flash of fear, and Ressa seized that moment with a sudden jolt of inspiration. "You don't want anyone to know, do you. No, there's someone you don't want to know."
Adrenaline made Ressa feel like she was thinking faster than usual, and suddenly she remembered little bits of things that Urti had said - mentions of powerful friends, of better friends than Bai. "You know what I think, Urti," she said boldly, while her courage lasted. "I think you aren't smart enough to be behind all of this. I think this is bigger than you are, that you're some dog playing at your master's heels, taking advantage of the fact that he's not nearby to have some fun on the side."
Urti's face twisted into a furious scowl as he rose from the chair, but not before Ressa saw the fear that lurked behind it, and knew that her shot had hit.
"Get out of my housing, Urti," she said, and though there was another waver to her voice that she couldn't keep from it, she stood tall, with her chin lifted. "Don't come back unless you're on a leash."
He lifted his hand to strike her, but nervous energy was still coursing through her, and Ressa blocked his blow with her arm. They tested strength a moment, and Ressa knew that he was stronger than she was, and better trained, and if it came to it, he could force her, and she was ready to fold in defeat when Urti gave a snarl of rage and pushed her away, grabbing for his coat and hissing defiantly, "This isn't over," before slamming the door behind him.
She crumbled in the silence he left, falling on the door to lock the bolt behind him, then sliding to her knees as all the energy that had kept her upright drained away and left her shaking. She folded herself into as small a ball as she could manage, and wept.
It wasn't long before she drew herself together again, feeling oddly empty and distant. Her headache wasn't just an excuse anymore - it pounded behind her sore eyes, and she knew, achingly, that she needed to tell Bai about Urti; she couldn't put it off any longer. Before what was left of her nerve could fail, she pulled on her coat again and stepped outside, carefully locking the door behind her with a wry twist of a smile. The apartment didn't feel safe anymore. Nothing felt safe.
Urti slammed the door behind him as hard as he could before raging down the stairs and out into the chilly afternoon air. The bitch! Damn her for a meddling, moralistic, pain in his ass. He could have taken her, could have swiped that smug little smirk off her perfect face - she didn't have more than the most rudimentary of hand-to-hand training, and she was strong, but not as strong as he was. But there was something in her eyes that said it wouldn't be an easy thing, and there was a risk that neighbors would hear, that someone he didn't want to notice... would.
She wasn't worth the risk he'd taken, not all the silky skin in the city was, even if it did give him some extra measure of pleasure knowing that every stroke was another little thorn in the side of the pompous License Master who thought he was a friend. Her guess hit too close to the truth - and if Urti's indiscretion brought attention to Jarl...
Urti paused at the street corner to compose himself and pull the lines of his monitor's coat into place, considering how best to salvage the unravelling situation. If he couldn't use Bai to keep Ressa in line... maybe he could turn it around. He strolled at a leisurely pace back for the Licensing Office, a thoughtful frown on his face.
He didn't notice the figure behind him that detached from a shadow at the corner of the housing and scampered in the opposite direction.
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