Good King Lyr: Exploration
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.
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