They headed out together early the next morning, picking an unrushed path down poorly tended streets. Simon paid no attention to any of the people they passed and little more to Danya until they reached the edge of the city. Out here there were no towering, occupied buildings, just long abandoned and crumbling houses.

Simon let a long breath out, stretched, and looked at Danya for the first time since they'd left the hotel. "There was… a girl."

"Oh." Danya said. Those were not words he wanted to hear from the man he was attracted to.

"In the last city we cleared out there were a few survivors, and one of them was a little girl. A mage."

"Oh. Okay." Not that kind of girl, then. Probably? Hopefully.

"It was my job to return her to the facility she'd been taken from. So… I did. I had to, really. Legally she was theirs."

"Of course."

"But they didn't want her back. She wasn't a fancy Companion like you. Just a labourer. After what she'd been through…" He shrugged. "They said she would be more trouble than she was worth. Signed her over to me and gave me some money to cover the euthanasia."

Danya stepped carefully around a pile of loose, broken bricks. He was afraid any disruption might make Simon stop sharing.

"I didn't know what to do. I couldn't keep her. I mean, absolutely couldn't, unless I wanted to quit the military and become the world's worst father to this girl. We're not allowed to keep female slaves in military camps."

"You didn't have a choice," Danya reassured him, but the words felt hollow and his mouth was dry.

Simon turned to look at him, his features pinching up. "I didn't do it. I didn't have her killed. That was— I wouldn't. But I didn't know what to do."

Danya felt something in him relax. "Oh. Sorry. What did you do?"

Simon gave him a soft smile. "Same thing I always do when I don't know what to do. Went to Hamish. And, of course, he did know what to do. He had an aunt who couldn't have children of her own and needed help running her bakery, so that whole thing got a happy ending. But… it made me realise something."

Danya stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk, and Simon caught him without even breaking his stride.

"It made me realise that I didn't want to go through that shit again. I wanted to fight alongside people I could trust under all circumstances. If I save someone, even if they're a slave, I want to be surrounded by people who I can trust not to hurt them. I want to be able to do everything I can to help them without having to hide it from people I should be able to trust with my life, unconditionally." He sighed. "Does that makes sense? Do you get why I'm so stuck on doing this whole thing with my unit and doing it properly?"

Danya didn't understand why it mattered if it made sense to him, but— "Yes. I understand."

Simon's shoulders relaxed and he nodded, satisfied. "And then there's Liam."

"You don't think he would help you in that situation?"

"Oh, he would. He definitely would. He has a softer heart than me, in that way. But…" Simon made a face. "He likes having a slave."

Something sunk in Danya's stomach at hearing Simon say those words in that tone.

"Don't get me wrong, he treats his slave better than most men treat their wives. He's not cruel. But he loves it. He likes having someone whose whole world revolves around him."

Danya kept his mouth shut and his eyes cast downwards. What could he say? He wished Simon felt the same way about owning him.

"He's no revolutionary," Simon continued. "He's an oddity for the military, but when you get down to it he's just a rich guy with a pet he loves. Where it really matters I trust him, but damn do I hate him sometimes."

"Cailan doesn't seem unhappy," Danya offered, hoping he wasn't crossing a line.

"Oh, no, I don't dispute that. If it was only them, I wouldn't be so bothered about how they choose to conduct themselves. But it isn't. They're acting as a model for you, demonstrating the least ambitious possible version of happiness."

"I don't know, it seems quite ambitious for us," Danya said, then immediately grimaced at his boldness. He had forgotten himself for a moment. "Sorry. That was inappropriate."

Simon laughed. "No, that was perfect. That was honest."

Danya couldn't help a little smile in return. "I'm glad you like it. My heart is still beating so hard."

The smile faded from Simon's face. "It really is that hard for you to just say what you really think?"

Danya shrugged. Of course it was.

Simon's expression sombered further. "I haven't helped. I know that. I get angry too easily and I can't expect you to just shrug that off like Hamish does. Not when I have so much power over you."

"You're not so bad. I've led a fairly gently life, but not so much that nobody has ever been cross with me before. In fact, I'd say I'm rather a bit better at making people cross with me than I ought to be."

"That's not the point. I—" Simon abruptly fell silent, his brow creasing as he stared intently at something behind Danya.

Danya turned and followed his gaze to three women who stood clustered together in front of one of the houses down the street. They were staring back at them.

"Nobody should be out here," Simon said as he started towards them. "I'd better go find out what's going on."

Maybe it was Simon's tone or some deep alarm in Danya's own instincts. Maybe it was the way the women were looking at them. Something… something felt off.

Everything happened at once.

One step closer and the very edge of their energy brushed Danya's mind, and he knew. He reached out for Simon's sleeve to tug him back, to urge caution, and then there was fire in one of the women's hands, fire flying towards them.

Danya stepped in front of Simon, raised his shield, and before he could process what was happening or what he was doing the force of the impact knocked the breath out of him as he slammed back against Simon's chest.

He stepped forward again, squared his shoulders, and summoned fire to his own hand. "Don't."

For a moment, everything stopped.

Two of the women were tall and broad shouldered, clearly Soldiers now that Danya realised they were mages at all. One of them had pushed the third, far more petite woman, back behind her.

One of the Soldiers stepped forward and raised her hands in pacification. Her short, honey coloured hair looked recently cut, and the fashionable style was an odd look on a Soldier. Combined with their casual clothing, it had been easy to mistake them for humans from a distance. "We don't want to hurt you. Let us take care of him and you can come with us."

Danya frowned. What was going on? "No. You don't touch him."

Simon's hand came down on Danya's shoulder as he stepped up beside him. "We don't want any trouble. Let's just go our separate ways and we'll all forget about whatever happened here."

The other Soldier, who had lighter hair pulled back in a ponytail and eyebrows with a talent for expressing her scorn, scoffed. "Yeah, I'm sure you won't tell anyone about this. Why the hell would we trust you?"

Danya's hands fisted at his sides. "Because you can't just kill him for no reason!"

She folded her arms over her chest. "I've got a whole list of reasons."

The smaller mage grabbed her arm and murmured something to her. The Soldier shook her head and grumbled something back as she gestured at them angrily. The other Soldier huddled in and joined the hushed conversation.

It was the short haired Soldier who ultimately stepped forward to address them. "Well, looks like we've got two options here for you. We can fight, which honestly I'm not too keen on because we've got Lynna here and I'd feel pretty bad if she got caught. Or… you two can surrender and come with us and our leader can decide what to do with you."

"Which might be kill us," Simon said.

"Well… maybe. But probably only you."

"Probably isn't good enough." Without breaking eye contact with the Soldier, Simon reached down, found Danya's wrist, and held on. "Whatever happens, I want his safety guaranteed."

"Well, thing is I can't guarantee anything when he's a fighty little bastard," she said. "No offense. I'm honestly impressed."

Danya dipped his head. His adrenaline fueled confidence was fading and all that was left in its place was cold dread. What he'd just done… there was no coming back from this.

Simon's hand was squeezing Danya's wrist too firmly now. "He won't give you any more trouble as long as you don't threaten him."

Danya turned to him, agast. "I won't let them hurt you!"

Simon pulled Danya closer and ducked his head to talk to him. "Do you actually stand any chance against them? I'm asking that genuinely, because at this point I honestly don't know."

Danya shook his head and cast his voice too low for the other mages to overhear. "I was mostly bluffing."

"Mm, mostly," Simon said. He may not have known where the exact line of Danya's abilities was meant to lay, but he definitely knew that had been well past it. That had been combat magic.

"If neither of you give us any trouble, then you'll probably both be safe," the short haired Soldier assured them. "I mean, that's not gonna be my decision to make, but I can't really see us executing someone."

Simon released Danya's wrist and raised his hands above his head in surrender. "That's good enough for me."

Reluctantly, Danya did the same.

The Soldiers came forward and patted the two of them down while the other mage hung back. Danya didn't have anything hidden on his person, but they took three knives from Simon.

Simon made a face as the long haired Soldier took the knife he kept tucked under his jacket. "Can I keep hold of one of those?"

"You're asking me, your captor, whether I'll let you have a knife?" She stared at him flatly. "No."

"Well, okay, yeah, that's fair. My name's Simon, by the way, and this is Danya."

"Uh huh."

The other mage had joined them now that they had been disarmed. "I'm Lynna. The grumpy one is Sharn," she pointed to the long haired Soldier, "and the one who's slightly less keen on killing you is Gaira."

"Nice to meet you," Simon said as he slowly buttoned his jacket back up. "Well, not nice, given the circumstances, but…"

"I think interesting is the word for it," Lynna offered. "Good, bad… I don't know yet. But interesting, definitely."

"I can't argue with that."

"Danya," Lynna said as she turned to Danya and offered him a gentle smile. "What are you? You don't look like a Soldier, but you used combat magic."

"Companion," Danya murmured at the ground. He couldn't bring himself to look up, to see how Simon was looking at him now.

"Companions can't do that sort of magic. What do your papers say?"

"They say he's a Companion," Simon said when no response was forthcoming from Danya. "You're not the only ones who are surprised by what he just did."

"Wait, really?" Sharn cut in. "He's registered as a Companion, but he's not one, right? You're not, right?"

Danya didn't answer. Everything felt unreal. They would figure it out in a second and then Simon would know what he really was. That he wasn't simply a terrible, substandard Companion — he wasn't really one at all.

"Are you mixed?" Lynna asked.

Danya nodded. Nodding was easier than speaking.

"Companion and Soldier?"

Danya nodded again. His throat ached.

Sharn laughed. "Wow. That's so illegal."

Lynna shushed her and smacked her arm. "Simon, you don't seem very surprised or concerned about this."

"Oh, I am fairly surprised," Simon said. "Though, it does explain some things. Like how he was able to kill a vampire on his own."

"What. No! What?" Gaira looked back and forth between Simon and Danya. "That doesn't explain that at all. I mean, Danya, are you actually trained as anything but a Companion?"

Danya shook his head and murmured, "I just got lucky."

"Did you get lucky and something else killed the vampire, or did you fight it and win?"

Danya tried to swallow down the lump in his throat, but it wouldn't budge. He hated how it made his voice sound when he spoke. "No, I— yes. I did fight her, but I probably wouldn't win if I had to do it again."

"Yeah, I getcha. Still, that's not the kind of thing you win as a pure fluke. How'd you do it?"

Danya shrugged. He took slow breath in and let it out. Speaking was becoming easier again, but he felt no less ungrounded from reality. "Blinded her with magelight and then stabbed her with Simon's knife. I can feel energy, so…"

"Yeah, okay, I'm back to thinking that luck claim is bullshit. You're a downright badass."

Danya rubbed a hand over his face. "I appreciate that you are impressed, but reinforcing how dangerous I am in front of my master is perhaps not very helpful."

"Oh, he's not your master anymore," Gaira said. "Whatever gets decided, that continuing to be a thing won't be a part of it."

Danya dropped his hand back to his side and finally looked up to meet her gaze properly. "You can't take that from me. That's not your decision to make."

Simon placed a hand on Danya's shoulder. "Danya, this is perhaps not a battle worth picking."

Danya shrunk back in on himself. So Simon agreed. He hadn't wanted Danya in the first place, and now he'd seen what he really was. Of course he would get rid of him if the opportunity presented itself to do so non-violently.

"Right, if everyone's done being dramatic, I think we should get moving," Sharn announced. "If there's one human skulking around out here, there're bound to be more."

The mages led the way through the crumbling streets of the suburbs. Their surroundings seemed to increasingly skirt the line between ruins and nature until suddenly they found themselves on a dirt path through the woods so narrow they had to walk single file.

Simon stopped. "I don't think we should go this way. This isn't safe."

Sharn prodded him in the back. "I'm still not sure you're getting this whole being a captive thing."

Simon didn't move. "We don't know what could be out here."

"From how reluctant you are to be here it's pretty clear the answer to that is not humans, which ranks it pretty high on my personal safety scale." She poked him in the back again. "Move."

This time, Simon started walking again. "And I suppose a knife is still out of the question?"

Gaira looked over her shoulder at him and shook her head. "Buddy, if we run into something me and Sharn can't take care of, what good do you think a knife's gonna do you?"

Simon shrugged. "That knife you took from under my jacket? My father gave that to me when I was twelve, and it hasn't been out of my reach since. It's saved my life more than once. Danya's as well — it's the one he used to kill the vampire. Blade's coated in silver."

Sharn pulled out Simon's knife and twirled it in her fingers. "So what you're saying is, if something happens to you I could sell this for a tidy profit? Interesting."

Simon shot her a glare. "If something happens to me, I expect you to give that to Danya. If he wears my crest on his skin and is not my property, then he must be family. And that makes him my next of kin."

"Yeah, if something happens to you, the first thing I'm gonna do is hand the kid a knife. For sure." Sharn tucked the knife back under her belt. "Anyway, let's wait and see what happens before worrying about all that."

"You're in the military, aren't you, Simon?" Lynna asked. She was walking at the head of the line, in front of Gaira.

"'Course he is," Sharn answered for him. "The knives, the scars, the inability to stop bossing everyone around even when he's literally a captive? Pretty obvious."

"Yes, and I really would like to get back to that," Simon said. "My unit needs me. We were working on clearing out the vampires in that town we were in. You and Gaira used to be in the military, right? You know how important that is."

"I get it, buddy," Gaira said. "You've got a job to do, people relying on you, and it sucks to be taken away from your work… and also like, maybe killed? It all sucks. But we've got our own shit going on, people we need to keep safe, and it's not really a thing where we can extend a whole lot of trust to people and expect to survive. I'm sure whatever you had going will carry on fine without you."

Simon didn't seem to be listening. He was frowning down at the ground. "I thought humans didn't pass through this way?"

"They don't, as far as I know."

"There are hoofprints."

Sharn turned to look at one of the hoofprints as they passed, seemingly unconcerned. "Humans don't have hooves, dummy."

"Do things other than humans ride horses?" Simon asked.

"Well… yeah?" Sharn said. "I can ride a horse. Lyn, you ever learn to ride?"

"Oh, well, I've had a few lessons, I suppose," Lynna said. "I have some basic competency."

"There you go, Simon. Not as much correlation between humans and hoofprints as you thought."

"That is actually considerably more—" Simon was cut short as something flew past his face and struck the tree behind him.

And then Simon's arms were around Danya's waist, pulling him down behind a tree. The others stayed standing, but Danya noticed Gaira take a step in front of Lynna.

Sharn wrenched the arrow from where it had embedded itself in the tree and looked it over before turning to stare out into the silent woods. "I know you're there, Atticus! What's this shit? Why are you shooting at us?"

Bushes rustled and a man on a horse emerged from behind them some distance away. Wait, no. Danya squinted as his brain struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. The figure had the top half of a man, but as he followed his torso down it merged into the body of a horse. A centaur, Danya realised.

"I was not aiming for you," the centaur, Atticus, said, his voice much deeper than any ordinary man. "I was not aiming for him, either. If I had been, I would not have missed."

Atticus had strong, angular features, and long brown hair — the same colour as his flank — that hung loose down his back. Danya couldn't feel his energy at all, even though he should have been close enough to get some sense of it.

"That's still pretty rude, Atticus, even if you stop short of actually killing anyone," Gaira told him.

"What welcome did you expect me to offer a human you led into my territory?"

"Well, I was sorta hoping you'd talk to us before you started shooting, buddy."

"We are talking. What excuse do you have for this trespass?"

"He's a prisoner, Atti," Lyssa told him. "We're taking him back to Noni so that she can decide what to do with him."

Atticus reached back towards his quiver. "I can tell you what to do with him."

Gaira let out a huff of frustration. "Atticus, come on. We're not really going to have to fight you over this, are we?"

Atticus folded his arms over his broad, bare chest. "You would fight for him?"

"We took him prisoner, took his weapons away, and brought him somewhere dangerous. So yeah, until we actually decide he should die, I figure it's our job to protect him."

Atticus leant over so that he could get a better look at Simon and Danya where they were still crouched behind the tree. "And the little mage?"

"A prisoner too, for now, and we are definitely going to have some problems if you mess with him. None of us want to jeopardise this alliance, Atticus."

The sound coming out of Atticus' mouth was so deep that it took Danya a moment to realise he was laughing. "Do you think you would come out ahead if such a thing were to happen? You are new here. Your relationship with my people is the only connection you have in this place, and if I decided you were to be ostracised nobody would defy me." He stared them down for a moment, waiting to see if any of them would challenge that assertion. None of them did. "However... I do not wish to fight you and I cannot ask you to break your word. I will allow all of you safe passage on this occasion."

"Thanks, Atti," Lynna said, and he inclined his head to her.

Simon slowly rose from behind the tree and took a step forward. "Thank you. I'm sorry to have imposed on your territory."

Atticus let out a huff and trotted towards them, his gate surprisingly graceful in the thick woods despite the size of him. "Come. If you are to pass through here safely, you must do so under my watch."

This close, Danya could finally feel Atticus' energy. It was strong — almost too intense for comfort — but he held it so close to himself that Danya couldn't sense it at all until he was within touching distance of the edge of it. He made sure not to get close enough that he could come into direct contact with it.

Lynna didn't seem to mind it at all, though. Danya supposed she couldn't feel the energy like he could. She kept pace with Atticus and cheerfully inquired about family and wildberries and weather, topics that seemed far too mundane for someone with the body of a horse. But it seemed she knew what she was doing, because Atticus was already less on edge.

Simon was deeply absorbed with his own thoughts and with keeping an eye on their surroundings. He was wearing the same expression he always had when they'd first met — flat and hard and concealing. Danya ached for Simon to soften to him again, to even truly look at him. But perhaps right now they needed that cold, serious version of Simon. Perhaps, when his gaze did once again reveal his thoughts, Danya wouldn't enjoy what he saw when Simon looked at him. Everything had changed now.

After about an hour of walking, Atticus led them out into a small clearing next to a shallow, rocky river.

"We will rest here," Atticus told them. "Human, do not drink the water. I have heard your kind have very weak constitutions."

"Oh," Simon said, his posture stiff and awkward. "Thank you?"

"Humans are like cockroaches." Atticus bent his whole torso down to the river and splashed water on his face. "Weak, but numerous and always reproducing."

"Well, I suppose you'll be pleased to hear I don't have any children and don't intend to change that. So… I'm doing my part."

Atticus turned to look at him. "Is that why you rut without someone who cannot bare you young?"

Simon looked confused for a moment, then shot a startled glance towards Danya as he figured it out. "Oh, no no no. Our relationship isn't sexual."

"Uh huh," Gaira said. "I'm sure you bought a Companion so you'd have someone to play card games with."

"I didn't buy him, he was a gift," Simon told them. "Having sex with someone who can't say no wouldn't be right. I don't see how that's not rape."

"Well, I guess it's only rape if they would have said no if they could have," Gaira said. "But I see your point. You can't really know."

"Most humans are not same sex attracted anyway," Danya added.

"Mm," Simon agreed.

"Is that why you did not do it?" Atticus asked. "Ha! You made it sound so noble."

"Not raping someone is hardly noble," Simon insisted. "It's the very least I would expect of someone."

"Well, it is far less exceptional if you did not even want to," Atticus pointed out. "Which was it? A show of restraint or the mundanity of an unadventurous sexual spirit?"

Simon knelt down and focused his attention on washing his hands in the water. "Does it even matter? I don't know why we're having this conversation."

"Because I see that it puts you on edge and I wonder why."

"Oh, that's just how humans are with sex stuff," Gaira cut in. "Have you noticed how hard he's been trying to avoid looking at your dick?"

"I have not!" Simon said. "I mean. Well. Are you making fun of me for not looking at his genitals?"

"It is a funny thing to get so worked up about," Atticus commented. "You may look all you like, though it may make you insecure about your own anatomy."

"My own anatomy is fine."

Atticus turned to Danya. "Is it? Hm, well, I suppose you would not know."

It had probably been intended as another dig at Simon, but the words cut into Danya like knives. Yes, he wouldn't know. He kept his face blank, his posture loose and natural, just like he'd been trained. Don't let them see you react.

"Well, I'm glad my first experience of inter-species diplomacy could be a horse man making fun of my dick," Simon said. "When he hasn't even seen it, I might add."

"You can show it to me if you like, but I am not sure that would help your case."

Simon shook his head and turned his back on the conversation. "This is why I let Hamish take the lead in diplomatic matters. He would find some way to bring an end to hundreds of years of conflict by making love to a horse man."

"Oh? Is he less poorly endowed than you?"

"I am not having a conversation with you about how big my friend's dick is."

"Larger than yours, then." Atticus turned to Danya. "You know, little mage, I think his sexual restraint has nothing to do with morality or sexual taste. He is simply ashamed of the size of his member."

Danya couldn't help but smile at the absurdity of the conversation. "I doubt you would find my endowment more impressive. Mages are physically similar to humans."

"Yes, but it hardly matters if you are not the one putting it to use. That is how it works in these arrangements, is it not?"

Danya shrugged. "I'm a slave. It works however he wants it to work."

"You're not a slave anymore," Gaira reminded him.

"Then what am I?" Danya cringed at his outburst and rubbed a hand over his face. "Sorry. This has been… stressful."

"You're a free mage, like the rest of us."

Danya wanted to lash out again, but he knew better. He swallowed and looked away instead.

Lynna stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's different for you. I won't lie and say that I understand it, but I am aware of it."

"It doesn't have to be different for him," Sharn said. "He's half Soldier. Seems competent. Just be that instead, Danya."

"Sharn, come on," Lynna scolded gently. "That what we are is nothing more than our genetics, what we're meant to be — that's their idea. I wouldn't be who I am now if I'd been trained differently and Danya can't simply slip into a new role when it becomes convenient, either."

Sharn folded her arms over her chest. "We all had to adapt."

"Did you?" Lynna asked, turning to face her fully. "Noni gets to continue to lead you, as she's been trained to. You follow her command, as you've been trained to. It's less natural for me and Delton, but not terribly far outside of our comfort zones. But Danya… he was trained as a Companion. He's been taught to make one person his whole world. The transition he has to make is far more fundamental."

"Well, him being free now doesn't change much with all that," Simon said. "I wasn't going to let him live like that anyway."

Lynna turned back to Danya. "How did you feel about that?"

Danya shrugged. "He is — was — my master. It was my job to be whatever he wanted me to be."

"That wasn't how I wanted you to feel," Simon said. When Danya's gaze flicked up to meet his, he didn't look angry or disgusted or scared. Just sad and lost. Like what he'd just learnt about Danya, what Danya really was, wasn't even on his mind.

"Well, that's the fucking slavery paradox, Simon," Gaira said. "If you don't want him to be a slave, you don't get to decide how he feels about shit. Even the shit about being a slave."

"Well that's fine, but I don't really know what I'm supposed to do about any of this." Simon turned to Danya. "What am I supposed to do about this? How can I make you feel good about being free?"

Danya shrugged again. "I don't have anything — anyone else."

"Hey," Simon said gently. "You still have me. I'm still here. I'm still going to protect you."

"Okay." Danya knew how sullen he sounded, but he couldn't help it. It wasn't the same.

"Why does this have to be about ownership? Hamish is my best friend. I'd give my life for him without hesitation. The idea of owning him, though? That's repulsive to me. I hate the idea of owning anyone, but owning someone I care about? That's even worse."

Danya couldn't meet his eyes. He understood all that intellectually, but…

"You have to understand, Simon, that it's an exchange of sorts," Lynna offered. "Masters aren't under any obligation to fulfill their side of it, of course, but the ideal a Companion is sold on is one where they serve and in return they have someone who will protect them and provide for all of their needs. Being a good friend to him doesn't obligate you to him in the same way."

That seemed a rather crass was of putting it, but, well... she wasn't exactly wrong. Wasn't that what he had always fantasised about? Being safe and loved and never having to be afraid again, because someone had promised to take care of him?

Simon was silent for a long moment before he finally spoke. "I hadn't thought of it like that. I'd like to think I'm doing the taking care of part regardless, but I think it's fairly obvious I have no grasp of his emotional needs."

"It's okay," Danya murmured. "Most masters don't, really. We know it's a lie. We know it's going to be terrible and even if they do care for us, it will only last as long as we're young and beautiful. And I wasn't even beautiful to start with."

"What?" Simon sounded genuinely confused. "Of course you are. You don't think you're attractive?"

Danya shrugged. He obviously wasn't.

"They breed for certain ideals," Lynna explained. "He's half Soldier, so he doesn't look like he's intended to."

"I'm supposed to look like Cailan," Danya added. "Obviously, I fall far short of that."

"That's ridiculous," Simon said. "There's not one single way to be attractive that you can either succeed or fail at."

"For Companions there is," Danya said. "Nobody bought me until I was nineteen, and even then you didn't want me."

"It wasn't about wanting you or not and it definitely wasn't about how attractive you are."

Atticus waded out of the water. "If you find him attractive, simply say so. What more is there to beauty besides our own individual preferences?"

Simon stepped out of the way as Atticus shook water off his flank. "This is a silly tangent anyway. It should never have mattered what he looks like, and now it doesn't. It just makes me angry whenever I find out another one of the dumb things they made him needlessly insecure about."

Danya's hopes had begun to stir for a moment there, but Simon clearly didn't really believe he was attractive. Of course he didn't. But, for better or for worse, he was right. It didn't matter anymore. He would have to find some other way to be of value now.