She returned to headquarters with a weighted heart, barely able to lift her hand to knock on the oak door of her supervisor’s quarters. Angora was not pleased that it had taken her two days to gather her samples, but Atherin could see no way she could have done things better. She held her posture as Angora smacked her across the face with her narrow hand, careful to keep all signs of a flinch beneath the stoic mask of her features. She could taste blood on the inside of her lip but she ignored it and kept her hands at her sides, allowing the trickle of blood to drip from her chin.
Atherin kept her eyes downcast, watching the flicker of light from the fireplace dance on the stone floor, and Angora paced in front of her, the sharp crack of each step echoing in the small room. She couldn’t help the swell of anger inside of her at the way she was treated – but she reminded herself that she could be dead, and swept the feeling out of sight, again.
“You are running out of time, Atherin,” Angora warned, “Am I going to have to assign you a partner?”
Atherin’s heartbeat went wild. A partner? She wanted to shake her head, to plead with Angora, but she kept herself very still and simply said, “No, ma’am.” She tried not to remember the rumors she’d heard for years, but it was like fighting to hold the tide away. She was terrified of the prospect instantly. Partners were a death sentence, even she knew that – and she barely spoke to anyone. She wondered if she might have been better prepared, if she did. If she may have found another way to tackle the assignment she had been given, and if it may have been enough to please Angora.
Angora’s long fingers wrapped tightly around her chin and forced her to look into the distrustful brown eyes of her superior. Atherin wanted nothing more than to take a swing – maybe keep swinging until Angora no longer stood up. But she knew too well what would happen to her, then. She knew there was no way she would escape headquarters on her own. She met Angora’s gaze with her own but it was submissive and timorous. Angora’s voice was a low purr, but it held venom in it that Atherin had grown used to. “You know what it would mean for your career to be given a partner, do you not?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Atherin said, and the words were like splinters in her throat. She fought back the cough that would expel all of the lies from her lungs, that would free her from the pricks and stabs of the world in which she lived. She’d begun to feel so hollow, save for the building self-hatred inside of her.
“Leave my sight,” snapped Angora, taking the opportunity to shove Atherin through the doors to her chambers. “You’re a disappointment to me, Atherin.”
The doors slammed loudly behind her, covering up her meek, “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
She wiped the blood from her chin and walked down the hall, refusing to let the nagging, acidic gloating of her self-loathing bring her into the pit of depression it so longed to pull her into. A part of her wanted to be assigned a partner. A part of her said it would be exactly the escape she was looking for.