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An Excerpt From The Atlas Paradox
By Olivie Blake

REINA

Yesterday

And so where there had once been six was now, irreversibly, one.

Or something.

Reina cast a glance around the room and wondered exactly how long their unity would last. Presumably less than an hour. Already the energy in the room had begun to shift as Atlas Blakely, their so-called Caretaker, stepped quietly through the painted room’s door, observing them in silence.

Beside Reina, Nico de Varona was fidgety as usual, glancing at Atlas and then away. Tristan Caine was brooding silently behind them. From Reina’s periphery, she could see Parisa Kamali’s features remain placidly unchanged upon sight of the caretaker, while Callum Nova, behind Parisa, did not even acknowledge Atlas’s entry. Callum stood at a distance from the others, chin angled slightly outwards, as if to signal that his mind was on other things.

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“Try to think of everything that follows as a game,” suggested Dalton Ellery, the bespectacled researcher who was presently filling the role of initiation concierge. He nodded in Atlas’s direction, then continued addressing the other five. They stood against a bookshelf, waiting, as Dalton directed their attention to the center of the room.

The painted room had been cleared of its furniture, aside from a series of ordinary dining chairs. The five chairs, placed several feet apart, all faced inwards and addressed a circle of empty space.

The loss of their sixth member was, by then, no longer fresh. It was, however, still noticeable. Like an old war wound that only pained them when it rained, the missing hum of Libby Rhodes and her anxiety seemed to haunt the standing space between the five initiates, unspoken, existing only in the promises they had made to one another. From somewhere beneath the floorboards, her absence pulsed.

“You’ve come this far,” Dalton continued, stepping into the center of the empty circle, “and you are no longer being tested. There is no passing or failing. However, we do feel an ethical obligation to warn you that while you are safe from bodily harm, that does not guarantee your comfort during this ceremony. You will not die,” he concluded. “But, all other outcomes are plausible.”

Beside Reina, Nico apprehensively shifted against the shelf. Tristan folded his arms more tightly across his chest and Parisa slid a glance to Atlas, who hovered near the door. His expression had not changed.

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Or perhaps it had. It was possible Reina was imagining it, but the Caretaker’s usual look of bland attentiveness seemed a touch more marble than usual. Fixed, in a way that suggested curation.

All other outcomes are plausible?” Callum asked, voicing the room’s collective doubt into the empty space. “As in, we won’t die, but we could conceivably wake up a giant cockroach?” (“Beetle,” murmured Reina, which Callum ignored.)

“It’s not a known outcome,” Dalton said, “but neither is it technically impossible.”

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There was another intangible shift amongst the soon-to-be-initiated. Nico, sensing the potential for discord, glanced at Reina before saying, “Initiation means more access, doesn’t it? And we’ve clearly all made choices to get here.” Nico carefully directed his comments to the room at large rather than any specific candidate, though he lingered a moment on Atlas before turning to Dalton. “Seems like the intimidation factor isn’t really necessary at this point, right?”

“It’s really more of a disclaimer,” Dalton said. “Any other questions?”

Several, obviously—but Dalton wasn’t known for being forthcoming. Reina snuck a glance at Parisa, who was the only person who would know if there was anything to be suspicious about. She didn’t look concerned. Not that Reina made a habit of being nervous, but she certainly wasn’t going to waste her time on fear if Parisa wasn’t worried first.

“The initiation ceremony requires you to leave this plane,” continued Dalton. “The constraints of your transition will be defined for you.”

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“This will all be in our heads?” asked Tristan gruffly.

A tick of distress manifested on Nico’s brow; ever since they’d witnessed Parisa’s death at Callum’s hands, they had all—but Parisa, ironically—been rendered skittish by the prospect of telepathic counterfeits.

Dalton paused. “No,” he said, “but also yes, definitely.”

“Oh, good,” Nico exhaled in an undertone to Reina. “And I was so worried he might be unhelpful.”

Before Reina could respond, Parisa remarked warily, “What exactly are we doing on the Society’s astral plane? And no, that does not give me an advantage,” she added, cutting off any further questions with an impatient sweep of the room. “If there are constraints, then I am also constrained,” she said conclusively to Reina, who surely wasn’t the only one thinking it. “Just because it’s within the realm of my specialty doesn’t mean I have any significant advantage.”

Reina slid her glance away. Touchy, she thought in Parisa’s direction.

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She felt Parisa’s posture shift stiffly in reply. I don’t appreciate the accusation.

And suddenly you care what I think?

Parisa didn’t respond. From the far corner of the room, the potted fig unhelpfully cackled.

Dalton cleared his throat. “The construct of your initiation is not a secret—”

“How charming,” muttered Tristan. “Something new and different.”

“—it is simply a simulation,” Dalton finished. “Within the simulation, you’ll be faced with a projection of someone else in your initiate class. Not as they are, but as you perceive them.”

He paused to observe the expressions of the others, which varied from marked indifference (Callum) to resigned ambivalence (Nico). If anyone felt a hint of distress, none who remained were willing to show it. Atlas, for his part, merely raised a hand to his chin, scratching an itch. It seemed an odd thing to notice, but Reina felt sure his suit looked more glaringly pristine than it did usually. Pressed within an inch of its life, like he’d known someone would be looking. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

“This is not a test of what you’ve learned,” Dalton added. “It is not a test at all. You have earned your place here, but every bridge has two sides. Cross it.”

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He withdrew a file from nothing, catching it as if it had been tossed aloft.

“We’ll start from youngest to oldest, which means Mr. de Varona will go first.” Dalton glanced up at Nico, who nodded. It would always be Nico’s preference to go first. He was built that way, always rushing into things. Without Libby for a counterweight, there was nothing to temper his recklessness. Nothing to anchor him at all.

Nico wasn’t the only one left unbalanced. They were all slightly different without Libby Rhodes. Without them realizing it, she had established herself as the but in their collective conscience, their measure of morality. But what if this happens, but what if something goes wrong, but what if someone is hurt. Her displacement from their anatomy as a group was akin to losing something just shy of a limb. They could go on, of course, but the loss would certainly prove significant given enough time. Slow internal bleeding, the toxification of a kidney. A tiny puncture somewhere in the constitution of an otherwise healthy lung.

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A beleaguered fern sighed out doomdoomdoom, which Reina did not appreciate.

“All right.” Nico took a step towards Dalton. “Where am I going?”

“Nowhere. Sit.” He gestured to the five chairs, leading Nico to the one at approximately twelve o’clock. “All of you,” Dalton clarified, “in order.”

They each sat. To Reina’s right was Tristan, to Tristan’s right Callum, to Callum’s right Parisa. Nico closed the circle on Reina’s left.

There was a brief moment after they took their seats when they all collectively braced for something—something to fall from the ceiling or rise from the ground. There was nothing of the sort. The plants in the room bristled and yawned, Atlas took a seat amongst the anterior bookshelves, outside of Reina’s view, and Dalton took his place behind Nico’s chair, clipboard in hand.

Nico, fidgeting, glanced first at Reina and then swiftly over his shoulder. “What exactly am I supposed to d-”

“Begin,” said Dalton.

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Nico’s head snapped forward—struck like a match, a corporeal off switch—while his consciousness slid out from beneath him. The air of the room crackled momentarily with static—with magic or life or some intangible wave of Nico himself. The uncanny energy pebbled their skin, lifting the hairs from their arms, the backs of their necks.

Within seconds, the sensation of unbridled electricity had resolved itself, becoming palpable condensation—a fine mist, at first, and then a cloud—and then, like the crack of a whip, a spectral image of Nico rose up from the center of the circle. His conception of the painted room blanketed the initiates. He stood within a projection of the painted room’s usual arrangement: the table beside the bookcase, the sofa sat across the hearth. He seemed incapable of seeing his four peers and two initiators as they sat in a circle around the room. In the projection, it was high noon, the heat of the sun emanating from the windows. The drapes were thrown open, the weather outside a clear, bright contrast to the wet summer gloom of their physical reality.

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From the corner of Reina’s eye, Tristan leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees with apprehension that read like disgust. “We’re going to be able to watch each other’s initiation rituals?”

“Yes,” said Dalton, and just as he spoke, a spectral version of Reina materialized across from the projection of Nico, who grinned.

“Excellent,” Nico said, clearing the projected room of its furniture with a wave of his hand. Like all of Nico’s magic, it was difficult to see in proper sequence. There was simply a blink, and then all the furniture lined the room’s perimeter. As if that was the layout as it had always been.

Nico put forth a hand to be shaken, offering it to his projection of Reina. It was the beginning of any standard sparring match. Even now, after a year of recreational combat, they still commenced every match that way.

From across the translucency of the projection, Reina caught Parisa rolling her eyes.

What? Reina demanded.

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Parisa’s dark gaze met hers. If I wanted to spend my time watching the two of you behave like children, I’d have done so by now.

But even before Parisa had completed her thought, the projection-Reina had already lunged. Nico’s head narrowly slipped to the side as he pivoted out and threw a straight punch, testing his range. The real Reina would have known to expect that (and likely done the same herself), but the projection of her slipped the punch as if it had been thrown at full strength. Her hand fell low enough for Nico to give her cheek a light tap in warning; a reminder to stay light on her feet.

Projection-Reina threw out a series of single jabs; one, two, then a third, then a fourth, which Nico parried with his right hand, catching her forearm. The motion rocked projection-Reina forward, setting her off balance, and Nico took advantage of the drop in levels to aim a hook at the side of her head, which she rushed to block with her forearm rather than roll beneath—a poor choice, Reina thought with a grimace. Her projected-self succeeded in preventing the majority of impact, but she still took at least half the punch’s intended force, if not more.

Nico and projection-Reina circled each other, each testing the other’s footing. Nico worked his way to the inside of her wingspan, then swung easily to the outside of Reina’s close hook when her projection took the bait. Nico’s knuckles tapped her kidney as he slid deftly out of range. She responded with a blind swing for his head, catching the tip of his ear. He laughed. Her projection didn’t.

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Parisa suddenly sat up straighter, a thought creasing her brow.

Now you’re suddenly interested in combat strategies? Reina scoffed in her direction. Reina couldn’t see Atlas from where she was sitting—he was obscured by one of the room’s many bookshelves—but she had a feeling he had taken notice, too.

Parisa shot her an irritated glance. Please. This isn’t combat. As usual, you’re missing the point.

What point? This was all so obviously pointless. Reina could witness this exact scenario in real life at any time—though she wouldn’t, if given the choice. It was uncomfortable to watch herself fight, if only for the awkwardness of being forced to observe her usual shortcomings. Like this, in the audience, her failures seemed more exaggerated than usual. Movement came fluidly, naturally, to Nico. His rhythm—his orbit of the space—was always light and never stiff. He was never in the same place twice. Reina, by contrast, seemed stocky and immobile, a cliffside being steadily chipped away by Nico’s tide. Reina found herself repeatedly looking away from the ritual’s projection—though, in doing so, she noticed Parisa’s attention still intently on her projected counterpart.

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What exactly is so interesting to you about this? Reina asked grumpily, and Parisa stared at her from across the simulated combat, apparently no less annoyed by having to answer.

Don’t you get it? This is a projection of what he thinks of you, Parisa said in Reina’s head.

Reina thought she saw Parisa glance in Atlas’s direction. If she did, though, it was brief and uncommunicative. Parisa’s primary concern was the projection of Reina, not Atlas—which was, if anything, the most disconcerting thing currently taking place in the painted room. Being the object of Parisa’s concentration couldn’t be a good thing. (The potted fig agreed.)

So? thought Reina.

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So, first of all, nobody said we couldn’t use magic, but Nico isn’t—and neither is his version of you. A flicker of a smile crossed Parisa’s lips. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he doesn’t seem to find you dangerous at all, does he?

Again: So?

For a year, we were all tasked with killing someone. We only recently learned who that might be. Parisa gestured with a glance to Nico’s dancing form. Does this seem like someone concerned with your threat to his life?

Projection-Reina staggered, caught in one of Nico’s usual traps: a jab that distracted her, causing her to miss Nico’s hook from the edge of her periphery. He’d thrown a hard right cross and then an uppercut, the latter of which she’d been unable to block. These were all errors, but specifically they were Reina’s errors. They were mistakes she’d made before.

Ah, you see it now, Parisa observed with a keen, disturbing satisfaction, and though Reina made every effort to clear any outside commentary from her mind, Parisa came through like white noise, radio static.

He thinks you’re vulnerable.

And then, more derisively—

He thinks you’re weak.

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Reina bristled and forcefully thought of nothing, queuing up the usual punitive earworm of an old toothpaste ad from her youth. Parisa’s smile turned tightly to a grimace of touchéasshole and then her attention drifted away, no doubt to some other game of amateur psychoanalysis. Projection-Reina slipped a right cross from Nico and dealt him a reasonable double-jab in return, though he countered with a combination of punches she wasn’t quite fast enough to fully block. Reina—the real Reina, who was growing increasingly annoyed—kept her expression still, realizing that Parisa wasn’t the only one watching for her reaction. From the other side of Nico, Callum’s gaze had slid surreptitiously to hers, observing her for a long, discerning moment before glancing away.

She wondered what her feelings were doing at that particular moment. Typically she did not concern herself with these things, believing herself to be a person of no great feeling. (Annoyance, irritation, impatience did not count. They were the mosquito bites on the emotional Richter scale.) Still, she could feel in some unpracticed, prickling way that she was wrestling with something. Not anguish, not fear… and certainly not betrayal, because despite Parisa’s tacit claim to comprehend every nuance of all humanity, she was definitely wrong about that.

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Though, in typical Parisa fashion, she wasn’t quite wrong enough. Reina, who unlike certain people (Libby) was not completely subject to every whim of her own insecurity, knew that Nico didn’t actually consider her weak. In Nico’s mind, which Reina already understood to be a lawless and cluttered place, she knew that he did not consider anyone enough of an enemy to actively try to destroy them. That was both the charm and the rub of him: confidence that was also arrogance. To hold that against him would be to fundamentally misunderstand who he was. To care about his arrogance would only be an exercise in emotional fragility, and thus a waste of both their time.

Still, seeing herself through his eyes, it did seem that Nico considered Reina… predictable. Slightly inferior. Good, but not quite good enough. An impression that, to be fair, was accurate in certain areas, combat and physical magic included. Reina had never pretended it wasn’t. Her concern with regard to the Society had always been access, not clout.

Had she considered that her obvious ambivalence to her own abilities might have struck the others as a reflection on her lack of skills? Yes. But if it were Tristan, or Callum, or Parisa who saw her this way, it might not have mattered. Reina had successfully revealed nothing of herself to them. Not to Nico either—not really—but he had spent far more time with her than any of the others. Hadn’t he been paying attention?

Reina’s mind served her an unwelcome flashback then. Tea with her grandmother, which had taken place after an especially fruitless dinner with her mother. Someday they will see, Baba had said with her gentle softness that had easily given way to forgetfulness, and then to mindless fluff that was sometimes connected to reality and sometimes not. Someday they will look at you and see everything I see.

MotherMother? the corner fern asked doubtfully.

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Reina, despite herself, agreed.

Reina’s mother, whom Reina generally did not think of and whom she most certainly did not speak of, had been the middle of three daughters and two sons. (A troublemaker in her youth, Reina’s grandmother had always said fondly, as if she had watched an entertaining but unrealistic drama instead of her daughter’s unfolding life.) Baba, an eccentric woman already with her odd penchant for kindness, had not wanted her daughter’s whole life destroyed by one little indiscretion, so she had taken Reina in as an act of apparent generosity. Within one or two years, Reina’s mother was successfully married to a mortal businessman, someone whose family had profited from the electronics boom that gave way to the medeian technomancy age.

Reina always thought of him in the formal sense—the Businessman, who had no true name or meaning outside of his profession. He was not her father, merely the man who had married her mother after Reina was born. He knew that Reina existed in his mother-in-law’s house only because he asked a lot of questions about her. At first he had thought she was a child of one of the staff, perhaps the housekeeper, and therefore someone he could ultimately control. Reina often wondered about the conversation her mother must have had as a result of this ironic turn of events. (Perhaps nothing had been said. Reina’s mother did not talk much. She had the air of someone who had seen a lot and decided to simply close her eyes and stop looking.)

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The point was the Businessman must not have been informed about Reina’s true identity, because he was the one who began the habit of summoning her for monthly dinners. By that point there were other children—who were actually the Businessman’s—although they, like their father, were mortal and not as powerful as Reina. He wasn’t unkind. He took his business calls at the table but he didn’t shout. He was just very, very transparent. During these dinners, when he would praise Reina’s elegant kanji or her dutiful performance in school before transitioning to the subject of naturalism, Reina’s mother would push food around her plate and practice her usual custom of saying nothing at all.

In any case, Reina’s mother died two years before Reina’s grandmother, when Reina was fourteen. At her funeral service, Reina’s mother was described as a dutiful wife and mother. (Not as Reina’s mother, of course. Reina sat in the back row, unobtrusively, and if anyone had any questions of who she belonged to, they did not ask.) Reina hadn’t known her mother very well, but she was pretty sure that this speech was a very sad way for her story to end—that all that could be said of her unremarkable life was that she was proficient at two of her jobs. Nothing about whether she sang off-key in the shower or was fearful of garden snakes, or anything to give her any real shape at all.

Shortly after, the Businessman remarried. Life, as it usually did, went on.

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Remembering was like quicksand, deeper and deeper with no escape. Reina was struck with another unpleasant recollection, a shudder of repulsion from the void of her subconscious.

Not long before the visit from Atlas, the Businessman had come to Reina’s cafe by chance. He was angry about something, busy on his phone. So busy that despite many years of regular entreaties to meet, he had failed to recognize Reina at all. Granted, it had been over a decade since they had seen each other, but the irony was not lost on her.

Once a month for many years he had sat across from her at her mother’s table and pretended to find her interesting; just some weeks before, he had managed to find Reina’s former roommate and ask for Reina’s phone number, which, as of one hour and a new phone purchase later, the roommate no longer had. But that day, the Businessman had been busy cursing someone, a foreigner. The name sounded cumbersome on his tongue. “He did it before, he can do it again!” shouted the Businessman, who had looked through Reina when she handed him his coffee. She was, in that moment, better than invisible, which was a particularly bitter dose of triumph. Some validation for the worst part of herself. Her tangible transparency was proof that things were just as she’d always thought.

Reina had always known there was an ulterior reason the Businessman was so interested in her. He certainly did not want to meet because he missed her personality or her handwriting. It was also the reason that Reina’s mother’s lilies seemed to recoil from him while he ate. Reina had assumed as a child that plants’ aversion to him was a symptom of her dislike, but there was something specific about him that day in the cafe that made her rethink her childhood assumptions.

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No, not about him. On him.

Destruction. It was clear now in her memories, like a thin film through which to alter her lens, to view her childhood experience over again. It was obvious and unavoidable in the sepia tones of retrospect, a faint dusting along his shoulders, like dandruff or lint. She knew his business was more insidious than agriculture. But then, so was anything that yielded that much wealth. The destructive nature of his business lingered upon him like a particularly hazardous cologne.

She shook herself, casting off the lingering effects of the usual shame spiral that came with remembering anything about her past. The point was that Reina’s grandmother had always said that someone would someday see her, and it was true, or mostly true, though not in the way she had meant. People did look, eventually. The Businessman was merely the first. In a sinister way the attention was inevitable, because by a certain point in her adolescence, what Reina was—what she could do—could not possibly be ignored, whether someone chose to look closely at her or not. But by then, Reina no longer wanted to be perceived at all.

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The power she had was not simply profound for a naturalist—she was naturalism itself. That alone should have made her valuable, or at least useful. But why should she have ever had to prove her usefulness to anyone? She had not asked for the circumstances of her birth. She had not asked for her powers, either. If her so-called family could not offer her the dignity of acceptance, much less love, then they did not deserve the fruits of her worth. This, at least, was what she told herself as she had sat across the Businessman during their monthly dinners.

It became easier over time to deny others the right to know her, to look too long at her. She developed a talent for isolation. She did not need to perform her own abilities or prove her own worth. Without fail, she knew it would happen just as her grandmother had said: they would see. They would see, specifically, power. Opportunity. Naturalism unconstrained, magic of an unprecedented magnitude. When Reina recognized herself as an object—a tool for others to use whenever they had the opportunity to profit—she took great care to isolate herself, to hide, to keep herself preserved. She never spent too long being herself where anyone could see, because it always resulted in her objectification at the behest of another’s greed.

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Except for Nico. Nico, whom Reina had chosen to spend time with as openly as she had ever spent time with anyone, and who she believed had wanted nothing from her. How rare! What a blessing. Except now, while watching him fight her rather weak-willed projection, his arrogance did deny one of Reina’s fundamental self-held truths: that there was something about her to merit being seen.

She was built on a foundation of avoidance for the sake of self-preservation, but intentionally or not, she had opened a window for him.

He had seen her weaknesses, her inflexibilities, her defenses and mistakes. He had noted and remembered them. He had made use of them, those things about her that no one else had ever been given the privilege to see, and he had not done so in any great way. His perception of her was remarkably mediocre. He had no ambition to make use of her for any reason. His only application of what he had learned of her selfhood was being used to preserve his own ego, to service his own strengths.

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Reina shifted in her chair.

Ah. So this feeling was disappointment, then.

In Nico’s simulation, they had extended their martial arts repertoire by then. They progressed from blocks and punches to kicks and holds as projection-Reina elevated the stakes of combat, perhaps choosing more challenging maneuvers out of some sense of inadequacy that Nico attributed to her. (Ah, but wasn’t she just projecting now? Reina looked briefly at Parisa for confirmation and then turned quickly away before she could read her expression, furious with herself.) Nico went for a grab, faking a knee to projection-Reina’s face, and as she reeled out of reach, he knocked her off balance, landing a hard kick to the weak spot in her thigh. In short: projection-Reina had fallen for another of Nico’s usual traps and the real Reina, who sat simmering in place, felt a little brush of resentment. Something gently insistent, like a tendril or a vine.

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(How, exactly, was Reina any different to Nico than his friend, the dreamer? How had Nico failed to see that Reina, like the person he’d come here desperate to protect, was yet another tool that the wrong hands desired to use? Not that it mattered, of course. Not that she needed him, or anyone, to find her valuable. Not that she was upset.)

As far as Reina could tell, this initiation ritual was designed to punish the person being projected, not the one doing the projecting. Dalton had said it: there were no constraints. Which meant that Reina could have shown up in a vehicle and kidnapped Nico. She could have fought him with magic; could have pierced him with a lightning bolt through the center of his chest. She could have strangled him with a plant, and that was just within the realm of reality. What might she have done outside of it, in a magical projection inside a magic library, where reality as they had known it did not exist?

But Nico had not considered that. The possibility that she might beat him or surprise him had clearly never occurred to him. And so it was Reina who suffered, not him.

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She tightened a fist and elsewhere, the fern in the corner unfurled with the sound of a cracking whip, the branches propelling out like tentacles. There was something growing in her now, festering. Something softer than betrayal, but only in a rotting way, like a translucent peach-fuzz of mold. Maybe she was annoyed with him. A spidery bite of something pestering, like the insistence of an itchy tag or whining insect hovering just out of sight. Maybe she was irritated by the discovery that apparently, Nico de Varona saw nothing of consequence in her at all.

From the simulation, Nico again worked his way into close range, tangling up with Reina’s projection. They grappled briefly before projection-Reina threw him off, and then Nico, as usual, danced away from her with a buoyant series of backsteps, eyes twinkling with mischief as he went.

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For what it was worth, Reina did not need Nico to see her in any particular way. They were friends—or perhaps colleagues, nothing more. She had never thought of him romantically and certainly not sexually. She never thought of anyone sexually. That she possessed any sexual organs at all was of as little interest to her as it would have been to any other non-germinating plant. And of course there would be no reason for Nico to imagine her that way, aside from the fact that they had spent nearly all their time together and apparently—apparently—the only thing he’d learned about her was how likely she was to get caught by the exact same punch.

Well. Reina grimaced, folding her arms over her chest. Surely Parisa had put that thought there, somehow. It wasn’t a thought Reina would have on her own. She cared absolutely nothing for what other people thought of her, and in any case, she especially did not need Nico’s interest or approval. Yes she had trusted him more than anyone else in the house and yes she had never questioned whether she could rely on him. He had told her first, hadn’t he, about the qualifications for initiation? The little murder game that had been left to the very fine print? And she had known he wouldn’t kill her, and he hadn’t asked her if she had ever considered killing him, but—

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Nico dealt projection-Reina a hard blow that left her stumbling, bleary-eyed.

He hadn’t asked her, Reina realized. Of course he hadn’t. Because he had already known she would never.

Because maybe he didn’t think she was weak, but like everyone in Nico de Varona’s life, he knew he had her loyalty.

(He knew he had hers, but did Reina really have his?)

She shifted in her seat again, unsettled and instantly suspicious of her own suspicion as the simulation went on. What was the point of this particular ritual? Dalton had said it wasn’t a test, so what was its purpose? Was this supposed to be a revelation—some meaningful slice of perspective into what each of them really were—or was it somehow a trap?

And if it was, was Reina the one being caught, or was Nico?

Projection-Reina reeled back, visibly winded, and Nico immediately stopped. “Are you okay?” he asked her. Forgotten was the lesson her projection had taught him earlier—that she wouldn’t wait to be told when to start, wouldn’t hesitate to escalate the stakes. Nico promptly abandoned any fear of her retaliation, showing nothing but concern for her as if she’d never posed any threat to him at all. “Reina, are you okay?”

Projection-Reina didn’t hit back. She straightened and met his eye.

“I’m fine,” she said flatly. Toneless. Mechanical.

(Was that how she sounded to him?)

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“We don’t have to keep going,” Nico assured her, practically puppy-eyed with compassion. “I don’t really know what the hell we’re doing here to begin with, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

Hurt her? As if she didn’t know what she was doing? As if they had not been doing this exact thing for nearly a year? Their very first interaction had been in combat—had he been so concerned with her then? Did he think she would simply roll over and dieif not for his merciful instruction?

Not that she was angry, of course.

Across the circle, Parisa smiled at Reina with positively gruesome implication.

“You can’t hurt me,” said projection-Reina. So at least there was that. (Though, wasn’t there something odd about “you can’t hurt me,” which was false and somewhat delusional and by the sounds of it something to be discussed with a clinical professional, and “you won’thurt me,” which at least implied some degree of skill at preventing said hurt?)

(By this point, Parisa was laughing into her palm.)

“I know,” insisted Nico. “But still, I won’t.”

The image of them warped, dissolving. Nico woke again in his body with a choking gasp, the effect of renewed consciousness poured into him like water in his lungs.

For the first time, Atlas spoke.

“Sixty seconds and then we’ll move onto Miss Mori,” he said.

Dalton nodded, glancing at his watch.

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Reina, meanwhile, turned to Nico, whispering as low as she could over the sound of him dragging in breaths. (Evidently the physical strain of the simulation transferred to his physical state, so at least in thoroughly humiliating her he’d managed to break a sweat.)

“Did you know it was going to be me?” she asked him. “Like, did you think of me in advance, or…?”

“You could see the whole thing?” asked Nico, bemused but not guilty. So he felt no shame, then. No surprise there—Reina knew what he was—but once again, the reminder was starting to rankle. “No, I wasn’t thinking specifically about you. Actually, I was thinking about—”

But Reina wouldn’t get to hear what Nico was thinking about. Dalton had shifted behind her chair, and in a sensation less tactile than falling asleep, Reina felt a piece of herself come loose. One moment she’d been looking at Nico, who was still panting and mid-sentence, and the next she saw only the opening of an endless abyss, which became—after another moment of adjustment—the painted room.

Her ritual was taking place at night, the drapes of the painted room securely shut, the fire blazing from the hearth. The air was almost soggy with heat. Slick with it.

After another moment, a bright white robe stepped out from a cavernous dark.

“Hello, Reina,” came Parisa’s low murmur.

Fuck, Reina said in her mind, and projection-Parisa thinly smiled, letting the white robe fall.

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