Hunter's Shadow (Warhound fic)

Hello! This is fanfiction of @Kallie's Warhound, Grasping the Weapon, and Hunting Hound. Which you should go read, immediately. (Hunting Hound is only available on Kallie's Patreon at this time.) It's been destroying my brain ever since I read it, so I had to get a story out of my brain while I could.
Content Warnings: Sexual violence.
Spoiler Warning: The start of this story references events at the beginning of Hunting Hound.

Genetor. The bulwark. The wall. It was as close to an object of worship as Ancyor was at the height of the rebellion. Nobody in the rebellion felt its fall like Hunter Falke did.

Not in the metaphorical sense. Hunter never cared for the goody-two-shoes who piloted the wall. No, she felt it in her body and soul when the two titans crashed to the earth. She had no words for that moment. Everyone expected poetry. They wanted to hear how Genetor fought to the last. Something that could be spun into propaganda. Anything but what actually happened.


It just fell over.


It just fell over like a child's block tower. There was no fight, glorious or otherwise. Bowling pins put up more resistance than this. Was Aritimis cranking one out prematurely over another of her "victories"? If she wasn't then, she probably was now that she had the traitor's full, undivided attention.

Hunter braced herself against a pair of charred corpses she'd found, laid her rifle over the edge of the building, and pulled the stock tight into her shoulder. There wasn't much time. An imperial convoy was following on Ancyor's heels. Of the five heavy-caliber tracking rounds she fired, Hunter managed to get two between the plates of Ancyor's armor. A wild success considering the ongoing earthquake throwing her back and forth between her anchors.

The resistance would pay nicely if she could find out where Ancyor deployed from. At least nicely enough to get a shuttle off this hellhole and into Imperial territory. If she could get a picture of Thrace the resistance might even mount a rescue operation. That intel might earn her Imperial citizenship if she can sell someone the how and when.

Night was falling. Hunter needed to be along a main route. Even disassembled, the bulwark would need to be transported by Imperial Production-line Mechs. Safer to hitch a ride on an IMP than Ancyor. That beast had too many sliding armor plates to accommodate its posture, not to mention its sudden movements.

Every pilot reveled in the strength of their mobile fortresses. Rebel. Imperial. They were all the same in that way. Not that Hunter couldn't empathize. She was raised by intelligence officers and spies. Fortresses were made to be breached the same way mountains were made to be climbed.

At least that's what she thought growing up.

The last IMP in the pack passed by the gaping hole in the wall. Shiny black, angular, and smooth. Hunter threw herself with all her strength out towards its shoulder. Of course she would never land that jump, but the point was closing the distance. She fired her mag-hook, catching the edge of an armor plate.

Hunter Falke was the last surviving mech jockey for a reason: jockeying was suicide.

She hit the mech sideways. On purpose. If your momentum was directly into any surface of a mech you died. The first things to connect was her thigh and hip -- her suit absorbed most of that impact -- and then she rolled until she could slam her second mag-hook into the surface to stop her momentum. Then came the hooks in the tips of her boots. Then the first hook had to be released, reeled in, then palmed back onto the surface.

It was a complicated, unforgiving process. Each step had a dozen points of failure. If you tried to move against the mountain's momentum for even a moment it would tear your limbs off. Most jockeys died long before the pilot noticed they'd been mounted. If they ever noticed at all. Sensor suites didn't pick up human scale objects because they weren't threats or impairments.

In the corner of Hunter's chopped together HUD, the marker for the trackers was still lit. As long as it was lit, she was moving in the general direction of Ancyor. It wasn't a very precise tool, but that was why it worked. She just had to hang on until she was certain what base it was headed for.

The darkness worked to her advantage. A convoy followed the pack. Armored infantry vehicles and meatwagons. The ratio of them seemed off. More meatwagons than infantry. But none of them could see her where she'd scaled further up the shoulder. The city limits would be ahead, and that was where she had to dismount.

There was only a brief window when it was safe to change her hooks. In the brief lull between each step. First change was to bring her legs under her, to brace for a jump. Right as she released her hand hooks and started to push herself off she heard something whiz by her helmet. No time to think about it. She was already moving.

Spotlights hit her visor and blinded her as she pulled the trigger to fire the mag-hooks. She blinked hard and trusted her instincts. The winch met resistance and her trajectory changed. Even if the mag-hook didn't meet metal, it still worked as a regular grappling hook. Her vision began to recover on the upswing, as she attempted to disengage her hook.


Her arm twisted at the wrong angle. No time to check how the anchor had failed. She pressed a button and the cable was severed at the winch. She had extra hooks for these moments, but she couldn't replace them in motion. She needed to set her other anchor literally anywhere else. The spotlights were well behind her at this point, but her vision was blurry.

She launched her last hook at the far building. It went through a window. Contacting the surface engaged the hook, and she felt it pull taut. The landing would have to be instinct. She'd done enough of the reading and enough of the practice to know that she was already dead. Hunter was always dead before letting her body go to work. Creating that distance kept her from overriding her muscle memory.

She adjusted the length of the cable to set her height to be through a window. Twisted her body to ensure the first point of contact was her padded hip. The cable pulled taut against the window frame, and she cut the cable when she was more or less horizontal. Her momentum carried her into the building. Arms brought into a roll cage around her head, and she hit the ground and rolled into some furniture and a wall.

She was sore. Probably cracked some ribs. Almost certainly a concussion. But for the moment, Hunter was alive.

When the world exploded a moment later, she died.

Visions of hospital rooms. Doctors. Bright lights. Noise. Pain. Needles. And darkness. The worst part was coming to terms with the fact that she was still alive. Nobody had said what the explosion was. If it was from one of those IMPs she'd be dead. Some infantry idiot must have shot a rocket at her. What a waste of money. But then again, they had a lot of that to throw around pointlessly.

Eventually she was dragged into a white room and strapped to an uncomfortable steel chair. The drug haze was fading for the first time since the explosion. Someone was talking to her? A woman?

A woman was sitting on the table in front of her reading from a clipboard. Legs crossed. A foot planted between Hunter's thighs. As her eyes began to focus she started to see details. Imperial uniform – Intelligence Office, First Class. She'd recognize it anywhere. – a bit too tailored for the woman's ample curves. The short gap between the top of the skirt and the gartered stockings was pleasant.

Hunter's eyes continued to pour over details until she made out woman's face. She had died after all.

"Mama," she hummed up towards her captor.

The woman tilted her head, a lip curling up with disgust.

Oh. False alarm. She was alive. She just wished she was dead. That was supposed to be an inside thought.

"Where was I? Right," The officer returned to reading statements from the clipboard, "After seeing footage of the incident, the doctor overseeing the care of prisoner Ilina Falke stated 'the goddess wastes her blessings on idiots.'"

"Hunter," she mumbled in response, "My name is Hunter."

The officer looked past the clipboard and sneered at her, "I agree, it's too pretty a name for such a dull, dowdy, and utterly charmless woman like you." She paused, "You are a woman, correct?"

Hunter nodded.

The officer continued reading two more sheets of statements and reports about the incident. Most of it was comments about her stupidity, jokes about pulling her androgynous frame from the 'curvy' suit, or awestruck ramblings about the hooksuit's engineering. One she was finished she put down the clipboard and leaned forward.

"What about you?" Hunter prodded, "What's your opinion?"

"Introductions first." The officer adjusted her collar and flattened her skirt.

"Intelligence Officer, First Class. Adrijan. I am very happy to finally meet you, Ilina. You have been a thorn in my side for years."

That brief moment when she was airborne and untethered. A few seconds of flight and power. She was learning to use the momentum of falling to move between the mountains. Their targeting suites weren't designed to track her. The pilots fought against their titan's ACS and movement programs. Deadly machines, but their movements were so choreographed and restricted. Hunter danced between them, throwing packages behind armor plates every time she landed on one. She'd never felt more alive. She could fight them.

The infantry were coming up with countermeasures for her. She couldn't continue this forever. The moment she was spotted they lit up the sky with flares. It didn't help the pilots, but the ground troops could track her with their guns. It was time to leave. This time, before she died.

One of the giants swung past her and she hooked it. The sudden acceleration was enough to for a greyout. But she only needed it for a second. She cut the wire and let herself be launched down a side street. Too fast. She hit her parachute to slow herself – only for the initial second before cutting that too. Hunter was in freefall when a giant hand swat the parachute above her. This pilot had finally turned off the safeties that prevented themselves from falling over and taken manual control over the manipulator. Brave was the imperial pilot who was willing to look like an idiot when their mech face-planted trying to swat a fly.

But it was too late. She was away from the flares and spotlights, in the dark safety of skeleton city. With the next hook she became invisible. Hunter couldn't keep herself from laughing at the thought of the pilot thinking they'd finally caught her.

The white box. A painted square on bare concrete in some half-cratered building. It was never the same building. An arrow pointed which direction she was to face while standing in the box. Hunter hated the white box.

That morning, a little before sunrise, Hunter was in the white box, naked with her hands cuffed behind her back. The autumn winds ripped the heat from her body and pelted her with dust and debris as she waited to be reprimanded.

Eventually she could hear the clicks of heels. How long had she been waiting? Her feet were numb and she could barely stand. When the officer finally entered her field of view, Hunter could tell she would have been left waiting longer if it was possible.

Adrijan grabbing Hunter by the face wasn't enough to stop her teeth chattering. "The mechanics are starting to refuse making repairs for any engagement you've been spotted in," she growled.

"You told me to make myself useful--"

"Six mechanics dead! Fifteen injured from your little toys. Slowing or halting repairs entirely just by being seen!" Adrijan let her go and took several deep breaths. "This is how you become a hero, Falke. Heroes end up in the kennels."

Hunter nodded, sobbing apologies. She was fighting so hard just to stay standing. A fight she promptly lost the moment a soldier made contact with her from behind. Hunter's knees hit the concrete and she instinctively did her best to stay inside the lines of the white box. A heating blanket was placed over her shoulders and secured. It was immediately helpful, but not salvation.

"Report," the officer demanded. A rare blessing that Hunter wasn't reprimanded for failing to stand as she was instructed.

Report? What was there to report?

She'd joined the rebellion's scouting regiment a month ago and everyone hated her. They poured machine grease into her personal effects and burned them. She returned from her patrols to nooses laid neatly on her pillow. It didn't stop after she'd started sleeping with the captain like Adrijan told her to. Now she was just fondled and sodomized as an outlet for the captain's stress on top of everything else.

"I want to die. Sir."

"Then swallow a bullet. Even the rebellion can afford to waste one on you."

Adrijan placed her hand on Hunter's head. Gentle. It felt like an insult. Hunter wasn't so starved for affection she would wag her tail for something so obvious. She was raised to be above that. She was also raised to address her mom as sir when she was in her uniform. Conflicting childhood trauma surrounding authority figures aside, she knew what Adrijan's angle was and it wasn't going to work.

"Just do what you're told, Ilina. A few more years, and you'll be beyond it all. The battlefield will be a distant memory for you."

Hunter was pressed against her locker the moment she finished putting her gear away. A hand pushed its way up her shirt. Like sandpaper against her skin. It made her want to puke. The captain didn't even have the decency to wait till they were alone. They never did.

"You're late, Falke," the captain growled into her ear. "Someone spotted you past fifth. What were you doing out there?"

"Streaking," Hunter moaned as her nipple was pinched. "Aren't you always telling us to find ways to relieve stress?"

Hunter was released before being grabbed and shoved into the locker opposite. Several scouts hovered dangerously close to watch. Something had happened. As if her life couldn't get any worse. She wasn't left in suspense long.

"Dvezda is dead. Shot by two imperial scouts out in the seventh."

Dvezda was the one who set fire to her duffel bag. Hunter wasn't particularly broken up over her. But her mind swirled trying to figure out how it happened. The scouts stuck to high routes wherever possible to avoid chemical and dust residue from previous engagements. The sight lines were also better.

"They're mapping the city routes to set up countermeasures for me. They wouldn't bother sending in infantry like that in otherwise," she was mumbling to herself. It was a sign that her plan was working. She'd already gotten direct confirmation on that. But it meant she was causing anxiety throughout the chain. That was good.

She was on the floor. She didn't even see the punch coming. "Yes. Dvezda is dead because of you." Oh. That's why they were upset. They continued shouting and gave others some orders. But the one that snapped her back to attention was taking her hook-suit away.

No. She clutched at the captain's leg. "Please. I'll stop. I won't do it again, I promise."

Her words meant nothing. Hunter already knew that. When she started winning against the giants she faced the grim realization that she was exactly like the pilots she hated. Vainglorious. Addicted to the power and adrenaline rush. Enamored with the dance. But she couldn't do anything else. She didn't know how to do anything else.

"Velia!" The captain shouted across the room to one of the scouts by the door. "Your new assignment is keeping an eye on Falke."

All Hunter could do was watch as everything was taken. Her gear was disassembled. Or at least they attempted to disassemble it. The scouts had never gotten a look at how it worked, so the interior cabling that kept her limbs from being torn off was a shock to them. The only detachable parts were the helmet and oxygen system. Eventually it got shoved into a trunk and taken somewhere.

Velia hovered over her with an annoyed frown. She was tall and pretty. Of all the scouts to be saddled with, Velia would have been Hunter's first choice anyways. Velia hadn't taken part in any of the harassment. Though that was a low bar.

Once everyone else had left the room Velia offered Hunter a hand. She forced an awkward sympathetic smile. "I'm sure you're not as awful as everyone says. I'm Velia. You prefer to go by Hunter, right?"

Hunter took Velia's hand and was pulled to her feet. It was the first time any of the scouts had called her Hunter. She'd take any small win she could at that point.

Hunter and Velia's patrol route was quiet. Of course it was quiet. Every patrol route was quiet because it was so far away from the front line. The real front line. Not the one the battle maps showed.

"I'm heading north," Hunter mumbled, "This route is useless."

"This is why they all hate you, you know?" Velia adjusted her pack and moved to catch up with Hunter. "You're making our jobs harder because you're doing too much."

"I'm just trying to do the bare minimum."

Velia's hand grasped at Hunter's shoulder. "Hunter, please just do what you've been told."

Just do what she's been told? For months all she's been doing was what she was told. Make yourself useful. Cozy up to the captain. Shut up. Clean the barracks. Do the laundry. Shut up. Do your rounds. Stick to the route. Shut up!

"Shut up!" Hunter screamed and drew her gun as she turned.

The world spun. Her body exploded in pain. A limb twisted wrongly and nearly popped. She was so used to these sensations that she had no idea what happened. She was on the floor and her gun was on the ground a few feet in front of her. Velia had her pinned with a knee on her back, holding her by her wrist and a fist full of hair.

She just went limp, face scraping against the gravel and debris.

Velia let go of Hunter's arm and re-positioned herself on her back. Hunter just closed her eyes and waited. Velia pulled Hunter's hair back and ran her fingers through it. Several frustrated or disappointed grunts later, Hunter was pulled up to sit.

"You could be so pretty if you even put in just a little effort, you know?" Velia frowned and brushed the debris from Hunter's face, and adjusted Hunter's hair a bit. "A haircut. Wash your face properly."

"I don't want to be pretty." I want to be free.

"Is that why you hate your name?"

Velia hadn't removed her hands from Hunter's face. Her fingers were so soft. Why were they so soft? That heat began to rise in Hunter's chest again. They should be covered in callouses like Hunter's were. Not just her. All the scouts. Why were they all so pretty? It didn't make sense. It wasn't fair.

Her thumb traced circles across Hunter's lips. Velia spoke so quietly that Hunter had to push in to hear. "Do you like women? Do you want to kiss me, little Hunter?"

It took a moment for Hunter to process it. She hadn't thought about it. Hunter glanced away before nodding.

"Look me in the eyes and say it."

Hunter choked on the words. Velia was patient. She always seemed so patient. Finally Hunter was able to squeak them out. Just barely. Velia tilted her head and put a hand to her ear. Louder. Hunter swallowed the lump in her throat and forced herself.

"I want to kiss you. Please."

Velia stood up slowly and pat Hunter on the head. "Sorry. I only kiss pretty girls," she said in her sweetest voice, "now hurry up. I want to finish up before the sun goes down."

That. That wasn't fair! Hunter picked her gun back up. She did what she was told. She said what she was told to. Velia wasn't even facing her now. She thumbed at the safety as she stood up. No. Hunter forced herself to put the gun away. She couldn't waste her ticket to the Imperial core.

"Would you kiss me if I was pretty?" Hunter grumbled.

Velia laughed.

"I would do so much more to you than that."

"This is why she acts out, you know?" Velia gave a light chop on the head to the captain. "Those two have been moaning for weeks like they're in heat. Go take of your girls before we decide to elect a new captain."

That was how Velia stopped the captain from harassing Hunter. Once Hunter started doing what Velia told her to, she stopped the harassment from the other scouts just as quickly. She could silence them with a glance.

Hunter knew she was being manipulated. She knew how she was being manipulated. Her moms taught her every trick they knew. But she needed the protection and the lifeline, no matter how conditional they were.

Hunter had her hair trimmed and started wearing it in a ponytail. She hated the feeling of it brushing against her neck, but Velia insisted. Velia's face wash was one of the cheapest there was, and took under a minute to do. Velia was gorgeous and she promised that it would work for Hunter. Hunter had been able to stick with it mostly because she did it when Velia did.

She did everything when Velia did.

Because she hadn't had a moment alone since Velia had been assigned to her.

They went on patrol together when the other scouts worked alone. Velia coached her through writing reports. Velia washed her in the shower. Velia waited outside the washroom. Velia escorted her when she went shopping. Velia helped her with her barracks chores.

Hunter fell asleep every night in Velia's arms. The bunk was cramped and she wasn't allowed to sleep facing Velia or being the big spoon. She wasn't trusted not to molest Velia while she slept. Hunter was upset at the accusation at first.

It was unbearable. All those light touches throughout every day. Her patient smile. The soft words of affirmation. Her hair in the wind. The water running down her back in the shower. Being engrossed in her scent every night. The noises she made into Hunter's ears while she slept.

Horny was the word for her feelings after the first week of it. When she found herself grinding against Velia's wood while she sleep. Velia caught her, and Hunter was thankful that she didn't get outed to the rest of the scouts.

The second week brought a brief reprieve. A nibble. It only served to make the situation more agonizing.

Hunter slumped against the wall during patrol. "I know what you're doing to me," she whined, "I'm not stupid."

"Oh good," Velia let out sigh of relief, "then I don't have to feel bad about it, right?"

Hunter pinched at Velia's clothes. A needy, desperate action. It was what she did when she felt threatened by the other scouts or the captain. Velia leaned in to listen. Hunter knew what she wanted but didn't have the words for it. She opened her mouth to start several times but came up short.

Velia pet her and leaned up against her. "You want a little more attention, right?"

Hunter grasped at Velia's uniform, holding it in weak fists. She nodded eventually. Velia sat down and motioned for Hunter to come in close and wrapped an arm around her. At first that was all Hunter was prepared for. Velia pulled Hunter head onto her chest for use a pillow. Hunter obliged. Listening to Velia’s heartbeat calmed her greatly.

"I know that nobody can survive on scraps. But I don't want the others to get the wrong idea. This is only allowed when we’re alone."

Hunter prayed this level of intimacy would be enough. But she knew she was starting to break down. She needed it so desperately to be enough.

“Am I pretty?”

Velia’s heart rate didn’t change, but she vocalized some emotion. Hunter wasn’t familiar with it. “Can I ask why you don’t use your real name?”

“Hunter is my trade name as a mercenary. Nobody knew my real name before I signed up. I did all my exchanges wearing the hooksuit, so nobody saw my face either.” Hunter paused, it felt silly to explain the rest.

This was a safe place. Artillery could be heard whistling in the great distance. People marched and evacuated below. But she was safe in Velia’s arms.

“When I wear my suit people call me Hunter. They respect me. In the hooksuit I can do so much more than anyone else. Something that can’t be replaced.”

Velia nuzzled the back of Hunter’s head. “I makes you feel special. Dvezda was a concert pianist. I was a swimmer. We were all special when we were kids. But your name is so pretty.”

There it was. Hunter knew the formula. Her sense of identity was compromised. She was alone and begging for attention. She’d been working towards the promise of a kiss once she’d become pretty. If she tossed aside Hunter, and the power the name gave her, she could be pretty.

It's not worth it.

“I want to hear you say it,” Hunter closed her eyes and focused on listening.

Ilina Falke. Velia made it sound pretty in a way that nobody else did. She said it a few more times, playing with it in different voices and tones. “Can I call you by it?”

Hunter nodded against her better judgement.

Ilina shuffled uncomfortably a few steps behind Velia. “I got a letter. It’s a personal thing, and it’s really important.”

Velia cocked an eyebrow and waited for the request.

“Can I go alone? It should only be a few hours. I won’t get into trouble. I promise. I’m just talking with someone.“ What if Velia said no? What if Velia had any questions. Surely she would. It had been nearly a month of her hovering over every second of her life and she never seemed to be burdened by the task.

“Sundown,” Velia said finally. She looked uneasy about it. “We meet back here before sundown.“

Ilina’s eyes lit up. “Really?” It couldn’t be that easy.

Velia hugged Ilina suddenly and began fixing her hair and clothes. Making sure the ponytail was even, adjusting her collar. Like an overprotective older sister about to send her on a date.

“The only way to know if you will succeed,” Velia asserted, “Is to give you opportunities for failure. Show me that my trust isn’t misplaced, Ilina.”

Getting the okay from Velia was good. Ilina was being given chances again. So all she had to do was not do anything dangerous that might disrupt the status quo of the scouts regiment she was assigned to. Such as being a spy.

Right now her only mission from Adrijan was to make herself useful to the scouts. Their meetings thus far only served as motivations and reminders of what her task was. Presumably at some point in the future when she was actually had access to intel and the regiment’s trust, she would be given instructions on how to pass that information on.

This was a bad time for this meeting. It could ruin what she’d worked for. There were others within the rebellion who could pass messages to her. But Ilina had no way to pass messages back. She had no way to abort.

Deep breaths. Her moms’ lessons filtered back. Imperial spycraft. The history and fundamentals of mechanized warfare. Rebellion scouting principals. Asymmetrical warfare. The lessons she had leaned on the most in the past years were the lessons on asymmetrical warfare and mechanized warfare.

As she maneuvered through skeleton city she focused on rebel scouting principals and spycraft. She knew the routes the scouts used, and how to avoid being seen by them. She also knew that the blind spots in those routes were well known. Her biggest concern was Velia tracking her.

She took it slow at first. Asking scavengers and merchants for directions and getting lost. She made her way through some crowds along the way. Nothing was moving with her that she could see. No familiar faces, no tall pretty women. After an hour she made herself scarce.

Ilina’s route combined the blind spots of the patrol routes that overlapped and places in view of routes unused for the day in the schedule. She made short work of her trip to the seventh where she found an abandoned hotel.

The room she waited in had a door but no handle. The inside was gutted and space cleared. Some holes in the wall large enough to pass through to an adjacent room. She checked it. Empty.

The white box waited for her in the middle of the room, the arrow pointing out towards a window. There was a pair of handcuffs laid neatly in the box. She’d been told to cuff herself, kneel, and wait. She removed her weapons and laid them aside, took off her cloak. In a cracked mirror she double checked all the things Velia took the time to make nice. And then she waited.

Adrijan’s heels clicked loudly down the wood flooring of the hallway. She had two guards, as usual. She came into the room with little fanfare.

“I almost didn’t recognize you Ilina,” Adrijan’s voice was smooth. A little drip of awe tucked away in it. Adrijan almost began another sentence.

“I knew it!” Velia slipped in from the other room, gun in hand.

That room was just empty. When did Velia get in there?

Before Ilina could shout or explain herself, Adrijan had her by the ponytail. She’d been so careful to avoid this. She watched silently as Velia stormed across the room. A tempest of emotions swirled with each step she made. Anger was the obvious start. But the others stopped making sense to Ilina.

Velia dropped her pistol to the floor and fell to her knees in front of Adrijan. Velia wrapped herself around the officer’s thighs and started forcing the pencil skirt up as she buried her face as deep between Adrijan’s thighs as she could. Her hands seemed similarly occupied sliding up under the skirt as well.

"And here I was about to praise Ilina for staying out of trouble," Adrijan pet Velia's head so tenderly it made Ilina squirm. "But, I take it that accomplishment was yours."

Velia responded. Not that Ilina or Adrijan could hear her with her face buried so deep. Just a muffled, gleeful sound. Finally Velia pulled back just enough to be heard. "That’s right," she hummed while rubbing herself all over the officer's thighs, “I’ve worked very hard to keep her in check these past few weeks Addie. I deserve treats and attention.”

There was too much to process, so Ilina simply stopped. She wasn’t told to speak and so she had nothing to say. The two of them chatted so casually, as if they’d been friends their entire lives. Velia licked and huffed the beneath Adrijan’s skirt, and Adrijan made no effort to stop her.

Their conversation was primarily about Ilina. Or more precisely the work that Velia had put into taming Ilina. The phrasing would have been more appalling had she not already detached herself from the situation.

“I’ll be back in regular contact soon, and I’ll make sure to reward you properly.” Adrijan gave Velia a quick kiss on the cheek as she turned to leave. Velia let out an excited noise before saluting her as she left.

Velia pulled out a set of keys and took off Ilina’s cuffs. “Let’s get you home then.”

The trip to the barracks was quiet. Velia’s hand rested gently on Ilina’s shoulder or neck depending on what was comfortable for her at the time.

“Did you know that Officer Adrijan—?”

“Nope!” Velia shushed her.

That made Ilina feel better. She wasn't sure how to feel, but decided the feeling was better. She was lucky that Velia was the one to find out. If Velia was in regular contact with Adrijan then she could teach her all the skills needed. And she wasn’t alone anymore. Good. This was good.

Any noise and bustle in the barracks stopped when Ilina entered the room. It always did. But Velia marched her to the center of the common room. She was practically skipping.

“Guess who just saw Addie!” She gloated. The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. It seemed to be infectious, spreading to people who had not heard Velia’s original proclamation. Ilina was largely ignored despite being Velia’s appendage.

What was Jan wearing? Why hasn’t she contacted any of us? So Dvezda’s term finished? I can’t believe she left me behind, we were going to get married!

What about Falke?

The room got very quiet once Ilina was addressed.

Velia pushed her gently into the middle of the other girls. “Addie’s been telling her to make herself useful to us. We’re just supposed to keep her from causing trouble.”

Useful? Like, doing all our chores? It’s a euphemism, you idiot. Is she any good at oral? She will be.

Her clothes started getting picked at by the girls. They started grabbing her. Eventually she ended up on her knees, being pulled by the ponytail. Several fingers were shoved in her mouth and her uniform forcibly opened.

Of course it was the whole regiment. One or two spies was enough to verify what intel the rebellion had. But if you controlled the whole regiment you got to decide what intel the rebellion had. Things that hadn’t sat right with Ilina started to click into place. Why they were all so lazy. Why the maps were drawn the way they were.

She was in hell.

Ilina struggled and reached for Velia. Velia was supposed to keep her out of trouble, wasn't she? Wasn't Ilina in trouble? Her trembling hand grasped at her pant leg and she looked up. Help. Tears ran down her cheeks. Please. She was terrified. Please help me. Velia would protect her like she had so many times before.

Velia smiled. No. It was different than the reassuring, kind smile Ilina needed to see. It was the kind of excited smile one wore when all their hard work paid off.

"Oh," Velia's voice fluttered, "that's the face I've been waiting to see. You're so beautiful like that. I owe you a kiss, don't I?" She knelt down and pulled Ilina's face up by the chin. "Look me in the eyes and promise me you're going to be a good girl from now on."

Don't say it.

"I promise," her voice cracked. "I'll be good from now on."

Velia's lips brushed Ilina's for just a moment and Hunter died.