Chapter 1: Soldier Sensitive

29 May 279 Post Nuclear Holocaust (PNH)

The stubby white chalk squeaked against the slate at the front of the class, a sour note amidst the triumphant chatter of the students. Triumphant because this was the last class of their secondary school career.

Minerva liked ancient history, but today she barely registered Teacher Heloise's litany of common mistakes from the final. Even if she hadn't been eager to go heatup with her friends after class, it would have been impossible to rise above the elation rolling off of her dozen classmates in waves and drenching Minerva so thoroughly that it was hard to tell where their emotions ended and hers began.

When the old tube that pushed hot water through the classroom started sputtering ominously, Minerva and half the class turned and shrieked, interrupting Heloise's dissection of the word "Indian." The fat water pipes that ran through the entire city, keeping all rooms at least ten degrees above freezing, had been built so long ago and bore so many patches, that the threat of one bursting and soaking them was quite real.

"It's just air bubbles, like always," shouted Heloise impatiently, mentally adding, How can these fools find that more interesting than racial identities?

Minerva forced herself to settle down and made an effort to disengage Empathically from her classmates - she wasn't usually a shrieker, and Heloise was probably right about the bubbles. Minerva glanced left at her cousin Rex, a hulking fellow with tight reddish-brown curls cropped close to his skull. Did he hear me shriek? He'll tease me for weeks…

Luck was with her. Rex had been focused on unravelling a scrap of cloth for thread. From his thoughts, Minerva gathered that her aunt had asked him to do this last night, and he was trying to finish before she found out he hadn't. But Heloise's scolding had distracted him from his task.

"Aw, come on, Teach. Whether or not the heater's finally going to burst and make us walk home soaking wet is more important than the definition of a deleted word," he said.

Minerva couldn't quite suppress a smirk; most of her classmates laughed outright. Honestly, she sort of agreed with Rex - racial terms had fallen out of use the same time as family names, well over two hundred years ago. She had Remembered the complicated etymology of Indian for the final - a perk of being a Level 3 Memoir - but she didn't really see it ever being useful in the future. She had more tact than to say so to Heloise, though.

Between Rex's build (that of a small house) and his Vitality (Level Four), most people found him so intimidating that they let Rex get away with just about anything. Minerva on the other hand looked delicate more than anything else. Their only common feature was curly hair, though hers was the color of polished tiger eye agates instead of Rex's rust. She was a good thirty centimeters shorter than her cousin, with a heart-shaped face and freckles like cinnamon on milk tea. To top it off, she had large grey eyes that people always thought of as "vulnerable."

Heloise's lips twisted and furrowed the skin around them. Good thing he's headed for the Guard - a bunch of Lerks, the lot of them. Hearing Heloise's mental dismissal of her aunt, uncle, father, and two grandparents, Minerva lost her smile. But she had gone all year without revealing that she picked up most of the teacher's thoughts without trying, so surely she could manage one last class. After all, "Haters gonna hate, so shake it off" was Minerva's favorite proverb.

Iced by Rex's impudence, Heloise directed her next correction at him. "If you don't want to spend the afternoon cleaning my classroom, tell me how many people lived in Churchill Falls before the nuclear holocaust. It was not seven thousand, as you said on the exam."

Rex's head jerked up, his expression that of a dog who's been scolded. "That's not fair! I bet even Merva doesn't Remember that one."

Heloise smirked and said, "Even in the Guard, Rex, you need to know basic history, or you'll flunk out and lose your right to an allotment." Some of Minerva's classmates twitched at the idea, those whose parents struggled to consistently "perform work that contributes to the health of the city, and earn a fair allotment in exchange." Before the bombs fell, Churchill Falls had been a town of seven hundred (Minerva hadn't Remembered, but she had heard the answer in Heloise's thoughts), run by the power company. Even though Canada had been capitalist, the refugees that poured into Churchill established a communist democracy that persisted today.

"Don't worry, Teach," Rex said slyly, "I'll get Merva to tutor me - she's going into the Guard, too, you know." Minerva was the first student Heloise had actually liked in ten years. Most people liked her - Minerva kept her Empathy subtle, and people preferred to think that she understood them so well because they were highly rational beings.

Heloise looked at Minerva. "You're going into the Guard?" If her intonation to Rex had been sneering, it was now totally contemptuous. But she's so tiny, Heloise wailed internally. Those maniacs will grind her away to nothing!

Minerva was small, but every inch of her was tightly corded with muscle. It frustrated her that people always ignored that, and as she heard several of her peers echoing Heloise's thoughts, Minerva's pride was hurt. She always held herself erect, but Minerva pulled her spine even straighter and managed to raise her head and shoulders minutely.

"Yes, Teacher. My cousin Rex and I have several family members in the Guard - and my father is a trainer at the academy." Minerva projected just a bit of her indignation to Heloise. But it made no difference.

"That doesn't mean it's a good choice for you! Your social aptitude tests were off the charts!"

Yours must have been a little lacking, Minerva thought. Minerva took a moment to stroke the coarse stitches on her patched sleeve, helping her keep her surging emotions under control. "Teacher Heloise, those results are confidential."

Heloise waved this away, and the entire class leaned forward with the gross curiosity that drives people to stare at violent accidents. "Everyone knows it. You're a Level Five Empath! I don't think this city has seen more than four of those - and you're a Level Three Memoir. You could help so many people!"

Minerva wished that she could stand and tower over Heloise, but she knew from experience that rising would just emphasize her slight stature. "I intend to help people. I intend to help them as a Guard."

"You can't tell me this choice is state-approved? Surely it goes against your official recommendation?" said Heloise in disbelief. "Your training allotment will be reduced if it is," she added.

Enough was enough. "I have passed the academy exams, and I will take my place there next month. Perhaps, Teacher Heloise, if you respected your students rather than resented us, you could become a teacher who supports our goals rather than one who's surprised by them." And Minerva lashed Heloise with regret.

Heloise sat abruptly and whispered, "I'm sorry." Being trapped in a job you hate...it wears away your soul.

Minerva flushed. Now she felt like a troll. Heloise's incessant negativity did more self-harm than anything else.

Minerva took a deep breath. She sent a tendril of reassurance to her teacher. "I shouldn't have said that. You thought you were keeping your thoughts to yourself. Thank you for trying to share your passion for history with us - I'm sure we'll all use it in our various careers. Including, as you say, the Guard."

Minerva sensed skepticism from her classmates, but Teacher Heloise looked so pitiful in her deflated state that most of them nodded and added their own thanks as well. By the time the class bell rang, Heloise showed signs of making a full recovery. Still, Minerva was slow to leave, studying her teacher as her classmates (including Rex, whose punishment had been forgotten) rushed to the door. The room was almost empty when she shrugged on her outer jacket - a patchwork of every green Minerva had been able to salvage from the bin her family had received. She fastened its various metal buttons carefully.

"Minerva," Heloise said tentatively when only they were left in the room.


"I am sorry - it's easy to forget just how much you can pick up from others. I've never spent much time around an Empath as strong as you…well, who has?" Heloise laughed weakly. "I - I hope you will be careful at the academy. I've talked to former students - there's a reason most Guards have Vitality. It's very challenging -"

Minerva grit her teeth. But she managed a curt thanks before she left.

Out in the hallway, she shivered once despite the jacket. The secondary school, like most of the large buildings in Churchill, had been constructed mostly from prefabricated materials brought from lost cities. This hallway, and most of the others that connected the city like a rat warren, consisted of antique shipping containers that had once carried food and goods thousands of miles over land. Though unheated, it was insulated and kept out the worst of the chill - even in May, the temperature was below freezing more often than not. A string of LEDs mounted on the ceiling revealed peeling red paint in this particular section.

"Hi, Merva," waved a sophomore who had done hockey intramurals with her, drawing other students' attention.

"Good luck, Merva," said another with a smile, and, "Congrats, inda!" said a third.

Minerva smiled and thanked them. Kim Secondary School had less than a thousand students and Minerva knew most of them. She was popular because of her abilities and her mother's prominence rather than any particular extroversion of her own.

She had gone only a few steps when she felt Rex behind her, moving fast. She braced herself as he lifted her at the waist. Rex whooped happily as he swung her through the air. She let him have his moment, then reminded him, "Non-consensual touching, Rex."

He set her down and gave her a little space but was otherwise unrepentant. Truthfully, the words were almost meaningless to the two of them - her dad had taught her to say them when Rex got too rough while playing and Minerva had worn them out over the past twelve years.

"This is gonna be great, cuz! You and me in the Guards." He began to follow her as she resumed the stride he had interrupted.

"What joy." Actually, she was glad that she and Rex were entering the academy together. He did not have an ounce of sensitivity - even when Minerva attempted to share it Empathically - but he was wholly well-intentioned and as constant as the clouds overhead. If he could get it through his head that just because he could throw her did not mean he should do so…

"Whatcha up to?" Rex asked.

"I'm meeting Nadine and Prisca - there they are now." She indicated the junction ahead, where her friends were waiting, playing hacky sack to pass the time. They looked cute together, about the same height and build but Nadine with dark brown skin and short black locs and Prisca with a creamy tan and with a spiky black undercut that was called the animé - Minerva didn't know why.

"Hi, indas," she smiled at them.

"Hey, yourself!" said Prisca with a one-armed hug.

Nadine and Prisca were a couple and Minerva's best friends. Her favorite thing about them was that they knew who they were and were comfortable with themselves. Their thoughts matched their words and they never asked Minerva to play mediator or to keep secrets.

"You ready for Mac's?" Nadine asked.

"Sounds great," Rex agreed. Nadine looked at him in surprise.

"Um, right then," said Nadine.

"Rex is celebrating us both joining the Guard," Minerva arched a brow at her friend.

Nadine laughed. "The poor Guards - they don't know what they're getting with two indas like you! Minerva, Soldier Sensitive, and Rex, Soldier Obtuse."

"I think it's perfect, we balance each other out!" said Rex.

"You would think that," Nadine retorted.

Impulsively, Minerva reached out and squeezed Nadine and Prisca's hands. She got a surge of love through her palms. "I'm gonna miss you two."

"Eh, you'll find some musclebound Vital who finally fills that place in your heart and forget about us."

Minerva felt the slight spike of insecurity along with Nadine's teasing words, and shook her head. "I might accept the muscle-bound Vital, but forget you? Never. Promise me you'll let me be your third wheel on Canada Day?"

"Well, duh!" said Prisca, and Minerva felt Nadine's contentment.

"Can I join?" asked Rex.

"No," the women chorused together. Rex was unperturbed, and continued to walk with them down the dim metal corridor, leaving the school's campus as they headed to a tea shop. As graduating seniors, they had each been given an extra token today as a reward.

"Give me the inside scoop," Rex said to Minerva. "What has Uncle Augustus told you about the academy?"

"Dad hasn't said much to me that he hasn't said to you. And if you aren't ready now, it doesn't really matter does it? We start in less than a month."

"Seriously, you two will eat, drink, and sleep the Guard in a just a few weeks. Can't we talk about something else?" put in Nadine.

The tea shop was easily recognized thanks to a repeated red stencil, "Mac's Drinks and Food, Yummy and Hot," on its gunmetal exterior.

"Okay, then, what are you two doing next month?" Rex asked amiably as they slid open the shop's barn doors.

"I'm entering training for massage therapy," Prisca told him.

"Oh, yeah? We should heatup sometime!"

Prisca just laughed and wound her way through the small tea shop to their favorite antique coffee table. (Coffee, Minerva knew, was an old drug that used to be very popular and state-approved, but it was not grown in the greenhouses because it had little nutritional value).

"What it'll be?" asked the waiter with a friendly smile of recognition for the three women.

"The usual," said Nadine, meaning candied orange peel.

"Chili peanuts," was Prisca, and Minerva ordered dried strawberries. Rex asked for the whole menu to be recited and then decided he just wanted hot water, which the rest of them got as well.

Nadine had received a letter from her advisor, detailing some books she needed to borrow from the library before her apprenticeship began - Nadine was joining the Growers Guild just like her parents. After a few moments on this topic, Rex turned to Minerva to discuss the academy.

Finally, Minerva offered what he wanted. "Rex, why don't you just come to dinner and ask Dad yourself?"

He beamed. "I thought you'd never ask! Shall we go?"

Minerva rolled her eyes, but agreed.

"Enjoy the library," she told her friends, and Rex and she exited the small tea shop. She did not mind as much as she might normally because she preferred the academy discussion to Nadine's plant prattle.

"Isn't that weird for you?" Rex asked as soon as they were outside.

Nadine and Prisca were all she could pick up from his thoughts. "What do you mean?" she asked in bemusement.

"Their dating. I mean, you and Nadine were partners for like a month."

"Yeah, but we were friends first. Actually, I was curious and wanted to try dating when she suggested it, but we both quickly realized I prefer men." She tapped her head meaningfully. "Kind of hard to hide your feelings when, you know."

"Oh, when you're making out?"

Minerva rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that." Eager to change the subject, she asked, "So, the academy confirmed you're a Level 4, right? I was wondering, what's the healing test like?"

Rex tugged back his right sleeve on his heavy jacket to reveal unblemished skin. He dragged a finger across his forearm. "Sliced me with a scalpel right here. Healed up in about an hour." He pulled his sleeve back in place.

"Mmm," Minerva's stomach roiled. Holding still to let someone cut you - ugh. "You know, when they first discovered Vitality, they extracted cells and experimented on them under microscopes. Seems a lot more civilized, doesn't it?"

"I don't know - it weirds me out enough that they'll sequence our DNA soon; I'm glad they didn't stick me with a bunch of needles. It's like an invasion of privacy if you ask me. I'm glad we no longer have those, what did they call ‘em - you know, the little machines they use to put everywhere that were like eyes?"

"Oh, cameras."

"Yeah, those."

"There are still cameras around, you know - Mother has one."

"Sure, well, she's the Secretary of Energy. All politicians have things the rest of us don't."

Rex didn't sound resentful, but Minerva found herself explaining, "Well, hers is on a mobile computer. You know, the ones where the screen is the size of a palm, and it lets her connect to the Internet from anywhere. She needs it in case something happens at the plant..."

"Yeah, it makes sense, but you know, sometimes I wonder if all these old ANH techs are really as hard to keep around as they say. I sure would like something like that; I bet most people would."

Minerva wished she could reassure him that her mother was telling the truth, but she did not know. Juno never let Minerva touch her; she claimed she did not want Minerva to learn classified information by accident. But Minerva knew that wasn't the real reason.

"Here we are," Minerva announced.

Rex hesitated as he took in a pink-uniformed Guard to the right of the door. He didn't come over very often - Augustus was far more likely to take Minerva to his sister's than invite his family over. None of his family was at ease with Juno. Minerva half-expected Rex to chat up the Guard, but he followed her in docilely, impressed into silence for once. Inside, his eyes roamed over the foyer. "I always forget how fancy it is."

Minerva felt a little uncomfortable. She had lived here for ten years, ever since her mother had been appointed Secretary of Energy. The home followed the title, and it was as far from the cramped, interchangeable apartments that most families had as an orange was from orange peel tea. The floor was a green marble veined with white and the ceiling had real wood beams arching far above them. A sphere of LEDs dangled overhead like a glowing snowball.

"They just assign a nice house to the Secretary of Energy because there's state parties and meetings here sometimes."

"Makes you wonder how the governor lives."

There was a muffled barking from inside the house - Fido must be trapped in the kitchen.

"Is that Fido?" asked Rex eagerly. "Can we go play with him?"

Fido - full name Fidelus - was a former Guard dog that had lost a leg. Augustus had saved him from the slaughterhouse by turning him into a training dog for cadets. In general, allotments didn't provide for pets.

Minerva laughed, "Yeah, but first you better give me your coat so I can hang it up - Mother is a stickler for stuff like that." She hung her outerwear in a closet and was reaching for Rex's - he was still distracted by his surroundings, studying an original painting that dated before the nuclear holocaust - when a throat cleared to her right. Minerva clenched her teeth to stop from jumping. She knew who it was before she turned; very few people got close to her without her picking up their emotions.

"Mother, you're home early."

"I wanted to celebrate your graduation." She turned her gaze to her nephew and smiled. "Hello, Rex. It's been a while."

Rex cleared his throat. "Hi, Aunt Juno. I was hoping to talk to Uncle Augustus."

"Of course, you probably want to chat about the academy. But I'm sorry, Rex, Augustus is not home...I know this is quite rude of me to ask, as you walked all this way, but I was able to steal away from work for an hour and was really hoping to have some quality time with Minerva. Would you…?"

"Oh, of course, ma'am! My parents will want me home, anyway." He started refastening his jacket. Minerva looked at him in disbelief. He chose this moment to be a people pleaser? Minerva had no wish to be alone with her mother. She did not know what Juno wanted, but it definitely was not "quality time."

Once he was gone, Minerva turned back to her mother and found her stare much colder than the metal tunnel they'd just walked through. Taking a deep breath, Minerva demanded, "Well?"

Chapter 2: The Secretary of Energy

Minerva hated to admit it, but she looked like a miniature version of her mother. Juno had the same corkscrew curls, dark with bits of honey, large grey eyes with long black lashes against creamy brown skin, and a wide, expressive mouth. Despite turning fifty this year, her figure was slim and athletic, her skin smooth and taut.

Juno was much taller though. She was the same height as Minerva's father, a good fifteen centimeters more than Minerva herself. Alas, Minerva hadn't grown in years, so it was unlikely she'd reach their height.

"I saw that you were going to the Guard Academy against official recommendation."

This again? Seriously?

"I've wanted to go into the Guard since I was three. You'd know that if you were ever around." Minerva strained, but Juno's emotions were locked down, as always. It gave Minerva the unnerving impression her mother wasn't even human. She knew that most people found her mother appealing, charming even, but to Minerva, it was as if her soul had the same thick snow walls that encircled Churchill.

"Come, let's sit at the table and discuss this like adults."

Minerva followed her from the foyer through a narrow hallway, passing first photographs then sketched portraits of previous Secretaries of Energy. They ended in a large dining room, with gray walls and wood panelling. Minerva disliked this room; the walls in their old home had been covered with repurposed cloth, just like her friends' houses. Those walls whispered stories; these seemed devoid of life.

"I know that you have been interested in the Guard for a long time, but you show an amazing aptitude for therapy. I've read your reports you know - so many of your classmates relied upon you. That is amazing for anyone, and you are so young."

Did her mother really believe that or was it a political speech? Minerva didn't know what to say.

"When you helped that woman, Yoon? She was deeply moved."

Minerva had literally bumped into Yoon four years ago, shortly after the woman had been raped by her date. They had both been enveloped in trauma and stress, but Minerva had helped her to a Guard station to report the attack. Later, she had agreed to Empathically guarantee the woman's testimony - but she had been required to guarantee the rapist's as well.

"Helped her?" Minerva burst out. "It was my fault that Lerk wasn't exiled." The man had turned out to be so narcissistic that he truly believed his assault had been desired by Yoon. The judge had assigned him to consent training. "I wish I hadn't done anything." She flushed.

"I -" Juno actually seemed at a loss for once, and Minerva picked up the barest hint of sorrow. No, please not sorrow. She stopped straining for her mother's emotions. "I can understand why you think that, but Minerva, you have a unique skill. You would be such an asset to the justice department. People would look up to you, we really need more Empaths -"

"Mother. You say you understand how I feel, but you don't. If you were willing…" Minerva held out her hand in entreaty.

"Minerva. You know you can't touch me, and you know why."

Anger crashed through Minerva the way the thaw crashes through the Churchill Falls. She stood up abruptly and ignored the valuable wood chair that clattered on the floor - though she noticed Juno's wince. "Yeah, I know why I can't touch you, but do you? Are you honest with yourself or do you actually believe those lies about state secrets? Why don't I find out once and for all?" Minerva lunged forward and banged her thigh painfully on the table.

Juno pushed back, a thread of fear reaching Minerva, but it only fed her fury.

"It - it is unlawful to force a person into contact with an Empath -"

"I'm your freezing daughter!" Minerva climbed onto the table, disregarding its ominous creaking.

"I'm not just your mother, Minerva, I am the Secretary of Energy!" Minerva was not sensing much from her mother, but the shrillness of her voice spoke for itself.

"And that's so much more important to you!" But Minerva hesitated. "Look, Mother, I won't try to read you, just share…"

Juno was shaking her head. "You don't have that much control."

"How would you know!" Her brief hesitation ended; Minerva advanced across the table.

"D-don't," Juno stammered, and turned as if to run from the room. Minerva leaped from the table and tackled her, just like in rugby.

My wrist! cried Juno silently, but it was her other thought that lacerated Minerva: She's just like him.

Minerva scurried back on her bottom, banging her head against a chair in her rush, her anger dissipating as quickly as it had come. "Mother -" Her voice cracked, and the tears came fast and swift. "Tell me -"

"What's going on here?" demanded a fierce voice. Dad, Minerva realized in surprise. She usually picked up his presence sooner than anyone else's, in her preoccupation, she hadn't even felt him come in the house.

"Nothing!" Minerva said quickly - far too quickly to be plausible, even if it hadn't been for the obvious disarray, and the fact that Juno was cradling her arm and acting like Minerva was some fearsome beast.

Which maybe I am, Minerva thought. A tear dripped off her cheek and splashed on her hand.

"Mother and I were fighting about my entering the Guard Academy," she said finally to break the silence.

"Physically?" Augustus asked in disbelief. He hesitated, then walked to his spouse and helped her up.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Juno snapped, still watching Minerva warily.

"This isn't like you," Augustus said reproachfully - to Minerva, not Juno. Juno regularly snapped at her spouse, when she noticed him at all. He reached out a hand to Minerva. She flinched back, then cursed herself for doing so. She reined in her thoughts, and grabbed her father's hand before the hurt on his face could transform into questions.

The hurt eased, but it was replaced by puzzlement. Minerva usually shared her thoughts and feelings openly with her father. Her father. Snow and ice.

"I'm sorry, Dad, Mother, I guess I had a rough day. I went a little crazy. It was totally unacceptable."

"Have you changed your mind about the Guard?"

"No, Mother." Minerva raised her and Augustus's linked hands slightly. "I'm following in my dad's footsteps."

Juno's lips compressed. "Fine. I'm going back to work."

"Let me at least take care of your wrist," Augustus protested.

When Juno hesitated, he added, "You really want to explain to some nurse that your daughter beat you up?" Again he glanced at Minerva, and she knew she had only delayed the questions.

"Fine," Juno snapped again. She walked from the room and Augustus followed her.

Minerva sunk back to the floor, her hands trembling, and her gut clenching.


When the tremors in her fingers had ceased, Minerva went to the kitchen and put a little grated frozen ginger and lemon peel to steep for tea. She got down the honeypot and added almost a gram of honey to her cup - an overindulgence for sure, but she needed it. She did not put any in her dad's - he avoided honey on the basis that a little made him crave more.

Fido was making a typical nuisance of himself. A former sled dog, he had thick white and rust fur and a big bushy tail that dusted the stainless steel counter leg while he pressed his side against Minerva, threatening to topple her with affection. He shed abominably, so he was usually confined to the kitchen, but to Minerva's mind, that was just one more reason that it was the homiest room in the house. She thought of it as her and her dad's place - the two of them cooked together for family meals, its warmth made it perfect for yoga in the early morning, and having a cup of tea at the counter was a daily ritual when her dad came home from work.

Preparing the tea today calmed her mind. She knew Augustus would expect to hold her hand as they silently shared their days - or parts of them, anyway - and she wanted to be ready for that. Her mother had made a strategic error, she thought to herself, by never touching her. Her dad, who was used to the full strength of her Empathy, had learned years ago how to filter his thoughts effectively. She had always assumed it was mostly so he did not share too much information about bodily functions and the like, but now she could not help but wonder if he had secrets too. Of course, Juno's secret was so old, Minerva supposed it would have been hard for her to learn to hide it before it came out...

That line of thinking was quickly unravelling all the good that preparing the tea had done. She focused on Fido, who felt unrelieved delight as he heard Augustus's tread. The pocket door slid open and Fido hurried over to it. Augustus held out his hand obligingly and Fido licked it before demanding his ears be scratched.

"Good boy," Augustus said absently. He looked older than Juno, his buzz cut more gray than black and smile lines radiating from his dark eyes.

Augustus summoned a tight smile before pouring the tea into their steel mugs - they had some antique china as well, but it was for political guests. He passed her the one with honey.

Most people found Augustus's face guarded, but Minerva could read his feelings like they were written out. He was keeping his anger in check until he knew more - Augustus was very good at that, probably a result of dealing with Guard cadets for the past twelve years - but there was certainly confusion and disappointment at the fore. Underneath it there was love, but usually that was uppermost as well as pride and indulgence.

Rationally, Minerva felt disappointed in herself as well, so she should not have been hurt by her dad's emotions. But she was.

She accepted the cup of tea from him and sipped it.

"Do you want to show me what happened? Or -" he hesitated, "- do you want to tell me?"

Minerva's eyes flew to his face; he had never made the latter offer before. She was briefly tempted to take him up on it, but then she held out her hand firmly, palm up, and he placed his on top. Images were harder to share than words; with non-Empaths, she found it easier to touch them.

This actually soothed her better than the tea. Her dad's hand was very warm with thick calluses. It was heavily muscled, like the rest of him, if not particularly large. She had always supposed her slight stature came from his side of the family; his mother was about Minerva's own height.

Sharing the encounter with him was easy at first; she didn't try to excuse herself, just show what happened. How Juno's refusal to touch her, while expected, was still a slap in the face. Augustus would understand; he knew better than anyone how draining it was to never receive any affection from the one who is supposed to love you the most. Not that they had talked about it; Augustus's interactions with Juno and feelings toward her were one of the few things he always suppressed. Which told Minerva enough.

She was careful at the end though; she cut off the memory when she touched Juno. Let her dad come to his own conclusions, let him think it was part of the old problem. Which, she realized with sudden insight, it probably was.

Augustus rubbed her palm soothingly with his thumb, his face distant. Though his thoughts were tamped down, and Minerva tried not to pry, she heard, Maybe it would help...old enough ...yes, I think.

Suddenly memories came flooding through. Augustus, still in the Guard, acting as security for a previous Secretary of Energy, who kept handing things to his assistant until the poor girl was overloaded. Augustus offered to help, and with a start, Minerva recognized her mother. Minerva was a little embarrassed to feel her father's surge of attraction, twenty years from the past though it was. Juno had been a rare beauty, with her long hair in a complex updo of braids and curls that emphasized her slender neck. But it was her face that made the biggest difference - all the same features, but more animated, more open. Juno smiled at Augustus, and her whole face lit up; it was nothing like the cultivated charm Minerva knew.

Augustus brushed past the courtship - Minerva did her best to school her features into neutrality as she picked up "best sex of my life" and actively retreated so that she didn't accidentally hear anything else. He showed the day they filed their marriage. He was wearing his uniform and Juno wore jewelry, a set of jade that Minerva had seen on state occasions; Augustus's parents never totally warmed to Juno, but the gift of jade had served as a blessing.

At first, they were perfectly in sync, if both busy with their careers. Juno was transferred to the governor's office. César, governor both now and then, was more demanding than her last boss, often requiring that she work late into the night. Then Juno got pregnant. Augustus remembered when she told him; their laughter and tears of joy, and Juno's declaration that she was going to take time off from work to be Minerva's primary caregiver.

The pregnancy was hard. Juno worked throughout it, and had trouble gaining enough weight. Her work hours and stress weren't conducive to a healthy pregnancy.

Augustus paused, focusing on when he first held Minerva. She was just a little red blur - he had forgotten what she looked like as a newborn - but his love, his pride, they diffused through her, just as they had when she was a baby, cushioning her from the world, and easing her heart.

Things started to go wrong immediately. Juno was not eating much, so neither was Minerva - she wasn't gaining weight. The doctor called it "failure to thrive." She said Juno wasn't making enough milk. Augustus tried to coax Juno's appetite by making her favorite dishes, but when that failed, he started fighting with her.

One day after work, he found Minerva lying on the floor, crying hoarsely. Augustus picked her up and she calmed almost immediately, rooting against his chest for milk. He found Juno in bed.

"How long has Minerva been crying?"

Juno wouldn't meet his eyes. "Was she? It couldn't have been long; I would have woken."

Augustus didn't think Juno had been sleeping at all. And then the strangest thing. He saw himself from an outside perspective, his nose and eyes massive as he made cooing noises. He felt happy. Then he left and Juno picked him - no, not him, Minerva up. And he - Minerva - felt sadness everywhere. No, not just sadness. There was anger, too. And loathing. Juno set Minerva down on the floor, very gently, and backed away. All the bad feelings retreated. But there was nothing. Just loneliness. Minerva started to cry and scream. She grew tired and slept. When she woke, she cried more. After a very long time, she was picked up and felt the love again, but was still very hungry.

"Our daughter is an Empath," he said out loud.

"I know," Juno whispered.

"Are you trying to kill her?"

Juno rolled over and sobbed.

Augustus didn't go to work the next day. He brought Juno to the doctor's office, and went to a community care center where there were wet-nurses.

After some time, Juno went back to work. She started eating more, and she began expressing milk that Augustus fed to Minerva by soaking a cloth and letting her suck it until she could drink from a cup. Juno continued to make milk for a year, and Augustus told himself that she really did love the baby, she was just ill. As far as he knew, she never touched Minerva again.

Minerva was crying, and so was Augustus. "I guess you already knew some of that." Fido shuffled back and forth between the two of them, unsure who to comfort.

"It's okay, boy," Minerva murmured to Fido, and sent him a pulse of love, which brought his tail out from between his legs.

To her father, she said, "Yes, I knew some." She hadn't known the details, but she had always known why her mother never wanted to touch her. That her mother was full of pain and sorrow.

"She didn't loathe you, you know," Augustus said abruptly. "She loathed herself. She still might."

Minerva fingered the handle on her mug. "Maybe."

"It wasn't anything you did. Sometimes pregnancy and childbirth make people sick."

"You wanted more children." Minerva redirected - it had been in his first memory of holding her.

She felt a wave of sadness from him.

"I had wanted a big family; when I married your mother, I thought it likely we'd get a special dispensation because of our traits."

Minerva nodded. In order to keep the population constant, couples were restricted to two children. However, some people had none and some had only one - like her parents - and when people conceded their right to two children, other couples could apply for it. One of the main reasons for granting the petition was if they had some desirable genetic traits, such as her father's Level Five Vitality or her mother's Level Five Memory.

"Why didn't you divorce Mother?" she asked abruptly.

He squeezed her hand gently, but it was just for comfort. He either had no answer or he didn't want to share it.

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