Mind Fuck, Manna Francis; Chapter Six
Sometimes, the best part of a romance is in those first kick-off moments where two parties are getting acquainted and testing the waters with one another and holding off on doing anything too overt. And sometimes, once all that’s over, and the parties get comfortable with one another, it gets boring. Some spark is lost, and there’s no room for movement, and familiarity breeds contempt or something, and then you’re stuck in a marriage that is so intolerable that you need to find salvation in Twilight fanfiction and…
The good news is that Toreth and Warrick don’t wind up there. The other good news is that the opening bars of their relationship, the dabbling around with one another, the game aspect– is awesome as well. They’re one of the few couples with whom I don’t want to instantly fall in love/lust/like with one another, because watching them in their early stages is compelling enough anyway.
So, Toreth (with his fake name) and Warrick (who realises that Toreth is using a fake name), round two.
They’ve both arrived at the proposed restaurant. Not at the same time; Toreth has been waiting, and making every effort to look effortless and unruffled by this; Warrick is late, with equal levels of disaffectedness about it.
And they’re both completely switched on to what they’re dealing with, from Warrick refusing a pre-dinner drink until he’s eating, and Toreth catching that suspicion just after the refusal. Nonetheless, it’s clear that he wants to control the way things move throughout the night, and that he’s still confident enough to believe that he can.
“What shall we have to start with?” Toreth asked as a silence filler.
Warrick turned the page back and studied the selection. “Well, to start with, you can tell me your real name.”
Score one, Warrick. That was fucking smooth.
Toreth blinked. Damn it, just when he thought he had a handle on the situation the man managed something else unsettling. “I beg your pardon?” he asked.
Warrick’s gaze flicked up long enough to catch his flustered expression, and then returned to the menu. “I think now that this has extended to dinner, a real name is only polite since you know mine. Usually I ask before letting someone come in my mouth, but I think, under the circumstances, that really didn’t count.”
I love Warrick’s sense of humour. And I can so see him saying it, too, perfectly deadpan.
Toreth, of course, is realising that he’s trying for a reaction, and because Toreth does not like losing control– and has no desire to do it again– he tries to think of a response and–
“Very well, if you insist, I shall guess.” He laid the menu down and steepled his fingers. “Mm, let me see. Something like Toth, I imagine, because that makes it easier to respond to naturally. And you don’t look like a Marcus, so let us discount that completely. Something like… Valantin Toreth, perhaps?”
Oh, score. Again, I can so totally see this happening in my mind, and Warrick looking ever-so-slightly triumphant but being so calm about it all that it seems so fucking unfair that this isn’t a TV series.
(Also, Valantin is a fucking awesome name. I love the names these charactars have. The setting described seems to take into account the shift in trends that occurs every few ages with baby names, and the names this generation of characters has have a futuristic yet familiar-enough feel. You could name your kids after characters in the series and people wouldn’t go “Lemme guess, you’re a fan of [insert franchise here], aren’t you?”– they’d just think you’ve chosen something a bit obscure.)
At this rate, speechlessness looked set to become a permanent condition. After a moment, he managed to say, “It’s Val Toreth. And I always go by Toreth.”
Statement confirmed, Warrick then quite casually resumes the conversation where it was before he’d interrupted it with that, and orders dinner.
That’s something else about this series that bears mentioning: while nothing gets bogged down in wordy description, Manna Francis frequently uses food to help set a mood. It’s a bit of an in-joke amongst fans of the series, with one happy reviewer saying
‘Wow: sex, food, torture, conspiracy and family gatherings!’
of the series in the early days. All the things that a lot of writers can’t do well or ignore, but which are written beautifully here.
And it’s done seamlessly, too; it doesn’t feel clunky and like the writer is trying to put her own “special twist” on the story; it feels like just part of the world, a little piece of the puzzle which subtly shows the reader what’s going on. Not being much of a foodie myself (my mother once said that I would rather take a pill than sit down and have a meal– and she was correct. Even now, my attitude to food is, “Does it contain animal products?” and “Is it palatable?” and if the former is a “no,” and the latter is a “yes,” that’s good enough for me. I’m a total black sheep in a family full of people who love food and cooking.) usually this sort of thing goes over my head, but it’s done well and in a way that compliments the story, so even when the technical details go over your head, you can appreciate it as part of the environment.
Toreth, of course, is dying to know how the hell Warrick blew his cover. Warrick obliges: everything was above board, of course: there was no reading top-secret files on I&I employees; Warrick merely used his charm in a manner that could be described as …social engineering. Not only does he explain this to Toreth, but he manages to spread on a healthy layer of flattery, too. And it’s working; Toreth is aware of it, too, and his awareness of losing ground combined with his determination to win this thing is only adding to his stress and causing him to unintentionally reveal his hand.
And of course he’s reading below the surface, and is very much aware that Warrick doesn’t trust him.
The upfront revelation that he knew Toreth’s name was a clear signal saying “I know who you are and you can be damn sure that someone else knows I’m here.”
Another small detail I love is how they’re eating their hors d’oeuvres:
Toreth picked up one of the little biscuits, topped with a fish and herb roulade arrangement and disposed of it in two bites as Warrick began another delicate deconstruction.
I love the way we get to see these subtle — but completely opposite– differences not explicitly stated, but quietly shown, especially when you consider that in many ways, they are quite similar.
The signals were intriguing– wariness and definite interest. Some people had a thing for interrogators, and, by extension, for para-investigators. They were usually people who had no firsthand experience of the profession. Toreth couldn’t understand it. There was nothing sexually exciting about interrogation — it was a skilled, technically demanding, and occasionally boring job. On the other hand, despite the general distaste with which I&I staff regarded “interrogator junkies,” Toreth had no moral objection to taking full advantage of the kink when the opportunity arose.
Of course, he’s wondering if that’s Warrick, though comes to the conclusion that it isn’t– Warrick’s probably has a good idea of the reality, and his disgust and reaction in the sim were genuine.
Yet here he was. Interesting. Suggestive, maybe, that Warrick had some deeply hidden fascination in there after all. That would be a nice little piece of self-knowledge to give him.
In good time, of course. Being a professional people-reader has its advantages, and Toreth isn’t about to do anything right at the moment.
Warrick asks Toreth how he found his experience in the sim. And that’s where we see Toreth’s manipulation subside a little; he quite earnestly tells Warrick how amazing it was. Maybe he’s caught off guard. Maybe he’s able to appreciate that a crafty liar will pepper lies with enough truth to make the lies look like they could be honest. Or maybe Toreth’s just dropped the game because hey, the simulated reality offered in the sim is fucking amazing and it’s the sort of thing Toreth isn’t used to. (Presumably the novelty could dull for those used to it, but for a guy working strictly in a very real—and often, presumably, bleak—environment, the sim was a bright ray of something rare for him: escapism, beauty, fantasy. I can completely understand the appeal of the sim. I can understand it even moreso for someone like Toreth who says it’s magical and the scenery is stunning.)
Warrick notes Toreth’s enthusiasm, though the defences are still up for him: Toreth’s line of work is called into things again: others in his field, as Warrick says, have no problem seeing past the beauty of the sim.
“You can’t blame the Administration for appreciating the technology.” Time to throw out an opening. “Or the potential applications.”
“Applications.” Warrick grimaced. “No, I suppose not.”
One thing that really interests me is the way language is used by those in the Administration surrounding the activities of I&I. I wouldn’t call it dehumanising, but sanitising, distancing language—and it’s something consistent with language used in areas where others are harmed “all in a day’s work.” It’s fascinating and haunting at the same time, and the way Toreth casually describes the idea of using the sim for torture (or serious headfuckery) as “potential applications” is just so… blasé. And yet realistic.
And Warrick is still disgusted by the notion.
Even though the conversation seems stopped, and they shift to talking about the food they’re eating (Warrick picks apart his meal because he doesn’t like the pastry it comes with: I’m loving Warrick’s finicky food dissection, actually), Warrick is still clearly bothered—or trying to throw Toreth off-guard—and continues asking about his line of work.
With some very subtle Toreth-prompting, of course, but Toreth is aware that some part of him is interested.
“Why do you enjoy it?”
Not, Toreth noted, Do you enjoy it? “The money’s decent,” he said. “The hours aren’t bad. There’s a lot of variety.” Warrick watched him, silently assessing the reasons as he offered them. “I like the people I work with, and even some of the people I work for. It has an excellent career structure. And I’m good at it.”
Er, wow. I think that’s the sort of statements government departments actually want people to give when they’re collecting material for recruitment promos. It’s an interesting comparison to public service in the present; almost like the job satisfaction is another aspect of the future that seems to have been sorted out in government departments. (Though there’s still the human dissatisfaction, as shown through people like Chevril and the anonymous greenery thieves and the workers perusing the newsletters considering work outside the department yet still in associated industries. Though I don’t at all doubt Toreth’s sincerity here, either.)
“You make it sound like any other job.”
“It is like any other job.”
Something probably worth pointing out is that Toreth has a different vantage point to Warrick. Not working in a particular area, and hearing about the worst aspects of employees of, or practices within an organisation is going to shape the public’s view of those people and organisations. People will know a little bit and assume a lot. (As has been demonstrated by the existence of the clueless—though amusing— interrogation junkies.) For what we know at this point, ninety per cent of Toreth’s job could be paperwork in the office, investigating crime scenes and talking to witnesses (and I mean actual talking to, not euphemism-for-interrogation “talking to”), reading through company reports, writing reports for his managers to justify expenditure—but in someone like Warrick’s mind, all of that is overshadowed by the fact that paras are allowed to torture people in interrogations and suddenly it becomes the main feature of the job. It’s in no way writing off that part of Toreth’s job does include torturing people, but I can see how it might not be at the forefront of Toreth’s mind: he’s got a more holistic idea about what he does, Warrick does not.
Neither of them are objective about Toreth’s work, and Warrick’s work doesn’t contain elements that are explicitly (and publicly known) about hurting people. It’s an interesting situation, especially when you take into account the fact that Warrick admittedly is fine with playing in an unbalanced-in-his-favour arena, and Toreth has demonstrated that there’s nothing at all personal in what he does. (But hey, a system is made up of components, and here’s where I want to start bringing in discussion about Milgram’s famous experiments with the “electrocution” and Asch’s conformity work which essentially showed that people will do something even though they know it’s wrong because everyone else is doing the same thing, and for a lot of people—normal people—it’s scarier to do the right thing and risk “rocking the boat” by not doing it. And talking about social psychology relating to this stuff would be incomplete without mentioning three words: Stanford Prison Experiment. But that’s all for another time, right?*)
* I could actually geek out about this stuff until I drop dead; the idea of “what makes ordinary people indifferent to harming others?” is one of those things which has fascinated me since I was a kid. Conformity, deviance and social systems and how people work is interesting stuff, hey.
All of this is beautifully encapsulated in the series, which is probably one reason why I adore it. Another thing is that Manna Francis isn’t at all a biased narrator. This series could have failed amazingly if other people had written it. It could have been a “patriotic” series with pro-right undertones about the system is great and good and that while Toreth might be a bit cold, he’s on the right side and that people even questioning the use of torture aren’t patriots and they’re obviously terrorists. It could have been a floppy lefty “Everything is a big horrible dictatorship and everything needs to be overthrown and we shall all have our freedom” thing. It wouldn’t be hard to turn the series into thinly-veiled ideology, and Manna Francis hasn’t done that at all, and it’s amazing. In interviews, you get an idea of how Manna feels about the world Warrick and Toreth are in, but in the narrative, not at all. It’s a rare treat when the reader is allowed to make up their own mind about how they feel about things.
The suspicion from Warrick still hasn’t abated by the main course (he was scared that Toreth is going to try drugging him when he nicked off to the toilet!) which he picks apart in the same sort of way he ate his hors d’oeuvres. Again, I’m loving the attention to detail here, and the interaction between them crackles.
Guided by Warrick’s behaviour, Toreth is certain that there’s some interest from him… he just needs to convince him that he’s safe. A bit of a tall order when you’re a para, I suppose.
In the flash of a second, taking advantage of a small window of human error—Toreth slips something into his drink.
We don’t know much about the drug, though the idea is that it’ll be something to help Warrick relax—and I’ll be perfectly honest, there is no way ever that this ever looks non-creepy. And it’s not meant to. Toreth has a funny way of coming across as quite charming– or human, at least– and then when least expected, pulling off a move or dropping a bomb that is heart-stopping.
Further to this point, though, he acknowledges to himself that he’s cheating at the game.
Dinner over, Toreth finally goes in for the kill.
“Would you like to come up to my room?” Toreth asked.
Warrick laughed incredulously. “Excuse me for asking a rather obvious question, but do you think I’m insane?”
Oh, snaps to Warrick. That was awesome. I think I may just borrow that line.
Slightly taken aback by the directness of the answer, Toreth shook his head.
“Ah, stupid, then, neither of which I’m afraid is true.” Warrick eyed him, assessingly. “You are, what, half a head taller than me? And a good few kilos heavier, all of which is muscle.” Toreth recognised the flattery slipped so casually into the conversation again, but, buoyed by half a bottle of wine plus extras, he enjoyed it anyway.
“So insanity or stupidity would be required for me to place myself in a situation alone with you.” Warrick took another sip of his drink, savoured the flavour for a moment. “And in any case, I don’t sleep with torturers, Administration-approved or not.”
Yeah. Definitely not an interrogation junkie. Also, I was disappointed for Toreth here, even though Warrick is perfectly right and Toreth has just drugged his drink, so he’s got the same sort of trustworthy factor as a dodgy politician. But something makes you root for the guy all the same. He’s like the coyote on the old Warner Bros. cartoons and you kind of feel bad for him that he’s looking so easily dismantled and so obviously outclassed.
Warrick finishes his drink, and by the end of it, though, and with a little reassurance from Toreth, he’s changing his mind.
“I wasn’t planning to hurt you.”
That got a sharp glance and Toreth had the sudden impulse to add “Unless you’d like me to.” However, that would have been too much. Instead, he spread his hands. “It would be stupid of me to even think about it, wouldn’t it? You know who I am.”
Warrick appears to reconsider his earlier rejection and says that maybe it’s a deal if Toreth tells him how he felt in the sim.
Diabolical and yet perfectly in character: presumably Warrick does have to deal with making deals with various people involved with the sim and its funding and projects. And for Toreth, who didn’t mind the experience—but for the feelings he was having whilst going through it—presumably talking about that crowning moment of glory isn’t really on his bucket list.
They head to the bar to talk, and Toreth takes it slowly, admitting that he did enjoy it until Warrick shuts him down, reminding he wouldn’t have called it rape if he had truly enjoyed what had happened in there.
Random reader moment of “thank fucking god.” Seriously. These people act– and interact– like adults. They are talking about issues of consent. They’re not pretending that everything was above-board or that it didn’t happen or that consent not being an issue is okay when one party decides they had a good time after all, or all the other bazillion really fucked up things I’ve encountered in fic (both published AND of the fan variety, by the way). I don’t follow the whole “everyone needs to give explicit, obvious consent to everything or else it’s rape” idea in fiction, but when clearly there are at least dubious consent issues and one character does call what happened “rape” there’s no “let’s just make them fuck consensually and we’ll pretend that bit didn’t happen” which I have unfortunately seen before.
It’s not about absolving anyone, either. It’s about acknowledging something that occurred.
“You know what I felt. Code word or not, you trapped me and you humiliated me.” He shied away from the vivid memory of his own pleading voice in the sim. “You took away my control and you made me beg you to fuck me.”
And, well, brought him here. Describing it. Getting humiliated by the flashbacks.
Toreth is a step ahead of me as a reader (by this point, I’ll admit, I’m very much, “Warrick, you shit.”) and realises that Warrick’s projecting his own wants and desires onto Toreth, and because it’s probably not the easiest thing in the world to ask someone to do that to you, he’s gone and done it to someone—a gifted people-reader—and that person– him— has figured him out.
There’s some more thrashing about from them—verbally, of course—while Toreth lines up Warrick to get him to “beg for it.” Which he does, via being asked for—and providing—an apology for what he did to Toreth in the sim.
Warrick’s apology is interesting, though, and possibly serving more than just the request from Toreth: I can’t help but think that somewhere, there was genuine remorse and a sense of “shit, I’ve gone way too far here” from Warrick. Even though it doesn’t look like it: rest assured, everyone, this isn’t the end of their game-playing (YAY!).
Toreth thought it was the most beautifully unapologetic apology he had ever heard. “Apology accepted. Now…” he said, pulling the pause out, “…what can I do in return?”
Silence, and Toreth smiled. His catch was hooked, and only barely still resisting the pull to the net. “Very well, in that case let me guess. Something like the sim, but not quite. Changing places. Losing control for a little while. And some danger—just enough to give it an edge.” His smile slipped into something almost predatory. “A different kind of game.”
Bingo. I love the play on this, too: it’s so similar to when Warrick was in this role showing Toreth that he knew who he was by name.
Warrick stared at him, as if hypnotised, then nodded slowly. “That’s…a good guess.”
“I read people for a living,” Toreth said casually, and relished the delightful contradiction of the grimace of distaste on Warrick’s mouth and the sharpening of desire in his eyes.
God, he loved being right.
And Toreth emerges as completely fucking awesome here. And this is the bit I think he relishes about his work, exactly what he’s enjoying here: cracking Warrick. Figuring out both what he wants and how to get him to admit to it even though he really doesn’t want to.
And again, it’s a fascinating comparison, because some of Warrick’s actions later down the track deal with that, but with… systems. (He’s already admitted to social engineering in order to learn Toreth’s name, too, remember.) Toreth erm, hacks people.
And that’s when Warrick trusts him enough to go back to his hotel room. Warrick is, amusingly, given all his time in virtual reality—completely tripped out by what’s going on.
Toreth wastes absolutely no time in offering Warrick the domination he’s asked for, and gets him to choose a safe word. This is where the world gets one of the funniest—and cutest—safewords ever used in anything ever. Obviously Warrick remembers the pensive bath he was having in the sim prior to dinner, and chooses “Plastic duck.” And, SPOILER– this gets carried right through the series.
(And because this is pretty much such an obscure fandom, and because beyond the books themselves there is no associated merch [I saw a Shades board game the other day on eBay. Fuck knows what you have to do to win that, but really, people], it’s become a little bit of an in-joke with me and the plastic ducks. Absolutely no one gets it, either, but it means that I can have fannish desktop backgrounds on my work computers and no one is going to look at a plastic duck like I’m a fucking pervert.)
And now that they’ve set that up, Toreth takes his cue.
“Close your eyes.”
Too fast for Warrick to react, Toreth slapped him across the face, rocking his head back and bringing a heat to his cheek that set off an echoing flash of warmth in his stomach.
“Close your eyes,” Toreth repeated calmly.
Warrick obeyed. The handprint still glowed on his skin, each finger distinct. He felt himself hardening, the tell-tale response out of his control.
“You liked that?” Toreth started to move round him again, touching, rough and gentle, pain and pleasure, oddly impersonal and intensely arousing. “What else do you like, I wonder? Do you want me to fuck you? Not that I care whether you want it—I’m going to do it anyway. You were right to think twice about coming up here with me. Still think you made the right choice?”
Of course, Warrick’s got a way of stopping anything he doesn’t want, but until he utters the safe word, it’s not something either of them are giving much thought to.
And both of them somehow get what they want and they were wanting from one another from much earlier on than either of them admitted. I could quote and offer commentary on the sex, but to be honest there’s not a great deal to say that the scene itself doesn’t. It’s nicely written, in character for both of them, and there’s thankfully no purple prose or hideous euphemisms. (There are only so many manrods and boypussys a girl can handle in a lifetime, and I’m pretty sure fanfiction has thoughtfully gifted me with someone else’s quota too.) There are some nice little touches; Toreth makes use of his restraint training (and wishes he’d brought handcuffs—if only he’d known that was what Warrick wanted…), for example, and Warrick is still analysing things, realising that the sim fails to replicate incidental background noise and maybe that should be addressed. It’s very much real-and-them without turning into a different narrative, either, which is also refreshingly awesome.
The situation itself is—and this is a wonderful metaphor for the relationship between Toreth and Warrick which follows—“imperfectly perfect”, in Warrick’s mind. It’s a bit messed up. It’s a bit dangerous. It’s not really meant to last. It’s imperfectly perfect.
And that’s the appeal.
And it’s gorgeously in sync with who they are and what they like. There’s an element of role-playing to an extent only: part of what they’re bringing are very real and day-to-day parts of who they are.
Toreth is thoroughly pleased with himself afterwards, and he walks off to have a shower when Warrick has come down, whistling to himself as he tends to when he’s in a “job well done” frame of mind. He vaguely considers that he wouldn’t mind doing it in future, though Warrick’s going to have to contact him for it. (Toreth doesn’t like doing the chasing. Or at least, his pride doesn’t allow for him to look like he’s doing the chasing, and he’s well aware that Warrick is observant enough to see through his bullshit.)
Things are a bit different for Warrick.
The realisation of who Toreth is—what he does for a living, that
Toreth’s job left him adept at knowing how far to push, how much pain to use and how to read the response to it. And, God, he’d loved it. Loved every minute of it, knowing who and what he was. What those hands did for a living.
–gets at him. He decides that this is most definitely a one-off and that it’s never going to happen again.
Both of them are considering what they’ve just done, and thinking about what the other is thinking. Another round over, the game still, somehow existing even though Toreth probably won that round and it should have been over now. But there’s a hesitation as Warrick leaves the hotel.
Like hell it’s over.