(The following piece of flash fiction contains minor spoilers for The Slipstream Con.)
“Oh, I was an art student.” The instant Kellen uttered the seemingly innocuous words, he wanted them back behind his teeth, swallowed down deep into the lost part of him that shouldn’t even exist anymore. “Of course I was also the wealthy son of an investment banker, and possibly a lost Imperial cousin.”
Vanya kissed his forehead, her hand gentle on the back of his head as she moved past him. “The difference is, only one of those was true.”
He didn’t answer her, but he didn’t go to bed that night, either. She came into his studio hours after she should have been asleep, and her voice was soft. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I don’t know how I did, but if you tell me what I said, I’ll figure out if I’m apologizing or not.”
Kellen laughed, staring at the brush in his hand for too long before he replied. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” It felt like he was breathing fire, his tongue shaping flames as he spit out an explanation that didn’t really tell her anything, and still felt too revealing. “I like who I am. I like who I’ve become. I’ve never liked who I was.”
“You’ve changed, though. You’ve gotten out of that life–”
“I don’t mean my alleged criminal activities.” Red paint dripped from his brush into the canvas, marring the landscape. He made no move to wipe it off. “I can’t talk about it. And I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I don’t want to be around anyone right now. Can you just…”
He didn’t have to ask her to go. The door shut halfway through his request, and he didn’t know if she was on the wrong side or not, but at least he was alone.
Angry with himself, Kellen picked up a tube of crimson paint and filled his palm with it, smearing it across the perfect copy of Hoefling’s famous starscape, Imperial City. He’d worked on it since the anonymous trail turned up a result he was almost insulted by.
Kellen hadn’t seen her face in years, but his fingers dragged it out of the brilliant red pigment, smudging in age he hadn’t witnessed, and a smile he barely remembered. When he was done, so angry he could barely keep it in, he ran a hand through his hair, ignoring the paint, and stared at the portrait until it dried just enough that there was no way to erase her.
It didn’t matter that she was alive. It wouldn’t have, to anyone but her son, and he was dead and buried, a year shy of graduating art school when he was dropped in the ground.
He should have left it alone, but it was a sickness he’d suffered from lately, this feeling like he needed to tie up loose ends. He wasn’t dying, or settling up a score, or clearing the way for a new con, and there was no good reason to have gone looking for her, not after all this time.
He wasn’t her son. He could remind himself of that all he wanted, but the fact remained that he’d found her alive, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He wasn’t her son, just a man of his own making, who used her son’s face. He owed her nothing, and wanted nothing she could give.
Her son’s name had been Grant. He didn’t know who Grant would have been, but it was a fair bet it wouldn’t have been Kellen Frey. He wasn’t sure Vanya and Tal would see the difference between them, and he couldn’t take that chance.
Alone, in the wee tiny hours before the false dawn of a ship on the drift, Kellen sealed her away with wide swaths of black paint. Her face disappeared from the canvas, mouth first so she couldn’t spill his secrets.