The slap of paper on wood was audible as you stared at what was printed there on the glossy surface: you, laughing with Natalya, hands clasped and fingers entwined, bodies far closer than the boundary of platonic relations allowed. The man in black before you shuffled the sheets outward and more images appeared: the two of you sitting in the small café you had thought was so secret, bodies curled into one another’s like cats; a closer shot of your heads, your lips millimetres from Natalya’s, palm resting on the curve of her cheek.
The final picture, slapped down almost victoriously by the government official, seared itself into your mind; you remembered the event as if it had been yesterday, although you hadn’t know that photographic evidence existed to document it. Your arms were looped around Natalya’s neck, fingers threaded through her fine platinum hair; her lips had been so warm and sweet against yours, her hands fitting perfectly over your skin, the fingertips of one hand soft on your cheek. It had been your anniversary.
The man’s voice was flat and emotionless, yet his words still rang of vindictiveness: “We have reason to rethink our recent decision concerning your upcoming role in the state proceedings.”
Sweaty palms were the bane of your existence. You offered the man at your side a half-apologetic smile, digging your fingernails into said sweaty palms in an attempt to trick your body into erasing its stress. Your companion’s lips lifted ever so slightly, although his eyes remained masked, any human emotion hidden in his skull behind the darkly frosted panes of violet ice in his irises.
You swallowed and turned away, fixing your eyes ahead so that you could distract yourself with the sight of the doors just down the hall; dark cherry wood gleamed as if varnished with liquefied garnets, brass handles glinting in the austere lighting of the hallway. A pair of blissfully oblivious navy eyes gazed at you adoringly from the refraction of light and you tore your eyes away, staring instead at the tips of your shoes and blinking away the sudden hot prick of tears.
Suddenly thankful for the deafening rush of pounding blood in your ears to block out the undercurrent of Natalya’s whispering voice, you tugged at the hem of your shirt to straighten it, fingers too tight on the starched white fabric.
“Be careful, stress will make it uneven.”
Your head whipped around at the sound of the man’s voice, rash, illogical panic suddenly flooding your body. His violet eyes blinked inquisitively at you, a slight smile on his lips as he nodded towards the death grip you were strangling the hem of your shirt with. “I imagine someone worked far too hard to iron it this morning,” he continued, his voice light and relaxed. If he shared any of your stress, it was impossible to tell. You forced yourself to respond, compelling your muscles to crane themselves upwards into a tight semblance of a smile.
With some difficulty, you released your shirt, looking down at the perfectly arranged outfit you had been dressed in just hours before; straight, even pleats lay along your legs in the top-grade fabric, sharp and crisp over your trembling knees. Despite the equally crisply ironed blazer hugging your torso and the stagnant warmth of the hall, you suddenly felt unbearably cold, as if ice had just been dropped down your spine.
You shivered involuntarily, drawing a concerned glance from the two men in black flanking you and your companion before you shook your head, avoiding their gaze. Your eyes landed on the tall, broad-shouldered man you would soon be walking into the press conference room with; Ivan Braginsky, son of a relatively high-ranking government official. He was tall, handsome, and every single girl that flocked to your concerts would have killed to be in your position. There was just one problem. Ivan Braginsky, as conventionally attractive as he was, was also, perhaps because of all the things that made him so perfect, decidedly not the woman who held your heart and every waking thought.
Natalya’s lips ghosted over your ear, the low, sweet bones of her voice whispering all the love that you did not deserve deep into your mind. You grit your teeth and swallowed past the tight knot in your throat, blinking rapidly as you examined your soon husband-to-be.
You knew from publicity shoots that Braginsky’s black coat shielded a well-managed physique; even under the dark cloth, the muscles of his upper arm flexed impressively as the man raised a hand to rub languidly against the back of his neck. The bones of his face were well-sculpted, all slanted planes and strength in that indomitable square jaw, deep-set eyes exuding a refined, yet primal sense of power. His nose was straight and tall, allowing his profile a predatory, dangerously elegant edge; the lips that often curled into half-smirks, as they absentmindedly did now, were the subject of many a girl’s giggled fantasies across the country.
Yet for all his polite, charming demeanour and physical attractiveness, Ivan Braginsky could never even hope to compare to Natalya’s intrinsic elegance; she was a queen in all that she did, regal poise quietly evident in the graceful lines of her body, in the slight curl of pale, silvery-blond hair that drifted down to the small of her back when she let it down, swinging freely when, in all other ways, its owner could not. A sigh escaped your lips, sorrow tinging the flavor of your breath.
A candle will never burn brighter than the sun.
Natalya...her dark eyes, the color of sapphires on a moonlit lake, pleaded silently with you, soft, delicate lips plying your spine with screams and kisses. They had said they wouldn’t touch her, that she would be safe if you did this. This, the most unspeakable of all sins, this betrayal that was enough to crush even the strongest of hearts--and if nothing else, Natalya was strong. But even she who held your beating heart was not strong enough, you feared.
“Ya tebya lyublyu.”
Her voice echoed softly in your head, tears threatening to drip from the very memory of the words and the lilting Belarusian accent clinging to them; you hadn’t realized that you had whispered them aloud until Ivan looked at you sharply, just a fleeting glance that carried a touch too much time. You dropped your gaze to the floor, glaring at the carpet beneath your feet as if you could burn a hole through it with your stare alone.
Soft murmurs of Russian--Moscow accents, sharp, crisp and official in the slant of their vowels--surrounded you as the muffled sounds of an announcer bled through the doors. You felt your heart jump into your throat before plunging into your stomach, each passing second cycling the motion again. Ivan stepped towards you, seemingly reluctantly, and you wondered if it was an act of decency or actual emotion that fuelled the resigned expression on his face.
Taking a deep breath and hoping for Natalya’s sake that your horror did not show, you took Ivan’s proffered arm stiffly and started down the hall, wondering if your heart would burst out of your chest. Five steps away from the gleaming door, a staffer stopped the two of you, frowning at the obvious distance between your arm and Ivan’s.
“Who do you think you’ll fool like that?” he asked, hands waving at you and Ivan as if flicking knives from between his fingertips.
Your jaw tightened as Ivan sighed and, after an initial glance at the stoniness of your face, rearranged his arm so that his hand slipped down, palm facing yours. You felt the surprisingly gentle, almost cautious touch of his fingers against yours; closing your eyes, you whispered a final apology to Natalya—your Natasha, always the subject of your mind—and allowed your stiff fingers to relax, bending ever so slightly around Ivan’s, intertwining.
You could feel his pulse through his fingertips, the warmth of his skin seeming to burn you; you wanted to scream, to tear yourself away and run as fast and far away as possible. Yet you remained still, eyes locked on the door as you fought the urge to vomit, shame and disgust prickling over your spine.
Each step you took towards the door was another step towards your fate; you imagined sweat beading at the nape of your neck and trickling down your skin as your heart rate increased, breath coming in shallow, desperate gasps. Avoiding eye contact with anyone was difficult enough as the doors opened, revealing a flashing room of reporters: shouting journalists, hungry tabloid sharks, and a thousand gleaming camera lenses bombarded you as you followed Ivan out, struggling to keep some semblance of a vapid smile on your face.
A camera flash exploded at the edge of the platform, blinding you for a moment; you blinked instinctively and flinched away, trying to clear the spots from your watering eyes; before you really realized what was going on, Ivan’s free hand was brushing away a leaking tear from the corner of your eye, his body casting a shadow over you and shielding you from the blinding barrage of lights and shouting journalists, recorders extended. You gaped in shock for a second at the genuine concern in Ivan’s furrowed brow before reality descended heavily upon your shoulders like a lead weight; your hand rose up to slap Ivan’s away, but you forced yourself to catch his wrist instead, tempering the grip of your fingers so that you could smile sweetly at your beloved fiancé and hiss,
“I’m not yours to touch.”
The concern in his eyes evaporated, a thin smile plying the edges of his lips as empathy was replaced by a hard, dark emotion that would have scared you if Natalya’s loss had not already torn you apart.
“I’m well aware.”
The pure, caring smile that unfolded over his face after his cold words took you by surprise and you were almost glad for his steadying hand as you turned and took your seat at the table, nearly tripping over the leg of your chair in the process. Fixing as convincing a smile as you could over your features, you looked out into the clamouring audience, feeling your spirit drain completely.
A representative introduced the two of you--as if any one of the people gathered there couldn’t rattle off either one of your life stories--and Ivan raised his hand, smiling broadly at the crowd. He was his father’s son.
You turned the corners of your lips up and waved cheerfully, your chest aching for Natalya. You had never felt so empty in your life.
Flash bulbs clicked, showering you in an explosion of white light. The first reporter took the microphone and fixed his dark eyes on you, recorder thrust out like a spear.
“Why did you choose to invest in this as your latest project, Ivan?”
The man next to you didn’t falter as he responded, “The time seemed right. I’ve been watching the media scene recently and I like to think,” he glanced lightly at you, mirth dancing in his eyes. His fingers wrapped around yours on the table and your eyes locked as flashes detonated in the audience, capturing the moment. Your breath caught in your throat, heart hammering fearfully. Ivan’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled, but his gaze hardened in stark contrast to the soft touch of his fingers as he finished, “that I have an eye for potential.”
The reporter nodded and handed back the microphone to a handler. A second stepped up and posed another question, and then another, followed by another. As the faces melded together, questions blurring with your few answers, Ivan’s smooth voice a steady undercurrent in your mind, your mind receded within itself, only paying attention to maintaining a pleasant expression and not crying.
Suddenly, a female voice, tinted with the broad vowels and softened aspirations of a Ukrainian accent, rang out, jolting you from your thoughts. Your name sounded foreign in the air, the journalist’s tone almost accusatory.
“So this seems like the big question of today,” the woman started, nodding sharply in the general direction of your and Ivan’s clasped hands, “how exactly did this happen? It’s been all over the papers, you two are a whirlwind of rumours. What can you tell us about your relationship with Ivan?”
Your eyes flickered briefly to Ivan’s violet gaze before meeting the journalist’s eyes. At the sight of her face, you felt the blood drain from your face; Ivan let out a little grunt as your fingers involuntarily tightened on his, your extremities suddenly icy cold and numb.
Clear aquamarine eyes glared at you, their wide depths fierce; platinum blonde hair framed an all-too familiar face as its owner waited for your response, hard eyes daring you to speak. You blinked rapidly, trying to find the muscles to control your fluttering tongue, barely managing to stop your hoarse whisper of apology--not for the delay, but for everything you had done to Yekaterina’s sister, your darling Natalya, and all the things you were going to do to her. Ivan looked at you with some concern; you were pleased to note, somewhere in the back of your addled brain, that he didn’t look smug.
“Uh, a-as you know,” you stammered out, voice cracking in the expectant silence of the room; you paused and cleared your throat, swallowing past the lump in your throat, “I recently signed an agreement with Ivan regarding my next project. We met a few times to discuss details and…”
You broke off, the words catching in your throat; quickly, you turned to Ivan, silently pleading with his impassive eyes, imploring him to speak before you tried and choked on the lies. You could feel your jaw trembling, your pulse racing in your fingertips; desperation flooded your cheeks, your smile wavering. For the floor to open up and swallow you whole would be a mercy. Ivan held eye contact with you for a few seconds, his fingers rubbing over your knuckles in a manner that would have been soothing in any other situation, before turning back to Yekaterina with that sweet, sweet smile.
“I always like to meet in person with the people I do business with,” he explained. “After we talked about the new agreement, I felt like _____ was just...fascinating. I asked for a few more meetings, and then we started seeing each other outside of work. We’re very happy,” he finished with a meaningful look at you for the benefit of the cameras.
Knowing that he had given you all the time you were going to get, you nodded and added, “Vanya is so amazing, I’m very lucky to be working with him.” Your following smile felt like someone had carved your face out of hardened wax, but the cameras went crazy for it, so you held the expression as long as you could.
Yekaterina clicked the stop button on her recorder pointedly and thanked you before passing the mike back to the handler; as she sat down, you could feel her glare burning into your forehead. You longed to tear your hand away from Ivan’s and douse your skin with acid to burn away the horror and guilt staining your soul, but a greater fear rooted you to your seat; they would find Natalya, and they would not spare her if you couldn’t stomach this.
Your heart continued to break with every passing second; finally, as the press conference ended and the journalists walked out in a flurry of notepads, recorders, and cameras, you exhaled and stood, breaking contact with Ivan. Yekaterina was one of the last to leave; her eyes caught yours, pinning you to the spot. After a second of charged silence, Natalya’s sister walked out tersely, pulling her coat on a tad more harshly than was necessary.
You closed your eyes and let out a shuddering breath, your elbows coming in to your sides as your chest caved in. You pressed your fingers against your eyes, trying in vain to erase the sight of Yekaterina’s anger; you couldn’t blame her, after all. She already had enough bottled up against you; to pull this sudden announcement off convincingly, you’d taken pictures with Ivan in “public” civilian places before anonymously leaking them to various magazines, creating the plausible image of a modern fairytale for lovers. Natalya hadn’t even thought to doubt your explanation; you’d reassured her that it was just business-related, and that he’d wanted to meet under his own circumstances. She’d smiled quietly, a sight you only got to savour when you were alone, and kissed you lightly, without another word.
It was an extra twist of the sword in your heart that Natalya had trusted you so readily; it had taken years before she even allowed you to call her Natasha, let alone divulged any information about herself, and even that wouldn’t have happened without significant contribution on your part. The walls around her heart were high and strong, towering over a precious treasure for good reason, yet she had willingly taken them down for you...and here you were, tearing into her raw, vulnerable heart mercilessly, a rabid wolf in the savagery of slaughter.
A hand on your shoulder made you start. You looked wildly up into the face of Ivan Braginsky, sudden panic infiltrating your frenzied thoughts; your shock darkened into a curling sneer as you stood, shrugging off his hand.
“It’s done, isn’t it?” Your voice was acid, dripping with disdain and the anger you felt for yourself. Ivan offered no response, but as you strode out of the hall with him following, you knew that he remained silent not out of intimidation or lack of wit, but out of pity.
It had only just begun.