Natalya was waiting for you when you got home; her silvery hair flowed loose at her waist, the hem of her favourite dark blue dress hanging perfectly at her knees as she greeted you in her usual reserved way, her delicate features so still they could have been of ice.
You were sure to close the door behind you and check that the windows were all covered before pressing your lips to Natalya’s forehead, taking a moment to preserve the feel of her soft skin against yours and her pulse in harmony with your own. As you pulled away, feeling both relieved and hellishly guilty, Natalya regarded you quizzically. Bemusedly, she asked, “What was that for? Stressful meeting with Ivan?”
“Meeting?” you responded in confusion; too late, you remembered the excuse you had managed to convince Natalya not to accompany you as your manager today with. “Oh, with Ivan. Yeah, it’s been a long day,” you lied, each word like bile on your tongue.
Suspicion sharpened Natalya’s gaze as she turned to look at you, eyes narrowing. Your breath caught in your throat as she caught you coldly with those eyes of dark starlight, lips parting as if to say something before she shook her head and reconsidered, turning to sip from a steaming cup of spiced honey tea instead. Her muscles, however, did not relax when you sighed and embraced her from behind, settling your head over her shoulder and nuzzling into the crook between her neck and shoulder; feeling the tension in Natalya’s body, you looked up at her and whispered, “What’s wrong?”
Dread filled you as you spoke, somehow wishing that she would figure it out and rage at you before storming out in a rage to find her own life without you, yet fearing that outcome just as much; you clutched at Natalya’s body tighter as the kitchen seemed to sway around you in a dizzying spiral of unease.
Natalya’s thin fingers tightened on the handle of her mug almost imperceptibly before she replied curtly, “I’m fine.”
You swallowed and untangled yourself from Natalya’s stiff limbs, setting your hand tentatively on hers, wrapping your fingers around hers and gently guiding her to sit at the table. She allowed you to do so without resistance, which you took as a good sign; if she hadn’t been willing to talk to you, or at least let you touch her, you would be in a great deal more trouble right then.
She avoided your eyes, staring into the depths of her cup, feet crossed firmly behind the legs of her chair; you reached out a hand to touch her again, but decided against it. Instead, you asked softly, “Then what isn’t?”
Natalya’s jaw tightened, her eyes cast down and hidden behind a curtain of ashy hair. You remained silent, unsure of what you were hoping for.
“Are you tired of my managing you?” she said suddenly, bitterness twisting her voice. “You’re more famous than ever now. I must be awfully clingy by now, I’m sorry. You need your own path now, I’m getting in your way. I understand.”
You stared at her for a moment, wondering if you had heard her correctly. It was only when her slender shoulders began to tremble, her frame and hands shaking, that you came to face the truth of your deception’s blow.
“Natasha, Natasha,” you blurted feverishly, dropping to your knees before her, “listen to me.” You took the cup of sbiten from her, jostling the table in your rush, and pressed her pale hands to your own lips, desperately seeking some form of false salvation in your words, no matter how temporary. “You are my world. I love you with all my being, with every single part of me, and I will for all eternity. I would give up all of my fame, all my money, anything in my life, in a heartbeat, for you.
“I want you by my side as my manager, as my—” your voice broke, “—as my wife, I need you with me.” Tears you had been restraining all morning spilled hot from your eyes, splashing your skin. “You will never be anything less to me, never. Please, Natasha…”
She didn’t respond for a few moments, leaving you to realize that you had just spoken the first truthful words in a long time. Ever since you’d been pulled aside after a show for that fateful meeting and your life had come crashing down around you, you’d resorted to hanging the shards back up in a pathetic semblance of their original places with spider-thin threads of lies.
“That can never happen,” Natalya said quietly, her voice like steel. “You realize that, don’t you?” At your continued silence, she drew her hands from yours and pushed her chair back, the grating sound too loud in the tense, hushed room. “We can never get married, not here. As long as your songs stay on the lips of the people and your name stays on their minds, I can never be your wife, no matter how much I love you or you love me. I’d do anything for you.”
She looked up, her eyes boring into yours, agony and the same resolute determination you had fallen in love with clear in her gaze. “But all I can do is my job. If I can’t be your wife, I’ll be your manager, until death do us part.”
Before you could respond, Natalya stood, took her mug in both hands, and turned away, walking to the small room in your shared home that served as her office, leaving you speechless and alone. A sudden buzz from your phone cracked your disbelief; with shaking hands you read the message, your stomach sinking.
You’ll move in with Ivan next week. Pack.
You hoped the slamming sound of your phone on the table masked your first sob as you buried your face in your hands, chest heaving as you bit your lip until you tasted blood and salt. Slivers of your heart joined the ruins in your soul, the crashing, icy tinkle of glass deafening you. One week. That was all the time you had.
That night, you were plagued by nightmares rooted in your memories like parasites; behind your flickering eyelids played malformed scenes from your relationship with Natalya; Ivan now lurked in the background, an omnipresent figure who always swept you away, dragging you against the ground as you kicked and screamed, begging an impassive, empty Natalya to understand that you had only done this for her, because they had promised her safety for your cooperation. Every time, you watched as the life drained from Natalya’s eyes and she withered, her eyes going blank as you betrayed her and the walls around her heart crumbled completely into ruin, their precious charge destroyed beyond repair.
He was there as you relived the first time you and Natalya had gone out together; he was there, standing silently behind the tree you and Natalya had set up a picnic under; he was there, across the path, when her fingers had laced with yours while you sat on a park bench and a fizzy blush had crept over your cheeks. He was there when Natalya’s low, intoxicating laugh spun quietly from her lips at your dazed grin when she woke you up with a barrage of kisses on your birthday.
And he was there when your mind projected to the future, painting a horrible vision of Natalya’s face, cold and whipped in an invisible wind, as tears dripped down her cheeks and slender chin, lips wide in an anguished scream as she fell to her knees, coils of thin, silvery hair sticking to her skin. Ivan’s hands restrained you from running to your queen, to the goddess who had claimed your heart; you could only watch as she wept, tearing at her own chest in a fit of fury and grief, the violence of her strength drawing blood as she slammed her fist on the ground.
Natalya was gone when you woke, but she had left you a note, her near-perfect penmanship telling you that she had gone out to run a few errands and reminding you of a radio interview you had later in the afternoon. A glance at the clock gave you a decent amount of time to get ready, so you prepared a simple breakfast for yourself and ate quickly, trying not to give yourself time to reflect upon your troubling dream.
You couldn’t distract yourself with menial tasks forever, however, and taking slow steps around your kitchen between every sip of water wasn’t using up your time quite as well as you had expected it to. Eventually, you found yourself tapping your feet and chewing your lip anxiously, watching your reflection in the clock as it ticked down to the time you’d have to leave to make it to the radio station on time. A low, tense breath escaped your lips and you collected your things to leave, pausing to write Natalya a note letting her know that you had left for the interview.
As you stuck it on the table beside the one she had left that morning, you hesitated, pen still in hand. The ink-laden tip wavered as you stared at your signature; in a sudden rush of impulse and fearful honesty, you sucked in a breath, bent to the paper again, and scrawled a heart by your name, pressing your lips briefly to the dark ink, smudging it slightly.
“I love you, Natalya,” you said aloud, voice echoing in the empty room, heart pounding fiercely. Quickly, as if someone were watching you, you capped the pen and left it on the table before walking hastily out of the house, unable to shake the feeling of danger.
Your way to the radio station was largely uneventful; you arrived as scheduled and greeted the host without incident, settling down across him with a smile you wished you could feel. The on-air light clicked on and you took a breath, mentally preparing yourself and donning your media persona; Natalya was your manager, she was just a friend, you were head over heels for Ivan, and your life was perfect. Perfect.
You smiled and laughed your way through the first few questions, answering all the usual ones about how your new project was going and what you were working on. Then came the first bombshell you had been expecting:
“So, rumour has it that you’ll be hosting the Golden Gramophone Awards this year. Any confirmation or denial?”
You smiled and tossed out a light laugh, pushing down the bubbling anxiety you felt in your stomach. “I can’t say much,” you started, sure to keep your tone enthusiastic, “but I will tell you that I am definitely looking forward to the Awards this year.”
The radio announcer grinned at you and pressed, “So, will we be hearing any news about it from you soon?”
Letting the smile at your lips widen, you said, pausing as if you were releasing confidential information, “Maybe, maybe…I just advise everyone to keep an ear out leading up to the Awards.” Your heart hammered at your ribs furiously as you focused on keeping your smile consistent and the tremors from warping your voice.
Luckily, the announcer seemed content to settle with your vague answer and moved on to the next question, allowing you some time to give easy, thoughtless answers while you grew accustomed to the feeling of your heart settling back into its proper place.
As you shifted in your chair, adjusting your microphone, a flit of motion caught your eye and you paused in the middle of answering a question, distracted. The radio host turned to follow your line of sight and instantly lit up, his grin almost terrifyingly wide.
“Ivan Zimanovich!” he exclaimed. “What a pleasant surprise!”
Your blood ran icy cold in your veins, feeling as if someone were yanking out all your internal organs and pouring in salted ice in their place. “Ah, hello, Vanya,” you echoed weakly, hoping your voice wasn’t trembling as much as your hands were from where you had shoved them under the table.
Ivan Braginsky walked in through the door, typical polished smile firmly in place. His eyes were like mirrors, showing you only your own flailing fear as he turned his gaze on you; as he came and sat next to you, radio aides rushing to give him a microphone and headphones, your heart accelerated until you thought your chest would burst.
Your state couldn’t be farther from the host’s, who was looking at you and Ivan as if someone had just announced that his birthday had come early. With a bright beam, he summed up Ivan’s arrival for the listeners and shot the first question at you:
“Since both of you are here, I’m going to ask: with Ivan as your sponsor, what new opportunities do you think are available to you?”
You forced a smile out and answered as best you could, trying to keep the waver in your voice to a minimum. “I definitely feel that I’ve been introduced to a lot of new people, so that’s obviously a great new level of exposure. For sure, the media has really been paying attention to me lately!” you laughed, trying not to allow the bitterness in your throat seep into your words.
Ivan shot you a concerned glance, his hand settling almost comfortingly on your knee before coming up to rest on the table. The host grinned before killing the dead air with a question for Ivan. “Your father recently got a promotion, I heard. Congratulations, first of all! Will you be pursuing a career in the government as well in the future, or will you turn your sights on another field?”
You took a moment to regulate your breathing and steady your hands; you stared at Ivan’s face without seeing it, your mind drifting away to some safer place. His lips moved but you couldn’t decipher the words as they tumbled out, a jumble of sounds and fragmented syllables that seemed to spell out Natalya’s name in odd beats. Suddenly, he turned to you and spoke, clarity slamming back into his words as he asked,
“Don’t you think so?”
Your eyes widened and you scrambled for an answer, lips clutching at the air in search of words for a few seconds before you found yourself nodding your agreement and hoping you hadn’t just signed a death warrant.
“Mhm, yes,” you stammered, staring into Ivan’s eyes in an attempt to read any hints he might have given you; his gaze softened slightly, the genuine empathy you found pooling there catching you by surprise, but before you could react further, the radio host followed up with another question, drawing both your and Ivan’s gazes.
The interview continued on, each question stopping your heart violently before jerking it back into motion. The instant the host thanked you both for being there and the on air sign turned off, you were out of your chair and halfway to the door.
Ivan’s hand on yours caught you; you glanced back, eyes wide, to meet that same slight smile. “We can’t deny the public their pictures,” he said lightly, but there was a reserved clip to his tone that made you nod a bit more sincerely than you would have otherwise.
You posed with him for a few shots in front of the studio’s photographer before pulling away towards the door again, but your haste made you careless, and you tripped over a power cord taped to the floor. You pitched forward as Ivan lunged forward, his arm slipping around your waist and snagging you back from a nasty fall, securing your body against his.
Breathless, you looked up at him and tried to swallow your bursting heart as you muttered a thank you; he nodded in reply, something in his smile changing to reveal a sliver of verity, of something more than just the perpetually cheerful façade he had maintained so far. And in that instant, you knew: Ivan Braginsky was hiding something. Silence stretched on and you realized that everyone else in the room was staring at you, clutched up against Ivan as if tied to him.
He released the arm against your back at the same time that you stepped back; he ushered you out of the room politely, leaning to the side as you turned to smile and wave goodbye to the radio staff. The car his father had sent was waiting outside, all tinted windows and sleek lines; as you stepped out of the building, more than ready to go home, Ivan gave you a farewell embrace, whispering in your ear,
His words carried no malice, but they still stung, for reasons you didn’t fully understand; perhaps they were why you didn’t resist when Ivan leaned in and pressed his lips to your forehead briefly while you chose to accept it, blinking away the hot pinpricks behind your eyes instead. Different responses crowded in your throat, choking you so that you clamped your lips shut, determined not to let any of the confused words escape.
Neither of you noticed that the photographer had followed you outside until you heard the click of the shutter.
Instantly, your eyes shot open and your instincts took over; your hands came up and shoved Ivan away, the force dissipated by the steps he had taken away from you once the shutter had gone off. A bolt of electricity speared you between the eyes as your gazes connected, shock smeared with a strange amount of guilt mirrored in both your faces.
The car door opened and Ivan slipped inside, his face suddenly unreadable, a stone mask settling over his features. His profile, cast into austere shadow by the tint of the window as the door closed, suddenly reminded you of the small, silver versions of his father’s head jingling in your pocket, cut sharp and harsh, eyes staring straight ahead.
You turned quickly as the car started down the street and headed back home, fear and shame that you couldn’t explain prickling down your spine with every turn around the corner.