“I’m home,” you called as the door closed behind you, the click of the latch both satisfying and disturbing; if you could only be free behind locked doors, what sort of freedom was it really?
A sad echo of your voice was the only response you received; concern crept into your system as you dropped your bag and kicked your shoes off, met only by the sound of silence.
Your footsteps were quieter than the irrational pounding of your heart as you slowly delved further into your house, checking each room. With each door that opened to an empty room, a fist of apprehension tightened around your throat. Unspeakable fears flashed through your head, each implausible theory looming over you despite their ludicrousness.
You stepped into the kitchen and immediately stopped short, eyes fixated on the kitchen table. Scraps of dark blue ribbon were scattered over the table, some shredded at the edges or holding some semblance of a curl. A few looping bits of the ribbon had flopped over the edge of the table and small, torn strips and uneven pieces dotted the floor. Your breath hitched as you recognized the shreds of your last birthday gift to Natasha, a chorus of “no, no, no” falling from your lips.
In the center of the table, gleaming bright silver like a lonely star, lay a kitchen knife, its point spearing a few haphazard pieces of ribbon, as if it had been slammed down on the table in a sudden fit. Under it lay your note from that morning, the stupid little heart scrawled by your name mocking you as it danced tauntingly on the paper.
“Natasha,” you breathed, the pit of your stomach suddenly freezing as icy fingers gripped you. You rushed past into her office, throwing open the door and praying that you would find her safe.
There she sat, legs crossed, eyes colder than you’d ever seen them. You found yourself halted by her gaze alone, your heart thumping pathetically. “Natash—“ you began, but the thrusting of her hand into the air stopped you.
“What is this?”
Her voice was deadly, each word a viper coiled and ready to strike; the ocean in her eyes was frozen solid, the very air cracking from the tight, raw steeliness in her tone. Hardly daring to breathe, you peered at her phone screen, held aloft in a white-knuckled fist nearly trembling with rage.
As the image registered in your brain, your blood froze and you felt as though your brain had been severed from your body; crackling white noise filled your skull and you lost feeling in your limbs, save for an echo of wrongness that tingled ever so faintly up your fingers when you tried to move them.
There, in a million little dots of light, were Ivan Braginsky’s lips pressed against your forehead, his hand on your shoulder, and your eyes closed as if in appreciation. Any attempt at an answer froze in your throat as Natalya scrolled down with her thumb, her stony eyes fixed on you.
A transcript of your radio interview and commentary appeared below her finger; she paused, fingernail jabbing into the screen as you watched in horror, wide-eyed. Your name twisted under her tongue, coming out mangled and brushed dark red with anger as she read, “In the interview today, the famed singer also stated that meeting Ivan has been a wonderful opportunity, citing new connections and media coverage as benefits. Could this be an insight into a feud between the star and her notoriously icy manager, Natalya Arlovskaya? The bitterness in her answer certainly seems to say so.”
You looked at Natalya, holding your hands out as if she could read the truth from them, numb lips trying in vain to form explanations, excuses, fragments of the truth, but something in her face stopped you. Her features were cold and hard in the way of snow crushed slick and glassy over stone, but the waterlines of her eyes were red and there was a growing glimmer of bright wetness over her irises.
She had cried before you arrived. Natasha had cried because of you.
Suddenly, the knife over the mocking little heart on the table took on a new meaning and you felt something inside you crumple as Natalya spoke, her voice dry and near cracking, “I listened to the interview. I heard. I know it’s hard. I know I’m not easy. But I am not going to apologize for who I am. I will not rewrite myself to fit your hands.”
A single tear spilled over onto her cheek, dripping down her chin to splatter on her lap, but Natalya kept talking, her voice unbroken by its fall—in fact, she almost seemed to gain strength from it, from the anger that rose to clench her jaw tighter around the words.
“We have to hide. But you don’t have to lie to me about work. That’s the one thing we can be honest about everywhere. Maybe we shouldn’t have mixed business with pleasure.”
You stammered, trying to string together enough words to clear the storm shrieking in your skull. Natalya set her phone down on the desk, her fingers still and calm. Too calm. Your stomach dropped again as her slender fingers closed around the spine of a glossy magazine; she picked it up and paged through slowly, her rich blue gaze lowered as you drowned in the air before her.
At last, she extended the magazine towards you, pages split to an article, and dropped it in your shocked hands. Her gaze lifted to meet yours steadily, the dark ring of navy around her inky pupil never wavering as she added in a voice like iron, “I was just contacted with an offer for you to live with Ivan for a while. I think you should take it. It’s a good opportunity.”
With that, Natalya turned in her chair, taking a moment to scoot her chair closer to her desk before scrolling through her emails.
Dread filled you as you slowly looked down, wishing you could just undo everything that had brought you here; the first thing that stood out to you was Natalya’s sister’s name. Yekaterina had written two and a half pages over your press conference. How wonderful.
Your hands shook as you read silently down the article, line after line pointing out just how much you had relied on Ivan, how distracted you had seemed—your jaw clenched at the mention of the idea that your distraction had stemmed from Ivan’s touch—and how unwilling you had been to answer anything regarding Natalya’s role in your work. The worst part was that you couldn’t argue against any of it; yes, you had avoided directly mentioning Natalya, afraid that you wouldn’t be able to hold back the truth, that you’d let some traitorous detail slip through and everything would be ruined.
For all the trouble it was bringing you, you couldn’t help but admire the indomitable loyalty of Yekaterina’s love for her sister. You only wished you could stay so true to her.
Natalya Arlovskaya’s safety is guaranteed for your part in this. Cooperate and she will come to no harm.
The faceless man’s voice came back to you and you bit down on your lip, the edge of your teeth registering only as a dull ache through the blind frenzy of your mind. Natalya’s back wavered in front of you, her hair reduced into a silvery blur by the film of tears clinging to your eyes. The magazine crumpled in your hand as you reached for her, but before your fingertips had even brushed her shoulder, her voice rose in a wild, unrestrained command:
“Don’t touch me!”
You couldn’t tell whether her words were more feral snarl or desperate plea, and judging from the slender streams of tears tracing Natalya’s taut jaw, she didn’t know either. You silently withdrew your hand and stole a last long look at Natalya’s faint reflection in the computer screen, drinking in her features so that you would always remember your queen, even if it had to be at the moment you broke her heart.
Your smiling face next to Ivan’s was taunting you from the glossy spread of the magazine, so you kicked it closed from where it lay on the floor and said in a whisper, voice timid and yearning for verity’s salvation, to Natalya’s stiff, iron-straight spine,
“I love you.”
Her fingers clenched on the mouse for a second before you heard her reply, uttered softly and in a voice of barely-restrained, seething wrath and hurt, spiraling up in sizzling coils of steam where the words were choked by tears, “Get out.”
She didn’t have to repeat herself; you were out the door before the words had time to really ring, your own shoulders heaving in an attempt to silence your cries.
The edge of your note sliced the inside of your knuckle as you swept it up and tossed it in the trash; you winced at the sting and shook your hand to dull it as you put away the knife from the kitchen table, grabbing a bottle of disinfectant, ointment, and a bandage on the way to your shared bedroom.
Natalya’s office door was closed, but you still took the added precaution of closing the bedroom door before going to your side of the bed and sitting down to clean up your finger. A soft hiss escaped your lips as the alcohol hit your raw flesh, but you knew that wasn’t the reason for the hot tears that splattered over your thumb a second later as you squeezed ointment onto the wound.
The adhesive on the bandage slipped as you wrapped it around your finger, but you were far beyond the point of caring; ointment smeared between your knuckles as you slid down, off the bed, huddling miserably on the floor as sobs wracked your chest, feeling as though it were tearing in two.
A cold, hollow ache spread through your body, but did nothing to alleviate the physical pain coursing through you, rending your body into pieces; each shuddering breath felt as if your lungs would rupture and suddenly explode, sending shards of your ribs hurtling into your organs, which were already compromised themselves. You clutched your knees to your chest, vainly hoping that you could keep your heart together by sheer force of will—at the very least, the shattered bits wouldn’t somehow fall out from your chest if you could hold yourself together tightly enough. Each heaving breath choked you more than it brought air to your lungs; you gulped and sobbed and screamed into your knees while the tears splattering into Natalya’s lap ruptured inside you, tearing you apart from within.
When you finally raised your head, able to draw in breaths without choking on a fresh round of tears, your eyes were swollen and sore, the tender skin around the sockets raw from salt and rubbing away tears. Your nose was stuffy and your sinuses felt like they were going to burst when you slowly unfolded your limbs, pushing yourself up slowly from the floor.
The darkness spun dizzyingly around you as you adjusted both to the lack of light and your new center of gravity; you took a moment to breathe in deep, steadying yourself, before hesitantly feeling your way to the door, groping in the shadows to avoid walking into anything. You had no idea how long you’d been sitting there, weeping in the darkness, but the sun had long set and the quiet stillness of deep night had fallen over the house, draping it in silence; only the tick of a clock and your own footsteps sounded as you made your way to the bathroom, peeking out to see cold blue screen light seeping out from under Natalya’s closed office door.
You slipped into the bathroom and closed the door lightly behind you before flipping on the lights; you winced as the sudden brightness hit your eyes, spiking into your retinas like a knife. A long, shuddering breath left your lips as you leaned over the sink, staring into it without really seeing it.
Mechanically, you turned the faucet on and splashed your face with cold water, wishing you could wash away the stains of grief and shame inside you. As you dried yourself, you forced yourself to breathe deeply, as if the oxygen could press down the turmoil in your stomach.
You stared at yourself in the mirror, gripping the sides of the sink tightly as you fought the urge to scream. You didn’t want to do this anymore—this game wasn’t worth it, not that it ever had been. You didn’t care about hosting the awards, any future tours or songs or anything, you just wanted to love Natalya and see her smile again.
“I can survive,” you told yourself, watching as your reflection’s eyebrows slanted down fiercely, each word loaded with a conviction you insisted you felt. “I can survive, and she will too.”
But it wasn’t just Natalya’s survival you were worried about.
You swallowed past the lump in your throat and wet your face again, taking some comfort in patting your skin dry with the towel that still carried a faint trace of Natalya’s perfume. The click of the light switch resounded as you turned and left the dark bathroom for the equally dim bedroom, crawling hesitantly into bed, right on the edge.
It was a long while, far longer than usual, until Natalya turned off her office light and padded into the bedroom; you felt her stare from the doorway at your back, precariously balanced on the edge of the mattress, before going to wash her face. The bed sloped slightly under her weight as she lay down and drew the covers up before clicking off the bedside lamp.
Your back was cold without her warmth pressed against you, and you found yourself wondering through the long night if Natalya was lying there awake too, silently staring into the darkness, or if you were keeping a solitary troubled vigil. You didn’t dare turn to see.