The fleeting grasps you’d gotten at sleep showed when the rising sun prickled at your eyes, drawing a few stinging tears and another, harsher, ache that had nothing to do with the light. Carefully, you rolled over, trying not to disturb the covers, and looked at Natalya’s back.
The covers had slipped down, exposing one shoulder and a slanting window of her pale back, trailing strands of silvery hair slipping down her skin. Asleep, she seemed so fragile; without the daggers and steel of her flashing eyes, the cruel curve of her lower lip that sharpened with anger, Natalya was a vision of vulnerability, the angles of her bones softened into swooping curves by sleep and soft light.
It was rare for you to wake before her, and you usually savoured the opportunity to drink in the sight of her. Today you found yourself doing the same, but the usual sense of giddy joy and disbelief that such a beautiful, beautiful being could have chosen you were absent, a hollow, trembling ache taking its place.
You reached out to her before realizing what you were doing, fingers outstretched to graze her shoulder, to brush away the soft, silky strands of hair from the pulsing hollow of her throat; you blinked and halted your hand, fingertips mere centimetres from Natalya’s skin.
She wasn’t yours to touch. Not anymore.
Even here, lying by her side in the same bed, memories of kisses and embraces and so much more floating up from the folds in the sheets, Natalya Arlovskaya was not yours. She had never really been yours, you could never claim someone as free and strong and sharp as Natasha. Yet she had given pieces of herself to you, pieces like souvenirs, reminders that you’d shared a bond—you knew, even now, in the depths of your betrayal, how she liked her coffee (dark, with just a splash of milk and no sugar, but with loads of honey), exactly how she arranged five hairpins at the base of her ponytail to keep it smooth and high for hours (like a star, but crossing the tips and scooping up as she pinned), where she had gotten the tiny scar lancing up the inside of her left thigh, just below the crease of her leg (acrobatics practice when she was seven).
You pulled your hand back, unsure of what to do. Stupidly, you told the still air, “I’m sorry.” As if that could ever fix what you’d done, as if Natalya would magically forgive you, woken from her sleep by a kiss you couldn’t give. Bile rising in your throat, you turned away, setting your feet on the floor, and got out of bed, wishing for a million things.
The morning was uncomfortable, even before Natalya woke up and came to the kitchen for breakfast; she found you sitting at the table, sipping half-heartedly at a cup of coffee and pushing around the remains of a half-eaten egg on your plate. She barely made eye contact, gaze skimming over yours, and ignored the coffee you’d made for her as if it were invisible.
You lowered your eyes to your food, trying to swallow past the lump in your throat and wondering if she’d really been asleep when you had woken up that morning. Natalya’s voice startled you, her words casual despite the gunpowder ignited in her tone.
“I’ll go to the store this afternoon. We’re out of honey.”
You looked up in time to see Natalya tossing the empty honey bottle in the trash and taking a tin of tea leaves from the cupboard. As she measured some out into a cup and set the water on, you ventured timidly, “I thought you didn’t like tea in the morning.”
Without looking at you, Natalya replied, “I like it more than coffee without honey.”
The steam from the cup you’d made for her (emptying the honey bottle in the process) seemed to grow thicker as you blinked back a sudden onslaught of tears.
Your voice was flat and tiny, but Natalya didn’t turn. You watched her tap her fingers on the counter and wait for the water to boil, pulling her hair back from her face with her free hand. As a stone wall of silence steadily built itself higher in the kitchen, you mumbled something about having to go and scraped your uneaten food into the trash. You debated washing your dishes then, but the sink was too close to the stove—too close to Natalya—so you piled them on the counter instead, cold sweat prickling down your spine.
You left the kitchen hastily, stepping hurriedly into the bedroom. Your jaw tightened as you changed your clothes, resisting the urge to clutch the anniversary picture on the nightstand to your chest.
If you had gone back into the kitchen, you would have seen Natalya slowly turning to look at the doorway you’d left from, her lips pressed together tight as her clenched jaw shook. You would have seen the depths of her dark blue eyes multiply as saltwater gathered in them, threatening to spill over as Natalya’s gaze shifted to the cup of heavily honeyed coffee sitting untouched on the table.
Then the kettle shrieked and the almost-moment was lost forever. Natalya drew in a sharp, shuddering breath and turned to the stove, cutting the gas flame and pouring water for her tea. You pulled on a pair of pants and unclenched your teeth from your lower lip before the skin split.
The stone wall capped itself.
You were distracted all day, your fingers fidgeting in the air as you went through all your appointments. Your assistants grew increasingly frustrated as you seemed not to hear them at all; by lunch they had resorted to saying your name two inches from your face and snapping their fingers to get your attention.
You weren’t sure whether you were relieved or filled with dread when it came time to return home. On one hand, it was your safe place, the only place you could fall into Natalya’s waiting arms. On the other…it was Natalya’s home too. Her face hovered before you for a split second, impassive and grim. You blinked and exhaled, setting off on your way home, worrying your lip nervously.
The rest of your journey home was largely uneventful and you found yourself unlocking the door and walking in shortly. Your voice crumpled in on itself as you opened your mouth to call out your usual greeting, the words swallowing themselves, so you coughed instead and walked slowly to your bedroom, reasoning that Natalya was likely in her office.
You were wrong. The door to your shared bedroom was ajar, offering a sight that stopped you in your tracks. Yekaterina was sitting on the bed by Natalya, the older sister comforting the younger as she hid her face and clutched a tattered picture in her hands, nearly tearing it with her grip. Shock rippled across your face as you stared at them, your mind going blank. Neither woman had noticed you yet and you wondered, the thought going like a flashing gunshot across your brain, if you could just turn around and walk back out.
Yekaterina, her hands softly stroking Natalya’s back, looked up, as if at some unseen sign; her eyes met yours and hardened, though her touch on Natalya remained light and soothing. You began to shake your head, simultaneously trying to profess your apologies, innocence, and guilt, but Yekaterina’s jaw set and you halted, one hand slightly extended as if to pull yourself into the sphere of healing and comfort the sisters had created inside the room.
Yekaterina’s gaze dropped back to her sister and she whispered kindness into Natalya’s ears as the younger’s grip trembled heavily, the picture shaking violently in her hands. Quietly, you timidly took a few steps closer to the room, hesitantly stopping at the door, fingers curling around the doorframe as if to prove that you belonged there.
You barely managed to open your mouth when both sisters looked up, Yekaterina’s gaze furious and Natalya’s a deep melange of sadness and a thousand other things. She held your gaze for a moment, lips parting as if to ask you a question, but Yekaterina stood suddenly, lunging for you, and dragged you out, her fingers digging painfully into the flesh of your upper arm.
She slammed the door as she forcibly removed you, but you still saw Natalya slowly close her mouth and look back down at her hands and the picture folded in her lap, looking almost lost.
Yekaterina didn’t release you until she’d taken you to the living room, far enough from the bedroom that she could raise her voice above the angry, hushed whisper she’d hissed your name with once before maintaining a stony, wrathful silence. She jerked her hand back to her side, as if barely resisting the urge to slap you, and began coldly, her voice burning with frigid fury,
“Don’t you dare hurt her any more. Do you know what you’ve done? Do you even care?”
You opened your mouth to defend yourself, to prove that this was torturing you just as much as it was Natalya, but a tiny, darkly triumphant whisper in your mind stopped you. What could you say? Spill the truth, and destroy any chance you had at protecting Natalya? Throw away everything you’d done and all the suffering you’d forced upon you both? There was nothing to be done.
Yekaterina seemed to take your open-mouthed silence as cruelty, for she continued, “You made her happy. For the first time in a long time, I saw my sister happy because of another person. Do you know how much she cares about you? She loved you, God, she would have thrown herself off a cliff for you. How can you do this to her?”
At your continued silence, an expression of disgust came over Yekaterina’s face. “She trusted you, she let you in farther than anyone else. She let you know her, really know her, and this is how you repay her?!
“It’s not enough for you to play at being sly and sneak off with someone else behind her back, but you lie to her, you publicly denounce her as incompetent?!”
Her gaze was flint, chips of ire boring into you. You bit your tongue, trying to hold back a flood of the truth. It wouldn’t save you now—it would just condemn you.
Yekaterina paused, searching your face for any sign of remorse or repentance, and when she found none, she drew back, a snake about to strike. “You know, I really hoped you’d be different,” she said in a low voice, her words boiling, “the first time I met you, I wanted to love you as much as she did. I wanted to believe that my little sister had finally found someone who would love her as deeply as she loved them. She’s been broken so harshly before. I thought you might finally be the one to help her mend herself.”
Her eyes, so like her sister’s, for all their differences, fixed you steadily with a gaze sharper than a razor. “But you’ve failed her. You don’t deserve her, not now, and you never will. No one who loves themselves the way she loved you could ever deserve her.”
Your lungs drained and your brain emptied of all defence; only a quiet voice eerily close to your own remained, reminding you of your failure. “Yekaterina is right,” it whispered sadly, “you stabbed Natasha in the back when she opened her arms to you.”
“I-I…” you stammered, trying to find the words to voice both dissent and shame as cold spread through your body, chilling your blood and causing the aching heaviness in your chest to drop to the pit of your stomach. Yekaterina’s eyes bored into you, her jaw set, and as she shook her head, you felt the weight of her judgement sinking into your joints.
“I suggest you move out of here as soon as possible. That would be best.”
You could barely muster up the composure to nod weakly as you watched Yekaterina stalk out of the room, her hands tight at her sides. It was only when you heard the lock of the bedroom door clicking that you crumpled onto the couch and buried your face in your hands, gulping in air in an attempt to fill the void within you.
The car that came to meet you a few blocks away from your house (if you could even call it that anymore, you thought semi-bitterly) was black, unmarked, and sported windows tinted so dark you could barely make out the shadow of the dashboard camera the driver had (wisely) opted to install, given Moscow’s hectic streets. The driver was broad-shouldered, largely silent, and hefted your suitcase into the trunk with ease; as he opened the backseat door for you, you couldn’t help but feel like an actress in some overrated spy film, stepping right into the villain’s trap.
The car ride was much like the driver: mostly silent, oddly smooth and graceful, and faster than you had anticipated. Before you had expected to, and honestly, before you were quite ready to, you found yourself stepping out of the car and blinking in the midday sun. You blamed your disorientation on the speed of the ride, but you knew your own wandering thoughts were more at fault than anything else.
The driver took your suitcase down and handed it to you before escorting you down the driveway (a rare sight when you lived in Moscow) towards a mansion backlit by the high sun. A few glances around you brought your brows furrowing down; it was quieter here than in the city you were used to and there were far fewer expanses of rough concrete and stairways leading to the metro line that you felt there should have been.
“Where are we?” you asked the driver, but he remained silent, leading you briskly towards the grandiose mansion. As you neared the door of the spacious garage, you repeated the question, if only to convince yourself that you were doing something.
To your surprise, a new voice answered. “Zhukovka. This is where you’ll be living.” Ivan stepped forward, a half-smile floating emptily on his lips. You stopped short, your eyes widening and eyebrows climbing up your forehead.
“Zhukovka,” you repeated incredulously, although in retrospect you shouldn’t have been so shocked. The affluent town on Moscow’s western outskirts was famed for housing various government officials like Ivan’s father, all with millions to their name, if not more.
Ivan nodded, his head dipping graciously to you, and extended his hand; the driver seemed to take it as a sign that he was no longer needed, and departed without a word. You stared at the proffered hand without making a move toward or away from it; Ivan sighed softly and took your suitcase from you, his other hand guiding you gently toward the elevators.
A few days ago, another life ago, you would have pushed him away and lashed out with voice and fists, but now you were empty. You had no reason to protect yourself, no reason to feel justified anger and disgust at his touch on your skin. You had no Natalya to remember and kiss fire into your spirit.
She was no longer yours to touch.