TW: Violence and discussion of rape.

RPOV

There's a ringing in my ears. That space between realisation and fear yawning wide where your heart stops with it.

It's the bottle slipping from my fingers and shattering the silence in a place that's forbidden.

It's Janine collapsing onto the sandy dirt.

It's Alec toying with my braid and forcing me to my knees.

It's my cheek pressed to the grass. Rotting apples and iron.

It's Dimitri's heart fighting to beat as he tells me to run.

It's Master Ozera holding my hand.

A moment, in which you feel both dead and too much alive.

His eyes are piercing, a warning, holding more of a grip than his hand. In the back of my mind, I remember watching a documentary with Ben about Sulphur fire – it burns an electric blue, destroying everything around it.

"I think that's a tad assumptive." Rhea says as the sound of the room rushes me.

Lucas straightens and I snatch my hand back, fisting it behind my thigh so it doesn't shake.

"Is it? I can't imagine her mother thought so when she named her." There's a pause in which Rhea's smile becomes delicate but then Lucas inclines his head. "But once again that is my hubris. Rose, it is a pleasure, I feel like I know you already. Vasilisa must have mentioned you at least five times in the past ten minutes."

Lissa grins at me as the terror creeping up my spine clasps the back of my neck. She can't smile at me like that because of Master Ozera. Because she's pleased him.

How is this happening?

How is he here?

Lissa's eyebrows pinch, "Are you okay? You look pale."

The back of Rhea's fingers touch my temple and I flinch. "I'm fine."

"The lighting in here does no one any favours." Lucas says, the golden hue of the candles illuminating his dark hair. "I can't help but wonder if Daniella has done it deliberately. It's easier to feign ignorance to avid gossip when it stays in the shadows."

Rhea and Lissa exchange a look. It's so subtle but speaks volumes of their bond. Lissa's gaze touches mine before skipping back to Lucas. Rhea's fingers brush the small of my back.

Lucas observes the room, the chatter bouncing off the walls. "In vain, as it's reached Court and caught like wildfire. Disinheriting your only heir seems rather rash."

"Adrian was more involved in that decision than they would have you believe." Rhea says tactfully.

Lucas' attention remains on the room, fixing on a point behind us. "Obviously. He knew how his family would receive it." His eyes suddenly drop to my face, a predators refocus. "So, it was certainly worth it. I wonder if my sister feels the same. Good evening, Victor."

Two fingertips prod above my fist as if testing for a pulse. One quick touch as Spiridon sails by and turns his back to the wall, putting him behind Lucas's left shoulder.

"Rhea, my darling, could you please rescue your husband? He's put his foot in his mouth with Maribel regarding her daughter's situation."

Rhea's elegant features harden only a fraction before she smiles and excuses herself.

"My dad can really misjudge his audience when it comes to his… humour."

"Discretion is not a trait one would associate with Eric Dragomir." Lucas's tone is warm and conspirative, but it causes Lissa's smile to flicker.

"Not one my daughter shares either. Lissa, could you please ensure she hasn't overwhelmed Marcella Bardica?"

When is a question not really a question?

"Sure." Lissa agrees, a reluctant look thrown at Lucas, and it stabs through me. She wants to impress him, she wants his approval. "Rose, come with?"

"Isn't Marcella rather conservative?" Lucas comments casually.

"She is. Rose is in good company here." Victor affirms.

Lissa looks at me then, ignoring the dismissal and it's another wrenching twist in my gut.

I shape my words carefully, so they aren't a lie.

"I'll stay here."

Then she's gone and I'm left between the two Moroi who have ruled my life.

My chest is in a vice.

Wrapped in bandages.

I catch Spiridon's eye, silver burning bright and threatening. He jerks his chin a fraction – an instruction.

Victor plucks two flutes from a passing tray and passes one to the other man. "What are you doing here?"

Lucas's smile curls, true joy in the menace. "I know, I'm very late to the festivities but better late than never. Nathan has been very understanding and accommodating, we've been given the Diamond suite – it's not to our preference but what can be done? I have no desire to share space with my sister, especially… when she is throwing around convoluted ideas of challenging me."

Victor is unruffled and gingerly I uncurl my fist, pushing past fear to think.

"I wouldn't think such an idea would offend you. You have no taste for politics, or anything dignifying our world. Natasha does."

"I wouldn't call her publicizing your prized pet as her Blood Whore dignifying. Bold, at best."

Victor's features cool. "Do you really want to discuss the topic of Blood Whores with me?"

Lucas shrugs, amused. "And sponsoring Moroi to participate in the field. Natasha's God complex won't allow her to see when she's been manipulated into her own damnation – as our father would say, never was there more of a useless spare."

Victor starts to respond but Lucas' friendly demeanour drops. The brazen anger cracks in the blue, a callous depth opening. I glimpse the monster that would snatch a pregnant nineteen-year-old, who could charm kindness, so you didn't suspect the knife at your ribs until it slipped in.

I shrink, eyes dropping.

"I have…taken my orders these past months because I can respect when I have been out manoeuvred but I tire. You made promises and yet I don't see you upholding your end of things. One of my properties lies in ashes, and you expect me to believe you had nothing to do with it. I'm here to protect my interests so let my presence be a reminder that there is only so much I will tolerate." His tone has shifted, landing softly and I force myself to look up as his lip curls, and he nods. "And my wife will tolerate far less."

I don't have to turn to know - I see it reflected on Spiridon's face, the smallest changes in his expression and how his whole body stiffens – but I'd been drilled to not leave my back exposed.

Mistress Ozera observes the room, her eyes more alert than I remember but…there's a fevered energy about her, like she's containing herself. Her dark hair is swept up and pinned with jewels. One the size of a peach pit hangs from her throat, the colour of her husband's eyes. Beside her, Christian is pale, like he might faint or vomit at any moment. Ahead of them, Natasha is trying to smile as she kisses someone's cheek.

The mark on my arm tightens to the bone.

Lissa approaches them and I watch Christian struggle to speak at first before introducing her. Mistress Ozera reaches out to caress her cheek, and without thinking I step forward –

Her gaze shifts and I'm pinned beneath it.

"You are beneath us. You live for us. You do what we tell you to do and in return we let you live. Do I make myself clear?"

The binding splinters my ribs.

Her iron-hot fingers grip my arm, searing back into the flesh -

Spiridon is there. Blocking her view of me, putting his back to her instead. He doesn't offer any reassuring touches or words, instead, he glares past me with raw hatred, a blade ready to be wielded. That itself is something to hold on to.

Victor murmurs a warning as my teeth rattle together.

"She won't hurt you." Master Ozera says quietly.

I fight to control my breathing, feeling it in the centre of myself like Dimitri taught me.

Dimitri.

Victor starts talking in a low harsh torrent as my mind wheels and spins, and the room folds and unfolds with sound.

I root around in the dark spaces of myself for the numbness, but I can't find it.

"Are you done?" Lucas asks. I lift my eyes from the floor to see Victor's expression mottled with rage. "Because you should really be concerning yourself with greeting my wife, letting her feel welcomed and …in control. We both know how personally she takes things. When insulted she retaliates ten-fold and right now? Right now, she's close to your daughter."

Everything in me stills and I feel Spiridon press closer.

I have the bizarre thought that maybe I'm the one protecting Lucas from him.

"We're here for our son." Lucas says softly, "We'll be leaving with him and leaving Natasha and her convoluted nonsense to rest. But until then, play the game."

It's the exact same thing Victor had told him to do in June.

Victor's stare is hard but then he clicks his tongue, "Very well."

Lucas plucks the untouched drink from his grasp - I swear Spiridon is vibrating with the energy it takes to remain still – and holds it out to me.

"Rose and I have much to discuss, it's arranged she'll sit with me. Consider it the safest place for her. It will show me some good faith that you'll keep your word."

Victor looks over his shoulder to where Natalie is, having pulled in a small audience, and where Lissa is guiding the Ozera's. She's smiling, excited. There's no mark on her face.

"I'll do it." I say before the choice can be made for me. I take the glass, careful not to touch him.

"No, you won't."

It's the first time Spiridon's spoken, the words an angry rush and Victor's head swings back to us. The hard set of regret around his mouth but the conflict he's feeling isn't about me, it's about giving Lucas what he wants.

"Let me take Rose back to her room, radio White and - "

"I don't recall asking for your opinion let alone your advice." Victor lashes. Spiridon's' jaw rolls and the glass almost shatters in my grip. He fixes his attention on the other Moroi who's watching in amusement. "Don't push me, Lucas. Don't threaten my daughter and expect any agreement to be upheld."

"Then we have reached an impasse. I'm sure we'll find a more private time to go over details but for now." He turns his flaying gaze to me, and I try not to wince. "Rosemarie and I will get reacquainted."

Send me away. Send me to my room with locking doors and Dimitri's letters.

"Very well." Victor says quietly, giving Spiridon a short nod. He turns on his heel, weaving toward Natalie, who's being introduced to the Mistress by Lissa.

Christian looks like a breeze could push him over and as if sensing it looks our direction. He looks exactly like how I feel, even when he looks past me to his father and the wan expression darkens.

"Back to your post, Guardian." Master Ozera murmurs, breaking my attention.

Spiridon's eyes burn silver, deadlier than the weapon on his hip, "Remember, I am in the room."

He makes a noise of disdain. "How could I forget?"

"I wasn't talking to you." Spiridon replies softly, drawing his gaze away to glare at me.

Challenge and encouragement, the same look during training – daring me not to fail. To not falter. To not give up.

"I won't." I promise.

He doesn't spare another word or glance at the Moroi before slinking back to his position.

I'm alone.

"Daniella has coveted some beautiful artwork, shall we?" Lucas gestures toward the long wall of sizeable paintings.

I look at his outstretched arm and think about fleeing. I think about running until the carpet changes to snow and this fear that will expand until I rip at the seams is compressed by stronger arms.

Safety.

But thoughts of Dimitri lead down another path of worry. I'm glad he isn't here. If he was then Lucas might already be dead, and this time Spiridon wouldn't be able to clear up the mess.

Threaten the girl again and I'll gladly break your neck.

If Ben were here, I wouldn't be. He'd have gotten me out. He wouldn't have cared about anything else. And then Victor could punish him through Sonia.

I look over to where my friends are grouped.

I wouldn't leave them.

I have suffered and survived worse. I can do this too.

I step forward and ignore the triumph on my old master's face, stealing a large gulp of champagne to help.

It's a game, it's all a game, just like Adrian said.

I sneak a glance at him, trying to sense how to handle this, and how I should behave. I'm a tool. I'm the leverage he and Victor are fighting to control. I'm not Rose, not Roza, not the person who's been able to grow beyond her bones.

"Sandro Botticelli. I've always found him rather flat and unimaginative." He says as we stop in front of the piece. "The same can't be said for you."

I meet those eyes. "I don't know what you mean."

He doesn't look away from the portrait. "She did a better job than I gave her credit for, concealing you. She kept you dirty, thin, and out of the way, but even then, it was noted you were pretty. Your scent was obscured. Even as a child. But now? Victors cultivated that beauty." He looks at me then with the same appraisal he'd given the painting. He leans toward me slightly and my spine bends in response. "Blood is like perfume, on each person it's different, a subtle scent on the skin. You smell divine."

My mouth dries and the barn flashes before my eyes, so acute I can see the rot in the beams I used to fixate on.

He leans back, satisfied.

I work salvia into my mouth. "She protected me."

He laughs softly and rage bolts up my spine.

"It was in vain." He replies, moving on to the next ridiculous splattering of colour. "Cézanne. For the sentimental with no substance, Rhea Dragomir's forte."

The fire kicks up behind my ribs and makes a home. "In vain? Everything she did for me protected me, no matter what it cost her. No matter what you did." He looks over his shoulder as my temper takes my voice. "She told me you promised her that none of them would touch me but that was a lie, that was in vain."

My courage banks when he smiles, a glimpse of the ivory point flashing.

"You are so like her, despite your colouring. Her fires in your eyes." He's looking at me too closely and my legs ache to back away. "I did give the order and it wasn't followed – Grant Brown paid for that. The damage he did was… irreversible, and I could no longer trust my assets under his care when I was absent."

Irreversible. Assets. Eddie.

"You have nothing to fear from me, surely you know that?" He says, misreading whatever shows on my face.

"Everything I have ever feared has been because of you." I admit, placing my hand flat to the wall between the gold frames.

"How interesting." He replies before moving on to the last painting.

I take a deep breath and hold it in my centre, letting the pressure of it steady me before letting it out.

I follow him because the only way out is to get through. Then I'll be back in my room, where the doors lock, and Ben will sleep on the couch if I ask. And Dimitri will come back.

He'll come back and there will be less to be afraid of.

Along the opposite wall Spiridon prowls, gait at ease, an admissible figure to be ignored by most. He passes the Guardian hugging the corner, whose gaze follows him in question, before stopping midway, putting him at the highest point of the room where he can watch us.

I turn back to Master Ozera, "Why is it interesting?"

He hums, "Because the average lifespan for a Dhampir isn't long. Break that down then for Guardians it's twenty-eight – thirty-three, perhaps declining in this climate. Those in the communes and communities it's around forty. The threat of Strigoi, being cut off from medical care, relying on the resident Vrăjitoare to prescribe tea for childbirth complications."

The amusement in his voice makes my skin crawl. He mentioned Strigoi so easily, so relaxed, where I've watched muscles tense and skin pale when they were brought up by others. Dimitri was out there now, trying to keep the threat at bay and tease it –

Dimitri is at the main entrance.

How did Ozeras get in? How long had they been here?

"But under my management, you do better. Sixty-eight or so."

I'm almost twenty. My mother forty. Mary was in her late fifties, I think, and she'd been there for…I don't know how long. She would die there within ten years.

If stress or a heavy-handed Guardian didn't kill her first…and that was her life.

It isn't a life.

"You're not convinced." He muses and I want to get away from his eyes. I want them off my skin, could claw at my face to erase the feeling of them there. "Neither was your mother but I'll tell you exactly what I told her. Without me, both of you would be dead already. The average lifespan for a woman involved in your father's world? Significantly less."

My mouth opens and shuts. My mind has gone balefully blank except for the image of her toying with the small pendant at her throat. I always thought it was comforting.

He steps toward me and I'm too aware of the height difference, his bearing over me, the shadow over everything. In the barn. In the orchard. In the drawing room, cast by the fire, when I was eight and he ordered me to eat. Only for Grant to backhand me when we got back outside so I remembered it was my place.

Over his shoulder, Spiridon has crept closer, the candlelight reflecting off unforgiving silver.

"Where is she?"

I don't have to ask who he means.

"I don't know."

The charm melts from his expression, a glamour slipping away. "Do not lie to me, Rose."

My old instincts rear up and drag my gaze to the floor. "I'm not."

The room rushes around my head again, closing over like bathwater. I could get through it like this, making myself smaller, talking low and only when spoken to. But I'd done that before, and it had still left me burned and breaking on cold hard gravel.

She had to pay the price.

I look up.

"I don't know where she is but even if I did, I would lie. You'll never see her again, you'll never hurt her again."

He glares at me, burning ice. A creature that belongs outside in the storm, too cold to be affected by Arizona heat.

But he's Moroi. He's vulnerable.

My eyes drop again, not out of submission but assessment. To where his axillary artery hides beneath the rich material.

Lucas Ozera was not invulnerable. He was a Moroi with lower bone density and prone to autoimmune diseases as they got older, and got weaker. Unlike Dhampirs, with our accelerated healing and strength.

Why do we have shorter lives?

A bell rings out, short and high. My stomach lurches up my throat, the orchard flashing in front of my eyes.

"If you would all take your seats, dinner is about to be served." Adrian's mother announces. She's draped in jewellery, every stone winking as she moves.

Long, cool fingers wrap around my wrist. Without thinking I step forward and I get to see that hell fire sputter in surprise, before using the leverage of my body weight to pull my wrist down and free.

It's quick and easily missed but it was a mistake.

Lucas Ozera doesn't grow angrier or disgusted, instead, his gaze sparks and the urge to wrap the cardigan tightly around my body makes my fingers twitch.

"Shall we?" He asks silkily, gesturing to the table.

I don't look away. I don't look to Spiridon, who I can feel ready to explode.

I swallow bile and panic. "Yes."

I don't feel connected to my body but somehow it moves. It walks me around the table, steered by a hand at my back that I try not to feel, and take a seat at the corner. Lucas pulls out the one next to me but gets caught up exchanging pleasantries and a handshake with the person on his other side. It gives me a moment to breathe.

Natalie is closest to me, beside Ralf and a woman who looks like him. Lissa is at the far end, beside Christian and Natasha, glowing where they look pale and dark. Eric is between Rhea and Moira. Victor is in the centre, Adrian's mother on one side and Camille on the other.

Behind his charge, Spiridon's outline moves against the artwork.

Dhampir servers flow into the room with dishes held aloft. I think I see my own face but it's a trick between the candlelight.

I watch Moira's mouth curl as she talks, and Natasha's shoulders tighten. Lissa's eyebrows raise and the polite smile slips a little.

Christian is staring at me. His eyes are shadowed in his pale face, so they almost look black, adding to the tortured expression.

I drop my gaze to the cloth and rally my composure.

My spine bows to the right as he sits down, still talking to the other man. Sound swims again and I look down at my hands, curling my fingers into a fist and trying to feel my nails against my palm.

"Rosemarie."

My teeth grind and the hot sting floods my palms.

He gestures to the wine bottle on the table, one between every two around the table. It takes me less time to understand than I like, and it cuts. I open the bottle, my angry palms hot against the glass as dark liquid spills into his glass.

"Thank you." He murmurs.

The secret humiliation is another heartbeat in my chest.

Around the long table, the Moroi are pouring glasses for themselves and each other but it's not the same.

It's never going to be the same.

"May I?" Lucas asks and the loudness of his voice pushes me to the edge. But then I notice Ralf's mother watching, Natalie glancing away from what Victor is saying and I realise it's a performance. I can't refuse to play a part.

Numbly I hold out up my wrist and again his fingers wrap around it, giving it a sharp squeeze. He examines the bracelet, rotating it against the light.

"A token of affection? How generous of Victor."

There's something too close to jealousy in his voice.

"It was a gift." I take my hand back. "From Lissa."

His interest is like sinking into something deep and thick, unable to claw my way out.

"How thoughtful. The details seem to be deeply sentimental; she must care about you." He lifts his glass and around the lip his murmurs, "That must be complicated for you."

Past him, I see Lissa using her hands to help describe what she's saying, Moira being the target audience. The woman looks at my friend with an expression barely shy of scorn.

"Not if Christian stays away from her."

He makes a thoughtful noise, setting his glass back down.

"Are we negotiating favours now? Perhaps you should have held off from telling me you don't know where she is."

Steaming bowls are put down in front of us, a long basket of bread by the wine. The flutes are refilled despite the wine on the table. Conversations overlap and stretch around the table.

"Eat." I can't but I make a show of playing with my spoon. "Come now, hunger strike was her form of rebellion. Never yours."

You must look like a child for as long as possible.

"She's safe." I tell myself more than answer him.

"She's in pain." He corrects, ignoring my staring, biting into a bread roll thick with butter and slowly chewing. He makes a pleased noise as my nails try to draw blood from my palms. "Without me, I engineered it that way."

The question is dragged between my teeth. "What do you mean?"

He turns to the person on his left, throwing in a comment to their conversation and laughter erupts. I suppress the urge to shove him and scream the question again. Instead, I take a deep drink of champagne, the bubbles needling the back of my throat and my face screws up. I ignore Ralf's mother's look of disgust across the table.

I would be spoken to when he decided and not before.

Finally, he turns back to me and my heads lighter, tongue looser.

"I mean." He continues quietly, "That she has been with me for twenty years. Twenty years addicted to my venom, the rush I give, conditioned to behave the way I taught her, so she's rewarded. Compound that with the stripping away of everything else, where I become the centre of her universe, her welfare, of yours. You may be her heart, her joy, but I am everything else. She tried to reduce herself down to be less than I would desire but I am in her very bones." He smiles, candlelight reflecting off ice. "And to suddenly go cold turkey, the withdrawals would be like sandpaper on a raw nerve. Your body denied something it relied so heavily on, it could be fatal. I only wielded that weapon when necessary. Victor must have known he might have handed over a death sentence. Perhaps not, from his high horse it's hard to understand what's in the dirt."

The ringing is in my ears again. The frequency getting louder.

He tuts softly, looking down at the tablecloth where I'm gripping a knife.

"By all means, ruin our evening, your friends' lives."

The silver is cool against my hot, angry skin, all I can feel outside is the raging urge to strike. To hurt.

But it wouldn't just be him.

Sense, like weak sun rays, filters through my head. My fingers unlock and the knife nestles back into the cloth.

"Good girl." Lucas murmurs.

The adrenaline thunders around my body, needing a way out.

"He's going to kill you." I promise.

He laughs, loud and free, causing people to look.

"Victor? I don't think so, he needs me more than he realises. Especially as Moira, as we speak, is dismantling any credit my sister has gained. The little Dragomir is trying very hard to hold it all together."

"Not Victor." I murmur, my thumb pressing so hard on the gold ring that my knuckle cracks. "Victors even worse than you are."

Across the table Natalie is watching, the flames stark against her white face. For a second the truth is around my throat, and I swear she sees it, swear she's heard me. Then she fixes a smile and turns away.

"Nothing more than rumours, obviously. Lucas and Moira made it here without interruptions." A voice booms, blanketing every other conversation. Nathan gestures down the table towards us, the motion telling that he's drunk. "Isn't that right?"

Lucas turns away from me, drawing up straighter. "None at all. We made it through the pass without much fuss. If there is any obstacles your Guardians have it well in hand."

Nathan grins, glancing Victor's way. "I have it all in hand."

"The facts seem to disagree." Victor says in a subdued tone, but it carries.

"What did you say?" Nathan barks.

"Curtain up." Lucas murmurs, taking another drink. His other hand taps the table, a finger pointing to my glass.

I take a small drink.

"I think Victor is alluding to the fact two Guardians have died, or so mine told me." A woman pipes up, and then to her neighbour. "They have their own little gossip network."

"That and my Guardian, Dimitri Belikov has stepped in to lead the operation at the gate. His expertise and experience are not something to abhorred or glazed over. The circumstances would likely deteriorate without him." Nathan starts to interrupt but Victor says louder, sharper. "Have there not been shipment issues, lack of produce and toiletries? Not to mention we've all be warned of a delay."

Natalie, dutifully, adds. "We've been told to expect to be taking our classes here."

"So, your plaything is on loan from Victor?" I hear Moira snide at Natasha, who glares at her as the Moroi men debate.

Beside her Lissa's demeanour shifts, the gracious veneer of Rhea's influence crumbling. Christian looks between the three women in his life and I wonder does he feel the sharp edge of it all ending.

I hear Lissa answer, Dimitri's name defended from her mouth. Moira's eyes are intent on her, cruelty beginning to gleam.

"I might have exaggerated, there was certainly trouble at the gate. Is that a token of Victors' affection?"

Too busy watching Lissa I don't realise his attention has turned back to me. He reaches for my right hand, and I start so violently that the table jolts. Cutlery clatters to the ground as wine sloshes onto the pristine runner.

Most of the table turns to stare.

I mutter an apology and turn to dive for the fallen silver but Spiridon's already there.

"You can take the girl out of the commune..."

He realigns the silver from his crouch, glaring past me at Lucas. At the last second his gaze slips to me, and it helps reinforce some strength into my spine. I'm not alone.

In one fluid motion Spiridon slides back from his crouch and melts back into the shadows.

Someone comments to Victor that he has 'them' well trained.

Victor replies that Natalie needs a constant example, and his daughter's cheeks darken as she laughs like it doesn't hurt her feelings.

To my left Lucas lazily rotates his hand, palm up, expectant.

I shift in my seat and don't think as I place mine in his for inspection. I don't think about his fingers crooking to cradle and drawing mine closer into a trap.

"Gold plated." He murmurs, "Certainly a cheap token."

"It isn't from Victor." I say through my teeth.

I feel him waiting so I don't say anything else.

"The blonde then, who is very intent on monitoring us."

"No."

I feel his annoyance begin to grow and it should be the dose of cold water I need to behave. But the small curl of satisfaction is too sweet. I pull my hand back, wiping my clammy palm against my hip. I ignore the splattering of purplish dots on the white cloth – it was taunting that voice in my head that I was failing.

"Not of the same calibre as your bracelet."

"Only to someone like you."

"So, there is meaning." He murmurs to himself, taking a sip from his glass.

I have a sinking feeling that I've told him what he wanted to know.

"They both mean a lot to me."

"Moira worries it's made you arrogant – being spoiled by the Dashkov and Dragomir girls." My heart starts beating more painfully, every thud felt. "And I did disagree with her, knowing how rigorous your mother worked to instil the correct qualities in you, as she insisted she could. But then we heard about the ball, and I found it harder to reason with her."

I danced with Christian.

You do not speak to my son, you don't look at my son, you do not touch my son, you vile little bitch.

I hadn't been imagining the burning sensation earlier. Victor has said numerous times about the effects magic leaves behind, that like calls to like. She'd burned into my skin, into muscle and tissue, and the medicine had been able to heal that, but what if her magic couldn't be purged out completely?

A shooting pain cuts through my stomach and bile touches the back of my throat.

"Which is why, staying close to me is in your best interests." He says with a silky smugness. "You have always been a sore point for her."

The bandages cut in and I grip the edge of the seat, trying to concentrate on how it feels. Every bone straining to crush.

The room moves on as I cling to the very edge of it. My untouched plate is cleared and replaced. When I finally have a better foothold, the conversation threatens to throw me back again.

Natasha is defending her aims for her teaching programme. Moroi learning to use their magic for defence should they need to aid their Guardian in a fight, something the current climate would support. Her cheeks are flushed and by the side glances and smirks she's been provoked, and no one is taking her one bit seriously.

Lissa is sitting up straight, looking defiantly around at the head of the table. Beside her Christian looks stony but in solidarity.

I feel the gaps our friendship lived in starting to close.

"And this is the sort of proposal you will bring to Coalition?" Nathan asks, a stumbling slant to his words. He points his glass toward Lucas, a smile tugging at his mouth. "Did you know your little sister is vying for your title?"

Lucas doesn't immediately answer, taking care to shear off a slice of lamb before meeting the table's expectant eyes. "I'm afraid I did hear the punchline, but not the beginning of the joke."

Laughter, the men are the loudest.

"Don't pretend you have any love for the role." Natasha bristles, "You hadn't been to Court for years."

Victor's exact words were in her mouth.

Lucas puts down his knife and fork. "I don't pretend. I don't need the vindication or gratification you so deeply need and seek. Perhaps you should settle for the sweet nothings of your Guardian pet, and the praise of children. I'm sure St. Vladimirs have room for another after-school club."

Nathan's ruddy face looks delighted amongst the unease and sniggers.

"That so-called pet is Victor's man. At least he had the sense not to bring that big brute with him, unlike her."

He's looking pointing at me.

They all look at me.

"Rose has every right to be here, Nathan, as discussed. If you insult her, you insult me." Victor says evenly.

"I have no issue with that." Nathan barks and his wife flinches.

"It is unusual, Victor." An older woman agrees from further up the table, diamonds around her neck in a heavy noose. "There is decorum and then there is charity."

"Rose is neither." Victor says firmly. "She is part of my household."

"You gain a Bloodwhore and the Ivashkovs lose their heir." Moira says with amusement.

"What did you say?" Rhea demands, leaning around her husband.

Victor begins a tirade that has Nathan grow visibly more furious, most of the Moroi enraptured by it.

But I watch as Moira cocks her head and smiling tells Rhea, "It's a step up from what she was, I assure you."

Rhea leans back into her chair as Eric starts interjecting between Lissa and the woman in diamonds. Christian has left his seat and has come to his mother's side, his face severe.

Emotions flash across Rhea's face and then she looks at me. She mouths 'oh god' before her hand comes to her temple and shields her face.

My heart kicks to a wild thundering. Adrenaline causing my hands shake, slick with cold sweat.

"All this production, so much effort into stapling you into his image, makes me wonder how he will ever explain your absence." Lucas says only for me, returning to his meal.

I think I might be sick.

"My absence?" I push out as Rhea turns to Eric and whispers urgently, hands clasped in front of her.

"Yes. I suppose with Natalie and Lissa at college it will seem natural for you to fall to the wayside. I wonder what he'll tell them, perhaps the truth, but moulded to his preference. He has always been good at that." He chews for a time, then looks sidelong at me. "That's how I know you're lying to me, Rose."

A headache was bleeding from the back of my head to the front.

"Victor caused me a great embarrassment with his interlude to my plans this past summer. I allowed our sequestering, but Victor knows well enough that his control will not hold. That he needs my support more than I need his silence. What do I care for public opinion of me? So, he renegotiated with what he did have - your mother and you."

He's lying.

"I can see you're surprised, hurt perhaps. But you are necessary to help maintain her. You always have been. Without you…well, it will not do."

He's lying.

He's lying.

The headache spills down my neck and the pain is almost too much to keep my head upright.

I'm here to protect my interests…

Whether he meant it or not, Victor had let him believe he had my mother, and he could give her back. That she was a thing to return. He spoke about her like that, about me like that, after everything.

My throat shrinks around a sharp stone, the pain radiating up my jaw.

Dimitri, he leant out to Natasha, and for all the crude jokes there's an element of truth. He advocated for him to flirt with her, to flatter her, to let her believe that he was looking at her like he looks at me. Spiridon, he sent to spy and contort into any shape or thing that would gain him what he needed. Ben, he had only started to show the slightest bit of respect to because his talents were starting to benefit him.

Jokes at Natalie's expense. Critical words behind her back.

Lissa tied to Christian so she would be dragged unknowingly into something dark.

My mother missing to a man called the snake.

…years addicted to my venom, the rush I give, conditioned to behave the way I taught her, so she's rewarded.

It was never a choice when Lucas demanded I stay by his side. Despite knowing what he is and what he's done, how I was raised, and how I was when he first saw me at the manor. Burned, beaten and breaking. He knows he doesn't fear Strigoi but entertains them, that his wife sent me to one in the woods as an apology – that he's so dangerous the very things we're being guarded against would sit at his table.

And he doesn't care that I'm sat by him now, the man who's raped and abused all he knows I have. Doesn't care if sitting here, being petted, breaks me.

The fire engulfs my ribs, rising, and funnelling through my body.

Around us the Dhampir servers flow. A soft thud as another bottle is placed in front of us. One bearing the Ozera crest.

Lucas is whispering to me. "It's a shame there is no token to adorn your neck, we should fix that. Perhaps later."

My edges rip apart.

I shove him, so violently he crashes with the man on his other side, overturning wine and staining the cloth dark. The force of it propels me out of my seat, stumbling back and bringing the whole atmosphere of the party with me.

I glare at him with years of grief for the life I've had and one stolen from me, from her, from Eddie. With hatred that will live in my bones until I die and even then, it will spoil the earth where they lie. The fury that all of it is possible, the world was open for him to do this, so long as it wasn't seen. As long as it didn't ruin dinner.

Across the room, Rhea stands.

"Don't you ever touch me again." I say, fury shaking my tone. "Don't ever believe you have the right to."

"Rose." Victor warns, rising from his seat.

His gaze flicks past me, calling for Spiridon in the shadows – to take me away.

"You were going to give me back?" I demand, the fury taking over. "YOU WERE GOING TO GIVE US BACK?"

The room is silent for a heartbeat and then a taunting feminine laugh drifts from the other end.

"Give you back?" Nathan barks, looking more alert.

Eric takes hold of Rhea's wrist to yank her back, but she pulls free.

"Rose."

Natalie says my name softly, afraid, her green eyes wide and pleading. I feel a presence drift to my back, but it doesn't feel like a threat.

I feel like a threat.

But Lucas doesn't look alarmed, only faintly smug. He tears his gaze from me to address the table.

"I think she means to say, she is not happy about being returned to me."

"Returned? She was your Blood Whore first?" Nathan pounces.

"I am not a Blood Whore!" I scream at him and there's a ripple of flinching and surprise.

"Did you know this? Did you?" Rhea asks her husband, but his gaze darts past her to Victor.

"Someone remove her if she's going to scream vulgarities. It's insult enough she sits here in place of Nathan's son."

"Lucas." Natasha pleads in a carried whisper. "Don't do this."

"She is not a Whore, but she does belong to me." Lucas answers conversationally, ignoring his sister, he's above everyone entirely.

"Belongs to you?" Nathan presses.

I feel both too big for the room and too small.

"What do you mean?" Lissa demands, standing shakily. She looks at Christian, but his gaze is down, his expression pained but accepting. "What does he mean?"

"Spiridon!" Victor snaps.

All my anger could never eclipse how hard it is to finally admit it, to show the open wounds, but I couldn't let Lucas or Victor take this from me.

I look at only Lissa.

"He means I was born on his property in Arizona, where he's kept my mother since she was nineteen." The wounds split and sting, as I tear down Lissa's life. "It – was always them."

I feel Spiridon's taken my arm, but he doesn't drag me away, only squeezes lightly.

"Do – do you mean to tell me, that she – that she's…" Adrain's mother stumbles as if afraid or disgusted to say it.

"A slave." Nathan breathes, head whipping down the line to Victor. "A fucking slave?"

"One of many." Lucas comments, reaching for his glass. "Isn't that right, Victor? Oh, come now, you had a lot to say in June, say it now."

Victor's stricken face is colouring with fury. "Yes, yes she is a slave I rescued."

Nathan's fists come down on the table and he roars, "YOU LET MY SON BE SEDUCED AND DISGRACED BY A FUCKING SLAVE?"

The table erupts. Victor and Nathan shouting at each other. Adrian's mother begins to cry. Rhea slaps Eric across the face. Natasha is being yelled at - was her intention to turn their children into a militia? Malicious means like her brother. Only Moira and Lucas are composed, a look exchanged with each other, a little tilt of her glass toward him.

"Keeping a slave, Nat! What the fuck?" Ralf shouts. His mother is out of her seat and trying to pull him away too.

"It isn't like that, it isn't! Please –"

A pressure begins to swell, the air inside the room thinning or maybe I'm panicking.

Lucas cocks his head and flexes his fingers as if sensing the same thing – he looks down the table where Christian holds onto Lissa, putting himself between her and his mother. Where Moira's hands are braced on the table the wood has scorched, tiny flakes of orange winking out. Natasha adds to the barrier, spilt wine simmering between her and her sister-in-law. Natasha is shouting at her, and Moira only smiles.

But it's Lissa I need to get to, get her out. Her face contorts with rage and grief as she shouts at Christian over and over.

Tell me it's a lie.

My ears pop and there's a ringing again but it's not inside my head. Razor-thin cracks are veining through the glasses.

I look back at Lissa just before she screams.

The pressure breaks.

The candle flames blaze violently, shooting toward the ceiling, the burst of light and heat momentarily blinding as the dark room suddenly ignites. The glasses explode, glass shattering and screams of pain puncture those of surprise. I could swear the ground shudders but then Spiridon pulls, throwing me behind him and I hit the wall as he reaches for Natalie.

Shocked silence floods the room and then detonates. The Moroi shouting at each other, their Guardians converging but the threat can't be located.

"GUARDIANS! PUT THEM IN THEIR ROOMS. THE GUARD MUST BE CALLED." Nathan yells. "Victor Dashkov is to be questioned for trafficking Dhampirs!"

He shouts that the same is to be applied to the Ozeras and the Dragomirs.

Lissa has broken free of Christian and is running. Past her parents, past Nathan as he continues screaming orders, past Victor -

I break away from the wall, but my hand is caught.

"Use this time, to remember what you've seemingly forgotten." Lucas says, eerily calm against the backdrop of chaos. "My patience, once lost, makes me unforgiving."

My gaze jumps from his fine fingers to his face. "Same."

I throw all my weight into the punch. He crashes into the table, wine soiling his shirt before he lands on the floor.

Someone screams but I'm already running.

Spiridon shouts my name as I duck under a Guardian's hand, following Lissa's path out into the hall. The balcony door is ajar, a cold wind darting inside, and I race toward it.

"Lissa!" She's braced against the railing, sobbing, and retching. "Lissa I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"Don't!" She chokes, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand. It smears red and when she turns her nose is bleeding. "Don't you dare apologize to me. Oh god. I can't – I can't bear this." She flattens her shaking palms to her face, a strangled noise taking over. "I can't."

In all the time I fantasized about telling her it was in a warm room, holding hands and then arms wrapped around each other. Both of us might cry, but it would be okay – this was not okay. It's bitter, ugly and cold.

My truth was all twisted up in Lucas and Nathan's mouths.

"H-how could you not tell me?" She asks, dropping her hands and wringing them out. I notice then the pink lines raked on her arms. She clenches her bloodied teeth. "How could you stand it. Stand me?"

I rush forward a few steps but she backs away quickly, hitting the railing.

"Because it was worth it." Hot pain stings my eyes and I clear my throat, but it still comes out broken. "You're my friend. I would do anything for – "

"That's the problem!" She half-screams, fury burning through the grief. "You would do anything despite that it would hurt you. You would do what Victor tells you – you…YOU SAT NEXT TO HIM! I DRAGGED YOU OVER THERE AFTER TELLING HIM – "

She breaks off and doubles over, heaving air in and out.

"Lissa." I reach out to put my hand on her back, but she slaps it away. It's a jolt through my system, a physical proof that I've done something wrong. That I've done this.

She's pulling at her hair, wrenching the pins out, strands snapping and for a second, she's my mother, clawing at herself. The pink angry lines bead red from her nails.

"Stop it!" I grab her wrists.

She fights me and then she's the one gripping me and shouting again.

"I covered what they did! Your back! Your arm! I GLAMOURED WHAT THEY DID –" Her voice breaks, tears tracking through blood with her green eyes too bright. "And he knew, he knew – he listened to me worry and he knew."

"He knew." I admit and watch the last thread snap.

Lissa falls into me and cries against my shoulder. I tell her I'm sorry, hope she feels the truth of the words through the pain, and hope they don't add to it. I hold her like I might hold her together.

The winter wind whips around us, smothering her sobs.

"Liss." Natalie looks small and lost, tears dripping off her chin in the doorway. "I didn't…"

Lissa pushes out of my hold and her expression breaks in me what Lucas couldn't. She takes some deep breaths and lifts her chin.

"I highly doubt that."

Natalie's face pinches. "I didn't. She didn't tell me, did you, Rose? You never told me. You told me to stop asking. I would have told you, Lissa. I wouldn't let your relationship go on. I – "

Lissa is shaking her head. "She might not have told you, but you knew."

Natalie's pale face in the candlelight.

"She only realised at the table, Lissa. She couldn't do anything."

"Yes, she could! She could have done anything! ANYTHING."

"Like what?" Natalie snaps. "What could I have done, Lissa? Why don't you tell me since it so easy for you to judge everyone else by what they should do."

"What?" Lissa utters.

"You judge everyone! You're so patronising, so much better than everyone else but do you say anything to your dad when he's flirting with anything in a skirt? No, but you give Rhea shit." Tears spill down Natalie's cheeks. "You're not right all the time!"

Lissa takes the blow, her skin almost see-through as she looks between us.

The wind whips through the silence and it's like everything between us is now hollow.

"They think we knew. They think we were helping the Ozera's. Nathan Ivashkov's locking us in our rooms until the Guard comes. Everything's r-ruined."

"Good." Lissa says dully.

Natalie's lip trembles and behind her Rhea throws open the doors, flanked by a Guardian and Spiridon.

"How did he lie to me?" Lissa says to herself before she's wrapped in Rhea's arms.

"Inside, all of you." She orders briskly. Pieces of her hair have come down. "Rose, they won't let you come to our room yet, but I will sort it out."

I'm too dazed to reply. Back inside she kisses my cheek before setting off with Lissa, all the fight having gone out of her.

Spiridon's tense, the arrogant spark missing and the grey flat.

"Comes on." He urges.


Natalie starts crying again on the way back. I don't know when, but I notice when I come back to myself in the lift. She's tucked into Spiridon's side, his hand chafing her arm as he stares stonily ahead.

It makes me realise how cold I am and when I look at my hands I expect to find frost. Instead, they're red with it. I have a fleeting hope that when the doors open Dimitri will be waiting in the hall, ready to sit with me by the fire and rub heat back into them again.

The hall is empty, but it's not quiet.

Guardians I don't recognise are standing by the walls as Victor's voice rages from his suite. Inside he's pacing, tumbler in hand. Something has been smashed and the flowers I'd been sent are dead. The rose heads are bowed and wilted.

"Daddy?"

Victor glances at her and I realise he has his phone pressed to his ear.

If the phones are working I can –

He throws it down and it clatters pathetically along the rug.

"The phone line is still not working." He seethes, "Where is White?"

"He could be at the barracks or the Control pod." Spiridon answers.

"Find him. Now." He takes a gulp of scotch, pacing. "I need to speak to Hans, this whole thing cannot become Nathan's circus. He has his thugs out there like he has the right to police me?" He stops. "What are you waiting for?"

Spiridon inclines his head and then he's gone, leaving Natalie looking pleadingly after him.

"What are we going to do?" She sniffs, sitting down heavily. "Ralf thinks Rose is our slave. His mother thinks –"

"I do not care what that senseless bint thinks as it's as ever-changing with the tide. They will regret the way they treated you, Ralf will beg to be in my good graces again. Mark my words."

"But…" Natalie glances at me, "They all know Rose was a slave. They know we lied about her."

Victor stops pacing, his eyes set on me, and my spine stiffens.

"Based on a dramatic outburst, the narrative hyperbolised to an atrocious level. One Nathan will try to use to debase and humiliate our name. I will not let that happen. I will not lose everything I have worked for just because you could not keep your wits about you."

"My…my wits?" I repeat.

"That isn't fair." Natalie says as laughter bubbles out of my mouth.

She flinches, afraid, but Victor looks like he might possess the desire to backhand me.

"You gave me to him! You could have sent me away, but you didn't. He said – "

"I'm sure he said all manner of things!" He hisses. "And you should have had the sense not to take the bait. You stood there as he griped about his ill-treatment, how terrible it is for him to reside in New York and gain back esteem in Court. Lucas was a spoilt child who became a cruel man, yes, but didn't need to hand his power back to him."

It's like all the adrenaline starts imploding in my body. I need to fight or cry.

But then Natalie is on her feet. "It's not her fault! He tortured her, have you seen her back? I've told you about the scars. I remember how her arm was when she came to our house. He did that and you think she can sit there and be nice to him?"

"SHE ONLY NEEDED TO HUMOUR HIM FOR A FEW HOURS!"

"LISSA IS NEVER GOING TO SPEAK TO ME AGAIN! SHE THINKS I HID THIS FROM HER BUT YOU USED HER. YOU USED HER TO GET CHRISTIAN CLOSE SO YOU COULD –"

I walk out of the room.

In the hall, the Guardians rouse and move to block my way to the lift but there's no need. I fling myself against the door to my suite, scrambling for the card and throwing it closed behind me.

My breathing is coming too quick, too shallow.

I can feel something rising up, ready to pull me down if I let it. I need to move. When I move it won't be able to catch me. I run into the bedroom.

A-C-Q-U-I-E-S-C-E-N-C-E

I pull my case out from under the bed and throw it open.

A-B-A-N-D-O-N-M-E-N-T

I rip clothes out from the closet and from the drawers, tossing them at the open mouth.

I-N-T-E-R-M-EN-T

In the bathroom I grab everything off the counter, bottles slipping from my grip and bouncing across the tile.

R-U-N

Inhale.

I dump them in and brace myself for a moment.

Exhale.

He would come back, and I'd be ready to go. We would leave and find my mother, find a place to sleep with locking doors and be safe.

Cracks in the plan whisper but I push them out, spelling aloud and collecting anything I've missed, then pulling it all out to organise.

Spiridon would be back with Ben soon and that will help.

I've just pulled out our letter from beneath his pillow, the faint smell of him lingering, when I hear the door click. My heart stills with the rest of my body, seconds pass and then everything kicks into overdrive.

"Dimitri?" I call breathlessly, rushing to the doorway.

But it's not him.

The room tilts with the absurdity of it and I lean against the frame trying to take it in. Her hand is clasped around the doorhandle and it's turning a reddis-gold. A small alarm trills and then a series of bolts slide into place.

"There." Natasha murmurs, removing her hand, palm a healthy pink. "Now we won't be disturbed."

"What are you doing?"

"Triggering the fire door." She says calmly which frightens me more. "I wanted to talk without any theatrics. Do you think we can do that, Rose?"

"Does punching come under theatrical?" I ask, eyes flicking back to the glowing handle.

"And screaming, if you can control yourself."

"Don't give me a reason to do either."

She huffs a laugh but there are fissures in her gaze, ice splitting.

She cocks her head, "You called out for Dima. You are attached to him, aren't you?"

"A little."

"And were you going to tell him how you've ruined his life?"

"Probably."

Fire cracks in those fissures. "I usually give little thought to what Moira says but she was right about you. Arrogant, entitled and – "

"Is theatrics a rule for only me? Because you're calling me names and you've broken the door."

I don't know when to shut up. I've always been selfish, and the adrenaline is causing my body to shake, wanting out – part of me wants to make this so much worse for them all.

Why should I shut up?

The fireplace spits a mouthful of cinders as if in answer. I hear the low whoosh of flames and heat presses into the room. Fear finally breaks through with my common sense. Locked doors are no good if they lock an Ozera in with me.

My scar prickles and stings.

"I really tried; I want you to understand that. To make you feel welcome, to show you that my brother hadn't poisoned us all. Christian is good, and I've done all I can to save him, just like I saved you. I tried to be patient, that perspective would come to you with the distance, but it didn't. You clung to your injuries, and blamed me."

She runs her hand over the back of the couch, the velvet crisps at the brush. I can either step back into the bedroom and risk her following or move across the room and keep my distance.

Slowly, with ease only possible by Spiridon's drilling, I step to the side.

It's more likely I'll be heard from this room.

Clung to your injuries.

"You expected me to be grateful to you? The same way I was grateful to Victor?"

I can barely hear myself over the hammering in my chest, too aware of the fire at my back as I pass it.

"Where would you be without me?" She hisses. "On your back or on your knees. I got you out!"

I pass the table and meet the edge of the other couch.

"Without you, I'd be dead. Without you taking years to tell the truth, I'd be dead. Like Eddie is."

She blanches. "I don't –"

"Remember? I do. I remember his blonde hair. His eyes were more green than brown unless he was upset. I remember he had hair the same colour as his mother. I remember how she screamed when she found him dead beside me. His hair was more red then. I remember you had years to save him, and he would have been grateful." The words are foreign and acrid on my tongue. "Your nephew."

Her expressions shifts, not to guilt or tears but to pity and my body thrums.

"He was never my nephew any more than he was Lucas' son. You should know better." The letter crumples in my fist, nails biting into our words. I cling to them, to him. "He was a bastard. He was a product of Lucas' dirty secrets, and he was never going to stand a chance. His existence was an insult to Moira – a mocking reminder that another woman had done what she couldn't."

Moroi women have difficulty conceiving, by the time we're in our late twenties it's almost improbable and by thirty, impossible…

Dhampir's don't face that problem.

My mother made sure she couldn't have any more children.

"I told him to be good." Natasha sighs. "You were a special case. You weren't Lucas' bastard. I thought you were some condition of blackmail and meddling could bring something worse down on us if not handled correctly. You were in fact, an act of love as much as Lucas is capable of it, allowing her to keep you."

"It wasn't love." I spit. "Don't you dare call it that."

A small smile, "I have survived my brother and father before him. I know what to call it."

The heat of room has climbed steadily, pressing against my cheeks and spine.

"You thought you were distracting me." She murmurs. "But if there was ever a time to have an open conversation it would be now."

"Without screaming."

She ignores that, drifting closer, the velvet melting black under her hand.

"Moria hates you all the same. I think she feared your mother giving Lucas a spare, someone he would legitimise but…now I don't know what either of them plans. But she hates you, and that's motive."

"Motive?" I swallow, monitoring her steps and the fire.

I'd pinned myself.

"I won't make this painful, in fact, it will be a relief for you. To forget."

I move back, skirting the table. Something flashes in the firelight near her foot. A button.

"Your behaviour landed us in a precarious position, with spectators but they can be managed. I know Victor can do it, he's shown it time and time again. A real leader. One we need and you will not be the thing to bring years of planning crashing down. You will not ruin Christian's life, my life, when we are destined to bring so much good to our family's name."

"Nothing you do will erase what you've already done. Dhampirs starved, beaten and killed."

She stops in front of the table. "The estate is burned, the Dhampirs missing, the bodies moved. Without you, there isn't proof of any of it."

"Lissa knows. Natalie knows."

Her palms crack against the table surface. "And it will ruin them! By association. Natalie, who thrives on being the centre of attention will be shunned. No Royal will ever marry her, to be tied to the shame. Vasilissa's aspirations in politics will never be entertained. They will mourn you, it's in Lissa's nature but what is one when there is so much else at risk?" She straightens, "It will be painless, I promise. Think of all the grief and hurt you will be unburdened by. How it will save your friends."

She starts rounding the table.

"There will be an investigation, but Victor and I will handle it. Moira and my brother will be dealt with, that should be a comfort too."

"You're going to compel me to forget everything?"

Compulsion is difficult, delicate, and to be performed sparingly to protect the mind. She doesn't want to enforce one action to support a need, like eating. She wants to erase my life.

Eddie, my mother, Mary, Ben, Natalie, Lissa, Spiridon, Adrian, Halloween, Christmas, pizza.

"Some things. Most things. The more difficult you make it. The more painful it will be and I…I'm not proficient but there is no time."

Daisy chains, chocolate, training, a bed, laughter, cooking, books, a bracelet, a ring,

Dimitri.

Being safe.

Being loved.

A promise sealed in blood, to survive.

I shift my stance.

"Touch me and I'll kill you."

She gives me that pitiless smile again and the wildness in her eyes reveals itself. The fire fills the mouth of the hearth.

"Of course, you'd choose force, it was the way you were raised."

Yes, it was.

She lunges for me, faster than I anticipate, as I hook my foot through the chair leg and pull it out. She stumbles into it as I take off, rounding the table and aim for the door.

WHOOSH

The fireplace explodes, fire overflowing the mantle and rolling up the wall. The blast of heat in the already sweltering room throws me into the kitchenette counter. Spiridon's abandoned beer gets swept off, hot liquid splattering everywhere.

Under the roar of the flames, my ears prick to the sound of voices in the hall.

I scream Spiridon's name.

Natasha collides with me, wrenching my shoulder and sending us both crashing to the ground. She scrabbles on top of me, clawing my neck to get a grip of my jaw. Fear bolts through my stomach because I remember what flame-tipped fingers can do, the grip of molten heat.

I scream again but it's in defiance.

I dig in my heels, hips jolting up. She's thrown forward, needing to brace her hands above my head.

...take your right hand and grip my arm from the outside. Good. Hook my leg with yours. Now throw me off.

It's surprising, how light she is, how easy it is to fling her weight to the side and get to my hands and knees. It's too hot, it's like being submerged in boiling bath water. The heat licking at my skin hungrily.

I scramble to my feet, using the couch as support.

The fire is a raging, living thing starved and desperate, reaching out across the room.

She's broken the door, to touch it would melt my skin. The fire is under her control…

While she's in control.

I turn back to where she's getting to her feet, heels lost somewhere, dress torn. I told her I'd kill her…

Killing would take something from me, and she doesn't deserve that piece. She isn't on my list. I wouldn't hear the bell for her.

My eyes drop to the beer bottle, and I dive for it as she comes for me again. She hits me with more force than I think she's capable of and we crash back onto the carpet. It blurs and then she's climbed on me, her knee pinning my bicep and rage surges like it might break my body. Her fingers bite into my jaw, pain lancing up through my skull.

"You'll wish you were broken, that you weren't so bold." She pants.

I squeeze my eyes closed, my right hand stretched out, searching.

"Then you would have been grateful for what I gave you."

My fingers brush the glass neck.

"I am."

I swing the bottle and it shatters against her face.

The fire doesn't choke or die, it fans the ceiling as she screeches and the grip on my throat tightens. Blindly I keep pushing at her, the glass cutting my palms. Beer and blood spilling over my fingers.

I can't breathe but I think I'm screaming too.

The door explodes and for a second, I think the pressure of the room has reached its peak.

Her hand is ripped from my throat, her weight disappearing and through blurry eyes I watch as she's tossed across the room, crashing into the dining table.

The fire is sucked back down into the hearth leaving a jarring silence in its wake.

Two strong hands sit me up, one cradles my face and the other rubs my back as I choke and gasp.

"Roza." My name, but only his. My gaze clears to a night sky with stars. Gold flecks in the dark. "Moya lyubov'?"

For what you are and what you have.

"Dimitri."

His forehead presses to mine as I pull thick, heavy air into my chest. His touch is cold against my brow, a centring sensation against the dizziness. I feel his lips moving against my skin but it's too low to hear.

He helps me stand, banding his arm around my waist and examining my hand.

"It's not my blood." I hear myself say from a distance.

His hold tightens, hand splaying across my ribs.

He's here. It's safe.

My head lolls back against his shoulder and he comes back into focus. His face is a furious landscape, with harsh angles and sharp lines. I might have imagined the gold in his eyes because now they seem entirely black. From his left temple to his cheekbone are a series of angry scratches. His gear is damaged, open mouth rips down his shoulder and chest.

He looks back at me, lethal energy exuding from him in cold waves.

His head turns a fraction to where Natasha has sat up cupping her bloody face, watching us.

"Chto vi sebe pozvolyaete?"

His voice is quiet but loaded in a way that demands caution. A response would tread a hairsbreadth between grass and the grave.

Natasha makes a sound of disbelief as scarlet winds down her arm.

"What do you?" She hisses, looking between us. "She has destroyed everything. The Guard will arrest us all!"

"The Guard is the last thing you should fear." He promises softly.

Fury mares the rest of her face, her incredulous gaze dropping to mine. I fight to hold on to the room, her gaze, just to watch the truth blaze through her denial.

I let her see it – what I have.

What is for me.

And then the room slips away.


"Chto vi sebe pozvolyaete?" - "What do you allow yourself?".