Chapter 14 – 2

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Chapter 14 – 2

 

Chapter 14

 

TAN

– The Path of Lamed - The combination Gimel, Lamed, Samech.
The Vision of the Justice or Balance of the Universe.1

 

“Unavoidably, even in the most adverse of environments, even if the earth is sterile, life will lead its course.
And, as violent as the world may be, no matter how much one wants the desert to remain sterile,
there’s nothing that can stop the small flower from blooming,
and nothing that can stop her from useless trying to reach the blue bright sky forever out of her grasp.”

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2

“Hmm. What shall we have for lunch?” I asked.

After spending the whole night turning and tussling without getting any real sleep until it was almost dawn, I’d ended up waking up well past noon. However, and to my relief, Gabriel had stayed home and now sat in the living room, waiting for lunch.

“Let’s see what’s left in the freezer. I really have to take a trip to the supermarket today,” I muttered and Lea dragged a chair to my side, climbing on it to peer inside the freezing compartment.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to one of the few bags left and I grabbed it to look inside.

“Looks like steaks. I guess we can have these with some mushrooms. How about it?”

“And can we have fries? And that egg that looks like a sun?” His silver eyes shined like stars as I closed the door.

“Really, sometimes you’re just like a Human child!” I pointed out, taking a clean plate from the cupboard.

“I am?” Lea asked, sounding intrigued, and I nodded.

“Yes, you are. Always happy with the smallest things.”

“Because they’re all things I’ve never seen before. They don’t exist in my world, you know?” he added, now sorrowful, and I looked back at him.

“But you have all these amazing powers. Surely you can get a pizza or two if you want.” I disputed and Lea sat on his chair, his small legs dangling back and forth.

“Well, when I said my world, I wasn’t really talking about the whole world. Only about the world I know. Of course things like that exist, I suppose. It’s like you say. There are some very powerful Deiwos and I’m sure they can get anything they want. But in my world, there’s only darkness.”

“Are you talking about before you met him?” I asked, but Lea shook his head.

“No, before Master found me I hadn’t even that. Only fear, and more fear. But then Master gave me this body, and I decided to stay with him. Maybe if I had left, I’d end up seeing and trying many other things. But, since I didn’t, I started living in Master’s world.”

I recalled the feeling I had last night as I watched him sleep.

“Darkness,” I muttered and he nodded sadly.

“Yes. And great empty halls with no windows, with no furniture, always silent. The only place filled with something is the library. Master has a big collection of books. He used to spend his days reading, sitting at this one table, by the light of a candle.”

“But why? I mean, he has so much power,” I wondered out loud and my inner alert sounded immediately, reminding me I was once again trying to pry into things that were none of my concern. After all, how could details like that mean anything to me? To better understand him? What for? If in the end all that united us was a simple exchange — my body for Michael’s love.

“Things aren’t that simple,” Lea was saying. “There are many rules and the hierarchy must always be respected. And even amongst the strongest, there’s always fear. That’s something I learned. I always thought that only the weak are afraid. But even the strongest are afraid sometimes, and when they are afraid, their fear is even more intense than that of the weak ones.” His grown-up tone reminded me, once more, that that child was no child at all. “Fear of dying isn’t that bad at all. Fear of losing everything you have is much worse. And Master has always been feared by everyone, ever since he was a child.”

That painful vibration echoed in my chest, almost as if someone had given a tug on the invisible threads that bound my heart, threatening to tear it to pieces. I couldn’t tell since when those frightening threads had been there, or how they’d come to wrap themselves so tightly around my heart. All I knew was that they had the power to completely destroy me in a single moment, like it had almost happened in that dark alley the day before.

I took some potatoes from the basket near the sink and started peeling them.

Always feared, ever since childhood, I thought. Then he’d really been alone his entire life. When someone is feared like that, even when sharing the same space with someone else, it’s as if there’s no one there. Just as it happened with me on a daily basis. Or maybe that was even worse. Having someone beside him who could hardly look him in the eye, who shivered at his every movement, who tried to run away at the slightest sign of change. I could easily imagine the loneliness and sadness of having to live with someone like that. And that’s why he loved Lea, I concluded. Lea was the only one who hadn’t run away, who’d remained beside him even when he’d tried to get rid of him. Because when we don’t have anyone, we have no other choice but starting to believe we don’t need them after all. Lea had penetrated his defenses, and had won through persistence. He’d seen his world of darkness and remained by his side. In the end he had become his light.

I scolded myself immediately and unloaded my frustration on the innocent potatoes, cutting them into fries. That was exactly what I couldn’t allow to happen! Me, measuring his thoughts and feelings as if they were my own, as if they belonged to any other Human Being. He was not Human! He probably couldn’t even feel any of that! And so I dropped the subject and concentrated on what would soon be our lunch.

When the food was almost ready, I placed the clean dishes on the table and Lea did the rest, setting the table. By the time he was done, a delicious smell filled the air, and he raised his head taking a deep breath, complimenting me on how wonderful everything smelled.

“Stop that!” I scolded him, trying to slap a thieving hand, but he managed to be much faster that I could ever be, stealing a fry and blowing on it, before sticking it in his mouth.

“Very good.”

“Yeah, right! No more stealing!” I ordered and he seemed disappointed that his compliment hadn’t done much in terms of placating my anger. “And go get him. He’s in the living room, right?” I asked, although I’d much rather simply forget his presence, but Lea didn’t move an inch, looking at me with a serious expression. “So? He’s there, right?” I persisted, and he nodded, still stunned.

“Yeah, but ... you want me to get him?” he asked, sounding surprised, and I understood the reason behind his hesitation.

“Well, he’ll end up showing up anyways. And he’s been staying outside all this time to let me work in peace, right? I’m not blind, you know? I know he is always trying to make things easier for me, one way or the other,” I unwillingly admitted. “And I... since I can’t really escape any of this, I may as well try and do the same. Fighting against the ropes that bind me can only bring me more pain.” I took a deep breath, smiling at his serious expression. “So, if you don’t mind, go and call him. It’s the only way I have to repay the fact that he didn’t make me endure his presence up till now.”

Lea left without a word, and I placed the still boiling pan of steaks with mushrooms on the table. I had just set down the fries when they came back.

His presence made my hands and knees tremble, and my heartbeat picked up, but I was still able to control myself enough to act with some measure of dignity. I managed to look at him, for brief moments, and the slight smile that touched his perfect lips bothered me. He seemed to be in an unusually good mood.

Gabriel took his place on the other end of the table, as far as possible from mine, and Lea jumped to his chair, clearly happy with what awaited him. I served his plate, as he eagerly followed my every move, and I almost expected him to clap when I finally placed it in front of him. He ate, complimenting me on everything and on the same thing more than once, every time he filled his mouth. His excited voice filled the air that in his absence would surely have been awkwardly silent.

I noticed, by the few peeks I dared throw Gabriel’s way, that he also ate with pleasure, seeming especially intrigued with the different textures of his fried egg. I smiled watching him pierce the yolk with his fork and almost laughed when he uselessly tried to stop it from spilling all over his plate. In those things he was almost like Lea, I thought, with the difference that Lea always said exactly what he thought, while he was more silent and observant.

“Mari? Can we come with you this afternoon?” Lea asked with a broad smile, cleaning his plate with two fries, and I just couldn’t answer. His ‘we’ didn’t go unnoticed, quite the opposite. His question had undoubtedly included Gabriel. And although I didn’t wish to refuse Lea’s company, I wished I could avoid having to deal with the physical pain that having Gabriel around implied. However, and as much as it displeased me, I knew I couldn’t leave him behind. I’d already left him alone the entire morning. I didn’t want to risk repeating the feat in the afternoon.

“Sure we can.” Gabriel’s deep, soft tone gave me the usual shivers. “After all, Mari promised that she’d spend the weekend with us,” he added, staring at me, challenging me to say otherwise.

“This way you can help me,” I said, smiling at Lea, ignoring Gabriel’s provocation. “It’ll be much faster.” Lea jumped from his chair, clapping enthusiastically, partially erasing the bitter taste that filled my mouth. I couldn’t escape those binds, but being so pointedly reminded of their existence was never pleasant.

After we ate Lea help me with the dishes, anxious to finish them up so we could leave. I went upstairs to get my wallet and when I came back they were both waiting for me by the front door.

The cold wind outside made me pull up the collar of my coat and the gray, cloudy sky warned me that it might be a good idea to take an umbrella.

Lea waited to hold my hand, his sunglasses with little fishes back on his face, and I couldn’t help shiver at the sight of his naked legs below his knee-length blue shorts. Lea, however, was so excited about our afternoon walk that he seemed unable to feel cold. Besides, I’d already noticed neither of them felt cold the same way I did.

Gabriel stood on the other side of the road, allowing me to take the lead, which I did without sparing him a single look. And then he fell in behind us, his silent footsteps making me wonder if he was actually there.

We went down Lewisham Street and then turned north. The supermarket was relatively close and we were there in less than fifteen minutes.

Lea stopped, like he’d stopped before the sight of the Westminster Cathedral, eyes wide open, his moth gawking, and he gasped in disbelief.

“This huge house ... it’s filled with things to eat?” he asked and I nodded, unable to stop myself from smiling as I looked down at him. “Oh, Tes ... co,” he read the huge red letters out loud. “Is it the name of the owner of this amazing place?”

“Hmm, I don’t think so. It’s only the name of the place. Places like this don’t belong to only one person,” I supposed and Lea nodded, still very much impressed.

“I see. I wonder, is it too expensive to buy one of these houses? I’d really like to have one.”

I laughed and pulled him towards the door. “For now just be happy to buy some of the things inside the house,” I suggested as the doors opened automatically.

“Ah! Magic!” His sudden accusation startled me and he turned back urgently, pointing his small accusatory finger at the glass doors. “Master! Magic!” he insisted, his child-like voice sounding too high pitched, and I pulled him across the door, blushing when two women turned to look inquisitively at us.

“No, it’s not! Stop saying nonsense!” I scolded him and dared to look over my shoulder, fearing that my other demon might think alike, dreading what he might do against the innocent doors. But, to my relief, Gabriel looked unimpressed, which allowed me to focus on keeping Lea’s hand firmly gripped in mine.

“Not magic?” he insisted, sounding disappointed, and I took a deep breath.

“Most Humans do not possess that kind of power,” Gabriel explained, “and those who do don’t use it in public, for fear of being persecuted and condemned if they did.” He practically whispered the words, but even with the distance between us, I could hear him perfectly clear, probably even better than if he’d been standing right beside me.

“Really?” Lea asked, looking up at me as if he felt sorry for me as a representative of the entire non-magical Human race, and sighed when I didn’t deny it. “What a shame.”

I placed a coin in the mechanism to release a shopping cart and Lea’s attention was immediately turned towards this new toy, asking me if he could push it, running with the cart down the corridor.

“Slow down!” I shouted after him. “And be careful not to hit anyone!” I doubted he heard me.

Watching Lea run and laugh, while people went about their lives, almost made the incident from the day before seem like an imaginary nightmare. For my mind, eager to retain any measure of normality, the fear and tension of those moments had already begun to dwindle. There, in my small, protected world, no strange dark creature would come out of the shadows to disturb the peace. At least that was what I wanted to believe.

Trying to divert Lea’s attention from his cart racing, I asked him to search for some of the things on my shopping list, and he happily skipped down the aisle.

“You know, you really didn’t have to come here. All you had to do was tell me what you needed.” Again, that voice. I took a box of cereal from the shelf and put it in my cart. I considered getting angry at his suggestion, but his tone hadn’t been smug or conceited. And I understood my actions actually puzzled him. After all, why go to all that trouble when everything could be easily solved with a single thought or wish?

“Things like this make part of my world,” I replied. “And, right now, you’re both living in it.” I spoke as if he were standing right beside me, and pushed the cart towards the crackers and cookies section. “The same way you dress and behave like one of us, things like going to the supermarket are also included. Besides, I still want to go about my life like always.”

“I see, although I can’t really say I understand.”

Lea came back running, showing me what he’d brought me, and I thanked him, giving him a new task. He smiled happily and ran away once again, allowing me to turn my attention towards the various packets of cookies in front of me.

“The chocolate ones.” I heard his velvet voice and couldn’t help raise my head to look at him in surprise. He stood like a lean dark shadow, almost on the other end of the aisle, and slowly raised his pale hand to point the shelf right in front of me, his expression serious and decided.

“You want ... these ones?” I tried to make sure, not knowing what to think, and reached for a packet of chocolate cream cookies from the shelf right above my head. His hand dropped with that same slowness and he simply nodded.

I placed the packet in the cart and reached for another, trying as hard as I could not to laugh. Just like Lea, who had insisted that I buy him a huge red lollipop as soon as we’d entered the store, I mused.

I pushed the cart, turning my back on him so he wouldn’t notice my persistent smile, and stopped by the bread.

I was choosing a bag of buns, knowing Lea would love them, when I thought I heard his voice calling me urgently. My head shot up and I looked around, searching for him, and then, without a thought, my feet were running down the main corridor.

I found him two aisles down from where I’d left my cart, perched on one of the highest shelves, which he’d obviously climbed and from where he seemed unable to come down. I immediately ran to him noticing he kept his eyes closed, tears of fear streaming down his cheeks, his sunglasses fallen on the ground.

“Lea! What are you doing up there?” I asked, trying to calm him down, rising on my tiptoes to reach him, and held him by his waist, his small body trembling.

Maybe I pulled him down too soon, or maybe he just couldn’t let go of his hold on what he perceived to be his only safety. But suddenly a huge pile of cans was falling over us. Instinctively, I pulled him against my chest and crouched, hugging him protectively. I couldn’t really tell what happened next. Just that something pushed me down, and that all I could do was hold him tight, fearing I’d let go of him as I fell. The sound of dozens of cans crashing around us filled the air, and then silence, except for the sound of my uneven breath.

I could already guess what had happened before I even opened my eyes, and I knew that the pain in my chest had nothing to do with my fall. My vision blurred, but I could still easily identify his hand, planted on the floor right beside my head. His white skin was still burned, vivid red marks breaking its perfect paleness. And I knew without a doubt that if that hand were to touch me, darkness and madness would descend on me.

Shaking uncontrollably, I slowly turned my gaze upwards and, sure enough, there he was, his beautiful face right above of mine, which only made me hold Lea even harder. He’d protected us with his own body and, for a split second, my vision became clearer. The black eyes that looked down on me were haunted and sad, and I was almost grateful when my vision became blurry again, sparing me that disturbing sight.

Worried voices surrounded us and I felt the small body I still held move. And then he was gone. It had all happened so fast and, at the same time, so excruciating slowly that I felt lost for a moment. Hands I didn’t know held me, helping me sit up, and strange words mixed with worried expressions that made me dizzy reached my ears. My gaze wandered over the fallen cans all around me, and I was only able to return to myself when a small pair of hands held mine.

“Mari! Are you okay? Does it hurt anywhere?” I shook my head, immediately recognizing his worried expression, and his childish face came even closer, his nose almost rubbing mine. “Are you sure? Then why are you crying?” he asked me softly and I took a hand to my face, confused.

“I’m crying?” I asked, surprised but unable to deny it, as I felt the dampness on my skin. “But I’m not sad and I’m not hurt ... really!” I added, trying to erase his sad expression, and I hurriedly dried my tears that were immediately replaced by new ones. This was plain stupid, I thought. Of all the times I wished I could cry, and had all the reasons in the world to, I’d never been able to shed a single tear! Now that there was no reason for tears, they just kept falling uninterruptedly!

“Miss, are you sure you’re okay?”

I raised my head and smiled at the nice man that still held me, although I couldn’t stop my tears from falling.

“I’m fine, thank you. Thank you very much,” I repeated, noticing his wife’s concerned expression. I fought to get back on my feet and took a deep breath. “And you, Lea, are you okay?” I asked picking up his sunglasses, and he nodded, holding his hands behind his back, looking embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured and I smiled.

“Everything’s fine,” I guaranteed, drying some more tears, hopefully for the last time, and turned towards the couple that had helped me.

“Once again, thank you. And I’m sorry for all this mess,” I added towards the employee, who had just arrived at the scene. He gave me a polite smile, muttering something about being glad we were all right, even though I guessed he wasn’t happy at all about having to pick up the dozens of cans still rolling across the floor.

I held Lea’s hand, thanking them one more time, and towed him towards the aisle where I’d left our cart.

“Are you angry?” I heard his fearful voice and looked at him with an honest smile.

“Of course not! Why would I be?”

“You could have hurt yourself. You shouldn’t have helped me. Me, even if I’d fallen from there, nothing bad would have happened. I was really stupid.” I laughed at his unusual self-reprimand, and ruffled his unruly hair.

“I bet you didn’t even think about that,” I told him, now amused. “The only thing you thought was how to get to the tuna cans. And then you were too afraid to climb back down. Really, just like a cat!” Lea blushed, too embarrassed to face me.

“If it wasn’t for Master ...” he left his observation hanging and my smile faded away as I was reminded of his presence. However, I could hardly deny that, once again, he’d kept us safe.

“Yes.”

“But Mari, this is not the first time that something like this happened!” he noted, now with a worried, grown-up-like scolding tone. “You mustn’t forget that we’re not like you! You don’t need to protect us! You’re much frailer than we are!”

That was the first time I’d ever heard Lea so clearly stating the obvious, that he and I were nothing alike and, somehow, his words made me sad and angry.

“You know, if you're going to tell me something like that, I’ll only end up even more confused!” I snapped at him. “After all, aren’t you the one always using words like love, loneliness, sadness and fear to describe yourself and those like you? Words that, in my mind, only apply to Human Beings? When you tell me something like that, I really don’t know what to do. What is it that you really expect from me? That I’ll be able to see you like I see any other person, or that I see you as something different? Please make up your mind!” Noticing his surprised expression made me realize that I’d just poured out a big portion of my inner frustration on him. Still, and against my will, that was exactly where I stood — my mind telling me there were no doubts about the matter, my heart stubbornly disagreeing .

I thought I should apologize, especially for my harsh tone, because he couldn’t be blamed for my poorly concealed anger. However, as soon as we turned the corner, my feet froze in place as I gaped in disbelief. Gabriel stood beside our cart and Michael was with him. And the vision of those two, standing side by side, left a foreboding feeling stuck at the back of my throat.

Michael was talking with him, his bright smile as warm and joyful as ever. Gabriel, on the other hand, listened in silence, and, although he’d put on his friendly expression, it was obvious he wasn’t one bit happy with that sudden interference. Something in his eyes, that seemed to follow the conversation with interest, made me shiver. I couldn’t help questioning how Michael still hadn’t noticed it, or the eminent danger he was in.

I anxiously rushed in their direction, hoping to ease up the tension, and Michael gave me an even brighter smile when he noticed my presence.

“Hey, hi, Mari!”

I made myself smile and dared steal a sideways glance towards Gabriel, who to my relief, was already walking away.

“Hi, Michael,” I greeted him, glad that at least that problem had been solved without a fuss.

“Oh, and who’s the little one?” Michael asked, smiling down at the small boy I’d dragged by the hand, and my cheeks blushed. In my hurry I’d completely forgotten about Lea.

“Ah ... um, this is Lea. He is ... Gabriel’s little brother,” I conjured up at that precise instant, certain that adding family to his side was much safer than adding to mine.

“Oh, then he’s your little cousin,” he concluded, bending forward, hands on his knees to be closer to Lea’s height, and smiled at the boy. “How old are you, Lea?”

Lea growled at his face between clenched teeth and hid behind my legs, refusing to talk with him.

“Lea! Stop that!” I scolded him, but Michael stood up, looking amused by his foul mood.

“It’s fine. He’s probably just shy,” he guessed, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. I frowned threateningly at Lea’s disdainful expression and decided to give my attention to Michael.

“Listen, Mari,” he continued before I could make any casual conversation and his tone seemed apprehensive. “I’m glad I met you. I really wanted to talk to you.” My heart gave a jerk of happiness and my mind jumped immediately to the worst-case scenario, grasping for a fast, urgent escape.

“Hmm, right now is kind of complicated. Can we talk tomorrow?” I awkwardly suggested, and he held my free hand, startling me.

“Mari, are you avoiding me?” His serious, almost pained tone of voice took me by surprise. His question had almost sounded like a statement.

“Avoiding you? No! Why would I?” I questioned him, not knowing what else to say, and Michael looked away, restlessly changing his weight from one leg to another as if he felt awkward.

“I don’t know. It just feels that way, since the time we spent the day together ... and if it’s something I did or said ...”

“No!” I cut in urgently, desperately looking for his gaze that always seemed to avoid mine. “It’s nothing like that! You didn’t do or say anything wrong! I wish I could explain, but ...”

He sighed deeply and his fingers gently caressed mine. “Can’t you get free? For just a few minutes?”

I wished with all my heart I could say yes. I missed spending time with him and all the little things I’d been able to conquer, and which I now had to abdicate from in order to fulfill my new agreement. Gabriel’s words echoed immediately in my mind, reminding me that I’d promised to spend the afternoon with him, and I knew there was no way I could accept Michael’s invitation.

“I’m sorry,” I pleaded with all my heart and he gave me one of his recently acquired comprehensive smiles.

“No problem. Another time then. Anyways, I’ll see you tomorrow, right? I guess I was just feeling a bit ... anxious, since we haven’t spoken since Friday. But now that I’ve seen you ... it’s kind of creepy, right?” he asked awkwardly, and I shook my head vehemently. “I know it is. But it’s the truth, and I’ve decided to always tell you the truth, so ...” He hesitated and my cheeks flushed automatically.

Hearing him say those words made me really happy and sad at the same time. I wished I could tell him the same, but my truth was too frightening to share. With him or anyone else.

“Thank you, Michael. I’m ... really happy to know you feel you can trust me,” I told him, trying to be as sincere as possible. “And I don’t think it’s creepy or anything. Me too, I also think of you, even when we’re apart,” I added, too aware of just how embarrassing that sounded, but the glow that took over his expression was worth it.

“You do? I mean, that’s good,” he said in one breath while Lea sighed impatiently. “Ah, that’s right, I bought a new book. I’ll lend it to you tomorrow. I know you’ll like it.”

I smiled at his enthusiasm, and because he was back to being the Michael I knew and loved. But, at the same time, knowing how my actions held such power over him made me sad. Because, after all, he was so much more than I could ever be! And it was as if I had the ability to destroy all he was just by averting my gaze. The connection that had grown between us, the same that I had wished for so fervently, due to the circumstances surrounding me, couldn’t make neither of us happy.

“I’ll be waiting,” I replied and Lea sighed again, making his presence noted.

“Um, it looks like the little one is impatient. And, anyway, I have to go,” he said with a gentle smile that melted my heart. “See you tomorrow.”

His hand finally released mine and I felt the air around me suddenly grow colder, almost as if my body temperature had been dependent on his touch.

Michael waved goodbye to Lea, who growled once more in response, and walked away. I followed him with my eyes; the rhythm of his footsteps that I knew so well, his shoulders straight under his jacket, his blond hair gently swaying with every new step. I wished I could run to him, close the distance between us in a heartbeat, and simply hug him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. But the binds that tied me would never allow it.

“Can we go, now?” Lea asked, impatiently, and I looked down at him in disapproval.

“You were very rude!” I pointed out and he released my hand, crossing his arms over his chest with a deep frown.

“Why do I have to be nice? I don’t like him!” he stated so frontally that it took me by surprise.

“Why not? Michael didn’t do anything!” I defended him the best I could. Besides, everyone liked Michael, right?

“I don’t care. I don’t like him and that’s it!” he stubbornly retorted and I gave up, thinking that even in these kinds of things he was exactly like a child.

“Fine. Let’s just get what’s still missing from our list,” I told him, changing the subject, and Lea exchanged his pout for a much happier smile, pushing the cart towards the next aisle. Gabriel was already there, standing on the opposite end just like before, following us at a distance as if he were our personal bodyguard.

Lea eagerly asked me for a new mission and I sent him to get some cheese, after making him promise that he wouldn’t be climbing on anything.

I grabbed two rice bags and checked the list for what was still missing.

“He asked you to leave with him.” I heard his deep voice as if he’d whispered the words in my ear, breaking my line of thought. Had that been a question or a statement? “Why didn’t you?”

Unconsciously, I crumpled the piece of paper I held in my hand. What kind of question was that? When he knew the answer better than anyone!

I bit the inside of my mouth and decided not to show just how much his question had annoyed me.

“You said it yourself. I promised to spend the weekend with you,” I murmured, knowing he’d hear me perfectly well, and studied the prices of the different brands of sugar.

“But you didn’t promise,” he insisted and I frowned when I couldn’t concentrate on the numbers, ending up choosing the brand right in front of me.

“And what if I’d left? What would you have done?”

“Don’t know. I don’t normally think about things that far ahead. Do you?” I stood silent. If he didn’t, why did I have to? And if there were no certainties for him, what was I constantly worrying about? Worse! What was the use of worrying at all? “I see,” he commented before my silence. “What did you think I would do? Hmm, let’s see ...” He pretended to be thinking about it, and my heart quivered, freezing me in place. “Oh, of course, Stephanie,” he concluded, sounding amused, and I squeezed the shopping cart handle as hard as I could. When he put it like that it almost sounded as if I was the one to blame for him thinking of her as bargaining chip in our constant wars.

“She’s my friend!” I finally exploded, turning to face him, furiously raising my voice more than necessary, and his surprised expression made me realize that, contrary to my will, I’d lost control once again. “My only friend,” I added, lowering my head, bitterness filling my mouth as I recalled that same friend wouldn’t even look me in the eye, much less talk to me, and wished I could cry, although at this point, I had no hope that my tears would obey me.

“Mariane.” His serious tone broke through my anguish and my head automatically turned to him. His dark eyes looked firm and decided and, although his expression wasn’t quite as menacing, the intensity of his gaze made me take a step back. “Just to make it clear. I never looked for her. She’s the one who came for me,” he declared, the only confirmation that he had actually spoke being the soft, almost unnoticed, movements of his lips. “If you think I take any pleasure in her company, then you’re wrong. The company of Human Beings doesn’t please me in the least.” After the initial impact, my anger boiled even hotter. Not for me, I told myself, but for Steph. She had been deceived when he had led her to believe he had feelings for her! Deceived to the point of choosing him over her own friends!

“And yet you spend your days with her, laughing and whispering secrets all over school!” I accused him, noticing once more I’d talked too loud.

“Because, as you so kindly pointed out, refusing to do so would be a breach of our Contract. I‘ll admit that getting involved with her to begin with was a mistake. A bigger mistake yet since she’s your friend and I agreed not to hurt those around you. But, now that it has come to this, if I just walk up to her and tell her how I truly feel, I’ll be breaking our Contract. You yourself made a point to remind me of that, or have you forgotten?” he replied, keeping his cool as always, and I clenched my teeth, wishing I could hit him, or at least throw something really heavy, preferably sharp too, at his head.

“And so you decided to use her as a bargaining chip!” I demanded in indignation. “I can never understand what you’re thinking! You act as if this Contract is important to you, and then go out of your way to make sure it’s not fulfilled! Michael ... Michael thinks I’m avoiding him!” Which was true, I added in my mind, bitterness flooding my chest.

“I thought that that’s what you wanted.”

I looked up at him, stunned. So he knew? I forced myself react!

“And who’s talking about what I want? When has that ever mattered? I’m talking about what you want!” I countered. A woman who passed by threw me a strange look, as though she thought me crazy for, apparently, standing there talking to myself.

“That’s quite simple, really. You want something, but there are some things in this situation, conditions that you don’t want to face or live through, making you avoid the fulfillment of your initial wish. I’m the same as you,” he calmly admitted and I stood there, in silence, trying to make sense of his words.

True enough I wished Michael had feelings for me, but the price he’d asked for my wish to come true didn’t agree with me in the least. But, if that’s how it was, knowing that he would achieve what he wanted once our Contract was fulfilled, what was there that displeased him?

Lea returned with a smile on his lips, completely unaware of our discussion, and placed the cheese in the cart, skipping to my side.

“What else?” he inquired and I had to blink in order to return to reality. “Is there anything else?” he insisted, now looking suspicious, and I faked a smile.

“No. I guess that’s almost everything,” I replied, checking my list again.

While we gathered a few last things, my head kept turning around what he’d said. I guess that what shocked me the most was realizing that, even for him, there were things he couldn’t control. Something he didn’t desire and that was implicitly related to our Contract. It couldn’t be its terms, I thought, since, unlike me, he had gladly agreed to them. So it could only be something he hadn’t foreseen, some kind of secondary consequence that I just couldn’t grasp.

We manually and very much human-like carried all the supermarket bags back home, after rejecting twice Lea’s insistent idea of just making everything magically appear in my living room.

Once at home I patiently put everything in its rightful places, freezing most of our meat and fish supplies that, hopefully, would last us till the end of the month. Gabriel stood outside the kitchen door, leaning against the corridor wall, watching me with what could only be curiosity. And so, unlike Lea who kept happily jumping all over the place, I was really tired once everything was done.

“What now? What now?” he asked excitedly and I sighed. Where did all his energy came from? I dared take a peek towards Gabrie, just to confirm that he too was waiting for an answer, and sighed again.

“Now, homework,” I replied and Lea’s smile quickly gave way to a pout.

“Homework? But that’s so boring!” he argued. “I’m always supposed to be quiet when you’re studying! It’s no fun at all!” I smiled and ran a hand through his soft tussled hair.

“But I have to. Tomorrow’s a school day and I still haven’t done anything. To tell you the truth, since you arrived, I haven’t been studying at all!” I added with a grimace and stole another peek towards the door, but he wasn’t there anymore.

Lea followed me up to my room, clearly disappointed with my choice of activity, and I took a deep breath as I grabbed all my books and notebooks before leaving again.

“Mari? Where are you going?” I heard his childish voice ask curiously as he followed me back downstairs, and I stopped by the living room door for an instant, quickly taking in the layout of the room into consideration before stepping inside.

I dropped my things on the dinner table, only rarely used on important occasions, and pulled up a chair, sitting down.

“You’re going to study here?” Lea asked, bewildered, and I nodded before raising my head to face him. Gabriel too, was staring at me from his armchair with that same expression, and I took a deep breath for courage’s sake, before turning to answer his silent question.

“I did tell you I would spend the afternoon with you. A deal is deal!” I made a point to stress out and his incredulous expression was quickly replaced bya soft smile, almost as gentle as the ones he always gave Lea; which left me with the impression that I’d just said something plainly stupid, just like the night before when I’d said too much. “And you!” I said, pointing an accusatory finger at him, wanting to quickly erase the awkward feeling that filled the room; the words falling of my mouth as if they had a will of their own. “You have the same classes I do! Which means you have the same homework, too! You should at least do that!” I pointed out and Lea stared at me in utter shock, his eyes growing wider by the second.

Gabriel stood up ever so slowly, easily towering above the both of us, and I couldn’t help cringe in my chair, fighting against the flight response that already cursed through my veins. I followed his calm and carefully planned movements as he picked up a pile of books that had been carelessly tossed on one of the couches. I couldn’t help wonder what madness had come to possess me, to make me go and put myself in that kind of situation of my own volition.

My eyes followed his every move, the way his long legs bent when he walked, his feet touching the floor without a sound, my heart racing in a panic as he walked towards us. I clenched my fists when my hands started shaking on their own accord, but, to my relief, he put down his things on the other end of the table.

It was only when I saw him drag a chair and sit down that I realized he’d taken me serious, and I felt kind of lost, not knowing what to do next. I decided to follow his example and, with hands still shaking, opened my English Literature book to our last lesson.

I heard the sound of pages quickly being turned and couldn’t help peering at him through the corner of my eye. I saw him go over book after book, turning page after page without lingering no more than a few seconds on each of them. And, when he closed the last book, a smug and proud smile stretched his perfect lips as he raised his head to look at me.

“All done,” he simply stated and I blinked in amazement.

“All! All what?”

“All the lessons, of course.”

“How? That’s impossible!” I firmly countered, more in outrage than really doubting him.

Without a single word, he pushed the books across the table, making them slide over the smooth surface until they came to a stop, right in front of me. I hesitated for a moment before touching them, almost as if expecting that by doing so I’d be struck by a jolt of electricity, and then opened the English Literature book to the first page.

My eyes fell upon a beautiful, long and elegant handwriting, each letter so carefully designed that they almost looked draws instead of characters. And, true enough, all the exercises had been solved. Even the texts were underlined, small notes appearing here and there on the sides. Page after page, his handwriting embellished the otherwise plain pages. Nothing had been left behind or forgotten.

Determined, I opened the book to the same page as mine, the one we had to do for homework, and, just as with all the pages before, all the exercises had been solved. I ran my eyes over his answers and was stunned, as I was certain that, not only were they correct, but all the subjects had been well developed beyond what had been requested. I took a peek at the next lessons and came across the same exact thing. I dropped English Literature and grabbed History, then Philosophy. All his books presented signs of having been carefully read and studied.

“Did you use magic?” I asked, slightly peeved at the injustice if he had, and he leaned his head on one of his hands.

“That kind of question is too ambiguous,” he calmly replied. “If you’re asking me if I used magic to write on those books, then the answer is yes. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t read and memorized all that’s written on them. It only means that my learning speed is that much higher, that’s all,” he added, again with that smug smile on his face.

I opened the English Literature book again, asking him a random question to which he promptly answered without hesitation. Question after question, from past or future lessons, even when I changed subjects, the result was frustratingly always the same. Finally I closed the last book and dropped my head on the table completely defeated.

“Master! That’s amazing!” Lea cheered, clearly impressed, and I muttered a curse underneath my breath.

“It’s no big deal, Lea.”

“But I can’t do that!” Lea insisted and I peered at them without even raising my head, utterly dejected.

I saw him pick up Lea and sit him on his knee, as Lea opened one of his notebooks, suddenly keen on learning as much as his Master.

“You can copy my answers, if you want. I’m quite confident that they are correct,” he told me, sounding deeply amused, and I immediately straightened my back, pushing his books back to him.

“I don’t need them! I’ve always been very much able to do my own homework, thank you!” I flatly replied and turned my attention towards my yet completely blank pages, as I tried as hard as I could to simply ignore his persistent smile.

[DISPLAY_ULTIMATE_SOCIAL_ICONS]

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