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Rise

Chapter Text

Can I be the only hope for you?
Because you're the only hope for me
And if we can't find where we belong
We'll have to make it on our own
Face all the pain and take it on
Because the only hope for me is you alone

- The Only Hope For Me is You, My Chemical Romance


I'm starting to see the similarities between them. The shapes of their noses, the tone of their skin; even the same sort of lips; the small quirk about them right before they smile. 

I'm sitting beside Tricia and we're having tea before we begin, but I'm so preoccupied with stealing glances at her that I've barely had a thing. Besides, I'm so nervous about eating or drinking that the array of snacks laid out is making me faintly ill.

"I made good time this morning," she comments, lifting a sugar cookie to nibble on it. "Despite the snow, of course."

I nod, cradling my teacup in my hands. "I was in the garden when you arrived. Looking after the roses."

Speaking with your brother if my assumptions are correct. 

"Poor things," she says, delicately stirring her tea. "I'm sure they suffered from the storm."

"Actually," I reply, setting my cup down. "They didn't. They're as healthy as ever."

"Strange." She glances quickly at the portrait of Damien over the fire. "Still, I'd like to believe that any alpha who enjoys roses has at least a little kindness in them."

"Your brother, the one you told me about," I remark carefully, "does he like roses?"

"Very much so."

"And he's an Alpha?" 

Something in my tone must've conveyed my less than innocent interest; she looks at me oddly. "Yes, I told you that before. Why?"

Trying to play it off, I wave my hand as if the subject was of no consequence. "Idle curiosity."

She still looks suspicious but lets it go, gesturing to the spread before us. "You're not hungry?"

I look at the rows of petit fours and cookies; the tiny tea sandwiches, and while I'm hungry on a purely physiological level, I just can't allow myself to eat more than absolutely necessary. 

"They're putting hormones in my food and drinks," I admit softly, "to encourage me to go into Heat quicker."

"Ah," she says. "I've heard of that being done. From what I've heard it's pretty standard. With some Alphas, anyway." She looks into her teacup with a frown. "So you believe they've put something in this food as well?"

My stomach twists and I feel terrible for not warning her sooner. "I don't know, I can only assume... I'm sorry, I should've told you."

She pats my hand lightly. "Don't worry, love. Omega hormones won't bother me... I'm not built the same way you are so don't fret. However," she adds, putting down her cup, "I can't say that I think it's fair that they don't seem to be giving you a choice in the matter."

"I don't have a choice in anything I do," I mutter. "Things just happen to me and I'm supposed to stay quiet and go along."

She smiles slowly. "Like taking piano lessons?"

Now I'm sure that she and Mr. Tucker are related; the way they tease is nearly identical, and there's something about their eyes, that same clear beauty, even if they don't share an eye color. 

"He's your brother, isn't he?" I blurt out before I can stop myself. "Mr. Craig Tucker?"

She blinks, clearly taken aback, and I'm sure she thinks i must be out of my mind; not that I can really blame her. After a moment, she seems to regain her bearing, and relaxes. 

"Yes, he is. How did you know that?"

"Well, Pip, that's another omega here, pointed him out to me when I first got here," I explain, trying to stay calm but it's difficult. I'm just so elated that Mr. Tucker is related to someone I like so much. "And, well, I've spoken with him. Twice. Just before I met with you, actually."

"That makes sense, i suppose," she says. "He escorts me here for your lessons, after all." She looks at me from the corner of her eye. "He actually spoke with you?"

"Well, I spoke to him first, technically," I say, Pip's sudden impulsive greeting ringing in my head. "But he was very, well not exactly friendly, but -"

"Polite?" she asks, raising a brow. "Yes, he can be very polite when he feels like it."

I look down at my hands, clenched tightly in my lap. I hope i didn't make a mistake by telling her all this, but then again I've never been known for my patience or self control. 

"He didn't scold me for speaking to him. He almost seemed like he didn't mind, it was nice." Sighing, my hands loosen slightly, and I try to relax. "And when Damien told me your name, I just figured..."

Shrugging, I look up, and there's an ache in my throat. "He's just so different from the Alphas I've met before."

"There's a reason for that," she says, and while she doesn't seem annoyed by this conversation she does give off a feeling of wanting to be done with it. She rises and smooths her long skirt; today she's wearing a dress in a bottle green shade. "But it isn't my place to talk about my brother's affairs, especially in the home of another Alpha. It isn't proper."

Crestfallen, I suppose I can't argue with that, so I merely nod. I can't keep the disappointment from my expression, though. She softens, and reaches for my hand. 

"Come, we have a lot of work to do if you're going to be ready for your debut." Leading me, we go to the piano. 

"Debut," I repeat, just as I had with Damien, because the idea is still so bizarre to me. "What exactly happens during a debut?"

She sits and gathers her basket onto her lap. "Essentially you're presented to society, other Alphas and their omegas. It solidifies your status as Damien's omega, and gives him a chance to showcase your virtues and abilities."

"So I'm basically being paraded around and shown off," I say flatly. "For the amusement of Alphas."

Tricia taps her nose, a wry smile on her face. I roll my eyes, already thoroughly disgusted with the whole business. 

"And this is a typical practice?" I ask. 

"With wealthier Alphas, yes. The upper echelon of high society." She opens a book of music. "Really, it's just a way to show everyone how much money they have and to see who has the most desirable omegas. It's nothing but social posturing."

I touch the piano, still entranced by its sleek beauty. "And I have to play for them?"

"Yes, it's expected."

I look at her. "I'm scared, though...I've never done anything like that before. Will I get in trouble if what I play isn't perfect? Damien is so exacting."

Patting the spot beside her on the bench, she holds up the book. "That's why we need to practice as much as possible. Thankfully, I'll be coming to give you lessons quite often so we can work together. I'll make sure you're ready."

Joy floods me to hear this; happy that I'll get to see her more, and also the prospect of seeing her brother. Trying to appear indifferent, I ask, "and your brother brings you here?"

She's quiet for a moment. "He likes to make sure I'm safe... it isn't wise for a woman to travel alone in areas populated with a lot of Alphas. They can become hostile."

I find this interesting, having never really had to think about it. My mother had usually traveled with my father before she died and I'd never really known any other women very well. "Why is that?"

"They view us as expendable and useless," she says, her mouth tightening. "Unless we're serving them somehow, Alphas would be content to see us gone. We can't give them children and they aren't inherently attracted to us... and Betas can very easily do what we do; tutor, work as maids, do manual labor."

"Can't Betas try to mate with omegas, though?" My skin crawling at the notion. "I would imagine Alphas wouldn't want them around if they can cause that sort of trouble."

"Betas are... lacking in that regard, and they don't have the same needs and desires as Alphas. Besides, Betas are often castrated if they're going to be working close to omegas." 

I'm horrified when she says this, thinking immediately of my brother. "That's barbaric! That can't be true!"

She stops flipping through the book to glance at me, her expression almost uneasy now. "You've never heard of that before? But Kyle, it happens all the time. I know omegas aren't allowed to go to school or anything like that, but surely your parents..."

I shake my head slowly. "I guess my mother thought she was protecting me by shielding me from all of this, but now I'm starting to realize she did me a disservice... all of this is so new and most of it makes me sick. I can't believe we just let Alphas run things this way... it's like they don't have to answer for anything because they make all the laws."

"That's true. There are very little consequences for them, but I can understand why your mother tried to keep all this away from you. I think she was trying to be merciful." She drops her focus and touches one of the keys, its somber, solitary note very soft in the quiet room. "Not all parents are that kind."

A surge of curiosity hits me like a sharp wind. "Do you live with your parents and brother?"

Becoming rigid, she lifts the book and plunks it down on the holder. "My mother is dead and I'm estranged from my father, as is my brother, and yes, I live with Craig. We live on an estate not very far away. Now," she adds, "enough chit-chat. It's time to work."

So many questions are on my tongue that it feels heavy, but I nod, not wishing to make her angry with me, not when I want to be her friend so badly. "I've been thinking of the song you played since I saw you. It was so beautiful."

"Well," she says, tapping her chin, "how's about this, if you work hard and stay focused during the lesson, I'll play it for you again. And," she stops, considering something, "perhaps i can convince your master to let me give you recordings to listen to when we're apart. It'll help you learn."

"Oh," I breathe, "I'd love that. We had electricity when I was growing up but we never had a stereo or anything like that. We could never seem to be able to afford them and they're so hard to get."

"Alphas do like to control technology, don't they?" She sighs. "They like to control anything that might bring pleasure to other people, in any way they can." Smiling at me, she presses my hand. "I'll see what I can do, okay?"

"Now then, we'll start from the very beginning," she goes on, all business again. She presses a key down. "This is middle C, and -"

"Isn't that a letter?" I ask, already feeling discouraged. 

"Well, yes, but -"

Ashamed, I feel my face growing hot. I simply loath having to talk about the fact that I can't read, and it isn't like I haven't already told her. "I don't know any letters. I can't read or write. Won't that make this even harder?"

She considers me, and then looks towards the open book, festooned with music notes and more words I can't read; little symbols and letters that are completely foreign to me. "Well, it won't make it any easier, will it?"

"That's encouraging," I say, not wanting to be rude but deflated all the same. 

"Well," she murmurs, tossing one of her long braids over her shoulder. "I'll just have to teach you the letters, won't I? I mean, the whole alphabet isn't used in piano but... well, we can't have you just learning half of something, can we? That'd be slacking, and I'm sure your master wouldn't want that."

A small light blooms in my heart when I hear this, and I look at her, unable to speak for a moment. She couldn't possibly mean....

"You'll teach me the alphabet?" I ask, hardly daring to hope. It's one of our society's strictest laws for omegas: they are under no circumstances allowed to be taught to read, write, or do any sort of math. To expose them to such things is akin to asking for enormous trouble. "Does that also mean that you'll..." I gesture to her book. "I'll actually be able to know what it says on my own?"

"Just talking like this is dangerous," she says very softly, like she's afraid that someone's listening in. "You'd be severely punished by your master, possibly banished, and I'd be imprisoned." Firming her mouth, she gazes at me, her pretty sea glass eyes bright. "You know this, don't you? An educated omega is a threat."

I nod, and while the light is burning in me, filling me with a strange hope, I don't want Tricia to be a casualty of my unorthodox desires. I would never forgive myself. 

"I'm sorry. I can't ask you to do something like this," I say. "Just teaching me the alphabet, or even just the letters needed to play is more than enough. I should be grateful enough for that."

She nudges me softly and leans in, still speaking very quietly, and I almost don't catch what she says:

"It wouldn't be the first time."

I'm speechless again, simply amazed by the secrets Tricia has inside of her. "You mean you've taught another omega?"

She nods. "Someone who's very, very dear to me, and my brother, too."

Something in the way she says this makes an unexpected pang lance through my middle. "Oh," I say, tucking a curl behind my ear. "Did he know?"

"Who do you think came up with the idea? If he'd had more time for leisure Craig would've done the teaching himself."

Warmth spreads through me then, pleasant like sunshine as I imagine Mr. Tucker - Craig - sitting beside me instead and helping me learn, giving me another little smile like he had before, but not as guarded this time; affectionate. We'd lean over the same book, and maybe he'd brush my shoulder with his when pointing something out -

I almost sigh at this, and I realize suddenly I'd been taken from that room for a moment just like I'd been when listening to Tricia's music. It had all turned into a beautiful, impossible dream for a few moments -

I had risen beyond my constraints. 

"Why would you do this for me?" I ask, trying to ground myself again. "It's such a huge risk, and there's nothing for you to gain."

"Like I said before, you remind me of someone," she says vaguely. "And it gives me hope to meet an omega that hasn't completely given into their dynamic... you're fighting, you want to better yourself. You don't just want to be Bonded and bred. I guess I just want to... encourage it."

"Besides, I have no reason to accept the Alpha's laws," she adds, her voice bitter. "I think they're wrong... not just for your kind, but for Betas and women. We're all suffering in our own ways." She shakes her head. "But enough of that. Here."

She places her right hand on the keys, delicately curves her fingers, and begins to play, naming each key as she goes:

"C, D, E, F, G, A, B, then C again." She plays the same keys again, more slowly, making the sound of each letter as she goes. "That's the C Major scale, see? Now you try, just like I showed you."

I try, stumbling over the keys, feeling awkward and shy in front of her. She's kind, though, and walks me through it until I can play the scale forward and back. I do it a few more times, smiling widely when I'm done. She beams at me. 

"You just played your first scale," she says. "How do you feel?"

"Slightly more confident," I reply, oddly proud for having accomplished something so small. What I'd done pales in comparison to Tricia's grand playing from her last visit. I look at the book. "Is what I just played in there?"

"Yes," she says, pointing out the letters and naming them while I watch closely, letting it sink in. "Now, with regards to reading, the letters in the scale are in a different order than the alphabet, so let me show you."

She draws out a small book covered in pretty blue paper and opens it, revealing blank, lined pages. She pulls out a pen too, and begins to write, a row of letters; just like the scale, she names them in turn. 

"This is the foundation you need to learn in order to read," she tells me. "In many ways the principles of learning the piano and to read and write are the same; you start with the basics and build up. You'll begin with scales for the piano, and you'll learn your letters in order to read. And then, eventually, I'll show you how to write."

I'm mesmerized and I feel so excited, just listening to her speak, and she makes it seem so simple - so possible. I study the row of letters. "Please, may I keep this? I won't let anyone find it; I've gotten very good at hiding things."

"Only if you're very careful," she says, a shadow of worry passing over her face before disappearing. "Here, you can have the pen, too. Your first assignment will be to copy the letters as best you can while saying their names. Remember the sounds?"

We repeat them together several more times before she nods. Turning back to the piano, she has me play the scale again a few times before having me repeat it with my left hand, and then finally, she has me play the scale with both hands at the same time, my fingers tripping over the keys until I want to scream with frustration. 

"Patience," she smiles, leaning against me for a moment. "That's the most important part of all this, I think. Give yourself time to learn."

----- 

For the next week, I manage to ignore my unhappiness by attending to my studies as much as I can, taking care to hide the precious articles Tricia had given me as meticulously as possible, finally settling on a space deep beneath my mattress. My bed is so covered with frills that I doubt anyone will ever look too deeply, at least that's what I hope. 

In addition to laboring over my scales, I recite my alphabet whenever I'm alone, singing the little song Tricia taught me to remember the names and order better. I make the strange sounds of the letters as I gather roses, always when Pip can't hear, giddy when I manage to recite them without hesitating. 

Late at night, I wait until the house is dark and hushed to copy my letters on the pieces of paper Tricia gave me, writing until my hand aches; always taking care to throw the evidence in the fire. When I feel confident that I've learned the alphabet well enough, I get rid of the original too; breathing a sigh of relief and accomplishment when I do. 

Through it all, I try to have courage even as my strength begins to dwindle from hunger and thirst, and my body starts to betray me in more noticeable ways: aches all over, sensitive neck glands, heightened sense of smell, and even changes in my figure, despite the weight I've lost. 

"Well, your waist is smaller," Bebe frowns as she dresses me one morning. "But your hips are rounding out. See? They're wider."

I almost whimper when I look at my reflection, dressed only in a slip and stockings. I'm very thin but she's right, my hips are becoming more curved; taking on the omega shape. Soon my thighs will become fuller, and possibly my chest, though not every omega develops in this fashion. I look away, angry that even though I'm doing everything I can to turn the tides, my body continues on its course. There's nothing I can do to completely stop it. 

"I'm going to have to take this dress in, just like the other one," she adds, coming around to look in my eyes, her own displeased. "Your face is becoming gaunt, and your hair isn't nearly as shiny as it was when you first came here." She places a hand on my forehead and it feels so cool and soft. "You feel very warm. Either you're close to a Heat or you're sick."

Appalled, I pull away. "I'm sick. There's no way I'm going into Heat, I can't be."

"Oh?" She asks, reaching to touch my neck, and I almost whine because my glands feel so swollen and sensitive. She clucks her tongue. "Let me guess, you feel more tired than usual."

I shrug this off. Yes, I'm tired, but it's because I'm starving myself, not for any other reason. 

At least I pray that's the case. 

She begins touching me all over, making me shudder and shy away; hands searching and pinching. I moan, so sensitive that my skin aches, particularly below my navel; in the soft area of my pubis.

"Please," I beg, humiliated. "I'm sick, that's all."

"If that's the case, then back into bed with you," she says firmly. She goes to grab my nightgown. "I'll bring you some hot tea. Does your head hurt?"

Truthfully, it does, a throbbing at my temples, but I shake my head. I'm afraid that if I say too much she'll call for a doctor. Without protest, I allow her to dress me and tuck me into bed, all the while looking toward the window where the sky is a clear, vibrant blue. 

"But the roses," I say, giving her a look of pleading. 

And Mr. Tucker. What if he walks by and I'm not there? Will he even notice?

"The roses will survive a day without you," she says kindly, bringing me some tea leftover from my breakfast. "And you aren't having your next lesson until tomorrow, so you can take it easy and rest."

Sadly, I nod, turning my head on the pillow to find a cool spot. I hurt and I feel strange, but I'll stay strong. After all, what other choice do I have?

The day is spent in a sort of feverish stupor as I flit in and out of dreams both good and terrible, until finally night falls and I wake up completely to a room smudged with shadow; the fire flickering in the hearth. I'm disoriented and fretful for being even more idle than usual, but at least I feel better; less achy and warm. 

A strange sensation passes through me, though, and I feel as if I'm being watched; the delicate hairs on the back of my neck rising. I look to my side to see two flickering scarlet orbs seemingly floating there in the darkness, and I have to slap a hand to my mouth to keep from screaming. 

A soft laugh meets my ears, and now the hairs on my arms rise; body recoiling at the discordant sound. It's eery, and gives me the same feeling as being alone at night when a strange tap sounds at my window. I clutch the covers tighter to my chest. 

The lamp on my nightstand is turned on then, throwing the room into brilliant focus. I blink and almost scream again to see Damien sitting very close, occupying the same chair Bebe had used when keeping vigil in the past. He's seated in his typical posture, legs crossed; his cheek resting in his hand. He's smiling. 

"Your eyes," I manage to say, "they were red just now. I mean, they were more red than usual - brighter."

Like blood, they'd resembled the color of freshly spilled blood. 

"Just your mind playing tricks on you," he says soothingly. "Bebe tells me you were unwell today. How are you feeling now, my Kyle?"

"Better," I murmur. "You didn't have to check on me."

"It's a pleasure, especially to see your face so calm as you sleep," he replies before lifting his face to scent the air. His eyes close for a moment before opening slowly. They flash bright red again, I swear it. "I don't smell sickness on you, thank goodness, but there is something new about you. A change of sorts. I'm certain of it."

"I'm the same as always," I reply defiantly, trying to take shallow breaths in order to avoid smelling his scent as strongly. It doesn't work, and I'm drawn to it, to him, and the aches that had died down are being fanned again. 

"Your instincts are waking up," he says, "and your body is responding. You can't stop something that's already begun; your only recourse is to bow and accept what your biology already knows and what it's trying to tell you."

"Because you've been poisoning me," I hiss. "Because you can't earn anything fairly... you only know how to take and ask for more, even when there's nothing left."

"Oh, there's plenty to be found in you, little one. I'm beginning to think that what you have to offer me is endless." He stands and comes to sit beside me, looking down as if he's searching my face. I cringe away, huddling under the covers; I think momentarily of the pen and paper i have hidden beneath me and I'm almost paralyzed with fear. 

It's even more frightening to have Damien in my room; he's never come to visit me before, and I was beginning to think I might be safe from him here. I start to perspire, the sheets sticking to me. He smooths my sweat-slicked hair from my forehead, his touch so surprisingly gentle i almost feel like I'm hallucinating; like I'm caught in a fever-dream and I'm too delirious to realize it. 

"Don't be afraid," he says softly. "I'm not going to hurt you. Do you believe me, my sweet darling?"

I shake my head weakly, beginning to feel slightly hazy. It feels like fire is racing in my veins, mixing with my blood, and all I can really focus on is Damien's aroma. It wakes up my pulse which becomes hectic, and I almost want Damien to hurt me in a way that might feel pleasurable too. 

"You're so warm," he almost sighs, stroking his hand along my cheek. It comes to settle on my neck and he squeezes softly. 

I arch off the bed, a gasp coming from me that I've never heard before, and I'm so wonderfully hot; nerves on fire, that sweet beautiful ache making itself known between my thighs, and I spread them without really thinking about it. I begin to whine softly, low in my throat. 

"Shh, calm yourself," he says, leaning so that his hand is on my other side, and he's above me; locking me in. He nuzzles my throat, breathing deep, before kissing me softly there. 

On sheer impulse alone, I bare my neck, and I can't believe I'm suddenly so wanton, but the desperate need is growing inside me. He laughs quietly against my skin. 

"The same as always, are you?" he teases. "Is this who you really are?"

I wake up slightly at the way he's mocking me and turn my head away, humiliated and infuriated. He rests his forehead against my curls and breathes in their scent. "Don't be like that... you should be happy about all of this. It's perfectly natural."

I've been thrown into a furious battle with myself just by his mere presence and I can't decide if I should fight or give in, but my body is telling me what it wants, and my family...I can't let anything happen to them because I've displeased this monster. 

But I think of Tricia and the possibilities she's brought me, those hours attending to study and the quiet euphoria they've given me....

And what about Mr Tucker?

I whine, and it's the most plaintive, pathetic sound I've ever made; ripped from deep inside me, but I can't stop it, and I can't find the words to express myself because I'm just so confused and torn. 

Damien sits up and gazes down at me, briefly touches my face before taking my hand; he rests it in his lap and strokes it. 

"I'm so relieved that you aren't ill, though you do look like you aren't eating enough." His eyes narrow, and I'm left again with the sensation of being stripped down to my bones. "Do you take issue with the food you're being served, my love? If so, I'll talk to the cook immediately on your behalf."

"Oh, no, it isn't that," I say quickly, lulled by the way he's petting me. "I've just never had a big appetite."

"Either way, you must keep up your strength," he says. "How else will you keep playing such lovely music in the afternoons?"

I start even though I know I shouldn't be surprised that he's heard my playing. The house is massive but Damien seems to be everywhere at all times; malevolent. I think again of the contraband I'm hiding and begin to tremble. 

Wordlessly, Damien places a hand behind my ear and begins to scratch softly; he manages to find a sensitive spot that makes my toes curl against the sheets in pleasure. I relax. 

"That's better," he says. "You've been practicing so diligently; I'm enamored with your dedication."

"I've barely learned anything yet, just some scales," I mumble sleepily. "Hardly enough to talk about, really, but Tricia is a good teacher... she encourages me."

"Perhaps I'll give her a raise," he says thoughtfully. "Based solely on your glowing praise."

I yawn. "That would be kind of you and I'm sure Tricia would be appreciative."

"And it would make you happy?"

"Very much."

Still scratching behind my ear, he says, "then it's done. I'll arrange everything. Just know that i expect great things from you. And in only a matter of weeks... time is truly of the essence, my dear."

I glance at him sluggishly, and even though I'm half-gone I have the presence of mind to be uneasy. "Weeks?"

"Your debut has already been arranged for 3 weeks from now, to coincide with a monumental announcement of my own." He lifts my hand and kisses it. His dark appeal, unsettling as it is, becomes more evident in the face of his obvious felicity; he's practically vibrating with it. 

"What's going on?" I ask faintly, reeling from this news. How could I possibly be ready in just 3 weeks?!

"I've told the others already, and they're as happy as I am," he says. "Tonight, at dinner...an affair that would've benefited from your presence but I knew you needed your rest."

Almost coming out of my skin with apprehension, I find myself pleading with him. "Please Damien, just tell me."

Immediately, his fingers squeeze my own until i think they're going to break. I mouth wordlessly against the pain; overwhelmed by his strength, it borders on being inhuman. 

"You do not call me by my first name unless I say otherwise, is that clear?" he asks me softly; conversationly. "It's unseemly."

"I, yes," I gasp out, almost crying now; eyes wet. "I won't do it again, just stop! Please!"

"What do you call me, my Kyle? What am I to you? I want to hear you say it."

The pain is excruciating, and for a moment I truly believe my bones are going to crack. Caught in a place of extreme helplessness, I hear myself giving in, and my heart almost breaks when I say:

"Master, you're my master! Please!"

Instantly, his hold relaxes and he's pulling me onto his lap, cradling me like a child. I stare dimly into space, slow trembles working their way through my body. I swallow a defeated sob.

"You said you weren't going to hurt me," I whisper. 

"Dear one, I won't harm you unless it imparts a lesson. I would never cause you pain without a very good reason, and you did so well. I'm proud of you."

I sag against him, utterly spent, both from his strange, twisted logic and the affect he has on me. It's truly overwhelming. "I'm tired."

"Yes, and you may sleep soon, but first, my good news," he winds a lock of my hair around his finger. "But good really isn't fitting for it's so much more than that."

"As you know, Mark has recently been indisposed," he says, going back to stroking behind my ear. I sigh and close my eyes; trying to ignore the deep throb in my hand. "Poor dear's been in such a state, but it makes sense given his condition."

Wearily, I burrow deeper into his lap, just wanting to sleep for as long as I can. "His condition?" 

My eyes snap open as the realization hits me. "You don't mean -"

"He'll be glowing by the time your debut arrives," he replies softly. "He already is, because he knows he's pleasing me. He's doing what he was born to do."

Nausea builds in my throat. "You're getting what you want."

He hugs me closer. "I usually do, my love."

-----

I'm deemed well enough to attend my lesson the next day, although I'm forbidden from going to the garden first. I try to argue the point with Bebe that I'm not sick and that the fresh air will do me good, but I might as well be talking to a brick wall. The disappointment of missing an opportunity to see Mr. Tucker makes my heart ache, but I find solace in seeing Tricia again. 

This time we bypass the tea and treats entirely and jump right into the matters at hand, although Tricia makes a point to thank me for securing a raise for her. 

"Damien actually did it?" I ask, amazed. I rub my bruised hand when I say his name, but I refuse to call him master when he's not present. That's asking far too much. 

"Yes, I met with him when I got here, and he told me then," she gushes, her cheeks still pink from the cold outside. "That also gave me the chance to ask him if I could give you this."

She pulls a peculiar little device from her basket and sets it before me. Timidly, i pick it up to study, and a memory stirs in my head. 

"I've seen something like this before," I say. "In a movie...a long time ago before our TV stopped working."

"It's archaic," she replies grimly, "but it'll work well enough. It's a tape player, and this," she adds, pulling out a flat rectangular object, "is a tape. It seems only the wealthiest alphas have access to the more updated forms of technology... or they make it so expensive that it's almost impossible to buy."

"I was told your family is wealthy," I say carefully, not wanting to convey my deep hunger to learn more about her and Craig. 

She sighs and fits the tape into the player, clicking the object closed. I can still see the tape through a clear window on the front. 

"We come from money, yes, but we try not to rely on it," she says. "It's there but Craig and I want to make it under our own power... that's why i tutor and he -"

She stops and waves a hand. "That's not the point. This is." Pressing a button on the top, there's a crackling, clicking noise as the object comes to life, and then -

Music fills the room, beautiful piano music, and I'm entranced. 

"Oh, it's wonderful," I say softly. "And I get to borrow this?"

"Yes," she smiles, pulling out even more tapes from her basket. "It's part of your study, to listen to as much music as you can."

We listen to the music for a few moments more, and I can feel that same sensation in my chest; of being lifted up above the world. Too soon, though, she snaps it off to show me how to use the device properly. 

"It's really very simple," she says afterward. "Don't you think?"

I nod, elated. "Is it you playing? It reminds me of your music."

"Some of the songs are my playing, yes," she replies, going to sit at the piano. "But not all."

"Oh?"

Sighing, she pats the bench beside her. "I've made recordings of my brother playing as well. With his permission, of course."

Now I'm even more excited, almost breathless with it, and I look at my new bounty with anticipation. I'll actually get to hear Mr. Tucker's music whenever I want. It's like a dream. 

"Kyle," she starts to say, and there's a solemn note in her voice that alarms me. For a moment, I'm afraid I've done something wrong, but then she just shakes her head. "Come, let's begin."

She has me perform my scales a few times before moving onto a different one - G Major - and for the next hour she coaches me on that, and others besides. 

"I want you to be comfortable with the major scales," she tells me. "Remember, you need a solid foundation to work from, but I think you'll learn quickly. You clearly practiced."

"I did, every day."

"Did you practice anything else?" She gives me a meaningful glance. 

I nod before pulling a tightly folded piece of paper from my dress. I open it to show her the alphabet I'd labored over, trying to make it as neat as possible. She gives me a look of pride. 

"Very good," she says. "And their names?"

I sing the little song she taught me and she smiles even wider. 

"I think you're ready for the next step." Reaching for her basket, she withdraws a small book and shows it to me. It's brightly colored and has the letters A, B, and C on the front. "This will help you apply the sounds of the letters with actual words," she explains, opening it. "See? A for apple, B for bear, and so forth. Take it, it's yours to keep so long as you hide it well."

"I've been doing a good job so far," I reply, taking the book into my hands and flipping through it. I'm suddenly taken with a feeling of affection and gratitude for her, and I can't stop myself from taking her hand. "I don't even know how to thank you for all this. It's more than I ever could've asked for."

"You can thank me by learning and enjoying yourself," she says warmly. "Besides, you've already secured me a higher pay... we're helping each other."

A thread of fear coils in my stomach, and I let go to rub the hand Damien had nearly crushed. "How can I perform in just 3 weeks time? If I fail I can only imagine what Damien will do to me..."

"You'll be fine," she assures me, and she sounds so confident that i nearly believe her. "Why, look at what you've already accomplished in a week; you've learned your letters, you can write them... I've taught you so many scales already, and you don't seem nearly as nervous when playing."

"I feel like I'm flying away when I hear the music," I murmur. "I adore it."

"Then be kind to yourself," she says. "Everything will come in time, and I'll help you every step of the way."

After my lesson, I'm not allowed to relish my acquisitions for very long before Bebe bustles into the room with her sewing basket and measuring tape. She has me undress down to my undergarments and proceeds to measure me for what feels like hours, making meticulous notes in a little book. I watch with curiosity, excited that I can recognize the letters now even if I can't read the words yet. 

She sighs afterward, giving me a thoughtful look while tucking her pencil behind her ear. 

"What?" I ask, drained from the simple act of standing in one place for an unbearably long time. 

"The Master wants me to start working on the gown for your debut, but with the way you're changing it's going to be very difficult," she replies, beginning to pack her things away. "But I'll manage. I always do."

A finger of anxiety scrapes up my back. Things are already starting to move so terribly fast. "You're starting now?"

"If I don't it'll never be done in time, not with all the extra work we have what with Mark's condition." She rolls her eyes. "Lord, preserve me. I just hope I can survive the next 3 weeks."

"Me, too," I say faintly. "Am I really changing that much?"

She nods. "Of course the master is pleased, although he says you're getting too thin." She glances at me. "Can't you tell? It's like you're becoming a different person in front of my eyes."

I don't reply, thinking of the secret I'm keeping with Tricia; the stolen conversation I'd had in the garden with Mr. Tucker, and I know that what she's saying is true... even if she doesn't know the full truth of it. 

Later on, long after midnight has come and gone and I'm finally alone, after I've sat by the fire and practiced my writing; flipping through the book I've been given and getting used to it, I lie in my bed and gaze out the window at the frozen night. I become lost in the swirls of stars that salt the blue-black sky and I drift, growing wings as I listen to the music Tricia's given me. 

I try to imagine Mr. Tucker playing it, almost as if he's in the next room and I can see him whenever I want; and what's more, he wants to see me too, and he smiles when I approach. I think of him and wonder where he is on such a cold night, hoping that he's happy; and even more importantly, that he's content.