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Rise

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The gown is the most ornate garment I've ever seen. 

I stare at myself in the numerous mirrors surrounding me while Bebe pins and adjusts; forehead furrowed in concentration. My arms are aching from being held up, the dress is heavy, and even worse, the material is itchy. 

"Are we almost done?" I ask, just wanting to collapse - even if that means drowning in this ridiculous gown covered in tiny pearls and crystals. The skirt is huge and full and shaped like a bell, held up with layers of petticoats to make it perfectly circular. It just touches the floor when I walk. 

Standing, Bebe pulls at my sleeves; they bare my shoulders and run smoothly into a sweetheart neckline (at least I've been told that's what it's called).

I just want to take the damn thing off. Even my other dresses seem less annoying in comparison. 

"Hush and stay still," Bebe mutters. "If this dress isn't perfect the master will have me thrown out in disgrace."

"He would, wouldn't he? Over something so trivial." 

"The dress is a symbol," she replies, standing back to study me. "It represents your purity and devotion to your dynamic as well as your Alpha. That's why these sorts of gowns are always white. It tells others that you're untouched but unavailable all at once."

I give her a deadpan look. "That's nauseating."

"That's the world we live in," she says flippantly. "Well, other than a few minor adjustments here and there, I think it's just about finished."

I heave a sigh of relief; hopefully that means I'm through with the endless round of fittings. "So, I can take it off?"

"Yes," she says, moving around to undo my bodice; a long series of tiny pearl buttons. 

Finally I'm free and back in a less involved dress. I'm horrified that before I realized it I've become accustomed to wearing dresses; almost feeling relieved to be in one that's much lighter. 

"Can I go out?" Going to the window, I see that it's overcast but it isn't snowing. 

"That should be fine," she says, packing up her sewing supplies. "Just be ready when someone comes to fetch you for your lesson."

I nod before i throw on a cloak and rush out of the room; soon I'm outside and the air is cold and crisp. It smells of clean snow and a fire burning far away. I breathe deeply as I head towards the garden, wanting to run just because I'm so glad to be out and away from that insufferable gown. 

The wind flutters the roses as I tend to them, snipping a few now and again as I hum softly; glad to be outside, excited to see Tricia and possibly get to speak with Mr. Tucker.

It's been a while since we've spoken, mainly because I was confined to the house after being "ill" (Damien's orders) and I can never seem to get a moment alone when I'm outside, what with Pip always joining me. 

Not that I mind spending time with him, but after the way he'd reacted to me speaking with Mr. Tucker, I didn't want to upset him again. 

Not to mention he's been in a pretty foul mood since Mark's pregnancy was announced. It's created a flurry in the household, but I've been trying to lie low and attend to the things that are helping me keep my sanity: music and studying. 

And thinking about Mr. Tucker, but that just creates its own problems, I suppose. 

I'm not out for very long before I hear footsteps and then Pip's beside me, pink-cheeked from the cold and frowning. He takes up some shears and begins viciously hacking at the roses. 

"Wait!" I cry. "You're not just cutting the branches, you're hurting the roses, too."

At his feet are numerous petals, bright like drops of blood in the snow. He stops and looks around, but he almost seems dazed. 

"Here," I say, gently taking the shears from him. "You've been in a bad temper for two weeks now. Are you finally going to tell me what's wrong?"

Tight-mouthed and sullen, I almost think he's going to tell me to mind my own business (as he's done in the past) but he finally huffs out a breath and shrugs.

"It's this business with Mark," he says. "Haven't you noticed how much everyone is fawning all over him? Like he's the first omega to ever get knocked up by his Alpha."

"I'm sure it's because Damien is so obsessed with having a child," I reply, amused by Pip's colorful choice of words. I'm starting to notice a mean streak in him that wasn't immediately obvious. "They want to be extra careful."

"And he's just eating it up, all that extra attention, from the help and from the master," Pip snaps, turning away. "It's like the rest of us don't exist."

Truth be told, I've been relishing Damien's inattention. Without his presence to trigger me, my body's sort of calmed down with regards to its awakening. I'm still having aches and fevers, the occasional racing heart, but other than that I feel more like my old self - even if my figure is still slowly changing. I've just responded by taking in even less food and drink. 

"And you, you're walking around with your head in the clouds, and Butters is basically useless," he adds, throwing up his hands. "This is all so frustrating!"

I frown, trying not to become irritated with him. Clearly, he needs someone to listen. "My head isn't in the clouds. I'm just getting ready for that ridiculous debut... dress fittings, dance lessons, learning about deportment. What, do you think I'm having fun? I'd rather be doing anything else."

He glances over his shoulder at me, a knowing expression on his face, and I immediately tense up. Surely he can't know about any of my indiscretions, right? Aside from -

"You'd rather be gawking at Craig Tucker," he says before smiling slowly; smugly.

My face flames. "That isn't true. Quit joking around."

"Oh, I'm not, I've seen the way you look at him when he goes by," he replies, coming over to me. He seems to be in a better mood suddenly, and I know it's because he's getting the chance to tease me. "I'm surprised you haven't worn a hole clear through him, you're so focused."

Taking my own shears i go back to the roses. I clip a few, but my hand is shaking terribly. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Come off it, Kyle," he chides. "You didn't really think you were hiding it, did you? You're not exactly subtle."

"Look, just because you're angry about Mark, doesn't mean you can take it out on me," I snap, finally starting to lose my temper. Maybe Pip thought he was being funny, but if the wrong person heard this sort of talk I'd be in terrible trouble. Doesn't he realize that?

"It isn't my fault that Damien's more interested in him right now than you," I add, resorting to pettiness. "You'll just have to do something to get his attention, won't you?"

Without looking at him, I continue snipping roses until I feel a cold, wet object hit my face, and I nearly drop my shears. I stand there, stunned, before I reach to touch my cheek and my hand comes away covered in melting snow. I look at Pip, my mouth and eyes wide. 

He was forming another snowball and smiling at me like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. 

"Why, you -" I break off, scraping the water from my cheek. "That wasn't funny!"

"Oh, I'd say it was. Hilarious, even," he retorts. "Ready for another?"

"No, are you?" Dropping my things, I start to gather snow, packing it into a ball. Before I can finish, I'm being pelted with more snow; Pip's laughter ringing in the clear air. 

"Gotta be faster than that!" he crows, taking off across the yard, moving pretty quickly for someone in a dress and Mary Janes. 

I follow, lifting my skirt and cloak so I won't trip, enjoying the feeling of cold air on my face, my heart pounding from exertion. I'm getting ready to rear back and fling the snowball at his retreating back when I hear him call out. 

"Hello! Good morning, sir!"

I freeze and look up, and of course Mr. Tucker is striding by the gate, though he's slowing down to stare at us. He's dressed in his simple, dark clothing, hat on his head, and he's looking right at me; expression somber.

I drop the snowball and shake my hand to bring feeling back into it, flustered and too warm in my cheeks. I don't know what to say, being caught off-guard, so I stand there in awkward silence. 

Mr. Tucker, however, is not at a loss for words. He tips his hat, nods, and greets us in his deep voice.

"Good morning to you both."

Coming up beside me, Pip puts on a demure, coy facade; acting the part of a typical, well-mannered omega. I'm not buying it for a moment. 

"We were exercising," he explains, much more outgoing than the last two times he'd been in Mr Tucker's company. "Weren't we, Kyle?"

"Uh, yes," I say. "More or less."

He raises an eyebrow before making eye contact with me, and I nearly melt inside. "Well, I hope you were enjoying yourselves. I'm glad to see you together. It's safer that way."

I open my mouth to ask a question but stop, remembering him asking before if I was alone. Now it makes sense if he's concerned for our safety, but why should he worry? We aren't his omegas, after all, and the fence around the property is so tall; it'd be very difficult to climb. 

"Oh, we were having a jolly time, sir," Pip says sweetly, and I'm suddenly very uneasy. There's just something about his tone. "Especially Kyle, although I dare say he was very distracted."

My heart is hammering in my chest now, but Mr. Tucker just seems politely interested. He glances at me. 

"Were you? By what?"

Oh, he's so handsome, and while I'm enjoying the opportunity to study him up close again, so close i can see that he's nicely tanned from the sun, I can't help being terribly nervous because of Pip's presence.

I grope for an answer, and I feel so graceless. "I, well, i was...distracted thinking about my piano lesson later this morning." 

Pip laughs before Mr Tucker can reply, and he takes my arm. "Stop being so modest, Kyle; that's not why you were distracted, you ninny." He pulls me closer. "I mean, that wouldn't explain why you kept looking toward the street, right?"

I feel like I'm going to ignite my face is so hot, and I can hear my heart in my ears. I can't believe Pip is doing this to me, and I can only pray that Mr Tucker won't read between the lines, and if he does, to be merciful about it. 

He frowns deeply, and I realize that I've never seen him angry before; stern, yes, but nothing more severe than that. I'm afraid that he's going to chastise me for being a nuisance, but he seems to be focusing on Pip for now. He just stares for a long moment, and Pip's fingers tighten on my arm. 

He stares long enough to make Pip noticeably uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot, until he finally relents and turns to me, and his face softens even if he doesn't smile. 

"Are you still enjoying your lessons?"

Still awash in humiliation, I manage to nod. I must look so young and foolish to him; a bothersome omega without any sense. 

"I'm glad. My sister speaks well of you. She says you're a pleasure to teach and that you're learning quickly."

Pip makes a little squeaking sound under his breath but I'm so surprised and delighted by this unexpected praise that I can't contain myself. 

"S-she really said that? About me?"

He gifts me with a rare smile, so lovely on his usually guarded face, and I'm even more euphoric. His scent travels to me on the wind then, and I'm so overcome with it that I feel a strange sensation build in my throat, a vibration; it creates a peculiar sound. 

Horrified, I realize I'm purring. I'd heard of this happening when omegas are particularly calm or pleased, but it had never happened to me. I immediately force myself to stop. 

Now Pip's nails are digging into my arm so hard i think he's going to draw blood. "We should go," he murmurs close to my ear. "Now."

The smile has disappeared from Mr.Tucker's face, and I'm afraid he's heard my response to him. I resist letting Pip draw me away, though, not ready to say goodbye yet. 

"Thank you," I tell him. I'm not even sure why I'm thanking him, maybe for telling me what Tricia said, for ignoring Pip's cruel teasing, for treating me like I'm not completely useless -

Perhaps I'm thanking him for everything, but still, I just want him to know how much I think of him, dream of him, even though we're almost strangers...I don't care. I just want to know him in any way I can. 

"Kyle, let's go," Pip says louder, tugging on me. Reluctantly, I allow him to begin pulling me away, but I keep watching Mr. Tucker, snatches of his scent coming to me and making me feel almost hollow with want. 

We lock eyes again and for a moment he almost seems sad, wistful, and then he tips his hat in that old-fashioned way he has and he's on his way. I watch until he's out of sight, and then I'm being yanked harder by Pip. 

"You told me it was innocent," he says, stopping and panting softly. "And I believed you! I've never felt so stupid."

Holding my head high, I have to fight the urge to cry or run after Mr. Tucker, but instead I put on a facade of extreme indifference.

"He doesn't mean anything to me." I narrow my eyes, angry in my own right; hurting, too, at the sound of the lie passing my lips. Pip had put me on the spot, had knowingly made the situation awkward, and I knew it was because he was angry about Mark and Damien. "Besides, you're the one who spoke to him first. You were also trying to embarrass me, weren't you?"

Blue eyes snapping, he lets go of me. "You'd only be embarrassed if you had feelings for him. Otherwise, you'd just laugh it off. Right?"

"That's ridiculous. I just don't enjoy being accused of things that aren't true."

"Oh?" he asks, becoming sly. He straightens his cloak; assuming an air of superiority that's even more trying than his misplaced anger. "Then why did you start purring? And don't try to deny it, i heard you. I'm sure Craig Tucker heard you too."

I don't have an argument for that, and he can tell, so he keeps going. "How could you do that to the master? After all he's done for you?"

"What has he done for me, Pip?" I ask, my voice trembling. "He's hurt me, threatened my family, treated me like an object." Shuddering, a tear slips down my cheek. "I'm afraid of him... I'm afraid all the time, of what he'll do, of what he'll make me do, and I know that you think what he's doing is love, but it isn't. It can't be. If that's love then I don't want it."

We look at each other for a moment, and I see a myriad of emotions flit across Pip's face; many of them contradicting one another. He lets out a breath, and that's when I see the tears standing in his eyes; not falling, but there, gathering. 

"What do you know about being hurt?" he asks stiffly. "I mean, really being hurt? Huh?"

I can't tell if he really wants an answer, but I don't want to broach this subject either way. "Pip, please, let's just drop this. I don't want to fight."

"Fine," he says, rubbing at an eye and i can tell he's trying incredibly hard to appear stoic, but it just isn't working. "I'll let it go. But you need to stop what you're doing with him. It's dangerous."

"I'm not doing anything. I just thought we could maybe be friends, or at least talk once in a while. That's all." Really, that's all I could hope for given my circumstances. 

Pip scoffs before taking my hand again, and we begin walking back toward the mansion. "Omegas and Alphas can't be friends, Kyle; it just isn't done. Anyone who tells you differently is either a fool or a liar."

-----

I know something is different about today's lesson as soon as I see Bebe waiting for me at the door to the front room. Her face is pinched as she straightens my dress and smooths my hair. 

"What's going on?" I ask, still off-balance because of my exchanges with Pip and Mr. Tucker. "Is something wrong?"

"The Master is sitting in on your lesson today," she replies tersly. "And before you say anything, I didn't know his intention until a few moments ago, otherwise I would've told you."

My heart feels like it's sinking into my stomach and I feel the same fear inside that I'd had when Damien visited my bedroom. This was just another facet of my life that I'd thought was safe from his influence, maybe because I'd come to enjoy or depend on it in some fashion, but I've been hopelessly naive, I know. 

There is no part of my existence in this household that is beyond his reach. He is simply everywhere at all times. 

I accept what Bebe tells me without speaking, but I think my expression tells her everything that's in my heart. She pats my shoulder. 

"You'll be fine," she whispers, opening the door. "Just behave."

Behave. I'm so sick of having that word lobbed at me, like I'm an animal in need of training and being taken in hand. 

I walk into the room and the atmosphere is noticeably different from the other times I've met with Tricia. It's heavier, somber; a thick tension in the air that could be cut with a knife. 

Tricia is in her usual place before the fire, with the table of tea and snacks set up, but when I turn my head i see Damien sitting in a large chair covered with dark red upholstery. As always, his legs are crossed, his face leaned on his hand, and he's dressed all in black. 

He smiles when he sees me. I don't return the favor because my face feels frozen. 

"Good morning," he says, rising to greet me, all fluid grace. He takes my hand and kisses it softly, the firelight glinting off his garnet ring. He looks down at me with his brand of affection; predatory but polite. "Were you out enjoying the roses, my dear?"

I nod before glancing at Tricia. She's watching with an inscrutable expression, her hands tightly clasped in her lap. There had been so many things I'd wanted to tell her today, about my studies, the music she'd given me, speaking with her brother....

"I've been having the most engaging conversation with your tutor," he says, leading me to the couch so I can sit. He strokes my cheek before he proceeds to sit as well; back in his own chair. He taps the armrest methodically. "She has nothing but good things to say about you. Isn't that right?" he glances at her, his eyebrows raised. 

You may speak, he seems to imply. 

Clearing her throat, Tricia doesn't sound nearly as animated as usual, but Damien has that affect on people I've noticed; almost like he can suck the air and color out of any room he enters. 

"Kyle is progressing wonderfully," she says before looking at me. "I told your master that it's obvious that you want to do well, practicing every day and being attentive during your lessons. I wish every person I taught had your enthusiasm."

I'm quiet due to nerves until Damien gently chastises me. "Kyle, you've been given such a lovely compliment. Don't you have something to say?"

"Thank you," I murmur, beginning to feel faint because it's hard to take a full breath when I'm this uncomfortable, and Damien's aroma is already getting to me; cloying in the small room. 

"Much better," he praises, and I cringe inwardly at being treated like a child in front of someone I respect as much as Tricia. 

"But is he ready to perform?" Damen goes on, still tapping the armrest. "That's what I'm most concerned about. After all, he'll be presented to what can be a very unforgiving society, and I don't want anyone to be embarrassed."

"We've been working very hard on the song Kyle's going to play," Tricia replies, and I'm gratified to hear some of the strength coming back into her voice. "It's not a difficult piece, of course, and it sounds more complex than it really is. It's perfect for beginners."

He considers this, looking toward the fire. His eyes flash, the glow caught in them. My stomach clenches, as do my hands. Tricia reaches to touch my arm for just a moment and i breathe a little easier. 

"I wish to hear it," he finally says, looking at me now, his eyes fixed. "Will you play for me, my Kyle?"

I'm screaming inside my head but I nod. What other choice do I have?

Behave. 

Tricia and I had ultimately decided on Bach's Prelude in C Major for my debut. She'd played it for me and I'd been intimidated at first, but after she'd walked me through it, step by step, and with unending patience, I'd persevered, and while I wasn't anywhere close to being on her level, I still felt proud of my progress. I could play it all the way through with only a few mistakes (usually).

But now, as i sit down at the piano, exactly in the same way I always do; back straight and stretching out my fingers, my music spread before me, I can't settle at all. I'm afraid, and I can feel the weight of Damien's presence all over me, like he's much, much closer than he actually is, still seated in his chair. 

But the feeling is there, and I'm consumed with a dread that makes me clumsy and slow. My hands feel so heavy. 

"Here, I'll start the metronome," Tricia says. "Don't be nervous, Kyle, you can do this. It's no different than playing for me."

She doesn't sound certain of this, though, and I know she's trying to offset Damien's influence. I give her a grateful look before I begin, the song I've come to know intimately filling the cracks of silence in the room. 

I start out well, almost better than usual, until I feel a shift and I see movement in my peripheral. I make the mistake of looking away from the music to see Damien beside me, very close, and the fear that floods me makes my hands useless, stumbling over the keys until the music is a hopeless, painful mess, and I'm blinking back furious tears. 

Damien doesn't tell me to stop, proving once again that his cruelty is without a ceiling, and he allows me to keep playing even though I manage to become even worse, until I'm stumbling toward the finish like a runner with a broken leg; artless and pathetic but pretending that everything is okay, that I'm content and accepting of my own poor performance. 

When the song finally, mercifully ends, i can't look at either of them because I'm so ashamed and angry, both with myself and Damien. He has to know what his presence does to me. I take a breath and I'm horrified when a sob breaks through. 

The quiet in the room is almost as ugly as my botched playing, but Damien's obvious disapproval is uglier. 

"And this is the result of daily practice?" he asks quietly. "And your tutelage, Ms. Tucker? Is that what I'm being led to believe?"

Tricia turns off the metronome before replying. "With all due respect, sir, this is the first time he's played for anyone other than himself or I. He's nervous, which is a perfectly normal reaction for anyone."

"Fair enough, but his response seems excessive, even for a first-time performer."

Placing a hand on my shoulder, she squeezes softly. I lean into the touch. 

"Perhaps if you didn't watch so closely, sir. Maybe that would put him more at his ease -"

Damien laughs but it's lacking humor. "Are you telling me not to look at my own omega in my own home?"

Her hand tightens. "Of course not, sir, but I think Kyle is so focused on pleasing you that he can't give his playing the attention it needs. He wants to make you proud, and it's disrupting his concentration."

"I see," he says, and while he still sounds irritated, he really does seem to be considering her words. When he speaks again, it's with authority. "Kyle, look at me."

I obey without a second thought, like my head is being pulled by an invisible string, and this terrifies me beyond reason. Until this moment, I hadn't realized just how profoundly I'd been reformed by my circumstances and my fears. 

I'm disappearing. I can feel it. 

Damien's eyes pull me in, just as they always do, with their terrible beauty, and I have to remind myself that I'm not falling. I'm grounded. Somewhere inside of myself, I'm still Kyle, the real Kyle, the boy who'd once had a family he loved, had once run wild and barefoot through the grass; had looked at the stars on a clear night and admired their faraway light.

"Is what she saying true? You wish to please me, my love?" 

I nod. It's not like he's interested in the truth, and I suppose I do want to please him on some level so he won't hurt me. So he'll leave me alone for a little bit longer. 

"So I distract you? Would it be easier if I made my presence less known while you play?" his voice is soothing now, almost like a balm for my senses, but I'm still leery.

I look down at my hands. "Only if it wouldn't displease you. I would never ask you to do anything that went against your happiness."

He sighs. "Precious creature, I'm only truly happy when you are, so if it would help you in any way, I'll abide your wishes. However," he adds, "I'll need reassurance that what I've just witnessed won't happen in front of my colleagues and their mates."

"Sir?" Tricia asks, and I can feel the tension in her through her touch.

"You'll need to be in attendance when he performs, I think," Damien says. "To aid his confidence and to calm him. He seems to have formed an attachment to you of sorts, and i can tell you're fond of him. It would be beneficial."

She lets go of me. "Mr. Thorne, sir, I couldn't possibly attend the debut of an omega, especially if I'm not a member of the household. It simply isn't done."

"Are you saying it's improper?" He asks with amusement. "I'm hardly concerned about that, not when I've been known to rewrite the rules when necessary. No one would question my decision to have you there and if they did, they'd face backlash."

"But, sir, it isn't safe. All those Alphas -"

"You may bring a guest to put you at ease." He taps the piano. "Even your brother, i suppose, the one who escorts you here. The best buffer between you and Alphas is another Alpha, I'd imagine."

I hear her sharp intake of breath while my heart begins to pound. Mr. Tucker at my debut? That'd be wonderful and agonizing all at once.

"Not to speak out of turn, sir, but my brother would never agree to that. He doesn't hold stock in debuts or the matters of high society. He's divorced himself from those sorts of affairs."

"But he cares about you, doesn't he? And your livelihood?" Damien counters shrewdly. "Why else would he take such pains to bring you here, regardless of the weather?"

"I will not take advantage of his love for me," she replies, and I can hear her old fire coming back. It thrills me but I'm afraid for her; she has no idea what Damien is capable of, not like I do. 

"You care for your charge, don't you?" he asks, reaching to place his hand on the back of my neck; not squeezing, just settling its weight there. I whimper softly before I can help it. "Kyle adores you. Haven't you stopped to consider what your attendance means to him?"

Oh, he's so loathsome. He knows exactly what he's doing, and while I want to yell at Tricia and tell her not to fall for his manipulation, my voice is lost; consumed by his touch, his smell... everything. I'm hazy again, lost in the fog. 

Her voice is strangled now when she replies, but I can hear the rage in it; the disgust. "I'll talk to him about it, sir, but I can't make any promises."

"Tell him there's a bonus in it for you if all goes well," Damien says, all smiles now; even if his are full of fangs. "After all, money talks, and it usually has a lot to say."

-----

Some of my pleasure for the piano is stolen after Damien's interference, but I keep going. I practice, I study, I tend to the roses; anything to endure, but the thought of my impending debut is never far from my mind. 

The household is a whirlwind of nervous activity as the day of reckoning draws closer, and I'm subjected to countless lessons and fittings, so much that I become even more listless than before. I'm scolded for daydreaming during dancing and etiquette lessons, and I nearly collapsed the last time Bebe forced me into my gown; weariness from worry and starvation almost causing me to pass out. 

"I have to take this damn thing in again," she says, tugging on the bodice of my gown fiercely. "I just adjusted it the other day! Are you eating at all?"

"Yes," I lie, but I'm too tired to expound. 

"I just bet you are," she mutters, and I can hear the hysteria in her voice; the undeniable stress. "How am I supposed to finish everything if i have to keep fixing the same things over and over? I'm only one person."

"I'm sorry." I mean it, too. I like Bebe, even if she's just another cog in this house, the system crushing us; i understand why she's doing what she's doing. 

We're all just trying to survive, aren't we?

It's only at night that I feel some of my energy returning, my drive, and I can only figure that it's because I'm alone and not being watched and assessed every moment. I can breathe as I study the books Tricia has given me; precious articles that I hide as well as I can. 

I've surpassed the ABC book she'd given me, and now I can read very simple stories and I devour them like they're cake, always wanting more. I've learned nursery rhymes about cows jumping over moons and wives kept in pumpkin shells; a girl and her lamb, and a maiden traipsing through the woods in a red frock, her plans upset by a very crafty wolf. 

I've already learned so much but it isn't enough, I want more, and while Tricia assures me that it will come in time, I'm still impatient. I'm angry because I could've known all of this already, but the laws had held me back -

The Alphas have held me back. 

She tells me about wonderful stories she's read, about mythical creatures and tragic princesses, fallen kingdoms and the world beyond my door; so far away, but still it's there. I just have to reach out my hands and take it. I'm waking up to it all, the grander scale, and instead of being intimidated, I want more. I want everything. 

The day before my debut in exceptionally tired during my lesson, but Tricia doesn't berate me. If anything, she's even more patient than usual, listening to me play the same piece over and over, giving tips and pointers as I go, finally letting me rest for a moment. 

"You know the song as well as you know your letters," she says, picking up her basket. She pulls out a book and offers it to me. "For you. You don't have to give it back. It's a gift."

I look at the cover and labor over the words, sounding them out the way I've been taught. 

"The L-Little M-Mer -" i stop, frustrated, but try again, telling myself to take my time. "The...Little...M-Mer...maid." Delighted, I look at her. "The Little Mermaid!"

"Very good," she smiles, pressing my hand. "It's more advanced but I think you'll like it, and we can read a little when I visit. It'll be our next project."

"Thank you," I say, holding the book in my hands like it's gold. In many ways, as far as I'm concerned, it is. "I can't wait to start it."

"Are you still worried about performing?" she asks, packing her basket; her signal that she's preparing to leave. 

I'm truthful with my reply, because I feel like we've come to a place where honesty is expected and paramount. "Yes. I know I can play the song, but it's the crowd that scares me... Damien and all those Alphas. I know I'll be punished if I don't do everything perfectly."

"Funny that they expect perfection from you even though they're so incredibly flawed," she replies. "Well, I'll be there, so hopefully that'll help."

I'm without words momentarily, digesting this news, but before I can talk myself out of it, I'm hugging her; harder and with much more feeling than I've allowed myself in a long while. When I realize what I'm doing, though, I quickly pull back and I apologize profusely; face hot, hands trembling, but I'm still so incredibly happy. 

"I don't know what to say," I admit, because I truly don't; my gratitude is so large that I almost don't know what to do with it. "Just... thank you. So much."

"Please, you don't have to," she says, but her face is flushed, and she doesn't smooth the braids I'd mussed. She's so pretty in that moment, and her eyes are so bright, like the sea, that I realize I'm starting to love her for her endless kindness. 

"I'll be right back," I say, making a snap decision. I rise and begin to turn away before saying, "don't leave yet!"

I rush to my room and gather a vase full of roses I'd collected just the day before, bright red and the best i could find. I carry them back to Tricia and hold them out almost shaking with my need to convey my appreciation for her. 

"Take them with you," I say. "I know they aren't a lot, but I want you to have them. Please."

She gazes at them for a moment before she takes them into her hands, cradling them like they're something precious, and then she looks at me. "I'll cherish them. Thank you."