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Rise and fall from redeyed skies

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She saw the whole cornfield dying in a few split moments and she knew right then - he would come back to her, he was still alive.... But at the same time, a heavy kind of foreboding rankled her as if in that very moment, to her, he’d gone for good. The realization was so painless, clear, somewhere deep inside she’d already resigned to the inevitability of what was to come, and yet, that subtle voice of conscience she used to suppress so easily now roared, adamant and persistent, just like the voice of her brother, mocking her weakness. “No, my dear Iris, that thing that is about to come out to the road leading back to your house, will never be the same Alexei again.” And still, she waited, watching the distance with intense eagerness.

As soon as the last Carnivàle vehicle shrank out of sight, the demon appeared. It was back again, like some twisted manifestation of the endless struggle between good and evil, there it was, struck down by the light, yet alive once more. With throbbing fear Iris watched as he dragged himself to their house, staggering, stumbling. His robe, once neatly buttoned up with her own hands, was open and torn to shreds. Iris remembered that dreadful moment up on the Ferris wheel, the moment when her dear brother turned into a beast. And she wanted to run, run away as far as possible and never look back anymore, but her feet were rooted to the poisoned ground.

He caught up with her eventually, was close enough so that she could clearly see every line on his face, now so unfamiliar to her, a mask, distorted by the eyes black as the abyss. It was difficult to say what kind of emotion they might reflect. Rage? Dismay? Defeat? But the worst was the fact that this creature was devoid of any human feelings.

He walked past her and to the house, without ever looking at her, and she could only be thankful she was spared of this. She did not want to touch him, come near him, her desire to get away from this damned place battled with a stubborn need to stay. Suddenly, she was all alone in the whole world, a soul lost in the intricate web of love, devotion and evil where all the boundaries were once erased completely and now became clear again. Iris felt nothing but emptiness. She was like a sprout of corn, sucked dry by the demon, ruthlessly trampled down, left behind. And still, she followed him.

He climbed the stairs of the porch and struggled into the house, leaned to the wall to catch his breath. The journey up the high hill, to his fortress which was once his greatest dream and purpose, now seemed to have deprived him of his fading strength. He headed to the living room and crushed heavily on the sofa, closing his eyes. Iris remained standing at the door for a long time, afraid to approach him, to even stir, fearing that he might lash out at her, tear her apart, secretly wishing for it. Oh, how did they come to this....?

She shook her head; she braced her heart and cautiously came up to him. A childish hope leeched on to her, like a disease, what if her brother was still alive inside this creature, what if he needed her help and her care. And if only he gave her a sign, if only for a moment he came back, she would take care, she would help him. Iris touched her fingers to his shoulder lightly to make sure he was really asleep. Unnecessary precautions - the demon was dead to the world. When she was certain of that, she went to the bathroom, pulled a copper basin out of the cabinet and filled it with water from the bath. The basin was heavy, almost too heavy for her, but she was no stranger to such hardships, the thing lying on the sofa in the living room seemed much more important task at hand anyway. Trying not to think about her own misery, she focused all her attention on what she had to do at that moment. As quietly as possible she lowered the basin on a quilted carpet next to the sofa and wiped beads of sweat from her forehead with the back of the hand. Carefully, she pulled off Justin's robe from the demon. Her fear was miraculously receding, giving way to disgust - even this blood, of blue unnatural color, did not belong to him. Iris dipped a towel in water and washed his chest with it until not a single trace of blood remained on his skin. The huge tattoo covering his body terrified her: an ink tree. Like rot it sprouted through him, consumed him from the inside like a parasite. And with her trembling fingers, she touched it. "There’s no demon in me, Iris. I am a demon. What are you smiling at?" she recalled his words and the demon awoke. It lashed out. Horror gripped her as she stared into those coal-black eyes. But only for a moment, before she once and for all told herself that she had absolutely nothing more to lose.

“Sophie? Where is my Sophie?!” he bellowed, searching her with his eyes like a crazy blind man. Iris tossed the towel back into the basin angrily. The water in it was immediately stained with dirty blue spiral traces.

“She is not here,” Iris snapped. Sophie’s location was the last thing that bothered her.

He grinned at her and broke into a low growling laughter.

He is not here either, dear sister.”

Iris jumped from the couch and rushed out of the room, tears of despair clouded her vision. His laughter kept whipping her back as she was running up the stairs to her room. "Why, oh, why?" she thought. And wasn’t it the most terrible punishment for all her devotion? Iris pulled an old suitcase from under the bed, opened her wardrobe and took out all her clothes, throwing them on the bed in one heap. She stuffed a few dresses into the suitcase, wrapped a purse with all her savings into newsprint paper and hid the purse between the dresses, threw the Bible and a hat in on top of all this, closed the lid and slowly took a few steps back, as if not believing her own prudent determination. The sun was shining brightly through the open window, and a gentle breeze from the street was full of birds chirping. Iris was breathing heavily. Her shoulders shuddered, once, twice, and then she doubled over in silent sobs.

She left through the back door, so that she wouldn’t have to see him again, got into her Ford and drove away. Once their house was out of sight, she pulled over, suddenly crushed with an overwhelming impulse to turn around. A blunt pain was buzzing in her temples, in her heart, her insides were turning, her hands got so numb and weak she couldn’t even get a hold of the steering wheel. Iris was sure she was going to lose consciousness right there on the road. She kept seeing those black eyes of his, kept thinking that for a split second, he actually did come back to her but she quailed and ran away. "He is not here either, dear sister." Iris hit the gas pedal.

Chapter Text

***

 

She had always loved sea, its shining vastness, its might. She loved to watch it put the sunset out and give birth to a new dawn. For two weeks now Iris had been renting a house on the edge of the seaside town. Every evening she would go out, take off her shoes and walk barefoot across the sand towards a soft line of waves, drinking in warm salty breeze. She could stand on the shore for a long while, contemplating the horizon, feeling the sand move under her feet, loosing herself in a hazy kind of longing for a distant land which was calling to her from somewhere far ahead. She thought if she looked long enough, her eyes would adjust to the distance and then she would see it.

For the first time in a long while, memories long forgotten began to stir inside her mind, memories of how their father took them to the sea once. Two little children. Iris remembered the blinding brightness of the burning sun, the buzzing heat of the air, the calming coolness of the sea water that tasted like salt, remembered how their father taught her how to swim, the way he would lift her up in the air above the playful waves, the way she laughed with a childish amazement and delight. Alexei was still so very little, she wondered if he had any memories of that trip at all.

Who could have thought back then that their father would change so much. He loved Irina but for some reason he hated Alexei, often he would lose his temper and get mad at him or get drunk and take his rage out on their mother. Iris remembered the nights when little Alexei would run to her room and climb into her bed. They clang to each other under the covers and listened in dread to all the violent dirty curses their father flung at his wife, her screams, the beatings, moans... Iris would hug her trembling brother and start whispering a quiet lullaby to him trying to calm him down. This went on endlessly, until one day their mother came to them at night. Frightened and pale, she kissed her children and promised to take them away from that hell once and for all.

Then when they thought they were finale safe, he began to pursue them, never letting his wife and children get away and settle somewhere, threatening to kill them with his own hands or send someone to kill them. They kept running, they had to immigrate to America, leave everything behind, but as it turned out, even there, the persecution did not stop. They were saved by providence - a train wreck, which left no survivors, except for Irina and her little brother. Everyone thought they were dead, and she made sure that the pursuers would not find them, made sure to keep Alexei away from any danger....

 ***

Iris watched the last rays of the sun lurk over horizon, then she gathered her shoes and hurried back to the house, looking around nervously, peering into the deepening shadows. Afraid to see him, wishing to see him, she kept firing up this conflict inside of her until her heart was pounding violently against her ribs, forcing her to gasp for air in panic.

At nights she slept poorly and often she would see Justin in her dreams, she would wake up, calling out his name, reaching out for him, her eyes searching in the dark. He was her curse, her sickness, but for everything that had gone wrong, she was blaming only herself. At nights, she lay awake thinking she heard footfalls among the churning of incoming waves, whispers among the whistle of the wind, creaking of the floorboards among the moaning of branches bending in the wind, silhouetting in obscure ominous pattern on the wall of her bedroom. All these sounds merged into a different kind of lullaby, set out for her ears only, and there, among the dancing shadows, every moment she expected to see a familiar one. What if he is seeking her? Will she ever escape? How far will she have to run?...

She was dreaming the same dream again. She was in the woods, panting heavily as if after a long run, as if she was running away from someone and managed to get away somehow. But now a new threat was looming over her as Iris realized that she was lost. She remembered this forest perfectly, that same forest where together with Alexei they were hiding after the train wreck. But all of a sudden the scenery started changing rapidly until she was walking through a scorched desert amid withered tree trunks, thinking how far away she was now from any hope to ever return, petrified with fear. She saw a huge pillar of dust rise on the horizon and start moving in her direction. At this point, Iris would always wake up, but that night she was still standing in the middle of the desert, her heart in her throat as she watched the blackness closing in. She took a deep breath, but a violent dust whirl didn’t knock her off her feet, no, instead she ended up inside of it and she could breathe easily, evenly, she could see the light above. She was in the eye of it. There, a deep ringing silence suddenly started to break into all kinds of sounds - voices, music, footfalls and waves, someone’s laughter. They kept getting louder until the cacophony was interrupted with one clear and loud,

"Iris!"

Iris opened her eyes and sat up in bed. Her head was still swirling, but the reality was gradually setting in, only a vision remained in front of her. Her brother was standing by her bed. Iris screamed and covered her eyes with her hand, she was trembling all over, but cold sweat stood out on her back when she began to realize that this was not a vision. She peeked at him through her fingers, vaguely wondering how similar this gesture was to the children's game of hide-and-seek they used to play. Alexei would tell her to count to ten - he ran to hide and she spied on him through her fingers. Just to make sure he wouldn’t run off too far and she wouldn’t lose sight of him completely. "Don’t peek!" He would laugh. "I won’t!" She would assure him.

Now all she wanted was to sink through the floor and into the ground, to break every bone, if that’s what it takes, just to never see what she created. How did he find her? Why is he here? Why did she deserve this punishment? Is he going to mock her? Is he going to tell her that Justin is lost forevermore? No, it's too much, too much ... the world could never bore such cruelty!

The storm was still roaring in her ears, and now she saw that it was because a real one was raging outside. Waves were crashing violently against the coast line and the rain was beating furiously at the window. A blinding flash of lightning lit up the room and Justin said,

“It's me, Iris.”

 Iris took her hand away from her face. He was shaking from head to toe and soaked to the skin. Drops of water were running down his face, dripping from his fingers and falling on the floor. In the pitch darkness they seemed black, like blood.

But Iris would recognize this sweet gentle voice anywhere.

“It’s me.”

He dropped to his knees, his hands reached out to her. His eyes, blacker than the total darkness of the night, stared at her vacantly with nothing but dread reflected in them, but to her surprise behind it she could now see…her brother. How this could be possible, she had no idea, but it was certainly him. He came back to her, found her, maybe even ...walked all this way on foot, wore himself down, relentlessly driving  himself to her like a beast, and even the demon could not put down his most important and wildest need – his need for her.

“Oh, Alexei,” Iris sobbed and pressed her fingers to her lips, as if she’d said something forbidden.  “Da shto zhe eto...” (*How can it be...)

The demon was breathing heavily and just kept staring at her, his fingers crumpling the hem of her nightgown. She touched his cheek gently, making sure he wasn’t going to start laughing in her face. In response to her touch, tears rolled down from his black eyes. She pulled him in by the collar of his jacket with all her force then, pressed her forehead against his and hugged him tightly.

“Alexei ...” tears were choking her, and she let her emotions take over, seized with an incredible feeling of penitence and thrill.

“I’ve found you ...,” he muttered weakly, clinging to her wet cheek. Lightning was blazing behind the window cutting icy waves with fire, the sky rumbled and groaned, the wind howled and raged, but nothing could get them, nothing could reach them, they were alone in the eye of the storm. Iris and her darkness.

Chapter Text

“You can do it, Justin, you can.”

Iris's voice sounded muffled, from somewhere far away, as if she was speaking to him from behind the wall. It made him angry, but at the same time it was giving him strength when he was ready to give up the losing fight. The pillow underneath his cheek turned into red-hot coals, his eyes were blinded by a crimson veil, and he could literally feel the demon twisting, curling around his backbone, trying to break it, reminding him that by coming back here he dared to go against his nature, his destiny. It kept pushing him to break free, to go wild, to find Her! Now!  And with an inhuman effort, he kept overcoming it again, grasping at the last remnants of his humanity like a drowning man at a straw, trying to find refuge in his blazing memories stirred by Iris’s voice. She was by his side all the time, kept applying  a cold towel over his hot forehead. She could do nothing else to help him. He sensed her despair and fear, even those were giving him strength while his mind was drowning in blackness that was spreading all around him, staining the bed with ink, spilling over his body. It was so easy to just give up, Justin could sacrifice anything for the embrace of that darkness, but even the Devil himself couldn’t take his sister away from him.

***

He was fourteen.  Norman’s new church was empty after the service, but its walls still held the echo of children's choir, like a soft whisper of angels. He was sitting on a wooden bench by the altar drenched in sunlight, waiting for Iris, looking around absent-mindedly and watching the game of shadows on the floor, imagining thousands of people sitting before him, his audience. All their gazes directed at him in trembling anticipation and superstitious fear, and he was the one - the ruler of their fate.

No, of course he would never become such a man... . He was afraid to speak even before his classmates at school, faltering at every word of non-native language. But, oh, how he loved to get lost in this thrilling fantasy.

Outside it was a sweltering summer heat, but in the church the air was cool and fresh, it smelled of damp wood and incense. Back then, Iris brought him there every day after school and left him to wait while she helped Norman and Clara about the church. She always stayed after the service and mopped the floors. Justin waited obediently, not daring to go home alone without her. Ever since they came to America, he felt estranged, lost, he didn’t belong in a reckless company of local boys and they often mocked him and made fun of him. As a child Alexei was weak and frail, he couldn’t stand up for himself. Iris was his defensive wall, always ready to protect her brother and ever since they came to this foreign country, he tried not to leave her side. He feared her, obeyed her without any question, never even thinking about "becoming a man" of the family. His sister carried this title with dignity for the both of them.

In public she was always so sweet, kind, quiet and modest - a perfect embodiment of a respectable young girl of the time. She knew how to get praise from the others, but at the same time, only Alexei knew that there was something dark about his sister. Something "wrong." Only with him, she could allow to be herself, both delighting and scaring him. Sometimes she would tell him stories, which no mother would ever tell her child, shared with him secrets unknown, and he laughed in response, not quite understanding yet what she meant.

He remembered that moment, because on that hot day everything started to change for him. Irina was on her knees, squeezing a mop cloth over a bucket of water. Her hair, which she kept in long pinned braids back then, became messy and kept falling over her face in stranding curls. She carelessly threw them back with a quick toss of her head. She’d left her shoes and stockings at the entrance as she preferred to wash the floors barefoot. Her old dress was a little too tight on her, she had overgrown it, and it clang so very close to her set supple form, gathered in pleats at her knees, exposing her slender pale legs. Justin found himself admiring her feet, a gentle curve of her back… he couldn’t take his eyes off her. The muscles of her arms tensed like strings while she was squeezing the cloth. When his gaze finally traveled back to her face, he saw that she was looking at him. Shame flushed in his cheeks.

“What?” she asked, brushing the unruly strands of hair behind her ears with a quick motion of her graceful hand.

“Nothing,” he said. But since that day he had never looked at Iris the same way again.  A feeling of a different nature had bloomed in the darkest corners of his soul.

 

***

Next morning the sun broke through the clouds to the only reminders of the violent storm scattered all over the barren ravaged beach like over a battlefield:  torn pieces of tree bark, fragments of building constructions, algae and lots of dead sea urchins thrown ashore by the furious waves.

Justin opened his eyes, relishing the peace and quiet – plashes of sunlight were dancing on the wall in front of the bed, sneaking in between tree branches, a soft sound of sea tide could be heard in the distance.

“Justin?”

He turned his head. Iris rose from her chair by the window and came up to him, her pale face reflected weariness and concern. In her hands she was holding a handkerchief, fumbling it nervously. She stopped beside the bed, not daring to lean down to him; a faint smile was playing on her lips.

“My dear. You haven’t slept all night.”

She let out a laugh, folded the handkerchief and unfolded it again.

“Slava Bogu. Tvoi glaza (*Thank God. Your eyes),” was all she said, dismissing her second language.

Justin sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes. He felt extremely weak, yet peaceful, composed and calm for the first time in a very long while. He froze, as realization dawned upon him – he didn’t have his shirt on. Instinctively he put his hand over his chest to cover the disturbing tattoo, but when he looked down his skin was clean.

“Where is it?” he asked in surprise. “Why is it gone?”

“I have no idea,” Iris shrugged her shoulders, still smiling at him gently. “It just ... disappeared.”

She didn’t tell him about the sleepless night worse than your most horrifying nightmare, didn’t tell him about the fever that burnt her brother in fires of hell, didn’t tell him how the demon cried, dying on this very bed, spreading out in inky stains all over the sheets like a black disease while  his tattoo was melting.

As if hearing her thoughts, Justin glanced around; looking for any smallest trace of evil, any slightest evidence but Iris had made sure that he was surrounded only by light and warmth. And her smile was the warmest light.

“Disappeared?” he wondered still keeping his hand on his chest. He closed his eyes and let out a sigh of relief, lost in thought or a while. Then he shifted in the bed, making room next to him.

“Ira, idi syuda. (*Ira, come here).”

Iris stopped smiling and took a step back, a shadow of mistrust darkened her features.

“Come on, don’t be afraid.”

She tilted her head, as if considering whether she should take such risk.

“Ira. I just want to tell you something.”

With a subtle motion of her hand she brushed a strand of hair behind her ear in a manner so similar to his special memory of her. Only now Iris was no longer a young girl and her moves had long lost once captivating feminine grace. She put the handkerchief on the bedside table and hesitantly sat down next to him.

“Do you remember that day we went to the ball?” he asked shifting a little closer to her. The sea was whispering in the distance, and the leaves were rustling gently in the wind outside the open window.

Iris giggled and shook her head. She was so young again.

“Oh please! How can I forget.”

 

***

Justin started changing by the minute when he turned eighteen. From the fragile pale child he was forming into a handsome and strong young man. Soon such trifle matters as local school boys and language barrier were no longer a threat to him and girls were looking at him with unconcealed curiosity. It bothered Iris greatly and made her jealous; he knew that she was jealous because she was so bad at hiding it. Her pride wouldn’t let her admit it and, oh, how he liked to have this power over her. But in truth, he didn’t want any of those girls because he loved his sister with all his heart. Just like before, the two of them were always seen together anywhere they went, joined at the hip like little children. Norman sometimes joked at them good-humoredly while Clara was all serious in convincing Iris to think about her future and to start looking for a husband. The fact that Iris didn’t seem to look at anyone except her brother troubled her. God knows, it was such a bad thing for a girl her age to go about still unmarried. These small talks always bothered Iris, upset her. She kept saying she was not ready and tried to tell Clara to leave her be, but Clara was insistent. One day she gave Iris a new dress as a birthday gift. The dress was in the latest fashion, best one they could afford at the time, Clara made Iris promise her that she would one day go to a ball in it.

“You take Justin with you. He won’t let anyone harm you,” she said. Iris pouted her lips and was sulky the whole day. But she couldn’t disobey.

The evening they went to the ball started with sprinkling rain. All the way in the car Iris was obviously nervous; her fingers either clutching her purse for dear life or fumbling with the collar of her coat. Justin had never seen her being so beautiful before and could hardly keep from looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She too kept glancing at him now and then, and when she did, she smiled.

"Oh, this suit looks so good on you," her hand casually slipped over his sleeve, lingered on his hand, a quick warm touch of reassurance. He squeezed her fingers gently in his palm.

By the time they arrived the party had already been in full swing.

“Good lord, it was such a foolish idea,” Iris remarked, taking off her coat, when they walked inside a huge fancy house of some wealthy banker who’d quickly became famous throughout the city during the past two years. His family were frequent guests in Norman’s new church.

“Come now, Iris, why won’t you just take it easy and have a little fun?”

Iris laughed nervously.

“Easy for you to say, you are not the one who was told to go get a husband.”

“You look beautiful,” he told her, for the third time that day, his eyes following her every move. Iris was truly graceful that evening. She was wearing a black knee-length flapper dress, embroidered with golden threads winding around her form like little snakes. A low-cut exposed her back and her neck adorned with a long thread of pearl necklace. Her soft wavy hair was done neatly in a bun and decorated with a ribbon and a black feather. Iris took off her tippet, exposing her arms in long satin gloves. She turned to Justin and beckoned him to follow her with a slight nod of her head. Justin’s three-piece suit suddenly felt too tight, he adjusted his waistcoat and flattened his bow tie, hesitantly stepping into a spacious hall after his sister. Iris took his arm; she seemed so tiny and feminine next to him.

He danced first few dances with her before other partners began to invite her, people he didn’t know, and Justin noted to himself that he didn’t want to know them. He was standing with a glass of champagne in his hand and watched her dancing and laughing, from afar, and he realized that he was mad with jealousy. A feeling so new to him. He could never imagine that Iris, his Iris, could have such success, he was sure this would never happen. Justin drank his champagne and smiled politely in response to all the seducing smiles addressed to him, he modestly averted his eyes from all the eyes that looked at him expectantly; he even had to refuse a dance to one persistent lady. He was polite and tried to keep his smile on, as Norman and Clara always taught him... as his sister always taught him. But his mind was fixed on her only. All he had to do that evening was look after her, without intervening much, give her a chance to become somebody's one and only, let her go ...

Instead, hardly was the dance over, Justin put a glass of champagne on the table and walked up to her again. He turned his back to her unfortunate partner and asked her for another dance, then another one and another... Music circled faster around them, Iris was so warm, her cheeks flushed from champagne and all the dancing. Justin's hand kept slipping down her waist, or up her spine, to her exposed back, his fingers touching her heated skin lightly. More than ever it became clear to him in that moment that he wanted her, loved her and was willing to give her to no one. Bright dresses swirled around them in a palette of colors, shades, golden sparks of champagne, people were dancing, gravitation pulling them into one single orbit, and her eyes, her light discreet smile made his head spin. Her eyes were telling him, “No one makes me feel as good as you do, but what will all these people think, Justin. The whole evening she’s been dancing only with her brother.”

And he complied, letting her have few more dances with those other men. She returned to him in the midst of the party, tired but happy. She emptied a glass of champagne at one gulp, touched his cheek with her satin-gloved hand apologetically, and went back into the crowd.

Justin was sitting at the table and watching her intently. One of the local moneybags seemed way too interested in her, but then something went wrong. Iris broke free from his grasp and hurried out of the hall.

“I need some fresh air,” she said briskly, passing her brother by. He jumped to his feet. The smile on her face disappeared as if it never been there in the first place.

He followed her to the porch and down the stairs into the garden wrapped in the gloom of a quickly approaching night.

“Iris!”

Iris walked quickly, not looking back, with her head bowed and her hands clenched into fists. The evening was absolutely quiet and filled with cool air. The silver glow of the moon left fake footpaths all over the hilly lawn spread out like a black velvet carpet.

“Iris! Da postoy zhe ty! (*Come one, stop it!)” he called out, catching up with her. She stopped abruptly and folded her arms on her chest.

“Ne dlya menya vsyo eto (*I’m so bad at all this),” she shook her head; her voice was full of resentment. Justin stopped a few steps away from her.  She spoke so harshly he didn’t dare to come closer. “Ne mogu kak onie. (*I can’t be like them.)”

Justin smiled. He knew exactly what she was talking about. She was the elder one, but even back then in his early youth his smile was a sign of soft condescension, as though he was much older than her and her childish whims moved him somehow.

“Prisyadem? (*Sit down, shall we?)” he motioned at the bench hidden from the moonlight in the shade of two cypresses.

They sat down. Iris outstretched her legs and inspected her new shoes with a brooding expression of pensiveness on her sweet face. Somewhere from the garden an ancient raven cried out. Justin shifted closer to her, patiently waiting for the moment when her injured dignity would allow her to look at him. When she did he asked her,

“Tell me what happened?’

“That ...man, tried to kiss me,” she said.

Justin chuckled but made an effort to regain seriousness as quickly as possible. Iris was obviously in no mood for joking.

“And? That is what made you angry?”

“Of course!”

She looked at him passionately, seeking his understanding.

“Didn’t you want to kiss him back?” he asked, smoothly switching to the Russian language again. He was talking quietly now with his head bowed slightly towards her.

“I hated the mere thought of what it would be like. Me kissing him,” she said.

“Why?”

Silence fell between them, disturbed only by the distant sounds of waltz. They were looking at each other and didn’t quite remember how they ended up there, in that moment, because everything else suddenly ceased to be of any importance. But in the future, both of them would never forget it.

“Why?” Justin repeated like an echo, his gaze moved from her face to her neck, then back to her eyes and down her neck again, to her shoulders. His touch followed his gaze to where a huge flower-like bow slid slightly off her pale shoulder. He wasn’t sure what he intended to do, maybe, to put the bow back in place, to restore the untouched perfection, but instead he slid his fingers under the silk cloth and pulled the ribbon. The bow came undone and slipped off.

He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking, because his own thoughts were in disarray, messed up, but she wasn’t stopping him, didn’t get angry, didn’t run away ... Justin pulled the strap of her dress further down and it slipped over her arm together with the top of the dress, revealing her breast. He touched his fingers to her neck, traced a path along her collarbone with a weightless touch before daring to caress her breast, cupping it, squeezing it gently and drawing a quiet moan from her mouth. He looked at her, entranced, while circling his thumb around her nipple; he wanted to kiss her lips so badly.... He was all absorbed by that moment, stricken with a flash of desire burning like a red-hot metal. He’d already known what desire was like, what it was like to want someone, but with Iris it was all completely different.

"Alexei, please," her voice brought him back to reality. He looked into her eyes, and saw that they were full of exactly the same desire. "Someone might see us here, let’s go back." And it aroused him even more. Instead of an answer he put his arm around her waist and pulled her closer, he guided his hand under her dress, spreading her legs, caressing her tense thighs in silk stockings.

 "Alexei..." she protested, but didn’t struggle, only opened up more for him.

He reached her panties, discovering to his delight that they were silk too and fit loose against her body. His fingers easily breached this last obstacle and touched her most intimately. Iris gasped voicelessly, squeezed his hand with her thighs before spreading them farther apart. She ran her hand through his hair and pulled lightly. She was beautiful as a flower and Justin only wanted to open it, to see what secrets were kept inside its petals. He didn’t want to break this flower, didn’t want to pick it, only to see how her cheeks and her neck would flush with color, to play with her until she opened. One insistent touch – and it was more than enough for her, his Iris shattered into thousand pieces around his hand, swallowing down her muffled moans, clinging to him, so hot, so wet  -  so his. She placed her hand on his pants, curious, and her touch pierced his strained senses like an arrow, his desire to take her frightened even him. All of a sudden he was the embodiment of his own sin.

"No," he said sharply, putting his hand over hers.

"Lean closer to me, Alexei," her voice sounded like the sweetest mystery, beckoned him like an army of sirens. And he was willing to suffer the shipwreck. "Let me tell you a story."

They returned to the dancing hall by the end of the party when the tired guests had already begun to leave, moving around lazily, drunk and happy. Iris's cheeks were stull flushed, the black feather in her hair was somewhat awry and the bow on her dress was done in a wrong way, but it hardly mattered. With a smile, she looked around, her eyes searching her hapless suitor. She wanted to look at him now, to make sure once more how absurd was Clara’s idea to marry her.

Clara opened the door for them when they were back home. She smiled at their messy but contented state.

“I see you’ve had a good time?” she asked them. “Iris?”

“Oh yes,” Iris said enthusiastically.  Clara didn’t start asking her any further and headed upstairs to her room. She didn’t notice the secret look they exchanged behind her back.

That night sleep would not come and Iris was lying in her bed thinking over and over about what happened in the garden. She smiled into the pillow, trying to relive and store every moment in her memory. A gentle knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. Iris sat up, alarmed.

“Ira, it’s me,” she heard Justin whisper.

She hurried to the door, trying not to step on those floorboards that were especially creaky and opened the latch.

“Justin?” she whispered. A cold draught crept into her room from the hall.  Iris peered into its moonlit darkness. “What is it?”

It was hardly the case now that his old childish fears bothered him and Justin apparently didn’t come to her to seek shelter from the scary thunderstorm or flashes of lightning.

“Can I stay with you tonight?” he asked. She couldn’t see his face. In the dark he was nothing but a shadow.

She let him in silently and closed the latch, lingered at the door, listening for any unwanted footsteps in the hallway. She climbed into her bed and he followed her under the covers. It was the same old silent agreement established between them a long time ago, but the rules became so different. Under the blanket he pressed against her, so warm, and so not a small trembling child anymore. With one rough motion he pulled her nightgown up to her neck, exposing her. Impatient. Iris discovered that she liked his keen strength, his power over her, feeling of him pressed close to her, hidden in the darkness of the night. He leaned over her like a heated shadow, bestowed endless greedy kisses upon her, slowly drawing a sacred map with them all over her body. Iris fell under this shadow, offered herself to be preyed upon, opened up, letting it into the most secret corners of her being. The shadow crouched between her legs, lifted her thighs over the sheets easily like a weightless feather and Iris bit her knuckles so as not to cry out loud when his mouth closed over her, when his wicked tongue, which in the future would so easily take control over minds of starving  crowds, tasted her again and again . He quickly found out that she liked it when he was rough with her, and put off any tenderness. He pulled her closer forcibly; his fingers squeezed her body painfully. Her thighs trembled and her back arched. In the darkness she saw a cross hanging on the wall over the bed. Then she closed her eyes for a brief moment and found herself in the sweetest heaven.

That night, they tried many ways to return there except for one most forbidden. Iris surrendered to him or made him surrender to her, she knew exactly how, though only in theory, and he was willing to help her learn. He left her room only at dawn. No one asked why she slept through the whole day until sunset, because they thought she was just tired after the ball. Clara and Norman were still cherishing the thought of getting her married soon. And still, it was the most important ball in her life.

And so it was a new kind of agreement from now on. Justin would come to her at night, not every night, giving her some space, some time to wind down, he would come to her only when the house was silent, and the night was dark and Iris would always wait for him, would always come up with new ideas, just like she used to come up with her own fairytales for him when he was a little child. Norman and Clara weren’t blind to this of course and began to suspect that something was going on. It happened after Clara found Iris’ silk panties in Justin's room.

“Justin, what is it?!” she inquired in total bewilderment, popping in the living room where they were having breakfast.

Norman raised his eyebrows and choked on his tea. Iris spluttered with laughter while Justin was trying to find some excuse.

“Things men wear these days…,” she snickered.

“Iris!”

They had to be more cautious since that day because Clara had made it a principle to stay up late and keep tabs on them. Only God knows how it all would’ve ended, but a sinister whim of fate dealt with them in a different way.

They went to Minnesota, St. Paul, where Justin started attending seminary studies, following in Norman’s footsteps and encouraged by Iris. One unfortunate day Norman took them to a fair and Justin fell in love with a gypsy woman.   Iris would’ve probably preferred an apocalypse to start rather than learning this news. “Fell in love” was a term too soft to describe his obsession with that gypsy girl, a kind of girl Iris despised the most. She had never seen her brother like that before, he could not keep still even for a minute, lost his sleep, lost interest in food and life ... because of that one girl. That's when his ‘episodes’ first started to happen, he would lose his temper easily and turn into a beast mad with rage. Iris saw for the first time that something dark was dwelling behind his eyes and she’d never been more scared in her life because that thing she saw there still was her dear brother, a part of him she never knew but always forefelt. She did not say anything to Norman, trying desperately to keep secret about what was really going on with Alexei. She told him only that he was obsessed with a girl and suffered with his feelings. They didn’t have to know; even Justin didn’t have to know. No one but her. She thought she could get rid of this little problem all by herself. But things went wrong once more.

One morning, Iris went to the girl’s home. She wanted to warn her, to tell her that she needed to leave, that she was in danger. In case she wouldn’t listen, Iris had another solution but she hoped her words would prove more effective. The girl was friendly and sweet, she let Iris in and offered her tea, talked about her life for a while, showed her some fancy embroidery she did during her stay in Minnesota. And she wouldn’t agree to believe that she was in danger, wouldn’t even listen about leaving this place. She told Iris not to worry about her; she wasn’t going to get involved with her brother any way. That’s when Justin came to her door. Iris didn’t realize it was him until it was too late. Her new friend went to open the door, and in a few moments she heard her screams from the living room.

“Iris?...” Justin gasped, shocked to see his sister standing there, witnessing his crime. But instead of him, a demon was looking at her with its black eyes. Iris's face was blank, reflecting neither fear for the poor girl, nor the fear of learning that her brother was able to commit such a vile act, nor the thing that he’d become. She knew it all along. No, Iris just looked at the scene and felt her destiny, her doom, hammering nails into her wounded heart.

The girl's name was Apollonia.

That same evening his obsession was gone. He’d forgotten about Apollonia, about how he wanted to get her. Now he was trying his best to make it up to Iris. Hopeless efforts. She turned cold shoulder on him, became unresponsive, didn’t talk to him for several days, didn’t even look at him, didn’t respond to his tender "Ira" and his soft "Pobud’ so mno’y.(*Stay with me.)” She couldn’t hate him and thus only hated herself more. Maybe, at that moment, she still had a choice - to leave and leave him behind, she could’ve done it in no time, but Iris knew that those thoughts had to go once and for all.

Justin found her in the living room, in the early morning, when Norman and Clara were away. Iris hadn’t slept all night and took up embroidery instead, perhaps even out of spite for him, as a scornful reminder of what he’d done. He walked up to where she was sitting in the chair, leaned over her and said,

“I promise you this will never happen again. I won’t look at any other woman.”

Iris shot him an angry look and went back to her embroidery.

“How could you!” was all she said, shaking her head. “A gypsy girl, Justin.”

“I didn’t realize what I was doing, I swear, I wasn’t myself.” He leaned closer to her, speaking almost in a whisper. “If you want, I'll give you my word, Ira.”

Iris laid the embroidery on her knees and shook her head proudly.

“I don’t need your promises, you're incapable of keeping them, Justin. No. I want you to keep up with your studies, since this very day I want you to become a man of God and take a vow of chastity.” She met his startled look. “If you do this for me, we'll see.”

Justin straightened up and took a step back; watching her as she calmly took the embroidery and got to her work again as if this conversation never happened. She was so cruel.

That same day he told Norman about his intentions and a new page of their lives was started.

 

***

“I was afraid God would turn his back on us, Alexei. For everything we had to go through. I was afraid we would never feel his grace again. But now... I know there’s a special place in hell reserved for us, it doesn’t matter. He gave you back to me.”

Justin leaned to her and kissed her lips, which opened so willingly to meet his. A kiss which always meant she was so much more to him than just a sister - his faithful companion, his friend, his mentor, his leader, if he wishes so - his mistress and he will always be her first and her last. So often he’d dreamt about her, fantasized about all the possible ways to enjoy her without breaking her, and she would always remain the one most desirable, most open and submissive, yet most elusive and unreachable. She was the one who would excite his imagination until the end of time, enkindle a special feeling in him that he would take to his grave, and even there, beyond the boundaries of mortal life she would keep haunting him, condemning him to eternal torment, his worst hellish torture, his horned demon with razor-sharp teeth, his greatest heavenly bliss carried by hundreds of seraphs on their dazzling white wings. Oh, how he loved her, how hopelessly he was attached to her, his salvation and his perdition.

And he returned to her, for the one thing that no maid, no Omega, could ever give to him – he returned for her boundless love.

While he was regaining his strength again, they began to walk to the seacoast together, breathing the salty air and watching the distant horizon, lit up by the bright rays of setting sun. Holding him by the arm, Iris no longer felt weak or tormented by the lingering nostalgia. She felt powerful, confident in their future, certain that together they would shoulder any trouble. Wherever she was, it didn’t matter, next to him - she was at home.

Side by side they were standing on the shore.  Justin put his hand over hers and smiled warmly at her when she looked up at him.

“You know that sooner or later I'll have to go back,” he said quietly, but the sea itself seemed to go still, heeding to his voice. “It's only the beginning.”

“Are you going to get involved with that disgusting bunch again? Once you start ...”

“No,” he interrupted her. “No. This time it will be different. You'll see. I just want you to always remember - even in the darkest night, no matter how far I might have to go; I'll always be with you.”

Iris looked at the burning horizon and smiled.

“You are my forte.”