That night, sleep didn’t come easily. I elected instead to spend a large part of the night tossing and turning. Most of the time I spent thinking about Nadir and the duel. Now and again, my thoughts went to places I wasn’t sure I liked. For some reason, my head was fond of reminding me of what Celeste had said. Even though the idea of me having time for romance was preposterous, my thoughts started to circle about how something like that would work out. I had to get out of bed and pace to stop myself from thinking that kissing him might be okay. That maybe I could find the time.
I sternly reprimanded my brain and reminded it that I didn’t want that. This was my tournament, and it was going to be my seventh victory. Getting distracted by doing things I didn’t even want to do would be foolish. And it certainly wasn’t any good thinking about doing things I didn’t want to do. Because I didn’t want to do it.
Sleep must have pulled me under at some point, because I woke up and time had passed enough that sunshine fell in through the windows.
Unable to get anymore sleep, I got up and spent the morning preparing. It wasn’t for that day. Thursday night was the gala evening, and until then we would be preparing for the final round and resting up.
Everybody looked like they could use the rest. Celeste took a nap at the breakfast table, her head resting on her hand while she snored, and Amin looked like a zombie. The only other person awake was Orion, and as far as I knew, he didn’t sleep. I kept looking for Nadir when someone came through the door, but people came and went and there was no sight of him. He was back to his anti-social ways, and I was strangely disappointed. It seemed he should have made an appearance, at least to sit and stare at his coffee as usual. If nothing else, didn’t he want to talk as we had after the other disciplines?
Celeste’s hand finally slipped out from under her chin, and her face met the table with a frightful amount of noise. She jolted upright.
“This tournament is going to be the death of me,” she complained. “And I still hurt all over. It’s your fault, by the way.”
I nodded. “Probably.”
“You’re a violent fiend,” she hissed. “Violent and unpredictable and not listening at all.”
I snapped my eyes back to her.
“I am, too. You were complaining.”
She groaned. “Do me a favour? Go find the guy and… make out with him or something. Get it out of your system.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I made a point to turn away from her and scald my mouth with hot tea. “I wouldn’t want to do anything like that.”
Someone walked in, and my eyes flew up, but it was Cloris who had finally gotten up.
“I don’t know if it makes me happy or uncomfortable to see you like that,” Celeste continued, while I shovelled food into my mouth and made a point of ignoring her. “On the one hand, it’s good for you and it’s nice to see you acting kind of human, but on the other, it’s… icky.”
Celeste waved a hand in front of my face.
“Genevieve, you’re staring.”
“I am not.”
I rolled my eyes at her and got up, while thinking it was good that Nadir wasn’t here. It would give me time to get my head in order and get back to preparations. The obstacle course was coming up, and if I were to have any chance of beating him, I would have to focus.
The whole day passed without Nadir showing his face anywhere near me. This was a good thing. I got a lot of preparations done when he wasn’t around, and at the end of the day I had a good plan for the obstacle course.
In the evening Celeste and I helped each other get dressed and put on makeup.
“You’re completely wrong about me and Nadir,” I told Celeste while bunching my hair up on my head and attaching it with hairpins. I had transformed it to be longer than usual, and I had brushed most of it over one shoulder.
“I spent the whole day by myself, and it was very nice. Not once did I want his company.”
“Mhm,” Celeste said.
I tilted my head to inspect my make-up.
“Yeah, sure. I told you – there’s no romance here. He’s a very good witch, of course, and I respect his skills very much. I might take him up on his offer to come study in Egypt. I mean, it’s a free place to stay, and it is a very interesting culture. Of course, I probably won’t have the time. There’s next year’s tournament to think of.”
I attached the last pin in my hair and looked over my shoulder to find Celeste laughing at me. Her hair was done, and she rested on the bed, only waiting for me to finish.
“Genevieve…” she said.
“It’s nice that you’re telling me that and all, but I never mentioned Nadir.”
I tried to think of what she meant. It was definitely Celeste that had started talking about him and not me. I didn’t really care, after all, and I told her so. That resulted in an eyeroll.
“Yes, of course, I’m totally obsessed with the man and you don’t care. Here, help me zip up my dress.”
A few minutes before the gala was set to begin, I followed her downstairs to the drawing room. The sofas and armchairs had been pushed to the side of the room to clear the floor for socialising and dancing, and one of Orion’s legendary buffets were set up in the room next door.
Celeste immediately aimed for the wine, and I followed.
She poured us both a glass and raised hers.
“A toast to the tournament,” she said.
Isadora and Amin joined us in the toast, and it was just like last year. People arrived, dressed in their finest clothes, to talk, eat, and dance. The council people were mingling with the participants, sharing the bets they had placed and asking about our thoughts on the first four rounds.
Nadir didn’t show up. An hour had passed, and he still hadn’t shown his face. People started to notice, but nobody had heard anything that could explain his absence. I kept looking at the door, even though I didn’t care if he was there.
“It’s too bad he isn’t here.” I turned to explain to Celeste that I didn’t care, but it had been Amin speaking. “Guess he’s in one of those moods.”
“Probably,” I said. “Though it’s strange. He’s been pretty sociable these past few days.”
“He has his days.”
“Do you know anything about Mr. Hazan?” It was Orion who came floating over. “We’re a bit worried, and the viewers are sure to be sad that they didn’t get to hear from him at this event.”
They broadcast part of the event for the viewers, did little interviews, and reviewed some of the first four rounds.
Amin shook his head. “No, I’m afraid he didn’t say anything.”
Orion nodded and looked away. “Well, I’m sure he’ll join us if he feels like it.”
I took a sip of my drink, and Celeste drifted to my side. She followed my eyes to the door.
“I’m sure he’ll be down any moment. You could go knock on his door.”
“Why would I?” I asked. “I mean, of course, the viewers would like to hear from him, but…”
She patted my back with a smile and changed the topic. Her idea kept swirling in my head, despite the silliness of it. Someone should go check if he was okay, mostly for the viewers’ sake. They’d want to see an interview with the favourite. I might as well get him… Not that I would do it. No, definitely not.
“I don’t know.” Orion’s voice broke me out of my reverie, and next to me Celeste jumped. The ghost’s face was tense, and his jaw set against Amin. “Please, I’d rather not talk about it.”
Amin backed away, but he looked just as angry.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was a touchy subject.”
“Well, it is. That should be obvious.”
He whirled around and disappeared through a wall. Isadora noticed and ran after him through the door, closely followed by Gabriel. Celeste and I shared a look, and then she went to talk to Amin, who was left behind. When she asked if everything was okay, Amin muttered something under his breath and excused himself. The irony of his behaviour didn’t escape me.
“What was that all about?” Celeste asked, turning to me.
“I didn’t hear.”
Cloris, dressed up in hot orange and carrying a glass of wine in one hand, walked over.
“He asked about his… his death.” She whispered the last word. “Something about how he became a ghost.”
Celeste sighed. “People get strange around ghosts, but I honestly didn’t think he’d be like that.”
Cloris and I nodded in agreement.
The ghost and his companions came back a few minutes later, and it was like they had wiped the situation off their faces. They mixed in with the others, chatted, and had a good time. After some time, Orion even approached the group Amin was in for a short chat.
Nadir didn’t show up for the interviews. They had long since stopped broadcasting the gala to give us some privacy, and he hadn’t shown his face for any of it. I sat in the sofa near Celeste and only half listened to her and Cloris’ conversation. It annoyed me that he wasn’t here. It was tradition, and there must be many people out there who were interested in him. He was the favourite – that kind of thing meant you had a certain responsibility. It was a chance to mingle as well, get useful Council contacts.
And there was one thing else that nagged at me. After all, hadn’t we gotten along well? It wasn’t like we were more than casual acquaintances, but for a moment at the duel it had seemed… well, like he almost didn’t mind my company. A rare occurrence, really. The worst part was, I almost didn’t mind his company either.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt my blood boil. Celeste must have noticed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I mumbled a nothing, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that wasn’t true. So, I swallowed the rest of my wine and stomped right up to his door and knocked. At first, I thought he might not even be there, until I heard scrambling from inside.
“Nadir,” I said loudly, knocking again. “Hello?”
He came to the door after the third knock.
I almost didn’t recognise him with his hair down and his eyes were unusually distant. Any anger I had felt before that fizzled out immediately, because on top of looking shyly at me under his bangs, he looked utterly miserable.
“Hi, are you… okay?” I asked. “We’ve been waiting all night.”
He didn’t look at me, and half-hid.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell anyone, but I don’t feel so well.”
“I see. Sorry about that.” I backed away. “Do you need me to bring you anything?”
He shook his head.
“Right, um… Good night.”
I started making my way down the stairs again. Walking downstairs again, I found myself concerned for him. He had those moments, like the other evening, when he was all likeable and kind. And now this. One thing would be the moodiness, but I couldn’t shake the thought that something else was off. Before I could make it back, though, his voice reached me.
“I don’t particularly enjoy parties.” He stood at the top of the stairs, eyes staring stiffly at everything but me. I could only barely hear him over the music, as faintly as he spoke. “I was going to join you, but with everything else going on I couldn’t make myself. I’m sorry.”
“You missed the interviews.” I said, walking up to him. “But you can still make it to the party.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
Awkward silence descended again while I tried to get him to look at me, in vain. Finally, I gave up.
“I’ll go back now, if you don’t mind.”
He bowed his head, and I walked away again. This time, he interrupted me before I was all the way down the stairs:
“How did you manage to stay on your feet today? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“A spell,” I said. “I can show you, if you like.”
“I would like that.”
“Well, come on,” I said.
“Now?” He peeked out from under his bangs. “I’d rather not go to the gala.”
“We’ll go to the arena. It’s empty.”
I thought he would say no, but after a moment of me holding my breath, he nodded.
“Give me two minutes.”
Nadir followed me to the training arena. At night it was lit by lights on the ground and an enchantment on the rocks that made them glow. The air was warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. Nadir had changed out of his dark jacket into something lighter, and he’d tied his hair back except for the few stubborn strands that always seemed to get away from him. Taking a stand in front of him, I felt giddy at what he would say to the technique. It was odd, but I wanted to impress him.
“You don’t have a book?” he asked, as I lifted my hands.
“Nope, this one’s mine.” I took a stance in the sand. “Made it up myself; I might publish an article on it someday, when I’ve ironed out the kinks.”
He took a duelling stance as well, and I asked him to hit me with a fireball, like he had done at the arena.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “What about the dress?”
“Don’t worry. I know a really good drycleaner,” I grinned.
Though his smile was subdued, it was there.
“Ready when you are,” I said.
He lifted his hands and sent a fireball at me. I used the same trick as the day before and used a blast to hold me up. It was harder in the tight dress, so this time I didn’t manage to stay on my feet. Nadir helped me up.
“I think it would take some practice to get it right. How did you manage that?”
“Practice.” I smiled. “I haven’t done it in a while, but I used it all the time as a girl on my mum. She’s very good, one of the best scholars of duelling theory there is, but she’s scared of hurting me – especially was when I was younger.”
Something seemed to dawn on him. “You exploited my worrying for your safety?”
I shrugged. “Pretty much.”
He laughed a deep, warm laugh, all his reservations melting away. It occurred to me that his brooding couldn’t possibly be an act. There was no way he could keep this smile off his face, even if he wanted – it was too genuine. And yet something did. I couldn’t say for sure, but I had a feeling that I was the first one in a long time to see him laughing like this.
“I’ve never been good at duelling,” he said. “Like your mother, I’m scared of hurting others. It frustrated my grandfather to no end.”
“You manage to do pretty well regardless.”
Nadir shook his head. “I don’t think I could beat you.”
I kicked up sand and felt warm to my core at his praise. “Very few people can. Don’t feel too bad about it.”
He laughed again. “I very much enjoy you being better at everything than me.”
I stopped. “I’m not better at everything. I think we’re equal in most things, particularly alchemy.”
His smile suddenly grew bigger, if that was possible. “That reminds me. Can I show you something?”
When I had agreed, he asked me to wait while he ran back to the manor. Not a minute later, he came back and handed me a dark blue elixir.
“I made a small alteration. Will you?”
I took the bottle and noticed little silver flakes in it. Before I did anything, I looked at him.
A laugh bubbled out of me at the look on his face, the giddy smile, and I could only do as he asked. I lifted it over my head and smashed it to the ground. As I had expected, the arena darkened and disappeared around us. Just like two days ago, planets grew and settled around us. But this time, the darkness was suddenly broken by tens of thousands of little lights that blinked to life. All around us and under our feet, they winked at us. More than ever, I felt weightless, like I was in space, looking down at the world I lived in.
“Well?” Nadir asked.
His face was illuminated by the sun and the wine must be getting to me, because it was the most beautiful thing I had seen. It was the way he looked at me now, expectantly, ready for my honest opinion. My brain went places again. My feet did too, straight over to him. I put a hand on his shoulder, enjoying the warmth of his body. My eyes drifted to the stars again.
“We’re equal in most things except alchemy, then,” I said. “It’s a beautiful addition. What did you use?”
He answered despite a furious blush on his face, and he stumbled slightly over his words. “Algae, th-the kind that produce bioluminescence.”
“It looks fantastic.”
Now would be a good time to ask some more about the technique. I was pretty sure that kind of algae could conflict with some common ingredients, and he’d have found a way around that. It was sure to be fascinating, but I found that I didn’t care. I cared more about his hand on mine and the way his eyes reflected the light from his display and the way he had held my hand the day before. My feet moved closer of their own accord and he wrapped his arms around me.
It was hard to say who kissed whom. Suddenly, his mouth was on mine and his hand resting comfortably on my back. His lips were warm and his body firm under my hands, and everything inside of me and around us was bright and wonderful. When I broke the kiss, he kept one arm around me, while his hand came to rest on my cheek. There was a tremble in his hand.
“You’re scared,” I said.
In an instant, he made sense. The brooding, the anti-social behaviour. He left when people came to talk to him. He avoided gatherings, parties, and interviews. He was shy. Painfully so. Shy didn’t even cover it – no, scared really was a better term for it. I said it again and Nadir nodded.
“Are you scared of me?”
He smiled nervously. “I’m scared of everyone. But you’re probably the one who scares me… the least.”
Without meaning to, I laughed and felt him stiffen. His eyes dropped.
“Please, I’m not laughing at you,” I said quickly, moving closer, lifting his chin to make him look at me. “I just… think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
Nadir relaxed against me and I took his lips again. And again. I got lost in the rhythm of his movements, in the sound of his breathing and the taste of him and how close he was. His body loosened up around me.
Just as I was coming up for breath I heard a voice calling for me. Celeste. The two of us shared a deer-in-headlights look, and Nadir dismissed his potion effect before I had a chance to protest. The darkness dissolved, leaving Celeste looking at the two of us. I didn’t have to wonder how much she had seen, because when she had been outside of the display’s effective range she would have seen just the two of us. I looked away before she could smirk or laugh or tease me.
“There you are,” she said. “I was a little worried, but you seem… okay.”
Voices announced someone else was out here; when I glanced I saw and Amin. And someone who might be Gabriel. I rushed to look at my feet again.
Celeste slowly backed away. “Mr. Hazan is okay, too. That’s good. I didn’t mean to… interfere.”
It took inhuman strength to lift my head, look her in the eyes, and send her a big smile.
“I was just on my way to bed. Na- Mr. Hazan was showing me his display again. Excuse me.”
I pushed my way past her, past the others, and into the manor and my bedroom, where I closed and locked the door. Pressed up against the wall, I tried to calm my nerves. Whatever had just happened, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do that kind of thing.
I started angrily tearing hairpins from my hair and throwing them on the floor. There was no time for this. All the time I had spent kissing Nadir, I could have been studying for tomorrow. At this rate, he was going to beat me, simply because of this. Pacing up and down the floors, I wondered if he had done this on purpose.
Celeste had said that he was suspicious, and his family was an ambitious lot. If he twisted my head and made me do something like this then…
I collapsed on the bed, my body hot against the cold sheets, and let out a sigh.
He hadn’t planned any of this. Even the most cynical part of me couldn’t align Nadir with something like that. The obvious fear in his eyes was too strong – I reproached myself for even thinking he would be that devious. No, there was only one explanation for what I’d done, and the fact that I might have wanted to do it scared me even more than cold-blooded manipulation.
Feeling lost? If you’ve forgotten previous chapters and need a recap you can find my recap page here. Be aware that it contains spoilers for the story.
Author’s notes: HIIIIIII GUYYYYYYSSSS! I’m back! And yaaay for trashy romance chapter 😀 Okay, I hope it’s not too trashy and that it sort of makes sense for the characters. It’s so delightful to write a character who is so completely drowning in her own denial it’s almost comical. I love the smell of cognitive dissonance in the morning!
Anyway, I never got a chance to tell you guys, but I made two recap pages for my respective stories. The one for CoM is here and the one for Monte Vista is here. I made them because I’m well aware that not everyone remembers everything about my stories as intimately as I do. So, in case you need it, you can have an easy look back at the older chapters. It’ll be updated as I add more, of course!
Now, with all that said – thank you guys for your patience. I’m feeling much better after my exam’s handed in and I’ve had a few days to
play hours and hours of Animal Crossing: New Leaf relax. I’m still feeling kind of sensitive, but I’m not really that worried about coming back here with my chapters. You guys are simply awesome. So thank you all! Stay tuned for the next chapter of AMVS and the poses that were used in this chapter.