Afternoon sunlight poured in through the library window of the Black Family Manor, casting the room in a pale yellow glow. Claudia ran her hand over the dark oak desk, her fingers tracing the wear on the wood grain. Two dents in particular made her skin crawl.
-Oranges and lemons…-
She glanced at the clock, jerking her eyes away from a sharp memory and shuddering as a tap sounded on the door.
“Claudia?” Asinoe inquired as she pushed it open, “You in here?”
“Yes. Please, join me,” Claudia turned and smiled, then gestured to a chair next to her own, “Sorry to pull you away from such a lovely afternoon, but I prefer working in quiet environments…and with the bunnies on the run again…” she looked to the window and grinned, a little viciously. “As delightful as their shrieks are, I thought the library would be better suited…”
“Yes…” Asinoe said, smiling in return as she entered the beautiful room, “I wonder when he’ll get tired of that game.” She moved to sit in the offered chair, frowning slightly. “Do you think this is a good idea? Dabbling in my head in this place?”
Claudia nodded gently at Asinoe’s curious expression.
“It’s a valid concern, but; unlike your previous Doctor…I don’t plan on treating you by simply switching you out and traumatising you for my own amusement and research,” her eyes glittered, “Not that you aren’t scientifically enticing, mind you. But I’d like to keep what is left of my soul.” She blinked, looking to the desk and back again. “Let’s start with how you’re sleeping? Better or worse since the last time I saw you?”
“Actually worse. But it’s better now that I’m here with him. You were here last night, you heard me, I’m sure…he had to come fetch me to his room…I’m pretty sure I woke everyone up with my screaming.”
Claudia nodded, remembering the previous evening.
“Yes, I was glad you were so close. Do you recall what set it off…what the content of the dreams was?”
“At the moment it’s just the one that recurs,” Asinoe took a breath and thought back, “I’m lying naked on a table of some sort, strapped down with my body open and vulnerable. There are candles everywhere…and the smell of incense. I can barely turn my head…it’s propped on a pillow and the cloth beneath me feels slippery…like silk. I’m so terrified I’m almost hyperventilating. It isn’t my first time there and I know what’s coming…” she stopped and thought about what followed, trying to separate herself emotionally.
“Do you know where you are…which room you’re in?” Claudia asked, her tone soothing and low – she already knew the answer.
“It’s one of the back rooms, I think. One that wasn’t used very often…maybe even the chapel here at the Manor? Yeah…I think it’s the chapel…at night…” her words trailed off as she thought, her features twisting into a frown.
“What comes next…” Claudia asked softly, reaching out to pour water into a glass from a carafe on the desk.
Asinoe’s cold blue eyes narrowed and she shook her head.
“I’m not certain what comes next, Claudia. I don’t think the memory is complete. I can only get to a certain point in the stream. Hooded figures come in and start to chant, they have wicker baskets in their hands. They put one down between my legs and a man comes up beside me…it’s the Reverend Dream. He has a glass vial in his hand and he anoints four points on my head and then four areas of my body with the oil…then it gets blurry and the dream ends…” she looked at Claudia, “Eden is always there. She stands in the corner of the room and reads from a book. I think Baelian is nearby, I can hear him but I can’t see him…”
“It sounds like the chapel. I was there a few times…but Dream avoided me after a confrontation with the Professor. I’m assuming there were snakes in the basket?” her question was offhand, her mind flicking to some of the illustrations she’d seen in the bible she’d recently acquired.
Asinoe was still and silent for a moment…then a chastising smile changed her face completely.
“So much for not triggering us in and out for your own amusement…” Alina purred.
“Not for my amusement alone, I have wrongs to right…” Claudia replied, barely batting an eyelash at the change. Stretching her body like a cat elongating every limb, Alina smirked and rose from the chair.
“Ah the library. I spent many peaceful nights here on my own….” she wandered to the bookcase and ran her fingers over the soft leather-bound volumes lined in neat rows, “They never replaced it…”she mused, her hand lingered on a hole she had made when stealing a book as a child. Finally, she turned to face Claudia, raising her eyebrows, “You look well.”
Claudia felt a slight flutter of relief as she watched Alina prowl around.
“Thank you. The country air agrees with me…I must say I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you…” she paused and folded her hands in her lap, “Tell me, how are you?”
“I’m trapped in a box mostly,” Alina replied, opening a couple of ornate boxes on an end table, “It’s nice to be out. You have no idea what it’s like having to watch everything but not being allowed to touch…anything.”
Claudia’s eyes remained steady, but a smile ghosted her lips.
“I do, actually, but regardless, I take your point….when was the last time you were out? You don’t seem surprised to be here.”
Alina studied Claudia for a moment, then relaxed. “Of course, you’d know exactly what it feels like…” Moving to one of the leather couches, she draped herself across it, kicking Asinoe’s shoes off and swinging one foot, “I was out with Niki at Oakleaf a little while ago. He spooked the host and I did my job…” she laughed bitterly, “Then he gave me Baelian…”
“Baelian..?” Claudia felt her chest clench tight, “Baelian saw you before he merged?” She tried to keep her tone even, “How was he? And how did Niki react to you?”
Alina sobered and her foot stopped swinging.
“Baelian was awful. He didn’t recognise me. He cried and told me he didn’t want me…” her mouth twisted in disgust, “Then he regressed into a child…and because she was no longer in danger I wore out my welcome. I was expelled and Asinoe got him again…” the distaste in her tone was evident, “As for Niki, he was…interesting…as per usual. We talked…” she slanted a look at Claudia, “You danced exactly the way he wanted you to. Every fucking step. He was always the most intelligent of all of us…and the most cunning.”
Claudia laughed coldly. “I’ve always danced to whatever tune they told me to. I gave them what they wanted…I’m still trying to give them what they want…” she sneered, unsure if she wanted to slap Alina, Asinoe…or herself. “The beauty of science is that it doesn’t want for anything. It’s just present, filling its role by studying and manipulating things as required.”
“I didn’t mean anything by that,” Alina said, shrugging, “It was just an observation. None of us can withstand Niki…I would have done the same,” she started swinging her foot again, her head tilting, “Sooo…I don’t have long now. I can feel Asinoe creeping back. What did you want to talk to me about?”
Claudia looked at her carefully, nodding finally.
“I had some questions about the Reverend Dream…I’m trying to find him….” her words trailed off.
-You saw Baelian…-
Claudia did have plans to ask about Dream, important questions she needed answered…but her guilt and a sudden and unexpected fear got the better of her.
“Do you…do you see Baelian in Nikolai? Do you think…” she paused, licking her lips, “Do you think you could be happy with him, and he with you?”
The idea killed her. Her partner in crime…happy with someone else.
-But happy nonetheless. That’s what you want, right? His nightmares settled, those flashes of hurt and angst banished from his eyes..?-
Alina studied Claudia for a long moment, as if she were considering something, then she shook her head.
“Niki and I would never be able to survive together. Our relationship is literally ‘fuck it until it dies,’” she watched Claudia’s face curiously, “He is incapable of love Claudia…of giving it, receiving it or understanding it. If he recognises it he’ll kill the object of it…it’s just his nature. And I need love, I need Baelian…the other half of my whole…” she smiled sadly, “Besides, Niki doesn’t trust me as far as he can throw me. You saw what he did last time…he drugged me to keep me complacent. I doubt much would change, should I return. I’d be kept locked away, tied to his bed as his whore. I serve no other purpose or function for him than that.”
“Oh,” was all Claudia could say, some of the hope she carried of being able to ‘fix’ them dying a little…but then, suddenly, she brightened again, tilting her head and grinning. “Well then…we’d better figure out where Dream is hiding. After all, if you can’t get what you want, we should at least get to play in some blood again.”
Alina smiled coldly.
“Take me along. Don’t let Asinoe go, she knows nothing about any of this. It’s my revenge…” her expression turned serious, almost pleading, “Please, let me have this. Don’t let her take that away from me too.”
Claudia studied Alina carefully, then smiled.
“You’re actually pretty fun, aren’t you?” she nodded to herself slowly, “I wouldn’t dream of robbing you of your moment. We can find him together…we can hunt him…and then you can kill him.” Straightening in her seat, Claudia shook her head. “We have plenty of therapy sessions left. I’ll keep you in the loop as to how my research is going….but now you need to leave. I want to speak to my other patient.”
Alina smiled at Claudia gratefully, then nodded.
“Thank you,” she murmured, then winked teasingly, “See you soon Claudia…” Alina’s eyes slid closed, her body shuddering ever so slightly as she melted away. When those blue eyes snapped open again, Asinoe looked annoyed.
“What am I doing on the couch?” she demanded.
-And where are my shoes?-
Looking at Claudia, who was watching her in silence, Asinoe narrowed her eyes.
“She was here, wasn’t she?” she scowled as Claudia nodded.
“Interestingly enough, Alina is hyper-aware of her role as your protector, which should make her easy to assimilate into your original personality,” Reaching over the desk, Claudia took up a pen and paper, scribbling some notes. “She has agreed to cooperate with your treatment, which, I must say, is more promising than I expected and a nice change. Perhaps without Baelian around she’s more compliant to her role…” she mused, mostly to herself.
“How very sweet of her,” Asinoe replied nastily, touching her head as a headache started to form, and looking about for her shoes…which she retrieved with a scowl. “So what now?”
Claudia gestured to the chair beside hers and smiled sadly, waiting for Asinoe to return to it before going on.
“Now we keep going with your therapy. Alina’s consent will make things easier, it’s important to work with all current personalities for a merge to succeed…which is why I was so glad that Belladonna had disappeared before I started working with Jasper…” she smirked, “Though a sick part of me would have loved to have smacked her down a bit.”
“Wouldn’t we all…” Asinoe laughed, leaning to put her shoes on as her smile faded, “Did she shed any light on the room?”
Claudia shook her head.
“I want to ease into it with Alina. She’s a protector, but that means she is not only predisposed to keeping memories from you…they’re also more real to her. I was surprised at how easily she appeared, to be honest…and that she’s been out more than once since the Professor ‘put her away’…” Claudia sighed, “I’m not surprised Niki neglected to mention it, though…it seems to be a thing with him…he…”
“What?” Asinoe interrupted suddenly, “When was she out?” Her voice became a little strident as her calm melted away. Claudia raised an eyebrow.
“Looks like Niki ‘forgot’ to tell you as well,” she shifted slightly in her seat, trying not to appear smug, “Apparently Alina was out when you visited Baelian in Oakleaf…I could have confirmed it for you, but the security data was ‘lost’…”
Asinoe eyed Claudia in annoyance.
-So smug Doctor? You only found this information out a few moments before I did. It’s not much of a victory…-
“Never mind,” she muttered to Claudia, narrowing her eyes, “I assume you intend to bring her out again?”
Claudia nodded, her slight glee at Asinoe’s backfired defiance dissolving almost immediately into medical interest.
“Alina seems to have been coming to the fore a little more than we both realised, so it shouldn’t be difficult to summon her as required. There isn’t a treatment plan for DID that doesn’t cite consultation of the other personalities…I’m afraid that if you want this, it’s the only way…” Claudia tapped the pen on her notes. “You can, of course, opt out…but I’m not sure that it’s wise. Apparently she gets along very well with Nikolai….whatever that means.”
Whatever ‘well’ meant, it sounded medically uninteresting to Claudia, and hardly useful to her plans, despite the annoying twinge she felt at the word.
“Fine.” Asinoe sighed in resignation, “How much will you need her around? I don’t particularly want her traipsing about for hours and interacting with everyone…” she frowned, “Especially with Niki. If there’s one thing I learnt quickly about this family, it’s that they all prefer Alina.” Asinoe rose, brushing some imaginary lint off her blouse as Claudia nodded.
“I will try and keep sessions minimal, after all,” she gave a reassuring smile to the woman before her, “It’s YOUR brain that interests me.” Claudia stood resolutely. “I’ll send a copy of some literature outlining my plans for your treatment to your room for you to go over when you’re ready…there’s no need for you to feel any more powerless than you already must with her ‘crashing’ in at random times, and with others withholding information…” her green eyes flickered with dark delight, “Information is power, Sin…and I plan to arm you. I’m sick of cowards and hand-wringers in this family. We need strong people for what’s coming.”
Asinoe’s eyes flashed with renewed annoyance at Claudia’s apparent patronising, but she pushed the feeling aside with a smile.
“I appreciate the help, I really do. I don’t want to pressure you or make you feel that I’m only here to get something from you…I’m well aware you’re sick of all the hounding.”
-But you do want something from me-
Claudia looked away, slightly past Asinoe.
“Yes…well. I don’t really have any other reason to…I mean, it’s sort of my job, isn’t it?” she sounded resigned, turning to look Asinoe over.
She opened her mouth to add something, but seemed to change her mind, trying a different approach completely.
“How is your daughter?”
Asinoe’s mouth tightened at the mention of Lorelei. Her daughter was not turning out to be at all what she’d hoped.
“Difficult and wilful and far too much like Baelian…” she replied, “Niki got her a place to study at the St Petersburg ballet for a while, so at least she’s out of my hair for the time being…”
“You sound disappointed,” Claudia prompted, settling into her seat to listen, the idea of exploring a mother/daughter relationship tempting her back into a professional approach.
“I am a little,” Asinoe admitted, sitting down on her own chair again, “Lorelei shows a lot of emotion with no thought for the consequences. Case in point, her ‘apology’ to you. She’s reactionary, like Baelian, but without his intelligence. I worry that it’s going to get her into trouble in this family…especially with her father…” she laughed suddenly, “Sometimes she behaves exactly like Grigori, you know. She flaps around like a Muppet…I think that part of it is my fault. Marcus was always quite flamboyant,” she frowned, “Though he was never quite so ridiculous.”
Claudia laughed kindly.
“Flamboyant is not a bad thing…but yes, her apology did lack a certain sincerity…” she tilted her head thoughtfully, “Lorelei is young. Fitting in is not something that will help her define herself, especially not in a family such as ours. Acts of rebellion are considered a day to day occurrence amongst us…and that’s just with the adults…” Claudia frowned slightly, “What role is it that you’d like her to fill?”
Asinoe let her head fall back and closed her eyes briefly.
“I want her to be competent and clever…a match for her father and I, a worthy heir to at least my empire…” she frowned as she thought about her daughter, a picture of her forming in her mind’s eye. She opened her eyes to banish it, raising an eyebrow at Claudia. “I want her to realise who she is and the potential she has.”
“It’s a reasonable desire for someone raised as we were,” Claudia nodded, “But you and her father found your own paths, mostly in spite of expectations. Do you feel an obligation to shape her in your image?”
“I’m her mother, aren’t I? I feel an obligation to keep her safe. The way she currently behaves will make her a liability to herself…” Asinoe hesitated for a moment before deciding on truth, “…and me.”
“Do you feel vulnerable because of her?” Claudia prompted. “How do you find your communications with her?”
“Stilted…short. They inevitably end with her storming off,” Asinoe paused “And as to the other…I’m not sure. I think she does make me vulnerable. I’d like to say that her behaviour doesn’t reflect on me, but I think it will sooner or later, especially in the eyes of her father.”
Claudia pressed her lips together, watching Asinoe as she spoke, wondering how much of what she said was the truth.
“And have you discussed her behaviour with Niki?” she asked, wondering if this was something worth a passing note. While she liked Asinoe for her company, where Nikolai was concerned she was not about to risk any kind of disturbance.
-I can’t have any of you upsetting him…he’s still too…-
“No I haven’t,” Asinoe replied as if the idea hadn’t occurred to her. And it hadn’t. “Niki is spoiling her, just like Baelian did…” her tone was bitter, “They never say no to her…I get to play the bad guy…” she sighed in exasperation, “If I tell her no, she just runs to her father, then he tells me I’m being too harsh,” she gave Claudia a wry smile, “I don’t feel it’s a good idea to remind him of how Bethany turned out at that point. He never said no to her either…” she shrugged, “But I may bring this to his attention. When we have a moment to talk…we usually get distracted…”
Claudia gave her an even stare.
“It may be that Niki is more open to discussing child-rearing than you think,” she offered. Claudia loved Bethany, but the idea of having another, less cheerful version of her to chase around was less than appealing.
“Hopefully, but regardless of what he does or says, Lorelei is mine and she will be brought up properly…or as well as possible considering her lack of upbringing for the past 20 years,” Asinoe slammed her hand down on the arm of her chair suddenly, “She’s already an adult! There’s nothing I can do other than harp on at her and hope to Christ her father doesn’t touch her…” she looked at Claudia bleakly and then laughed, “Any suggestions?”
Claudia reached out to put a hand on Asinoe’s arm, the fabric of her blouse a refreshing sensation under her fingertips. Her voice dropped in volume and softened.
“As hard as it is, harping on her might not be the best approach. Lorelei has been without you for 20 years, she will pull away from any control you try and force over her. Why not invite her to engage with you in something very distinctly of our world, then model the behaviour you feel is appropriate..?” she withdrew her hand, “Your daughter is without a trustworthy guide right now, and no doubt has a very shaken sense of identity…”
Asinoe had been surprised by Claudia’s touch, but had not pulled away. Her expression darkened as her mouth tightened. “It would help if her father would stop up and leaving with her or sending her away to far-off places without telling me first…it’s very irritating.”
Claudia bit back the innate urge to defend Niki, simply nodding.
“I really think it may be worth telling him this,” she said carefully. “Niki is the King of the treasures, the seven of us…which includes you, in body if not mind…and he’ll give us what we need unless it contradicts his immediate goals…” she looked at the beautiful woman in front of her thoughtfully, “If he is less that cooperative with you, perhaps I can help…but try the direct approach first.”
-Oh you can help, can you? And when did your word start to hold so much sway?-
Asinoe sighed and gave Claudia a wan smile.
“You’re right, of course. Niki is probably a lot easier to talk to about this than Baelian ever was.”
A clock chimed deep within the house, echoing in the companionable silence that fell between them. Asinoe was surprised at how comfortable she felt there with Claudia and couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt that way around anyone. As if sensing the feeling of quiet companionship in the room, Claudia gently put her notes aside.
“Let’s have a drink. As much as I like your brain, it feels weird being in here and sober…” Rising from her chair, she circled the desk and rifled through a drawer for a bottle of whiskey, raising it for Asinoe’s approval or dismissal. Asinoe sighed with pleasure.
“A drink sounds fabulous!” she smiled openly at Claudia, pointing at the whiskey bottle, “That one in particular.”
Grinning, Claudia pulled out two glasses she had ‘prepared earlier,’ pouring them both a serving and moving to offer one to Asinoe before walking with her own glass to the leather couch.
“Mind if I join you?” Asinoe asked, waiting as Claudia hesitated then nodded before moving to sit beside her on the leather settee.
“This whiskey is lovely,” the blonde woman commented, then smiled, “My uncle has quite the soft spot for it, even has a distillery tucked away in his portfolio somewhere…” she lifted her glass in a toast, tilting it towards Asinoe.
“To women who survive,” Claudia said.
“To women who survive,” Asinoe repeated and clinked the bottom of her glass against Claudia’s. Her eyes sparkled with interest at the mention of her uncle. “And how is dear Lucian?” she asked with a smirk.
“Oddly quiet since the Professor’s untimely demise,” Claudia grinned, “No doubt thoroughly disapproving of my choice in company and working hard to find a new advantage…” she considered her drink, “I did get a message and some flowers from him while I was in hospital, congratulating me on my survival of the ‘unfortunate event’ at Oakleaf. I still think he’s undecided about whether he is sad that he missed out on inheriting my share of the family yield, or jealous of all the fun I allegedly had…” she chuckled, delighting in the frustration that she was no doubt causing her ‘dear uncle’.
Asinoe laughed with her, shrugging.
“It would be nice to just have some peace and quiet for a while. It seems like we’re always under attack from outside sources…or internal…” she said thoughtfully, “This family is always in a state of crisis.”
Claudia stared at the pretty colour of the drink in her glass and took another sip. It was a fine whiskey…smoked, with a hint of cherry.
“Now that Niki is merged, I think we can have some stability…” Asinoe went on. “The family will fall into line now that they don’t have various sides of him to choose between. It’s the whole package or nothing…” she looked up at Claudia. “What do you think will happen?”
Claudia swirled the liquid in her glass thoughtfully.
“I was hoping that very thing would happen…that merging him would fix things, that it would all settle….but this family…” she sighed, “They are so fixated on self-gratification or self-preservation that they can’t work as a unit. They’re all pulling in different directions…I wonder if we all use the word ‘family’ ironically at times…” she bit her lip and drank, “I don’t do well without people to look after…I wish I did. It’s inevitable about me, I was raised to rule a family and protect them at all costs. I don’t know how to make choices for myself….but with this family and its constant spiral, I wish I did.”
Asinoe nodded, agreeing thoughtfully and swirling her own drink before taking another swig, allowing it to burn down her throat.
“What would you do?” Claudia asked, suddenly curious, “Where would you be on a nice day like this, if you weren’t bound to a completely ridiculous family?”
“I’d be in another country,” Asinoe sighed, “Another city. Rome, Shanghai, Prague, Georgia. I would be sitting in cafes and watching people walk past with their lives…” she let her head fall back on the couch again and closed her eyes, “I would sit in complete silence if I wanted to, go out when I wanted to and with whomever I pleased for the evening. I would travel – constantly making deals, negotiating trade treaties with different companies…battle it out in the boardroom…” Asinoe opened her eyes and smiled at Claudia. “I would not be wondering if I was going to lose my life again to a parasite, or lose my daughter to her stupidity or to her father…or lose her father because he one day decides I am just not that important to him anymore…” she trailed off, frowning and looked down at her drink, suddenly aware that she had said too much. She sighed and looked up again.
“What about you? If you were free?”
Claudia watched Asinoe and felt a soft tug in the corner of her mind. She blinked at the question.
“I…I don’t know. I suppose I would do what I did when I didn’t know who I was…I attended theatres, cabaret shows, ballets, symphonies, circuses…I loved watching people be passionate about something beautiful,” she paused, “I’m not sure that’s much of an answer…” she sounded apologetic.
Asinoe stared at her.
“Actually that’s a very complete answer….though I imagine you might add just a little more blood to your list of entertainments this time around. I plan to add some extracurricular activities myself…” she winked at Claudia, then sobered suddenly, “But we are both stuck in this family…and we have to march to the drum of our past…”
Claudia’s nose wrinkled and she opened her mouth to voice a pointed opinion about the ‘drum of the past,’ her mind settling on something more interesting seconds later as her emerald eyes lit up.
“What sort of extracurricular activities did you have in mind?”
“Truthfully, I want to go hunting.,” Asinoe hesitated for a moment, “I’m not certain I’m up to hunting the white goat just yet. It’s been so long…” she frowned and thought back, “My grandfather taught me how to hunt animals, how to skin them. I’m quite good with a knife. My father had no idea…until he died…” she gave a short laugh, “I would say he was impressed but I think I scared him….” She looked up at Claudia, “What do you make of that, Doctor?”
Claudia smiled darkly.
“I would say some fresh air and a walk in the woods is a good way to clear the mind…what are your plans for tomorrow?”
“The same as yours…whatever Niki wants,” Asinoe said with a wry smile. “This is his party and I am at his beck and call. Why?” she tilted her head, “Did you have something in mind?”
“Beck and call…” Claudia echoed with a sniff, “Well, I’ll ask his lordship if you can be excused to keep his Doctor amused for the morning,” She grinned at Asinoe, “You know…for ‘women things’…chocolate, gossiping…hunting…”
Asinoe laughed. “Sounds good,” she said, “Though I haven’t a thing to wear. I left everything – including my weapons- at home…” she paused, her eyes glimmering, “I wonder what’s left in the armoury here…”
Claudia grinned and stood, raising her glass gleefully.
“Only one way to find out….” she laughed, indicating the door. Asinoe smiled and downed the rest of her whiskey, waiting for Claudia to do the same before the empty glasses were discarded and the two women left the library in search of new toys.
They passed Niki in the hallway, carting a pair of shrieking ‘bunnies’ through the house towards his bedroom, his sly query as to what they were about met with almost girlish giggles.
“Women things,” Claudia told him, linking her arm through Asinoe’s.
The pair laughed, leaving Nikolai to his prey and his fun as they went arm in arm in search of their own.
Written by Cassee Maliepaard and R. Quin.
All characters and story lines remain the property of N.Ristovski and the Underground. All character writings within the Underground are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016. Natalie Ristovski.