She woke so quickly, her eyes flicking open, her hand reaching under her pillow for her knife even though she knew it wasn’t there and he froze, his eyes so big and wide and shining bright.
“Sorry,” he whispered, and he shook his head. “I didn’t want to wake you. I… Can I…? Can I just sleep here? I don’t want to be alone.”
She stared at him, seeing that colour back in his cheeks, those circles under his eyes a little lighter, and she nodded. He gasped a short gasp, nodding his head so quickly and going to sit down by the door.
“You can sleep in the bed if you promise not to hit me,” she said, and she watched his face scrunch up in a wince.
“I’m sorry, Phoenix, I really am. I didn’t mean to-,”
“I think I found something out,” she cut in, and he looked at her, his face and shoulders stiff for a moment, before he came to sit on the bed by her knees, and she took a deep breath, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and nodding at him. “I heard Cassie talking about something called the Fights,” she said. “Does that mean anything to you?”
He turned around, resting his elbows on his knees and staring at the wall. “The Fights?” he asked. “No, I’ve never heard of anything like that… You think that’s what we’re training for?”
“I don’t know,” Phoenix shook her head. “That woman she trains with, Lyca, thinks he bought me for them, but Cassie didn’t seem so sure.”
“She’s probably right,” Belfire nodded. “I said it before, Phoenix, Woodlanders usually end up as Favourites. I don’t know why you’re here either.”
Phoenix felt that burning, her face scrunching up in a scowl, and she almost snapped at him. He kept calling her that even though he didn’t like it when people called him an Offender, was he doing it on purpose?
“They talked about you being a Favourite,” she said, but she didn’t expect Belfire to nod, to take in a big, loud breath and let out a sigh.
“I have no idea what he wants me to be,” he said. “None of it makes sense… Chances are… Chances are whatever we’re doing here, I’ll go first. I’m the disposable one,” he nodded again. “That’s fine, that’s all I am now, I know that, but you can learn from it and help the others. Don’t let them win, Phoenix,” he said, turning to look at her. “I’ve met a lot of Masters and they’re all the same. We mean nothing to them, remember that, think straight and look after Mia and Boris.”
She stared at him, a part of her wanting to tell him that there was only one person she would be looking after, a part of her unable to say it, and then she cleared her throat, turning to look at the ceiling and shaking her head.
“He gave you something to eat?” she asked.
“Hmm… I wasn’t expecting that,” Belfire nodded. “I haven’t figured him out yet. He’s good at hiding his thoughts… Master’s always are,” he laughed, a short, curt, cold, little laugh.
“Are you excused from training tomorrow?” she asked.
“No,” he shook his head. “Actually… he said he wants to talk to both of us after lunch.”
“Did he say why?”
Belfire shook his head, a short, quick shake and he looked at her, the corners of his lips twitching like he was holding something back. “You remember the way to his room?” he asked, and she nodded. “He said when your wristband flashes here three times, that means he wants to see you,” he lifted his own to show her. “He’s not going to send House-slaves anymore.”
Phoenix felt her face go tight, her eyes flicking to stare at his wristband and those fresh cuts around it. How long ago had it been since she’d cut her own? It was so hard to say, each day here was like the last, only the times she’d been to that room any different. Belfire sighed, shaking his head and lying down beside her. He wasn’t that big, not as big as Boris anyway, but he was warm, no doubt about that, so warm she had to fight not to get closer to him and sigh as he rubbed at his eyes, those light brown dreads spilling over his shoulders and onto her pillow.
“I’m sorry I hit you,” he whispered. “I really didn’t mean to, Phoenix, I don’t know what happened.”
“I’ve survived a lot worse than that,” she shook her head, but she didn’t expect him to turn to her, his forehead lining in a crease, those eyes shining brighter.
If he had been Iris, she would’ve just rolled her eyes, if he’d been Ash, he would’ve just laughed and told her all about all the things that he’d survived himself, but she couldn’t place the way that Belfire looked at her then, those eyes somehow so soft and sad, somehow so sharp and bright, but then he cleared his throat, looking away and shaking his head.
“I always thought life was better in The Forests,” he said, his voice just barely above a whisper.
“I had a good life,” she said. “I was free.”
He smiled then, a soft smile, a sad smile, letting a short breath out of his nose. “Do you miss it?” he asked.
“I miss my sister,” she whispered before she could stop herself, her eyes going big and wide, and then she shook her head, closing her eyes to stop those tears from falling, her hand clutching at her shirt just above her heart. It was so heavy, so heavy and full, but she couldn’t cry now, she still had work to do, she still had to be strong.
“You have a sister?” he asked, but she only shook her head again. “So do I,” he said, and only then could she look at him. “I did anyway, not anymore,” he added, and his shoulders dropped.
“She’s gone?” she asked.
“Something like that,” he nodded, turning to look at her. “She’s the one from the auction?” he asked, and Phoenix wanted to gasp then, she wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry, but she could only nod. “I remember her,” he nodded again. “She looked like a strong kid, Phoenix, and she’s a Woodlander, she’ll probably be a Favourite.”
“How-?!” she gasped, but that was all she could get out. “She’s only seventeen, Belfire, how does being a Favourite make that better?”
“It doesn’t,” he said, turning to look at her. “I know that. I just wanted you to know that she’s probably not doing this… and Woodlanders are expensive, you don’t pay a lot of money for something just to treat it poorly. She’ll be alright, even if she’s only half as strong as you are.”
She did gasp then, her face scrunching up in a wince, her hand clutching at her lips. Why did he have to say that? Why couldn’t he just have shut his mouth? She closed her eyes then, so tightly, and still she closed them tighter. She couldn’t cry, she couldn’t, Iris wouldn’t want her to, she didn’t want to. Why had they been caught and why was all of this happening to her? She shook her head when she heard him moving, hating everything he’d said, hating him, and she hated him more when she felt that thumb on her cheek wiping away her tears.
“Stop it,” she snapped, her eyes flicking open, her teeth grinding together.
“It’s OK to miss her,” he whispered. “And it’s OK to be upset about it.”
“You-!” she gasped. “You have no idea what you’re talking about, just leave me alone.”
“Hmm… I can’t do that,” he said, turning around and clasping his hands together on top of his chest. “You didn’t leave me.”
“I mean it, Belfire, just go.”
“It’s too late,” he said, his voice so soft and quiet. “I’m already asleep.”
“Belfire!” she snapped.
“What do I call you?” he asked, those eyes flicking open to stare at her. “I know you don’t like Woodlander, what should I call you instead?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter.”
“It does, I can see it.”
“It doesn’t, don’t call me anything.”
“How about just Phe?” he asked, and her blood ran cold.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, her hands clenched up into fists as he raised his eyebrows, something almost like a smile on his lips, and then she could only whisper. “My sister calls me that.”
“What’s her name?”
“Iris? That’s a nice name,” he nodded.
“She doesn’t-,” she cut herself off, shaking her head. “She doesn’t like it when other people call me that.”
“So it’s just for her?”
“And-, a friend calls me it too.”
“So you do have friends?” he asked, but she didn’t expect him to smile, and then he turned, propping himself up on his elbow and laughing a little as he waited.
“I have friends, Belfire, you’re just not one of them.”
He laughed again, a soft laugh, an easy laugh. “I think we’re past that now, Phe,” he said. “If we’re not friends, then what are we?”
“I don’t know. I-,” she shook her head. “I don’t know you.”
“There’s not much to know,” he said. “I was a Citizen and now I’m not. My past died when I became a slave, there’s no life left out there for me now,” he shook his head. “My everything depends on that man upstairs… I can’t stand that,” he said. “But I’m going to find some way to matter, I have to, my life has to mean something… What about you? What deal did you make with him?”
“I-,” she started. “He’s helping me find my sister,” she said instead.
“Hmm…” he hummed. “The City is a big place, Phe,” he said, and she knew what he was about to say next, so she opened her mouth, ready to cut him off, but then he said, “Don’t give up, it’ll take you a while, but I’m sure you can do it.”
She didn’t know what to say then, her heart aching, her breath catching in her chest. “Why-?!” she gasped. “How can you say that?”
He looked at her, his forehead lining in a crease, his eyes blinking quicker. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, his voice a little soft and airy almost like he was about to laugh. “I’m your friend, why wouldn’t I believe in you?”
“I-,” she shook her head, those tears back, her heart hammering in her chest. “I don’t like you,” she whispered, but she didn’t expect him to laugh.
“I’m not sure you like anyone,” he said, lying back down beside her and shaking his head. “But I’m willing to risk it this time.”
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