She watched Lyca shooting, watched those sharp, keen eyes tracking her flying targets, and Phoenix knew in just a few short days those eyes might grow dull and close forever.
“The Master has a Fight next week,” she said, and for a moment the two women only stared at each other and Phoenix almost wanted to take it all back, but then Lyca nodded, raising her crossbow and waiting for another target.
“Is he using me?” she asked, after she’d taken her shot.
“He’s deciding between you and Boris.”
“How many Fights or is it just the one?”
Phoenix stared at her a moment, knowing that she at least deserved to know the truth and get herself ready. “It’s a tournament.”
Lyca tutted and shot again, that light in her eyes never changing, that steel never leaving her face and her shoulders, but there was something in Phoenix’s throat, something she had to cough a few times to clear, something that stayed and made her voice come out slightly strained and hoarse.
“I’m looking for my sister and… there’s a chance she’ll be there. That’s why we’re going.”
“The Masters don’t need a reason to go to a tournament, Phoenix, this has nothing to do with you,” Lyca said, and then she shook her head. “Cassie said a few more and he’d make me a Favourite, but that was before you,” Lyca said, and Phoenix had to look away, her eyes heavy and stinging, her mouth so dry, but then she heard Lyca sigh. “It’s alright, he won’t take me now, I know that, but you and Belfire have made things better here and that’s enough… And it’s not like being a Favourite is all that great either.”
Phoenix thought on that for a moment, a part of her wanting to tell Lyca the truth, but what good would that do anyone now and she wasn’t sure that Lyca would even understand.
“Who knows what he’ll do,” she said instead, but Lyca shook her head.
“He only had Cassie for a long time. We were all surprised when he took both you and Belfire as well… He won’t take me too, maybe if something happens to one of you, but who knows… There’s no easy way out of this place. It’s my fault for thinking that a title would change things, but I’d only go from hurting people to getting hurt myself.”
“He doesn’t hurt us, Lyca,” Phoenix said, the words coming out so quickly, too quickly for the memory of that fight between him and Belfire to remind her that that wasn’t true, but she found herself not wanting Lyca to think poorly of him, not after everything he’d done for her and everything he still did.
Lyca lowered her crossbow, watching her for a long while, and then she said, “Cassie comes back with bruises sometimes.” Phoenix stared at her, her forehead lining into a deep crease, her head tilting to the side, and then Lyca raised her weapon and fired at the target along the wall. “Well, not so much anymore,” she said. “But maybe it’s just because he doesn’t call for her as often.”
“How often does he call for her?” Phoenix asked, and she couldn’t help it, some part of her wanted to know even though it made her heart heavy and her stomach burn as Lyca studied her for a moment, her weapon lowering slightly, and then she checked to see how close the others were.
“Once every couple of weeks or so… A lot less than he did before anyway, but don’t tell her I told you.”
Phoenix’s heart raced, the corners of her lips twitching as she fought back that smile. She didn’t understand why, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to, but her heart was so light, her eyes flicking to that balcony as she thought on that secret they shared. The longer she stayed in this place, the more was lifted from her shoulders, and he had taken a lot, a real, true share of that weight she’d carried all her life and she found herself nodding, her eyes flicking away, her boot scuffing in the sand as she looked back to Lyca.
“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to you, Lyca, I mean that, but I’m grateful, I want you to know that. She’s all I have left and… there aren’t that many of us anymore. I-, I lost a lot of people to this place,” she shook her head, clearing her throat. “No matter what happens, that tournament will mean something to me and… just thank you, Lyca, I mean that.”
There was something to the way Lyca had stared at her, her forehead lining in a slight crease, her eyes never blinking, something that stayed with Phoenix long into the night when she heard Belfire sigh beside her.
“You told, Lyca?” he asked, his breath warm on her skin as they laid there, his voice so soft and quiet.
“Good, she has a right to know… I told Boris.”
“How did he take it?
“Not very well,” he sighed. “But he seemed to calm down when I told him it was to the death and not…” his voice trailed off.
“Lyca said Cassie comes back with bruises.”
It was a long moment before he spoke, where the crease in her forehead grew deeper and tighter. “I did too in the beginning,” he said. “So did you.”
“That was different,” she shook her head. “That was a punishment and it was my fault… but he’s never done anything like that to me or fight with me like he did with you.”
“He won’t, he knows I’ll make things difficult if he does, but,” he shook his head. “We have to protect him, Phe, he already has a target on his back and he’s made it easy for them to brand him as a Sympathiser by keeping me around.”
“What will happen to him if they do?” she asked, and Belfire sighed, his face scrunching up in a tight scowl as he shifted around on the bunk.
“Nothing good,” he said. “Depends on who and how many people have it out for him. You and a few others will probably be resold and the rest of us… well, I’d end up in The Mines, that’s for sure.”
Phoenix shook her head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he risk that?”
“I don’t know, but he is, Phe,” Belfire said, and Phoenix was still thinking on those words when she was sitting in his room, staring at that fireplace, her forehead lining in a crease as he reached over, pouring her another cup of wine, those Implants flickering like starlight.
“You did well, with the others. I don’t usually let Fighters know when I have a Fight coming up, they get-,” he cut himself off, shaking his head, and then he sighed. “But you kept her focused.”
Phoenix didn’t know why she asked, only that a part of her wanted to know and another part of her was heavy and burning. “Are you going to make Lyca a Favourite too?”
Master Gabriel stared at her, his eyes never blinking, his face blank and slack. “Do you want me to?”
Phoenix wanted to say no, she wanted to shake her head, but all she could do was stare back at that fireplace, and then he kicked his feet up on an ottoman, his forehead lining in a crease as he stared down into his cup.
“I don’t want her as a Favourite,” he said. “I like the way things are now.”
Phoenix wasn’t sure if what she felt then was just relief or guilt, her heart beating a little quicker, her mouth so dry. Was it wrong of her to enjoy sitting with him like this? Was it wrong of her to enjoy anything with either of them when Belfire could bring that heat to the pit of her stomach with just a laugh or just the memory of that shaking and the way Master Gabriel had gasped would make her heart race? She wasn’t sure, she wasn’t even sure that there was an answer, so she took a sip from her cup and cleared her throat.
“Who are you going to use?” she asked, and it was a long moment before he spoke, a long moment where the air seemed to grow heavier and thicker, but then he sighed.
“Lyca… She stands the best chance of winning and I need her to win. I can’t really afford to lose,” he said, and Phoenix watched him stare into his cup, those Implants flickering so softly.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and he looked up at her, the light in his eyes somehow so warm, somehow so bright and sharp, and then he leaned in closer, his thumb trailing her cheek, his lips so soft and gentle against her own.
When he pulled away, he looked like he wanted to say something, his forehead lining in a crease, his hand falling to squeeze hers in her lap, but she shook her head, kissing him again and feeling that big burst of warm air hit her skin when he gasped. His hand was in her hair then, somehow so firm, somehow so gentle as he held her to him, and then she was in his lap, his face buried in her neck, his lips trailing kisses along her skin.
“Can you-?” he started, his voice so quiet and airy, so close to a gasp already. “Just a little, I-,”
Phoenix smiled, the corners of her lips twitching as she fought back that grin, and then she was in front of his computer, pulling out his chair and sitting in it, her hands already reaching for that soft, red light and she heard him gasp when she touched it, a gasp that was almost a moan.
“Not so fast,” he breathed, but she didn’t listen, her fingers flicking and flashing and typing like she’d seen him do so many times before. “Hmm, Phe, wait… Phoenix,” he said, and this time her hands went still as she turned to stare at him from the corner of her eye.
She could just about see his face as he sat on that sunken sofa, those Implants flickering so quickly, his forehead so tight and when he stood, his hands were shaking, his fingers a little stiff as he reached for his robe and pulled it off.
“Slowly,” he whispered, lifting her into his lap and sitting back down on his chair. She slowly clasped her fingers together, hearing him gasp, feeling him shake around her, and her heart raced, her breath hitching in her chest. “I-!” he breathed, but that was all he seemed able to get out, his hands reaching up under her vest, the tips of his fingers so warm on her skin, his lips pressing into her neck. “Don’t stop,” he whispered, as he made her stand and pulled off her clothes.
She could just about keep standing as those fingers slid inside her, letting out something like a gasp, something like a moan as she leaned against his desk and it was about all she could do to keep her own fingers steady, her breath hitching in her chest, that slow heat already building in the pit of her stomach. He moaned when he stood and slid inside her, a moan she felt rumble in that chest behind her, her eyes closing as she gasped and he moved, his hands no longer shaking, only steady and firm as he kept her from falling, but she shook her head, grabbing onto his wrists and gasping, “Wait.”
She kissed him then, her fingers in his hair, and she felt his arms wrap back around her as he lifted her onto his desk. So slowly he moved then, both of them gasping, both of them in each other’s arms and she closed her eyes, resting her head against his shoulder and feeling that heat building. His lips trailed her neck, his breath so hot on her skin when that heat burst, her face going so tight, hot, sweet shivers rippling through her body, and then he gasped, a gasp that turned into a groan as he buried his fingers into her hair and held her tighter. He wasn’t long behind her, his body going stiff, those fingers pulling a little as he shuddered, and then he kissed her so softly, trailing his fingers across her skin as she smiled.
She still felt a shadow of that smile on her lips when she climbed into the car, but then she had a hard time keeping it when she saw Belfire sitting there, wringing his fingers in his hands, that crease in his forehead so deep. It was a long while before anyone spoke, but when Cassie did, there was a sharpness and edge to her voice.
“Relax, Belfire,” she said, and those hazel eyes flicked to Cassie, so cold and dark, so sharp.
“People are going to die, Cassie.”
“And there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said, and Phoenix watched them, hating that light in Belfire’s eyes, something like a wince, something like a frown springing to Phoenix’s face.
“She’s right, Belfire,” Phoenix said, hoping that would ease the weight on his heart, but those eyes went colder, his face so tight when he turned to glare at her and Phoenix didn’t know what to say then, only knowing that she didn’t want him to look like that, and then Master Gabriel sighed, his fingers going still on that hologram keyboard and then they catching something from the air.
“Phe,” he said, holding her by the back of her knees and bringing her closer. “Take a look at this,” he nodded, holding up something like a small pebble, curved on one side and flat on the other. “Take it, see what it feels like. There are ridges along the bottom of the Masters’ chairs. I need you to keep the flat edge in your hand and press the rounded one into one of those ridges. No one can see you doing this, you understand? Wait until the Fights start. Cassie, you come and sit on the arm of my chair. You two sit in front, that should give you time to plant it,” he waited, his eyes fixed on her as she trailed that pebble-like thing between her fingers, and then she felt him grow stiff and tense. “Whatever you do, don’t get caught,” he said, his voice soft and low, but when she turned to him, he was watching the others, his dark eyes flicking between their faces.
Phoenix looked too, seeing that crease in Cassie’s forehead and the smile on Belfire’s lips, a small, warm smile, and then he slid lower in his seat, kicking a boot up to rest on his knee and cupping his hands behind his head. The Master stared at him a moment, his eyes never blinking, but then he turned to her, taking that device from her and hiding it in the folds of her shirt just above her heart.
“Only try if you’re sure you can pull it off, Phe,” he said. “You can’t get caught, that’ll ruin everything.”
“What about the scanners?” she asked, and he shook his head, a small smile springing to his lips and he was right.
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