0300 28 JUN 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America
Purging my stomach couldn’t cleanse the guilt from my blood.
I clung to the toilet, heaving until I could barely breathe.
It had only been a nightmare--I hadn’t really killed those people again, hadn’t really heard the woman chanting the Lord’s Prayer or felt her blood spill over my hands. I released my grip on the rim of of the toilet and curled my fingers into my palm until I almost pricked the skin with my fingernails. Real--this was real.
I stared at the ink-stained skin of my fingers, hand, and forearm. It had been an impulsive thing. I hadn’t been back in the States long when I’d invited a fine arts student and aspiring tattoo artist from American University to come over when Tamlin was gone and tattoo the swirling markings down my fingers in five vine-like lines until they connected at my wrist in a thick band. I hadn’t been able to slip away from the house or Tamlin’s careful eye or the media’s cameras long enough to go to a proper shop, but I’d promised to pay the art student well and she hadn’t minded bringing her kit to me.
Tamlin had been furious.
“Why would you choose his marks?” he’d demanded. “That--what he drew on you, when you were desperate? He was a traitor!”
I hadn’t been able to answer. Hadn’t been able to explain why I’d felt compelled to make permanent the rough etchings Rhysand Knight had drawn on my skin when he’d saved me from an infected injury. Maybe it reminded me that I’d survived. That--in the end, despite the trials and the controversy and the mixed reports--that Rhysand hadn’t been my enemy. Not entirely.
Almost every soldier was tattooed, I’d told Tamlin. And no one had to know why I’d chosen the design I had.
The cameras had noticed. Our producer had noticed. Blurry pictures of my tattooed hand had circled around Twitter and Facebook and had even been a segment on the evening news.
And yet I couldn’t regret it.
Another wave of nausea swept me as the shadows danced across the room and the bathroom felt too small and cold . . .
Real. You’re home. I wasn’t in Russia, I was in Spring Valley, in America . . .
In the other room, Tamlin slept on. I crawled back out to him, wiping the cold sweat from my brow. I climbed back into bed on top of the cool sheets, tracing my fingers over his solid back as I curled up beside him. My body still hummed in places from where we’d made love earlier--after months of recovery, my casts and splints were gone, and though soreness still flared in my body from time to time, I’d healed remarkably from the torture inflicted upon me by the Russian General Afanasiia Konstantinovna . . . Amarantha, as we’d called her. A miracle, the press claimed. A beautiful road to recovery, as branded by our producer.
It was all razzle dazzle. It wasn’t beautiful, and it wasn’t really recovery. If it was, perhaps I wouldn’t still be waking up in the middle of the night to vomit up my guts. Even Tamlin still had nightmares, woke up in the middle of the night to watch for intruders, unable to be shaken even by my gestures.
Ianthe had taken the cameras out of our bedroom after a while, deciding that the viewers wouldn’t want to see all of that.
I stared at Tamlin’s hair as I waited in vain for sleep to come again. I’d done it for him--killed those people for him. Wrecked myself . . . for him. It had to be enough.
We never spoke about it, and it was one of the agreements we’d made with Ianthe when we’d signed the contract for the show. No discussing what had happened in Russia. We let Amarantha win if we let her haunt us.
“Of course,” Ianthe had simpered.
Too bad it seemed that Amarantha would haunt us no matter what.
1800 23 JUN 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America.
“I want to go.”
“It’s been six months. I need to get out and do something.”
“You don’t need to do anything,” Tamlin insisted. “You’ve done plenty.” He adjusted his cufflinks on his suit, his blonde hair combed back. It was fairly long now--he hadn’t cut it since we’d gotten back. He kept it neatly gelled, and his face was clean-shaven. He looked every inch a cabinet member’s son, and tonight he was going to a benefit to raise funds for a charity dedicated to helping soldiers return from the warfront. Raising money for a program, ironically, that he’d declined to use himself--that he hadn’t let me use, either. “We have to be strong,” he’d said. “We don’t need any of that stuff.”
That stuff. The programs, the support . . . it was better for the son of the former Secretary of Defense to come back strong, undamaged by the war his father had helped start. That applied to me, as well.
I wanted to go anyway, wanted to get out of the house, but Tamlin had forbidden it. “You don’t need the attention on you.”
My gaze instantly snapped to the camera in the room, but I quickly looked away again. We weren’t supposed to look right at the cameras all that much. Still, they were here all the time, under the careful direction and restraint of Ianthe Callahan, the director and producer of the reality show meant to document our return to civilian life. The cameras were everywhere, a presence that I’d accepted but never quite adjusted to. It struck me as odd that Tamlin told me not to come to the benefit because of the attention. We’d had nothing but attention since returning home.
I twisted the diamond ring on my finger, marking my engagement to Tamlin. He’d asked me to marry him three months after our return, and after Ianthe had caught my original glee on camera, she’d had Tamlin ask me three more times so she could get every angle. The episode had premiered to enraptured audiences and had set records across the country.
Heroes’ Homecoming. That was what our show was called.
When Tamlin had approached me with the idea, I hadn’t had it in me to say no, to deny him this. He’d said it would be better if we had control over the narrative the American people consumed, rather than let them decide what we were, what we would be. His father had approved the idea--though the former Secretary himself had never appeared on the show, he had thought it might help his own reputation in the waning months of the war and the dawn of a new presidency. Everyone had wanted it, and I hadn’t dared say no. And then the cameras had moved in, and the interviews and Ianthe’s constant presence had become a fact of life.
Thankfully, I liked Ianthe. Born and raised in the Deep South--Charleston, South Carolina, to be precise--her accent and purebred charm was a comfort every time she flashed her bright smile at me. It was actually something of a relief to let her guide my life, to put me in places and coach me through interactions and so forth. She helped Tamlin decide where I went--where I needed to go--and kept me company when he was out doing events for his father and various charities. Tamlin had also suggested--rather ominously--that it was safer for me to stay near the house. As though our enemies might make their way onto home soil. Or perhaps people might target me or him as revenge against his father’s policies.
“Feyre, you don’t like parties anyway,” Tamlin said. “Stay here and rest. I know your hand has been aching lately.”
I flexed my tattooed fingers out of habit. It did still ache sometimes--the hand Amarantha had broken apart piece by piece. It was my non-dominant hand, but still . . . whenever the night became particularly chill or I forgot to do my exercises, it would seize up and pain would shoot through my arm.
Just then, Lucien arrived, pausing and eyeing the cameras distrustfully. His glass eye--replacement for the one he’d lost in Russia--didn’t move the way his natural one did, and he was still self-conscious about it. “Tamlin, Feyre,” he said in greeting.
“Hey, Lucien,” I said softly.
Lucien glanced between us as Tamlin said, “Why don’t you try painting? There’s that new set I got you for our anniversary.”
I nodded, but I didn’t tell him I’d still been unable to paint anything, and not because of my hand.
“Your father’s waiting,” Lucien said to Tamlin. He glanced at me. “Perk up, Feyre. There’s always the party at the end of the week.”
I nodded again in silence. It wasn’t the party--it was the desire to do something. Something useful. But I hadn’t been allowed to so much as go to a food drive since I’d fully recovered.
Still, I put on a smile and let Tamlin and Lucien go, curling up on the couch to watch mindless television instead. I buried myself in a thick blanket and drank hot chocolate prepared by Tamlin’s housekeeper, Alis. I idly flipped through the channels, the cameras whirring in the background though most of the cameramen had either gone home or followed Tamlin to the benefit.
I paused on the nightly news channel and my stomach seized when I saw his picture there.
Polished, composed, his black hair perfectly coiffed as always. His angled face, not as pale as it had been when we’d last seen each other in Germany, held an even and calm expression as he was escorted in and out of the courtroom. The newscaster spoke over a muted video of him briefly addressing the press. The banner beneath read, “RHYSAND KNIGHT: JURY REMAINS OUT ON TREASON.”
Treason . . . even I still didn’t know the truth of what had happened. All I knew was that he had saved me in the end, saved us all. I’d offered to testify for him, but he hadn’t contacted me.
Hadn’t contacted me at all in the six months we’d been home.
I didn’t realize how intently I’d been staring at the screen, at the images of Rhysand’s face, until gentle fingers pried the remote from my fingers and the TV clicked off, turning black and leaving streaks of color like oil on the pavement behind my eyelids.
“That’s enough of that, sweet pea,” Ianthe’s honeyed voice said. “Why don’t you head to bed?”
I nodded distantly and walked up to the bedroom, wearing the blanket as a cloak. And I waited in the dark for sleep to claim me, the nightmares to come, or for Tamlin to come home . . . whichever came first.
0900 03 JUL 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America.
The week slipped by, and when the day of the party Tamlin was hosting came, I wasn’t sure of much of what I’d done.
The physical therapist had come to work with my hand and arms--both of which had been broken by Amarantha--and Ianthe’s cameras had whirred the whole time, catching countless hours of footage that she’d likely never use. After each session, she would ask the therapist to sit down and say a few words, but the therapist always refused, packing up and bustling out as soon as our session was over. Then Ianthe would have me sit in the corner of the living room she’d staged for interview segments and ask me how I thought my own recovery was going. I’d give bland answers, faint smiles, and somehow dredge up some optimistic turn of phrase that would put a good face on things. Then I’d curl up in front of the TV again and nap, the muttering of nonsense television playing in the background.
One day I’d been woken from my nap by the TV playing an action movie. The dramatized gunshots had sent me launching out of my chair with a banshee-like scream, racing toward the door in nothing but my pajamas. Alis had caught me by the door and she and Ianthe had managed to calm me down. Then they’d immediately called my psychiatrist.
Acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shell-shock, as it had once been called.
Every time I heard a sharp noise, whether it be a door slamming or a motorcycle backfiring or even sometimes the newspaper hitting the porch, I flashed back to the moment I was broken and bleeding on Amarantha’s floor, helpless as she fired three bullets into Rhysand Knight’s body.
It didn’t matter that he’d survived, that we all had. It was as though my brain had frozen that day--a snag in the reel--and no matter what I did or what happened to me next, I would always, always snap back to that moment.
Sounds weren’t the only thing that triggered it. I couldn’t see the color red without seeing the blood of those innocent prisoners pouring over my shaking hands.
I couldn’t even look at the American Flag. Because I knew--understood, for the very first time--why the red and white stripes were blood and innocence.
Some American hero I was.
Tamlin had PTSD, too, though a milder form, as I understood it. He didn’t watch television at all, because any remotely distressing image or sound sent him up the wall--though he was far better at staying composed than I was. It would visit him later in the night, though. I was the one who was a wreck both day and night.
Ianthe would sometimes keep me occupied by helping me sort out the last-minute details of the wedding, which would take place on the Fourth of July--Independence Day, in a little over a week. It would be so romantic and symbolic, both Ianthe and the wedding planner had insisted. And, it would take place before the midterm election season got underway and all the important Washington personalities would be occupied. It always perplexed me how politicians got going so early--it seemed ridiculous to me. But since the presidency had shifted from Republican to Democrat again just after I’d been rescued (some speculated that my rescue directly contributed to a last-minute shift in the Democrat’s favor), Congress was out of sorts and trying to rally support in either major party. I knew the barest details of what was going on. All I needed to know, Ianthe told me, was the seating plan for the wedding banquet so we wouldn’t accidentally sit any political enemies beside each other.
I had been happy to let the wedding planner she’d hired take the reigns on it, though we’d butted heads about the wedding dress I was to wear. I’d wanted something simple and understated, but Ianthe had shown me the Pinterest boards of avid fans of our show, and they seemed to universally wish to see me in a massive, frothy princess gown. I hated the one the wedding planner had picked out, but Ianthe insisted she was a professional and that we needed to trust her. Tamlin, to my chagrin, had agreed.
Besides my complaints about the dress, I’d had only one request--no red. The wedding planner, a flighty, camera-happy woman who loved pantsuits and fake eyelashes, was put-out when I’d turned down her idea of a patriotic wedding theme, but then she’d seen me nearly vomit at the sight of the roses she’d set out among her optional floral arrangements and understood. She’d conceded that having it on Independence Day would be patriotic enough and there was “no need to overdo things.”
I was already exhausted by the time the party on Saturday night began, but I like Alis and Ianthe’s hair and makeup team dress me in a frothy eggshell-colored dress with pearls at my earrings and around my wrist. There had been a pearl necklace to match, but it had slipped only once to cling too tightly to my throat and I’d begun to hyperventilate as I’d remembered Amarantha’s hands gripping my neck to snap it.
I’d wanted a dress with sleeves--I rarely showed my arms in public, littered with scars as they were. My forearms were scarred from where the broken bones had punctured the skin, and my biceps were scarred from various other injuries. The worst was on my left arm--a long, ragged scar that Rhysand had stitched together with his First Aid skills. Though his stitching had proved remarkable, the scar had never faded. Sometimes I could still feel the jagged rock that had punctured me there like a phantom late at night as I tried and failed to sleep.
I shook the thoughts away as two of the men from Tamlin’s fraternity approached me where I was standing by the fireplace. Ianthe was nearby, and she nodded in encouragement, her blonde curls bouncing. I squinted as I tried to remember their names . . . Bron and Hart.
“Congratulations on the wedding,” Bron said after he and Hart had re-introduced themselves. “A fitting end, eh?”
A fitting end would have been me in a grave, burning in hell.
I swallowed and ran through the mental exercises my therapist had given me for when such thoughts plagued me, but they were as effective as whispers on the wind.
“God blesses His children,” Ianthe cooed.
Hart nodded eagerly and Bron smiled tightly. Not everyone was fond of Ianthe’s brand of bubbly, devout Christianity. Soldiers who had seen war, especially, had less patience for it. I certainly did. The God Ianthe spoke of, if He was truly just, would have no mercy on me. And if He was as good as she said . . .
“I have to say,” Bron said, “the way you rigged that device to go off when she least expected it . . . brilliant. Just brilliant.”
In my mind’s eye I was frantically reaching for the button on Rhysand’s device as Amarantha had crushed my ribs, making me choke on my own blood--
I hadn’t been the one to rig the devices. That had been Rhysand. I’d just been stupid enough to press the button instead of letting Amarantha kill me.
But I had to be pleasant. “Thank you,” I said.
Ianthe gave me a comforting squeeze from where she stood off-camera, and it gave me the wherewithal to paste that bland smile back on my face.
“We missed the outing the other day, so we haven’t had a chance to see your talents up close, but I’d pay for the chance to see you on the range,” Hart said, chattering thoughtlessly.
The idiot. I hadn’t been on a range since it all had happened. I’d had no desire to hold a gun in my hands since everything had happened. Hell, I could barely hold a kitchen knife. And my marksmanship was only passable. I’d always been most successful hunting with a bow, but even that held no appeal for me now. It didn’t matter anyway. Tamlin would never in a thousand years let me on a range with these greenhorns--it had become painfully clear to me in our short conversation that neither of these men had ever seen a battlefield. The most they knew of war was Call of Duty. They’d likely had their rich parents pay to keep from being pressured into service. The Draft hadn’t been enacted, but the pressure for young people to enlist when the war started had been intense.
But I still had to answer them. Swallowing the bile that had risen in my throat, I said, “Perhaps after the wedding.”
“Will you family be at the wedding? I hear you have sisters?”
I rolled my lips together as I thought about Nesta and Elain. “Nesta is running my father’s business and Elain is studying abroad,” I said. “New Zealand,” I added before either could ask. “Sadly they can’t make it into town.”
I hadn’t seen my sisters at all since returning, actually. I’d been too injured for a while, and then after that, I hadn’t had it in me to reach out. And Nesta . . . I knew she would wait for me. She wouldn’t push or press me--and she likely thought the reality show a piece of garbage. Elain had been in college still, and I hadn’t had the heart to call her away from her studies in botany. I didn’t think they’d want anything to do with this broken version of their sister, anyway.
Hart’s eyes fell to my hands, crossed over my chest. “Interesting tattoo. Has Knight contacted you at all?”
I stiffened and instinctively tucked my hand under my arm. “No. Why would he?” How did he know about the tattoo?
“Those vines--they’re his company’s signature motif. Not an official logo, but it’s everywhere on their marketing, their website . . . I’ve been using the stuff for years, so I recognize it.” He glanced sideways at Bron. “Switched back to Apple after he turned out to be a traitor, though.”
“The jury is still out,” I said stiffly, but Hart just shrugged. Inside, I was cursing myself. I’d been too poor to use or even know much about the technology Rhysand’s company made--the tech company he’d purchased right out of college and quickly turned into the world’s biggest communication technology corporation. It hadn’t even occurred to me that other people might recognize the drawing Rhys had made on my skin, or that Rhys would be conceited enough to draw his own company’s motif on me.
“He’d be scared to show his face here anyway, even if he could,” Bron said.
“Then you don’t know Rhysand very well at all.”
Hart and Bron both blinked in surprise, and even I was startled by my own assertiveness, and in Rhysand’s defense, no less. I only hoped the two wouldn’t go spreading it around.
“Well, we’re on the former Secretary’s private security team,” Bron boasted, chest puffing. I was too weary to hide my disbelief. These untested frat boys? “If he tries to get anywhere near here, we’ll stop him.”
“My congregation is prayin’ for the Lord to build a hedge of protection around our hero,” Ianthe chimed in. “The Lord will provide.”
My stomach turned and Bron and Hart both nodded in half-hearted agreement.
“I’m going upstairs,” I said to Ianthe, not bothering to say a polite goodbye to Bron and Hart. “Tell Tamlin I’ll see him in the morning.”
“Just let me know if you need anything, all right, sugar?” Ianthe simpered. I nodded vaguely.
As I left the room, I glanced over to where Tamlin, Lucien, and Tamlin’s father were all entertaining a gaggle of enthusiastic politicians and socialites and friends of Tamlin’s from college. They seemed . . . happy. Tamlin’s laugh chased me down the hall, and when I finally closed myself in my room, I realized that I hadn’t laughed at all in over a year.