When I step off the last step, I can’t help but glance over at the television behind the protective glass to see the view from my bedroom. That boulder in my stomach starts to burn painfully when I picture what Cassia just saw. When I picture what I almost did. When I realize how much of a bastard I really am that I was going to make her watch.
I turn the television off.
“Cassia?” I speak up softly.
She doesn’t respond right away. She lays on her side with her back to me, her body covered only by the thin material of her nightgown. I feel a desperate urge to go over and cover her with the blanket so that she doesn’t get cold. But I don’t. Not yet. I’m unsure if she even wants me there. And I’m unsure why that even matters to me. What she wants. When did what Cassia wants first become my priority? I want to say ‘just moments ago’, but that would be a form of denial and I think I’ve been in denial for far too long. Cassia has been my priority for a very long time, since shortly after I brought her here. And I’m only just now allowing myself to believe it.
“Stay away from me,” I hear her say in a small, wounded voice.
Compelled by her rejection, I move toward her instead of away.
“I didn’t want to hurt you,” I say, stepping up closer to her bed. “I never wanted to—”
Cassia rolls over and springs to her feet so quickly that I barely have time to react.
“I said stay away from me!” she shrieks, tears shooting from her anguished eyes. “I hate you! Bastard, I hate you!” I’m directly in front of her in a flash with her small fists pummeling my chest.
I let her hit me as hard and for as long as she wants, taking blow after stinging blow deservingly. Sobs rattle her entire body, her eyes are clenched shut so tightly that I wonder how tears can continue to seep through her lids at all. She screams at me, so vociferously and strained that I know it must be shredding her throat.
“I’m sorry,” I say softly behind her screams, still trying to understand why I’ve even apologized. And it’s in this moment that I realize the shackle isn’t locked around her ankle.
Confused and panicking a little inside, I want to ask her how she got it unlocked, but I can’t as it isn’t the right time.
Her fists pound my chest some more, until finally I seize her small frame in my arms and crush her against my heart.
My hands are shaking.
Why are my hands shaking?
The backs of my eyes sting and burn. It feels like a fist has collapsed around my heart restricting the blood flow, and that hot boulder in my stomach has grown to encompass all of my chest, robbing me of my breath.
Sobbing into my body, at first Cassia tries to push me away, but I refuse to let her go. I want her here, now more than ever. Because it’s where she belongs. Her fingernails dig into my chest muscles. Her cries break my heart over and over again. But I just hold onto her tighter until she relents and her body collapses into mine.
“I hate you,” she cries, slowly letting go of anger and surrendering only to pain. “I hate you…”
I shut my eyes softly and press my lips into the top of her feather-soft blonde hair.
I know she doesn’t hate me. She loves me. She loves me more than she’s ever loved anyone or anything in her whole life.
How can Fate be so f**king heartless and cruel? Was what Life did to me as a child not enough?
I squeeze her tighter.
“Cassia, I’m sorry.”
“Why didn’t you just put me in the chair?” she cries. “How could you do that to me?” Her fingertips press harder into my bare chest muscles. “Break my body! Break my will, Fredrik! But don’t break my goddamn heart!”
It’s all I can say.
It’s hard to say anything else when you don’t even understand your own feelings, your own reactions. When you’ve come to the realization that there’s more to you than you ever wanted to believe. I feel like I’ve just been introduced to a man who looks exactly like me, yet is so very different on the inside that nothing makes sense anymore. I’m staring into a mirror at my doppelganger and all I want to do is kill him f**king dead so that I can feel normal again. So I can be in control again. So that I can go back to not caring about her again.
It’s so much easier when you don’t care.
“I couldn’t do it,” I whisper into her hair about Gwen.
I feel her tears warm and wet on my chest.
“I wish she was dead,” Cassia says through gritted teeth. “I hope Seraphina is dead by the time you find her.” She pushes away from me and I finally let her go.
Cassia takes several steps backward, her small fists clenched down at her sides, her angelic features twisted angrily, resentfully. I’ve never seen her like this before, so defiled by indignation, and it’s a tragic thing to witness in one so kind and beautiful.
She locks eyes with me and there’s something else in them I’ve never seen before. Fury? Retribution? I can’t be sure. And then just when I intend to explore it further, it disappears from her face and is replaced again by pain and heartbreak.
Cassia falls on her bottom against the soft rug covering the floor. I move immediately to crouch in front of her, balancing myself on the front pads of my feet. She cries into her opened hands and I reach out to pull her into my arms again, but she refuses me, raising her brown eyes to mine full of defeat. Withdrawing my hands, I sit down fully against the rug with my legs splayed and my knees drawn up with my forearms resting atop them.
She says softly, “Why can’t you love me back, Fredrik?” and every word is laced with sadness which breaks my heart into a million tiny shards of glass. “What is wrong with me that you can’t love me back?”
I shake my head rejecting her self-depreciation and reach out to touch the side of her face. “Nothing is wrong with you. You’re perfect in every way, Cassia.” I brush the edge of my thumb against her jawbone. “Don’t let my imperfections as a worthless human being make you feel like less of a person—you’re a better person than I could ever be.”
She stares back at me—her eyes welled up with tears—with enough heartbreak that if she wasn’t so strong inside it would surely kill her.
“I don’t care about your imperfections, Fredrik.” Her hand falls atop mine still resting against the side of her cheek. “I just want to know why you can’t love me.”
My gaze strays.