Sleight of Fantasy – Dima Zales

THE STUPID DOORBELL BLARES. Through my still-closed lids, I see the sun rays peeking into the window. Which means that though I feel like I’ve only just gone to bed, it’s already morning. Whoever is at the door isn’t being as unreasonable as they seem. “Felix!” I shout without opening my eyes. “Can you get the door?” “He left for work,” Fluffster states in my head, and I can almost hear him wanting to add, “Unlike some people.” “How about you?” I pull the bedsheets over my head. “Can you get that?” “Me?” Confusion replaces Fluffster’s attitude. “I can’t open the door with these tiny paws.” We both know his “tiny paws” can turn into gigantic claws that rip and kill, but I don’t argue. Instead, I grudgingly open my eyes and pull the blanket down. Yep, it’s daytime. Grumbling, I get up, put on a bathrobe, step over Fluffster, and trudge to the front door. As I walk, the reason for my grogginess becomes clear. Despite my hopes, my sleep was not dreamless.

I had nightmares about mindcontrolled gangsters trying to kill me. Worse, some dreams featured me and my boss in compromising positions—and I’m not talking about the stocks in our portfolio. “Who is it?” I ask the door hoarsely. “It’s Rose.” The peephole verifies the truth of that statement, so I unlock the door. “What time is it?” I ask, rubbing my eyes. “Oh my.” My elderly neighbor flutters her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. “Did I wake you?” “It’s eight a.m.

,” Fluffster says, presumably in both of our heads. “Sasha’s going to be late for work.” Dang it. With everything that’s happened, I totally forgot to set my alarm. “Nero is going to kill me,” I mutter. “I’m going to be late on my first day back.” “Oh.” Rose looks crestfallen. “I wanted to ask you something…” Adrenaline attacks my drowsiness. “What’s up? Did something happen?” “No, nothing like that.

” She looks guiltily at me, then at Fluffster. “How about you stop by my apartment before you leave for work, and I’ll feed you breakfast?” she suggests. “You need proper nourishment.” I bite my lip, cognizant of the time. “I know there’s no such thing as a free breakfast.” “You make me sound so Machiavellian.” She chuckles. “I just wanted to ask for an itsy-bitsy favor.” “Fine. Give me a minute.

” I do have to eat. She shuffles away, and I close the door. “What do you think that’s about?” Fluffster asks me as I head to the bathroom to get ready. “I have no idea,” I tell him. “Whatever it is, I hope it’s quick.” Closing the door before Fluffster can get in, I take care of all my washroom business, finishing with a splash of ice-cold water on my face. I’m awake now, but deeply disappointed. I hoped that a good night’s sleep might clarify last night’s events, but here I am, in the morning, and nothing makes any sense still, particularly that kiss… “So, what happened after you left?” Fluffster asks as I make my way to my room. “Didn’t Felix tell you?” I begin to get ready. “He did.

But he also said you hung up on him, so I was wondering if—” “Not much happened after I hung up,” I lie. “I got out of there and came home.” The chinchilla tilts his head in an oddly human gesture. “Well… I’m here if you want to talk about it.” Did Fluffster’s mental message sound extra sage in my mind, or is it my imagination? “Thank you,” I mumble. Of course, I’m not planning to discuss the kiss with Nero with my fluffy domovoi. Or Felix. Or anyone, really. I guess I could see myself talking to Ariel about it if she really pried, but she’s in rehab for her vampire-blood addiction and won’t be talking to me anytime soon. I sigh.

I already miss Ariel, and I’m still really worried about her, even if she’s finally getting the help she needs. The guilt, though, is the worst. It’s lurking just under the surface of my mind, ready to suffocate me—the way Ariel nearly choked me while under Baba Yaga’s control. Shaking my head, I glance at myself in the mirror and frown. It figures. Working purely on autopilot, I’d put on my leather pants, black bracelets, the black vinyl vest, and the rest of my restaurant getup. Well, so what? When Nero so brutally negotiated my comeback, he didn’t stop to discuss the dress code—so I can wear whatever I want, even if I look like I’m headed for the nearest goth club rather than a hedge fund. Hurrying out of the room, I stop by the door to put on my steel-toed boots and then make my way to Rose’s apartment. She opens the door before I ring her doorbell and rewards me with a wide grin. “Come in,” she says, leading me into the kitchen.

My stomach rumbles as I inhale the aroma of freshly baked muffins and jasmine tea. “Sit. Eat,” Rose says, pointing at the head of the table—where she set up my breakfast. “I only have time for a quick bite.” I look at her wall clock and cringe. “Nero doesn’t like tardiness.” “I’m sure he’d rather face you when you have eaten,” Rose says, a smile touching the corners of her eyes. “Otherwise, he’s the one you might bite.” I fight a flush. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to imply there.

” I blow on my tea as casually as I can. “Okay, tell me then,” Rose says. “What happened after Vlad took you to the facility in Gomorrah?” So I do. I tell her about my spying on Nero, and how it revealed an ancient Russian contract between my boss and the man who turned out to be my biological father: Grigori Rasputin. As Rose’s eyes widen, I go into how Nero fulfilled his side of that bargain—by keeping tabs on me my whole life and interfering whenever he saw fit. I stop just short of telling her about the kiss, but the way she moves her eyebrows during the part where he caught me with the folder in my hands makes me wonder if she guessed it anyway. “So your birthday isn’t in the summer?” she asks when I stop talking. I nearly choke on my tea. “That is your reaction to everything I told you? Not that I’m over a hundred years old, sort of? Or that Nero did what he did? Of all the million things, you’re worried about my birthday?” “I need to know when to get you your gift,” Rose says, her eyes twinkling. “Gifts are important.

” “I’ll still celebrate my summer birthday,” I say, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. “It marks the day when my adoptive parents found me at the airport, and I don’t see any reason not to celebrate it as I’ve always done.” “Great,” Rose says. “I have that in my calendar.” I bite my delicious blueberry muffin and sip the tea. She just sits there, watching me. “You’re not outraged at Nero’s behavior? You don’t think it was a big deal that he—” “Nero’s bad behavior is the reason you are alive—Vlad too,” she says, her tone now somber. “Unlike you, I make it a habit not to look a gift horse in the mouth.” “Well, you’re welcome to this horse,” I grumble and hurry to finish my muffin so I can skulk away. Rose clearly doesn’t understand the perversity of the situation.

“I have my own wonderful horse that I can ride, thank you very much,” Rose deadpans. “And besides, I don’t think you mean it. I doubt you’d want another woman to mount that—” “I’m late.” Face burning, I jump to my feet. “What was that itsy-bitsy favor you wanted?” “Wait. Please don’t run away like that.” Chastised, I sit back down, mentally blaming my rudeness on Nero. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” Rose says when I pick up my tea cup again. “It’s just that I saw the way Nero looked at you when Isis put you in that healing sleep yesterday.” “Sure.

Like Scrooge McDuck at his gold-filled swimming pool.” “The way you talk about him betrays you, you know. You want him, but you think it’s inappropriate, so you’re unwilling to give it a chance.” I catch myself squeezing the cup so hard it’s a wonder it doesn’t shatter. “You only have one thing correct. That atrocious scenario would be inappropriate.” “Oh child.” Rose’s blue eyes take on a distant look. “I understand your situation far better than you think.” “You do?” “Of course.

” Rose stares at the tablecloth as though determining the thread count. “I, too, find myself in a relationship that is the very definition of inappropriate, and when it started, I was in denial, like you, and likely for the same reasons.” I feel a strong urge to shout that Nero and I are not in any kind of relationship. I also want to storm out of the room and slam the door behind me, teenager style. I don’t let myself do any of that, though. Rose is finally delving into the mysterious waters that are her relationship with Vlad, and I’m too curious to stop her. Staying silent, I raise my eyebrows slightly. It may have come off looking like a nervous tic. “My beloved’s lifespan is theoretically limitless,” Rose says quietly. “Meanwhile, I have only a few decades of life left.

” I hold my breath, worried that even an exhalation might spook her. “We could never have children—and I wanted a daughter so desperately…” She keeps staring at the table as though it were a movie screen replaying her long life. “His blood has the same effect on me as Gaius’s blood has on Ariel,” she says in an even softer tone. “We always have to be extremely careful.” Unable to hold my breath any longer, I let it out. Either that barely audible sound or some memory seems to bring Rose out of her strange reverie. Looking up, she catches my gaze and her lips twist. “I guess that’s a long way of saying that no matter the circumstances, it’s always worth it to have love in your life.” “I’m not going to argue with that,” I say. “I’d consider myself lucky if I found someone who’d mean as much to me as Vlad clearly means to you.

Big emphasis on if.” She smiles, then sheepishly glances at the clock. “I’m going to make you late. Do you want me to wrap you a muffin to eat on the way to the office?” “Sure,” I say. “That would be great.” I finish my tea as she gets up, slowly walks up to the oven, and gets a muffin out. “So, about that favor,” she says as she wraps my treat. “Vlad wants to take me on a little vacation again…” “That’s great.” I stand up. “You two should enjoy yourselves.

” “Right,” she says. “Here’s the thing.” She hands me the brown bag without meeting my gaze. “Luci finds our vacations stressful. And she felt so comfortable in your house yesterday. I was hoping—” “You want me to babysit your hell spawn?” “She’s in her carrier already,” Rose says defensively. “And she’s been washed.” I take in a deep breath. Rose deserves a vacay. Vlad too.

After the way he risked his life for us yesterday, I should be willing to even bathe the cat for him. Without any protective gear. “Where is she?” I ask, resigned. Rose leads me into the living room and picks up the carrier. Lucifur is sleeping inside, looking like a feline angel. Rose either drugged the beast, or Vlad used his glamour on her—if it works on cats or demons, that is. Not wanting to lose a limb, I carefully pick up the crate and bring it to my apartment. Rose comes along. “Do not kill the cat,” I tell Fluffster when he stares at the cage with a dumbfounded expression. “Another mouth to feed?” The chinchilla looks at Rose indignantly.

“I’ll bring her food and toys over,” Rose tells him. “Sasha, you should run. Nero awaits.” She winks. “Thanks,” I say, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes. “You enjoy your vacation.” “Will do,” Rose replies and goes back to her place to get cat accoutrements. The elevator is still broken, courtesy of my driving into it, so I take the stairs. When I get into the cab, I take out my muffin and start chewing it.

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