A Duality Missed in the Darkness

A limousine will pick you up at your house in Queens at 10PM. Be ready.”

I read the message on my cellphone one more time and sighed in dejection yet again. How much I’d tried to dodge this. How much I’d tried to convince her to let me off the hook, just this time. But no, she wouldn’t have any of it.

Instead of spending the holidays with me, you chose to do it with your family, said Ellizabeth that Christmas morning when she called to give her season’s greetings, her pitch low and mumbling, her tone jealous. So we will spend New Year’s together, whether you like it or not, she concluded adamantly

It’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with my girlfriend, mind you. The exact opposite, actually. There’s nothing I like more than spending time with my Lizzy, apart from maybe playing the piano. What I do mind, and a lot, though, is spending any significant amount of time with her family.

They were filthy rich, smug elites and had some old ties to some European aristocracy I never bothered remembering. That already gave me reason enough to despise them. The fact that her mother knew about our relationship and strongly disapproved of it, while the rest of the family treated me with pompous contempt didn’t help either. And now I had to spend the last hours of the year and first of the next with them. Goddamn it.

I felt my temper flare. Had I been the me from last year, lashing out at everything, not caring for the consequences, I might’ve kicked my home’s front door open to vent my frustration. But I’m not like that anymore. At least not most of the time. Ellizabeth did a great job of weeding that out of me, teaching me restraint.

You are a sophomore now. You cannot continue to behave self-destructively like you’ve done up to this point. From now on, there may be people that will look for someone such as yourself for an example to follow. To them, you have to present your most admirable aspects, not your most deplorable parts.

That was what she said after this school year’s opening ceremony. I tried to argue that no one in the elite school we went to, owned and ran by her family, her uncle being the dean himself, would ever look at me and do anything other than sneer at me for being “unsightly” or be jealous for daring to date someone they considered out my league.

She answered by pinching my cheeks. She continued to say that the reaction from them was earned, in no small part, due to my bad temper, and that it was up to me now to show the freshmen who I really was.

How would I even do that? I had asked, half-joking

Just show them the same Isaac Amadeus Beethoven Smith you showed me when you courted me and, inevitably, won me over. That will more than suffice she had said, slow and certain, and with a tone full of the absolute confidence I had grown used to, while giving me a small smile and just a light blush.

My face was lit on fire, forcing me look away in embarrassment, which made Lizzy giggle. She had masterfully shut off any and all ways I could’ve dismiss her words. As usual.

I admitted defeat to her reasoning, and the consequences it entailed. She really did have me wrapped around her little finger. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened. I
 sighed again, more out of content surrender than anything. Not like I dislike that part of her anyway.

Speaking of “consequences,” the worst one I ever had to endure was probably my outfit that night. She had picked the clothes I would wear on tonight’s party: a tight pair of black dress pants, a light-gray button-up dress shirt matched with a white tie with silvery pinstripes, a black, tight vest and black dress shoes.

They were from brands I’d never heard of, but going by the price tags they had when Lizzy took me to buy them, they were likely top of the top-of-the-line stuff. Of course, she had paid for them. No chance in hell I would’ve actually spent money on any of that pretentious shit. She said she had never thought about making me pay, so she paid for it herself. She seemed intent on not showing any mercy.

So be it.

I had a last look at myself in the mirror that hanged from the entrance wall. My mother said I looked more handsome now than she had ever seen me and teased me again about bring my girlfriend to meet them, before leaving with dad to some party. Honestly, I thought I looked like an idiot.

I put on a trench coat, turned off my house’s light, locking the door behind me, as I got out to the busy streets filled with people, the cold, night air hitting me. It might even had snowed later that night. When I turned again, I saw the black limo that was sent to pick me up, and by it, on the sidewalk, my girlfriend. My wristwatch said it was 9:50PM. She smiled and beckoned me.

***

As soon as I sat down, the driver took off. The streets were really jam-packed with people, but there weren’t too many cars. Seems like most people decided to take the subway to watch the fireworks.

“Isaac,” said Lizzy, with a melodious tone and just enough volume to get me going, as she placed a hand on my thigh, pulling my mind from the outside straight back to the inside of the limo. I still didn’t look at her though. I didn’t trust my eyes. “What is the matter?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Then why haven’t you looked at me ever since you got in?” she asked, sounding sad. “Does how I look displeases you?”

Not in the slightest, and that’s the thing.

She was teasing me, I knew that. As good at playing others as she was, she couldn’t fool me, not anymore. Her fake disappointment could’ve fooled others, but my ears didn’t lie. Underneath it, I could still hear her that slight uptick in pitch every time she finished talking, mocking me.

Against my better judgment, I looked, and my cheeks started burning as my eyes roamed her figure. She was wearing a sleeveless, white top made from a shiny cloth that left her pale shoulders bare, and hugging her bosom nicely. Said top was tucked inside an grey-ish skirt that went to just below her knees. It wasn’t particularly tight-fitting, but it still highlighted her wide hips. When I looked at her face again, her hair was completely loose, unlike the usual ponytail she had, and even I could’ve told a lot of work went into it.

“I’m glad you liked it,” she said, smiling. She sounded proud.

“You do look beautiful,” I replied with a smile.

“You too look really handsome,” she said, scooching over to me, hugging my arm and resting her head on the crook of my neck. “Really handsome”

God, she was so close. I could smell her shampoo and her perfume, both very sweet and enticing. More enticing, however, was how my arm was hugged between her breasts. That made my heart jump inside my chest.

“I wish we could’ve spent more time like this,” she said, releasing my arm but still sitting closely. There was a very small change in pitch.

“Didn’t you tell me the party was at the Upper East? We still have a while until we get there,” I said, folding one of my legs over the other.

She sighed, moving away, and looked straight at me. For a moment, she was in complete silence and just stared with her emerald eyes. She then looked down at her lap where she had folded her hands.

“It’s not about that,” she said. Her tone had completely changed. What was a sweet and melodious chirping up until that point became a harsh and cold whisper.

I’d heard this tone before. It isn’t one that she uses often. It’s only when she’s on the border of hopelessness that Ellizabeth starts sounding like this.

It was like a bucket of ice was poured over me, killing all the heat I was feeling.

I uncrossed my legs and placed a hand on her shoulder, giving her a reassuring squeeze.

“What’s wrong Lizzy?” I asked, concerned.

“How do you know there is anything wrong?” she said, still without looking at me.

“I love you,” I said nonchalantly. Even though I probably blushed, my voice didn’t falter. There was definitely something bothering her, which meant I needed to be firm when speaking to her. “So I know when there’s something troubling you. So, fess up.”

Her eyes widened for a second. Then she started breathing in then out, slowly and evenly, and then looked at me, completely silent. I’m not that good at reading people’s expressions, but I couldn’t think of anything other than “hurt” when I saw her face.

“Something bad happened,” she said, looking away.

“That much is obvious. Question is, what?”

She gave a long sigh. When she looked at me again, her face had regained some of its lost sharpness.

“I found out that my mother intends to reveal my fiancée at tonight’s party,” she said plainly.

For a long second, I was silent, in complete and utter shock. I knew she wasn’t joking. Ellizabeth was never one to enjoy pranks, even in a good mood. I wanted to believe it was it, but the signs weren’t there. I felt as if all my blood was being drained.

I swallowed hard before speaking, thinking about what I should say.

“You never told me you had a fiancée” I said, softly joking. It was the best I could come up with then.

“No one informed me either,” she said, shaking her head. “I imagined I would be betrothed someday, but I thought I would at least get a prior notice of it.”

How matter-of-factly she sounded as she talked was stunning to me. It sounded like this was something she had already been expecting.

A fiancée? Without even talking to her about it? Is she fucking serious? Does her family despise me that much?

I felt anger boil inside me.

“Zack…”

The fact that her family would interfere with Lizzy’s freedom in such a way made that anger flare, building a familiar pressure behind my eye.

“Zack.”

I closed my hands into fists, my nails digging at my palms, as if I was getting ready to fight.

“Isaac!” Ellizabeth shouted right into my ear, instantly making them ring, thanks to my sensitive hearing. “You’re hurting me.”

“Sorry,” I said, retracting the hand that was squeezing her shoulder. It left her pale skin reddish.

“It’s fine,” she said, rubbing where my fingers had squeezed her. “I know you are angry. I am as well, but venting your anger won’t solve anything.”

She sounded worried and annoyed. She was right to be, too, and after hurting her, I had no right to argue back. So, I restrained my anger. It didn’t feel good, but I didn’t get to choose.

“Can’t you just refuse it on the spot?” I offered, half-knowing the answer.

“We have already talked about this,” she said, sighing. “I will not choose between you and my family. You two will learn to be at peace, one way or another.”

“That bitch of a mother you have sure doesn’t make it easy for us, though,” I said, letting an insult slip. I didn’t have the time to regret it.

Faster than a snake, she grabbed my cheek.

“What have I told you about insulting my mother?” she said, her tone ice-cold, while twisting my cheek painfully. This wasn’t her playful pinching. She was actually angry.

“Sorry,” I said, and she let me go. “But it’s true, isn’t it? She never tried to know me better. She hates me without knowing a thing about me.”

“Nor did you,” she shot back. “You’re much the same, content on hating her, just as ignorantly,” Lizzy said with a scowl. “Or are you disputing that her hatred isn’t justified?”

To that, I looked outside the window, feeling a pang on my heart. Those words hurt me more than I cared to show her right now. It was the same feeling of when someone pokes a barely closed wound.

“No, I don’t deny her right to hate me,” I admitted. Not like I could anyway, You hurt someone’s loved one, it’s only fair for them to hate you. “Do you have any other ideas, though?” I asked, looking back at her. “You wouldn’t be this hopeless if you had any plan going forward”

She flinched at my words. I knew I was right and knew that laying it out like this would hurt her, but this wasn’t a situation where I should be mincing words. We should be thinking of a way to stop this. We… now, wait a second.

“That’s why you were so determined about me coming,” I said, shooting her an accusing glare.

“Quite so,” she said, sounding apologetic. “If I wasn’t in such a dire situation, I would’ve never asked this of you. Probably.”

“So, what do you have in mind?” I asked. Now that I knew I was involved in this from the beginning, I wanted to know if she’d thought of anything.

“The only thing I currently can think of is to find a way to trick mother into coming to talk to us, where we can convince her otherwise.”

“Do you really think she will be open to it? At all?”

“That’s the purpose of this discussion. To find a manner to make her so. Moreover, you two talking eye-to-eye is something long overdue.”

There was an obviously implied “but” in there. So I asked.

“But I have no idea how to do it,” she said gloomily. She both sounded and looked as if she was ready to cry.

To be honest, it didn’t surprise me by now how much of a defeatist Ellizabeth was. She was raised to expect things to always go her way or to always do exactly what’s expected of her. It wasn’t in her to be defiant of others. That was my job.

I extended my arm around her, putting my hand on her shoulder opposite from me and hugged her tightly. She answered by resting her head on my shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure we will manage somehow,” I said, projecting as much determination in my voice as I could, trying to comfort her.

“How can you be so certain?” she said, still uncertain.

“We’ve had to go against them before and always managed. No reason this time has to be different.”

To be honest, I wasn’t nearly as sure as I sounded, but she needed me to sound confident. I just hoped I could back it up eventually.

***

After that, the rest of the way there was mostly quiet.

We arrived at a tall hotel, as the driver pulled over. We hoped off, Ellizabeth guiding me through the lobby, keeping a good distance between us, even as we took the elevator up. It was an unspoken understanding of the appearance we had to keep. While her family knew about us, since they didn’t approve of us, for the sake of creating a middle ground, even if shaky, we couldn’t public show our affection. So, I was to play the part of a guest of hers, a friend from school. It had to be done, but I still hated it.

The whole place screamed of wealth, by the way. Chandeliers, white walls and gold leafs included. As we left the elevator, I saw two big doors to my front and one to each of my side, with employees coming and going from them, carrying dark glassed bottles of what I assumed were champagne, going by the shape.

“Good evening,” an old employee said “Your names if you please?”

“Ellizabeth Lacroix Knight and my friend, Isaac Amadeus Beethoven Smith,” said Lizzy.

Immediately, I heard five, very faint snickers. I’m sure Ellizabeth couldn’t hear it, so short and low they were. I was used to this by now and since they were mostly polite about it, I chose to not tell her instead of her making a scene.

“Welcome to the party,” the old employee said after checking our names on the list, opening the door behind him for us as other employees took my coat.

Inside, there was a gathering of about fifty people, mostly middle-aged but some around mine and others much older. They were all dressed in expensive dresses and outfits, not unlike the ones me and Ellizabeth were.

She introduced as we passed by, most of them snickering at the mention of my name , but they still didn’t treat me like I was an outsider. Guess these clothes were good for something at least. After that, Ellizabeth introduced me to a group of people around my age, said she had to talk to her family now, and told me to “mingle”. Whatever the fuck that meant.

They teased me about my name and asked if it was just for show. I told them that, no, I was a piano player, like my namesakes would imply and showed them on my phone a duet I played last semester, Lizzy accompanying me on the flute. They looked impressed, though I didn’t know why. It wasn’t even that great of a piece or performance. She wasn’t in one of her best forms that day.

A waiter then approached us with a tray full of crystal cups and a bottle. He asked if we accepted a glass.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Wine” he answered, pulling a dark colored bottle from the bucket.

“Isn’t that a champagne bottle?” I asked.

The group I was with giggled as if I said something silly and accepted it. I politely refused, but found interesting, other than a group of minors freely drinking, that a bottle shaped like a champagne’s one would actually be of wine. Ellizabeth had been teaching some of this aristocratic bullshit, about brands of drinks, history, yada yada. I only paid enough attention to not get yelled at, but I’m pretty sure she never said anything about this.

Now that they mentioned, it does seem that everyone that is having wine are having it poured from bottles that look like this. And they all seem to be from the brand too. How interesting.

Speaking of the devil, Ellizabeth pranced her way to me. She grabbed me by my arm, said some departing words to the people whose names I didn’t bother learning and nonchalantly pulled me away from them.

“What is it?” I asked, while being pulled, trying not to trip and fall.

“I found something!” she said, sounding a lot more cheerful than when we arrived.

“ ‘Something’ what?” I asked, as she pulled me to a more quiet part of the party hall, where there weren’t a lot of people.

“Something to give us the leverage over mother!” she said, pushing me a little against a wall and cupping my cheeks.

***

“So, what did you find?” I asked, gingerly rubbing my arm where she pulled me.

“The vintage champagne that was reserved for the toast has disappeared” she said, brimming with excitement.

“So?” I asked, in a flat tone.

My dullness was such a contrast to her enthusiasm, I could’ve sworn I saw her eyebrows twitch in annoyance.

“You don’t get what this means?” she asked in obvious frustration.

“No, not really.”

Half-a-beat later, she was pinching my cheeks and pulling them apart.

“Ouch!”

“Fool!” she shrieked in an exasperated whisper “Don’t you remember!? In every New Year’s Party, mother opens a vintage wine or champagne after midnight that only the family can drink!

“This year’s champagne was all the more special. Its loss must have hurt mother’s pride.”

To be honest, I didn’t remember, but nodded nonetheless, now understanding where she was getting what.

“I see. And I suppose your idea is for me to find it before then, right?”

“Quite right. You may not think so, but you are a very talented investigator.”

So she said. To me, the other times I played detective for her sake or enjoyment, it was nothing but luck that let me “solve” the situation I was forced into. As far as I knew, my only talent was playing piano. It was annoying but I didn’t have much of a choice here.

“So, do you have any ideas?” she said, her pitch just a little sharper than usual.

True to form, she was enjoying this. She always got excited in these situations. I swear, no matter what, a good mystery could make her take delight in the worst of situations.

“Why do you seem to be enjoying this? We are in big trouble here, you know?” I said, pinching her cheeks this time

“Sowwy,” she apologized in a rather sweet tone.

I sighed and released her cheeks. I never could stay mad for too long with this girl.

“I’m not a psychic. I need clues, facts, something to start,” I said, looking at my wristwatch “And it’s already 11PM!”

“What do you suggest then?”

I scratched my chin. A bottle of champagne goes missing inside of… what exactly?

“Does this building even have a cellar?” I asked

“Of course,” she said, cocking her head

Could someone have stolen it? Unlikely but can’t rule that out. Could it have been lost? Hmm. There seem to be a lot of drink going around. I wonder how they are stored.

“Can we get in there?”

“I… think so. What do you hope to find in there?”

“Anything,” I said with a shrug. She looked confused but led the way.

The employees that welcomed us didn’t seem to mind when she said she wanted to look at the cellar full of expensive drinks. Perks of being as filthy rich, I guess.

The cellar was really dark, by the way. There was only faint, indirect lights to keep us from tripping on the racks full of bottles

“Goddamn, why is it so dark in here!?”

“To conservate the champagne” replied Lizzy “I’ve told you this already. In fact, it’s a little too warm for preservation. It should be chillier.”

“I apologize, m’lady” said Gary, the employee that was accompanying us. If it was less dark, I’m sure I would’ve seen Ellizabeth’s annoyed pout.

“How do you guys even read the labels to find what you want, then?”

“We actually don’t read the labels,” Gary explained. “The cellar is organized, from back-to-front, by year in ascending order, then by brand, and then by series, both in alphabetical order.”

“I see. What year is the missing champagne again?” I asked, pulling my phone, turning the flashlight on.

“Eighteen ninety-four,” said Ellizabeth matter-of-factly

I whistled in amazement, immediately moving to the back of the room, looking for the oldest champagne. It was like going back on history through alcohol labels. Very surreal. Sadly, the trip ended at 1903. I looked again, but there was no bottle older than that.

The shelves at the back also seemed completely filled, with no room available. From the looks of it, the bottle was never meant to be stored here. One odd thing I noticed is that there was no wine in sight. They must’ve been in another cellar.

“Yeah, no sign of it here. But it doesn’t look like it would be possible regardless, so packed these racks are.”

“Indeed. In the event we receive a special champagne or a guest brings some they would like to store, they kept at the private cabinet. Here.”

Saying that, Gary took us to a brushed steel cabinet. Inside, there was a rack for twelve bottles, all empty.

“As you can see, it’s all empty. We’ve already looked in here and couldn’t find it either.”

So, he figured out what we were after?

I approached it and gave it a closer look. I swiped the rack with my index. It was coated with a few-days-old sheet of dust on it. It was clear that this cabinet hadn’t been used today at all. A dead-end, huh?

“Right. Sorry for bothering you during your work,” I apologized while leaving. Lizzy did the same and followed.

After coming out of the cellar, my eyes hurt for a bit. I went to a window near the cellar, propping my elbows on the windowsill after opening it. It was a clear, chilly night. I could see everything to the other side of Central Park.

I breathed the night air in very long, very even breaths, mulling. I was faintly aware of Ellizabeth’s presence to my side, but she didn’t say anything.

A missing bottle of rare champagne, a cellar that clearly has not stored it, professional employees that wouldn’t steal it, rich guests that have no reason to steal it. It was like I was trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with no reference, just a vague idea of what the finished thing would look like. The image I tried to build in my mind was surrounded in fog, the only clear parts being the pieces that didn’t fit and the borders that didn’t reveal anything of value.

It was as if I didn’t even knew what I was looking for. As if something essential was missing.

“Imbecile!” shouted the older employee, snapping me from my reverie. “This isn’t a bottle of wine! This is champagne! How could you mistake something so basic!”

When I turned to look, some employee near my age was being scolded. The elder one was holding a long-necked glass bottle. Indeed, I made the same mistake in that assumption.

Basic, huh?

“ ‘When you find yourself at a corner with no way forward…” I began.

“ ‘…go back to the basics and reassess’,” Lizzy concluded. “Words of Maestro Moeller.”

“Wise words,” I stressed. “Describe the missing champagne to me”

She gesticulated with her hands, showing the size of the bottle. Told its age, the amount of champagne it contained and, the most interesting, its brand. It was then that it all clicked on my mind and all of the fogginess vanished.

“Say, Lizzy,” I started, patting the dust from my elbows. “Knowing you, you helped in planning this party, right?”

“Of course,” she replied, cocking her head.

“All of the wines in here were supplied by the same brand?”

“That’s correct. We worked an agreement with them in exchange for a reduction in the price. Is that relevant?”

“It is, since it’s the same brand of the champagne.”

“What are you implying?”

“And don’t these wine bottles look a lot like champagne ones?” I asked again, ignoring her question, goading her on.

She was about to say something that would probably have been an “yes”, then seemed to think better of it. She plucked her chin, her eyes darting side to side. Then, she looked up at me with with wide eyes and an open mouth.

“You got it,” I said, patting her head.

“Amazing as always, Isaac” she said, practically leaping onto me to give me a hug. She smelled really nice. Not just her perfume and shampoo. She had a scent to her that I couldn’t get enough of. Still, my answer to her hug was slow and rather weak. The giggling I heard from my back also made my cheeks feel hot.

“Are you sure we should be hugging? What about hiding our true colors?”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ve already won. Now we just need to rub it in mother’s face.”

Lizzy must have been really relieved, to be talking like this. Can’t say I blame her, though.

“Come on. Let’s go get the champagne now. I can’t wait to see her face,” she said, pulling me by the hand. Her voice almost sounded like a small kid that was getting to prove her parents wrong for the first time. It probably was, actually.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the prospect of rubbing a failure of her mother in Lizzy’s family’s face, but doing it like this, right now, seemed too anticlimactic. This needs to be more drawn-out. More theatrical, and of course, more public.

I stopped letting her drag me and pulled her closer

“What is it?” she asked

“I have an idea” I said to her

“That is never good,” she said, her brow furrowed.

I then explained what I had in mind.

***

Absolutely not! said Ellizabeth when I suggested gloating we had found it to her mother publicly.

Firstly, I will never allow you to publicly humiliate my family any more than I would let them do the same to you;

Secondly, even if we did that, being the way mother is, it would only drive her into a corner. She would have no choice to save face other than go through with the announcement, which would’ve made all of your work pointless;

Remember what I told on the way here. The only way to not lose today is by using our heads, not your fists. Pay attention now. This is what you have to keep in mind when playing with mother.

So there I was, thirty-to-midnight, on the second floor of the party room, which was more of a balcony really, with a bucket of ice on my hand, the missing champagne in it. Below, I could see the other guests partying and chatting, although they probably couldn’t see me. This second floor, by Lizzy’s doing, was really dark, with just some dim indirect lighting, which was good. Both for the privacy it gave as well as for the show that was about to happen.

The muffled sound of conversation together with the clicking of heels on the marble floor pulled my attention back to the door behind me, my muscles tensing.

“How did you find the champagne anyway?” asked Amelie beyond the doors “And what’s the purpose of this theatrical act? This is very unusual of you.”

“Just go in, mother,” said Ellizabeth turning the door knob. “I’m certain you won’t come to regret it.”

When the door opened all the way and Amelie looked inside, her gaze instantly was on me. I swear, her bright green eyes actually felt like they were poking holes on my skin.

“I regret it already,” I heard her whispering to her daughter. Said daughter closed the door behind her mother, leaving both of us alone.

“Good evening, Mrs. Lacroix. You’re lovely tonight,” I greeted.

I took my girlfriend’s advice to heart. If I couldn’t win by being my usual aggressive self, I would give my damn best to sound respectful.

It I wasn’t lying, anyway. It annoyed me to no end, and you would never catch me admiting it, but Amelie was gorgeous. Looking at her was like looking at an older Ellizabeth. Her figure had a fuller hourglass-shape than Lizzy, a one-piece, long, white dress snugging tightly both her bigger bosom and wider hips. The only difference was the blond hair, Amelie’s being a golden shade.

She didn’t answer at first, approaching me with silent, graceful steps in a rhythm that attracted my eyes to places I didn’t want them to go. The closer she came, the harder my heart beat. I was out of my game, going against one of best, who knew how to use her beauty to the fullest, while the only weapon I had against it taken away from me. It was nerve-wracking.

She then stopped and looked at me from head to toe. Then her eyes fixated on the bucket on my hand. She then looked back at my eyes.

“Good evening, Isaac. You too look very handsome tonight,” she said, her tones seemingly sincere, but with just the right pitch and speed changes and variation in dynamics to clearly tell that it was completely calculated. Alarm sounds went off inside of my head, as her eyes scanned me. “At least you were smart enough to listen to my daughter’s on this matter.”

The corner of my eye twitched.

You berate, you lose, therefore resist the urge to lash out. The absolute advantage is hers, but that doesn’t mean she will be always in control. We have something she wants, so endure it.

Calm down, Isaac. You knew from the get-go you’d be treated like this. Focus on what matters.

“I agree. Lizzy does have a great taste,” I lied, trying to use humor to lighten the air.

“And a deep purse, I assume, because I very much doubt you paid for any of this clothing. Don’t you feel bad about exploiting ‘Lizzy’ like this?” she said, giving an ironic tone when she spoke her daughter’s nickname.

Of course, she wouldn’t make it easy for me. She had the advantage here, and looked obvious she would use it to its full extent. It was getting a lot harder to behave against her passive-aggressiveness.

“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” she said, changing the pace of the conversation, and pointed to the bucket I was holding. “Is the champagne inside it?”

“Yes,” I nodded. I opened the bucket’s lid and pulled the bottle from the inside. Placing the bucket on the floor, I offered it to Amelie “Here you go.”

She took it, pulling away from me slowly. She then examined the bottle, looking at it from below, read the label, narrowing her eyes, then shook it just a bit. Amelie then gave it back, and I put it back into the bucket.

“Verily, that’s the missing bottle,” she admitted, giving a long sigh. She then looked away from me “Where it was and how did you find it?”

Mother is someone as curious as I am. When you reveal to her the champagne, she won’t be able to help herself. She will want to know everything. Use that. I smiled on the inside. The ball was now on my court. How should I go about this?

Don’t mistake courtesy with passivity. Stalling will fan her curiosity more, but be mindful. While her interest will be piqued, her patience for you, short from its inception, will quickly be drained.

“It’s something so simple, it’s laughable,” I started, cracking what I hoped looked like an easy-going smile. Amelie’s face remained unchanged aside from an upturned eyebrow. I gave a cough.

“The answer lies on the bottle itself,” I restarted, pulling it the bottle and showing it to her “A Opacité 1896, bottle of champagne. Doesn’t any of that seems weird to you?”

She kept silent, but shook her head to answer me. I then started hearing a soft tapping sound.

“Isn’t this brand usually known for wines? Actually, I only discovered they made champagnes as well today,” I offered, giving my best at sounding trustworthy. The tapping stopped.

“Indeed, but everyone knows that they released no wine that year, due to bad crops,” she answered like I hoped she would.

“Not everyone, apparently, since this was stored on the wine cellar,” Her eyes widened and I heard her breathing pace pick up.

“But even if someone didn’t knew about this historic factoid, which is something atypical from the professional staff this hotel has, it’s only natural to read the label when you receive something. Are you saying they didn’t read it?”

I was stunned at how fast she recovered. My concerns about her was on point, it seemed, but goddamn it if it wasn’t frustrating.

“No,” I conceded with a sigh. “What I’m saying, though, is that whoever stored this couldn’t read the label.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, cocking her head.

“Tell me honestly, could you read anything other than ‘Opacité’ on the label?”

“No,” she said after a second of delay. “No, I couldn’t.”

“You could only tell what was written besides it because you’d seen it before, right?”

“Correct. It’s too dark here to discern much,” she said and I nodded.

“Right now, this has the same lighting as the cellar.”

“Is that so?” she said, her voice starting to take an excited tone, if the rise of her pitch was any clue.

She had bitten the hook.

“What probably happened was this:

“A staff overwhelmed with the planning for a party of important guests calls in a new guy, or otherwise one that isn’t used to this kind of fancy stuff, to help out;

“While busy in whichever cellar, he’s handed this bottle and a seemingly simple task of storing it;

“They don’t tell him that it’s champagne, only that is expensive and should be treated like such. They assumed he knew what it was;

“In a dark room with poor light, the new guy looks at a long-necked bottle with ‘Opacité’ on the label. Knowing that only that brand is supplying the wines for the party, he probably thinks ‘Oh. It’s just another bottle of wine.’ He trusts his conclusion, not having a reason to challenge it;

“And that’s how, through nobody’s fault and innocent assumptions, this champagne was ‘lost’,” I concluded, pausing to breath and scratch my cheek. “Like I said. It’s something really simple.”

I returned the bottle to the bucket. I was feeling light-headed, my heart hammering inside my chest and my hands trembled a little. I held onto the railing for support, breathing deeply, trying to calm down. It wasn’t over, not yet.

“My goodness, how thrilling,” she said with a bemused smile and a high-pitched tone. Her eyes were so wide that even the dim lighting reflected from them. She then started pacing from side to side, while pinching her chin, her eyes darting wildly.

She really is just like her daughter.

Once you reveal the mystery, mother will be excited and restless. She will lower her defenses so much, it will be the only moment that you will be able to approach her without hitting a wall.

I felt the adrenaline rush subside, my footing solid again.

I can’t tell you what to say or when you should raise the subject, but I can suggest you how to do it.

I stepped on the way of Amelie’s pacing, seeing her going away, waiting for her return.

I know you will hate it, and given what you went through with me and with our colleagues at the academy, I can understand it, but you know the power that doing it sincerely, has.

Amelie’s turned around, coming my way but only noticed me when she was a foot away from me. She was as tall as I, so when she looked up, we were looking eye-to-eye

“Amelie,” I said, forcing myself to sound firm and sure of myself. I was anything but.

I hate to do this to you, but it is our best chance.

“Yes Isaac?” she asked. Her tone was pleasant, friendly even, her face bright and free of the scowl I had gotten used to.

Humble yourself.

“Could I beg you the favor of not announcing Lizzy’s engagement? I really love her.”

Then, at that moment, Amelie’s face twitched at five or six different places. Her muscles didn’t seem to agree on what expression to show.

“…what do you mean?” she asked with a slurred tone, slowly blinking, her expression stuck into one of glee. Damn, I didn’t know Amelie could sound like this.

“I love your daughter and don’t want her taken away from me,” I answered simply, unable to think of something better.

The twitching then stopped and her expression began to change. So close I was to her, I could perfectly see how her expression went from joy to surprise, then confusion to suspicion and finally to anger.

She stepped away, regarding me through narrowed eyes.

“So that is what this was all about,” she said, her tone ice cold.

“Yes,” I said simply, my nails making my palms sting.

“What if I say no? What will you do then?” she said with a tone of absolute authority.

My heart sunk and my breath was quick and shallow. I’d to fight the urge to curse at her.

“Will you refuse to return my champagne?” she said, approaching me again, staring into my eyes. “Will you use petty thievery and blackmail to fulfill your selfish desire?”

Fuck you, bitch! You don’t know anything about me! Don’t pretend to understand how I feel… was what I wanted to say. I might have, actually, if it wasn’t for Lizzy’s pep talk.

It was a small shock to see her get that surprised, but at the end of the day, she is Amelie Lacroix. You can only catch her off-guard for so long.

I was still angry at her, though. Enough for me to feel the beginning of a migraine on my forehead and pressure building behind my eyes. She was arrogantly assuming I’d behave this or that way without ever trying to know me. Again!

You’re much the same, dear.

Lizzy’s words came to my mind, without warning or invitation. Then something clicked inside me.

I’d earned this. I’d always treated her with scorn and hate. Worse, I’d hurt that which we both loved the most in this world. This was my whirlwind.

Dropping my head and closing my eyes, I slowed my breathing, relaxing. The migraine went away and my fists relaxed into hands again.

When I looked back up again, the scowl that I’d grown so used to, that always seemed so absolute in its hatred, was different, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It didn’t make me feel inclined to go easy on her, though. I still had something to do.

“No,” I said, feeling as confident as my voice sounded for the first time tonight. “I would never shame Ellizabeth like that. The bottle is yours. You can take it and leave if you want.

“I came here to talk, not to fight.”

Amelie’s eyes widened but immediately narrowed again, her lips pursed in a thin line. She looked at different spots on my face, as if searching for something. We were struggling for it but the ball was still in my court.

“I understand your hatred for me,” I said, trying to move away but just bumping into the railing.

She was surprised for a split-second before furrowing her brow.

“Nonsense,” she replied, getting closer, her tone flaring in anger. “How can you claim to understand how I feel about you? How do you have the gall to claim to understand what I feel whenever I see your face?”

Her tone was overflowing with aggression. I knew where this would end up if I pushed it, but I had no choice.

“Because I hate myself just as much. Because I feel just as disgusted when I look at myself in the mirror.”

I heard the slap before I felt it. For a split second, I wondered what the sound was, then my right cheek started burning, pain giving the answer I sought.

“Don’t compare your puny sense of self-loathing to my feelings as a mother,” she answered, two points above a whisper, her tone cold and threatening.

My cheek was burning, the pain making me a bit dizzy as I felt a metallic taste spread on my mouth. I knew this was going to happen. I hoped for it, really. Maybe that was what helped me to restrain my fury without much trouble.

“You assaulted my daughter,” she said matter-of-factly. “Or have you forgotten?”

Her words felt like they were shredding my heart.

It was true. I had assaulted Lizzy, and being reminded of it by her mother hurt a hell of a lot more than a slap from her hand ever would.

“No. I haven’t forgotten,” I said, not looking at her, my face still where her slap had left it.

When I still was a freshman, bullied, angry and feeling out-of-place, long before we were a couple, I backhanded Lizzy’s face for what seemed like contempt. It was something automatic to me, then. You attack who insults you. I expected her to shout, to threaten me, to demand my expulsion. Instead, she apologized.

For an insult that only I saw, she apologized, honestly and humbly, instead of demanding the apology she was owed.

“No, I will never forget the most shameful thing I did my whole life,” I said after looking back at her.

Amelie was silent. She didn’t seem to know how to react to an honest admission. I took it as an incentive.

I swallowed the blood in my mouth, trying to collect my thoughts through the headache her slap was giving me. She must have discharged a lot of pent up anger with it.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said, my voice sounding slurred. “To beg you to not take Ellizabeth away from me, as well to say something long overdue.

“I’m very sorry for hurting your daughter. I regret it from the bottom of my heart.”

Amelie didn’t say a thing. She didn’t need to. The quick breathing I heard told me she was shaken, the pursing of her lips said she was annoyed and her narrow eyes revealed she couldn’t find any lie in what I said, as there wasn’t any.

“You beg something I, as a mother, cannot grant,” she said after a long silence. “You hurt my daughter. My Lizzy.

“How can I be sure you will never do it again?”

Your Lizzy? Isn’t that something way too possessive for a mother to say?

“I didn’t do anything to hurt her since it happened,” I replied, with an appeasing tone. “Ever since that day, there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t done everything I could to make her happy.”

“Because you feel guilty,” it wasn’t a question.

“No. Because I love her,” I replied. Before she could interrupt, I continued. “Even after what I did to her, Lizzy found in herself to be humble and apologize.

“To praise me for my ‘talents’, to encourage me when I felt out-of-place, to make me a better person, and in the end, to finally love me.

“If I’m anything other than a violent thug now, it’s thanks to her,” I let that hang in the air a little before continuing. “That’s why I will do everything in my power to stop everything that could upset her.”

I finished by looking straight at her eyes, to leave no doubts about what I meant or how serious I was. Amelie caught on it instantly, if the up-turning of her eyebrow was anything to go by.

“Are you implying that’s what I’m doing?” she said, fast and high pitch, almost like a whistle. It missed being a shriek not by a lot.

“Yes,” I answered, swallowing some more blood, the headache getting just a bit better. “Or do you think splitting her from her boyfriend wouldn’t do anything to her?”

Amelie laughed. It wasn’t a laugh of joy. It wasn’t pleasant to listen, nor was it infectious. It sounded like someone chocking with their mouth closed.

“You have some nerve to say that to my face,” she said with a really bitter smile. “I love my daughter. I’ve loved her far longer than this frivolous puppy love that you value so much have existed.

“I would never do anything to upset her.”

Having her belittle my feelings for Ellizabeth seriously pissed me off. More than the slap, more than her accusations and assumptions or anything else she did or say tonight. This was the only time I really felt myself two breaths away from snapping.

To hold back, I forced myself to remember the time I spent together with Lizzy. The times we kissed. The times she told me how much she loved me. The peaceful quiet moments where we just enjoyed each other’s company. I took solace in those, knowing that Amelie didn’t know a thing.

After a couple of deep breaths, I managed to resume.

“Yet, here you are, trying to force your youngest daughter to marry a guy she doesn’t love nor have met, without even talking to her about it, denying Lizzy any say on her own future,” I countered after a long sigh.

Her face contorted and I swear she snarled.

“That’s me caring for my daughter,” she barked. “At least he never assaulted her. And he is a much better fit to her than you.”

So I wasn’t wrong. Me not being a good fit to her wasn’t the only thing. Possessiveness is a big reason here, after all.

“To me, your ‘caring’ looks too much like ‘controlling’,” I replied, folding my arms.

“What do you mean?” she asked folding her arms too.

“You’re trying to make your daughter live her life only the way you want, ignoring her feelings and desires.

“She isn’t some doll for you to coddle and play dress with. She is her own person, with her own hopes and desires.”

The look at her face said she wanted to reply, but she didn’t seem to have any comeback, so she remained silent.

I let her and didn’t push. The situation was too delicate.

I’d cornered her, but I hadn’t “won” just yet. Right now, inside her, she was struggling with what I said. This probably was the first time someone had challenged her authority. Well, the first she was forced to listen to, anyway.

Besides, I was also challenging her opinion on what being a parent was. No way she wasn’t at least thinking about it, so the more I let her dwell on it, the bigger the chance of her coming around to my way of thinking. That line of action had a glaring hole, though, that Amelie hadn’t seen, but wouldn’t take long to find.

For all of my rhetoric, none of it actually changed the fact that she still had the power to make mine and Lizzy’s efforts useless. Only now I was able to understand what Ellizabeth meant by “not losing” instead of winning.

What should I do now? There is no guarantee that she’ll agree with me on the matter, or that she’ll give up on her plans even if she does.

Think, you moron! Think! What can you do? What can you say? What do I have that will give me an edge? What do I have that…

Then, I reminded that I indeed had something I could use. Something that had been looking at us for quite a while. She wouldn’t like it, but, as it was, I didn’t have a choice.

“Don’t believe me?” I said, with fake ignorance. “You can just ask your daughter.”

Then I gestured at Ellizabeth, who stood before the open doors. With a look of disbelief, Amelie looked behind her. I couldn’t see her face but she probably was shocked.

“‘Liz…” said Amelie trailing off.

“Mother,” answered Ellizabeth in a much more assured tone.

“Since when were you there?” she asked, finishing turning around.

“Since I heard you assaulting my boyfriend,” she said with poison in her voice.

I was shocked, to say the least. I never heard Ellizabeth be that aggressive to her mother, never mind the fact that she was treating me like her property. I was used to it, but now I knew it ran in the family.

The mother didn’t answer her. Her daughter didn’t wait for one either. She walked past Amelie without glancing at her, coming straight for me.

She looked up with an unreadable expression. She then placed a gentle hand over where her mother had struck, soothing it.

“Are you feeling well, my beloved?” she asked, her voice full of worry.

“I’m alright, don’t worry,” I said, gently pulling her hand away from my cheek while I stroke the smooth back of her hand.

She sighed, closing her eyes with a relieved smile. When she opened them again, she had a much clearer expression.

I released her hand on reflex. She then spun on her heels on the spot.

“It would seem that you have questions for me mother,” she said, her voice as sharp as a sword and hard as steel.

With those words, Amelie seemed to readjust herself. She straightened her back, crossing her arms higher, supporting her breasts.

“That is so,” she agreed, her voice also hardening, getting ready for war.

This situation was so tense, I could’ve sworn sparks were flying between these two. Before it could get any worse, I put my hand on one of Ellizabeth’s shoulders. They were tense but relaxed under my touch.

“What is it that you wish to know, mom?” she asked, her voice still firm but not as threatening.

After a slow exhale, Amelie also seemed to relax.

“I assume you heard what we were talking, so I won’t beat around the bush.

“Is it true what he said? Do you feel like I’m constraining you? Like I am not treating you with the respect you deserve?”

“Yes,” Ellizabeth answered without delay. “Yes, that is how honestly feel, mother.”

“Why didn’t you spoke of it with me, in private, instead of dragging him into this?” Amelie said, her scorn seeping into her tone.

“Because you would not have paid it any mind. Mom, I cherish you a great deal, but you’re unapproachable when you have set your mind,” said Ellizabeth, her voice with just a hint of annoyance.

Amelie facepalmed and sighed loudly, shaking her head, looking down. When she looked back up at us, she seemed really sad, at least to me.

“Do you truly love this boy?” she asked, with a constrained voice.

I felt myself tense on reflex, even though I knew there was no need.

“With all of my heart,” she answered, without missing a beat, without any hesitation.

“I cannot understand how you can love someone that assaulted you,” she answered after a long sigh.

Ellizabeth was silent for a few seconds. She then spoke up.

“Would you stop loving your puppy if he bit your hand?”

Amelie narrowed her eyes. For my part, the comparison annoyed me, and the fact that it wasn’t all untrue made it even worse.

“That’s what you see him as? Your puppy?”

“At times, yes,” she agreed. “Other times, a very faithful hound, ready to do what he’s commanded to.”

How matter-of-factly she called me her “faithful hound” annoyed me even more. It was as if they didn’t even acknowledge my presence here.

“Isn’t that just infatuation over a servant?” Amelie asked hopefully.

Ellizabeth shook her head.

“No. It goes beyond that. I feel a pain in my heart when he is away, longing to be reunited with him. Whenever he’s around, if feels like butterflies are doing laps inside my tummy.”

Lizzy let that hang in the air. It created an awkward silence. What she’d just said was enough to make her mother and I blush.

“My heart is mine, to grant to whoever I choose, and Isaac was who earned it. Whatever I’ve done after that, it’s out of my sincere desire to see his betterment.”

I was speechless. Of course, I knew this is how she thought. This was a regular point of disagreement between us. I knew she had nothing but good intentions about it, but it still came out as heavy-handed sometimes.

Amelie’s reaction was to groan, but it was so low and soft, I don’t think Ellizabeth heard it.

“Honestly…” she said, louder this time, while pinching the bridge of her nose. When she looked back up, she’d an expression I couldn’t understand.

I felt Lizzy’s shoulder relax even more under my hand.

“Isaac,” came Amelie’s thunderous voice. I couldn’t help but flinch.

“Yes?” I said, coming out from behind Ellizabeth, staying by her side, trying to sound confident.

Her face’s shadows contorted and her cheeks seemed to twitch.

“You should cherish my daughter. That’s all I have to say to you,” she finally said, turning around, going to the door.

“Then that means…!” I started with obvious excitement.

When she heard it, she stopped just by the door and turned around, looking at me.

“Don’t overthink it, fool. I did not change my mind about you nor did I accept your relationship with Ellizabeth.

“All I’m doing is complying with my daughter’s request.”

I felt an incredible sense of relief flow through my body. It was as if I could feel my blood start to flow again after being still for a long time.

Before I could celebrate, though, Amelie spoke again.

“So, cherish my daughter, Mr. Isaac. Cherish her, because the second I think you are not doing so, I will rescind this concession,” she said, looking straight at me then at Ellizabeth.

I gulped and nodded. She then left without so much as a glance, closing the door behind her.

When the knob clicked, it was like a string was cut. My legs crumbled as I slumped my ass on the floor, leaning my back against the railing.

I’m not gonna lie. I felt really good then. So good, actually, that I started laughing for no reason.

It started with a small chuckle until it became a heartful and loud laughter. I laughed so much that my cheeks hurt and tears rolled down.

When it finally ended, I realized Ellizabeth had squatted beside me, looking at me with a smile.

“We did it,” I said, smiling back.

You did it, Zach,” She said, her voice full of pride.

“It wasn’t much…” I said, not knowing how to answer being praised by her.

“No. It was a quite a great deal,” she said, petting my hair. “Do not undervalue your accomplishments.”

It felt good to be praised like this. The way she talked was sincere, like always, but this time her voice was much more emotional.

“So, I’m your puppy?” I asked with an affected smile.

She snorted.

“Do you dislike it?” she teased.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t since I didn’t know it myself.

“At times a puppy, at others a faithful hound,” she said, her tone swooning with emotion. “But always and irrevocably, my beloved.”

The petting then turned into a pinch of my unhurt cheek.

“Ow! What’s that for?!”

“That’s for using me as a tool without my consent,” she said after letting it go.

I chuckled at that. I couldn’t really help it. Even at times like this, she feels the need to reinforce that she was in command.

“My bad,” I said. “I just couldn’t think of anything else.”

She looked at me, giving a suspicious scoff.

“Well, I concede it to you, since it worked.”

She then took my chin with her fingers, turning my head gently. Releasing it, she placed her palm on my swollen cheek, going back to soothing it.

“This has swollen quite a bit. You must be in a lot of pain,” she said, stroking it gently with her thumb. “Are you truly well?”

I leaned into her hand, letting her affection sooth it. It still hurt, but it was getting better.

“Yeah, I am.”

She smiled at me and I smiled back. I stood up, patting the dust of pants’ behind.

Ellizabeth circled her arms around my torso, pulling me into a hug that I loved getting sucked into. She tightened her arms around my back, snuggling her head on the crook of me neck. I did the same pulling her in tighter, with my hands around her ribs, as I nuzzled the top of her head, breathing in her sweet shampoo.

We were pulled from our little world when the muffled sounds of explosions burst inside, the flashes of the fireworks illuminating everything.

Ellizabeth looked downright gorgeous under the flickering colors. I must have had an obvious smile on my face, because when Lizzy looked back, she gave me this huge smug smile.

“Happy New Year, beloved.”

Before I could even say anything, she grabbed my tie and pulled me down.

All of the pain of my headache and my swollen cheek, my tension and fatigue that I started feeling, even the happiness I felt after I one upped Amelie.

Everything was blown away by the kiss Ellizabeth pulled me into. It left my mind blank save for a single thought.

God her lips are soft.

Fin