Sometimes Ksenija wonders what Feliciano would say, if he knew. That she can change the color of his shirt with a snap of her fingers. That she can knock out his brothers with a flick of her wrist. That she can burn down their school by staring at it.
Would he be scared? Would he be disgusted? Or would he tilt his head, study her with those inquisitive eyes and calculate exactly how he'd benefit from it?
She shivers and pulls her coat tighter with frozen fingers. Maybe her mum is right and they're all insane. But they keep telling her - they can't go in the morning. Vampires don't work daylight hours.
Ksenija stands in what would have made an excellent watercolor painting - a forest where dark tree trunks contrast nicely with the shimmering snow. Moonlight filters through branches and throws complicated patterns over the ground. She would have enjoyed the scenery a lot more if her toes weren't about to fall off. Ksenija could warm herself with magic, it's not like it requires a lot of energy, but it gets draining after a few hours.
And they're taking their sweet time, her dad and her uncle. Rod always goes on and on and on about efficient hunting and how he caught a troll under five minutes that one time and yet, here they are. Well, here she is. About to turn into a human popsicle. At this point she doesn't even care about what comes after, just wants them there already.
Maybe she should be proud that they think she can handle herself, even though Ksenija is only a shitty waterdown excuse for a magician. She should be able to put up somewhat of a fight, with all this relentless training.
A branch cracks and Ksenija jumps. She spins around, squints into the depths of darkness. It's all too easy to make out all kinds of weird shapes in there and the longer the night drags on the harder it gets to discern reality from whatever weird shit her brain can come up with. Last week she was sure she saw the tail of a gobi dragon, even if they live in the desert and mostly keeps themselves buried deep beneath the sand.
It's probably just an animal.
It's probably just an animal, but it can also be something else, something with giant claws or razor fangs. It can be, so Ksenija feels the magic buzz through her veins, thrumming together with the adrenaline. She can do this, she can fight her way out of this, at least until they get back -
Her uncle chooses that time to march through the woods. Rod always looks like he's in the middle of filming a whiskey commercial. Maybe it's the five o'clock shadow, maybe it's the relaxed stance, maybe it's because you normally find him at a bar counter. The bright red hunter gear hugs his wide shoulders. It always struck her as arrogant, the official uniform. They might as well be carrying around neon signs, as far as discretion goes.
"Stop playing around, kid and make yourself useful."
Ksenija puts her hackles down.
"So you finally got them?"
He throws a scalpel at her feet.
"Of Course we did. Now off you go."
Ksenija picks up the knife. They started to give her proper tools last year, even if they still won't allow her to hunt. Considering how the scalpel trembles in her hand, it's probably for the best.
She drags herself towards her dad, who bends over a vampire further into the woods. Moonlight falls over his dark hair and red attire, over nimble fingers wielding a knife, carving out a fang. A metallic smell hits her like a punch in the face. She keeps expecting to get used to the stench, but it seems to get worse, instead of more bearable.
"Take the other one," he says. "And put the fangs in the container over there."
Ksenija kneels in the snow, feels it soak into her pants. She still remembers the first vampire she ever saw. It had been a female, with fiery hair and alabaster skin. Ksenija had expected it to look more human, but her features had been sharp, skin stretched taut over jutting bones. No human would have been fooled by it. But then again, any human who's close enough to conduct a study is a dead human.
Tonight a male lays in the snow, pallid skin almost translucent, veins forming intricate patterns underneath. His bared lips pale against the dark gums. And of course, the damned fangs, like razor icicles among rust colored teeth.
"Watch your fingers."
Her hands shake and Ksenija squeezes the knife. She should be over this by now. It's been a year.
Her dad frees the fang he works on and blood gushes down the chin. He places it into a container and proceeds to collect the blood into a vial. Ksenija forces her hand towards the mouth of her vampire. She knows he's dead, knows the mouth won't clamp shut as soon as she puts her hand in there. She knows and yet, and yet -
She can do this. She has to, at any rate. There's no such thing as not completing the training.
"Hurry up, it's fucking freezing," Rod says above them.
"Then warm yourself," her dad says. "Take your time Ksenija, there's no rush."
The knife sinks into the flesh. This part always feels weird, stabbing someone's face like that. Mauling it. The fang is stuck in place, because of course it is, rooted to the fucking scull like the rest of the teeth. Maybe if she twists the scalpel, shows it in harder, applies more pressure. Warm blood gushes all over her fingers, trickles down her palm, along her arm and soaks into her coat. Fantastic. The stench of death mixes will the metallic smell of blood and she swallows bile.
"Careful," her dad says. "Don't waste the blood."
Ksenija takes a breath, twists the knife with all her might and loses her grip, cuts her hand on the knife edge, motherfucker. Her blood mixes with the rest of it, Ksenija licks it clean and tries again and again and again. Her cut burns in the cold. She can practically hear Rod roll his eyes behind her.
He mutters, pushes her aside and finishes the job with practiced moves. Ksenija stands aside, trying to see how he does it, but he's too fast and his stupid head is in the way. Her palm throbs.
"How are you still so bad at this?" He says and throws it into the container, while her dad jumps in to scoop whatever blood he can capture into a vial. "Are you a magician or not?"
She bites her lip.
"Don't worry," her dad says. "You'll get the hang of it."
Rod looks like he doesn't believe him. Ksenija is not sure if she wants to.
It's way past midnight, but when they pile up by the front door, Ksenija knows her mum is still up. Their house looks homey compared to the grim forest, a pile of red brick decorated by drows of snow like icing on a cake. Warm light spills out between the thick curtains. Ksenija will hug the radiator as soon as she's through the door.
Her mum opens, frowning at them. She's dressed in a thick bathrobe, ebony hair up with a clip. Her olive skin has paled during the long winter and the bags underneath her eyes are dark in contrast. The frown deepens when she spots the blood all over Ksenija.
"It's not hers," Rod says behind them.
As soon as he speaks, the fire ignites behind her mother's eyes, like a spark on dry wood.
"Do you have any idea what time it is? She should have been in bed ages ago!"
"It's the weekend," her dad says, coming in front of his brother, as if she won't be angered by him if she can't see him.
"She's fifteen! It's two in the morning!" Her voice rises. "Look at her! Look at her clothes!"
"We will take care of it," Rod says.
"You will do nothing, you've done enough!"
Her dad clears Ksenija's clothes with the flick of a wrist. He could have done it by staring at her, but her mum feels better when the power is accompanied by a gesture.
"See? All better."
She rakes her eyes over Ksenija, pursing her mouth the way she does at any display of magic. Rod takes the opportunity to teleport, probably to warm himself with endless shots of firewhisky at the Crying Phoenix.
"Go to bed Ksenija," her dad says, moving into the house with the containers in hand. "We have work in the morning."
Ksenija keeps expecting these nights to get easier, for her mum to be more understanding, for everything to stop being so difficult over time. But it's been over a year and her hands still shake and Rod rolls his eyes when she does magic and her mum gets more aggravated for every night she waits up for them.
She doesn't know what Feliciano would think of her right now. But her mum, who loves her more than anyone in the world, gazes at the dried blood in her cuticles with lips turned down in disgust. Ksenija drags herself to bed and tries to forget the way she looked at her when she first opened the door.
Ksenija doesn't want to be here.
The woman on the other side of a small desk peers over her glasses, shuffling pamphlets while she considers Ksenija.
"So," she says. "Do you have an idea where you want to attend?"
The room is cramped, just enough space to shove in an old desk and some worn bookcases. Sunlight filters in through the blinds, shines on the front cover of a brochure for another high school she's never heard of. Ksenija doesn't want to be here.
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well," the woman says, shuffling more papers. "There's still time. What are you interested in?"
Ksenija holds back a laugh. As if that matters in the end. She scrambles to remember what they had prepared. She just had to do as they practiced.
"I want to do something related to nature, maybe with animals." She sounds so… fake. As if she's reciting a line. Why can't she just relax like a normal person?
"Ah." The woman turns the papers on the tables. "Just a minute."
Who even uses pamphlets anymore, why doesn't she just google it?
"There's a place in Helsingborg where you can study animal care."
Ksenija knows this, they've discussed it to death at home.
"If you're interested in landscaping, there's excellent programs in Alnarp."
She knows this as well.
"Here." She gives her a bunch of brochures.
On the first cover there's a bunch of happy teens looking up at her, their smiles dazzling. For a minute Ksenija just stares. They look too happy, fake happy, but she doesn't doubt that they're pretty satisfied with their life in general. Why wouldn't they be, they get to be - teenagers. Normal.
"Thanks, I'll look into it."
Ksenija leaves the cramped room, but the suffocating feeling follows her out of the building. She throws the pamphlets on the way home.
Ksenija stares at her classmates, while they calculate math, draw in the margins or peer at each other's phones, laughing at pictures. Chatter fills the air, bouncing between drab walls. Outside the sky is a wall of steel and the bleakness leaks inside, mingles with stale air. This day has been going on forever and it's only ten in the morning.
Feliciano is in the back, where Blade's napping - well, where he was trying to nap, but now Feliciano is poking at his wide shoulders, grinning while Blade's swatts at him. Ksenija turns back to her book, tries to focus on the equation in front of her.
"I hope I get into Procivitas," Fatima says behind her. "I'd die if I'd had to go at Jensen."
"I want to go there too," Malika says. "I hope we go together!"
Ksenija hopes so as well, because she isn't planning to apply there. Enrolling anywhere in Helsingborg isn't strategic, if she's planning to avoid her classmates, but she has yet to hear anyone opting for animal care. Her new class will probably be small, which will suck, because then she won't be able to fade into the background. People are going to notice her, going to pay attention -
An arm drapes around her shoulders, a familiar weight.
"I'm bored," Feliciano says into her ear. "Blade is boring."
Her lips quirk despite herself.
"And I'm not?"
He laughs, a happy sound that she won't be hearing in less than half a year. Feliciano will go to a new school, join a new class, make new friends.
"No," he says and squeezes her. "You're fun, the most fun."
Ksenija knows for a fact that she isn't and when he gets to wherever he'll end up, Feliciano will find people that actually have things in common with him. Not that it will be difficult. Everything about him radiates warmth, from his olive skin to those twinkling eyes and even in this depressing room he's a ray of light, bouncing in his turquoise sweater.
Ksenija closes her book. It's not as if she's trying anyway.
"Show me that game on your phone."
Feliciano pulls out Blade's old cell with a flourish.
"It only took me three times to beat his high score."
His eyes crinkle. He's not fake happy, not this time anyway. She learned the difference a long time ago, even if Feliciano should win a golden globe for his efforts. He grins as he opens the app and she finds herself mirroring it. In less than half a year, he will find other people to smile at and -
An obnoxious tune starts playing and the entire rooms snap to look at them.
"Feliciano," the teacher says, shaking her head.
His smile turns sheepish.
"Sorry, sorry. I was just showing her a math app!"
Half a year. Less than half a year. Ksenija focuses on reopening the book and pretending to look at their assignments.
"You're so stupid, what am I gonna do with you?" she says as the teacher finally turns away.
Feliciano slides closer.
"Play with me."
And Ksenija does. It's not september yet. She can have this, she can be happy for a little bit. God knows she should enjoy it while it lasts.