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We Meant to Tell You Sooner

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Zoya felt her daughter’s apprehension like a knife wound in her gut. Taking on the dragon’s form hadn’t helped; she could always feel more in that body. She knew Lili’s distrust and hurt as if it were her own.

And indeed, it was her doing.

Always, they had meant to tell her first. Zoya recognized the same spirit in her daughter that she knew in herself—fierce and resilient beyond her experience. Liliyana yearned for a battle to fight and she would take whatever was thrown at her in stride. Of this much, Zoya was certain, because she had always been the same.

The difference was that by the time Zoya was Liliyana’s age, she had already been broken many times over. Her innocence was gone by then; the cruelty of the world had trained her, hardened her into a soldier whose armor was glued to her skin. It had taken her years to pry it off, to know that there was more to life than striving. She had no wish for her daughter to know such suffering.

So, she had protected her, shielded her from the secrets and the dark truths that came with them. The dragon and the demon would not have come to them had their lives not first been torn to bits by evil. They had vowed that such destruction would not come to their children.

In preserving her daughter’s innocence, though, Zoya had betrayed her trust. And that was wound not easily healed.

They followed the tunnel’s narrow exit in silence. She had taken a chance that Nikolai would find them, and she was not disappointed. As they emerged from the tunnel into the bright light of morning, she spotted him pacing outside of the bakery. He, too, was dressed in Suli garb, but she would have recognized his noble bearing anywhere. No matter what character he played, the set of his shoulders and the lightness of his step would forever be familiar to her. And, of course, she could always pick out his hands.

He had chosen not to wear gloves today, but his arms were crossed and his fingers buried self-consciously behind them.

Odjeća vam dobro stoji, ” she said in low tones as they came up to him under the awning, a smirk on her face.

He glanced down at the getup and grinned at her. “Of course it looks good. I make everything look good.” His eyes darted to one side of them and then the other, and then whispered, “But not as good as you.” He leaned in for a kiss.

She frowned and pulled away, but not fast enough. Rolling her eyes, she gave in. Trust Nikolai to always make a scene.

Behind her, she heard Liliyana clear her throat.

Nikolai pulled back. “Right. Sorry, love.” He put his arm around Lili’s shoulders and placed a kiss on her head. “Shall we?”

Lili wrinkled her nose as she leaned away from him.

Zoya frowned at him, sniffing. “Is that…coffee?”

He touched his face, and Zoya could see him blush. “I don’t look Suli. Genya was busy. This is what I had.”

“No one will believe it,” she said, giggling and rubbing away at the stains with her thumb. “But points for creativity.”

“Is there a prize?” he asked, holding the door for them.

“Of course,” she murmured. “I am the prize.”

They found a table and settled in. After an order had been placed, Liliyana watched them warily but said nothing. Zoya took Nikolai’s hand under the table, feeling her heart pound in her chest. This is what love does . One way or another, she would be paying the price as long as she lived.

“You were right, my girl,” Nikolai said, his gaze steady. “We should have told you sooner.”

Liliyana waited.

“It wasn’t right that you found out this way,” he continued, “and I’m sorry.”

We are sorry,” Zoya put in, though the words felt pinched as she said them. Forgiveness was a the ultimate challenge, one of the most vulnerable actions one could take, and it had taken her years to even consider it as an option. She could hardly bear to ask it of anyone, much less her own daughter.

Nikolai went on. “We could give you reasons for why we did what we did, but I doubt they would satisfy you.”

Liliyana shook her head. “They wouldn’t.”

“So…I suppose we ought to go straight into asking forgiveness bit then?” He extended his feee hand across the table toward her and cocked his head, inquiring. “What do you think?”

Zoya watched Liliyana’s face carefully. The girl dropped her eyes, sitting in silence for a long moment. A tear slipped from her eye. At last, she spoke, and the words were so quiet she had to lean forward to hear them: “I’m scared.”

Tears pricked the backs of Zoya’s eyes now, too. She despised the feeling. Ignoring it, she groped for words of reassurance. “We’re the same, you know,” she spoke, stopping to clear her throat. “We are still the same parents who would do anything to keep you safe. Sometimes to a fault.” A tear escaped down her cheek and she flicked it away, doing her best to smile instead.

Liliyana stayed rigid, eyes fixed on the table, but Zoya could sense she was considering their words.

“We love you, chickadee,” Nikolai said, his hand still open. “As demons or dragons or whatever we are, we love you.”

Liliyana burst into tears. “I love you,” she sobbed, getting up and falling into Zoya’s arms. “I forgive you. I don’t ever want anything between us again.”

Zoya blinked, surprised by the sudden outpouring of emotions. Slowly, she began to stroke Liliyana’s hair.

“We can’t promise that,” Nikolai said, reaching around Zoya to take Lili’s fingers. “But we can promise to work through it every time.”

“We’re a family of fighters,” Zoya murmured. “And we fight for each other. Not against.”

Liliyana’s crying seemed to slow and she sniffed, her gaze coming up at last. “No more secrets?”

Zoya glanced back at Nikolai, who grinned. “We’ve always got something up our sleeves. But nothing else to haunt your nightmares.”

Lili nodded. She returned to her seat and dabbed at her eyes with a napkin just as three plates of waffles arrived at their table.

Zoya breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the saints,” she said, tucking in eagerly. “I was going to murder someone.”

“That’s how I knew to find you,” Nikolai said, taking a bite. “You’d never last through negotiations without breakfast.”

“Wrong,” she said, swallowing. “ They would never last.”

Abruptly, Liliyana put her fork down. “Papa,” she said with a frown. “I have one more question.”

“Ask away, my dear,” said Nikolai.

“It’s probably nonsense,” Liliyana continued. “But…some people say that you’re a pirate.”

Zoya burst out laughing as Nikolai buried his face in his palm.

“That is nonsense,” he said, his mouth forming a line. “Let me tell you why…”