They fall on your ears like anvils, wringing your eyes back to his. You have none as air catches in your throat. The word ‘safe’ swings like a knife, slicing through your brain and the silence. You can’t think, can’t move, can’t breathe. All you can do is stare at him, willing your limbs to work, your lungs to fill with air.
The entire world narrows to just him; this blue-eyed demon watching you, cataloguing your every movement—or lack thereof—and your heart pitter-patters as you regard his neutral yet intense expression, relaxed but alert. Safe.
“In evolutionary psychology,” Frost proceeds, unperturbed by the sudden pallor taking up residence on your face, “humans are primarily driven by the four fundamental Fs: Feeding. Fighting. Fleeing. Fucking.”
The bass in his voice sends a ripple up your spine, your heart seizing at the utterance of the last word.
Crude. Profane. Obscene. So unlike a doctor.
“Those are the bases for human existence,” he continues. “For human survival. Once survival is accomplished and no longer threatened, however, we then seek to thrive.
The three fundamental pillars of thriving are freedom, happiness, and love. Not necessarily in that order, but typically.”
Terms that used to bring you comfort now feel like daggers, piercing your heart. Familiar, yet so out of reach.
His voice lowers ever so slightly, his handsome face betraying no emotion. “Freedom gives us the opportunity to choose our own path and to make our own decisions without impediment. Without worrying about what others might think or say. This allows us to be true to ourselves and pursue our own happiness.” He speaks slowly, enunciating each word with care. “Happiness is, of course, the state of being happy. Feeling contentment, joy, and satisfaction that comes from leading a life we love. Love is…a deep feeling of affection. Of connection. It allows us to form meaningful, lasting bonds.”
He looks at you as if to gauge your reaction, and you’re sure your face betrays the turmoil you feel inside.
“Thriving requires more than just the absence of negative things like pain, suffering, and fear,” he explains, rubbing salt in the proverbial wound that feels as tangible as any physical gash. “We must be free to choose our own path, we must be happy with our lives, and we must feel loved and connected. When we have all three of these pillars, we can truly thrive.”
You can’t help but be drawn in by his monologue, like lyrics to a song, even though they sting like barbed wire because they’re a reminder of all the things you used to have.
His eyes bore into yours, twin orbs of ice laced by fire, holding your own hostage along with the rest of your body. “What do you love the most, Ramona?”
Your neck jerks as your eyes widen, completely taken aback. Frost maintains his neutral glare-stare, never once breaking character even as you eye him suspiciously. You can see the flicker of flames in his eyes, dancing and alive, and you can feel the icy cold of his gaze penetrating your own.
You look on even when it physically cripples you to, dumbfounded and unsure of what to say–if you even should.
“What does that have to do with anything?” you croak after a long moment, clutching the glass tighter, hoping he doesn’t see the apprehension in your failure to swallow.
“Perhaps everything. Perhaps nothing. It’s a simple question, all the same,” he returns, eyes deadlocked. “Answer it.”
You blink against the intensity of his stare. Against the demand falling from his gorgeous lips to suffuse the air between you. Against a strange sense of pressure. A novel tension. Your own flutters to the glass as you clench your fist around it. Your heart mimics the motion, thrumming away against the silent backdrop of the ER.
You hear yourself say it; feel a force wrench it out of your body. It takes everything in you to utter those words, regretting the decision even after the deed is already done. Rife with the knowledge of his knowledge of the person in question. Hating with everything in you that he’s aware of her existence. What she looks like. Where she lives. And had, at one point in the not-so-distant-past, used that knowledge to emotionally manipulate you.
“Naturally,” Frost says, almost bored, the depth of his bass bringing your eyes up to his again against your will, like an unbeatable compulsion. “You love your family. That’s to be expected.” His focus is laser-sharp. Unnerving. His expression is unchanging and, yet, something about it deepens. “However, I’m asking what you love.”
Acutely, you feel cold metal and fortified plastic refuse to give way under the sink of your lower body. Feel the weight of your frames against your face as you stare through your glasses, briefly overcome with the cynical perception of looking at an optical illusion even though you know this is the furthest thing from fantasy.
“Music,” you say anyway, the answer as natural as the air you now struggle to breathe, unbidden in its arrival.
“Be more specific.” Your brows furrow, your lips tilting into a frown. Suspicion and apprehension dance atop your shoulders, like little invisible feet stomping into your bones. Your teeth clench, as if in futile resistance against the still, opposing force in front of you, shaken further by his line of questioning. By this interrogation. You fucking hate that he’s prying into your personal life. Your privacy. Hate with every fiber of your being that he might gain more insight into who you are outside of this fucked up arrangement.
You clench your jaw, your body going rigid. Your lips part, trembling as you spit out words that oppose those racing through your mind. “Singing and playing piano.”
Frost’s expression remains unchanged, static to the delivery of information as though you never said anything at all. “Which do you love more?”
Your eyes narrow into a glare, anger seething through the cloud of fear and uncertainty bathing you. The audacity of him. What right does he have to ask you that?
“What does it matter to you?” you grit, your heart picking up speed in a strange mishmash of both fight and flight. Like a mother protecting her child even in the face of her own imminent danger.
“It doesn’t,” he says, his voice clinical against the chilling gleam in his gaze. He tilts his head to the side ever so slightly, the motion measured. Precise. Calculated. “But I’m the one asking the questions.”
Tension saturates the space you’re forced to share, a violent shiver rippling through your body, almost snuffing out the protective defiance that emerged just seconds ago. But anger creases your forehead even as you look away, your fingers squeezing the glass in a death grip to contain your rage and prevent them from emptying its contents all over this motherfucker.
“Singing,” you answer begrudgingly.
“You’re not in kindergarten,” Frost admonishes. “Respond in full, complete sentences like an adult.”
Your eyes flash to his with renewed fury, widened and glaring. You literally have to bite your tongue against the curse ready to springboard off it.
“I love being a vocalist more,” you exhale angrily, the subject in question imbued with gravel. “Happy now?” You can’t stop the last remark, liberally doused with enough snark to fill this mansion of his. As if in response to your answer, your neck suddenly feels tight, like you’re betraying your love for piano by the admission.
Frost remains ever unfazed by your visual and verbal display of vexation. “What do you sing, specifically?”
You hold his frightening gaze, able to gauge nothing from their icy depths save their relentless search into your own.
Your voice conveys the words that closest describe it, the strangest utterance even though you’ve said it many times before. Like a secret. A confession.
Frost’s eyes don’t waver as something enters his expression. One simple nod.
“That is your Hard Limit Safe Word,” he announces. “You have the right to speak it at any time. Should you choose to use it, I’ll stop immediately…” he pauses, a tightness stretching alongside it, “…as will everything else: The scene. The session. And the entire agreement.”