Aura stood out on the balcony, a light silk robe draped around her, and stared absently out over the red towers of Mingo City. Barin stirred faintly in the room behind her. She could hear him, the rustle of silk as he moved across their bed, the faint groan he tried to muffle into a pillow. He would be aching, she thought. Pleasantly so, much like herself. It was a small triumph, but still pleasing. Pleasure was such an easy thing. Pleasure. Pain. The mingling thereof. Such a terribly simple thing. Familiar, where so much now was strange.
Not that pleasure had entirely escaped that strangeness either, of course. If it had, she wouldn't be here, standing out on this balcony and trying to settle herself within her skin. It had started well enough, mindless and delightful, but then ...
It was strange. It was so strange. There should be nothing about this act to startle her. Not now, not after so many years. She was Aura. Princess of the Blood, daughter of Ming the Merciless. There was no facet of pleasure or pain that she had not explored in her time. There was nothing a body could do, nothing that could be done to a body, that she had not endured and embraced and conquered in her time. Even the bore worms, even the knowledge and torture of a death through pleasure, though it had ravaged her by its betrayal, had not unmoored her for long. Vengeance was an easy remedy for that betrayal. Anger sustained where all else failed. That, too, she was more than familiar with. No. It was not the memory of the bore worms or her father's betrayal that put this quiver in her flesh now.
It wasn't Barin either. It couldn't be. Surely it couldn't be. She had learned him as a lover long ago. Wrung from him all his pleasures and weaknesses, swallowed all his tempers and his delights. He was nothing new. He was nothing complicated. Men never were. None of them. Sooner or later, with the right application of pleasure or pain or something in between, they would melt in her hands and be made malleable. All of them. It wasn't new, to have Barin this way. It wasn't strange. It shouldn't be.
She'd wondered briefly if it was the only change in power that unnerved. He'd only been a prince before, paying tribute to her father and to her. Now, her father was dead, and Barin ruler in his stead. He had the power now to do her real damage, should he wish to. His jealousy, his anger. He had the power to act on them now. He had the power to be dangerous. Perhaps that was what had made her wary.
But no. No. She would be no true daughter of Ming were that the case. She might fear a man, of course, as she had learned to fear her father by the end, as anyone with sense had feared her father, but there was that answer in itself. Her father was dead, after all. Fear, like betrayal, had a ready answer. Barin would die as easily as any man, should she need him to. She had no doubts about that. Fear was to be conquered, not obeyed.
And, in truth, she did not believe that Barin wished to hurt her. As jealous as he might be, she didn't think he would ever damage her for it. Not in truth, not as Klytus had, not as her father had allowed. Not now. Not anymore. She could see that, when she looked at him. Barin would not hurt her. Not like that.
And that ...
Perhaps, in the end, that was what unnerved her. That was what had twisted, been changed. That was what had rendered every familiar act strange and different in its wake. Not fear, not cruelty, not torture. All those she might have met and conquered at her leisure. No. It was something else that laid her low, in the end. It was something else that set a tremble in her limbs and a quiver in her chest.
Flash. Flash and Dale. Damn them, damn them both, they had made such a mess of her. Of Barin, too, though he would not say it. Of Mongo in general, all her father's works unmade by their influence. They had twisted so much, turned her whole world on its head. She didn't know if she more admired them or hated them for it.
Or loved them. Love. That was the thing, wasn't it? That was the name. This quiver, this uncertainty. That was its name.
She heard Barin come up behind her. Felt his arms come around her. Encircle her. Cradle her. Keep her warm, keep her safe. Neither a cage nor a binding, but a promise instead. He hooked his chin over her shoulder, his hair soft and tickling against the side of her face. He breathed in, enjoying the scent of her, and she melted back into his chest. Tipped her head back across his shoulder. Opened up. Allowed him her throat. He nuzzled lightly. Kissed her jaw. A wolf at her throat, and he only kissed. A predator, and he only loved.
It hadn't been like this before. It hadn't, of course it hadn't, but how much hadn't it? How much had they changed? Either of them. Was it only him, only her? Both? Everything? How much difference could two people make? Just two. Only two.
"... She was going to let my father have her, you know," she said, a strange rasp in the night air, and Barin stilled around her. Confusion, she thought. Mostly that. She continued, so he'd know how lost she was. "Dale. When we thought Flash was dead. She meant to let my father have her, if it would keep you and Zarkov safe. She knew it wouldn't. She knew he lied. I told her. She meant to risk it anyway. To keep her promise, even if he broke his. Just for the chance you might be saved."
He was so still, now. The stillness of a man who didn't know what was going on, who held a predator in his arms and grew wary of a sudden threat. Fearing her jealousy, maybe. Fearing her anger. She was Ming's daughter. She was Aura. It was only sensible of him. And that ... that was the point. That was what she meant, what she was trying so desperately hard to explain.
"I don't understand them," she whispered, closing her eyes and leaving her throat still bared to his teeth. "Either of them. I should. I want to. But I don't. I want to be like them. I want to feel the things they made me feel. I want to look at you and feel those things. Soft things. Useless things. Things my father would have destroyed. I just ... I don't know if I can. I think of it and I feel ... strange. Uneasy. I know what to do with desire. Pleasure. But those other things. Honour. Love. Do you think a daughter of Ming the Merciless could know those things, Barin? Do you think she could show them?"
There was a long silence, after that. He didn't move, though. She could feel him around her. Feel the tension in the body at her back, the arms around her waist. Hear, almost, the thoughts in the head still bowed beside her throat. She felt no threat, oddly. Only caution still. Only a predator as confused as she was. He was silent for a long time.
And then, very carefully, he answered.
"We fought a duel, you know. Flash and I, in Sky City. Vultan captured us both. It amused him to watch us kill each other. As it should, of course. And I ... I wanted to kill Flash. Jealousy, hatred that you desired him. I wanted to kill him. Of course I did. But he ... he didn't want to kill me. He won. He had me at his mercy. I'd wounded him, bled him, tried to kill him. All he had to do was let me fall. He saved me instead. He pulled me back up with his own hands."
He bit his lip, curled himself tight around her. Aura could feel the quiver in him. The same one, she realised. The same one they'd set in her chest. They'd set it in Barin's as well. Whatever they'd done to her, those two strange creatures, they'd done it to her prince as well.
"... It's a strange thing," he said at last. Softly. Distantly. As dazed and lost in his turn. "It's a strange thing to be defeated, and realise that you might still be safe. To strike in all your anger, to be cut down, and still at the end of it be spared."
... Yes, she thought. Yes, that. Exactly that. To be defeated and still be safe. To be weak and still be safe. To allow ... allow that weakness within you. To show that weakness within you. To know it would be betrayed, and allow it anyway. Offer it anyway. To risk, not death or pain or torture, but betrayal. To offer anyway. To have such faith in your own weakness. To have ... to have such trust in another's mercy.
Impossible, before. Impossible, impossible. Her father was Ming the Merciless. No one who served at his pleasure could ever dare be weak. It could have no answer but betrayal. She had raged, she had conquered, she had clawed, but never for an instant had she been weak. Never for an instant had she allowed herself. Until them. Until Flash, offering mercy and kindness. Until Dale, offering honour even in the face of betrayal.
Until Barin, who desired her as he always had, and did not mean to hurt her for it.
She turned in his arms at last. Turned to him, to look up at him. The caution, the wariness in his eyes, this man with a daughter of Ming in his arms. The softness, beneath it. The weakness. The tentative, fragile hope. The quiver, twin to the one in her own chest. His arms loosened as she turned, his hands settling lightly at her hips. When she raised her hand to his cheek, he allowed it. Leaned into it. Aura had never seen love in anyone's eyes, but she wondered now if the darkness in his might not be too far away from it.
"Do you think we could be like that?" she asked eventually. Such strange things in her own voice. Such weakness. Such hope. "Do you think we could be merciful, Barin? Do you think we could have such care for each other?"
"... I don't know," he answered. Honestly, at least, and with a faint and crooked smile. "I don't know, my princess. Until not so long ago I didn't think such things existed. But I think ... I think I would like to try. If you wanted it. I think I would very much like to try."
And this ... Something turned over in her chest, some strange rush of emotion, some strange thing like heat and sorrow intermingled, and she leaned up to press her lips to his. Not a kiss, not as she knew kisses. Not for pleasure. Not for pain. Not to taunt or to tease or to conquer. To answer, instead. To soothe. To promise. To ... to offer mercy, in answer to his weakness. To ask in turn for his. Was it tenderness? Was that the name for this?
Was it love?
She closed her eyes when she pulled away. Curled into him, tucked her face into his chest. Uncertain. Unsure. Weak. He cupped his hand behind her head. Cradled her, by that instinct so foreign to them both. She leaned into it. He could ruin her now as no one could ever have ruined her before. She leaned into him anyway. She did her best to trust his mercy, as he did his to trust hers.
"I hate them, I think," she murmured softly. "I would protect them, I would die for them. I hate them with all my heart, and I would kill anyone who tried to hurt them. Either of them. Is that love, do you think? Or something else?"
Barin snorted. "If it's love, then I've loved you for a very long time," he said wryly. And then, a bit more uncertainly, a bit more seriously: "It ... might be, though. Something like it, at least. I'm not sure what I felt when he saved me. I'm not sure what I feel now. For him. For you. Even Dale. It ... might be love. To die for someone. To be weak for them. That might be love." A long pause. "Is that ... Would that be allowed? Between you and I. Between us and them. Is that ... something that might be allowed?"
Ah. Because they were predators, weren't they? Even still. Because they were jealous people. Because they were versed in the ways of pleasure and pain. Because they had hurt each other, often, before the others came. Because they knew rage and vengeance and cruelty. Because mercy was such a new thing, such a strange thing still. Because her father might be dead, but she was still Aura, Princess of the Blood, and daughter of Ming the Merciless. Because Barin would die as easily as any man, should she need him to. Because she might die as easily as any woman, should he decide that either. Because they knew that, the both of them, still and always.
But that, too, had its answer. Even aside from love, from trust, from mercy. That, perhaps, was a comfort and an answer in and of itself. They already knew all that rage and betrayal and vengeance might offer them. They already knew every facet of pain there was to know. And, most importantly, they had already survived them.
They might indulge in new weaknesses now, but they had more than enough old strengths to carry them through. And, perhaps, some new ones as well.
"... Are we not rulers now, my prince?" she purred, leaning in against him while he smiled at her warily. "Have we not won? Have we not killed all who might threaten us for it? Might we not kill all who threaten us again?" She paused, and let her smile grow softer. More hopeful. Less fierce. "Surely anything might be allowed now. If ... if we decide we want it."
And he looked at her. Her dark-eyed prince, her jealous lover. He looked at her, this wary, vicious thing beside her, and he softened, and he smiled.
"You know what?" he said. "I think it just might."