He’ll never know how long it was between Noriko’s departure and his own decision to stand up and leave, it could have been five minutes or a lifetime. Long enough to reason that although he couldn’t express his distaste as openly as his wife, he could excuse himself on the basis of performing his husbandly duty to his new wife, plainly unused to their Roman customs. Long enough to feel horribly guilty that all he really wanted to do was get back to the palace, irrationally hoping she’d be waiting for him even though they weren’t due to meet until that evening. Not long enough to avoid being there when the world fell apart around him.
In the entrance to the tunnel, he's protected from the worst of it, watching as the sky falls in and knocks loose something vital inside his skull. Incredulous, he sees a boy fall too, burning like a comet. A name plucks at him, something about surviving crucifixion, something about a Judaean prophet… No . He shakes his head to clear it, instantly regrets it. Time drips away and then she's standing in front of him, dust coloured and shouting, but she must be further away than he thought because he can’t hear her at all. “Una?” he whispers, and has just enough time to think No, that’s wrong too before she’s washed away from him like a wave receding from the shore.
Makaria rises first, there's a sharp pain in her arm and her ears are still ringing with the noise of the explosion and the emergency sirens that have started shrilling far too late. She can hear Drusus moaning on the other side of a collapsed column, calling for help. She stumbles towards her father's Imperial seat, blinking through the chalky dust that's swirling all around her, hoping that her first vision is wrong but knowing that it's too late and her father is beyond all hope. Marcus, she thinks next did Marcus get out? She's on her knees now, crawling through the debris with her one good arm towards where the exit used to be. It's collapsed in on itself, she's trapped in here with the rest of the Imperial family and she chokes back a cry when she's the crumpled form of her cousin in the ruined archway.
"Marcus," she calls, trying to keep the note of desperation out of her voice. Miraculously he lifts his head and she sees his lips moving, shaping a word far too short to be her name, and then his head drops sickeningly back onto the hard floor.
"No, you don't, Marcus," she mutters, and struggles back to her feet. She reaches him, and there's hardly a mark on him, just a smattering of glass cuts creating bloody freckles across his cheeks. He's unresponsive to her calls though, and when she manages to settle herself so she can cradle his head in her lap, she feels the back of his head is wet and sticky with blood, and her fear rises again.
He drops in and out of consciousness, muttering incoherently and he shows no signs of recognising her. Help finally comes and she calls the Praetorians to her, gathers the Imperial Ring and Wreath. She can't hear Drusus calling anymore but she knows that Marcus has to be the successor, the alternative is unthinkable. He's conscious but babbling when she gets back, but looking the young Praetorian in the eye she thinks he'll help them maintain the charade as she coaxes Marcus through the words he used to know so well.
Una's in the palace, waiting and restless in the rooms she used to share with Marcus, when he could persuade her too. She shouldn't have come so early, she thinks. She shouldn't be so eager, she knows it's not right for them to be together. On the way to the palace she'd seen Noriko's faded face staring reprovingly at her from tattered posters that hadn't been replaced since the wedding. Marcus is happy enough to have her installed at Tusculum and out of the way, he swears to Una that she understands their marriage is purely a political gambit. It's not enough though, Una knows, at least it would never be enough for her.
But still she's here. Here and waiting, of all things. It sickens her a little to realise how dependent she's become. She thought it would be easy staying away, but she can't. Drawn in like a helpless insect to the Novian flame. Her skin is tingling as the hours slip by, at first it's just anticipation but soon she's feeling uncomfortable enough to pull her skin right off, as if she can hatch into some new and impervious Una who'll be strong enough to walk away.
How long can he spend at the games, she wonders. She knows he would never choose to be there, that he will leave as soon as he reasonably can. The apartments she's in are bare, there's not even a clock to help her track the passing of time. She lies back on the bed and lets the Golden House wash over her. It's exhausting just being here, she can feel the weight of it on her, suffocating, as the servants rush past on silent feet. She's not trying to listen in to anyone's thoughts, but she can't help it in the state of mind she's in, snatches of feeling just drift towards her.
There are more people moving around now, a sense of agitation that matches her own, and she's getting bursts of fear and panic, images of Marcus and Faustus, and then someone shouting as they walk past her door. "Fetch Novianus Sulien."
Something must have happened at the games, perhaps another stroke for Faustus, Sulien had been worried he was pushing himself too much. Fear starts gnawing at Una now, and she tries to pull more information from the people rushing by but she's lost it, she can no longer settle her own thoughts in the right way. She'll have to find somebody she trusts. She slips out of the rooms and head towards the longdictor exchange. The boy who'd saved her from Drusus, she knows he'll tell her the truth, if she can only find him. He doesn't know much, some confused information about an explosion, that Marcus and Drusus and Faustus are all in the hospital.
"But Marcus is, he's alive?"
"I... I don't know anything else, madam." She can see on his face that he's remembered too late he's not supposed to say that to her. "But Lady Makaria is here, she's in her father's office."
She doesn't even stop to thank him, she just runs.
She's hardly been in the painted garden since that first time, which feels like a million years ago. None of the fixtures have changed, Glycon is still looking outraged to see her violating this almost sacred space, but the inhabitants couldn't be more different. Makaria is as white as marble, except for vivid streaks of red across one cheek and down her arms. Varius is ashy pale, his dark skin almost grey. What little colour she has drains out of Una's face as she struggles to get her questions out.
"Marcus, is he..."
"The Emperor is in the Aesculapian," Makaria says quietly.
"Marcus is the Emperor now," says Varius.
It's too much for her to take in, she can't quite comprehend what's happened. "Sulien..." she whispers.
"He's already with him," says Varius.
"Then I need to be there too."
Somebody arranges a car for her but she doesn't remember how she gets there, only seeing Sulien, who looks so pale as well, coming out of a hospital room. Una collapses in his arms, lets him fold himself around her and gets some semblance of comfort.
"Will he be all right?"
"I don't know, Una," Sulien says, and she looks up at him with anguished eyes. "Physically, there's nothing wrong, but inside his head..."
"But you fixed Faustus."
"This isn't like Faustus."
She can't talk anymore and just lets him pull her into the room where Marcus is lying on a bed, looking healthier than everyone else but not moving at all.
When he wakes for the first time, there's a girl with hair the colour of rabbit's fur slumped across his bed. He doesn't know who she is but he feels driven to touch it.
He had a pet rabbit once, he thinks, when he was a very small boy. But there were some problems, he remembers his mother and father shouting, his father saying it was no fit pet for a Novian, his mother insisting that the rabbit would stay. He thinks he remembers holding the rabbit in his arms, the feel of its soft fur against his cheek, the quivering tension of its body and its heartbeat leaping against his own. He remembers letting it go, hoping that will make his parents stop.
The next time he wakes there's another girl he doesn't know watching him silently from a chair, with hair so long it sweeps the floor. He wants to stretch out and touch that to, but doesn't dare. A whisper of memory slips by, of silk and strange voices. Somewhere far away. He thinks he remembers hurting her.
He sees them both when he wakes, from time to time, but never together. There's a young man too, who acts like he should know him but he doesn't at all. The young man puts his hands on Marcus, gives him names and tells him stories to wrap around the blank places in his life where people should be, but they keep slipping away from him.
Noriko sees Una approach the door and walk away. She's been keeping vigil with Marcus, she doesn't know what else she's expected to do. She'd barely made it back to the villa in the Imperial car before she was turned around and brought straight back to Rome. She remembers Una although she hasn't seen her since she arrived, how could she forget. Marcus had made it very clear what place Una had in his life. He'd been fair about it, she supposed, he wasn't holding her to any obligations of faithfulness either. She supposed she should be outraged by the scandalous Roman morals, but actually it's caused her more relief than anything else. She's finally freer than she ever could be at home.
She sees Una again, stepping up and then walking away. Noriko gets up and walks after her. She's not sure if she should call the girl's name but then she turns anyway.
"I'll go," she says.
"No, say," Noriko says.
"I shouldn't even be here," she says, "I have no right."
"You have every right," Noriko says.
"How can you be nice about this?"
Noriko bows her head. She doesn't have the words to explain and it's just so frustrating, she wants to communicate with Una now they have this connection. "Please, just go to him."
She can see her guards waiting and she walks towards them, leaving Una open mouthed behind her.
They see each other more frequently in the corridors after that, and Noriko starts to smile at her when they meet. Una never smiles back, but she always looks her in the eye, and once she quickly clasps her hands and says "Thank you."
Makaria is starting to hate the confines of the painted garden. It was never a place she would choose to be, but she found herself trapped there. Varius insisted, he could never take the position for himself but he would support her in every way he could. If anyone mentions Drusus he's always there, he swears he'll never let him become a problem. It frightens her a little to hear the steel in his voice when he does, but it reassures her that he's still tucked away in another wing of the hospital, far away from Marcus. Noriko never insisted, but she's made it clear in her quiet way that her family will only support her staying here if she's ruling in Marcus' name, for as long as necessary. That threat is barely enough to keep Salvius at bay, and it frightens her to think about what deals he might be making in the Senate. Even Una, tense and fierce, cornered her at the hospital when she came to visit, visibly fighting with herself as she asked Makaria to continue for Marcus' sake. Sulien too, he wants her to keep going. He can't tell her how long she'll need to be regent for though. He's not even sure she'll be able to stop, for all he says that Marcus is improving. Sometimes, that almost makes her glad, and that's the most frightening thing of all.
Una knows that Sulien has been asking him to practice his writing, tracing over and over the intricacies of his name so his signature can help shore up the fragile political refuge they’re building for themselves. That’s why she isn’t surprised to see him busy with a pen and paper when she comes back after one of her desperate, furtive escapes. He smiles at her with heartbreaking blankness, tears the page from his notebook and thrusts it towards her.
“This is for you.”
She takes it automatically, her heart twisting at the sight of the childish scrawl.
“It’s something you wanted, isn’t it?” There’s a note of uncertainty in his voice, but more than that, there’s a flicker, or an echo, or something in his thoughts.
She stops to actually read what he has given her, and finds she’s reading through a shimmering glaze of tears.
Slavery is to be abolished everywhere in the Empire from now
Marcus Novius Faustus Leo
The writing is uneven and wavering, but the intent behind it…
“I think it’s something that you wanted very much.”
Una wraps her arms around herself, trying to hold in the tears, hold her voice steady. “More than anything.” So why does it feel like it doesn’t matter at all.
It's the first time Una's been back in the Golden House since the day of the explosion. She still seems a little out of place to Makaria, but then, Makaria's always been a little out of place there too. She's got something clutched in her hand.
"He gave me a proclamation," she says, "Marc... the Emperor gave me this. So now you have to do something about it."
She holds out the paper, it's a crumpled up sheet from the type of notebook school children use. She opens it up, reads it and blanches. "You know I can't do this. Not now."
Una just glares at her.
"Between Drusus and Salvius I'm barely holding on here as it is, and then there's a war I'm trying desperately hard not to fight, and the public - they'd cruc...they'd never let me get away with this."
"But it's what Marcus wants."
"I'm sorry," Makaria says, and actually almost means it, "But it's just impossible."
"Then I'll take it back." Una snatches it from her hands. "I'll keep it safe for him, he's getting better you know, and he will make this happen."
He doesn't really know how long he's been in the hospital, time doesn't always mean a lot to him any more. It's better now that he's allowed to go out into the gardens. The girl with the hair like rabbit's fur is there almost all the time, and he knows her name now, thinks she knows who she is, even knows what she is.
“Una,” he says, the memories crashing back like waves onto the rocks. “ Una.”
And she’s there, leaping into his arms. Really there, but she’s the one who’s been there all along. He’s the one who’s back, knowing that her slight weight isn’t enough to overbalance him but falling backwards anyway, laughing, pulling her with him.
They tumble over each other in the grass, and he’s not relearning but remembering the heat of her skin, the softness of her hair against the dry grass. They come to a stop with her on top, using her legs to pin his arms down by his side. He knows she’s going to kiss him, any second, and he looks up at her in anticipation. He can see his whole world contained in the depths of her eyes but he needs to look further, tipping his head back to peer through the curtain of her hair.
Bright leaves, blue sky, a swallow swooping by.