Merlow wakes with a painful gasp, muscles trembling, defensive tears burning his eyes as he jerks upright. A cry grows in his chest; viciously aware that he no longer sleeps alone, Merlow bites it back with such force that blood fills his mouth and the cry strangles in his throat, coalescing into a sharp lump. Breathing ragged, he buries his face in his hands, eyes squeezed shut against the horrors. Like that’ll do any good, when the horrors are all in his mind, lighting fires behind his eyelids… but it’s all he can do.
His lip has stopped bleeding by the time he feels safe enough in his control to scrub the tears from his face and let his hands drop to his sweaty sheet. The cold night air chills his skin, sending welcoming little shivers up his back that distract better from the fires of his demons than his own whirling thoughts are capable of doing. They’ve ended up in an ill-heated stable - not as bad as an alley, but not a room either - and he smooths stray bits of straw from his sheet with shaking fingers as he tries to regain some semblance of equilibrium.
“Merlow,” he hears from the side, tired and baritone and worried. Stiffening, Merlow twists and nearly falls over at the abrupt motion, not quite in total control of his body yet.
“Nocturne,” he breathes, harsh and recrimatory. Y’idiot, this is exactly what ye weren’t supposed to do! “M’sorry -”
Nocturne shakes his head. “No need to apologize. It’s not your fault I’m awake.”
Merlow stares, stunned out of self-blame. “It’s not?”
“No.” With a pained, yet still assuring smile, Nocturne taps the side of his leg. “I’ve been awake for quite some time.” Regret and sorrow glow in his eyes, obscuring the pain and catching Merlow’s undivided attention and sending a shimmer of something into his gut that loosens the knots. “I attempted to wake you earlier, but I didn’t wish to disturb the others, and it’s a tad too difficult to move at the moment, I’m afraid.”
Something that could be a hoarse chuckle looses itself from his chest and Merlow scrubs at a dry tearstain, unable to keep the tremulous smile that flickers onto his face for long. “Sorry,” he croaks. “Just… it’s probably a good thing ye didn’t. I could’ve punched ye in the nose if ye tried.”
“Ah.” A faint smile touches Nocturne’s face. “The voice of experience speaks again.”
His chuckle sounds more like a laugh and less like a creak, and Merlow lets his hands fall. “Aye,” he agrees, then casts a worried look at Nocturne’s slightly bent leg, wondering… well… “D’ye need help?” Merlow asks quietly. “With yer leg, is there anythin’...?”
He’s not sure why he droops a little when Nocturne shakes his head. “No, thank you. It’ll clear up on its own in time.”
“Right.” Merlow worries the travel blanket with calloused fingers. “I should just be gettin’ back to sleep then.”
He’ll only end up hunched under his blanket in a ball for the rest of the night, but… maybe it’s worth a try anyway. He certainly feels better than he has in a long time after one of his night terrors, the horrified screams in his heart quieted by Nocturne’s soothing presence. It’s quite a change from their first meeting; Merlow doesn’t think Nocturne could scare him now if he tried. Particularly not when Nocturne’s eyes flicker down to the ground and then back up to give Merlow a worried look.
“Merlow,” the infernal starts, then hesitates.
“Aye?” Merlow encourages, both out of desire to hear whatever it is Nocturne has to say and a reluctance to return to the hellscape of his dreams. Absently, he wraps his blanket around him like a cloak, peering at Nocturne with a curiosity that, if his eyes aren’t greatly mistaken (and they might be, in this dim lighting) brings a faint blush to his friend’s cheeks.
Nocturne shifts a little, then says shyly, “I realize it may not be helpful given the general tone of my work, but… would music help?”
His heart aches fiercely with something light, something good and hopeful and wonderful that banishes the terrors from his mind entirely. “ Aye, ” Merlow breathes fervently, and the light blossoms at Nocturne’s surprised, shy smile. “ Thank ye.”
Ducking his head, the polite response a flustered murmur on his lips, Nocturne busies himself with pulling his violin carefully from its case and transforming cane to bow in a single clever motion that Merlow never tires of watching. Quite without his permission, Merlow finds himself beside Nocturne as the infernal lifts the violin to his chin and draws a hum of tuning notes from the strings, quiet and soothing, melding with the night. With a frown, Nocturne makes an adjustment, then tries again, satisfaction softening his face at the lack of sourness in the sound.
Music whispers through the night, heartbreakingly lovely in Nocturne’s hands. For several long moments all Merlow can do is listen, eyes closed as he lists to the side, inevitably brushing up against Nocturne in the process. When there’s no protest, not even a shift or a stutter in the music, Merlow sighs and burrows against him, drawing comfort from Nocturne’s warmth. The mournful stylings of a violin follow him into a velvet darkness that defies nightmares, cradling him as he finally falls back asleep.
The last notes of the tune curl around the pair and shimmer into silence. Hardly daring to breathe, Nocturne slowly lowers his precious violin, and sighs in relief when the lack of music does nothing to make Merlow stir. It’s with care that he puts everything away before he gently pulls up the blanket that’s fallen from Merlow’s shoulders during his fall from Nocturne’s side to his lap.
Uncertain what to do now, but unable to ignore the tug of exhaustion, Nocturne finally uses one hand to prop himself up. The other ends up on Merlow’s shoulder, despite himself, and his head bobs forward tiredly. Thoughtlessly, Nocturne touches Merlow’s braid, tracing the softness with his thumb before sleep overtakes him.
When Diana pops her head over the stall door the next morning to wake the lazybones from their beauty sleep, she hides her grin behind her hands and disappears into the inn, a private little love song already writing itself in her head. After all, nobody can mind if she doesn’t share, and the image of Merlow’s head tucked in Nocturne’s lap, the infernal’s hand claimed by the half-elf and snuggled up to his cheek in sleep is far too cute to resist.