The room is so brightly lit and heavily mirrored that the whole thing seems like it’s glowing. It ought to be cheery, but it’s too razor-edged for comfort, with all the lethal sheen of a scalpel. Even the black-clad waiters wear mirrored masks, and Diane feels a creep crawl down her spine.
Which is bare, because if she’s going to do something, she isn’t going to do it by halves. The dress costs more than she really cares to consider; a gift, the Ambassador had said, but Diane knows there’s strings attached.
There always are, with people like that.
She’d thank the Gods for Shard’s tendency to cover her six, but it’d ultimately be a little redundant given the circumstances. She might as well just say it to his face and cut out the middleman.
“So this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen”, she informs him out of the corner of her mouth. He’s wearing his own face, albiet a bit scaled down for size. He’s been doing that more frequently around her, although never in so public a venue.
But this is all in his honour, in a manner of speaking… and tonight, at least, he doesn’t look out of place.
Diane herself is theatrically dressed, and in a tiny little corner of her heart, she likes the way the gown swishes. She’d really only ever enjoyed the events back home for the company, but there’s something strangely nostalgic about it now.
She gives the diaphanous panels that make up her gown another sway, feeling a little like a —
“Stay close, Princess”, Shard whispers into her ear, and she only jumps a little. She’d bet her literal last gold coin that he’d done it just to spook her. A shadow tickles down her spine for a single second before he backs away, grinning like the devil they claim he is.
He’s playful tonight, which she happens to be completely fine with. Shard is genuinely fun company when he’s in his right mind, and Diane’s in a good mood herself. It’s a pretty night; the velvety blackness outside is glittering like the bubbles in her champagne glass, and she likes the way Shard’s watching her.
He’s handsome in black; it suits him.
“Are you flirting with me?”, she teases.
Diane’s had the wind knocked out of her before, and it feels a little bit like this. She misses a step in shock, and her heel skitters out from under her. Her hand flings out on pure instinct, and is caught — no, it’s cradled — in return.
Shard smiles down at her with some satisfaction. He especially seems to enjoy catching her wrong-footed, but never lets her make too big an ass of herself. She… appreciates that about him.
She appreciates lots of things about Shard, and being surrounded by mirrors doesn’t help with that.
For example, she appreciates his height. Diane isn’t an overly tall person, but she is a pragmatic girl, so she appreciates having both a unstoppable force and immovable object at her side. It also helps that he can reach things on the top shelves.
And of course she appreciates his physique. She’s not blind. Or, for that matter, particularly principled about her appreciation.
She isn’t even sure if it’s because he’s trying to work himself to suit her, or if he truly chooses to wear all those muscles. And it’s not just shadows and mirrors; he’s every bit as strong as he looks. On one memorable occasion, Shard had demonstrated his strength by…
—Holding you up for an extended period of time? My goodness, Diane, if I’d known you thought so highly of my body, I’d never have bothered wearing a borrowed suit.
“Shit!”, she blurts aloud, cheeks flushing with embarrassment as she twitches mightily. He snickers at her expense, the bastard.
You were listening?! What, you never learned to knock? Damn it, Shard!”
You were thinking, loudly. And about such an enthralling topic. Tell me, Princess, what else do you like about me?
She can feel him leering at her. It speaks to her state of mind that she doesn’t even care.
Your winning fucking attitude, she glowers back, eyes narrowed. Stay out of my head, Shard, I’m serious. And I thought… I thought that took energy?
He looks unbearably, cheerfully smug, which suits him perfectly. That ought to have been her first warning.
It does”, he murmurs directly into her head. She shivers at the intrusion, but acquiesces as he lowers his voice. He knows the effect the baritone has on her, and true to form, her eyelids go heavy with a predatory regard. A lioness at rest. A young one, still, but fierce. His nature demands a challenge; hers requires an opponent she can throw herself at.
But tonight’s… a good night, he continues, just to see his formidable keeper go sharp-eyed with desire. According to them, I’m at my… apex.
She fluffs up like a startled cat; pretty and feral and full of hunger and sharp edges. How could he resist tweaking her tail?
What a pointed choice of words, she mutters, sounding petulant even through the bond. I swear, Shard! I can’t take you anywhere.
I’m not the one who just used naughty words in polite company, Princess”, he croons into her ear, using his voice. His breath rustles the delicate hairs at the nape of her neck, and she shivers and scowls in one simultaneous full-body motion.
“No part of you is polite”, she hisses aloud, and he leers at her.
He has the audacity to wink, and she’s charmed despite herself. She can feel a blush stinging her cheeks.
She groans, and would cover her eyes with her hand — only, she’s scared to death of smudging the gold paint that traces like lace over her eyes, temples and nose. A trace drips down her chin and her lips are painted to match. It had taken the Imperium spy posing as a lady’s maid almost an hour to finish the job, but when she catches sight of herself in the gilded mirrors, Diane has to admit she looks beautiful and strange.
The effect is altogether uncanny; the creature in her reflection is both herself and not.
Diane is sensible boots and many-pocketed pants, bought for comfort and utility on the move. She is a bandanna to hold back her hair or hide her face, and a dagger at her side. The woman in the reflection is dark eyes smudged with kohl, and a work of art painted on her skin. She is a column of tawny gold, bright and deadly as the sun.
Keeper hangs from a chain at her waist; she has conceded even this to the art of diplomacy.
And if she is a stranger to herself, seeing Shard like this is a revelation. A door opens both ways, and she knows as much about him as he does about her. It’s not always comfortable, but thus far, nothing she’s learned has been enough to dissuade her from pursuing him.
He’s dressed in indigo so dark that it’s almost black at a distance. The suit is cut slim, and the bulk of him ought to make it look severe. But the waistcoat is speckled with silver, and up close she can see they’re all tiny diamonds, picking out the constellations.
She swallows, hard.
There are a few discrete but highly polished silver fastenings at the throat, but it’s the epaulettes that catch the eye. On them, the phases of the moon are embroidered with perfect stitches. He wears a cape, to match the gauzy panels of her gown; but while hers are diaphanous as sunlight, his is dark as the night sky. Here are there, she can see the black embroidery of an owl in flight, of dead trees in unwholesome forests, and of the eldritch things that walk in them. She hadn't asked where he'd gotten his suit from; now it occurs to her that the Imperium might have had nothing to do with it.
She thinks she sees one of the spindly figures move, and looks away sharply, up and up to the rest of him.
The skin of his head is painted; silver on stone grey, the sheen of a knife against rocks. It’s a complement to her tawny stripes. She’d applied it herself after he’d pitched a fit in her general direction.
“No. I will not allow myself to be pawed at by some Imperium flunkie. Unless you command it, of course”, he’d spat, surprising her with its vehemence, until she’d remembered where they were and why he might not want strangers around him, touching him.
Keeper had felt very heavy then.
“I’m not going to force you to get body-painted”, she’d said tartly, because it was better than plotting the murder of everyone who’d ever laid a hand on him. “But what if I do it?”
He’d looked at her for a long moment, and then nodded once. He hadn’t breathed the entire time, but she’d been so edgy she hadn’t noticed until they were nearly done.
Where her filigree is arches and flutings, geometric and precise in form and design, his are brutal slashes of silver, smeared like blood over the cut of his cheekbones and the blade of his nose. They rise from his temples to spatter over the skin of his scalp. Diane had been been winging it, but the more she’d done, the better she’d felt about it. The end result looked like the idol of some old god, carved out of stone and now abandoned in the desert starlight.
She’d done it as the moon was rising, in the privacy of her suites. He’d reclined in her chair like it was a throne, and she’d perched on the bed, paintbrush in hand, and need baring its teeth in the pit of her stomach. By the time she’d finished he’d been the picture of relaxation; eyes closed and legs spread, his head back and the smallest of smiles on his lips.
She’d wanted him so badly she’d almost called this whole farce off, but here she is, schmoozing with people she hates about things she resents. She wishes they’d never left the bedroom; she knows thwarted hormones are making her cranky, but can’t seem to do a damned thing about it.
The problem is that Shard looks good, and he knows it. Everyone else knows it too; the mirrors refract their image in nauseating cuts of light, but it also means everyone gets a glimpse of them. Diane despises feeling like she’s a particularly interesting specimen under a microscope, and she doesn’t like to share. She also doesn’t feel like engaging in polite but hateful conversations about dangerous topics with a number of people she genuinely loathes, but she’s just not that lucky. Shard is one giant buzz of amusement at her side, and she scowls at him every now and again as she works the room.
As soon as she can get away with it, she’s eyeballing the exit.
From this angle, she can barely just see the smirk on his face. If she squints, it might as well not be there at all. Sneaky bastard, she thinks with considerable affection.
“Hey. I’m done with this. Do you wanna get out of here?” She asks, going for casual despite the live-wire sensation curling down her spine at the way his eyes trail over her.
“Well, when you ask so nicely, Princess”, he purrs, every word an insinuation.
She ignores him and strides off in the direction of the gardens, rendered black and skeletal with snow. Once they’re deep in, far away from prying eyes and sheltered by a grove of thick birches, she stops. Her feet in their stupid heels are about to freeze off and she’s quaking with the cold, but it’s nearly private so she’ll suck it up. The snowfall blocks out the noise of the party and the silence feels thick with nerves. Every now and again, she glares at him, but he just smiles placidly and radiates smugness in her general direction.
With his bruise-black suit, the snow on his shoulders, and those eerie streaks of silver leaf, he looks every bit at home as the trees and the cold night sky.
Diane sometimes forgets that he is the thing in the dark.
It’s a good look on him, and Diane sort of wants to punch his stupid mouth. Possibly with her face. The immediate snort of laughter that follows the thought jerks her from her meditation on the broad swathe of his chest; caught out and confronted, she chooses fight over flight.
She whips around, teeth already bared at him.
“What have I told you about staying out of my head?!”
“So many tells, Princess…” He sounds delighted to have caught her out. He probably is; it’s a game with him. She inevitably loses, but she’s getting better at it slowly. That doesn’t mean she has to be gracious about it.
She scowls. “What was it this time?” Diane knows Shard’s unlikely to be wrong, and it’s important. She wants to survive this, and that starts with being canny.
“You were staring at my tits.”
Diane feels her jaw drop.
“Your tits.” She tries to be neutral, to give him an honest hearing, but the incredulity seeps through.
“I haven’t started to stutter. Yes, Princess, my tits. I’ve noticed you like them.”
She splutters, and he leers at her.
“It’s alright, Diane. No need to get flustered. I like yours, too.”
His shadows wrap around them all at once, and suddenly all Diane feels is warm. She steps into the vice of his arms, head barely hitting his shoulder. He could shrink, if he wanted to. He doesn’t, and she likes that too. He knows her so well that it should be frightening. Instead, it just feels like comfort and, for the first time in a long time, a little like safety.
“Show-off”, she accuses, because it's better than oozing emotion everywhere. “You’ve done something, haven’t you?”
He nods, wholly unrepentant. “Anyone observing will see us conversing. I have loaned you my coat for warmth.”
“How gentlemanly. While your illusion holds… I’m safe? From the cold? That is a clever trick, Shard.”
“Is that satisfaction I hear? Are you impressed, little miss?”
“Like I’d admit it and stroke your ego”, she snaps back. “And don’t call me that!”
His smile is slow and hot in return.
“You’re welcome to stroke anything you like, Princess…” , he murmurs, insinuation rich in his tone, and there’s something about the way the title sounds in his mouth that makes her shiver. Diane likes the way he loses himself in her, like she’s a pool of deep water in the desert. She enjoys the way he looks and the way those muscles of his flex and shift as she teases him, the way they clench and release under her fingertips. His fingers trace along the nape of her neck, careful to avoid the gold paint that traces down the range of her spine.
She loves the noises he makes and the way he breathes her name like a prayer, a benediction, when she finally lets them join.
Diane has been a dictator’s daughter and a demon’s keeper, but in this, the mask of the lover — and the beloved — she feels most strong. It makes her brave, and bold.
“Don’t mess up my hair”, she snaps. “It took that prissy handmaid a good hour and fifteen minutes to make it look this nice; if you ruin it I swear I will find a way to end you.”
She doesn’t give a single solitary fuck about her hair, but she knows Shard. By saying that, she’s all but guaranteed he’ll get his hands in it sooner rather than later, and true to form, he does not disappoint.
“Promise?”, he asks sweetly, and she glares at him.
“Don’t sound so hopeful, Shard, shit”, she teases, and he grins down at her. When she looks up through her eyelashes she sees desire in his gaze, scalding enough to match hers. “Hey, Shard?”, she murmurs, stepping more fully into his shadows. They wrap more closely around her, and she sighs contentedly.
“Take me home”, she breathes, and tonight, on this darkest of nights, he can.
The candles in her room gutter and flare all at once as he wills them into it, making everything glow with a blurry beauty. Diane watches with hazy awe as her hands reach up of their own volition, still trembling and blue with cold, to unlatch the button at Shard’s throat.
He swallows, a distinctly human gesture that catches her off-guard.
She inhales deeply, enjoying the scent of dried lime and black pepper of his cologne. Under it is the scent of him, something a little like ozone, the air before a storm. Lightning in the desert, maybe; the scent of fresh glass.
Diane has always, always, wanted to play with fire.
“Shard”, she whispers. “Let me. Please.”
He releases a breath, and she moves her hands down the expanse of him. She wants to touch him so eagerly her lips tingle. When he allows it, she surges forward like a conflagration. Diane traces kisses up his jaw and down his throat. Some are hungry and open-mouthed, others soft and delicate as lambswool, but all of them mark him for her.
Here, and here and there, and he is helpless before her.
Diane is greedy, and demanding, and he’s called her insatiable more than once. It hasn’t always been a complement, but she is nothing if not focused, and Shard has never once complained about that. Diaphanous layers of gold and rose coloured silk cascade in layers around her, and she for the first time in a long while, she feels pretty. Shard seems to agree; he hasn’t been able to take his eyes off of her all evening.
She doesn’t mind.
The gold leaf across her eyelids was put there deliberately to catch the candlelight, and the gold combs holding her hair up glint brightly. She is a vision, and he isn’t touching her. His fists are clenched at his side, as though afraid to sully her. After all the work that went in to this, she’ll be damned if he keeps his hands to himself. It takes her a moment to realize; Shard has always followed her lead, when it counted. Service with a snarl, sarcasm or some mix of the two, but always at her back. A lifetime — many, many lifetimes — of doing what others want has rendered him static; he is an unstoppable force, but needs a push to get the ball rolling.
So she gives him a shove, and then another, until he’s backed against the windows with nighttime at his back.
He bares his throat willingly, easily, and she is aware of the gift he has offered her. She trails her finger over the skin, and he sighs out a soft, yearning breath. The buttons follow, and soon he is nude before her. He’s handsomely formed, and he knows it, so she doesn’t fault him the smug expression on his face.
It doesn’t last long anyways.
As soon as she drops to her knees, his eyes fly wide. This isn’t the first time she’s done this, but there’s something about tonight that feels… new. There’s a frisson in the air, down her spine, at all the points where their flesh connects.
Suddenly, she knows what the difference is.
Most of the time, Shard wears human well; but it’s only ever a borrowed pair of shoes. It fits but not well; his mortal form pinches and wears on him, and tonight the fabric of his mortality wears thin. She wonders if the Imperium knows, if they could ever have guessed what they invited inside their little gala. She doubts it; their hubris is Diane’s shield. They cannot believe that their magics would ever fail, and have no failsafe means to check.
Whatever they had done to bind him to that knife has a weak-spot, and now Diane knows it.
Plans aside, she thinks they’ve taken her for a rookie and him for granted, and that was their mistake to make.
Diane, on the other hand, has abruptly had to come to grips with the fact that she can take nothing for granted. She clings to what she’s taken with avaricious hunger and that, of course, includes Shard.
Fingers trail up the muscles of his thighs with possessive verve. They’re well-formed and thick with corded muscle; her nails travel the line of his hamstring upwards with a lover’s well-worn familiarity. He sighs again, and those big hands of his fall to her shoulders, kneading the muscle in time with her little touches. She basks in the sensation like a cat, going so far as to rest her flushed cheek against the coolness of his flesh. She’d had a bad sunburn once as a child and soothed herself by resting her blistered back on the chill marble floors of her suites. She had felt that curious sensation of not-pain for hours, as the stone chilled away the worst of the burn.
It’s similar to this, now.
Shard’s unmoving form might as well be a graven image for all the warmth he provides. Diane can picture it; some ancient and stern man, all broad stretches of muscle and dark, assessing eyes. Diane is a creature of impulse and not at all inclined to second-guessing; when the thought occurs to her, it rings through her mind like a bell. This time, she knows the idea is all hers.
Shard would never dare to dream it.
Diane drops her hands from his flesh and shifts herself backwards. She doesn’t rise to her feet; the gauze of her dress puddles around her like the dawn, and she finds herself facing him at knee level. The view is fantastic, but she doesn’t dwell on it. Much. Instead, she presses her fingertips to the floor and slowly, slowly, prostrates herself at his feet. Though she adopts the supplicant’s pose, she never drops her gaze —
And so is rewarded by the look of utter shock that crosses his features. She’s never seen Shard look quite like that before. His eyes flare wide, and the tension he carries in his muscles seems to dissipate like mist in midday. He even stands a little straighter; shoulders back and chin high, and the air rings with the clarity of a water droplet in a silent room.
For a moment, she can imagine him at his fullest; a God, an Arch-Demon, some creature beyond mortal comprehension. It’s as though the veil that usually covers him in some semblance of mortality has been exchanged for one of her gossamer panels; she can see him.
So this is what divinity looks like, Diane thinks wildly. And then, quickly on the heels of that:
And we put him on a leash.
Then Shard surprises her; his hand appears in her line of sight, fingers uncurled. When she stares, stupid as a codfish, he stretches and relaxes his fingers in the subtlest of invitations. It’s enough; she takes his hand and rises.
He crushes her to him as soon as she does; his shadows lift her with ease, bringing their lips together in a kiss that tastes of ichor and sweet temptation, and Diane thinks she could die for want of him. And he’s murmuring in her ear, disjointed streams of sound that only now amount to words — or, more precisely, a word.
Invocation, supplication, benediction — none of it matters, now.
All the matters is the feeling of power against her lips, the taste of ozone on her tongue, the sound of her name whispered like a prayer in the dark. He is caught between the candles and the stars; between the night-black and mortal-light; Diane wonders how she could ever compare to the power she can sense thrumming under his skin.
And yet, here he stands.
“Not you, Diane”, she hears him murmur, over and over again, even as his lips crush against hers with consumptive greed. “Never you.”
“Never me?”, she asks, feeling a little stupid.
“No”, he snarls, sounding absolutely wrecked. Her fingertips tingle with want when he cups her cheeks and presses his lips to her forehead with aching tenderness. A blessing, then, she thinks.
“Never. Not you. You never kneel to me.”
The look in those inhuman eyes of his is enough to convince her. His hands stroke along her cheekbones, smearing the gold like holy oil, and she thinks foolish thoughts, like:
I love you too.
She doesn’t say them aloud, but he knows them anyways. He kisses her like a drowning man gulps oxygen; like she's the last gasp of air he'll ever experience. She thinks she could happily sink into him, lose herself in the maelstrom that curdles and churns inside him. So she does. When he releases her, she shudders; fire and ice play over her skin by turns, and all of it his, and hers, and theirs, and it’s enough to make her close her eyes and cling to him for dear life.
“Okay but hold on”, she mumbles, when she finally has two brain cells to rub together. “I can’t ever kneel?”
She looks at him, and he looks back at her, and she should probably know better than to match him grin for grin. He looks down, following her gaze, and chuckles. “Don’t look so put out, Diane”, he teases, and she scowls.
“Wanna put out”, is her sulky reply, but he muffles his rude laughter against the sweetness of her lips.
“Wanna watch the sunrise with you”, he whispers back, and it’s sweet heart and softness, and the promise of the thin grey line at the horizon. She can feel him against her, slowly sinking back into some semblance of mortality, but knows that for as long as she lives, she’ll never forget this.