A triplet of brass, a downward lilt of baritone, and the waltz makes its presence known in a magnificent swing, painting the ballroom an even brighter gild than it already parades. The pearly notes are so opulent they drip from the chandeliers of crystal and mirror hanging above.
Belarus ignores the coy, rouged faces and waxed mustaches in ere of searching out someone else. Lithuania is not difficult to find; that undecorated, sensible suit isn’t just an eyesore amidst the stifling haze of wealth and orchestra and decadent nonsense, it announces his lesser agency to the rest of the guests like a town crier. She has to force herself not to wrinkle her nose at the sight of her once-loved, (once-strong, handsome) childhood companion reduced to a pitiful, withered shadow with the sole purpose of stewarding human aristocrats.
As if her subconscious contempt for him is palpable, Lithuania turns, locks eyes with her from across the polished marble floor. Through the bolts of embroidered silk and beaver’s felt Natalya watches him set down his silver tea service - bearing an array of empty champagne flutes - and face her.
His eyes are dark, keen.
She strides across the room, noting with a faint smirk the way the servants gathered there slowly edge away and scatter like the timid animals they are.
He doesn’t move.
Natalya doesn’t even ask, only extends her hand in a gesture of open – if not demanded - invitation.
“I’ll be punished.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
He takes her by the waist, she takes him by the arm.
And their feet step together, step forward…
Neither of them care that he’s only wearing a butler’s black uniform, that she’s discarded her evening gloves, that more eyes are snaring them with every light, brisk turn of the waltz.
Amongst the clashing of vibrant colors, the shimmering of rare jewels and faceted gold and indulgent lies Natalya’s gaze finds rest in his soft, honest face.
They only have eyes for each other tonight.
He sweeps her up and her bare hands rest on the sinews of his worn shoulders, she feels the swell in her chest before her feet leave the floor.
For a moment the hall disappears and is replaced with another, one of wood and stone, incensed with dry pine, filled with sacred voices that don't carry the sharp hiss of deceit…
Back down, down to cold marble floors, down to pinching, displeasing shoes and pinching, displeased faces.
Her vast midnight skirts circle him like the cape of a protective mother around her precious child.
His steps are quick and precise - a metronome. Natalya is surprised by his strong movements, as if he’s been doing this for centuries.
As if he wasn’t borne of cedar and tumbling streams and wild grass.
Their feet barely skim the floor and she knows they’re slipping into the grip of an archaic dance that wasn’t learned with the aid of a dusty, thin-lipped tutor. It was learned from animal treads and moon-silvered willow branches, hares’ feet and birdsong - she’s lost in the swaying movement of their ancient bodies long before she’s lost in the silence following that final, deafening crescendo.
She sits on a bolstered velvet couch, hands folded in her lap as she gazes into the dark.
Dark like his eyes, dark like his bruises…
The guests have long ago retired to their apartments by the time he slips back into the ballroom from wherever he’d been taken, returning to her side instead of taking to his own quarters like they both know he should.
Every time he draws too near he gets scalded. Her angry fire burns too bright and he knows it.
She wants to pull away when he kneels down in front of the couch, wants to hit him, wants anything but this-
He moves slower now, he moves like he's been dazed - stunned back into the weary stupor with which he always conducts himself. Natalya tenses as he leans forward, eyes cast down, and presses his face into her skirts, hands gently circling around her calves through the too-heavy petticoats.
An act of submission… acceptance? She doesn’t know, doesn’t ask.
He hadn’t so much as struggled when they’d taken him down the hall, silently sweeping through the grand foyer and out of sight the moment she’d released him from the ballast of their shared hands. And she tells herself that that was what she'd wanted, she wanted him to be punished, she wanted that pock-marked official who'd been eyeing him all evening to have a reason to take Toris into an unoccupied drawing room and slam his frail, servant body into the sharp corner of a table.
She can’t pull away, she gazes at him with fascination and dismay; the back of his skull is matted with black, with blood, his coat collar is soaked in that rich color.
One hand comes up to strike him between his too-thin shoulder and his too-thin neck, but for all the false hatred she’s wedged between them, it isn’t enough for her to act on the violence building in her chest, and instead her hand rests on his head in a delicate whisper of touch.
She feels wet, hot flesh under her fingertips.
She feels him sink into her lap, releasing the tension, laying himself bare and vulnerable...
An object of unabating trust.
“I’m no good for you, Toris.”
“That doesn’t matter.”