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Smoke and Broken Mirrors

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There was a sullen air, heavy, pervasive through the atmosphere. The lights were dim and the scent of cigarettes drifted, lingered. The air seemed thick, almost tangible—morose and doleful, just as were the few solitary inhabitants of the rundown, rustic tavern.

Aside from the silent bartender, tending to the glasses that never seemed to gleam, there were only three quiet persons spotted about the bleak environment. One was a man that had long since fallen asleep, having drowned his sorrows in heavy liquor and slurred words. Another was a girl too young to have been frequenting such an establishment, seeking solace in hard drugs and sweet drinks—an illusory escape.

The third was a man that life had long since abandoned.

This man remained rooted in the corner, shadows his only company.

A half-empty glass rested before him, forgotten, ice trickling away with every passing moment. No sound did he make nor motion, but remained still, hunched over the small table, his weighted, dull gaze resting on the scratched and battered wood. Locks of limp golden hair dangled about his solemn countenance, draped across his nose, obscuring a black patch of cloth.

There lay beside him a burnt cigarette, ash smeared across the weathered wood.

His hands remained unmoving, a row of bruised knuckles marring the pale skin, scrapes crisscrossing tender flesh. A testament to hard fought brawls in darkly lit alleys, of which he had ever emerged the victor.

White sleeves peaked from behind dark fabric, tinted with aging, dark stains.

One-eyed, tired—broken. There was little else to say of him.

Slowly, the clockwork man groaned to life; mechanically, he gripped the chilled glass and tipped the fluid past his lips—chapped and dry. There was barely any taste to it, but it dazed his head and dulled his thoughts; quieted the voices shouting day to day end. And that was why he drank.

There was no need to dwell on the woes that plagued him when darkness overtook thought and stripped consciousness away. Perhaps, if he were fortunate, he would close his eye and never wake henceforth. And that was why he drank.

Really now—what more was there to live for? Everything had been taken from him; he had lost all that had made him a man. Now he craved only silence and the sting of pain.
Every time he cracked his fist through someone’s skull, the flicker returned—the flicker of something. A spark, small, that wished to reignite the flame. Try as it might; an ember could not set fire to ash.

His lips curved up, just faintly, into a rueful smile. What a cruel joke his life had been. What was it like, he wondered, to feel something other than wretched misery—what was it like to long for something other than the frozen grave? He had known once—long, long ago it seemed. Now he had grown hollow, a husk that still retained its motion.
The sound of a door wheezing open shattered his somber rumination, pushed aside the veil of silence.

He did not raise his doleful gaze but merely peered silently at the now emptied glass in his hand, slowly tilting it back and forth, watching the ice slide around the interior. He paid no heed to the slow, deliberate steps that sounded as a pair of heeled feet trod towards him.

A woman’s voice, smooth and low—so as to not further intrude upon the quiet. “You are not difficult to find.” Derisive and scornful, and the voice’s owner pulled free the chair opposite his own, sliding into place fluidly. “Despite what everyone suggests.”

And at last he lifted his sullen eye.

There she sat, a woman with silvery-white hair, coiled into perfect buns on either side of her head. Cool lavender eyes regarded him, frigid and appraising. After a moment, her painted lips curled into a humorless smile, lacking warmth. She leaned back and rested her hands atop the table. “Good evening, Dimitri.”

Still she called him that. Still she named him by his human title, as though looking past the depraved wretch that he had become. It was a taunt; a goading, cruel taunt and nothing more.

The man straightened slowly, unfurling his hunched posture.

Her eyes slid to the side, taking in the dingy establishment, her mouth growing crooked with the want to frown. “Though, I suppose no one would be looking for you…here.” There were unspoken implications in her words. Too many.

A quiet grunt left his mouth and he set down the glass. “Did you come here to feign decency?” The first words that had left his mouth since the sun had descended and the moon taken its place.

The woman laughed, a jarring, biting sound, and she shook her head, still wearing that false smile. “Please; I am not the one that needs to feign decency.” With a gesture, she waved down the bartender—herself often enough a visitor, in search of him, to have trained the man to her every whim. How could he refuse a patron of such class and wealth? She paid in hefty sums, for more than simple, cheap alcohol, but for his silence.

Edelgard Von Hresvelg would not lower herself to such lax standards—not in this lifetime or the next.

She kept his gaze without fail as the man scurried to their table, his finest bottle in hand—though that was not saying much. They said nary a word as the tender poured her a glass, and deigned to splash the amber fluid into his own lacking glass. The woman did not look away as she raised a leisurely hand, a wad of perfectly folded cash between her fingers. To his benefit, the man managed to appear humble as he accepted the offering, though a bit too quickly.

He tipped the fluid into his throat without a moment of delay, uncaring for the scornful scoff that sounded from across the table. Within seconds, the glass was yet again empty, his throat scorched by the stuff.

She clicked her tongue and slowly swirled her glass. “Do you not know the meaning of ‘savoring’?” The woman raised a slender brow, tapping a nail against the tabletop.
“It all tastes the same.” He growled, pushing the glass away and reached inside his pocket, withdrawing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He slipped a roll between his teeth and raised the flickering flame to the end, uncaring that he was indoors as he took a long drag and blew out a stream of misty grey. “What do you want?” The man swiveled a single, dull blue eye and peered at his loosely-termed companion.

She said nothing for a moment, merely leaned forward and plucked the cigarette from his fingers, holding his gaze as she stuck it between her own lips. “Must you even ask?” The woman drawled, puffing a cloud of smoke towards him with another dry smile.

“A friendly chat?” Dimitri sneered, scowling as he snatched back his stolen cigarette. “This is what it seems to me.” Another long drag. His head seemed to be going fuzzy at last. “Are you going to ask me how I have been?”

She huffed a bitter laugh, her eyes narrowing slightly. “I see that you have lost everything but your sense of humor. You never fail to amuse me, Dimitri.” The smile slid off her lips at last, the mask cracked at the seams.

“Truly.” He leaned back in his chair, raising his chin. “I do wonder what your precious lapdog would say if he knew that you whored yourself nightly to a wretched beast?”

Venom flashed in her eyes and the woman stiffened, undoubtedly no longer amused. There remained no trace of humor in tight expression as she leaned forward, laying one hand atop the other in a mock display of composure. “Do not forget that you are a wanted man,” She hissed, her voice growing low. “One slip of the tongue and you just might wake facing down the barrel of twenty guns. You have escaped their notice thus far—because I am lenient enough with you to keep the details of your location a secret.”

With a short breath, she schooled her expression back into a façade of calm, raising a pair of cold lilac eyes to meet his own tired gaze. “Rabid dogs are to be put down without hesitation.” She added smoothly, taking a sip of her drink, her nose crinkling slightly with distaste.

Her threats felt empty and vague to him. How many times had she used those words against him? Without hesitation, she said, and yet she returned again and again, and he remained a walking corpse.

She taunted him, jeered at him, but ultimately, it was nothing more than a front—some sort of justification. He knew well that she liked to think that she was using him. That he was at her mercy. She liked to believe that she was in full control of him, that he was a leashed mutt, fulfilling some sort of sick power fantasy.

But he knew the truth behind all these coarse, acerbic interactions. He knew because it was the same for him. This pompous, arrogant, taciturn woman had everything—wealth, status, a loyal following—everything he had lost. She played up her façade of impassiveness, but it was just that. A charade for her own benefit.

She was lonely. She was tired. She was just as broken on the inside as he, but she had simply refused to accept it—and so she came to him, seeking solace in physical union. Seeking a twisted intimacy in his cold embrace.

And thus her shallow words meant nothing to him. Her taunts did not stir his ire. Her threats struck no fear into the blackened shell of his heart.

His lips curved into a tight smile and he tapped the end of the stick, watching flakes of grey drift to the dark surface. “You do like to remind me of that.”

Another indignant huff tumbled from her lips and she leaned back, crossing her arms. “Well, where are we going?” Her eyes followed the ash smearing across the table, a frown tugging down the corners of her mouth.

The man shrugged, lamely crossing a leg over the other, lazily drawing his gaze about the dim room. “My apartment is down the street.” He suggested, knowing before he spoke that she would disdain the option. When her frown deepened, he smirked faintly.

“I have standards.” She sniffed, looking down her nose at him despite the disparity in their height.

“That you are here says otherwise.” The man quipped, noting the growing furrow in her brows. With a quiet scoff, he pressed the burning end of the stick into the table, snuffing out the embers. “Do you plan on bringing home a stray?” He raised a brow, a defiant challenge sparking in his eye.

She made a quiet sound and shook her head, biting back a smile. “One so flea-ridden? I think not.” No doubt she had no intention of letting the rumor spread that she was so frequently fraternizing with someone that should have by all means been an enemy. A look of disgust flickered across her face and she leaned away. “Have you even showered?”

“You think so little of me?” A loaded question; one could not think highly of him. With a shake of the head, he grunted. “I have.” He gestured to her. “Your choice then.” As was usual. She offered him the empty courtesy of giving one suggestion, rejected it, and made the choice herself.

The woman looked away and raised a hand to toy with the adornment in her ear, musing upon the location to which they would depart.

His eye skimmed her visage, drinking in the details. Silver lashes dancing above fluttering lids; a little pointed nose, thin, prim lips pressed together. A long, elegant neck, free of blemish—for now, that was.

His gaze drifted to the coils of white hair at the sides of her head. He wanted to unravel them, rake his fingers through the snowy silk, pull until a pretty cry scraped past the confines of her throat. Until her lovely lavender eyes were red-rimmed. Until her pale cheeks were pink and lined with tracks.

There was a growing discomfort beneath the cloth of his trousers; a tightening strain, and he shifted carefully.

“Fine. The apartment it is.”

There was a slight edge to her voice, as though she was displeased by the thought. Her eyes flicked to the side, meeting with his once more. “It is not too far, I take it.”
In response, he shook his head, watching keenly as she pushed back, smoothly rising. With one fluid motion, she tipped back the glass and swallowed the contents, grimacing as the acrid liquid tricked down her throat.

Wordlessly, he rose as well, stuffing his hands into his pockets. And he was striding past her, his gaze locked forward. The sound of her steps soon dogged his own, but he did not look back as he pushed through the door and out into the night.

A foul smell pervaded the air—human excrement, cheap liquor, and the lingering cloud of smoke. Undoubtedly, the woman was not accustomed. She made a sound of revulsion and pressed a hand to her nose, her eyes straying to the side alley. Shadowed figures sat hunched in the darkness, paying them no heed.

The man spared them no time, breaking into a brisk walk.

“I am beginning to regret this.” He heard a quiet murmur from behind him and scoffed.

He thought nothing of it. Many years he had spent living in such slovenly environments. The sights were no more disturbing to him than were the lofty apartments that the woman behind him resided in. He walked by the weathered, filthy buildings that lined the street, hardly heeding the flickering lamppost—barely hanging on to the thread of life.
Still, the woman quickened her pace and moved to his side, evidently discomfited by the unfamiliar, mistrustful atmosphere.

A slight motion drew his attention sideward, and he paused, turning to peer as a darkened figure staggered out of a nearby alley. The silver of the knife in his hand flashed. “Oy,” The man was inebriated, lumbering towards them. “The pretty lady—,” He slurred, slashing at nothing as he lurched forward. “Looks rich.”

Edelgard shifted slightly at his side. He merely narrowed his eye, his hands balling into fists within his pockets. “Slink back to your hole.” Dimitri warned, straightening to his full height.

But the drunken man had lost all sensibility and reason, and was not deterred. “I said—give me your goddamn money—,” With a surge of fury, the intoxicated man lunged forward
.
Instinctively, he pushed the woman aside and stepped forward, catching the man’s wrist with ease. Just as quickly, his hand curled around the man’s throat and he slammed his quarry against the brick building to their side. His lips curled back into a snarl and he tightened his grip. “And I said,” He growled, hearing the sharp sound of the knife falling to the ground. “Fuck off.” Once more he shoved the man against the wall. His head cracked against the brick and he went limp.

He did not care to determine whether he had passed or had simply fallen unconscious. Without a word, he released the man and let him slump to the ground, glancing to the waiting woman.

She raised a brow, seemingly unconcerned with the man’s health as well. “How frequently do these events occur?” Her eyes lingered on the unmoving form for a moment, then she sighed, stepping over the body and returning to his side.

“Most have learned to stay far away.” A quiet scoff tumbled from his lips. “But you make for far too tempting a target.” He roved his gaze down her figure, taking in the brazen scarlet that adorned her. Practically an invitation—such gaudy attire here. She radiated wealth and haughtiness.

“I suppose I should thank you.” She smiled again, that faux curve of the lips. It was practiced.

“You carry a pistol in your purse.” He stated before turning away, resuming his trek back. Her laugh rumbled through the quiet, stagnant air.

The man raised his eye, peering at the sky—darkened and hazed over with a dull mist. The moon hardly seemed silver, instead it shone a sickening pale hue that he could not name. Neither was it bright. It provided no more light than did the dying street lamps.

“Is it much farther?”

Her voice was tight, betraying her discomfort. A sharp intake of air followed as something skittered across their path. “Dimitri?” The woman snapped, but her irritation was needless.

He ignored her meek inquiry and turned sharply, lumbering up a short flight of steps, pulling free a small ring of keys from his pockets. She was quiet once more as he unlocked the door and stepped inside, following after him, no doubt regretting having decided to come here rather than somewhere luxurious and costly—a hotel on the edge of the city.
The smell of damp hung heavy in the air, but he was well accustomed. Without a word, he strode further inside, sparing the spiraling stairs a glance before turning to the elevator. She trailed after him, eyeing the old machine with mistrust—her brows only furrowing when it whirred to life, sounding as though it would cease to function with any moment.
Still, she bit her tongue and stepped in after him.

He watched her keenly, taking note of her every reaction, every shift in her lovely countenance. The disdain was evident, as was the elevated sense of superiority. It had ceased to bother him long ago.

The chamber lurched suddenly and she gave a quiet yelp, stumbling into him. Her small hands pressed against his chest as she struggled to steady herself, and his chest tightened. Hurriedly, she righted herself, stepping away, averting her eyes. He had been half-expecting her to wipe her hands.

The rickety chamber clambered to a halt and the door wheezed open.

The woman sighed and stepped through first, sending an assessing eye down the corridor revealed to her. A muted, mottled red carpet spanned the length of floor; a row of identical doors on either side, an ugly mustard colored paint coating the walls in some effort to give the space some life. It simply looked bleak and mirthless.
The muffled sound of a TV from one of the rooms down the hall was the only sound to break the quiet.

The air smelled of dust and age—something that had been well enough equated with home in his mind. It was almost comforting, in some strange way. Perhaps that was incomprehensible to the woman behind him, frowning as he unlocked yet another door.

She strode in when he had opened it, passing him by without a word. He heaved a breath and followed after her, closing the door after himself, shrugging off his coat. Once again his eye followed her, tracing her motions, discerning the expressions that flickered across her visage.

There was nothing to speak of regarding his cramped living space. A small kitchen, hardly used, a crowded bathroom, something that could barely hold the title of living room—and a bedroom that fit a bed and dresser.

“It is…cleaner than I had been expecting.” She mused aloud, running a finger over the kitchen counter, her eyes narrowed. “But empty.” Her eyes traveled to his form, leaning against the door.

The lack of furnishing was an issue? What more did he need than a limp mattress? A dry chuckle dripped from his tongue and he pushed off the wall. “I come here to sleep.” Whenever he could, that was. Most nights were sleepless, spent silent, a dull gaze trained upon a dark ceiling, voices screeching their displeasure in his head.

“Do you at the very least have a bed?” The woman frowned, glancing around the small space again. “I will not consent to break my back against the floor.” Her arms rose to fold across her chest as she surveyed him expectantly.

Wordlessly, the man tossed the thick coat atop the countertop, moving past her and turning into the small room that decidedly took the title of bedroom. He felt her at his side, appraising the chamber into which she had been led. “It is…satisfactory.” She sighed, as though irritated at having to admit it. “At the very least, it is unlikely that either of us will be discovered here.” She added, moving further inside.

He remained silent, his hands moving to the buttons of his shirt. Deft fingers undid button after button and the garment grew looser.

“Will you not even offer me a cup of tea?” Edelgard goaded, raising a brow at having found him beginning to strip. Despite her words, she too had begun to remove the layers of her elaborate suit, carefully folding the jacket and setting it aside. “You make for a poor host.”

“I do not recall you offering me that courtesy.” He snapped in reply, tossing aside his shirt, lumbering to the bed upon which she had settled herself. He towered over her, and her eyes rose to meet his gaze, unflinching. Regardless, he did not have tea. The only thing in his cupboards were cheap coffee grounds.

She seemed so small and frail beneath his gaze—like a twig he could snap between two fingers. And yet despite that, she remained oddly resilient. She never cowed or shied away from him; no, she returned again and again instead. A vulture drawn to decay.

“After you.” Her eyes dipped lower, then rose again, and she crossed her arms, an impish smile curling her lips.

The man scoffed and undid his trousers, pulling them free. Her gaze rested below his navel as he stripped away the final layer, a brow rising at the sight of his length—hardened already. “Do you require assistance?” He drawled sardonically, noting that she had removed nothing further.

“I think not.” The woman sighed and reached up to undo the knots of her hair—and a curtain of silver unfurled across her back. For a moment—she was the girl he had known from a different life; kind, smiling. And again she was a stranger. “A boar such as that of your kind would no doubt only tear my attire to shreds.” She frowned, carefully undoing the buttons of her own shirt. “I quite like these garments.”

As though she could not afford to purchase new ones. He stepped out of the pool of his clothing and hefted himself atop the bed, stretching out and closing his eye. A bitter chill seemed to crawl over his bare skin.

He heard the faint shuffling as she removed her garb, heard the quiet creaking of the bed. It was near silent. The ache returned; the longing for sleep, a night of full rest, unfettered by the weight of his mind and memories.

Something skimmed down the length of his manhood and his eye snapped open. The woman had settled herself between his legs, her lilac gaze locked upon his eye as she trailed a finger up and down in just the barest teasing touch.

Her gaze did not stray as she tucked a lock of snowy hair behind an ear and bent her head. The man stiffened and his jaw tightened as the woman pressed her lips to the crown of his member, a salacious smirk curving the corners of her mouth. Her warm tongue flicked across the slit and he tensed.

His eye traveled down her form as she teased his manhood, greedily devouring the sight of her naked flesh; the pert, weighted mounds, the smooth, milky skin that seemed to him like paper—that it would tear at the slightest pull. Her hair, unbound, like a river of moonlight that trickled down the sides of her face.

She took the tip of him in her mouth and he stifled a groan, his hands curling in the sheets below him. And still no lower did she go. Again and again she swirled her tongue, making no effort to service the rest of him. Wicked harpy—cursed demoness. That infernal teasing—

With a snarl, his hand found her head and his fingers curled into the strands of her hair, tight enough to have earned a sharp hiss. Still she managed a cruel laugh, her eyes glowing with defiance. “Impatient, are we?”

He glowered at her, saying nothing, refusing to rise to her taunts. His grip remained painfully tight.

They differed—their trysts—with every meeting. Sometimes it was she that could hardly strip him of his clothing fast enough, or rather, forwent stripping entirely. Sometimes it was him that loosened his restraint and took the woman at his mercy—sometimes it was the other way around. And still yet sometimes there was a struggle for dominance—the reins tugged back and forth as each tried to claw back control.

It seemed that tonight would be another one of those.

She remained resistant to his demands, ornery even as he tried to push her head lower, intent on tormenting him for as long as she could. Not uncommon an occurrence. But the thread of his patience was growing taut; he was in no humor to suffer her cruel mischief.

Dimitri growled and bucked his hips when again she had curled her lips around him—and thus speared into her throat. The woman recoiled and coughed, caught by surprise, and attempted to pull away. Her hand rose to her throat, rubbing gingerly, and she lowered her eyes to glare at him. “If you want me to vomit on you, then by all means.” She hissed, evidently displeased.

“El,” It was more a snarl than a word that tumbled from his lips, but at hearing the name, she sighed and looked away.

“I told you not to call me that.” Her hand formed a fist around his length and she suddenly pulled upward roughly, drawing a pained hiss from him. With a harsh scoff, she returned her gaze and leaned over him, spitting over the crown of his member. “Dimitri.” She sneered, smearing the viscous fluid over his head, giving no attention to how roughly she was doing so.

Her countenance was haughty, arrogant as she gripped the base of his length and rose over him. Evidently, she no longer cared to service him. He had been denied that privilege.
But that hardly seemed to matter when in a moment, she sank down and the warmth of her sex enveloped him. A sigh fluttered from between her parted lips and the woman ground herself against him, sending jolts of ecstasy through his body. Her palms dragged down his chest, falling to rest just below his navel as she leaned over him—her hair falling like curtains about her face.

He raised his hand, skimming his calloused palms over her soft skin, thumbing the pert peaks. She was warm, alive. Every touched served to remind him.

Slowly, she pushed herself up, until naught more than the very tip of him remained embedded, and with a brisk breath, slipped down. A cry strained through his throat and his grip tightened. So achingly slow—dragging herself over him, tormenting him.

He cracked open his eye to glower at her, his patience near to snapping. She looked down at him coldly, one brow rising as though to challenge him to defy her.

His hands slid to her hips, gripping the pale flesh, tightening until a wince broke through the façade of indifference. He bucked upwards, earning a sharp inhale, and again. She pressed down, as though in an attempt to keep him from moving. Her nails pressed into his skin, scraping red welts. He sighed and his head lolled back, and he began to move in earnest.

Her feeble effort to restrain his motion was nothing, and quickly she realized it. Her fingers curled around his wrists as she rode him, gasping for air with every forceful shove. Sweat began to slick their skin.

She met his every thrust, fighting against his dominance, her eyes narrowed and darkened. The woman danced atop him, and he sank her into her heat over and over, craving the warmth, the intimacy he had long since forgotten.

And suddenly he ceased his motions, growling as he pushed the woman off of him. She had barely the time to protest as he lunged upward and taken her arm, turning her over. A cry of displeasure broke through her lips as he shoved himself within her once more, tangling one hand in the silken stands of her unbound hair.

He pulled, and with the other, explored the expanse of her back, the unblemished flesh soft and pliant. Again and again he speared into her, the sound of their flesh joining, the violent creaking of the worn bed springs the symphony of their mad coupling.

He pulled her hair and bent over her, panting like a mutt as he rutted, lights dappling his vision. His eye trailed down the curve of her spine, watching the taut skin, dappled with droplets of sweat. His throat seemed parched, his mouth dry. His palm traversed to the underside, finding the weighted flesh that heaved forward and back with every movement. It fit into his hand, ample and warm, and he squeezed, shuddering at the quiet whimper that trickled from her tongue.

“This—,” She hissed as he fingered the tight peak, pinching it between his fingers. “Is hardly fair.”

A chuckle grumbled from his throat and he straightened, pulling her up with him, her back flush against his chest. Still his motion resumed, ceaseless and insistent. She arced against him, craning her neck to peer back at him, and pressed her backside to his hips eagerly. Her eyes were half-lidded, hazed with the same lust that consumed his own rational thought.

He felt her hand grope for his face, her fingers trailing up his cheek until at last they bunched together his golden hair. Her nails scraped his scalp as she tugged, exacting her retribution.

Her lips moved—as though to speak.

His brows furrowed and he leaned closer; her fingers loosened their grips. “Face me.” She murmured,

Slowly, his motions ceased and he slipped free of her, allowing her to turn and fall back, spreading her legs for him again. He crept towards her on his knees, sliding his palms down her knees, down the soft expanse of her thighs, and again, he pushed in.

Her eyes fluttered and she sighed, her fingers dancing between her legs, seeking her own release. Her walls tightened and quivered around him, edging him ever nearer to his own climax. He grit his teeth and clamped his hands on her, unheeding of the bruises that he would leave behind. Let the woman remember when the sun rose what she had become when the moon had fallen.

The woman whimpered as she coaxed herself to a shuddering climax, and wrapped her legs around his hips. She tensed and relaxed and drew his member further into her warmth, enclosing him in a chamber of wet heat, slick and inviting.

The man’s head lolled back and a sharp grunt broke through his lips—his pace stuttered, the rhythm broken. His climax shivered through his body, and into hers. Ropes of his seed spurted into her core, relief washed over him now that his strength had been spent.

Slowly, his grip eased and the woman shifted, unfurling her legs.

“I do not want to go.”

Her voice was meek, quiet in the darkness, in the following silence. He pulled free of her, his member lessening, cooling as the air whispered across the length. “Then stay.” His voice rumbled, hoarse and low.

Without sparing her a glance, the man brushed aside his dampened hair, falling back atop the mattress with a quiet breath. As his eye fell shut, he felt the bed dip, felt something brush across his face. “Dimitri.” A long breath, and a warm body pressed itself to his, sidling close. “Can we…Next time. Here.” She finished, and he felt her rest her head against his chest.

Despite his reluctance, a small smile curved his lips and he huffed a laugh. “I suppose.” Carefully, he lowered his hand, sweeping it across her back until it settled atop the curve of her spine. Whether or not he was permitted to hold someone so intimately, so gently did not matter—not at the moment.

This was an escape. It was solace. Asylum. Sanctuary. Here in this small, cramped room where the air smelled of dust and mold and smoke, they had broken the mirrors, the forced guises. Nothing mattered; all could be forgotten, if for a night.

They could pretend that they had remained in the glorious past, the bygone days. Could pretend that their smiles were real, that they were allowed to love.

If for a night.