Her nights always begin like this:
Peace in the oblivion of the night as the candles burn low. The heaviness of fatigue, settling on her chest and limbs. Sleep, she cannot wash away from red, red eyes as the shadows press in. The shadows’ embrace is comfort as fingers grasp at silk—pulling and tugging over her head.
Tonight is different.
She thinks her mind and body are breaking into two pieces, then three—then a thousand, when shadows sink their teeth down, down into her. She is being torn apart, as waking dreams dance. The evenings are cool, cool as the gaze she always holds—but here, here she burns among silk. She shivers and shakes, fever burning below her skin, as she aches terribly. Her throat is raw and bloody from her screams filling the night.
Here, here she can feel something clawing to get out. Dreams eat her alive, leaving a hollow husk of skin behind. She dreams of never-ending ruin, her city strangled and burning—and she swears she smells the putrid scent of skin melting from an inferno.
HELP ME, she thinks as hands shake—the salt of her own tears, she drinks among the dark. Her face, she hides in silk when Julian comes. The rain falls hard and heavy from its home high above, and it shrieks against stained glass windows. The sky cries for and hates this silent grief, she bears.
She feels sick, terribly sick, and yet—
The cogs of her heart whirl to life, from its monotonous routine to beat, beat, beat viciously underneath his hand when he reaches for her. He draws her into his lap, pale fingers tangling in locks of purple.
“Come to fuss over me have you, my dear Doctor Devorak?” Nadia murmurs as she sighs a sigh of exhaustion, nails digging into her scalp. A quiet sound rolls from the back of her throat, as the sky rumbles outside. Julian’s hand gently brushes stray hairs from her face; beautiful even when fatigue has left its mark in lids weighing down.
“I heard you scream,” he says, chin settling on a bare shoulder. Concern twists behind his eyes. Julian takes her delicate wrists in his gentle touch, thumb rolling over brown flesh as he settles both of their hands in her lap. He feels her shudders and shivers rolling through her body, in his arms. He feels how her pulse jumps underneath fingers.
“As your court physician—I prescribe rest and oh, more rest for tomorrow,” he pauses then. “I do believe a midnight stroll to the garden is in order.”
Nadia quietly grounds herself, with his light, ghosting touch upon her wrists. She shakes and shivers no longer. Julian, Julian, Julian is special. Julian has carved a home in her chest, within her heart—and between her legs. He is her most favored but even he, cannot bear witness to her fragility. Lucio was never afforded the gift of her weakness. It would be the same for him with an inferno in his hair, always.
She shifts from where she sits, a lithe leg reaching to settle a foot upon the cool marble floor. She slips free from his grasp, tugging her sleeping robes to cover her shoulders. Nails are stained with dried crimson. Her tired gaze settles on him, as she extends a hand to him.
“Well. Come along, Devorak,” she murmurs, fatigue lurking in her voice; so hoarse and broken. She gives him the smallest of smiles. “A midnight stroll, I so desire.”
He reaches and reaches for her, fingers curling and entwining with hers. She quietly marvels at how wonderful, how lovely it is when he grasps onto her hand. Their bodies fit together perfectly, complex puzzles falling into place.
There is something missing, still. Her heart still aches terribly when her mind reaches clarity. Not all of the pieces have fallen into place, at once.
Lucio is missing.
She feels his absence as much as she feels the cold among winter’s hold. His absence sinks into her bones, soaking the ivory of them with the poison of silent grief. She demands and demands herself to not feel it. In the future, the present, grief has no place.
She remembers kisses shared with both Lucio and Julian—underneath the inky black canvas of the sky. Lucio’s arms and legs tangled precariously with hers along with Julian’s. She remembers how she used to trace and leave kisses along his flesh, against the scars left from mercenary days—pale fingers belong to Julian, curling within locks of the dusk; purple and beautiful.
Nothing is the same, she thinks, as Julian lifts their hands to his lips; to grace the back of her hand with a kiss between grim smiles. Nothing will ever be the same. Those days of crowded hearts and beds are no longer here.
They are quiet, so silent as they traverse marble halls much like ghosts in the night; the only sound is their shared breathing (hot breath curling among the cool air)—along with steps colliding with tiles again and again.
The garden blooms so beautifully around them when they reach the grass. The smell of flowers is far too sickeningly sweet when they invade her senses. The sound of the trickling water of the fountain consumes the silence. The night is alive, alive as them. Crickets chirp and bugs sing.
Are we alive, truly? She wonders. For they have not been spared, among this dance of life. Among the red plague’s reign, the horrors she saw, of the glimpse of rotting flesh and red poisoning—she is so sure, cannot be compared to what Julian saw.
They dream differently. She is so sure his dreams are of lived experiences, of blood on his hands. Of martyrdom, the weight of the world weighing his shoulders down and crushing. She is sure he dreams of cutting fellow Vesuvians open; alive or dead, dead, and cold as winter—she does not know. Nadia does not know what truly occurred, beneath the palace’s floors. Julian does not tell her either, his gaze hollows when she presses for answers. You do not let someone you love, speak of horrors. She will not make him speak of it.
Her dreams are of hellfire, Lucio burning and burning among the red sheets of his bed. Her dreams are whispers in the dark, her guilt whispering and eating away at her heart. Her dreams are of cradling a dying Lucio and been unable to kiss away the plague nor his agony.
“Countess—what’s on your mind?”
Julian’s voice tears her free from the clutches of her waking dreams; so sudden, so sweetly. Her gaze lifts from the reflection of the moon upon the fountain’s water, to capture the one-eyed gaze of his. Within her mouth, she chews at the flesh of her cheek. She thinks quietly for a time.
The night is unkind. The night is cruel. Her thoughts are endless when the sun says it is goodbye to the world. She cannot rest.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” she murmurs before her lips curl into a sly smirk. He is far, far too close to the fountain’s edge. Her hands strike out, colliding with his chest—and he drops over the edge and into the water below. The startled sound that leaves him, is sweet as wine. His hand reaches, to drag her within the watery embrace, too. Her own startled cry is undignified.
She loathes that he made her birth such a sound from the back of her throat before her head falls underneath the surface of the water. Purple hair fans across the water, before she breaks the surface. She shifts, for legs to rest on either side of him—as she straddles him. Her hands settling upon the damp fabric upon his chest. She forces his back against the pedestal bearing the weight of pretty statues, ever watchful of the Countess and her physician.
“Well, well, this is quite the turn of the events, Nadi.” he pants, hands traveling up bare, bare thighs on either side of him. He wiggles his eyebrows, the humour found. Nadia finds that she is giddy and faint, as she sinks brown fingers into damp, curly auburn locks. “You have me where you want me. It would not be the first time we fucked in the fountain. Whatever shall you d— “
“I am leaving you here.” she murmurs into his ear, a kiss pressing to his jaw before she lifts herself from his lap. Her parting gift is a harsh and sudden tug of his hair. Her laughter is gentle and high as the bells that ring once the sun reaches the highest point of the sky.
He drags her down, down to him—his cheeks alight with inferno burning as he kisses her again and again. He swallows her sweet laughter. She braces herself in his lap, hands resting against the marble pedestal behind him.
She makes him bleed, when teeth sink down, down into his lower lip. Her eyes flutter open, as her tongue laps away at his wine of life.
Here, here—Nadia’s heart blooms so beautifully among the shadows, among the cool embrace of winter and the water. She swallows her adoration. The moon shines brightly, illuminating them beneath the smiling stars. Hands shift from behind him, for her arms to snake around his waist. She presses closer, closer.
Their bodies fit together perfectly, and she forgets about the missing pieces she so misses, in these moments where time has ceased.
She has found peace, in the oblivion of the night; and all Nadia desires is to hold Julian. The shadows howl, the shadows claw at her—yet, among these moments, Julian chases away the dark.
Her mind no longer breaks, like porcelain against the marble tiles. It breaks differently.
It is cold. She thinks, her head no longer dizzy from her endless adoration for him. So cold.
She falls against him, hands falling limply to her side. Her body burns and freezes all at once.