She was cold. That was the first thing Vhalla noticed when her eyes fluttered open. She was also alone.
Vhalla sat up in bed, the fur blankets she’d wrapped herself up in the night before slipping off her. She dragged a sleepy hand across her face, brushing the mess of hair out of her eyes. A chill nipped through the sheer fabric of her nightgown and it was only then that she was able to fully appreciate just how extraordinarily cold it was in their bed chamber. She glanced at the empty space next to her that should have been occupied by her husband. He certainly wasn’t responsible for this brutal winter ravaging the Solaris Empire, but by the Mother the least he could do was not rob Vhalla of his internal flame by abandoning the comforts of their bed.
Stifling a yawn, Vhalla reluctantly swept her legs out from under the protective layer of blankets and bare feet met the ice cold marble dais. She tugged the blanket off the bed, opting for its lavish fur rather than the robe she knew hung in the washroom, wrapped it around her shoulders, and quickly hopped down to the floor. She crossed the room on tiptoe, wind at her heels, barely making a sound. The door to the sitting room stood open and Vhalla passed silently through it.
The source of her shivering was clear now. Past the elaborate cushioned sitting area and Carcivi table, the tall glass doors leading to their grand terrace stood wide open. The velvet curtains on either side of the archway swelled in the air as though breathing. Goose pimples rose on Vhalla’s skin, though not from the bitter wind. There, at the edge of the balcony, stood Aldrik, spine rigid and hands clasped tight behind his back, his long gold trimmed white robe billowing at his feet.
For a moment, Vhalla resisted the urge to rush to his side - instead, choosing to steal the opportunity to simply observe her love. Such a rarity it was for him not to be surrounded by attendants or guards or politicians. She rested her head against the doorframe and snuggled deeper into her furs, watching.
Flurries of snow spiraled at Aldrik’s feet, scattering higher into the air with every gust of wind. He stood impossibly still, his black hair the only part of him alive, dancing wildly in the air whipping around him. He resembled one of the sculpted marble statues in the Imperial Gardens, his alabaster skin and all-white attire stark against the gray skies and snow capped mountains in the distance standing as a bleak backdrop to his stunning figure.
A smile crept on Vhalla’s lips. She could imagine his face: the crooked slope of his nose, chin held proud in the face of unforgiving cold, his dark eyes staring unblinkingly into the vastness beyond. Always so stoic. So unreadable to everyone he crossed paths with. Everyone but her. She wondered what had possessed him to stand outside on the balcony in the bitter cold. It was true, the chill didn’t penetrate him like it did others, but she knew there was very little in this world that would drag Aldrik from their bed and away from her side.
At the thought, something clicked into place. A sudden realization that made her heart stutter, a cold that crawled under her skin and chilled her to the bone. And just like that, she’d had enough of spying.
Fool, she chided herself. How selfish she had been. Aldrik needed her.
The fur blanket dragged behind her like an overgrown cape as she quietly made her way over to the balcony, still balancing lightly on the tips of her toes. She paused by the Carcivi board sitting on the table closest to the opulent glass doors before stepping outside. Her fingers dusted over the gleaming tiles. It was a beautiful set, and made even more precious by the man it had once belonged to. Vaguely, she noted that a piece was out of place, though, they had not played in quite some time.
Aldrik didn’t hear Vhalla as she approached him. She cared little for her feet, which at first stung from the cold, then grew numb when she stepped out onto the wet balcony. She’d endured worse for the sake of her Emperor and her love, and she would do so again and again and again if it meant wrapping her arms around him as she did so now.
Aldrik stiffened at the abrupt touch, though immediately relaxed as Vhalla’s arms wound through his arms and wrapped around his waist from behind. She nuzzled his back, relishing the heat radiating off him, and she slid her hands up his chest until they found the familiar thrum of his heart. His hands came to rest atop hers, wet from the ice winds, but pulsing with warmth. He brought them to his lips and kissed them softly.
“You’re going to catch sick, my love,” he murmured into her frozen knuckles, pressing his lips to each one with reverence. Genuine concern laced his tone.
Vhalla closed her eyes and smiled against his back. “Impossible with you in my arms.”
“You are the one who should be in my arms,” Aldrik countered, though he didn’t move. Vhalla suspected he rather liked being held by her. She was happy to oblige.
“First snowfall of the year, is it not?”
Aldrik’s lips paused on her hand. “I believe it is.”
“About time too,” she added. “I was beginning to think the world would freeze over with how low the temperature was dropping.”
Aldrik hummed in agreement and began kneading warmth back into Vhalla’s hands.
“Perhaps we should take a walk today,” she ventured.
Aldrik bristled underneath her. “In the snow? In your condition? I think not.”
“If by my ‘condition’ you mean carrying our child, then I am most certain I have some time yet before walking is out of the question. Please allow me a semblance of my dignity before that moment comes, I beg you.”
“We can never be too careful,” Aldrik said crossly.
“I respectfully disagree.” Vhalla huffed a laugh, an icy puff of air bursting from her lips. “‘We can never be too careful’. Honestly, Aldrik! I haven’t even begun to show!”
“Is that so?” Aldrik slowly turned to face Vhalla. His hands let go of hers and fell to her waist. He pulled her to him, body molding to his. Vhalla braced her hands on his chest and slowly, eyelashes fluttering, lifted her gaze to his.
A shiver ran up her spine that had nothing to do with the cold. This close she could trace the water rivlets carving his face, count every thread of shaggy wet hair that clung to his forehead. Despite the ice slicing across her vision, his heated gaze was enough to keep her warm, now and for several winters after if he so wished.
The corner of Aldrik’s mouth curved upwards and Vhalla felt more than heard the soft rumble of a chuckle roll through his chest. “Will you ever not be so naive, my parrot?”
Vhalla wrinkled her nose at Aldrik’s oldest - and most annoying - pet name for her, but his hands crept up her spine and held her unyielding against him.
“You say you’re not showing, and yet,” he purred, hand coming to cradle her neck, his fingers brushing the barest of touches to the corner of her eye, “I see it here when our eyes meet across the dais.” He brought his lips to the place where his fingers touched. “And here whenever one of those sycophantic senators harass you about producing an heir.” He gently turned her face with the back of his hand and pressed a kiss to her cheek. Then slowly - much, much too slowly - he tipped her chin up and brought his mouth to hers. He hovered a breath away from her. “And here whenever I tell you how incandescently happy I am.”
Aldrik claimed the smile that spread across Vhalla’s lips, kissing her. Distantly, she felt the blanket fall from her shoulders as she slipped her arms around his neck, but she didn’t care. The hand at her chin swept into her hair, and she felt the firm press against her back guiding her closer to him as he deepened the kiss. Every languid brush of his silken soft lips fanned the ember of desire that simmered between them, and like air to a flame, Aldrik’s vigor was quick to blaze. Vhalla could scarcely breathe. The kiss was turning into more than just a kiss.
As much as she longed to lose herself by his touch, Vhalla forced herself to pull back, but not without placing one last tender kiss to him. Her lips tingled with the absence of him and, almost immediately, she ached for him.
Aldrik dropped his forehead against hers, visibly swallowing his want, and his eyes shuddered shut as though he were trying to regain some semblance of control. Vhalla could feel his heart racing against her chest, and if that wasn’t enough to tell her that he was nearly undone, then the familiar hardness prodding against her swollen belly was. She had half a mind to drag him back inside and get him out of his soaking wet clothes and finish what he’d started. But there was something she needed to take care of first.
She waited until his breathing had slowed and his eyes cracked open to look into hers. It was as she expected. There wasn’t just want smoldering in them. Through the haze of lust and adoration she knew was reflected in her own eyes, she saw it. Desperation .
Slowly, Vhalla loosened her hold around his neck and let her hands slide down to his chest. Aldrik seemed to understand what she was saying by the subtle shift and pulled away just enough to let her see him fully. She smiled sympathetically at him, seeing that he was fighting the urge to look away. Whatever darkness he’d woken up to was lingering, tormenting him in front of her very eyes. It broke her heart every time she saw him in such pain. Some days she didn’t understand it - what could possess his heart and steal his mind away from himself. At times it was an exhausting burden to bear, but it was their burden to bear together, she’d tell him. His love was his to share as was his pain. She would have him wholly or not at all.
“It’s ok to miss him,” she finally murmured. A whisper carried by the wind. “He was your brother.”
Aldrik’s head jerked as though he couldn’t bear to hear it, sending little water droplets scattering. He released a strained breath like her words had stolen the very air he breathed. Vhalla’s hand lifted to his cheek; just as she commanded that winds, she would guide this storm to clearer skies. She let him breath, let him soak up her touch, the seconds turning into minutes, until eventually he was able to speak.
“It’s been a year,” Aldrik said, his voice a hoarse whisper. Vhalla nodded; her thumb gently smoothed away the tears mixed with ice. He swallowed hard, needing another moment to compose himself. These moments always required patience. Vhalla gave it to him.
“Our relationship was… complicated. After everything with Egmun and Victor and the crystal caverns, I pushed him away. With words, with hate. My brother did the only thing he could do. Push back.” Aldrik shook his head regretfully. “I don’t blame him. What else was he to do? I was a venom that poisoned even the purest of hearts. All he could do was suck it out and spit it back in my face. We were never the same...” Aldrik’s eyes hesitantly rose to meet Vhalla’s. “Until you.”
“You blew into my life. Both our lives. And somehow you - the wondrous, infuriating woman that you are - changed everything. Shifted the winds in our favor. It seemed as though someday perhaps things could be different. That perhaps we could be the brothers we used to be… The brothers we were always meant to be. Fool that I was, I had hope.”
Aldrik’s black eyes hardened, offering a startling glimpse of the silver-tongued prince that still lay buried in the darkest recesses of himself. When he spoke, his voice was colder than the winds that sliced the air. “Baldair is gone. And I’ll never get to tell him how sorry I am.”
“Aldrik…” Vhalla tried to say, for tears were already sliding down her cheeks. She wanted to take all his pain away. To tell him that Baldair knew that he was sorry and sorry for his own grievances in return. She had spent enough time with the golden prince to learn the design of his heart, had heard him voice his own regrets regarding his broken relationship with his brother to know his sorrow to be true. But Aldrik’s hands suddenly went to Vhalla’s stomach, startling her into silence.
“When I think of our child,” he choked out, his face contorting in anguish, “and the day we’ll have to give her up, I know it will be a near impossible thing to do to face such insurmountable pain. Without you, I’d never be able to let go. And yet, I can’t help but feel grateful that at least she won’t be lost to me forever. I’ll have another chance to be the man I should have been for my brother. One who loves without consequence.”
Vhalla stared into his eyes at a loss for words, her heart racing. The wind howled in her ears, calling to her, urging her to jump. Without thinking, she threw herself against him and captured his lips with her’s. He was unmoving against her for a heartbeat, then his whole body came alive and he embraced her with an urgency they had not shared in quite some time.
The wind picked up with each seering sweep of their lips, big gusts of ice that grew with the mounting heat between them. The snow circled around them in a frenzied dance, encasing them in a protective embrace of white light. Vhalla was falling into him, deeper and deeper, the heat of his body against her making her melt and arch against him. Her chest swelled to the point of pain to meet his fervor. All her thoughts shattered, consumed with only one word. Aldrik, Aldrik, Aldrik.
Then, abruptly, he tore his lips away from her, a gruff sound coming from his throat as though doing so pained him. His breathing was harsh, uneven, his eyes swimming with admiration. He opened his mouth to speak, but Vhalla beat him to the words she knew by heart, for they were written there too.
“I love you,” she whispered, her voice full of emotion. And then, bringing her hands to brace themselves on either side of Aldrik’s face, she locked eyes with him. “And Baldair loved you.”
Tears ran down Aldrik’s face and he cradled Vhalla’s face like she was the only thing keeping him tethered to this world. “And I love you, my lady and my love… My Vhalla. My wife and mother to our child. I never dreamed-”
Vhalla covered his mouth with hers before he could finish. Because this wasn’t a dream. This was real. There were shadows in Aldrik’s mind that - Vhalla knew - may never find the light. But when she’d given him his heart, she’d made a vow to walk with him into the darkness wherever it may take them. She was his and he was hers, now and in the next life, and she would never let him go.
A soft moan escaped her throat and Aldrik reared back with a sharp intake of breath. He looked from Vhalla’s stomach to her face, frown taut with concern.
“Are you alright?”
Vhalla laughed at that, which only prompted Aldrik’s frown to deepen. She stood on her tippy-toes and pressed a chaste kiss to his mouth.
“Come back to bed,” she murmured into his lips. Her fingers curled around the loose collar of his nightshirt and she gently pulled him with her as she began to walk them backwards towards their chambers. Aldrik’s feet stubbornly refused to comply, at odds with his lips which continued to draw every last breath from hers. It was a clumsy dance, but one they had perfected since the early days of their blossoming love.
“Are you sure-?” Aldrik tried after breaking away from a particularly dizzying kiss that made Vhalla wonder if they truly needed to make it all the way to the bedroom. The couch was right there after all.
“Yes,” she breathed, gripping his tunic in desperation. Aldrik’s hooded eyes dropped longingly to her lips so tantalizingly close to his.
“Please,” she said with a gentleness that brought his gaze back to her, “let me take care of you.”
A soft blush blossomed on Aldrik’s cheeks, the sight of which made Vhalla determined to get them all the way to the bedroom. She stepped back from him and took his hand in hers. She walked backwards towards the bedroom, leading him, unable to take her eyes off him. But as they crossed the threshold, Aldrik surprised her by tugging her to him. Her heart fluttered against his chest as his arms wrapped around her and he buried his face in the crook of her shoulder.
“Thank you,” he murmured, his breath hot on her neck. Vhalla threaded her fingers through his hair, caressing languidly in a silent, appreciative gesture that told him she understood. She wasn’t sure how long they held each other, but eventually, from over his shoulder she watched the sun peak over the frosty mountains and reign its light upon the land. Her eyes shimmered with happy tears, filled with the feeling that, in that moment, she beheld the golden prince.
Yes, she thought with a contented smile, she would insist on a walk in the snow today - if only to walk in his radiance once more.