It would be something of a misunderstanding to assume that a group of bards would always be noisy. Despite the fairly common public image of musicians as a rowdy, if charismatic bunch, this was mistaking the performance for the player . No matter how loud an instrument or how energetically played, it still must be laid to rest. In much the same way, it was perfectly possible for even the most overwhelming, decibel-producing, and gaudy musician to be quite the calm and sober person once they were no longer in the limelight. (Or depending on the bard, no longer ten meads deep into an evening.)
...admittedly. This was not, in any way, even remotely true of the group that would one day be known far and wide as the Court of Roses. But it could have been. In theory, anyhow. As it was, between the five of them the air was often filled with… if not song, then certainly talk , which had its own kind of music. But even for a group like them, there were some times of peace.
...even if you needed to be awake at about five A.M. to experience it.
It was the hour when the world had a grey blue tint to it; when the sky was beginning to lighten, but there was no sign of the sun just yet. The world hadn’t yet opened shop; dew still clung to the leaves, the creatures of the night were turnt to bed, and the creatures of the day were only just beginning to stir. And for once the roses, for the most part, were as silent as their instruments. The group had made camp in the old ruins of someone’s garden just far enough off the road to be out of sight the night before, but it would have been hard to imagine them being anything like stealthy even when making camp.
They had only really just then settled into silence. Diana had finally rolled over the right direction to stop snoring from where she was curled up on the cart seats. Whatever dreams Felix had that caused them to mumble and giggle in their sleep so often from their hammock must have faded away. Sven, curiously, actually slept so silently you could have mistaken him for a rock under the tree that he was perfectly comfortable resting against. Nocturne... was possibly the only member of the group who was more silent awake then most of the rest were asleep.
And Merlow, eyes wide and still staring into the private little hell that painted the inside of his eyelids, was clasping his hands over his own mouth so tightly it was likely to leave a mark. He was not aware of that; neither was he particularly aware of the fact that as he sat up from his bedroll he was shaking like a leaf in a hurricane. He was aware of very little; except for the fact that he didn’t want to disturb his friends, and that in the dream still clinging around him like greasy cobwebs he was certain he had been screaming .
He was in the cart. He was in the cart, with his friends, they were safe, he hadn’t done anything. He was in the cart, sleeping on the floor because he’d won second place when they’d all done a round of rock-paper-scissors for who’d sleep where, and he would have needed to curl practically in half to fit on the other seats. He pushed himself as stealthily out of the cart as someone with the current coordination of a kitten could have, his feet touching down in the chill damp of the morning grass. At that moment he welcomed the cold; at least it was something real , something outside of his head . Especially when his dreams always seemed to bring a terrible fire with them; a sickly, boiling heat, like being stuck in a humid room, air too thick to breathe.
...alright, even so, maybe after a few unsteady steps, he wished he’d thought to pull his shoes back on. He winced a little, ears lowering down as he dragged his hands away from his mouth, taking a few unsteady gasps of air. He hadn’t screamed, he thought to himself as he walked away from the carriage. He’d thought he had, but that must have been part of the dream. And it was just a dream , and so long as he hadn’t woken anyone up he could. He could take care of it. Nobody had to be bothered. They didn’t have to know.
“Good morning, Merlow.”
“ Hngk! ”
Right. Grand. Lovely. Here Nocturne was with his nice, low, rumbly-soft big cat voice, speakin’ all careful and low, and here HE was making a noise like a startled goose. If he was in better sorts, he’d probably be able to think of a way to recover from that.
He settled for hiding his face in his hands, and wishing he’s ever picked up how to turn invisible. Unfortunately, miraculous magical inspiration failed to strike, so instead he reluctantly pulled a hand away so he could wave in Nocturnes direction, trotting towards him out of the range of their sleeping friends.
Nocturne had settled for his shift under a weeping elm tree- its leaves and branches sweeping down in thick green curves to form deep little pools of shadow even in the weak light. Between his dark clothing and the branches, Nocturne was very nearly hidden from view if you were at a distance. And close up… well. It was a fine enough sight for Merlow to give up on hiding his face just to have a better look.
...Even if the inside of his head was still aflame.
“G’mornin’, Nocturne…” he said, grasping his hands together in front of him just for something to do with them.
Nocturne was sitting cross legged, using his bedroll to keep him up off the ground a bit, his cane leaned on the ground so the handle was against his leg. He tilted his head slightly as he looked up at him, closing a notebook he’d been looking through.
“I’d ask if you slept well but. I think I already know the answer by looking at you.” he said, tucking the book away in his bag. Merlow chuckled weakly, pulling one shoulder up in a vague little shrug. He wasn’t one to take much offense at someone stating the plain truth; he actually liked that about the man. Even if hearing him come all direct at something was a little sharp sometimes, it felt like... He knew where he stood with him.
“Aye… fraid it was bou’ as dreadful as I look.” he admitted, managing a wobbly, fragile little smile. It was like trying to pull a threadbare cloak around yourself against a gale . Only… this storm was coming from the inside of him, and he was struggling all he could to keep it inside. Where it wouldn’t hurt anyone else.
Because that was what he was afraid of, wasn’t it? Not even just- at this point, even that aside, he felt like. Just all the hurt, and fear, and raw miserable panic in him was too much. It was all packed in too tightly; if somebody so much as patted his shoulder he might have burst into tears.
“You don’t... have to smile, you know.”
For how soft Nocturnes' voice was, his words cut through Merlow’s thoughts as sharply as a blade. Merlow was left blinking down at him, head tilting spontaneously to one side as he drew his shoulders up, hands ising to twiddle together up against his own chest.
“A-ah? ...Aye?” he asked. Nocturne nodded slightly back, shifting a little- setting his bag a bit further away from himself, repositioning his cane to lay against it.
“I wouldn’t mind. I mean, perhaps you haven’t noticed but I’m not…exactly a naturally cheerful man myself.” Nocturne said, gesturing gently at himself to indicate not only his dress, voice, and temperament, but possibly the whole of his existence.
“You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t even have to feel better. It won’t upset me in the least. I can even go back to my notes if you’d like. But. I seem to remember someone telling me even sad songs should be heard. Surely that has to go for sad faces, as well.” he said, looking up at Merlow with a smile. It was really a very slight expression. Maybe no more than a soft tug at the corners of his mouth and a deepening of the lines around his glowing eyes.
But just then it felt like seeing the far away shine of a beacon.
“Sit with me. If, I mean, only if you would like, of course, I’d understand if you’d as soon go back to sleep, but-” whatever Nocturne had been about to say next was lost, perhaps, to time as Merlow stepped forward and very nearly collapsed next to him in a cloud of green clothes and blonde hair (which had half escaped it’s braids in the night). he curled his legs up to his chest, leaning back against the tree with an expression like a burnt out house in the rain. Blackened, and on the verge of collapsing.
He had to squeeze his eyes tight a moment, gritting his teeth as he reluctantly let the poison of his own memories finish working its way through him. It was miserable, but Nocturne was right. He had to let the song finish, no matter how much he hated it. When he took a breath his chest felt tight and hot, like a rusted bellow he had to use all his strength to force to work.
“That can’t possibly be good for your hands…”
The startle that went through him had as much to do from not realizing he’d been curling his hand in a tight fist as it did to do with Nocturne surprising him. He winced a little as he uncurled his hand, looking over the painful red crescents his nails had left behind. He hissed in through his teeth, shaking his head faintly and glancing to Nocturne, feeling guilty as soon as he saw the concern on his face.
Why did it keep having to be him who was seeing him as his worst…? He’d liked for Nocturne to see him at his best, one of these days. Whatever that even was, anymore.
“Aye, reckon’ it’s not… just. Always feel like I need to hold fast t’ something when I get like this.” he explained. Hold tight to something… pull something… well at least he had enough presence of mind not to try to yank his braids out with someone there . So far. At the moment.
“Hm. I suppose it’s difficult to really have much choice in your comfort seeking mechanisms.” Nocturne said- not judging, or pitying, just. Matter of fact. Merlow found it helped him to relax a little, nodding quietly.
“Well then. Perhaps this would do as a substitute?” Nocturne asked. Merlow glanced to him, curious- and felt his heart skip a beat as he realized Nocturne was holding his hand out to Merlow.
Merlow had met a lot of people in his time, for good or ill. He tended to keep his mind open; folks were full of surprises. But he’d have to admit, he didn’t think he’d really prepared for the possibility of Nocturne being smooth.
In a better life maybe he could have met the gentle gesture in kind. Paced himself a little. But instead his hand snaked out to take his hand as fast as if it was a lifeline.It was all he could do to not clutch at it; he was badly off enough without fearing he’d caused damage to hands that did so much. Wrote so beautifully. Commanded such beautiful, awe-inspiring magic. Produced such elegant, sorrowful music. The kind of music that reached up to a sad heart and told a man he wasn’t all alone in it…
Nocturne blinked, quietly surprised at how quickly (and perhaps forcefully) his offer had been accepted. But he didn’t speak; he simply leaned back against the tree and, as merlow took his uneven, pained, hitched breaths he quietly slipped his fingers between his, squeezing very gently against his palm.
For a moment, it was very nearly silent; the sky was starting to be touched by a tint of warmth. Here and there, distant birds sang their bawdy and violent little tales in elegant tones. And merlows pained little hitched breaths vanished quietly into the air.
“...your hand is freezing .” Nocturne said after a few minutes. The sudden, matter of fact curtness of it startled a sound out of Merlow that sounded for all the world like someone’d stepped on his beloved pipes; a deeply undignified little hngrk of a genuine laugh choked on all sides by tears.
“Sorry.” Merlow managed, turning his head to one side to peek out at him from under his hair, voice still pretty watery.
“No apologies needed. It was more of a statement of concern then anything else. ...here. Put your hands together a moment?” Nocturne asked, letting go of his hand. Merlow blinked a little, slightly confused as he complied. Admittedly, it did help- he hadn’t even realized how cold he was.
His ears shot up as realization hit him- about the same time as Nocturne reached out to draw both his hands towards himself. He cupped both of Merlow’s hands between his, shielding them completely from the cold air. It felt as good as holding his hands up to banked embers, cutting through the bitter cold all the way to his bones.
He was privately a little glad, he found, that he was hiding his face as Nocturne took his hands in his. He wasn’t sure he’d have liked anyone to see the face he was making as he realized what soft hands he had. There was a little roughness on the fingers- you could feel where the bite of the violin strings had made their mark over the years. It made Merlow think of the feeling of embroidery on the surface of soft cloth. He swallowed, pretty sure if he lifted his head his face might actually catch aflame.
“Is that better?” Nocturne asked carefully, shifting a hand- stroking his palm against the back of Merlow’s fingers.
“...S’ marvelous is what it is. Y’ really don’t feel the cold at all, d’ye?” Merlow asked, turning his head a little again to look at him. It felt a little like his chest was a drum still resonating from being stuck, and glancing at him again thumped on the beat.
His eyes looked like stars .
“No, not particularly…” Nocturne said. “It’s still fairly unpleasant getting caught out in a storm, and I wouldn’t want to walk through a blizzard. But if I can get out of it, my clothing will actually dry on me before too long.”
“H- ha ! R-really?” Playing the bagpipe required tremendous breath control. You needed to know how to play your own body as an instrument as much as you did the pipes. It was something Merlow prided himself on. It was handy, on account he could about keep his voice from cracking loud enough to wake anybody up.
“Sounds like a handy trick. Fraid the cold just cuts through me, I d’nae have the build to put up with much.” he joked, shaking his head to try to get his hair back out of his face- reluctant to pull his chilly hands away from Nocturne. The other man must have noticed because he started to reach out, hesitated a moment, and then carefully pushed Merlow’s hair away from his face. It was a careful motion; it reminded Merlow of the way he’d seen him handling his violin, or his books.
“Hmm. Even your face is cold?” Nocturne commented as he tucked his hair back behind one ear carefully..
“Told y’. M’ basically a scarecrow that c’n play the bagpipes.” Merlow said, smiling quite a bit more sincerely then he’d been doing earlier. Maybe it was the hand in his. Maybe it was the way Nocturne was lookin’ at him like he was something decent to see, even though he was sure he looked like he’d fallen down a hill. Maybe it was that he liked how when Nocturne smiled it made him feel like he’d won a prize.
It could have been that, when they’d met, Nocturne hadn’t known who he was, and didn’t have any real reason to let him keep company, but he had. He had, and he’d come with him, and he’d come to find him when the bandits had attacked. Or maybe how he’d felt the first time he’d heard him playing. Or…
Or maybe a lad was feelin’ a bit bold. Who was to say, really.
He took a deep, still slightly unsteady breath and shifted- pushing off the ground a bit to scoot in a firm little hop, pressing side to side with him all of a sudden. He bent his elbow so he could keep ahold of Nocturnes hand in his, reluctant to let go of the contact in any way.
“See?” he asked, glancing sidelong up at him. To his delight, Nocturnes ears had suddenly flicked up in the air with surprise, a startled expression crossing his face. But he didn’t seem to make any motion to pull away; Merlow hoped that was a good enough sign he hadn’t mis-read the room.
“A-ah. Yes, now that you mention it… you definitely weren’t exaggerating.” Nocturne agreed, shivering faintly. Possibly from Merlow’s chill. Possibly.
Merlow grinned and settled in a bit, choosing not to get any bolder than he already was. As it were, he was only sitting a little closer to the man then he had the night they’d first me. He was warming up a bit already, and he’d hate to overwhelm Nocturne any. ...well. Maybe a little . Sometime. When the mood was better.But right then Merlow still felt raw as a freshly scraped hide, and took plenty of comfort enough from sitting like that.
“....perhaps I could. Help a bit more with that? The cold, I mean.” Nocturne offered, clearing his throat very slightly as he broke the silence. Merlow looked to him and immediately Nocturne glanced away a little- but to his surprise, this close, it was a lot easier to notice that there was color at the other man’s cheeks. A rosy darkness tinting the purple in a dear little blush . Merlow glanced away as well, ears going a little crooked. Oh, that was dangerously charming.
“Aye. Whatever more you’re willin’ t’ do to help a shiverin’ fawn of a man s’ more than welcome…” he said, stumbling a little over his words.
“Well. If you’re certain, then.” Nocturne said, shifting a little. He took a quiet, deep breath and let go of Merlows hand again- which was a little disappointing, all things considered.
...But then, seeing Nocturne unbuttoning his coat was a pretty fair trade off. Alright, obviously it’d be ridiculous to get too flustered at a man removing one of at bare minimum three layers of clothing , but all the same he couldn’t help but feel he was seeing something a bit immodist. He actually looked away a little, poorly trying to stifle down a burst of nervous giggles. Hazil, Scartlette and Mahve , it wasn’t as if he was some shy new spring bud, honestly….
A warm weight dropped onto his shoulders. Merlow blinked slightly and glanced down, taking in the sight of the black fabric of Nocturnes coat settling around him. It was heavy, maybe heavier then he was sure even a thick fabric would have been, and the lining was soft as anything. Hours later, it would occur to him maybe it was insulated by whatever weighted it down so- which would have explained why it kept the warmth in it so well you could have melted butter by it.
It was definitely fit to melt a half-elf bard before much longer.
“...Merlow? May I put an arm around you?”
Oh that didn’t help at all .
“Oh, hues I should think just about any time y’ could ever ask I’d say yes . B-but. Just. Be warned I think. If y’ do that now… I might just. Spill over, kind of?” he tried to explain, glancing up at him. Nocturne was looking steadily down at him with an expression of. Sort of a gentle-edged kind of concentration.
“Like… like water out of a cup, I think. I really wouldn’t think a bit less of y’ if you.. would rather not. It’s. It’s only just my problem t’...” he said, flailing a little bit for the words and giving up, hoping he’d seen enough of the pooly hidden picture to get the idea. He watched as Nocturne looked him over, took in the state of him… and nodded, firmly. Just the once.
Nocturne reached out carefully; like he was trying not to startle him. He let his hand settle against Merlow’s upper arm and didn’t so much pull him so much as he just. Nudged enough to i nvite him in a little closer. And Merlow doubted he could have refused the offer; even if he’d had good reason to. He scooted in against him until he was well and truly pressed up against his side, carefully settling in.
“How is that? Nocturne asked, shifting a little to uncross his legs, straightening them out in front of him to give Merlow more room Merlow swallowed a little, moving in to fill the space, curling his legs up.
“Lovely.” he said quietly, at a slight loss for words. He breathed in sharply, lowering his head a little as he felt a hot prickling at his eyes again. He wanted to say more; but if he had, he was sure his voice would crack, and it would have been too much to bear any longer. Anything would have been.
“It’s the least I could do.” Nocturne said- and, gently, the hand resting on Merlow’s back shifted just a little, patting gently against him.
And even if he’d been a far stronger man than he thought himself, Merlow was sure he couldn’t have done anything to hold back the hitching sob that heaved out of his chest. He reached out blindly, hands gripping the front of nocturne’s shirt as he buried his face against him.
The soft, gasping sobs were muffled a little like that; and although his shoulders were drawn up tight and he was shaking so intently, Nocturnes arms rose up to wrap gently around him, holding him together enough he didn’t feel so badly like he’d fly apart.
There were no words; no pleas to smile; no shushing, no chiding. Just the warmth, hidden away under the tree against all of the world. Merlow didn’t know how long he sat like that against him really; he knew by the time the worst of it had passed, the air felt a little brighter. But that could just as well have been his company as it was the sun.
“...sorry.” Merlow said quietly, voice strained by tears.
“Nothing to be sorry for. I told you before; I dry out quickly.” Nocturne said, smiling at him. He reached over to dip his hand into his own coat’s pockets, the motion brushing his hand against merlows chest so minutely that Nocturnes murmured ‘excuse me’ and brought the slightest hint of a smile back to Merlow’s face.
A handkerchief turned out to be noctunes goal, in a black shade so close to the coat’s Merlow was sure no one but it’s owner could have found it. His smile flickered a little brighter through the wet at that, and he held out his hand to accept the thoughtful offer… But his hand wound up empty and hanging in the air as Nocturne leaned over and, with a hand as careful as he used to apply rosin to his bow-strings, carefully used the soft handkerchief to wipe the tears away from under his eyes. Merlows cheeks blazed hotly enough to nearly match the streaks in his hair. He swallowed, his pal’lets apple bobbing in his throat a moment as the cloth carefully brushed over one eye, and then the other.
And if anyone’d heard, or took notice when Merlow leaned back against him, they were polite enough to make themselves comfortable against their wagon seat, hammock, or tree bark, and pay it no mind.
What was a little noise between bards, after all?