It was a dream. He knew that. It could not be otherwise. It could not be real, and therefore could have no consequences. There was no reason for him to fight the fantasy. So he did not.
It was a dance. A ball, of the kind he had seen in that dreadfull house, a masquerade. They stood in the center of a great swirl of colour and riotous noise, details blurred beyond comprehension, but that was often the way. He saw enough to know the manner of people that surrounded them, the cavalcade of pastel silks and bland, sneering countenances. These braying animals were worthy only of his contempt, and his caution, for always there were vicious blades beneath the petals of the upper class, and he knew, in the manner of dreams, that deadly enemies lurked in that glittering swarm.
But all of that was of secondary importance. It meant little, next to the vision before him. Next to her. His Persephone, his infernal bride. Miss Temple, as he had seen her that first time on the train, glorious and ruined.
His arm was curled around her waist, the red leather of his glove sliding over the wet warmth that dripped from her ruined, bloody coat. His hand sliped beneath the torn garment, skimming over the warmth of her living flesh, and he knew a moment of heart-torn relief, that it was not cold blue glass that met his touch. She saw the concern in him, and laughed. Tossing back her head, and flashing those neat, decisive little teeth, her voice pealed out in clear and ecstatic counterpart to the meaningless cackles around them. It was a wonderful sound, and he flashed his own teeth in response.
He did not know why they were there. Why she came to him as that bloody sprite he had caught before he knew her. Why she was not the calm and courageous woman he had come to know. Why he loved her yet, when all she had meant then was spoiled beauty, and all she meant now was nothing he understood. But he knew she was there, as beautiful and proud and battered as he had known her, and he accepted that the rest would come later. For the moment, he was content to dance.
Her steps were as quick and sure as the rest of her, the flash of her green ankle boots beneath her torn skirt a surge of emotion through him. He remembered carrying them, all that time, never knowing quite why, only that it had been something he needed to do. Only that he needed not to fail her, if only in this small and meaningless way. The creature in his arms clicked her green heels, and flashed him the grateful smile he remembered. He treasured it all over again.
He felt something slip into his eyes as they spun together, felt again the hot burn of the oldest of his pains, felt the blood begin to drip down his nose. But the memory of the whip did not come. Instead, through the curtain of blood, she smiled at him, the rust-coloured flakes bouncing with her curls as she moved in his arms. She pressed herself to him, wrapped her arms around him and held him close, and the stains on her clothes melted into the red swirl of his topcoat, and the blood from his eyes dripped gently onto her upturned face, into her hair. She smiled again, the fierce glow of her grey eyes spearing his heart, and laughed softly as she kissed him.
The room whirled around them, full of the jeering faces of enemies and the stern countenances of disapproving aristocrats, and in the center of that swirl of dull hatred he kissed her, and she kissed him, and nothing in the world mattered beyond the press of her small hands against his back, and the fierce courage of her eyes, and the passionate nip of her small and perfect teeth. There was no name for his passion, and no reprimand in her response, and he knew beyond even the dream that she would never fail him, that she at least would never falter before his gaze. There was something perfect in that knowledge, that they both were bloodied and soiled, and yet still somehow vibrant. Still somehow there, alive despite it all.
He loved her. He knew that now, though the grief for the woman he had loved and lost still burned through him undiminished. And she was enigma. He could not know what it was she wanted, what it was she felt. It did not matter. Not really. Patient as Hades, the Cardinal could wait for his damned bride, in all her bloody glory. A lifetime, if necessary.
The dance ended, as it must, and she stepped away, sliding her hands down his arms and pulling one of his hands with her as she went. She paused, at arms length, holding their hands high and pointed her toes in determined delicacy, her head thrown back and her eyes glittering with amused challenge. He stared back, unperturbed, and his dream-Celeste pouted laughingly, and curtesied low and deep before him, the motion parting her red-spattered coat to reveal her bright little breasts, and her golden head bent only in prideful acceptance. She was never more beautiful to him.
She rose again, smiling at him, and turned to walk away. He did not stop her, said nothing at all, but in his dream she paused regardless, and looked back with a faint, pensive joy. "Still alive, my Cardinal," she murmured, firm and unyielding, and he nodded. She nodded back, a decisive motion, and walked determinedly away, back straight as ever, proud as ever.
And though he was not a man given to hope, still he thought that he might yet have a chance.
Still alive. It was all that mattered.