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She brought the bouquet of flowers to an eloquent vase by the window, taking care to arrange each stem and bloom just so. Once finished, she turned to find that Laia watched her with a knowing look. Though not of royal blood, the revered occupation of Healer earned her an elevated status among the First Family, and they had been friends since youth.

“Majesty,” said Laia, bowing her head, “welcome back. Again.”

Crystal inclined her chin in a Princessly fashion that acknowledged no indiscretion. “Thank you – and for your continued service. The Queen sends her regards as well.”

Motion from the bed at Laia’s side distracted both. The stranger seized in a sudden fit passing as quickly – perhaps reacting to a dream, or simply to the pain.

Crystal came to the opposite bedside where Laia had left a chair waiting. “How is he today?”

“Little improved. The road will be long for him, I fear.” While Laia hovered a hand over his eyes cinched shut, his features untwisted momentarily, and then a ragged breath labored free. Laia sighed in turn. “And unpleasant.” She could do only so much to ease the suffering, though better than her peers – other Healers had even greater difficulty connecting to his alien mind.

“He did awake yesterday, you know…” Crystal recalled it like a fairytale – how his gaze had affixed upon her, eyes the color of winter haze reflected in the mirror of a lake. They held each other touchlessly in that way until sleep overpowered him again. It seemed to Crystal that he rested more soundly as she watched then.

Laia revived that knowing look and regarded her friend, “So you have mentioned. But remind me once more, the color of his amazing eyes?” She fluttered her lashes.

“Oh, stop it.”

“Your Highness stops it.”

Crystal remained while Laia conducted her daily session, using her gift to contain the pain while stimulating the body to heal. The process left healer as exhausted as patient. After long effort she sat back, spent. Crystal poured water from a carafe and helped her drink, walking with Laia to the door once she recovered enough.

“Jaquen should be here any moment to replace me.”

“Good, I’ll wait for him. Now go and rest yourself – I insist.”

The Princess returned to the stranger’s side. To say that he seemed better after Laia’s treatments was a low standard, yet at least he finally lay still and silent. Some nights before when sleep eluded her, she had visited this room only to find the Healers distraught and helpless to ease his torment.

“Please get better, mister, or all of this will be for nothing. I don’t even know your name…”

Imitating the Healers’ practice, Crystal prepared a medicine bath and soaked two cloths. One she spread across his brow to sooth the fever, and with the other dabbed sweat from his neck, mindful of the shattered collarbone bruised purple and swollen stiff.

“wanda”

His voice so small and breathless could have been an echo from another room. She leaned in closer to hear. “Crystal. My name is Crystal. Do you remember me? I found you.”

“m- sister...”

“It’s all right, um. Wanda is safe, I promise.”

He shook his head no, then tensing at the pain that it caused, slumped lifeless again. Crystal dared to cradle the hand of this man, who through such anguish thought only of another – and prayed that her promise were true.

 


 

“Our guest has a sibling.”

Her sister the Queen raised an elegant brow in interest.

Crystal continued one step ahead of her sibling (enjoying the change) to elaborate, “He seems very concerned. Her name is Wanda.”

Medusa made a nod that turned sideways, tendrils of flame-red hair uncoiling like curious serpents stirred from rest. “How did you come to learn this?”

“I- um, well he said so. I’ve been… making myself available. Just for little visits.” Subject to her sister’s solemn appraisal, Crystal took to gazing out of the ornate windows that lined the grand foyer, suddenly beset with the urge to explain herself. “I feel somewhat responsible, you know, being the one to find him in such a state. Lockjaw must have sensed his distress, but I mean, what are the chances? If I had not brought him back with me, he surely would have died there all alone.”

“Yes,” said Medusa. They have had this conversation before. And in exchange for the privilege of saving his life, the Inhumans breached their own customs by granting an outsider sanctuary within the Great Refuge. (Crystal never bemoaned that part.) “Curious – the Healers have yet to inform me that he regained consciousness.”

“No, no, it was only briefly – and we were alone together at the time.” Crystal bit her lip, too late.

Stood the Queen, and dragging a gown that could clothe a children’s chorus with its train alone, joined her sister by the window of her deliberate fixation. “You referred to him as ‘our guest’.”

He had been called only ‘the stranger’ before that morning.

“Did I? Oh. Well… isn’t he?”

“He is – and an outsider also, completely unknown to us. Little sister, until we learn his origins and the nature of the circumstances under which you found him, we would be prudent to have caution.” Well aware of the fickle nature of her sister’s oversized and wide open heart, the Queen turned to regard Attilan’s Princess. “Feed your sweet heart’s desire, Crystal, to do kindness unto this stranger and see him healed. Just remember to protect yourself, in all ways. Promise me that much and I would not insist that you observe formal decorum for a Princess of this Royal House by keeping an escort in your service during these… little visits.”

Crystal’s back straightened against the familiar and smothering weight of propriety. “I promise.”

 


 

Clean linens laid half-folded and forgotten across Crystal’s lap while she gazed in a daydream towards the bed. “Such a shame you can’t glean anything from connecting with his mind…”

“Indeed.” Laia dried her hands as she returned from the washbasin.

“Like his name or where he came from, or where we might look for his sister Wanda.”

“Well. At least we know the color of his amazing eyes.”

Since ignoring the joke had not made it disappear, Crystal tried denial. “I didn’t even use the word ‘amazing’...”

Laia came to pause at the bedside that had become her second home, feeling her patient’s temperature as she contemplated him. “The truth is,” she said, “I have never touched a mind so… unreachable. It feels unnaturally closed off, almost… occluded somehow.”

Along with her healing abilities came a degree of psychic aptitude, which usually helped to calm the mind and ease the pain of those under her care. Inexplicably, the stranger was almost immune to both manner of intervention. Sometimes his body resisted even medicine, reacting as a healthy organism would to a virus. Laia had never witnessed this, but the other Healers informed her, and she spent some of her sessions with him just undoing that damage.

“I suspected from the beginning that he is no ordinary human. Not surprising that the Geneticists’ findings are in agreement.”

Crystal blinked. “Wait- the Geneticists came? They tested him? Why?”

“On command of our liege, I assume.” Laia shrugged. “I only found out because Jaquen complained of their interruption the other day. Word is that they deemed the stranger ‘genetically exceptional’.” She pondered. “Could he be similar stock to your Highnesses’ powered friends from the world beyond?”

“The Fantastic Four? I don’t know. Perhaps we should contact them.” An irrational resistance sprung within Crystal at the thought – a childish urge not to share, not to let him go. But she would do it if commanded. She would tolerate Johnny perked up like a peacock to vie for her attention, always wanting most what he did not have. Crystal did not mention the Fantastic Four again.

 


 

“Well, I say the humans are notorious meddlers, and best left to their own devices.” Gorgon took a long drink, giving his dining companions time to voice their agreement if they would. “Ha! Their own doom, more like! They will bring it upon themselves, eventually. Our people,” obvious from his tone which of the two distinctions he thought better of, “have thrived without them since time untold.”

Medusa said, “Yet where would we be, this very family, without the intervention and the assistance of our friends the Fantastic Four?”

Gorgon followed his grunt with a bowed head towards the Queen. “You are wise to remind us that there may be exceptions to even the best of rules.”

Before conversation turned to politics, the first and only thing Crystal had shared was an update on the stranger’s condition that no one acknowledged. Feeling miffed, she said, “Anyway, you speak as though they have personally wronged you, cousin.”

Gorgon attacked a leg of smoked bird as though it were an accomplice in the humans’ crimes.

“And you speak as though you know better.” Karnak regarded Crystal evenly, making up his mind. Their little cousin’s unnatural fascination with the mysterious stranger had been the favorite gossip in the city since she returned.

“Well, I just might,” her response. “The humans were kind to me while I lived among them, and more accepting than our own views should give them cause to be.”

“Perhaps.” He considered every imperfection in the molecules of his glass. “Also, perhaps your new pet has given you special insight into the ways of their kind during your private time together. As his human brethren Johnny Storm had done not long before, hmm?”

The others knew better than to openly snigger at the double entendre. As he tipped his cup to drink, Crystal’s merlot-tinted reflection shone back at her. “As I said, our guest has barely regained consciousness. All he’s given me is the chance to demonstrate the nobility of our people by treating him with compassion and acceptance.”

At the head of the table, the King turned an approving eye towards her that Gorgon ignored as he rejoined the conversation in his fashion, “So you said he is healing though. That’s good. The sooner he can speak and walk, the sooner he can go home and forever cherish his memories of Inhuman hospitality. Ha!”

“Yes.” Crystal collected herself to stand. “I will personally see to it that he finds his home again. Now excuse me and good evening.” The knot in her stomach loosened more with each step that took her further away.

 


 

He grew vaguely aware of people in the room exchanging a jumble of words in soft voices. Hers was not among them – whoever She was: She of the caring voice and the gentlest touch.

Working his eyes open, he surveyed the surroundings. A clean and orderly room equipped for hospice but too beautiful to house the dying, though he felt more dead than alive. Someone noticed his state of consciousness and eased a pillow behind his shoulders. Someone else lingered unspeaking – he felt the prick of a needle and sickly coldness crawling through his body as the presence faded away. The first person reappeared and helped him swallow broth.

Pietro recognized the symptoms of a concussion; his vision was warped and dark around the edges. Then the room and those within it seemed to light up when She entered, a testament of their love for her. Half-buried in a bouquet she held under her nose to savor, lowering those wildflowers some the same sky-blue as her eyes she revealed a smile tender and bright as a newborn star. The gown she wore recited all the colors of a sunflower and clung to her innocently as she walked forward on bare feet, while her hair flowed over each shoulder like a fountain of honey and Pietro could not stop cataloging beautiful things about her.

Around his concentrated breathing he managed, “I know you.” Something wrong with his lungs; his breaths hitched and burned and it felt that coughing would drown him.

She assumed her place by his bedside, all serenity and care, the culmination of a conglomerate of every hazy memory he had of her since coming to…. wherever they were.

“You do?” she asked, still smiling.

“Y- ngh… yes- rescued me.” He took a minute to muster, “You are my angel.”

Someone nearby giggled, a female – another voice said something low and unamused. She of the golden hair raised her hand, and the room quieted. “I am Princess Crystalia Amaquelin. Be welcome, sir, as a guest of this household, that of the Royal Family in Attilan, ancestral homeland of the Inhumans.”

An avid reader, Pietro made a pastime of scouring the Avengers’ database files. He knew as much about the Inhumans as possible: an isolated, conformist, monarchial society inhabited by super-powered xenophobes.

“Perfect,” he rasped, and promptly passed out.

Not a moment passed in silence behind her.

“What nerve, to speak towards a Princess so.”

“Humans regard themselves as civilized with these manners?”

“If only he had broken his tongue as well and spared us such insolence.”

Crystal interrupted to decree her companions’ two options: “Be quiet, or leave.” One after another, the staff remembered their duties elsewhere and departed.

In the peace of silence, Crystal watched his chest rise and fall, soothing as the ocean’s tide.

 


 

“Thank you for seeing me.” Crystal made a formal bow of gratitude.

“We are pleased to see you.” Medusa sat beside her husband the King in the Grand Hall, tasked today with hearing matters of state. Such topics did not usually originate from the Queen’s little sister. Medusa smiled at her. “Perplexed, but pleased. Black Bolt wishes to know what your liege may do for you today.”

Crystal’s shoulders were square and taught. “I have given this much contemplation, and I wish to formally offer my services in official capacity as Ambassador of Human Relations.”

Impossibly, Black Bolt went even quieter. His wife blinked.

“We- Crystal, such a station does not specifically exist.”

“I understand, but I believe its time has come. The long isolation of our people is ended, and we must accept that our associations with the world beyond have only just begun. I hope you will agree that I am best suited for this role given my experience with them and my… favorable disposition.”

King and Queen exchanged a thoughtful look and an unspoken conversation.

Medusa faced him as she spoke. “We would take this under consideration. The Council should be consulted, and others may also be identified with the qualifications to-”

“But not the same open-mindedness as I. Not the same impartiality.” Crystal stepped forward. “I would work very hard. I’ve really thought about it. I could apprentice with our Chief Historian or the Speaker of the Council, or your Majesty herself if you wish. I promise I would not disappoint my-”

“Crystal.” Medusa held up her hand. “You are good-hearted and well-meaning, and you are not wrong. But you are also very young, and your experience in human relations is disproportionate to your experience in life elsewise-”

“I am not a child!”

“Then do not act as one,” came their mother’s words from Medusa’s mouth.

Crystal breathed, feeling her chances slip away. She called after them, “But you will consider it?”

“Yes of course.” Black Bolt raised a hand, and Medusa added for him, “And while we do so, consider for your own part that should you accept this title, its responsibilities would consume a great deal of your time and attention. The duties of an Ambassador take precedent before all else, and as a member of the Royal House, your family must come second.”

Medusa then asked, “Is this a sacrifice you are prepared to make?”

The real question: would Crystal curtail her personal interests for the sake of political correctness.

She forced herself to breathe more deeply. “Do I hear that an Ambassador has no place at the bedside of an outsider in need of our mercy?”

“You have said it.”

The disapproving attitude of her family towards the stranger, ballooning constantly into tirades against the follies and shortcomings of humankind, had only reinforced her dedication to his recovery. She felt at peace by his side, and an intimate triumph sharing in his small gains day by day, like tending a new garden. She had come to view his serendipitous arrival as a catalyst to long overdue change, and felt an overwhelming urge to facilitate that somehow.

“I am prepared to make any sacrifice for the betterment of my people. But in this we must disagree. For a truly qualified Ambassador would take it upon oneself to enforce our hospitality under exactly these circumstances, knowing that bridges are built from both sides, and that the strongest among us must lead by example.”

She made a formal bow in farewell and left with her chin held high, taking the responsibility upon herself with or without the title.

 


 

Fate had brought them together and intervened once more to keep them that way.

Without warning, violent winds heralded a coming storm, strong enough to hurl debris with such force as to damage even the advanced technology endowing the Great Refuge, disabling their communication with the outside world and most of their ancillary power. Repairs would be postponed until after the turmoil had passed.

Crystal spared the generators for more important needs, and instead read by candlelight as the evening fell. This was, after all, her job now. After Medusa informed her that she would not be elected as Ambassador, her Majesty suggested that Crystal ‘take her time re-assimilating after living among the humans’ while ‘indulging in her philanthropic hobbies at home’.

Suddenly the stranger startled awake at a crack of thunder so loud that the windows trembled, and as the bullwhip recoiled it cut aftershocks through the night air.

“Don’t worry,” Crystal leaned forward. “I’m here.”

He seemed confused, muttering as his eyes searched the room.

“Were you dreaming?” Crystal glanced towards the window where his gaze kept returning so unnerved that she half-expected to see something staring back. Shadows of leaves sped by the glass like black rodents scurrying for shelter. “You dream a lot, huh...” He would clench the sheets until his knuckles turned white, sometimes calling out in a strange tongue.

Still eyeing the window like an old enemy, he said, “Bad storm.”

“Yes. Does it bother you?”

“No.” He shut his eyes. More thunder boomed, drawing nearer. “Yes. Used to live… outside. Bad weather makes everything harder. More dangerous.”

What manner of Earth-culture could he hail from, to live outside? She had not intended to interfere with the autonomous behavior of Mother Nature, but it was within her ability as an Elemental to do so. “Maybe I can help make it a little better…”

At once he focused upon her, suddenly calm. She could tell he had misunderstood but sat dumbstruck, reluctant to break the trance. He said, “Somehow… you already have.”

Her fingers made nervous circles where they ended up in his hair. It was silver and messy and growing beyond fast. He blinked rapidly and lost the battle, falling back into sleep. Crystal allowed the storm to throw its tantrum alone, and stayed by the stranger’s side through the night. When the Healers came, she waved them away.

“He’s sleeping now,” she said. “Let him sleep.”

Jaquen hesitated. “But your Majesty, his medicine…” He retrieved a syringe from his pocket. “At least allow me-”

“Leave us.”

The stranger slept soundly throughout the night.

 


 

“Well hello,” she blinked in surprise to see him suddenly awake.

It occurred to him that he would never tire of waking up to the sight of her. “Hello,” he said. “Is it early for an angel?” The window bathed her in warm sunlight.

She smiled. She always smiled, he noticed. “It’s noon, sleepy head.” Wringing out the cloth, she dabbed at his brow. “Does the charmer have a name?”

“Pietro. But… you must recognize me?”

“Pietro,” she tried it out. “No, I don’t. Should I? How would I?”

“Well, I’m- uh, I’ve been on the news.” He had heard people remark how television changes a person’s appearance – but even despite his unusual hair? “Perhaps you would better remember the name Quicksilver?”

She regarded him as one would the victim of a terrible fever, which was reasonable enough. “Sorry,” she said, placing a hand feather-soft upon his chest. “Try to stay relaxed. You’ve been through a great deal. Here, take a sip,” she tipped a shining flask to his lips.

It tasted like something so effective that its creator need not bother improving the flavor. He tried not to cough, rasping, “What is that?”

“Medicine. Can you stomach some broth now? You need to recover your strength.”

“But I don’t want you to leave.” Had she fed him truth serum?

“I will send someone. Just a moment.” When she returned after beckoning a nurse from the doorway, he had nodded off.

He roused to a savory aroma as Crystal thanked and dismissed the scullion. She made him take more medicine first. This time he could not repress a shudder in distaste, sending a shock of pain through his body.

“I’m sorry. Is it very bad?”

Misunderstanding her, he said, “Taste it yourself, if you dare.”

She obliged as a courtesy to share in some little part of his suffering. She took one sip but swallowed three more times, then coughed. “It certainly is… potent.”

Something about her reaction plucked a string of memory just out of reach.

“Here, this will be much better.” She took the broth.

Pietro tried but failed to use his own arm, and let her spoon-feed him. Then the memory materialized from years ago: the first time he let Wanda taste his favorite Scotch. Her face puckered and her eyes watered, and he suspected she would rather have swallowed her own tongue. “You’re insane to enjoy that,” she had said while he laughed.

“What’s wrong?” Crystal asked, making him take another spoonful every time she spoke.

“Wanda.”

“Your sister. You call her name in your sleep.”

“I must contact her, you don’t understand!”

“Oh, I’m afraid that isn’t possible. Our systems were damaged in the storm. Don’t you remember? Well, repairs are underway, but-”

“Stop. Stop.” He moved as if to sit up and got nowhere.

Crystal set the bowl aside. “You must stay still. Please, just rest.”

He managed to cover his face with the hand too weak to hold a spoon. The last he had seen Wanda, she was captive of that mutant-hunting Sentinel under a madman’s control. Had the Avengers located her? Had she perished already? He was a fool to pursue her alone – instead of almost getting himself killed he could have helped the others, he had even struck Steve in anger, his friend, such a fool, and now she could be lost forever.

“Shh, shh, Pietro, it’s going to be all right.”

“It took her, that terrible thing, we were powerless to stop it. A machine like the one I fought where you found me. It took her and I failed, I failed her.”

“Shh, shh, please, be still.” He didn’t seem to realize that his arm was broken – several of his bones were broken. Crystal didn’t understand all of what he said, but she thought back to the wreckage where she found him and the monstrous machine that had nearly killed him. If his sister were close to the explosion that ruined the behemoth or Agon forbid, if its remains landed on her, surely she had died.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She coaxed his arm down and held his hand while he wept, until a fitful slumber overtook him again.

 


 

Jaquen stood at the foot of the bed when she entered. Something metal shone in his hand that he pocketed. Hearing the door, he turned what looked like a glare towards his patient into a polite bow towards his Princess. “Majesty.”

“Hello,” Crystal responded. Something about his manner put her on edge. “Is everything all right?”

“You might find it so, because you are just that forgiving.” His expression carefully mistreated, he looked back to where Pietro lay. “Our guest has been particularly surly today, despite my best efforts.” He waved the back of his hand across his brow and said in a small unthanked voice, “Oh, how I have labored…”

Crystal had visited that morning with Laia but Pietro did not wake. His progress seemed to lapse since the day he realized his sister’s fate, and true, his mood soured as well – and Jaquen was right: she did forgive it.

“Go and rest yourself then. I will relieve you.”

Jaquen bowed. “I would never leave with work undone; it is not in my nature. His linens are clean and he has had his medicine, for all the good that it does. Your Majesty needs only to endure his company.”

She waved a hand and gave him no more of her attention. Once ignored, he left to find someone else to console him.

“I know you’re not asleep.” Gently, she traced the strain of Pietro’s jawline clenched tight.

He flinched at her touch, keeping his eyes closed. “Did I claim to be asleep? I just cannot stand him. I would rather focus on the pain than listen to his prattling on.”

“He is-” Crystal folded her hands in her lap and sighed. “Well, he is an accomplished Healer, but he certainly lacks Laia’s charms.”

“He hates me.”

“…Please don’t say that.”

“I know he does. I see how he looks at me. He enjoys sticking me with that needle, he thinks I do not belong here, he would drag me across the border in the middle of the night if he had the nerve.”

“Pietro…!”

“I-” his eyes shot open and he blinked as though waking from a dream, shaking his head to focus on her. “I’m sorry, I- it’s just, it has always been this way for me, for both of us, and… it just hurts. Forgive me. I’m in pain, that’s all.”

Crystal sat still, taken aback by this change in him. Maybe the medicine did have a bad effect sometimes, as Laia has said.

Seeing her hesitation he withdrew, looking away and further away as he muttered, “Wanda understood. But now I’ve lost her too…”

She softened at that, remembering his grief the other day. A servant entered the room then, delivering broth as Crystal had requested. “I want you to eat.” She eyed him closely. “You haven’t today, have you?”

“No. I cannot. I feel ill.”

“Wanda would feel ill, seeing you go hungry. Please. If not for her memory, do it for me.” Crystal thanked and dismissed the scullion, taking the bowl. When she turned back to Pietro, he was already watching her again. She felt like a mirage or a myth, the way he tried to make sense of her.

He barely whispered, “Why are you kind to me?”

“Because that’s how I trick all the strange men I lure here into eating poison soup.” She made him take a spoonful and managed not to smile until he swallowed. She laughed to herself. “Silly question. Because, I- I like to be kind. And I like it when you are kind in return.” She felt her cheeks grow warm at that admission.

“I don’t deserve it,” he said like a man starving for more.

“Would Wanda say that you do?”

“I don’t want to talk about Wanda.”

“Well, I say that you do.” She gave him a hard look. “Now proving me wrong or right is up to you.” She added softly, “I prefer to be right, for the record.”

He ate in silence and when finished said only, “Thank you. For everything.”

As the hours passed and she read by his side, out of the corner of her eye she saw that he woke occasionally and just watched her.

“Do you know how to tell whether an oasis is an illusion?” she finally asked.

He jolted in surprise to be caught staring – she had not looked away from her book. “If you see one in a wasteland, it must be an illusion?”

“No.” She closed her book. “You just have to keep reaching out, as often as it takes, until you feel something real.” She bent over and kissed his head before standing. “Good night.”

 


 

Guards stood on either side of the doorway one morning. Crystal recognized the Queen’s own protectorate from a distance and prepared herself. They saluted their Princess as she approached. Passing them to enter, Crystal saw her sister seated beside Pietro’s bed.

“Sister,” said the Queen. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Not rushing, Crystal came to sit on the opposite bench and tried to place the flowers in her lap discreetly. Then to further demonstrate for the Queen her dedication to personal guardedness and propriety, she said simply, “Hello, stranger.”

Pietro lay on the bed now semi-raised with a healthier completion than the days before, yet still covered with the sheen of sweat that seemed permanently affixed as proof of his bodies’ strain. Though weakly, he smiled to see her. “Hello, princess.”

Medusa could have circled them both then without breaking their trance. She sighed inwardly to think that her sister was already smitten – again. “Pietro was explaining to me that he is an Avenger – one of their only two mutant members.”

“He- oh! Then you do have powers.” She had heard of the mutant X-Men while living among the Fantastic Four.

“Yes. And without them, doubtless even your timely appearance would have come too late to save me.” A faint smile returned. “Although, I still would have been glad to see you. Are those for me, by the way?”

“Um- yes.” Crystal risked a sheepish glance towards her sister and handed over the bouquet.

“Thank you.”

The trance renewed.

“As I was saying,” Medusa stood up to get their attention, “as soon as we are able, we will contact your comrades.”

Pietro’s face fell. He laid the flowers at his side, staring into nothing. “Ask first for news of my sister, please. Whatever her fate, I… I need to know.”

“As you wish.” Medusa watched her sister reach out to him. Their hands interlocked and she could tell it was not for the first time. “I leave you to your rest now. Good day.”

Crystal went about preparing a tincture soak, releasing a sigh after the door sealed shut. “So you have met my sister-Queen. I hope she was in one of her more bearable moods.”

“She was very cordial.”

“Good. I know not everyone else has been...” Even in and out of consciousness during the last several days, he must have overheard some of the staff’s grievances at serving an outsider. Enough to develop a distaste for Jaquen, at least.

He hesitated, but found a truth to part with, “I’ve known worse.”

She spread a dampened cloth over his brow, turning to prepare another. “Why?”

“For the same reason; I’m different.”

She glanced over him up and down and smiled. “Not to me.”

“Hmph. Then that makes you different.”

“Everyone is different. It’s the only thing that makes us all the same.” He grasped her hand over his abdomen where she tended the bruised ribs. “I- I’m sorry, did I hurt you?”

“No.” In that moment, he believed she never would. They stared wordlessly for a time. “Do you see this?” He twisted his forearm slightly.

“Yes, they took the bandage off, I’m so glad! The swelling is much less, too.”

“No, the scar.”

“Oh.” She looked closer. The crude shape of a letter Z, or an N depending on the angle. It was white against his tan skin and a little raised.

“For being different,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“When I was a boy, mother in a hurry sent me to fetch water from the village well. Sometimes we weren’t even allowed, just depended on who was around and how the day treated them. There were some bullies loitering that time, not much older than myself, and I stood up to them -I take my job very seriously- but they overpowered me. Said this is what we all deserve while they did their handiwork, said the Nazis had the right idea.”

Absentmindedly, she had begun petting the old wound while she listened. “I’m sorry. No one is like that here. I mean- not like that.”

“No. I know. That’s not-” He blinked and released her hand. “I… I’ve never told anyone this. Never mind.” Desperate to change the subject, he nodded towards the bath she refreshed the cloths in. “What is that, anyway?”

“Medicine. I don’t know exactly. Herbs? It’s a tincture that our Healers use.” She returned her attention to that scar, draping a cloth over it to seep in.

Her earnest, hopeless effort softened him. “Crystalia… that cannot be healed now. It’s been too long.”

Shaking her head, she moved her attention on to the rest of his wounds.

“Everything can be healed.”

 


 

She entered the room without knocking first, a habit formed while caring for a bedridden and usually unconscious man during the past weeks.

Pietro stood in front of the window alone, wearing just pants and a faraway expression. In the vase before him, the last bouquet of flowers she had brought withered under the dying rays of the sun. If not that he blinked, he could have been a statue, perfectly formed and perfectly placed. Despite the scars he bore, some aged and many new, Crystal had never seen a better physique, and she was powerless not to stare.

He noticed her presence and jolted a little, wincing in pain at the involuntary movement.

She laughed breathlessly, half nervous, half embarrassed. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to startle you. I didn’t know- I mean… you’re awake. Thank Agon, you’re up!”

He seemed to collect his thoughts. “I’m up,” he said, gesturing to a walking cane at his side. “I’m slow, but I’m up.”

The reference meant nothing to her. Hesitant, she approached. He was not properly dressed and she should excuse herself for that reason alone, but excitement over what she came to tell him compelled her to stay and see it through.

“I couldn’t find a shirt,” he blurted, maybe reading her mind. He shook his head, correcting himself, “I found a shirt, but it doesn’t button in front. I’m not complaining; it’s just that I cannot raise my arms to put it on. Laia could not tell me where you had gone to this morning, why you didn’t come... Not that I have any right to know. I mean, your business is your own.” He stopped rambling and seemed to sway a little.

Crystal closed the gap between them in an instant. “Are you all right?”

He stabilized himself on the chest of drawers with one hand – his other hand found hers in the small empty space between them. When their flesh touched, the connection hummed with an electric charge that promised never to shock.

“I- yes.” He lost his better judgement in her innocent eyes, in her warm presence, and a simple truth slipped out, “I missed you. I thought you might have- I was worried about you.”

“Why worried?” She could not help but to reach up and tame the lock of hair that always likes to get in his face. He stood taller than she expected (taller than Johnny).

“Selfishly, perhaps.” He tilted very slightly in response to her touch, as though a great weight forbid him to move. “I’ve lost so much. Wanda, my only family – and now I cannot activate my powers. Even if I could, the Avengers may not accept me back, I acted such a fool…” He frowned. “What is it?”

Crystal’s smile stretched ear to ear. “Oh, Pietro – that’s what I came to tell you!”

“The Avengers want me back?” He did not smile.

“No. I mean, that I don’t know. But you must promise not to repeat this!” Suddenly paranoid, she looked towards the door and all around the room. “I traveled to New York in secret, without asking permission.”

Pietro worked out the math in his head. Impossible for her to travel all the way in New York and back to the Himalayas in one day. “What… what are your powers, exactly?”

She shook her head, smile untiring. “I have my ways, but never mind that now. You must not tell anyone, promise!”

He looked upon her with a new degree of respect. The kitten has claws and cunning. “I swear it.”

“I went to consult with my friends, the Fantastic Four. They gathered news for me of your sister Wanda. Please don’t be mad that I didn’t go earlier – only after I learned she was an Avenger could I devise how to find her.”

Pietro inched closer, anxious. “Tell me.”

“She’s alive and well!” Crystal put one hand over her own mouth, saying quieter, “I was so relieved to find out and I couldn’t wait to tell you. Are you happy?”

He released her hand, spreading his palm over his chest, repeating something soundlessly. As he fell suddenly to his knees, Crystal’s heart sank.

“Pietro!”

His inability to form words turned into wheezing breaths – he was having an asthma attack. She hadn’t witnessed it firsthand yet, but the healers warned her that his lungs had been punctured and seared and the scarring caused this. She settled him to sit against the dresser and darted to the medicine table, returning with an inhaler.

He took it from her as soon as she was close enough and drew deeply of the medicine, shuddering as it took effect and his airway gradually released. After a few decent breaths he managed to say, “Thank you. Thank you. Oh God, I knew in my heart that she lived but I dared not hope. Thank you.”

Looking at her then he smiled full and true as she had not seen before – it changed his face completely. “You have your ways. Ha! Well, your secret is safe with me.”

“Not if you keep on smiling like that,” she said, teasing him. “Everyone will know something has changed.”

“But it has, thanks to you.” He rested his head back, grateful for each new breath. Their hands were clasped again. “Everything has changed.”

 


 

They set out amid imperfect weather on the first morning of collecting wildflowers together. Partially, it just seemed to be tradition by then – Crystal had picked a fresh bouquet every day since they met. Also, Pietro now insisted on exercising his body, knowing that despite the discomfort it accelerated his healing. After learning that his sister survived her abduction by a Sentinel, he pleaded with Crystal to take him to her.

“No, Pietro, I’m sorry but you just can’t. The journey is taxing even for a human in good health. With your injuries and without your powers, I dare not risk it! You must regain your strength first.”

Neither could she bring Wanda to Attilan. However it happened, Black Bolt had discovered Crystal’s last transgression and forbid her to depart again without leave. Pietro conceded not to press the issue for Crystal’s sake, letting King and Queen forgive her trespass and give their blessing in due time. Either that, or the communicators would be repaired soon enough. What mattered was that Wanda is safe, which freed Pietro to indulge in his own recovery.

Birds squawked obnoxiously at the brewing storm overhead, as they scavenged in a field of tall grasses and spatters of color. Pietro hunted for a particular spindly wisp of stalk that bore one single white flower like a prize jewel. Crystal had her own agenda for which blossoms to collect but refused to share specifics, pretending to believe he would steal her master plan. Such a spirit of play that she inspired, contagious and therapeutic.

“What do you use these fellows for?”

Crystal eyed the resting herd that Pietro had indicated – a few stragglers wandered nearer by, snuffling for tasty greens and regarding the bipeds with keyhole eyes as their jaws sawed lazily back and forth.

“Me? Nothing. They can be fun to watch though.”

“No, not you personally-” Pietro laughed at the image of Attilan’s beloved Princess tending sheep. Or goats. Whatever they were. “I meant, what are they bred for?”

“The Tahr?”

“Okay, yes. Do they get milked, or sheared… perhaps mixed with curry?”

At her thoughtful look with head tilted sideways, he half suspected she was about to ask why one would cross-breed a Tahr with curry. “Your accent changes,” she said, deceptively perceptive, as usual. “Do you try to curtail it?”

Although they had been speaking at length for several days now, it surprised him time and again, the interest that she took; a child’s curiosity and a woman’s wiles, focused sometimes unnervingly upon him.

“No. Yes.” He counted the flowers he had found so far. “Magneto, when he- part of our ‘training’ with him encompassed the ability not only to blend into crowds, but to actively function under false identities as well. He said a Slavic accent screamed espionage. Hmph – at that point, I suppose it was a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

Slowly, she transferred the hand holding her own flowers behind her back while her gaze narrowed at him. “Are you a spy, Pietro? If that is your real name.”

Forming a zero with his free hand, he held the invisible spyglass to one eye. “I will just be over here now, blending in with the locals.” A Tahr with impeccable comedic timing bellowed.

Later on, with flowers in hand and parted by several yards, the couple met eyes just as heavy rain made its inevitable dramatic entrance. A barn-like structure stood nearby, and Pietro -forward thinking by nature in these ways- had spotted it and kept it in mind as a potential refuge for them should the weather turn bad.

Seeing his hand signal indicating the building, Crystal nodded her understanding and made her deft way darting around rocks and holes and sunflowers taller than she, disappearing within the shelter.

He arrived a while after, keeping up as best as his weakened condition would allow.

“Slowpoke,” she said when he entered, wringing out her hair. She could have stopped the rain of course, but this was more fun. (And when else would she get to see him in a wet shirt?)

Panting and hating it, he joined her where she leaned against a bale of straw. “You were closer – cheater.”

“Excuses, excuses.” But suddenly he faltered, stumbling headlong lifelessly for an instant. “Pietro!” She lunged forward, landing on her knees to catch him mid-fall. He jolted back to alertness and straightened at once, grasping her with as much fervor in equal surprise and confusion. They locked eyes kneeling on the ground, braced hip to hip for balance and arms entwined, the whole of the universe abbreviated to the heat of their bodies and the pulse of their breaths against each other.

“Are you-”

“I-”

It began and ended and started all over again in a series of kisses both exploratory and insistent, alternatively an unbridled exposure of innocence and passion, all ravenous and satiated and unquenchable desire, foolish heedless invincible love.

They parted in such a way that felt never closer to another person.

Panting and loving it, Pietro bent to wrap into her embrace, head rested upon shoulder, an intoxicating journey of her smell and softness, utterly drunk on the newness of it all in the only sense that he had ever allowed himself to experience such a release from control, from guardedness and virtue.

Crystal drove her fingers through his soggy hair, grown long and unfettered; she could tell it was so unlike him. And she knew he was inexperienced in this way, of hearts and bodies merged in pleasures and promises, a stallion kept stalled too long at its prime that once mounted, anything could happen, a future wild and free just beyond the horizon on a hunch and a vow.

“I love you,” they spoke in one voice, and there together waited out the storm.

 


 

“Are you sure I’m not keeping you from something?” Medusa asked. She had come to Crystal’s quarters that morning to visit as a sister, not a Queen.

Crystal poured their tea and returned the pot to its heating pad. “Of course not,” she replied, glancing toward the window and the fields of wildflowers beyond. She would miss Laia’s morning session with Pietro. “It’s lovely to see you.”

“I feel that we haven’t really caught up since your return.”

“Yes, well, I suppose it was an unusual homecoming...” She literally cradled Pietro in her arms at the time, unconscious and near death. Everything had seemed to revolve around him since. (Even this visit might not be an exception.) “And you’ve been busy too, it seems.” Often lately the doors to the Great Hall have been sealed shut as the King and Queen consulted privately with their advisors.

Crystal quit chewing on her bottom lip to ask, “It’s… not all because of me, is it?”

Medusa deliberated, settling on, “It’s not all because of your unapproved visit to New York recently, no. Why – do you have other confessions to make?”

Crystal ignored the question that was not entirely in jest. “I wish you could understand. He was so worried about her, even at the edge of his own death the only fear within him was for her wellbeing. How selfless is that? How noble and sad? When he came to and realized she must have died, Medusa, I… a piece of my heart broke with his. So I had to go, I just had to. And now that he knows she’s alive, oh sister, he’s like a whole different person! He jokes and smiles and he’s healing so fast.” Crystal studied her sister’s expression. “Yet I know what I did was wrong, and I’m sorry. Will the King ever forgive me?”

Medusa considered many things. “Yes,” she said finally. “But let us speak no more on the subject.”

Crystal sighed. “Very well.” She had resolved for her part to wait out repairs of the communicator regardless. Besides, if Wanda were permitted to come here, would she depart alone? Would Pietro profess his love for her only to leave her behind, like Johnny had done time and again? Crystal was not ready to find out. She wasn’t even ready to tell her family how she felt.

“Actually…” Medusa sipped her tea, reconsidering, “I did wonder if you saw Johnny while you were there?”

Crystal drank too, buying time, and decided to tell her sister the full truth. “No. I would have, except- I mean, you know that isn’t why I went, but no. Johnny was… out.”

Medusa waited for the rest.

“It was late when I arrived,” Crystal went on, “and Reed said he had gone ‘out on the town’.” She made a sound like laughter that wasn’t. “I could tell he didn’t know what to say, but that must be what Johnny calls it so Reed just repeated. Anyway, by the time I was ready to leave, daylight had broken and Johnny- well, he hadn’t come home. So I left.”

Medusa nodded, paused, and then ventured, “Is that when you became intimate with Pietro?”

Crystal sputtered, “What? No! I mean- how did you- that has nothing to do with Johnny!”

“No? Well, perhaps it should.” Medusa sipped her tea again, unexcited. “Johnny was the last man who had your love, after all. Can you give your affections to another before consciously closing your heart to him?”

Grown red-faced and tense, Crystal twisted in her chair. The one commodity Attilan did not possess was privacy, and it spoiled everything. She knew how in hushed tones people referred to Pietro as the Princess’s Pet, a term applied interchangeably throughout the years due to common belief that her interests are broad and varied but it is not so! Crystal loved true and deep and not as freely as people liked to say.

“You are being sincere with him, I hope?”

“Of course I am!” Crystal huffed, next pleading, “I wanted to tell you about us myself, but this place doesn’t let me do anything the way I want to.” She collected herself, breathing deeply. “Sister, I… I think I love him.”

Medusa tried to react as though it was the first time she had heard those words. She tried every time. “That’s wonderful. I’m happy for you.” She let that sink in while the air thinned out. “What about Johnny?”

Crystal gathered herself up straighter to say, “It’s over with Johnny. I’ll… I’ll tell him so myself, when I can.” She waved her hand, feigning indifference. “When it’s convenient.”

“Good.” A flame red tendril of hair retrieved the pot and topped off their tea. “When you see him next, tell your pet that he is summoned to join the Royal Family for dinner as our honored guest.”

Crystal’s voice came out flat, “Do not call him that.”

Medusa raised a brow, saying in their mother’s admonishing tone, “Once he has sued for the King’s consent to properly court Attilan’s Princess, no one will.”

 


 

They stepped into the shadowed nook behind an open door to share one last private moment before entering the chamber. In the hours before dinner, Crystal had done her best to prepare him regarding the Inhumans' customs and tendencies - public displays of affection being one of many things frowned upon, and outright forbidden if the coupling has not been officially sanctioned.

"Are you sure you're feeling up to this?”

"Mmm… now that you've asked for the sixth time, I think not." Pietro smiled when she didn't and squeezed her hands in reassurance. "Everything will be fine, I promise. Remember, I used to dine with Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants - your cousins do not frighten me." He swallowed. “Did you say… will the King be there?”

“I don’t know.” Weightlessly so as not to cause him pain, she rose on tip-toes to wrap her arms behind his neck and kiss him. Their connection deepened swiftly as always but he allowed it for only a moment, his hands clenching firm above her hips as leverage to place her flat footed again.

"Darling, you must let me practice such restraint as will be expected of me here," he said against her temple, gently chastising. When Crystal told him what her sister had said, he swore at once to have an audience with the King, saying, "I love you, Crystal - and so does your family. I will do whatever it takes, whatever they deem right, to be by your side." The King would receive him the next morning.

They entered the chamber and were seated for the meal. Talk revolved mostly around Inhuman societal issues, with lapses into the relevant historical implications for Pietro’s sake. He found the Inhumans to be a proud and elitist people, who placed immeasurable value on the culture and succession of their own kind but extended little care towards the affairs of others. As the evening progressed, his tiring mind replaced the word ‘Inhuman’ with ‘Mutant’ and it settled his nerves. They were not so different, if entirely unique – just as Crystal had said.

“Where are you from, anyway?” Gorgon eyed the subject of his questioning over the brim of a mug.

“You wouldn’t know it,” Pietro replied. It came out curter than intended – his body hurt after so long in one position. He added, “Transia. It’s a small country in Eastern Europe.”

“You’re right.” Gorgon drank more. “Never heard of it.”

“We’ve spoken at length of our culture,” Karnak interjected. “How boring it must be for you. Why not tell us something colorful about your family and the good people of Transia.”

Pietro tried not to wince as he shifted. This family could recite the names and professions and likeness of their prestigious pedigree back for generations – and they gladly did so with very little reason. Did Karnak already suspect what a basic and sad story this would be?

He chose his words carefully. “Well. It’s true I was born in Transia, but my family was not from that country – nor any country, I suppose. They had travelled a good deal during their lives before settling there, just as my sister and I came to do in later years.”

“Sounds like a band of roving gypsies,” said Karnak innocently.

For all that the Inhumans were unconcerned with the plights of the rest of humanity, Pietro knew they were far from unaware of it. This Karnak fellow was the subtlest type of bully, trying to get under Pietro’s skin unnoticed. He felt his airway constricting and drew quickly on the inhaler that he carried with him. The medicine sent a chill through him that turned numb, and then each spasm of his heart beat hotter than the last.

He went on, “But to answer your question, I can tell you something of the people of Transia. They are old-fashioned in the most intellectually stifled sense, and as ignorant to the natural sciences as to the God-given miracles of this ever-evolving world that we live in. Distrustful, prejudiced, violently superstitious and prone to act upon it with all the oafish avidity of a common village idiot and with as few repercussions. Native Transians found excuses to persecute my family on a regular basis throughout my childhood, eventually killed our parents, hunted my sister and I like beasts and twice came near to slaying us for the simple crime of our race, that of Mutantkind.”

Gorgon slapped the table in dark amusement and barked, “By Agon, you must truly hate them!”

Pietro breathed through a strange ache in his chest. He looked at Crystal whose head was bowed – all he could see of her face was a pout. Just the sweet sight of her drained the hotness from his blood. He shook himself, saying, “No. I hate what ignorance and fear can do to even the most good-hearted and well-meaning of simple folk, and what it does to my people all the world over day after day. But I pray every night for the strength to forgive them. Whether they deserve it or not – I do. And a wonderful person taught me that bridges are built from both sides, and that the strongest among us must lead by example.”

Crystal looked up at him as he repeated those words, her eyes sapphire and shining in the candlelight. He mouthed ‘I’m sorry’, ashamed to have responded with such ire to a simple question – regardless that Karnak meant to embarrass by parading his low breeding and humble beginnings. Against propriety, he wrapped his hand around hers on the table where all could see, and tried foolishly to send his thoughts to her. I will never stop striving to be a better man. Sometimes it worked with Wanda – or she was just so used to forgiving his temper because she had no choice.

Gorgon deflated and made a grunt into his empty cup. Karnak did roughly the same.

Suddenly at the head of the table stood Black Bolt, raising his glass. Looking surprised, Medusa spoke for him, “The King proposes a toast to clan Maximoff, living and dead – may they travel at will and settle in peace.”

The rest of the family raised their glasses politely, some with more or less enthusiasm. Crystal had not touched her wine before then, but held her beloved’s gaze as she drank deeply and wove her fingers between his.

 


 

“Enter,” she beckoned towards the door. It opened slowly and only a little; she could tell immediately this was someone unfamiliar. “Who’s there?”

A bouquet of flowers peeked out from the barely opened door before jiggling cheerfully.

Laughing into the palm of her hand, she darted forward and reached beyond to pull her visitor by the wrist into the privacy of her room. Pietro stumbled through with a surprised yelp, laughing too as he came to crash land on a chaise by the foot of her bed.

Crystal popped her head out to see that the hall was empty and then swiftly closed the door. Laughter seeped through her hushed tone as she turned on him, “Pietro! How did you know where to find my quarters?”

“Homing pigeons. I keep telling you, I have many talents. Ow, oh... graceful entrances not among them.” Sitting upright with a wince, he fussed to perfect the bouquet’s composition before offering the gift. When he looked up at Crystal, he froze stricken.

All humor abandoned, she went to her knees before him. “Are you all right? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I… Crystalia-” he looked away, such a deep flush suddenly upon his face that she thought he must becoming ill. “You are not dressed, why did you call me in?”

“Well, um, I thought you were my handmaiden, but-” she assessed herself, adorned in pink silk from a sweetheart neckline to the knees. The dress was not immodest, but thanks to the chilly morning air…. blushing. He was actually blushing. Since she could not change her body’s reaction to the cold, she changed the subject instead. “Are those for me?”

Still with his eyes averted, he nodded and raised the bouquet until she took it.

“Tck – they’re beautiful, thank you.” She breathed deeply; the petals still glimmered with morning dew. “My, but you’re up early! To what do I owe the honor?”

Pietro stood, clearing his throat. “You should sit down. Please.” He paced in just a small circle, coming to pause in front of Crystal, shook his head rejecting some idea, then sat down beside her. “I met with Black Bolt already this morning.”

At her sharp intake of breath, he raised his hand.

“I must tell you this first,” he said, very serious. “I did not ask for permission to court you.”

Crystal repeated it in her head. The instant she opened her mouth to speak, he held up his hand again.

“I did not, because I love you.” He could not hold still, his hands made the shape of a ball and a web and a door and a tent. “I love you as I have loved no other – as I will never love any other, for as long as I live.” He looked at her, saw the tears that gathered in her eyes and busied his hands weaving through her hair, caressing her cheek. “I know this to be true, I know it with all my heart beyond the shadow of a doubt. I did not ask your King for permission to court you, beloved, because I asked him for permission to marry you.”

His thumbs swiped away her tears, one after another. Her throat tightened as she asked, “What did he say?”

“Well, thankfully nothing.” He smiled. “However – he made it clear that I may ask you myself.” Pietro descended to one knee on the floor in front of her. “Crystalia, will you be my cherished wife?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes!” She pulled him up to sit beside her and they kissed. Their connection deepened and warmed and changed and the bouquet hit the ground unnoticed. Soon Crystal repositioned to straddle the lap of her betrothed and they settled in this way mindlessly at first, overtaken by second nature.

When Pietro began to speak Crystal interrupted between heavy breaths, “I love you. I’m so happy. Hold me. Kiss me.” And he did. They savored the closeness of their bodies and the hotness of their mouths while their hands roamed, tentative but growing braver.

Her fingers through his hair, she guided Pietro’s hungry kisses to the length of her neck while her body arched in response, causing the straps of her dress to slip off of each shoulder. The sight of her breasts peaked hard in the brisk air snapped Pietro back to his senses.

Gingerly, he returned the garment to its proper place and collected himself with deep breaths, shaking his head ‘no’.

“But Pietro, I… I want this.” His hands covered hers, keeping her from pulling off the straps.

“Darling, you must believe me when I say that I have never wanted anything more. But you know the expectations upon us until we are wed. We cannot… share everything. Not yet.”

She beheld his discipline in silent awe. Where Johnny had insisted that Crystal should feel entitled to quench her desires uninhibited (which happened to suit him likewise), Pietro thought first of her family’s values at his own expense.

“You are steadfast and honorable, my love – and I know you speak true…” she shimmied to bring their lower halves closer – his physical interest pressed against the apex of her center, hard and defiant, “but it only makes me want this more.”

He let his head fall back and indulged for just a moment in the sensation of their most sacred and secret places touching in a most forbidden and delicious way. Then for just another moment longer. His words crawled out of a groan, “This is bad. We have already gone too far.”

She could not tell if he joked. “Why?”

“Because you are starting to make a great deal of sense.”

She giggled. “Why is it bad, silly?”

“Crys- oh, God- I cannot possibly have a conversation about not doing this while you are doing that!”

“Then let’s stop talking.” She claimed his mouth, and to her surprise, found that his tongue teased hers in synch with the motion of her hips. If not for his semi-fragile state, she might have pinned him down and released them both right then. When they next broke for air, she did cease her movement to speak, “What if we don’t share everything just now?”

“What-”

“What if we save something special for after we’re wed?” Again she kissed him, soft, sweet, imploring.

Any temptation, like torture, comes with a breaking point – a weary traveler at its door, Pietro relented, not sorry at all. “Then come here, little princess, before we both go insane.” She let him maneuver her to lie on the chaise beside him, one leg tucked into the nook between his body and the furniture, the other free to roam along his side and to control the degree of her exposure to him.

To appease any lingering reservations, she said, “But this stays on,” clutching the hem of her dress, though she inched it upwards just to the hips so that he could behold her beauty.

He admired the aesthetic of her form writhing beneath the thin layer of silk and wondered if this view was actually more modest at all. “My angel,” as Pietro tested the slick swell of her desire with his thumb, she arched to meet his touch, a wordless invitation to explore more thoroughly, perhaps less ignorant than her innocence let on, “you are compromised.”

“Mmm – you do this to me,” she laughed breathlessly, always loving the way he used his words, artful and intended, now mirrored in the way he used his fingers, finding perfect rhythm in response to the undulations and moans that escaped her, “Yes- my love- don’t stop!”

It felt like forever before he did. In the closing moments of her thrall, one of her hands found his and they clasped palm to palm, fingers interlocked. The other she braced against his shoulder, stabilizing herself during the final devastating spasms of passion’s insurmountable height that slowly passing, left her panting and limp.

Once her wits returned, she sat up to meet him in renewed kisses. “Pietro, let me now… come here, let me-”

Lightheaded as though traipsing a waking dream, he meant to build a case for selfless demurral, but as she devoured his neck from ear to clavicle he heard his own voice only repeating her name. While distracted, she had freed his manhood from its constraints of clothing and began exploring. When he looked at her next, half of a bottom lip escaped shyly between her teeth as she asked, “Will you guide me, so I know how?”

It seemed she hardly needed any advice – but he thought of something else. He freed her grip and brought their entwined fingers between her legs, massaging there together for a moment. Then she observed bewildered at first as he renewed her same motion over his erection as before. Hand over hand now polished by her own sap, they worked his member until it teared.

Leaving her to improvise solo, Pietro resumed another expedition into her own depths, and with opposite hands either folded behind each other’s necks or bringing one another closer and surer towards desperate release, they shared one final kiss, wild and rough and breaking away into cries of joyous triumph, a song without words that concluded in the universal language of laughter.

The rest of the world a distant memory that spun unheeded around them, they held fast, shuddering and resplendent and chanting, “I love you, I love you,” the simplest of pure truths, and all they would ever need.


 

~epilogue~

Chained in a tower or a basement or wherever naive royalty keeps vicious lunatics instead of killing them, Maximus rolled on the floor like madmen are wont to do, alternatively biting his fingers to the point of bleeding and suckling at the ripe bead. He pretended it was the pink nub between Crystal’s tight thighs, he pretended it was his mother’s milking tit, he pretended to be out of this prison and king of the whole stupid world.

He had watched through his mind’s eye this newcomer, this last class citizen of nowhere, traipse into his kingdom into His. Kingdom. like he belongs here or anywhere and fool everyone into believing he was handsome and noble and damaged but trying real hard and just finger bang the Queen’s own sister to heavenly bliss and back again. Worse still, she actually loved him. Crystal actually LOVED this tragedy of a gypsy tramp and she didn’t even know what those words meant. And he hated her for it! He hated her already but now he h-a-t-e-d her more.

And Pietro. Please. Where the hell did this guy even come from? From underneath a Sentinel, yes, but seriously. An ‘outsider among outsiders’, gee like that ever works out, trying to sidle on in with the big unhappy dysfunctional family he never had because his parents are dead boo-fucking-hoo – what a cliché, what a shtick, what star-crossed lovers bullshit. Maximus puked a little in his mouth and spat.

He pulled his dick out of his pants and started working it, making himself a promise, a cool game to play.

Some of the pieces were already in place. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and Maximus had a way with peoples’ wills. Which is how he got his magic potion (that’s being facetious – it’s actually a type of poison) into the Healers’ tinctures and medicines and even the convenient travel-sized inhaler for booster doses. ‘Asthma’ – ha! Sucker. Since it failed to kill Pietro outright, which would have been fine too, by design it would rest dormant and untraceable – but once activated, it corrupts mental faculties, leaving the victim gloriously susceptible to Maximus’ control and fun for the whole family commences yaaaaay!

Aw that’s right, so close, almost show time. He would ruin them. He would pollute everything they loved within each other and destroy everything they managed to build together. He would delight in feeding them to their own demons and celebrate to watch them shitted out as each others' worst fears incarnate.

True Love Be Damned With Smelly Cum On Its Face

As ever alone with his thoughts, Maximus giggled in the distance, eagerly awaiting the day that he would ensure these things came to pass.