It was never something he expected: her small bare feet curled in his chair, one against the fall of her bottom, her knee bent to her chest, the other dangling over the arm, the sweep of the long dress she wore a train that exposed only an ankle and then that sad little foot. It was run almost raw on the bottom, and around those careful little toes he could see the dried burgundy lines under the nails where her toes had bled. Once she had confessed to her dreams of being a toe-dancer. Now her toes were danced to bleeding, but not, he suspected, on the polished floor.
It was never something he expected because rightly she should not be there. They lived in different worlds now: her shining and bright as a little star as she wound her way among the deathbeds and sickbeds, visible as a star must be. He had been watching her and had listened to what they were saying. She was already climbing her ladder to the moon. She would be archangel before Solstice, this he knew in his bones. He had done his duty and played her master-tutor, but now their time was over and she was on a road to heaven. He remained quietly in the shadows as he ever was, a potent but necessary evil in these endless days.
It was true, the glass pedestal that they would put her on was one he daily paid for with blood, his own and that which was his by the rite of spilling; her ladder to the moon, that crystal palace of light and laughter and parties could not have been possible without the way his lance sounded when it had sunken deep into cursed flesh, but this was a truth that was more comforting than burdensome. His blood for her joy. It was an equitable bargain and he had long been used to dealing with the devil.
But the devil's deal had further requisites. He would stay unnoticed where he had ever been, in the dark and in the blood, among the fallen who signed over their souls for a thousand different reasons that he did not care about, could not care about. She would go waltzing up her silver stairs in dancing shoes, a blue eyed fey princess, a dream-breath that was not meant to be part of the real, never meant to be part of the blood and death that laid the foundation her dreams and storybooks were built on. She was meant to be there and he was meant to be here. It was enough to see her there, as she was. When he had signed his contract with the devil he had signed it solitary, on the condition that it would forever be solitary. He was a solitary man and this was where he belonged. Alone.
But there she was, sitting in his chair: a little tangled mess like a rag doll. He turned to look over his shoulder and found again what he had first noticed when he'd entered his rooms and known that they were not empty as he had left them and as he had expected to find them. Her little calfskin shoes were neatly at the door, the toes spotted over with blood that he could now decisively identify as her own. She had been on her feet for long hours and had danced her shoes to pieces.
He had somehow known it would be her, despite the fact that he always kept his door locked and warded when he was out, despite the fact that they were now on entirely different schedules, despite the fact that they hadn't spoken in nearly a month. It had been something she had been fond of doing while still under his apprenticeship and later as his officer's aid - breaking and entering. It seemed half an eternity since he'd come home to his empty flat to find something amiss and her little worn shoes by the door.
It had not taken long to find her there in that chair by the window, her dark hair spilling in a tangled mess over her shoulders where it had half fallen from a pinning job that he imagined she had done hurriedly some hours ago. Her dress was simple and to the floor, a slit to the knee on one side so she could run pell-mell from one operation to the next, he was sure. It was unbleached linen, spotted over with blood he knew was not her own. She had been in the pavilions again.
She was not wearing green.
Having marked her there he took off his cloak and he set aside his lance quietly, unsure of quite how to deal with the problem of Gabriel, which seemed to always be tangling itself in his affairs. She should not be here. This was not her place. It had ceased being her place. She had a different place now, and it was not exhausted and bloodspattered in this dark room. It was why the deal with the devil was worth keeping. She would have something better.
It was something she was going to have to realize. Birds do not live happily with fishes. The moon and the swallow were not intended. It was a cut that somehow raked even deeper than the flesh wound that was seeping slowly even now half across his spine.
Birds do not live happily with fishes. He had written it himself.
She stirred muzzily, every bone in her body aching dully and slowly, the even pounding of a jeweler's mallet down her spine and into her toes making her wish that each and every one of her nerve endings was dead. Her feet throbbed even now when she'd been off of them for ages, a whole hour at least, and as she shifted half-heartedly she was reminded again in spades of every little bit of herself that she had laid down today in the pavilions, around the sick and the dying, every bit of herself that wasn't there any more, leaving her curiously hollow, like a greenwood tree eaten up from the inside by beetles. She shook the sleep off painfully. There was just not enough time for anything.
He was, of course, standing silently in front of her, as if he had always been there. As if he would ever be there, cardinal tailcoat hanging a bit shabbily and a bit stained. She had been right then when she had supposed he had been out - hunting, he had called it once. She mustered her peppiest smile, which admittedly was suffering a little from a lack of rest, and folded her sore feet underneath her and into the folds of her dress where he would not see how cracked and worn they were, the scratches and the bloodstains she knew he would catch if she gave him half an instant.
"I came to bring you tidings of the season, Kingfisher," and the bounce in her voice was strained, as she struggled to maintain the carefree lollop that she was forcing with every breath because she was Gabriel and he expected her to be this way, gay as a little lark, always.
He simply looked at her silently for a moment, eyes dark and difficult to read by the moonlight which only came in filtered through high slits in the window, and it was some time before he spoke.
"I've told you before that it's dangerous for you to do this," he said flatly.
"I know, I know. You could mistake me for an intruder - of which I am, admittedly - and hurt me - " she began, closing her eyes and letting the lilt of her voice carry her where her feet no longer wanted to walk.
"I could kill you, Gabriel," he cut her off sharply, but she was shaking her head already.
"You'd never. Not even by accident. You'd know. I trust you, Kingfisher. You'd know."
He frowned and shook his head, "You're still so young." Innocent, she supplied. Untried. Stupid. Silly.
She sighed softly, her eyes squeezing shut on saltwater that she willed back, "I feel so old."
"I think that is against the law until you are at least past twenty."
She looked up and her smile trembled. They were still as they had ever been. She was full of silly little fancies and he was quick with dry remarks. But this time she didn't want dry remarks. She was so tired, like she was empty and boneless, and she wanted him to lay his hand in her hair and tell her that what she did, what she was doing was enough, because even if that wasn't true, if he said it then she could believe it long enough to sleep. She wanted very badly, in that singular moment, to tell him how much she loved him, how hard and how fast and how broken sometimes when she cried, wanted to say it so simply, as if it were the only thing to say: Duriel, I love you.
But she could not because they were not ready. Nothing was ready, would ever be ready, like it was stage production missing the principle actors.
She couldn't say that, so she instead said, "Well, you would be the expert there."
"Very droll. Now would you care to tell me exactly what you're doing in my rooms at this hour? You should be home, asleep from the look of it. Aren't you supposed to be back at the pavilions by first bell?"
"I missed you," she said, and it had slipped out without her meaning to. She hastily continued, "I never see you anymore, Kingfisher. I worry about you, that you aren't taking care of yourself, that you aren't eating properly, that you never do anything pleasant, that you never talk to anyone but Raziel - "
"That, assuredly, is not pleasant," he said darkly and all of the sudden she blinked at him because something wasn't quite right and she could not place it.
She bit her lip and tried to touch what it was that was bothering her about him. He did look like he had been working, but she had seen him plenty of times like that on the battlefield. There was something else, something - "I am at first bell. How did you know?" she asked absently.
"It is hardly secret information, Gabriel," he answered, as dry a stone wall as ever.
She bit her lip again, and her eyes shifted to the glass flute that stood on the bar nearby and harbored a single sprig of green, "I brought you a yule tree. I mean, it isn't much, since I couldn't carry much, just a fir cutting from the gardens, but I didn't think you'd have one if I didn't bring one."
"You are correct."
"I hope you don't mind. It's just, I love yule and I kept thinking about you being alone and - "
"I do have Shateiel. She always keeps a tree."
Her lip trembled and she shook her head furiously, her hair flurrying, "I'm sorry. I didn't think, really." Almost crying in her head was the other half of that statement - and I'll be alone and I thought, you know, two people alone at yule, well it has to be fate and - "I didn't want to be a burden. If you don't want it then I can take it away. It'll just litter needles all over your floors. I'm sorry, I was just being silly," she blinked the water back hard and rocked herself to her feet unsteadily, moving to retrieve the offending article, but her knees went loose and refused to hold her, and she spilled like a handful of sand.
But then his hand was at her back and he'd caught her awkwardly against him, out of habit, she supposed. She struggled to get her legs steady under her but they refused obstinately to hold her weight. Those that dance must pay the fiddler. She was paying now, limp in his arms like a child.
"How long have you been up, Gabriel?" he asked sharply and she felt the rise of the reprimand that would fall on her head as if she had been in the jam at midnight like a naughty girl.
"I don't know," she said carefully, thinking back, "It's hard to keep track of time in the pavilions. Probably only since this morning when I went to get that sprig from Sofiel - "
"Gabriel, you got that from Sofiel two days ago. Tell me you have not been at the pavilions for two days straight. Who is managing that place? Is no one watching you? Does no one send you home?" he was livid and she could hear the anger building in his voice, unusual there, as if he planned to go and take issue personally with the other angels who manned that tent city of the dead and dying. She struggled to explain.
"Oh, they do all the time, only I don't usually go. There are always so many people there and I don't have anyone to look after, no family, you know, what with Sams busy all the time with you, and they all have families and they're always so tired, so I try to stay whenever I can because there's so much to do there - "
"Gabriel, you have -yourself- to take care of."
She shook her head again unsteadily, "Oh, I'm doing all right."
"You cannot stand. I never in my entire life thought that you would be this negligent with yourself - "
She blinked at him again slowly, only half listening as he suddenly swam into deep focus and she knew what it was that had unsettled her, "Duriel, you're hurt. You're bleeding."
That stopped him in mid-tirade, "I am fine."
"Don't lie. I can tell. You're bleeding. Duriel, where are you bleeding? Let me see it," she began to squirm feebly in his arms, trying to get into a better position to examine him.
"You're in no condition to be dressing my wounds, Gabriel - "
"And you're in no condition to be standing here holding me while you bleed from a serious wound," she rebutted, still fighting pathetically.
"It's not serious."
"It is serious. Don't argue with me, Duriel," she retorted a bit crossly.
"It's not going to kill me."
"Well, it might not, no. But I'm not taking any chances. Put me down," she ordered, "You're hurt and I'm making it worse."
"You can't stand," he pointed out exasperatedly, and she wondered if he was not also reaching the end of his tether.
"I can," she protested, wriggling, "I'm just very tired, is all. I slipped at first. Just please let me try to stand again."
He said nothing, but gently he lowered her to the ground, one arm still around her waist as he carefully let her bear more and more of her own weight. She stood successfully, if a bit wobbly, and he drew his arm away only to have her collapse immediately on her bottom, nicking her forehead on one of his boot buckles along the way.
"I should never listen to a word you say."
"I meant to sit down," she defended weakly, drawing her legs to her chest as if she were a folding concertina.
"I am sure you meant to cut yourself as well."
"If you were not so tall and also not so already bleeding, I think I might punch you," she said unhappily, "Bring me your mending things and come and sit here on the floor."
"You are in no shape to mend anything. You need mending yourself. I am taking you home. I will see to my wound myself."
"You can't," she said petulantly, shutting her eyes tight, "It's on your back. You can't reach it."
He was silent for some moments, "You're right. How did you know?"
She sighed and shook her head, "You haven't given your back to me once since we've been talking. Now, I know you trust me enough to give me your back, so there has to be another reason for it," she frowned, and it was a sad and forlorn little look, "Please, Duriel. Let me do it. I won't be able to rest unless I know it's been done."
"If I let you, will you stay in bed and rest? Not just for an hour. Gabriel, you're killing yourself."
She shook her head, "I'm fine, really. I have to be back at first bell. Just let me do this and I'll leave you alone, I promise."
"This is not a topic up for discussion. You are not going back down there at first bell."
" - but I have to. I'm supposed to. I'm due back. They need me."
"Then they will just have to learn to do without you. I intend to have words with the pavilion master - "
"Oh please, Duriel, don't. He's a very nice man, and it really is my fault. It's not his duty to watch over me."
"You should be watching over yourself."
"But I do," she protested.
"All right," she was trembling again, nervous from the silence that was roaring in her ears, "Very poorly. Please, I'll do as you ask if you let me tend. I can't concentrate with you like that."
He moved without a word to the high cabinet in the corner where she knew he kept all sorts of things: stones, and cards, and boardgames, and also, apparently, his mending kit. He delivered it into her hands and then studied her for a moment, eyes deep carnelian. She smiled as strongly as she could manage and reached up to squeeze one of his dangling hands. He pulled away and turned, beginning at once, she noted, to fiddle with one of his sleeves, as if there was some desperately difficult cufflink to undo. She waited patiently even as he tucked something away into his inside pocket and then began to unhitch the eyehooks. After some moments at them, he shrugged out of his coat and dropped it heavily into the chair. The inside of it was stained a darker raspberry than the outside, but it was nothing against the wine dark stain on his undershirt that cut him shoulder to spine.
"Duriel," she murmured softly, but he said nothing, just turned his face to the side, so he could read her with one expressionless eye. His undershirt was gone with a flash of garnet, gone to whatever place voile pieces went when they were dismissed.
It was jagged and drunken, not a blade cut but something else, raw red bleeding almost so it hurt her to look at it. It was deep too, deeper than perhaps he had imagined. It was not something that could be just poulticed up, wrapped in bandages and left to mend. She was going to have to sew him back together, sew up his seam as she'd once wanted to sew the arms back on the walking dead, like they were old and unloved dolls thrown down and unwanted by their children. She let her fingertips brush barely the tangled flesh and tried to think of what thing - what claw, tooth, or tusk - had done this to him. Her touch was featherlight and if he felt it he gave no indication.
"How did you even manage this, Duriel?" she finally asked, her voice barely above a whisper as she bowed her head to look over the clean cloth she was soaking in antiseptic; the astringent smell was one that would've made her nose wrinkle even as little as a few months ago despite her time as a de facto combat medic. She ignored it now, ignored it like it was nothing. Time in the pavilions made one numb to such things as medical smells - as sickness smells. She was only glad that the wound smelled clean, with no touch of poison or rot. It was fresh, obviously, but one could never be too careful with the wasting wounds one got from the claws and teeth of the fallen or the demon-born.
"It was not merely my own talent, I assure you," he answered shortly and she was forced to concede that he could not tell her, secrecy presumably being the order of the day for someone who was sanctioned to kill off the battlefield at his own discretion - perhaps just not those who were fallen, but also those who were very high risk - and it occurred to her that it was not only that he could not tell her but that he did not want to tell her, which scored her deeply on the sensitive underbelly she had thought was long ago used to his porcupine quills.
She dabbed tentatively at first, but then settled her fingertips carefully on the clean and whole skin above the wound, drinking some of the hurt, some of the stress, into herself. Not much, not so much as he might actively notice, and not because she had so little reserve left to take it either. She would've gladly taken all the weight from his shoulders, and without complaint, but she knew if she tried he would be at her before she was finished, keeping her hands despotically away from his bare skin as he looked cross and thought of what to do with her. Nothing, because there was nothing to be done with her. He would perhaps say so. Then no one would be at peace, because his wound would remain untended and likely to worsen and she would not be able to rest because of it.
"You were really just going to leave it be, with no one to stitch it up and bind it?" she asked again, voice whisper-soft and whisker-fine although she already knew the answer he would give, knew his answers so well that she might've just left off talking aloud entirely and had the conversation with him by herself, in her head.
"It would have been fine," he stated again, as if by sheer tired repetition he could make it true. Unstated was his thought that it had always been so before, and although she heard this as plainly as if he said it, she did not bother with the exhaustive argument that would have been baited had she contradicted his silent thoughts. There were times to argue with Duriel and times to let him be. She had been enough of a bother to him in the past, despite the spiderweb delicate part of her heart that told her that he asked for her bother, that he wanted it, silently yes, without anything formed tangibly between them but the quiet, but then, that was also his wont again. This was a time to let him be.
"Why is it," she asked thoughtfully, cleaning out his wound as gently as possible, as if this were second nature to fingers that had once busied themselves unsuccessfully over the ivory keys of a harpsichord, "That you give me your back? I know that you're very careful. If you'll allow no one else to dress your wounds, Duriel, then why allow me?"
"Gabriel," he lingered tiredly over her name and she wondered what he might say next, if it would make her heart flutter unsteadily or if it would still it like a stone, "I did not allow you anything. You presumed. If I don't allow you to see to this then I am afraid you will not honor your word and stay in bed. I don't want to see you dead before you turn seventeen."
She bit her lip as she laid down the rust-soaked cloth and concentrated on threading the needle, trying not to hear her wavery little voice as she pointed out, "You didn't answer my question. Why give me your back?"
"You are hardly a threat," he pointed out so quickly that there had almost been no pause between her asking and his telling, but then he stilled.
"I could be," she contradicted, unsure herself why she was arguing this point when both of them were worn unto collapse, "I am a seraph. You said so yourself that the reason I've never been good in combat is not from lack of aptitude. It's from lack of desire. Maybe I could hurt you if I tried."
He shook his head and the muscles along his back tensed, causing her to run her hand down his spine, fingers splayed and easing in an attempt to get him to relax again so that she might start with the stitching, "It's not in you to - Gabriel, what are you about? Stop that at once or I will remove you to bed immediately and hold you there -myself.-"
At one point it would have been a conditioned response for her to lean over his bare shoulder, hair trailing down into his lap like spun silk as she answered, "Promises, promises."
Now it was almost as if the season of those times had passed away and she had only the strength to rock obediently back on her heels and answer penitently, "I'm sorry."
He sighed and it was water through gravel, over stone, like his voice, when it was tired like this, shaped limestone, "Do you never consider your own welfare?"
"Yes, often," she said, in hopes of making him feel a little better, even though it was not entirely true, "It is just that I always consider yours first."
"That is why I give you my back."
There it was, and no simpler could it be said. That is why I give you my back.
"I'm going to have to stitch it up," she advised him, hands folded across her lap, head bowed so the her hair that had fallen from its pins fell into her eyes and the most errant strands of it curled lightly along the knobbled line of his spine, "It will hurt. I could - "
"It will hurt," he said flatly, cutting her off, "And that I expected and am used to. You are long past the point of taking anything else onto yourself. I will live with my pain."
Unstated again was the further thought that it was not just pain he was talking about, but the contracted touch of her slim fingers against his skin as she breathed the ache out of him, as it built another ache between them both. Laying on hands was something she did a hundred times a day - if there had been time and she had had the strength, a thousand. It was another way of soothing, of calming, as her voice was. It was something she was doing for strangers constantly and it never stirred things up inside her, messy like soup scorched and boiled over. With Duriel it was always different - had always been different - perhaps because her touch for him had always meant something else, just as the half dead little bit of fir tree had meant more than simply Tidings of the Season.
It is just that I always consider yours first.
Pain was the simpler option to balance this equation.
"As you wish," was all she said.
Stitching him back together was not a trying task once she fell into the rhythm of it, humming a lullaby absently to herself, a lullaby and not a yule carol because Yule had fallen open between them in such a way as she was not sure that could be mended. One year he had strung a stone around her neck that he blamed on his mother - belling the cat. She still wore the bell now, although he seemed to have ceased listening for it. She kept it in hopes that he still did, that he still would. Likewise it was not often that others disturbed a cat who had been belled by someone else's hand - specifically if that hand happened to belong to a particular angel of clemency.
For his part, he remained still as death, still perhaps, as Duma had been, unmoving and without any but the slightest grunt from time to time. Her fingers were sure at their needlework as they might have been in happier times on a tapestry, filling in the brown-ruddy rump of a stag. In the end it was not much different from lacing a boot closed, finishing the seam, and then moving to clean away the excess of dried blood around the edges with her freshly dampened cloth.
His back fleshly clean and only slightly damp and smelling of antiseptic, she folded the cloth neatly on top of the mending kit and then without a by-your-leave tiredly set her cheek between his shoulder blades, leaning into his wordless stability, against the heat that was always burning there, under his skin.
"You're like one of the stones on the parapets, after the sun goes down and they've had all day to soak up the warmth," she said slowly, thinking about sleeping on the walls in summer with him at hand, despite the day watch, to make sure she did not roll off while napping. You shouldn't sleep up there, it's dangerous. It's all right Kingfisher. I have more lives than a cat. "You're finished."
"You will find that I am equally amiable, I am sure," he said dryly as he moved forward onto his knees, careful to shift himself so that she did not fall onto her face, "As a stone."
She caught herself on her hands and knees as he stood up and rolled his back very slightly, making a peculiar face as he did, "Then I am sure I will be very pleased because the keep stones have always been amiable to me. Never once have they complained of my weight," she paused to smile wanly, "Nor have you."
He bent to offer her a hand up and she took it, pulled unsteadily to her feet where she trembled a little, the muscles in her legs spasming and cramping. At the end of the day the giving she'd done told on her in muscles that twitched long after she'd soaked hours in the bath, and now it wasn't the end of the day any longer. It was the beginning again. First bell would come in a few minutes and she was due back -
"You're going home," he said, pulling his newly appeared shirt over his head again. Fate was thoughtful when it laundered the bloodstains out of clothing split to atoms and then reformed out of nothing.
"I had forgotten," and again, that was not entirely true. I had forgotten on purpose. "Are you sure you won't let me go back? I'm feeling so much better now, Duriel, and they'll be expecting me - "
"You're feeling so much better that you've also forgotten to do anything about the cut on your forehead," he commented, pulling his tailcoat on again slowly. Red, red as roses so it didn't show blood. Someday her furniture would also be red, red as roses so it wouldn't show blood, but that was putting the horse before the cart and neither she nor we have come to that turn yet. "It's stopped bleeding."
She reached up to brush her forehead thoughtfully, but then he had bent and picked up the rust-damp cloth and wiped the dried drip away so as to make her more presentable, as if he were her young mother dressing her to go see the grandfather who still didn't acknowledge her name.
"I don't suppose you'll let me go back," she said, shifting on her feet.
"I don't suppose I will," he confirmed, brows dark in the moonshadow from the window, "Because you're about to drop from exhaustion. I'm taking you home and there you will give me your word that you will stay in bed. I have kept my side of the bargain."
He moved to sweep her up, linen and spotty blood and no shoes, because between them long ago the words that asked permission for this thing had fallen away and out of use, unneeded in this ritual that had become as a second nature. He was always carrying her when she danced her feet to pieces, and she was so small, and she would rock still in his arms, into the crook of his neck and be carried like nursery child, eyes closed and dreaming of nothing but peace and the smell of too much blood soaked into too much cloth and the sweat stained death of a black cloak she had once seen out of the corner of her eye.
But this time she was not swept up for she swept up her own hand, one pale and five fingered as hands are, although still trembling, almost as if it were a nervous little animal all its own.
"Wait, Duriel. I didn't just come over to bring a tree. I came to bring your Yule present," he had stopped, so she fussed in the folds of her skirt for a few moments, fishing for something, "It's just your Yule present. I haven't decided what to get you for your birthday yet - and do you want a cake? I don't have a kitchen of my own, but I could talk to Isda and - "
"I don't need a cake."
"Duriel, no one needs a birthday cake. It's never like air or love or breathing or dinner. But if you don't want a cake then I won't embarrass you with one."
It was small, square and wood-lacquer, like a little ring box for curls of gold and binding diamond, only it was sitting square in her outstretched palm so it was unlikely to contain anything so much as with-this-ring-I-thee-wed. After a moment, he lifted it from her palm, square edged fingertips a breath against her skin for the time it took her to shift her eyes after him, then he was looking down at the box, turning it over, once and then twice in his hands, thumb along the grain.
"I'd like you to open it now," she said tentatively, "Since I might not be with you otherwise, and it's a present that needs explaining."
He looked at her a long moment over the box, then thumbed the top loose, removing it carefully, fingers boxed around it. It was laid out on a little pallet of silk, green as a cock's tail. Green as sin.
"It's a key," he said.
And it was. It was a little golden key of the type commonly used for turning locks in doors, whether to make them open without protest or close them beyond disturbance, and unlike the keys she had been fond of carrying around in her youth, this one had a scalloped three tooth edge and was now dangling between his thumb and forefinger on a slim steel chain.
"It's a key to my rooms."
He stared at her entirely nonplussed for several beats, wordless and soundless, so she waved her hand at him as if that would clear the air for her further explanation.
"I don't want you to think anything untoward, Duriel, really I don't. It's just that I've missed you so much lately and I can never find out your schedule or otherwise it's always wrong and it's Yule, and I thought and thought about something I could give you, and I realized what I wanted most was to see you a little. Since I can never find you now, short of breaking into your rooms and waiting for you to show up, I thought you might come and see me. Any time is fine, really. I'll wake up to see you, always. I'd just like it for you to be there sometimes. I'd like to talk with you and see how you are. I'd like that very much, and I know that a present is something that's supposed to make you happy and not me happy, but I promise if you come to see me on Yule Day then I'll have thought of another present for you, one that you'll like - "
"Gabriel," he said abruptly, then stopped as if he had intended to say something following, but had thought differently of it. She was still, and then it looked as if he was struggling with himself over something, struggling as she had rarely ever seen him struggle because he was always so in control, so in place, so as he was.
She leaned forward skittishly, as if shifting her weight even this little would result in her capsizing, and then she let her fingers dance as calmly as she could will over the sleeve of his coat as she struggled with her own fight.
"I want you to know," and as it started she was almost unaware that it was she who was talking, as if her mouth had gotten away with her and she was not really writing the dialogue between them but simply sitting still and listening as it echoed back in her ears, strange and hollow, "That it's enough. I don't know," she paused, her breath rattling in her lungs as she squeezed her eyes so tightly stars burst in front of them, "I don't know if you love me. I don't know what you feel about me, Duriel, and I'm sorry I ask so much so often, but I wanted you to know that what you give? What you give now. It's enough for me forever."
It was then that her legs buckled under her and he was forced to empty his hands because they were suddenly very full of her, and surely he had not meant to put that key into his pocket, but he had, and then she was crimson spotty and linen, smelling as if she hadn't slept in two days and in his arms as if she had always been there, cradle to grave and back again.
"You're still so young." He said again and she shook her head sighing.
"I'm older than everything, trees and rocks and stones and mountains and you and dragons. I was born when the universe exploded from a speck in my eye. I'm life, Duriel, and there is nothing young about that."
"You've been talking too much to Raziel," he grunted, shifting her weight slightly and moving towards the door.
She smiled sadly and laid her head against the pulse in his throat, "I haven't seen him for weeks. Maybe I get philosophical on my own sometimes. That's a sentiment of Sacrael. He's a beautiful poet."
"I don't have much use for poe - "
And he staggered as he had never staggered before while in possession of her, losing half an arm from underneath her to catch for the doorframe, but his hand came up with only air and they fell like sticks and he almost struck his head on the table and hers was almost dashed into the floor. His hand spread over the back of her head like a skullcap kept her brains inside of her skull against the flagstones and she laid there still, panting and listening to her heart beat. He said nothing, so she stayed there, spilled like brandy on his jacket or blood on his back.
"I don't think we're going to make it back to my rooms," she observed faintly, "And you should be careful with all this jostling. You'll open your back again."
"I'm fine, Gabriel. I will manage to get you there," he said after a moment, although he made no motion to stir.
"And then strike your head empty when you fall down the stairs on the way home. I won't let you Duriel. Let's be honest with ourselves. We aren't going anywhere."
"You need to rest."
"I can rest here. Besides, when they come to fetch me to the pavilions, no one will guess to look in your bed."
"Oh Duriel, I promise that this one time I am not making improper advances to you. I'm so very tired I don't think I could muster the courage to even kiss you, even if you asked me to marry you at this exact moment."
He said nothing, so she continued, "It'll be just as it was when we were in the field. I was sleeping on you all the time, you great lummox," she attempted to thump at his chest, but it came away very weak and ineffectual and he caught her wrist. She closed her eyes and smiled soft as rain, "And it won't be for very long either. I know exactly how long you'll have to rest before you recover enough to haul me back to my quarters and put me in my own bed. We can stay on the floor if you like, although you are on my left foot."
"Gabriel," he muttered so softly that it was almost to himself, but then he had shifted his weight and was carefully picking her pieces up again. He stood slowly and she remained limp as a ragdoll, head slack on her neck as she continued to smile gently. He eyed the door and seemed to consider it, but then he listed like he had been moored without anchor and managed the seven steps it took him to drop her into his bed, head footward. It was a narrow pallet, a single. As if he ever had reason for anything else. Still, she was very small. She squirmed over on contact with the bed and made a more than equitable shelf for his beaching.
"Remember that you're going to have to sleep on your front," she said very unhelpfully, as if he might've forgotten that he was split and sewn glute to spine. He stood and seemed to consider the bed and then the stones of the floor. She rubbed her forehead as if he were the greatest headache she had ever been blessed with. The muscles in her face trembled and she knew very well that she was strained too thin. She studied him even as she fought back a sniffle unsuccessfully, "I'm very sorry Duriel, but if you don't lie down, I'm afraid I might cry."
He looked so alarmed at the idea that she might start weeping piteously there in his bed that he dropped into it obediently and then arranged himself so that they were a respectable distance apart and he was precariously balanced, knife-edge on the bed. She dug her fingers into the beltloops of his trousers and yanked him over as hard as she could manage. He moved two inches closer and more firmly onto the bed, at which point she gave up completely and flopped her chin over on his back. If he was distressed by this turn of events he gave no sign, nor did he give a countersign that it pleased him.
"You are amiable like a stone," she noted absently.
"I am not sure that I can take that as a compliment," he answered, half muffled by the bed clothing. Both of them were beyond movement at this point.
"I am not sure I meant it as one," she comforted and then sighed again as she drifted light as air, "I know that when I wake up I won't be here, that I'll be back in my own bed and you'll be gone and I'll even wonder if it really happened, us talking and me bringing the tree and everything, I'll wonder if it even really happened, or if I went and dreamed it all after walking myself to hallucination in the pavilions and they put me to bed for fever dreams. But, being with you, no matter where or how or when, just being with you," she closed her eyes, "It's enough. It's more than enough. It's more enough that has ever been to anyone ever anywhere. Because even when I wake up someplace else, alone, I'll still know," she said, "That you've got my key. Don't you dare give it back. I don't care if you want it or not. You keep it to humor me, so that one day in a hundred thousand years when they find your moldery old corpse someone will see it sparkle and pick it up and say 'I wonder what this opens.' And they'll just have to live with the damned mystery."
"Gabriel, you just said 'damned.'"
"I'm sorry, does this bed have a language rating that I've exceeded?" she laughed, throaty and broken, "Perhaps you will have me evicted."
"That would be the best thing for both of us."
"I hate best things. They're very boring, like spelling lessons. If this is not the best thing - in fact even if it is the worst thing for us, I'm going to keep on doing it," she said as resolutely as a waif who is half asleep can manage.
"And you're going to keep on liking it," she finished softly into his coat, "Because it isn't in you to do otherwise."
He did not answer in words because it hung easily and tangibly enough between them as it was, and it had always been there, heavy as a strung melon at his hand. As she slept on his back like a great puddled cat he reflected that he had no rights to tell her she was wrong.
Because she called the ball and held it.
It was enough.