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No Fluff November

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Asra watched silently, too weak to even move his gaze from the sight before him. He tried vainly to reach up to his apprentice, but his hand fell into the puddle of blood soaking into the floor. No one else in the room moves, their eyes falling on the multitude of focal points in the scene.

Salim and Aisha’s eyes focused on their son’s blood-splattered face. Several other sets of eyes, namely those of Julian and Portia, focused on the hole carved in the magician’s chest, blood pooling in the roughly hewn cavity. Nadia focused on the Devil himself, practically preening as he looked over the apprentice's shoulder at the mangled body on the floor. The courtiers cast their masks aside, giddy with the display of carnage and betrayal and focusing nowhere in particular. And, finally, the eyes of Muriel and the cheetah-masked woman riveted themselves on the half of a heart that Asra’s closest colleague, the person he sacrificed the other half for, had ripped from his chest.

The apprentice, for what it was worth, seemed surprised by what they had down. They stared at the piece of heart in their hand, marveled at the way it was beating. Instead of staying still, like one would imagine a heart that had been ripped from its home, it was a perfect mirror of their own beat, calm and steady despite what they had just done.

Asra tried again to gain his apprentice's attention, straining as his vision began to darken around the edges. Everything went black, and the magician knew that there must be a clamor. The only thing he heard, though, as his strength left his body, was the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of the heart he had so readily shared with the one he loved.

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“Hey, come look at this!”

I ignore the sound of her voice, my heart aching. I want to turn. I want to see what she has to show me. He hand brushes my back, warm and inviting, and I fight the urge to melt into it, scrunching my eyes shut until it hurts and I see stars.

“Hey, silly, what are you doing all the way over here?”

I don’t answer, biting my lip till it bleeds. Fighting my desire hurts. I want to see her. I want to go to her, to be in her arms and wrap myself in her loving embrace, to feel the touch of her lips on my skin again. Like a cruel taunt, her fingers brush my spine.

“Are you playing a game or something? Turn around!”

She giggles and my heart melts. I love the sound of her laugh so much. It’s been so long. One of her hands twines with mine and my eyes snap open, focusing on her fingers curling around mine. That shouldn’t be possible. She shouldn’t be able to hold my hand like that. I whip around, my eyes widening as I see her.

And then she’s gone, the hallucination carried away on the wind. I can hear her playful giggle again on the breeze, and I’m forced to come to terms with it all over again. Portia is gone. She’s been gone for months. And yet here I am, letting her memory torture me. What would she say? I’m lost without her, but I have to try.

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It was a beautiful day, crystal clear skies mirrored by the ice. Julian was so excited to bring me out skating; Vesuvia hadn’t had a winter like this in even the oldest residents’ memories. We could tell we weren’t the first ones to frolic on the frozen lake, but we were definitely the last, as the light was fading from the sky when we arrived. That was nothing a spell couldn’t handle, and soon Julian and I were slipping around on the ice with abandon, hand in and with laughter mingling in the otherwise quiet twilight.

One moment, Julian had dashed ahead of me, resulting in that lovable idiot landing flat on his ass, and, in the next, he was gone, nothing but a hole in the ice left where he had been sitting. I was frantic trying to find him, searching across the ice for any sign of him underneath. Not until I plunged the lights I had conjured under the water did see the gruesome truth.

Beneath the ice, Julian was stuck on a pile of debris at the bottom of the little lake. How he managed to get so far from the hole that he’d fallen through, I have no idea, but that wasn’t what was on my mind. He couldn’t have much breath left, and I didn’t have time to go back to the hole and swim down. I would have to break the ice here if I ever wanted to reach him in time.

I pull my arm back and wince as I feel my knuckles meet the cold surface of the ice. I can see him so clearly beneath me, struggling to free himself from the bind he’s gotten himself in. I don’t know how many times I hit against the barrier between us, but I finally stop when my hand comes away bloody. I can’t even feel it anymore, but I know that I shouldn’t try using it again.

Suddenly, an idea dawns on me. I press my hand to the ice, summoning all that I can and sending it down my arm and into the cold beneath my hand. It begins to melt and I press my injured hand down as well, my eyes stuck on Julian as the ice slowly melts beneath the touch of my magic. The water pooling around my hands pops and sizzles, threatening to burn me, but I stay focused on the task at hand and keep my eyes focused on Julian.

Everything happens slowly after that, but I know it couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds. Julian stopped trying to free himself, instead trying with futility to claw and swim his way towards the icy surface. I tried to work harder, our eyes locked on one another. And then, right as I break into the water itself, I see him stop moving. My hands still as I stare in shock. His eyes are shut now. I would say he looks peaceful, but I know that peace is not what this is.

It takes another ten minutes to haul his body out of the water. My hope is dwindling fast, but I know that someone unconscious in cold water can last fifteen to thirty minutes without oxygen before they’re gone. As I work to get his lungs clear of water and working properly, though, I can’t help but fear that the lack of oxygen has already taken its toll. Will he be the same Julian that I love when he wakes up?

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I didn’t expect to hear that signal. A short strain of birdsong in a very specific pattern. Four short tweeting sounds and some long trill. “Stay home. Stay hidden. Trouble.” Muriel made sure I remembered that call first, so I know I’m not mistaking it. I know I should listen to his warning, but worry eats away at my mind. What could be so bad that he’s actually having to use this call? Most threats have their own: ‘poachers’ is three long trills, ‘fire’ is two short tweets, ‘feral animals’ was a single shrill whistle. But this was something wholly different, something undefined in how terrible it could be.

I make the worst decision I could. I go to find him out in the woods, sending up calls to try and find him at every turn. I hear another reply, this time a short “go back.”  It’s close, and I can almost pinpoint exactly where he is. He’s near where we buried the heart so long ago. 

My feet fly across the familiar forest floor, carrying me to the clearing that I remembered as being so beautiful and lush with life.  What I find, though, is a horrid mirror of what I expected. Instead of vibrant flowers and thick foliage, the clearing is swathed in decay. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed the horrid smell until the sight hit me.

Even worse than that, though, is the real sight before me. Muriel lies in the center of the glade, his clothes already rotting where they touch the ground. Above him crouches a figure, more of a mound of putrid flesh and bone than an actual beast. It turns it’s skull to me, and it’s as though I’m suddenly rooted to the spot.

One of the creature’s claws reaches down to touch Muriel, and I try to scream for it to stop, but the sound catches in my throat. I watch in horror as his skin begins to rapidly dissolve and putrefy before my eyes. Tears spring to my eyes as I hear his heart wrenching screams of pain. But I can’t watch him much longer, as the abomination steps over him and begins to make its way towards its next target: me.

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Nadia’s arms are warm around me, chasing away the cold seeping into my bones. I watch her through barely parted lids, my breathing shaky. Her tears splash onto my cheek, cleaning lines through the blood splattered across it. Only part of it is mine, the rest belongs to the assassins sent from who knows where. I did so well. I protected Nadia. Not a single blade touched her. One came close, but it’s stuck firmly between my ribs where it can’t harm my countess.

She leans in, pressing her trembling lips to my forehead, assuring me that Julian is on his way, that he’ll patch me up and everything will be alright. I cough and wince as the dagger shifts in my chest, rasping out a soft request for her to sing for me while we wait. Her lips tug into a little smile, and she nods. I close my eyes, focusing on her words as I feel the darkness slowly taking me.

In the dark of the night
When the storm rages on
Our love keeps me warm
For our love is Holy

In the sorrow of life
Let us praise the gods
And persevere evermore
For our love is Holy

I hum softly as she sings, a few tears trailing down my cheeks. My voice falters and I open my eyes just a crack, lifting a hand to her cheek. She cups it gently, smiling down at me even though she’s still crying. I keep my eyes on hers even as my sight goes dark and my hand slips from her fingers.

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I stare quietly at the roll of carpet leaned up against the wall. It’s been sitting there for weeks, but I can’t bring myself to touch it. Portia and I should have had it put down ages ago. Portia and I should have had a lot done by now.

My eyes train up to the hole in the stair railing, and I my vision goes hazy with tears. I blink them back and shake my head. My therapist is pretty useless, but they’re right about one thing. It wasn’t my fault. I can’t blame myself. And it wasn’t her fault either. We couldn’t have known that the banister would give out at such a small bump. We couldn’t have known we would go over the side.

I know it wasn’t our fault. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less. We should have had our housewarming party this week. He brother and Asra were going to come over, and so were Nadia and Muriel. Everything was going to be nice, just the six of us enjoying the home that Portia and I fixed up ourselves.

Instead of that warm sight, though, I’m stuck here in a silent house, wondering if the only girl I’ve ever loved will wake up. We were both out for so long. We had both lost so much blood. In the end, I woke up and she still hasn’t. I’m honestly afraid that she might never-

No! I shake my head and get up. She’ll wake up. Eventually, she’ll wake up, and then she’ll recover and we’ll finish this house. I grab my tool belt and some wood, forcing myself up the stairs for the first time since I’ve been home. If I want this house to be ready for her to come home to, I need to get started fixing the hazards now, starting with that banister that ruined our lives.

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I take a deep breath, running my fingers over smooth marble and wishing it were the soft blond hair I was brushing just a few days ago. I open my eyes, looking up into the flat eyes of the statue before leaning to press a kiss to stone its hard stone lips. Before anyone can come upon this small scene, I hop off of the pedestal and hurry from the statue garden, picking my way through the hedge maze and trying not to get my mourning clothes stuck to any thorns.

The count has only been dead for almost a week now, and the palace is still in its mourning phase, even if everyone but I have moved on. Black fabric hangs where white had been just days ago, during the preparations for Lucio’s birthday. It’s tragic that he had to go so close to his favorite event of the year.

It’s tragic that he died at all, in my opinion. He was something else, truly. A lover of animals, an accomplished warrior, a caring lover. I sigh, pondering on the last. I know I was the first he took to bed, gossip doesn’t take long to get around, but somehow he made me feel like I was the only one he’d ever thought of in such a way. After talking with Valerius, I learned that such wasn’t usual of the Count. Perhaps I was special?

Well, even if I was, it doesn’t matter anymore. Lucio is gone from this world, and I have only immaculately sculpted replicates to adore in his place.

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“...”

“Muriel, you have to tell em eventually.”

“...”

“Please, I know you’re in pain. Just tell me where it hurts.”

“...”

“The silent treatment isn’t going to heal your wound.”

“...”

“Muriel, are you even listening?”

“...”

“Muri- Muriel?! No, wake up! Do not close those eyes so help me god!”

“...”

“... Muriel, I… should have come sooner… I’m sorry I was too late.”

“...”

“...”

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Julian rolls his eyes at me, holding two wires dangerously close under the wheel of his car. “Please, I know what I’m doing.”

“No Julian, you really don’t. And I do not like the fact that you’re literally bending yourself in half while you try to hotwire your car because you’re trying to do it while in the driver’s seat .”

He scoffs. I really do wish he’d just get a new car. The fact that he has to hold his foot on the brake while he does this because his transmission actually let him turn the car off while he was in drive is only one of the reasons. Nonetheless, Julian looks up at me with a proud grin as the car suddenly sparks to life, stashing away the wires he’d pulled out. “See, I told y-!”

Everything after that happens rather quickly. He tries to sit up, banging his head on the steering wheel. I see his legs jolt, and the sudden jerk of the car tells me his foot landed on the gas instead of the brake. It feels like everything is in slow motion. I try to reach out and pull him up before it’s too late, my arm moving like it’s in molasses.

When the cart impacts the side of our house, though, everything snaps painfully back up to speed for one brief moment before the world around me is a haze of black and sickening red.

When I wake up, it’s to shouting. I think I can make out Portia’s voice. But, when I open my eyes, everything except the gore that used to be Julian fades to a dull roar. I only realize later that I had started screaming because my throat is raw.

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Faust winds her way into my shirt and I laugh softly, sitting down in the bay window with my mug of tea. I take a long drink, staring out the window as rain pours down onto the back yard. Amidst the overgrown shrubbery sits a lone table set with a pair of old tea cups, tea bags sitting in them, and two mismatched chairs. I sigh heavily. Eventually I’ll have to bring the cups in, but it feels wrong all the same.

It’s been months since those cups took their places on the table. Asra and I were taking tea in the garden since it was finally starting to warm up. He made our favorite, a hibiscus and rose mix we had bagged for ourselves. He made a show of pretending to be a butler pampering a princess, and I was in tears with laughter.

And then he started coughing.

We’d found out that his foster families had never bothered getting him immunized. The doctors said he should be fine since he’s gone so long without them, and so we tested fate. That was a mistake.

We thought it was a flu. It was flu season, after all. So I forgot the tea and took him inside for medicine and rest. Then, he got weaker. He was sick for weeks. Fever, chills, fatigue, the works. We knew something was wrong when his hand came away red after a coughing fit.

Tuberculosis is still the ninth deadliest modern disease, even if vaccines are knocking it out. In Asra’s case, it was too late for a vaccine. According to the doctors, it was likely too late for treatment at all. The bacteria was eating away at his lungs, leaving nothing but tissue-and-blood soup sloshing around in his chest. We tried treatment anyway, hoping with all our might for a miracle.

I stare at the abandoned tea cups on the table, the used tea bags floating in the dirty water they’re filled with. I imagine a scenario where we finished our tea time, one where Asra’s latent TB never woke up. It’s unrealistic, wishful thinking, but it helps.

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Wake up. Breakfast. Get dressed. Brush teeth. Make-up. Walk the dogs. Go to work.

I take a deep breath as I finish the wings of my eyeliner, staring into the mirror silently at the finished product. I don't remember when I started copying his look, but I'm used to the sight now. It's as familiar a sight on my face as it was on his, and it brings me a bit of comfort, seeing his trademark on my skin.

Mercedes and Melchior nudge at my calves, letting me know that I'm getting dangerously close to being off schedule. I quickly pull on a jacket and clip their leashes onto their collars before opening the door and letting then lead me into the cool autumn morning. We've taken the same route ever since I started walking them with Lucio, and we never veer. The routine helps remind us of him, even as the years roll by.

Lucio was vibrant when we meet. All smiles, charm, and flirtation. Our mutual acquaintances told me he was bad news, but I was enthralled. He was everything I wasn't, bold and confident where I was shy and self conscious. Our friendship really brought me out of my shell. We moved in together and got our routine locked in. His animals all loved me and I could see shadows of the same affection in his eyes when he looked into mine. When he asked me to marry him, though, it wasn't what I expected.

We had just left the hospital. Lucio had always been healthy and strong. When he started showing signs of cancer, it was a shock to us both. They told us he was too far along for a simple operation to remove the tumour, that radiation might be our only chance. I didn't want to put Lucio through that; I'd seen what it could do to people. But he agreed, he wanted to live so badly, and I wanted that too. We stayed curled up together in bed for hours after the appointment while he cried and I became the strong one, his rock in the storm that was to come.

After hours of silence between us, broken only by his tears, he finally pulled back. He cupped my cheeks and looked me in the eyes and told me for the first time that he loved me. He said he didn't want to regret anything if he was really going to die and asked me if I could marry a man that I knew may not make it to our first anniversary.

We were at the courthouse a half hour later with Asra and Julian to be our witness and officiant. We had a real wedding later, of course, but we both knew that time wasn’t something we should play with. I’m glad we had the wedding before the treatments started for Lucio’s sake. They’re some of the last pictures I have of him as he was when we met.

The treatments drained him. The cancer hurt, but so did the treatments. He was sick more often than not, his immune system shot by the radiation. And when he lost his hair? Well, I think the only thing that kept him from losing his mind was getting to shave my head after I shaved his.

At the end, he was almost nothing. There was none of the bravado that charmed me. His smiles were tired and lacking in true joy. The most light that I saw in his eyes was the love that we kept kindled between us. I sat by his side, singing to him and reading him stories, until the very end. I won’t forget the last conversation we had. He told me he was tired and I told him to sleep, that I would be here when he wakes up, and that I loved him to the moon and back. I’m glad I didn’t know he wouldn’t wake up.

I feel a nudge against my leg and am brought back to reality.  Mercedes and Melchior are pressed against my legs, both looking up at me woefully. They’re so smart, always knowing when I need them most. They were like this for him, too, nearly inseparable from Lucio through his whole illness. And now they’re with me everywhere I go besides work. The pair nuzzle my hands when I kneel down to pet them. My eyes fill with tears as I sit with them, throwing my routine to the wind. What good is it without the one who made it?

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The signs evaded me, somehow. I suppose I should have noticed long ago, but I was blinded by your radiance. Your laughter entranced me, your spells captivated me, and I was caught in the honeyed web of your smile. I couldn’t help but fall in love with every part of you: your laugh, your smile, your eyes, your intellect. Every moment we spent together, I felt myself falling more in love.

Yes, I had to deal with Lucio often when in your presence. His is company not easily avoided, but you made him tolerable. Your quick rebuttals to his advances and antics brought a smile to my face. I had never seen someone deny him so easily. It was refreshing. You, dear magician’s apprentice, are refreshing.

I decided that the time had come. I wanted you to be my lover, and I thought you had shown signs of wanting the same. I thought you shy, naive to the ways I attempted to court you. And that is what made the revelation all the more shocking to me.

You were in his arms when I stumbled upon the two of you, a look on your face that I had never seen before. Somehow, though, I knew exactly what it was. Love. Love for my childish, arrogant, narcissistic husband. And he returned it. I never thought I would see the day when that oaf learned to feel anything for anyone but himself.

My better judgement says I should be happy for the two of you. A true case of Beauty and the Beast. And yet I can’t bring myself to feel even a modicum of happiness. You were my happiness, dear one. And without the hope that you would one day be mine, I am left with nothing.

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Magic is fickle. Sudden, drastic changes in the energy of a place can warp spells in use if the caster doesn’t account for them. I realize too late that my spell hasn’t gone as planned. Water should be bubbling in my hands, but they are dry. Worse than that, my left leg has become stiff. I call out to you, and you turn to me, not knowing yet that anything is wrong.

The look in your eyes when you see stone creeping up my legs is enough to break what’s left of my heart. I hold my hands out to you, and you rush into them. I hold you tightly to my chest until the stone has crept up to my waist. I can’t risk trapping you in my arms once they become solid, so I settle for a loose hold on your hand with the other cupping your cheeks and our foreheads pressed together. You’re crying, sweet apprentice, and so I brush away your tears.

At my shoulders, the magic splits to creep down my arms. I give you a soft smile, whispering softly that I know you can find a way to bring me back, even if this hasn’t technically been seen before. You’re smart, so if anyone can fix me, it will be you.

My eyes close just before the magic freezes them. I can still feel you through my stone fingertips. You kiss my lips gently, and, as you walk away, I feel something else. Through the seam where my eyelids meet, water flows.

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Julian had seen so many cases of the plague that they all ran together. The names never passed through his mind for more than a moment. All he cared about was abnormalities in the data, things that didn’t match. Signs of a mutation in the bacterium. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept.

The doctor sighed and set another set of test results aside. Everything was the same. Nothing new to report yet. What he needed was some new information. Some connection that could be made. Any connection.

The next paper caught the doctor’s eye. He picked it up, bringing it close and examining the information. A medical assistant for a clinic in the South End. Something seemed familiar about the name. Since when did he notice this information? He started reading the patient’s information. Magically gifted. Ha, as if that had anything to do with real science. Death occurred two weeks after contracting the disease. Surprisingly healthy for most of the outbreak. Contracted the disease after delivering research and records to the Palace.

Wait. Julian pinned the file between his teeth, rummaging through the others and shouting proudly when he found what he was looking for. He’d found the connection. New outbreaks were cropping up around clinics that personally delivered files and bodies to the Palace. The doctor went back to his work, a second wind beneath his wings as he forgot the small recognition of the patient in the file that had sparked his new inspiration.

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How can you just walk away? I run to you through the snow, and you look back. I know the look in your eyes so well. Hate. Disdain. Pity. I’ve seen those emotions thrown at me so many times in my life. But I didn’t think I would see them from you.

I thought you were different. You sought me out in my wing of the Palace. You gave me back my form. You tried to help me. I’ve never been one to think much about getting physical, but it felt like the kisses we shared meant something more than just a fun little fling. You listened to my stories and even asked for more. You made my heart burn and yearn for something I thought I’d always had. Love.

But here you are. Leaving me behind. Casting me aside like garbage. Like trash. Is that all I am? All I’ve ever been? A fun distraction, like a toy or a trick? I’ve only ever felt so small once in my life, and my mother was there to full me from the river then. But now? Now there is no one and nothing to stop me from this sensation of drowning.

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I sigh, laying my head on the bed as I play with Portia’s hand. She’s still asleep. It’s been months. I finished the house, everything is ready, I just need her. Julian comes in and out often, checking on me just as much as he’s checking on her. If it weren’t for him, I probably would just sit here and waste away while I wait for her. That’s not what I want her to wake up to.

We’re more hopeful every day that she’ll wake up soon. Her brain activity is fine. Her back is healing well. Her muscles are atrophying, but I’m determined to help her back up to strength once she’s released. I won’t leave her side, no matter what. I know she’d do the same for me. That’s what love is, after all.

Julian comes in again a couple hours later, setting his hand on my shoulder. It’s time to go. I’ve been staying with him and Asra for a while, it hurts being in the house without Portia there. I press a kiss to Portia’s forehead as I stand, brushing a curl from her face and promising to be back tomorrow.

Just as we get to the door, we hear a sound. A soft groan and shifting. Julian and I whip around so quickly it hurts, both of us back at her bedside in less than a moment. Portia opens her eyes slowly, looking around in confusion. I bite my lip, waiting patiently while Julian asks some questions and fumbles with the clipboard at the end of the bed.

Once he gets the information he needs, he hurries out, leaving me alone with her. I smile hopefully, my eyes searching hers as she looks at me. I recognize it in her eyes, but I don’t believe it until she speaks. My heart isn’t broken by the truth until the words actually come from her lips.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

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It was a normal Sunday. Everything was going as per usual. I was folding the laundry with Inanna, humming and wrestling socks away from her conniving self, while Muriel was outside mowing the yard. Spring was just starting, and we were planning on trying to compost this year, starting with the first clippings of the season. It had rained overnight, and the grass was still damp.

Everything happened very quickly, actually. It was a blur, one thing bleeding into the next. Inanna had snatched one of Muriel’s socks, and I had turned towards her, towards the window, to try and get it back. I got it away from her and looked outside. Muriel looked at the window at the same time, and we waved at it other. It was nice. Domestic.

Then Muriel slipped. I barely even registered that he was falling before he hit the ground. Red sprayed from the mower's discharge port, and I didn’t realize what had happened for a few moments. Not until I heard him scream. Even without seeing the wound, I knew it had to be bad if Muriel was screaming.

I got outside as fast as I could, 911 already on speaker when I got to him. The anguish on his face as he tries to keep calm killed me, but somehow I kept calm as I answered the questions the dispatcher asked me. I held Muriel’s hand tightly, wincing a bit as he gripped it with what I’m very sure is all his strength.

Glancing back at the wound on his foot, I cringed. Glass clippings stuck to the gashes in his foot and shoe. I really wonder if they’re going to be able to save his foot, but I don’t say it. Muriel needed me to be strong for him right now, and strong is what I’ll be.

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Beside every goddess is a god. Nadia is the object of my affection, something that I’m not secretive about. We don’t see much of a point. It’s no secret, after all, that Nadia and Lucio are in a political marriage. He has his lovers, so it’s only fair that she has hers.

One downside, however, is the attention I get from Lucio. I’m Nadia’s and that brings me close to him often. He’s endlessly flirtatious, wholly obnoxious, and unable to read a room. If Nadia mentions she and I taking our leave, he is suggesting the three of us go together. If he wants to leave, he insinuates that I should join him. His boundaries are non-existent.

I thought it was just his narcissism. A need to have everything for himself. I didn’t think much of it past finding it annoying. I assumed it was harmless. That was a mistake.

I was used to Nadia being by my side when I woke up, but she was nowhere to be found. I asked everyone I could find. A few people said she was talking to Lucio, but I didn’t think she would still be near him. She tried to avoid his presence. Only once I had asked every servant and noble I came across did I venture to Lucio’s wing, dread pooling in my stomach.

Dragging myself down his hall was harder than I expected. Every muscle in my body seemed to be trying to keep me back. But I wanted to find Nadia, and this was my last option. I pushed open the door at the end of the hall and stepped inside, only to stop in shock where I stood.

Red was a lovely color, usually. Nadia looked good in it, but she looked good in everything. I liked it well enough. It was Lucio’s favorite color. And, currently, it was painting a fair patch of the floor, the Count, and Nadia.  I don’t know how long I stared at the body of the woman I loved, but I barely registered Lucio moving away from her or the door clicking shut. I was at the mercy of Nadia’s husband, and , as I felt his claws graze the skin of my neck, I began to regret all the times I had denied his advances.

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They say that all is fair in love and war. That, of course, isn’t entirely true. If you, say, kill someone who is attempting to seduce the same person that you are, then that will most likely scue the way your quarry sees you. Instead of dedicated to having them for your own, you could be seen as a multitude of things. Such as, for example, psychotic, insane, fanatical, obsessed.

So many wanted the magician’s apprentice. Doctor Julian Devorak, Portia Devorak, the apprentice’s own master, even. How could one Countess, busy with a city in need of intensive care, contend with so many other suitors? The answer was very simple, actually. Nadia simply had to change the rules. “Do not murder for love” could easily become “do not directly murder for love.” After all, what kind of woman would she be if she dirtied her hands with such menial work?

The first to go was Portia. It was best to rip the bandage off quickly, and Nadia was afraid her mettle may falter if she left her friend for last. The only distasteful part, in her mind, was that it took so long for her to be found. Maybe having the deed be carried out while Portia slept in her little hidden cottage was a mistake.

Doctor Devorak was found much sooner.  It’s a marvel, really, that it took as long as it did. A few hours of the doctor being passed out in a booth at the Rowdy Raven was apparently normal, though, but twelve was pushing it. Valdemar was so eager to perform the autopsy that the offer was all it took to convince to talk the Quaestor into marking the cause of death as alcohol poisoning instead of actual poisoning.

And that just left Asra. Several things could work, but his apprentice was always at his side when he was in town. It was difficult for the Countess to even get a moment with the object of her affection if Asra was home. And that’s why she decided it would have to be on one of his frequent trips. So she bided her time. Waited patiently. He stayed longer than usual, worried about his sweet apprentice after the deaths of two close friends. But he went away eventually. He always did. And, though he promised that he would, this time he would never return.

With no one left, the apprentice fell into Nadia’s hands. The Countess was a rock in stormy waters, friendship and familiarity and love in a world that had taken so many of those very things away. No one needed to know why they were gone. That was Nadia’s secret, one she would take to her grave so long as she kept her love beside her.

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When I woke up, you were here beside me. I knew you’d never been to the shop, so it made no sense. But I was happy. I got up and made tea for us to start our day, but you didn’t wake up. I was worried, of course. But with the worry came something. A dark feeling. And then I remembered.

You had died months ago. I don’t know how I could have forgotten. I felt torn in two without you. And so I… I did something. I can’t remember what it was, but you were back. I feel a connection between us now that I didn’t before, the pulse of your heart sounding like a faint beacon in the back of my mind.

I wait for you. Not as long as you were gone, but long enough. Maybe one month, maybe two. The days blend together as I take care of you. I’m determined to do this until I die if I have to. I have to keep you safe this time.

When you finally wake up, I feel it before I see it. I wrap up the sale of a spell as quickly as I can and close the shop, hoping that I make it upstairs in time. I’m so glad that your eyes open just as I move to stand over you, taking your hand in mine. I have so much I want to say to you now that you’re awake.

But I see it in your eyes as they look up into mine. You don’t even speak, and yet I know. You don’t know who I am. You don’t remember our history, your history. You look like you’re trying to think before gripping your head and crying out in pain. I do my best to calm you, but you’re so confused. But that’s okay. I’m here for you, and we’ll make it through this together, even if you don’t know how much that means to me.

So, for now, I’ll take your hand and give you a smile as your pain subsides and you look back at me. And I will simply say hello.

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I stare at the clouds blindly. I don’t really see much of anything anymore, just white all around me. I don’t feel the cold. I don’t feel hunger, though I must’ve been here for months by now. I don’t feel tired, though I haven’t slept in just as long. All I feel is loneliness and pain. I haven’t seen anyone in so long. The last time I saw anyone was-

Footsteps pull me out of my thoughts. Is someone finally here for me? I turn away from the sky, snow stinging my eyes as I search for my new companion. There are so many options it could be, but none of them seem probable. Couldn’t be my mother, probably isn’t Asra, possibly Jules, definitely not Noddy. My eyes finally find a shadow and I grin. Once they’re in focus, though, I just sigh and fall back into the snow.

You, again. You come and torment me every once and awhile, but I don’t think you saw me this time. Maybe, just maybe, if I lay still enough you’ll just ignore me instead of taunting me. I don’t need any more reminders of how you don’t need me or how I failed to get that one thing I’ve been searching for. I don’t need your sweet voice that I’ve missed so much telling me that no one will ever want me around or that I’m weak and pathetic. I already know those things.

I hear your footsteps getting closer as the snow covers me and obscures my vision. There’s no way you could see me. I’m probably safe. I close my eyes, resigning myself to laying in the snow for the rest of eternity. And then, so very rudely, I feel a pain in my side and a weight on top of me. I hear you cry out in shock, but try to ignore it. You’re just going to yell at me.

When you brush the snow off of me and look into my eyes, I see… Something that wasn’t there last time. There’s no hatred. No disdain. No pity. Just… Relief and joy. And the way you say my name, oh it just makes me melt. Maybe everything is going to be okay this time...

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I take another long drink from my mug, tilting my head back as far as I can. Half of what’s left of my alcohol splashes down my face, but I really don’t care. I vaguely feel more feathers sprouting along my hairline, but it’s faint. My never-ending buzz is going into a fade, and the world around me begins coming into focus again.

The first thing I hear is the sounds. Horrid, distorted wailing reaches my ears. I hear you in it, your beautiful voice twisted and drawn into damnable screams and please for mercy. My body jerks. If I could just get to you, I could save you. Throw myself into whatever torture is being forced on you.

And then the wailing turns into laughter. Your laughter, aimed at me. You’re right to laugh. How could I ever begin to think I could save you? I brought this upon the world just to make sure you wouldn’t be hurt by the Devil. But I never thought to make sure you’d be safe forever.

I slump back into my seat, grabbing a full mug of whatever this piss I’ve been drinking is. I get four down, but three quarters of the fifth one ends up on my face and dripping through my feathers. I really wish I could find some spot where I’m sober enough to get the drink into my mouth but smashed enough that I can’t hear your tormented screaming. Maybe if I see the Devil again I’ll make a deal so I don’t have to hear you scream anymore.

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Muriel shook his head as he trudged away from the Town Square, running a hand up through his hair. He couldn’t dwell on them. No, he couldn’t think too long about Asra’s apprentice or-

Unworthy of their trust - Afraid of you - Always alone - No one wants - Damaged - Murderer -

It was too late. The voices had latched onto the apprentice. Menacing whispers in all parts of Muriel’s mind barraged him with the unwanted critiques, making him grip his head and duck into a secluded alcove in the empty backstreets. He tried to push them away, but they beat against the frayed edges of his psyche like feral invaders.

Lucio was right - Nothing but a - Even you’re parents - Worthless - Killer - Murderer - Criminal - SCOURGE

Muriel didn’t even realize he had moved, brought back to reality only by the pain blossoming from his knuckles and up his arm. His eyes snapped open, and he slowly pulled his hand back from the indention he’d made in the wall in front of him. Blood and dust clung to his fingers, small shards of stone embedded in his knuckles.

The hulk of a man stood, pulling his cloak over his face and tighter around his body as he quickly moved towards the edge of town. The voices were right, he was dangerous. A murderer. He needed to stay as far away from Asra’s apprentice as he could. A light like theirs would only enrage the whispers, and next time it might not be a wall that was in Muriel’s way when he exploded.

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When you didn’t deliver your usual weekly report, I knew something was off. You were a very prompt person, always showing up just after I’d had lunch, as if you knew. Every Friday I would walk you to the library, and you’d disappear into the back. I would wait patiently for you by the fireplace, reading whatever books had been left out. When you came back up, I walked you through the garden, and we would talk about what we’d done through the week. You didn’t speak much of your activities, but I knew you had your reasons. You worked in Ilya’s clinic, so I don’t fault you for sparing me the details of the worsening plague.

So, when you don’t show up, I’m anxious. I wait for hours, until the sun sets and I can’t avoid going back inside. I wait every day after that. You miss two Fridays, and then three. Finally, I can’t take it any longer. I sneak out of the Palace, too worried about you to care what Lucio will do when he finds out. I head to the South End, where I know Julian’s clinic is. The windows are dark, the door bolted. Someone tells me not to bother, that all the medicine in there has already been stolen. And, at my request, they tell me where you are.

I can’t believe what I hear. You died weeks ago, your body found by the local authorities when people complained. Not because you had disappeared, no. But because when people were angry that you weren’t treating them and because the place had begun to stink of rot. You were taken to the Lazarret. I was too late to even say goodbye. I should have come the moment I noticed you were missing. Maybe then I could have kept you alive like we’re forced to do for Lucio, at the very least. Maybe then I wouldn’t feel as though a piece of my heart has been taken.

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I hold Portia close, our hands clasped together. We’re well and truly stuck this time, with no perceivable way of escape. We thought this door would lead to an exit, but we ended up stuck in a closet. We don’t even know where the flames licking at the door came from. For now, my magic is keeping us safe from the flames, but the room is already filling with smoke.

Portia looks up at me and I smile softly, pressing a kiss to her forehead. I try not to cringe at the taste of soot, because I know I’m covered in it too. She lets out a soft sob and I give her a squeeze, shushing her softly and telling her it’ll be alright. As a distraction, I tell her a story. A pair of pirates, bearing suspicious similarities to the two of us, go on an adventure and find untold riches. They take the riches back to their home, suspiciously similar to Vesuvia, and use it to care for the poor and sick that have been neglected by the ruling class.

By the time my story ends, Portia is sound asleep. The smoke has well and truly filled the closet now, and I can feel my magic waning. With one last push, I extend the magic keeping the flames back, hopefully pushing it far enough that the smoke will take us before the flames get to us.

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She was a liar. “No one knows what happened to Asra,” she said. “Julian was found dead of alcohol poisoning,” she said. “A stranger murdered Portia in her sleep,” she said. And I believed her. I believed every word, because why would Nadia lie to me?

Love, she says. Who, in stable mind and body, has her friends murdered for love? Who keeps the person they supposedly love locked away in the Palace? Who sends dogs after the person they’re supposedly in love with ?

I don’t dare look back as I run, thorns catching on my clothes and dogs nipping at my heels. I have no clue why Mercedes and Melchior are even listening to Nadia, but I heard her give the command to hunt me down. If they caught me, would they kill me? I don’t have time to think about that right now, I have to get away.

A root doesn’t seem to care about my predicament, though, and the world spins around me as I trip and tumble into a shallow ravine. I land twenty feet down in the water, crying out when I try to move and find that my leg is broken. The dogs stop above me, howling into the trees. I manage to crawl only a few feet before the thunder of horse hooves reaches me. There’s no way I could escape in my condition.

I look up at the place where I fell as Nadia comes into view. Her gaze is no longer warm. It isn’t full of misplaced love. It is cold, distant, disdainful. On her hip is a saber. She dismounts and slides down the side of the ravine with the grace of an angel, drawing her blade.

“I would never harm you, darling,” she said.

Nadia was a liar.

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If anyone says that Lucio’s private captives aren’t held in fair conditions, they’re liars. He’s kept me in this room for some time now, ever since I walked in on the scene of Nadia, dead and bloody, on his floor. I don’t know how long it’s actually been; there are no windows to tell me.

Lucio comes down often, always with a tray of food or some trinket in hand. He thinks that, with Nadia gone, I’ll fall head over heels for him like I was for her. Says he has plans for the two of us, and that I just need to give in. As if I would ever.

That’s what I tell myself, but I can’t go without eating forever. Especially if I want to avenge Nadia’s death. So I give him little victories. I eat from his hand, let him fawn over me like a pet, and deal with the dogs watching my every move. I tell myself it’s for her. I have my own plans, after all.

I don’t know how long I’m kept in that room. Eventually, I give in to his every advance. I become his lover. I forget a time when it was any other way. He takes me upstairs again. I stay by my Count’s side. What else could I want. He announces our engagement, and I’m pleased with myself.

It’s weeks before I notice. I think it’s my eyes at first, but then I get closer. It’s a rare moment when I am alone in the room Lucio and I share. Usually I’m too caught up in him to notice things like a little patch of off-color carpet. As I examine it, I realize what it is. How could I have forgotten my Countess’s murder? I steel myself, thinking back through to remind myself of all I had planned. I would avenge Nadia. I would not let myself forget again.

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I hum softly, watching over Julian’s shoulder as he works over the stove. He looks like he’s overthinking it again, so I press a hand to the center of his back and lean gently against his arm. I’m proud that he’s trying to make a potion, something simple to start out. Julian turns and looks at me, his brows raised with worry.

“Are you absolutely sure I’m doing this right, love? I really feel like this is-”

“Did you measure everything right?”

“Yes…”

“Did you add everything in the order I told you?”

“Well, yes, I-”

“Are you watching the pot so it doesn’t boil over?”

His cheeks flare and he looks back at the little pot before him, continuing to stir slowly. I smile and set a hand on top of his, pressing a reassuring kiss to his cheek. “You’re doing fine, Julian. You just have to take a deep breath and trust yourself like I trust you.”

I feel the tension in his shoulders loosen as he chuckles, and I reach out with my magic to feel for his. I sense it, timid and withdrawn, afraid to come out. With a little coaxing, though, I feel Julian’s confidence in his ability rise, and the energy flows through him slowly. It is enough, though, to let the power trickle through his hands and into the potion.

With a sizzle and pop, the potion changes from a murky brown to a dazzling red. Julian gasps, his eyes widening, and I laugh, shaking my head and retrieving something to put it in. We spoon the liquid into the flask and set it aside to cool. Julian is over the moon, spinning me about once I make sure his work is safely out of the way. Will I ever tell him that the potion he made was for a common cold? Probably not. But does that honestly matter?

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“Of all the actual nerve. How does Nadia keep from absolutely murdering him? He pulls these stunts and doesn’t think about what it will do to literally anyone except himself and his stupid little group!”

I keep ranting as Muriel and I get out of the car and make our way inside, my hand firmly caught in his. His head is down, and I can feel the final tremors of the shakes that he’s been dealing with ever since Lucio reared his ugly, piss colored head at Nadia’s dinner party.

Once I have Muriel sat firmly on the couch, I go about continuing to rant loudly about the object of my ire, knowing that Muriel needs space but also a reminder that he isn’t alone. I list out all of my grievances against our unfortunate friend’s husband, skipping over details and instances that I know would only upset Muriel further.

I rummage through the fridge while I talk, trying to see what all we have that I can put together. Sadly, it looks like it’ll just be microwaved leftover green bean casserole, but that’s really better than nothing.

After I get that heated up, I go back to Muriel. Inanna is curled up beside him, her head in his lap. I nestle up on his other side, tucking a fork into his hand as I finally stop ranting. I don’t think I was even making coherent arguments at the end, but it doesn’t matter. There’s the softest hint of a smile on Muriel’s face, and that’s all I care about.