Who: Rafael and Francesca
When: November 858 ROK
Where: Gonzalo Family Manor, Western Plains
The Gonzalo family hosted Francesca for three days at their estate in the plains before she was allowed to see her fiance. She wanted the healers to do their work and to do it well, and so she did not make a nuisance of herself as she waited… although there was nothing she could do but worry. Books might well have been blank, for she could not read them. Flowers might as well not bother to bloom, since she couldn't appreciate them as she walked in the gardens. Dreams were elusive, and food had no taste…
She didn't talk to Miguel, who had been her friend before she'd ever met his younger brother, but he was there, and there was power in just feeling together. Anger, worry, a thousand other emotions. Sitting together, touching hands; that was enough.
When word finally came that she could see him, Francesca tried to strip her mind of expectations and worries. He might be dying. He might have been deformed. She didn't know, she didn't care; all she wanted was to hold him. Being alive, now, was enough.
The room was dimly lit, but as soon as the door was opened, Francesca ran through it. The healer had told her that he had been tortured, and therefore he had injuries, so she was careful about reaching for him. "Hapha," she muttered, warm and worried and affectionate. A sad smile spread across her lips. "Hapha, Hapha…"
It didn't matter that he was safe in his own bed, that he was surrounded by people who loved him, that there was an entire battalion of guards between himself and harm, that anyone trying to hurt him would have to get through not only them but his father, Rafael was still afraid to close his eyes.
Every time he did, he swore that his shoulders ached, that his hands were numb from being bound too tightly behind his back, and that his eyes were covered by a strip of torn cloth. That he could taste blood and the salt of tears that had long stopped falling, smell his own charred flesh, that he could hear laughing and taunting and then, on the third night, surprised shouts and the wet crack of a head splitting open behind him.
He'd wake with a start, a scream on bruised and split lips, and his mother was there every time to hold him close and brush his hair back and promise him that he was safe. It didn't help though. None of it helped.
"He's awake, my lady," Rafael heard his mother say softly, and then she was leaving the room and the quiet sound of footfalls just barely preceded Francesca's voice.
Her nickname for him had always brought a smile to Rafael's face, but he felt nothing at hearing it, couldn't even be bothered to turn from the fire and greet her. Instead, he stayed lying with his back to her, his dark eyes fixed on the flames dancing in the fireplace. He hadn't looked in a mirror but he could imagine what she was seeing - his skin covered in cuts and bruises, a hard plaster cast on his left wrist and bandages peeking from under the blanket, hiding the burns beneath - and that increasingly familiar feeling of shame began to creep over him . . .
Francesca paused beside the bed. She was aware that she was staring, her eyes raking over her husband-to-be's skin, taking inventory of his injuries. She felt terrible doing so because she knew how much she would have hated such scrutiny, but after so much silence - silence when he was gone, now silence resonating just as uncomfortably with him here within her reach - her eyes were the only source of information. Her mind began to spiral out of control as her brain worked to construct the story that no one had yet told her, and she frowned.
….Why wasn't he looking at her? His skin might have been cut or burned into unfamiliarity, but she would find her friend and her lover again in his eyes, she was certain.
Francesca sat gingerly at the edge of his bed. Suddenly, she felt angry at herself for not thinking about what she should say. She'd had three days!
"Hapha, I'm glad you're home." She said it, but it sounded so stupid and inadequate. She shifted uncomfortably, trying to think of something better, but her brain failed her. The only thing she had left was just what she wanted... but even if she was his betrothed, his closed posture led her to ask, "May I touch you?"
At Francesca's question, Rafael stiffened, his eyes drifting from the fire to settle instead on the chair that his mother had spent the majority of the last few days in, her needlepoint abandoned on the ottoman beside it. Part of him wondered why Francesca even wanted to touch him, after everything that he'd been through, but she was asking for his permission and that simple fact made him want to say yes.
Slowly, Rafael shifted onto his back, biting back a grunt of pain as he settled into the mattress. He hated seeing that look on Francesca's face; worry and fear and sorrow all rolled into one. She was far too lovely to have that crease between her brows . . .
And so he reached for her hand with his uninjured one, hoping that doing so would erase some of that look. Her hand was warm, pale and perfect against his own, with it's bruised and scabbed knuckles. "They said you've been here since I--" he paused, swallowing back the words but unsure what others to say in their place. I'm sorry that I didn't get to the party? I'm sorry you were worried? I missed you.
Francesca's fingers wrapped around Rafael's when he offered it, enclosing it with her other hand as well. But she didn't stop there - with his permission and no parents left in the room, she sank into the mattress with him. Hands grasped, she laid beside her fiance, aligning her body with his. She wanted to press against him, but she just squeezed his hand and allowed him the choice of touching her otherwise. It was easier to stare up at the same ceiling he was. That was enough.
"I missed you," Francesca said, at exactly the moment it crossed Rafael's mind. It did not matter how long she had been in the manor, or that the party where she'd expected him had been ruined, or that she had been distraught trying to figure out where he was. The long and short of it was simple, and so she said it again, "I missed you..."
God, if she had lost him the same way she lost James? She would have been destroyed. And that knowledge made her gratitude glow ten times over. To feel Rafael's skin again was life itself… This time, her words didn't feel awkward. They were made with choking breath and accompanied by tears, but they were happy. "I'm so glad you're home, Hapha."
It was all so unfair, some sick cosmic joke. For months Rafael had longed to hear that honest happiness in Francesca's voice, had been working diligently to earn it, and now that he finally had all he could think about was how he wanted to be away from her.
It wasn't that he didn't like her anymore, or that he even wanted her to leave the room, but more that her very presence was overwhelming. He couldn't look at her without thinking of the future and how it all seemed a lifetime away from where he was in this moment. How was he ever supposed to be a good husband? How was he supposed to be a father to their children? A Lord of the West? How was he supposed to get from here to there?
There was a storm of conflicting emotions inside of him. A quiet but intense battle between what he wanted, what he was afraid of, what his head was telling him, and what his instincts were screaming, and while he knew that owed Francesca some sort of thanks for being there for him, Rafael found himself unable to form the words. Instead, all he managed was a soft, "Me too."