Who: Francesca and Rafael
When: Summer, 859
Where: Gonzalo Family Estate, Western Plains
Rafael couldn't sleep. He lay staring at the ceiling, his thoughts occupied by Francesca. It seemed like a lifetime since he'd thought of her, though really it had only been a few weeks since James had reappeared and their engagement dissolved, but life in the Gonzalo household had been a whirlwind of drama.
Just this week, for example, one of the servants had delivered a baby - a baby fathered by Rafael's brother Miguel. Normally, it was a turn of events easily swept under the rug, except that the two were insisting that they were in love and Miguel was even insisting that he marry her. The entire thing had their mother in a tizzy, going on and on about how improper this was, how scandalous, but for Rafael it had been a welcome reprieve from the spotlight. Even Mariana had quipped that he should be thanking Miguel for screwing up so thoroughly.
And then Francesca and her mother had practically shown up on their doorstep, traveling home from the East and expecting a place to stay the night that wasn't an inn. So they'd all sat through a somewhat awkward dinner, followed by drinks and dessert, and as soon as was appropriate, Rafael had said good night and made his escape.
With a sigh, he sat up and leaned over to light a second candle, stuffing another pillow behind his back and settling in with his father's latest book. His brain wasn't absorbing any of it though, instead wondering if Francesca was awake and how her reunion with James had gone . . .
The answer to that question came with a knock at Rafael's door.
Her better judgement would never have led her to her ex-lover and ex-fiance's door hours after the whole family retired, but her better judgment had gone out the window half a bottle of wine ago. She'd had to hide the drinking - she had feigned an illness to convince her mother to come home from the East early - but she knew Rafael wasn't going to judge. It was what she liked so much about him; he wasn't a stick in the mud. He was fun. Or, he had been…
"Are you asleep?" she called, voice low to avoid alerting servants. She saw light under the door, after all. She took another swig from the bottle had held cradled at her side… the red wine was going to stain the soft, white cotton nightdress she wore, but she couldn't bother to give a shit at the moment. She knocked again, quietly. "Hapha...:"
Rafael's eyes lifted from the page he'd read and reread three times now, going instead to the door as first the knock came, then Francesca's whispered question, followed up by that familiar nickname . . .
He pulled his lower lip between his teeth, worrying at the flesh as he tried to decide whether to answer her or not. Before he'd made up his mind though, he was setting the book aside, climbing from the bed and shrugging into clothes - a simple linen shirt over comfortable knee breeches. He went to the door and opened it just enough for her to slip inside, then closed it tight and turned to her.
She looked as lovely as ever with her wine-flushed cheeks and pale hair hanging around her shoulders. His eyes automatically drifted down over her body, but there was no reaction to the press of pink-tipped breasts against the thin nightshirt. Still, he found himself swallowing back nerves as he said, "Hi, Francesca."
She wanted to offer her body to him - she could see him looking at it, and his lips looked full and pouty as ever - but she knew too well that he wouldn't be tempted and so instead she pushed the bottle of wine into his hand when she entered the room instead. Lust was a wonderful state, but drunkenness could do in a pinch.
"Hi, Francesca?" she repeated with a sneer, disappointed, and there was an unmistakable slur in her words. She stepped away, tossing a hand in the air as she railed: "Not Fran, not Franny… Francesca." She settled on the nearest seat she could find, the edge of his bed. Her palm ran over the disturbed blankets for a long moment, feeling the residual warmth there, as she frowned and wondered what it would have been like, if she had been here when he would have been happy to have her on this bed….
Her hands ran over her face, then through her loose hair, that she pulled into a fist as she looked back toward Rafael. There was a desperate misery in her voice as she choked out, "We're still friends, aren't we?"
Rafael took the bottle when Francesca's pushed it into his hand, thinking that maybe it was a good idea that she'd handed it over considering the way her words all ran together as she spoke. He followed her back toward the bed, setting the bottle on the table beside it, and not bothering to answer her criticisms of how he'd chosen to greet her; she was moving on anyway.
It wasn't so much her question that caught him off guard, but rather the emotion that accompanied it and Rafael found himself sinking down onto the edge of the bed as well, just far enough away to be 'appropriate'. Were they still friends? Truth was, Rafael wasn't sure what their complicated history made them anymore; things had been left on such an awkward note. But . . . that didn't mean they couldn't be friends.
"Of course," he said, after a pause that was maybe a beat too long. His face creased with concern and he reached out to touch her, fingertips brushing along her knee in a chaste movement. "Fran, what happened?"
Francesca's hand opened beside his, palm up, inviting him to hold it, no different than she might have done with her mother. She wanted so much more - she wanted him to toss her down on the bed, run his hands up her thighs, and show even a fraction of the passion he once had - but now, she had at least an appreciation of the concern on his face. He would probably struggle for the rest of his life, but at least he hadn't stopped being a good man. Maybe that would be enough...
"It wasn't James," Francesca whispered. Her eyes squeezed shut, and the uncomfortable image of her fiance easily formed in her mind. Handsome face, empty eyes, voice like chalk. "It looked like him, yes, but it was like… whatever took him in those woods had scooped James out of his body, and didn't bother to put anything in its place." Tears spilled down her cheeks as soon as she opened her eyes again. "He walks and talks like James did, and they're still going to make him Duke and make me marry him, but it's not him."
She wiped her cheek and bit her lip, hesitating but less than she would have without all the wine. Her mother had told her never to say the words ever again - to accuse the King's brother and soon-to-be Duke - but it blurted out of Francesca anyway: "I think he's a Changeling."
Rafael slipped his hand into Francesca's and it was such a familiar gesture that, for a moment, he could almost imagine that nothing had changed between them, but then she was talking about James and reality crept back in again. Everything had changed.
What she said had Rafael's eyebrows lifting, his lips parting in speechless shock, and he glanced toward his bedroom door, as if someone would overhear them. "A Changeling?" he repeated, voice low, and he found himself scooting a little closer to her. "But that's--" he shook his head. Was it crazy though? Even he himself had disappeared into the night only to come back forever changed and James had been gone a year.
"Franny . . ." Rafael had no idea what to say though. He wanted to comfort her, to assure her that everything would be fine, that maybe James just needed time, but could it be that simple? It certainly hadn't been for Rafael.
In lieu of words, he reached for her, initiating the contact that would pull her in closer so he could wrap his arms around her shoulders. She still fit perfectly against him and he found himself brushing her hair back, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead, wiping a tear from the corner of her lips. This was his fault. Not all of it, maybe, but enough for guilt to settle its weight on his shoulders. "It's not fair," he said softly.
"You don't believe me?" Francesca whispered, voice lowering enough to show her devastation, and she tried to give Rafael credibility. He knew how trauma could hurt a person; Francesca had seen it, seen his withdrawal and his outbursts, and because of that, she assumed she knew what happened to men who were taken. "You're still you, Hapha. You might have gone to hell and back, but I always knew you..." James had been gone far longer, but there was so little of him left that Francesca was quick to decide it was either a creature or witchcraft, and Changelings were known to target nobles…
If Rafael didn't agree with her, then it threw her most solid theory into question. She buried her head into the crook of his neck and his shoulder and sobbed. She was devastated, but she had a strong pair of arms to hold her, a soft voice to reason with her. This was enough, she decided. At least Rafael saw her pain.
It wasn't that Rafael didn't believe her, it was just . . . there were other, possibly more plausible, explanations to be ruled out before jumping immediately to James is a Changeling. Hell, it could be argued that Rafael was a Changeling, and he wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if some of the more superstitious of their servants whispered those very worries amongst each other.
"Fran, that's not . . ."
"Hapha, if you're my friend, I need you… to marry me," Francesca pleaded, drawing back just a touch to look at his face. She was the Duke's daughter, and with that much status, it made little sense to beg a minor would-be lord for a favor, but she didn't care. Voice choked, she continued, "At least I know that you love me."
Rafael swallowed back his words, his throat going dry at her whispered plea. Hadn't they decided that marriage was a bad idea? But he did love her, even if he had little interest in bedding her anymore, and that seemed to be preferable to marrying James Castile, who may or may not have been a creature now. And it wasn't as if Raf wasn't attracted to her anymore; she was still just as beautiful as he'd ever thought she was, and he still enjoyed her company . . . so maybe that would be enough?
"I . . . I do love you, Fran . . ." he started, and found himself nodding as he made up his mind. "I'll talk to my parents and," he paused, licking his lips, "and we'll do it. We'll get married and then we can find some sort of happiness. I promise."
Francesca overflowed with gratitude. It wasn't as good a match, and she couldn't be sure her parents would agree. But if Rafael claimed to love her, and she him, maybe they had a chance that her father's affection for her would change his mind. Her mother would roll her eyes, but everyone knew that a Duchess was only worth her salt if the Duke was on her side… or dead. Her smile was tight, her eyes red, but relief washed across her features like daylight.
Her hand lifted to touch his lip when his tongue darted out, but she stopped short. Instead, she offered a rather tame compliment, "You're cute, Hapha."
She wouldn't be a Duchess, married to Rafael, but she didn't care about that. Comfort and happiness were more important than power or a title, which he could give her, as long as they were on the same page. She knew it was no small task she was asking. She wanted to kiss Rafael as she nodded, but instead, she scooted over on the bed, laid her head on his knee as if she were a child, and, overwhelmed, kept crying until she fell asleep...