Always, when Dante slept, James thought of him as a butterfly pinned beneath glass. Had he been small enough, James would have placed him in a jar to gaze at forever. The lines of his nose and his cheek and his chin begged to be traced, and his skin had the soft, captivating glow of a sunset star. Both of the two scars on his neck, starkly visible without the usual veil of golden curls, could easily have been beauty marks, pressed lovingly into the skin by some all-seeing artist.
How difficult it was, with his betrayer so still, so peaceful, to remember that the spell would break any moment and his Endymion would wake, bringing with him the heartache in full – stronger after each respite, sharper with each new incarnation. Dante was cold, and James knew better now than to touch him.
As if he knew where his companion's thoughts resided, Dante arched his back and stretched into lethargic wakefulness, painfully handsome with his sleep-tousled hair and dangerous, storm-clouded eyes. Before the man could ask, again, if Henrik was properly disposed of, James pressed a hand against his mouth.
"He isn't leaving."
Dante frowned, very slightly. "Don't be so immature, James. I won't tell you again."
"If what you said about him is true, then I can't let him leave. It wouldn't be safe for others or for him."
The lips against his fingers shifted into a smile – a slow, serpentine smile. "He isn't safe here, either. Have you not heard?"
"Heard what?" Frost trickled down between his shoulder blades, pulled the question from him again in a thoughtless rush of alarm. "Heard what?"
"There's a creature like your pet loose in the woods. It bit two men who died about a month later when their bodies apparently turned inside out. It kills livestock, too." As if intending to prolong his bedfellow's anxiety, Dante paused, pulled at a loose thread in the pillowcase. "The villagers comb the forest for it day and night. They'll find your house soon enough, and when they do, they'll find your pet. It's easy to see what he really is, you know: that white-and-brown gives him away. Silver bullets for silver hair."
There was not much coffee left, but the other food supplies would last for at least another week and a half. He could manage perfectly well without the coffee, but he would eventually have to tell James about the rest of their supplies – the tea, especially – or risk the consequences of running out. Keeping on hand at least enough food to feed three or four people at once had recently become far less necessary, but it would be foolish to assume the trend would continue.
Henrik glanced up in time to see a whirl of scarlet and gold, then lost sight of it as the world spun and he found himself, far from standing comfortably beside a crackling stove, slammed against the wall with sharp, rough-cornered bricks grating against his shoulders.
"You began this," Dante hissed, his usually-lax shoulders hunched with spitfire anger. He kept his forearm pressed against Henrik's neck, though his wrist was neither high enough nor tight enough to constrict his victim's throat. "There's nothing here. What did you do? What – did – you – do?"
One second – retribution would take no more time than that. He could break the man's hold, his fingers, his arm – or smash his nose to mar the deadly beauty of his face forever. One second. One second.
"Dante." James spoke –clearly, calmly – from the doorway. Iron-clad determination narrowed his mouth and eyes. His right cheekbone had been bruised red and purple. "Let him go."
Dante did so, almost casually, as if his actions had been nothing more than a friendly exchange of intimacies. Henrik, upon release, with acid in his blood, stepped forward to shield the watcher in the doorway, but the protective gesture was unnecessary: Dante sauntered from the kitchen without looking back and brushed past James with only a dismissive shrug of the shoulder to indicate awareness of his former lover. He cast no glance behind, left no parting words, passed through the parlor like a ghost, and let the front door slam in his wake.
In the ringing silence of his exit, James touched his wrist to his nose to check if the latter was bleeding. Apart from the bruise and a tremor in his hands, he seemed unharmed, although the back of Henrik's neck still prickled with concern.
"For good this time," he whispered in response to Henry's unasked question. "He will not be coming back."
"He hit you."
"Yes." James turned to him then, a smile propped in the corner of his mouth, his eye more catlike than usual with the swelling at his cheek. "But I suppose I deserved as much."
"What did you say to him?"
Like a songbird scared into flight by a sudden disturbance, the sweetly sanguine air of his friend was gone; sobriety fell into its place as it so often, too often, did. "A few things. The crux being that he wants, I will not give."
Henrik would have replied, but an unexpected flicker of remorse – not his – caught in his throat like a feather. James was regarding the parlor furniture with an ambivalent frown, but Henrik could feel the man's self-control wavering from disinterest to dismay. A reply from the assistant – the assistant who knew everything, saw everything – was expected… and dreaded. But Henrik could answer with the only thing that came to mind:
"He hit you."
"It doesn't hurt anymore."
"I apologize for his behavior."
"His attempts at flirting when I let him in were worse. If I'd known he'd attacked you, I would have returned the favor."
James continued to stare at the overstuffed armchairs; he seemed to have forgotten how to blink – his usual indicator of deep thought, and Henrik supposed it would be best to leave him to his own company for a while; the man hadn't, after all, had the chance to be alone for more than a week now.
He began to return to his now-charred eggs, prepared to begin boiling water for tea as well, when he heard behind him a soft, "Oh."
Then another, slightly louder: "Oh!"
He turned back, just in time to see James clap both of his hands to his forehead. "Henry! My god! I've been so stupid!"
But James ignored the question or didn't hear it at all. He seized Henrik's wrists and in one blinding move, yanked the younger man half off his feet and spun with him around the room. Henrik shouted a wordless protest and clung desperately to his friend's arms as he was dragged in dizzy circles, the room a sickening blur on all sides.
"What are you doing?" he gasped, the force and heat of the happiness radiating from his host sapping the breath from him. From nowhere, a sun had exploded into being two feet from his person.
"Dieu soit loué! Ce n'est pas vrai!"
A coffee table grazed Henrik's knee and he pulled himself closer to James to avoid crashing into anything else. "James- James, please-"
The man only laughed and let go of Henrik's hand, bringing his other arm up as if to spin his mortified partner, but Henrik, caught again by surprise, had neglected to let go. He collided with James, who lost what remained of his already-precarious balance, and they collapsed together into a heap on the floor.
Henrik briefly closed his eyes in a useless attempt to stop the world from tilting, but James easily untangled himself and rocked back onto his toes with another giddy laugh. "Henry!" A heartfelt, contented sigh interceded. "Oooh, oh, I should have known!"
"Warn me before you do that again!" But the happiness, inexplicable or otherwise, was catching and Henrik, his face burning, found his alarm and confusion had absconded as he propped himself up on his elbows. "What is all this about?"
But James only shrugged, raking a hand through his bangs. "Nothing. Nothing. It doesn't matter anymore."
"I've missed you."
"Forgive me," was the reply, but the deep and abiding joy with which he gazed down at his friend served as an apology all on its own. "He was wrong. He was wrong."
"Have breakfast with me."
"And help with the dishes."
"And tell me everything about your family again."
Without speaking, perhaps unable to, James leaned forward and ruffled Henry's hair, and even if the gesture was gut-wrenchingly demeaning, it was nonetheless a gesture of the boundary-usurping affection the recipient had grown accustomed to more than he would admit.
A hand was offered; he took it, allowed himself to be pulled upright. James was right: the past conflict did not matter. Whatever had been the trouble has been, it was disposed of, Dante with it, and that was enough. That was more than enough. This – this life – was all he wanted.
Everything was, once again, as it should be.
They would not take him.
They would not kill him.
James would make sure of that.
Everything would soon be alright.
Author's Note: The final two chapters will be uploaded together this weekend, but, for formatting purposes, they will spaced out across three chapters. (It will make sense when you see it.) So if you get a deluge of email notifications, do not panic. :)