Twilight. She's sitting with her chin on her knees, staring vacantly into the fire.
After the storm of her tears had finally exhausted itself, he'd disengaged and, allowing Dragon to take over as the primary source of Jane's strength and comfort, had gone about making camp. He'd gathered wood, gotten water from a brook at the edge of the small meadow they were in, and built up a fire. He'd been a bit uneasy about that fire, about its potential to announce their location. But concern over Jane's well-being had won out. She needed every amenity he could provide for her right now. And anyway, they were in the company of a large and severely pissed-off dragon. He'd just have to trust they'd be all right, for tonight at least. Then he'd thrown together an evening meal out of their rations, had even laid out their bedrolls. Every now and then as he worked, he'd glanced over at Jane, checking on her.
She'd been slumped against Dragon, her head resting on one large foreleg; eyes open and glazed at first, drifting shut a little later. There was something about her – her posture, her empty thousand-yard stare – that had just seemed so...
He'd wanted to hurt someone. Something. Anything. Seeing her this way, and being powerless to help, was almost more than he could stand.
Once the fire had been stoked up and the food was ready, he'd gone and hunkered down beside her. "Jane?"
Damp tendrils of that astonishing, flame-colored hair had framed her face, sticking to her flushed and tear-streaked skin. He'd brushed back the errant curls, tucking them gently behind her ears. "Supper is on," he'd said.
She'd opened her eyes but hadn't raised her head, not right away. For a long moment she'd simply looked at him, seeming to drink him in. That undefinable... something... had been back, lurking behind her eyes again, and it made his heart stutter in his chest. He still couldn't place it, just what he was seeing there, but his every instinct screamed out against it, that it was so so so so wrong.
"Jane, we will find her," he'd said. "We will find her and we will bring her home. We will not stop until she is safe, I promise you. I promise, all right?"
Slowly, wincing, she'd sat up straight. She'd drawn in breath to speak – but had seemed to change her mind. She'd just held it for a few heartbeats, then expelled it in a shuddery sigh. Leaning forward, she'd pressed her hand to the side of his face, losing her fingers in the dark hair at his temple, actually starting to stroke it slightly. "Hold you to that," she'd said quietly, with that deep not-rightness glimmering, just behind her eyes.
Gunther's unease had clicked up another notch. But before he could say anything else she'd graced him with a smile – small, bone-weary, and only surface-deep, but a smile nevertheless – and asked, "so what did you bring to eat?"
An hour has passed and now supper has been cleared away, although to Gunther's mounting distress, Jane had barely eaten so much as a bite. Even cajoling her, even mocking her poor appetite and challenging her had had no effect. It's unprecedented. Jane always rises to his baiting.
But not tonight.
Inside he is raging, raging against Algernon... but he is outwardly calm as he settles himself beside her, holding out a mug of warm liquid. Jane looks at it listlessly; doesn't move.
"It is medicinal tea," he says, "from Pepper. She made it just for you. It will help with the pain. Jane, take it... please?"
She looks from the mug to his face, and back again. Finally she accepts it and, to his immense relief, drinks it down. Twenty minutes later she's fast asleep, still in that tightly contained, knees-drawn-up posture; a posture that looks so profoundly hurt, somehow. He's not sure if it's sheer exhaustion that's dragged her under, or something in the tea, but either way he's glad for it. She needs to sleep.
But not sitting up by the fire.
He'd set her bedroll out a short distance away. He goes and retrieves it now; carries it over. Simpler to bring the bedding to the girl than vice versa. He lays it out right beside her and then eases her down, one hand beneath her head, cushioning its descent to the scratchy wool, frowning slightly as he does so. Such a thin layer of comfort between the hard ground and the woman he so desperately, all-consumingly loves. Impulsively, he bends and plants a gentle kiss on her forehead before beginning to divest her of her all her various gear.
The bracers and greaves that he'd gifted her himself; belt, dagger and sheath. Finally her boots. He makes a neat little pile of her equipment, covers her up and starts to get to his feet.
He pauses, startled, then sinks back down beside her. She's looking up at him through heavy-lidded eyes, eyes she can barely keep open. The firelight paints the side of her face a pale and flickering gold. She looks impossibly beautiful to him in that moment; she takes his breath away.
"Go to sleep," he manages hoarsely, one of his hands moving absently to smooth her rumpled hair. "You need to rest, Jane."
"Stay with me." Her words are slurred almost to unintelligibility. She swallows and her eyes drift shut. "Please?"
The 'please' is entirely unnecessary. There's almost nothing he wouldn't do for her. This is an easy request to fulfill.
"Forever," he says, stretching out beside her and slipping his arm beneath her head... he can collect his own bedding later; this matters more.
Her lips move, but he can't make out her words. "What was that?" he asks softly, shifting his weight a bit, getting comfortable.
"Tonight," she sighs, and he can sense that she's falling away from him, falling into a fathomless gulf of what he hopes will be peaceful, dreamless, healing sleep. "Tonight will do."
And then she's gone.
Gunther, for his part, drifts in and out of sleep, fitfully. It's probably the third or fourth time he's opened his eyes, that he finds Jane awake, staring straight up at the vast, star-strewn sky above them, and crying.
It's nothing like the huge, wracking, almost convulsive sobs that had taken her earlier. These tears are quiet, forming slowly and then streaking down the sides of her face to lose themselves in the hair at her temples. As he watches, her breath hitches, her eyes press briefly closed, and two more tears are sent on their way. Then she blinks her eyes open again and resumes her study of the night sky. A moment later it happens all over again.
It's worse, in a way, than her sobbing fit was. Gunther thinks that this quiet, almost controlled weeping has got to be the saddest thing he's ever seen. She's right there, right there in his arms, but she seems entirely oblivious to him. Certainly she's unaware that he's awake now and watching her, but more than that – she seems unaware, in this moment, of his presence at all. She might as well be a hundred miles away; she seems so... alone.
"Jane," he croaks. She gives a small gasp, appears to come back into herself a bit; turns her face to him. Her eyes are shimmering, brimming over. He brings up a hand to catch the newest tears, wiping them gently away with his thumb. He draws in breath to say something else – he's not even sure what, just something, anything, to make these awful, silent, hopeless, despairing tears stop - but before he can, she reaches up, catches his face in her hand, and pulls him down to her, sealing her lips to his.
He freezes for just a heartbeat's worth of time, shocked at the sudden turn of events... then it's as if a dam has burst inside him and he's kissing her back frantically, and she's tangling her fingers in his hair and exerting even more pressure, tugging at him and it hurts, she's pulling his hair and it hurts, but it's oh so amazing too. He groans into her mouth and she responds by deepening the kiss still further. A single, quick thought meteors across his consciousness – that he hopes Dragon is a heavy sleeper – and then he's not thinking at all anymore.
He's lost in sensation, he's lost in her.
They break apart just long enough to each drag in a ragged breath, and then they're drawn together again, not even a conscious act, more like a force of nature, and he never wants this to end, no wonder people write songs about this, dear God he never knew.
He's holding himself levered up on one elbow; his other hand is plunged deeply into her hair; splayed out there, holding her face steady as they kiss, and kiss, and kiss... it's earth-shattering, he's in such sensory overload that it takes him a long moment to register that her hand is moving now; across his bunched shoulders, down his back to his waist, and then up again, now under his clothes, her fingers trailing fire on his skin. His whole body shudders and he breaks away again – he has to – panting for breath and fighting for control. "Jane," he gasps. "Juh...Jane..."
"No," she whispers, almost fiercely, although her own breathing is just as labored and uneven as his. "No... talking. Gunther... do not stop." She pushes herself upward, bringing her mouth to his this time, cutting off any further attempt at speech. He makes a sound almost of pain in the back of his throat and then he's shifting, leaning over her more fully, kissing so hard that he's pressing her into the ground, and he realizes only very distantly that his own free hand is moving now too, trailing down her neck, across one breast, making her shudder and arch; sliding down to her hip and then dragging back up the side of her body, bunching fabric as it goes –
And then she cries out in pain, cries out right into their wild, head-spinning kiss, and Gunther is brought up short.
He pulls away and it feels like he's losing a part of himself; he is aching, bereft. But he makes himself disengage, forces his eyes back into focus, staring down at her, breathing as if they've just finished an hour-long sparring session. Her eyes are tightly shut, face more deeply lined with pain than he's yet seen it. Her lower lip is caught in her teeth; she's biting down on it, hard.
The warm, sensual haze that had enveloped him evaporates; blows away in tatters. "Jane!" He doesn't speak her name so much as he expels it. "Jane! What –"
And then he sees what. He hisses in a sharp, hurt breath through his teeth; shifts onto his knees to give himself a better range of movement, so as to examine her more closely.
There, where his hand is still splayed against her ribcage. He gives his head a shake, trying to clear his vision, hoping against hope that he's seeing this wrong – but he's not. No, it's there, all right. He can tell because he's bunched up the fabric of her shirt, exposing more of her body to his gaze than he's ever seen, unclothed, before...
And the entire side of her torso upon which his hand is currently resting is covered in a massive, awful, blotchy, yellow-and-purple bruise.
He had known she had other injuries, injuries he hadn't seen before because they lay beneath her clothing. But he hadn't known, he'd had no idea, how pervasive and severe the bruising actually was. He can't even begin to imagine how many blows she must have sustained to cause this. Her stomach is bruised. Her ribcage is bruised. Sodding shite, is there any part of her that's not bruised!?
Oh, God. Oh, GOD.
That breathless, all-consuming rage slams back into him again, full force. He's sick with it. But he makes himself move slowly, carefully, for Jane's sake. He shifts until he's sitting beside her, still panting, heart racing, but he's coming down. He has possession of himself again. Now all he wants is a better look at the damage.
Leaning in closer, he very gently pushes the ruched fabric of her shirt to one side, exposing even more of her battered body. She takes a little hitching gasp, and his eyes fly back to her face to find her watching him, steadily. She's still worrying at her lip, though.
"Sorry," he manages, sounding like he's been punched in the stomach. Feeling like he's been punched in the stomach. "Uh... may I...?"
Still holding his eyes with her own, she gives a tiny nod, and he continues his careful assessment.
He pulls her shirt back down when he's done, his hands skating oh so gently over her discolored skin. Then he sits for a long time, looking into the darkness, expression blank as he tries to process what he's just seen.
He comes back to himself at the sound of her voice, sees that she's trying to struggle up onto her elbow; moves quickly to intercept her. "No," he murmurs, stretching out beside her again, "lie back. I am here. Right here."
"I know," she says, and he doesn't think he's ever heard her sound so sad.
"Shh," she whispers. "No... talking." Her eyes are drifting closed again. He drops his head and kisses her temple; the corner of her mouth... strokes her hair and watches as her breathing evens out. A few moments later she's deeply asleep once more.
"You could wait here," he says abruptly. It's just past dawn and they're sitting by the newly-stoked fire. She is staring down at the breakfast he prepared, which is sitting untouched in her lap. He knows it's a dangerous thing to say, that she probably won't receive it well, but the words are out before he can call them back, as if they have a will of their own.
She blinks and raises her eyes slowly to his; says nothing.
"You could," he ploughs on. "You have everything you need. There is water here, and shelter if you want it –" he motions to the nearby trees. "The fire pit is dug already, I can leave all the supplies with you, and Dragon might carry just me, now, in light of..." he trails off, runs a hand through his hair. "He might, if I ask him. If... we ask him. Jane, you... are still so hurt. More than I knew. You... you could stay here and rest, you could stay here and... and be safe."
She looks at him for a long moment. He's bracing for an explosion, but it doesn't come. She finally just drops her eyes back to her lap and says, very quietly, "No, Gunther. I cannot. I have to be there when..." she trails into silence.
"Can you not trust me to bring Lavinia back to you? Jane, I swear –"
"I do trust you," she cuts him off.
"Then why!? Why can you not just -"
"It has to be ME!" Now her voice is rising. He supposes it was bound to happen eventually, if he kept pressing the issue. In truth, he's almost relieved. It's better than the dull, dead tone she'd been using a minute ago. Almost anything would be better than that.
"Why, Jane? Why must it be you?"
"Because I am the one he – I am... I am the one... who failed her." Her voice breaks on the word.
For a space of several seconds, he just stares at her, horrified. When he first tries to speak he actually has to stop, clear his throat, and start again. "Jester said there were five of them. Five of them, Jane, and you were unarmed! And still you took them on, all of them! There was nothing more you could have done, you already almost d–" he clamps down on the word, swallows it back. It hurts too much to even think it, let alone speak it aloud. "It was not," he says emphatically, once he's mastered himself, "your fault."
"Of course it was my fault," she retorts bitterly. "You said it yourself; I was unarmed. And I knew what he was – because you TOLD me what he was! I did not pay enough attention. I never should have taken Lavinia out there, and I never, EVER should have set down my sword, not for a second. It was entirely my fault, I, I..."
Her breaths are piling up, practically to the point of hyperventilation. Intuiting that there's nothing he can say that will help in this moment, Gunther simply scoots closer to her, slings an arm around her and snugs her (carefully, so carefully) against him. She lets her head fall onto his shoulder, so her voice is slightly muffled as she says, "I am the one who did this, and I am the one who has to undo it. Gunther, it has to be me."
"All right," he says bleakly, staring across the small fire, into the empty distance. "All right, Jane."
By midmorning they have passed two more markers pointing them steadily northward. It's closing in on noon when they see it; the telltale indication that their journey is almost at an end.
There on the horizon, right at the feet of the mountains, a cloud of grey smoke billows skyward. Gunther's entire body snaps taut at the sight because he knows – they all do – what this means; what they will find when they reach the source of that unmistakable signal.
Another patch of ground is being burned; another marker is being created. Only this time it's happening right now. Algernon and his people – and Lavinia too – are down there right now.
They've finally caught up.
The smoke is clearing by the time they reach their destination. The fire was set in a small open space that lies between the end of the tree cover and the flank of the mountain. As they start to lose altitude, coming in for their descent, Gunther can see that the rock face is riddled with dark openings – the black, yawning mouths of several caves. A whole network of them, by the look of it. And yes, there are people down there; of course there are.
Dragon circles the clearing once, twice; spirals downward... and lands.
There is a rushing in Gunther's ears that begins the moment he lays eyes on Algernon. His vision darkens around the edges; narrows in, tunnels. Across the clearing from them stands the man – no, the creature, the thing, that he hates above everything else on earth. Hates with ever fiber of his being, with every breath he takes.
Even before Dragon has entirely settled onto the ground Gunther is moving; vaulting himself off Dragon's back, unsheathing his sword as he does so, hitting the earth with his muscles bunching, ready to launch himself across the space that separates him from Algernon. He's not thinking; he can't think in this moment. The flat hot rage that he has held at bay and held at bay is back full force, filling him until there's no room left for anything else; possessing him. That is what is fueling him, animating him, controlling him right now. That wild fury, and the need to act on it.
And then Jane has flung herself on him from behind, holding onto him with desperate fierceness, restraining him, dragging him back. She's shouting, and right in his ear, too – but it takes him several confused, disoriented seconds to actually tune in to what she's saying.
" – cannont, Gunther, you cannot do that, stop, STOP!"
Having managed to arrest his forward momentum, she steps around him and actually shoves him back a step, pinning him between herself and Dragon. How she can manage all this with only one usable arm at her disposal is beyond him. She's panting for breath, seeming just as adrenaline-charged as he is… but a whole lot more clear-headed.
"Jane," he grits out, still only able to think of one thing – reaching Algernon and ripping him to shreds – "move."
"NO!" Her hand is fisted against his shoulder, clenched in the material of his cloak. Her eyes are enormous, depthless and frantic. "No, Gunther, look! Calm down, you have to make yourself calm down and look! Lavinia, do you see LAVINIA!"
He drags in a hitching, grating breath; slams his eyes closed for a space of seconds in a desperate bid for control, then opens them again and makes himself look, really look at what's in front of him.
Before, Algernon was literally the only thing he'd seen. Only now does he register that his hated foe is not alone. He's standing a short distance from the nearest cave, with one of his men close beside him. In the mouth of the cave itself stand two more men, with the princess restrained between them. One of these has a fistful of Lavinia's hair in one hand… and a wicked-looking knife in the other.
The knife is hovering dangerously close to the wide-eyed princess's neck.
It's as if someone has thrown a bucket of cold water on him.
He's still breathing hard, but he's in control again – marginally, at least – although it's a very fine line that he's walking.
Across the distance, Algernon calls out in a voice that can only be described as merry, "put your sword away now, squire Gunther, there is a good boy!"
Movements jerky and disjointed as his reason fights with the still-overwhelming desire to rush the young lord who is now grinning smugly at him, Gunther complies.
"Very good, squire," says Algernon, his voice positively dripping with condescension, "and now the bow and arrows, if you please. Throw them right into the middle of the clearing."
Breathing in short, shallow pants of barely suppressed rage, he does as he's told. He can't help noticing that although Algernon has not yet addressed Jane directly, she is the one upon whom the noble's eyes are riveted; they are roving over her; greedy, hungry. He is devouring her with his gaze, aware that Gunther is watching him do it, and enjoying every second of it.
And as long as that dagger is poised at Lavinia's throat there is nothing, nothing that Gunther can do about it. His empty, helpless hands clench into fists at his sides. Unclench.
Jane's hand is still at his shoulder, still balled up in the rough-spun material of his heavy travelling cloak. She leaves it there but turns partly away from him, angling herself toward Algernon.
"Send the princess over," she calls, her voice remarkably steady considering the circumstances.
Algernon throws his head back and laughs. And laughs. Bright peals of unbridled mirth, rolling across the space that separates them. Jane remains calm and stoic – outwardly, at least – throughout it all.
Once his amusement has run its course, Algernon composes his face back into that smug, superior little smile. "Your eternal optimism is something that has intrigued me from the very first, my lady," he calls. "I shall so enjoy taking it away from you." His lips quirk into a smirk that is unmistakably lewd. "You know the terms. We, ah, discussed them on the beach, did we not? In between… other activities." He locks eyes with Gunther again… and winks.
This time it's not a haze, it's a red sheet that drops across his vision. He takes a lurching step forward; he can't help himself, it's like his body is trying to override him, just slip his control entirely.
Jane releases his shoulder and grabs his hand, twining her fingers through his and squeezing hard, hard. It helps to ground him, just as he supposes it's meant to do.
Coming back into himself, he realizes that Dragon is growling now; a constant low, menacing rumble deep in his throat. He doesn't like what Algernon just said any more than Gunther does – but he's just as powerless to take action. He can do nothing so long as Lavinia remains under that psychopath's control. None of them can.
Gunther sucks in a ragged, hitching breath.
"I need you with me, Gunther," Jane says quietly. How the hell can she be this calm!? "I need you in command of yourself, and with me. Are you?"
"Yes," he says, in a voice like gravel. He swallows hard, rakes his free hand through his hair in a brusque, jerky movement. "Yes."
"Gunther, this is too important to be anything less than sure. Are you sure?"
"I am sure," he grates out. He hates it, he hates it, but he'll hold himself together because he has no choice.
"Good," she says softly. "Because things are going to get very difficult now."
He rips his eyes away from Algernon to look directly at her again, and what he sees when he does – the expression on her face, the look in her eyes…
That's when it finally hits him. And everything
It feels like the ground is falling out from under him.
He remembers her looking around the castle courtyard like she'd never expected to see it again. Remembers her sobbing helplessly, hopelessly, in his arms. Picking at her food, saying "Gunther, it has to be me." He remembers the aching desperation he'd sensed in her when they'd kissed, and most of all he remembers the lightning-quick flashes of – something – that he'd seen behind her eyes, not once or twice but numerous times over the course of their journey.
It's there again now, and he finally recognizes it for exactly what it is. It's resignation. And beneath it lies a pit of grief and despair so vast and deep it seems endless.
How could he not have put it together before now? How stupid can he be!?
He'd thought she'd seemed calm, but that's not quite right. She isn't calm, she's… she's giving up. She's going to give herself UP.
He'd imagined they were headed toward a battle of some kind, toward somehow winning back the princess through the use of force. They had Dragon, after all; how could they not win? But in his rash anger he'd forgotten that as long as Algernon held Lavinia, he had all the leverage in the situation.
Jane had understood that, though. Of course she had. She'd known from the very first moment that there wouldn't be a battle. That there would be a trade. She had known she would have to surrender herself.
That she would have to sacrifice herself.
His head is spinning. The whole world is spinning. He can hardly make sense of it. This cannot be happening.
This cannot be HAPPENING.
" – Gunther. Gunther. Gunther!"
Distantly he registers that she's saying his name, over and over again. The rushing is back in his ears, only now it's more of a roaring. A pounding roar, like a waterfall. He can barely make out what she's saying. Then she pulls her hand from his, and the world slams back into sharp focus. Losing her, he's losing her.
No, no NO.
She's still right there, though. In fact, she steps even closer to him, raising her hand, now, to press to his cheek. "Gunther. Listen to me. He is right. I knew the terms. I accept the terms. I have to. And so do you. We need to think objectively, right? You are the one who said that. Getting Lavinia back is the only thing that matters. And this is how we do it."
"No." He barely more than breathes it. He can't get any force behind his words. He still feels like he's in free-fall. He can't cope with this, he can't –
"Yes." Her voice is flat. Determined. Almost dead. And oh God, her eyes – he's never seen them this dark a green.
The light has gone out of her eyes.
He gasps in a shuddery breath. "There has to be another way. There has to be."
She shakes her head. "We cannot play with her life like that. Gunther. I know you know that. I am going to walk over there and she is going to come to you, and when she does –" she breaks off, and suddenly her breaths are piling up, all atop one another. A shudder wracks her body, brief but hard. She's fighting with the almost overwhelming force of her despair, in such emotional agony that she can barely string the words together. Still, she forges ahead. She's Jane, after all.
"When she... comes," and now she's gasping out the words as though they are causing her actual, physical pain, "you have to get... her out of here right – right away. Right away. I do not... want her anywhere near when he... I do not want her to hear. Or... y-you either. When... he..."
He groans and yanks her, hard, against him, holding her like he's never going to let her go. She gives a muffled yelp and he realizes he must be hurting her; her injured arm is trapped between them in its sling. He tries to make himself release her. But he can't. He can't.
"I cannot do this," he says, hoarsely, into her hair. "How can you expect me to do this!?"
From across the clearing, Algernon yells sharply, "get your filthy hands off her, bastard!"
Gunther responds by pulling her even closer, locking eyes with his enemy over the top of her head, consumed with helpless rage and a crashing torrent of raw, seething hatred that threatens to engulf him completely. He doesn't raise his voice, but it carries clearly nevertheless as he grits out, "I will kill you for this."
Algernon's own eyes narrow to furious slits for a second or two, but then he pastes that horrendous smirk back on his face. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, squire," he rejoins, "but take your dirty, baseborn hands off my bride." Raising his voice a bit, he then addresses Jane directly. "Come along now, dearest. Before I reconsider the terms of our arrangement."
Gunther feels another shudder rip through her slim frame, but then she's disengaging, pulling away from him. He reaches for her again but she pushes his arm gently, yet firmly, down.
"Jane –" it's little more than a croak.
She shakes her head. "No. No more talk. No more time. I have to go." She pulls the Dragon Sword from its sheath; hands it to him. He feels drugged, as if he's moving through water rather than air, as he reaches to take it. She removes the dagger from her hip and hands that over too. It's her old dagger, he notes distantly, unimportantly; not the one he gave her. Where's the one he gave her? Then he shakes his head. That doesn't matter. Nothing matters but the fact that she's preparing to give herself to the leering monster at the other end of the clearing.
If she goes through with this, nothing will ever matter to him again.
"I love you." Her voice is so quiet now. Completely vanquished. Completely crushed. Her eyes are roaming his face, mapping his features, just as she did with the castle environs right before they'd taken off. He realizes she's doing the same thing now as she was doing then; committing him to memory. She doesn't expect to see him again. "I love you, Gunther Breech. I –" she swallows hard, twin tears suddenly streaking down her face. When she speaks again, it's in an agonized whisper. "I am so sorry."
He can literally feel his heart breaking. Shards of ice in his chest. Shards of fire. He can't breathe.
She steps around him then, to face Dragon; falls to her knees in front of her large friend's snout. It's a heavy movement; graceless and leaden. Weighted down by her own hopelessness and anguish, compounded by her still-horribly-fresh injuries. Gunther returns his attention to Algernon as Jane and Dragon rehash almost the exact same conversation that she's just held with him.
He's reeling from the sheer force of the loathing that he feels for this man, gripping the pommel of Jane's sword so hard he almost expects to snap it in two. When she gets back to her feet, Dragon's tail is lashing – back and forth, back and forth – with furious, dangerous intensity. His claws are digging great gouges into the earth, which is not particularly soft here. And he's stopped growling. The sound he's making now is something Gunther has never heard before; a sort of... keening at the back of his throat. It's a sound that is raw, primal, powerful, and unbelievably hurt.
Jane raises her eyes to his again, but she isn't actually looking at him now - not anymore. It's like she's looking through him, as if he's turned to smoke. As if he's become a ghost. As if he's no longer even entirely real to her. "Lavinia," she says. "Keep her safe. Get her h–"
She doesn't finish because he crosses the distance between them in two strides, catches her face in both his hands, and crashes his lips down on hers in a frantic, desperate, tortured kiss. He can taste her tears.
Across the clearing, Algernon shouts with fury.
She stiffens against him for a second... then she surges forward, into the kiss, opening to him, deepening it even further, snaking her good arm around his neck, yanking his head down, holding him against her, fingers tangling in his hair.
And then it's over. She breaks free; stumbles back a step, then another. And turns away from him.
Turns to face her fate.
She starts to walk, closing the distance between herself and the mad noble, whose usually almost-too-perfect face is now a grotesque, contorted mask of outrage, thanks to their parting kiss.
Gunther staggers where he stands. It's all he can do to keep from falling to his knees. He remembers a long time ago, when part of the castle wall collapsed on top of him. The crushing weight, the utter blackness, the stark terror, the suffocating claustrophobia sparking pure, undiluted panic within him.
He's right back there, slammed back into that god-awful moment, as helpless as a child being pressed into the earth by hundreds of pounds of stone. Those horrific sensations, half-buried for years, hit him full-force. It's happening all over again.
But this time it's happening to his soul.
It's pitch black. The sun's gone out. The moon, the stars. No light at all. He's paralyzed, alone in the dark. There's nothing he can do. He's lost.