20th of Achtus, 2718
PAINTED LADIES | AFTERNOON
Charity smiled back at him, her hesitant giggle reminiscent of spring flowers, pushing up from Bethas' last snow to seek the sun. It felt good. It felt right, and Rhys ignored the surge of fear and self-doubt that attempted to crawl out from the back of his mind, standing there a still-broken mess while watching the petite blonde help him dress because he couldn't dress himself. Her bright smile cut through the layers of unnecessary resentment between them, but it was still sharp, still painful.
She looked at him with tears in her violet gaze and when she said his name, it was all he could do not to wince, not to shrink away from the raging waters he knew must have churned within her. He leaned away in instinctual assumption of some unwelcome outburst in his direction, their proximity and his physical limitations not allowing him a ready escape from the tangible sensation of anger in her stronger field.
He deserved it. He did. This much he knew, and he'd done his best to avoid it, to keep her at bay just a little longer.
"I did—I was wrong, and—"
Anticipation churned his stomach, shortness of breath making everything that much more difficult to deal with, and he lacked the strength to hold his own tears back. Charity grasped his hand, both of hers warm and fierce in their grip, and he flinched at her hissed request for him to stop talking, breath hitching in a half-stifled sob in echo of her own as she placed his hand up to her wet cheek and pressed her lips to his palm.
Rhys leaned a little heavily into what was probably meant to a gentle cradling of his face, his now-free hand curling fingers into the white fabric of her dress, unsteady and unbalanced. It was difficult to hold her gaze at her words, his fair eyelashes fluttering heavily, thick and made slow by tears, holding himself back from wrenching away like the wounded animal he was, unsure if he wanted these words here. These words now.
If not, then when?
He exhaled a ragged breath, quipped short by pain, closing his eyes at her apology, scrunching his bruised face tightly though it stung to do so, the tug of stitches and dull ache of bruises objecting to his expression of internal suffering with a very fresh surge of pain. He wept into her hands, wavering on his feet when he was forced to gasp for air and steady himself as Charity slid her fingers away, pointing at herself in passionate, angry emphasis,
"I missed you, too. I made a mistake to say nothing. To do nothing. I shouldn't have just—" The not-galdor whispered as if it was an echo of agreement, as if meant to reveal how his feelings mirrored her own. He'd been consumed—was perhaps still—with a helpless, impotent rage. He had been powerless to keep her safe from the addiction that wormed its way into her life, he had been unable to keep her safe from her own father, from Diaxio, from Benjamin—gods, he'd never wanted to step outside the confines of his own oaths and duties in his career for the Seventen in the way he did now. He'd never felt the seething urge to snuff out the life of someone in the same way that thinking that galdor's name in his own head made him feel so strongly.
He needed to sit down.
"I snapped. Do you see what letting that rage consume you does? Look at me—" Free hand dragged over his face with a hiss, palm perhaps a little rough over his bruised chest and ribs, inhaling with a whimper and another sob before he was forced to do more than just hold her hand, entwining their fingers needfully and slumping far more heavily against the wall, leaning his head back to stare at the stained, peeling ceiling, "I should never have left you. He knew—they knew—what would push me over the edge and it worked. I'm stupid and just like them and—I've said I'm sorry too much but not enough. I told you what I thought, I told you what Ben—what Tolsby said—and I—I want to kill him. I want to quit, to step down, to disappear and just—"
He took a few deep, painful breaths, interrupted by his now impossible to stop weeping, and his entire bruised, lanky frame expressing the outpouring of his pent-up emotions. This kind of honesty crushed him, ground against his broken bones, dug for the marrow of his existence. He'd put his whole life into upholding a legal system that had betrayed him, that had nearly killed him, and that had stolen so much from the woman he loved,
"—I want to destroy everything. No due process. No arrests. Real justice. Not chroveshit and lies."
Eyelids closed heavily, shoulders sagging while he ignored the protest of his whole body to stay upright, weakened as he was,
"You shouldn't be here. In the fucking dives. A nice galdor—" It was a growl. A groan of resignation. An admission of what he wasn't, what he couldn't be. There was a smirk, a drawn-out tsk through grit teeth, and Rhys brought his bleary blue eyed gaze back to her face, "—oh, this is honestly the best part of town. The Painted Ladies are safe, and all this place needs is—gods—just a bit of work." The flicker of humor, desperately needed, persistent lightness he summoned from the sore depths of his entire being, "You deserve better, though. I can't keep you safe—I couldn't—I—"
Charity's whisper cut him short and his words died against the back of his teeth instead, tongue pressed there, lips tightening into another expression of pain, the tug of stitches purposeful. He swallowed hard and searched her face, aware that he'd been left close to death. So close. But so far away.
Would it have really mattered? Would it have been better?
Could she have found someone, some galdor, who loved her and could protect her—
"No." Rhys said out loud, firmly both to himself and in denial that anyone had planned to actually kill him on purpose. If he'd died as a result of their injuries, it would have been completely accidental. Damen had wanted to warn him, but it had gone too far. Gingerly, he leaned away from the wall, dizzy and tired already in his hunger and injury. Bringing their hands up to his sore chest, pressing hers over his heart, he met her gaze with all the sincerity he could find, "I didn't die. I'm not dead. Maybe—maybe for a moment I thought I would be better if—but, no. This is better—you and I. Together. I—"
He leaned precariously, pressing lips to Charity's forehead, to her tear-stained cheek, to her lips with a broken sigh, whispering against them, "—listen, I need to sit down, though. I am—this is—"
The tall blond whined, leaning away with reluctance and nudging them out of the bathroom, hopefully back toward bed. He'd rather go downstairs and find something to eat, but all this standing had made the thought of such things terrifying. It was too far. He wasn't ready. He needed to rest again, short of breath, ribs aching, "—this is too much at once."
If she'd let him shuffle them back down the hall, grimacing and huffing, Rhys would greedily make his way back to bed and hungrily attempt to drag her with him, uncaring of his own discomfort in a desperate attempt to find some comfortable position to hold her. His stomach grumbled but he ignored that, too, just wanting to take the moment he should have taken days ago, squeezing the delicate pianist as indulgently as possible given all of his limitations. Rhys sought to disappear, probably with more tears but mostly with just an inescapable closeness,
"I love you. We have both made mistakes here, but we are both very much alive. Which means we can fix all these things, right? This house. This mess. Each other."