Note: So my muse grabbed me suddenly and I decided to write an epilogue...
The warmth of the hearth was fading, but I made no move to relight the dwindling embers. I was curled up on the couch in my quarters, a book spread across my lap, although I had not turned a single page in hours. It had been a slow day, with little in the way of missions or excursions, and so I had spent most of my time in my room, alone.
I lay on my side, my head resting on a cushion, and let out a breath. Almost two weeks had passed since my talk with Josephine, and while it had taken some of the burden away, I still felt very vulnerable. It had become easier to face the others and reclaim my title as leader, but away from the planning and strategizing I was still left with coldness within my chest. Some days it was a real struggle to stop my thoughts taking over, repeating every doubt that lingered, and it was all I could do to find the strength to silence them.
But as disappointed as I was with my progress, I knew I would not have come this far if not for Josephine. Her patience was endless, and I couldn't believe how she could balance her daily duties and still make time for me. Even if we didn't cross paths during the day, each evening she would come to my room and sit with me, until I would fall asleep. We didn't always speak or even touch, but it was enough knowing she was there.
Nonetheless, my guilt was starting to nag. She was giving me far more than I could in return, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Part of me hated being so reliant on her, too, when for so long I had fought this battle alone. And since I had nothing to offer her back, what would stop her deciding one day that she had had enough and…
My door groaned, and slow steps broke my thoughts. I closed my eyes, listening as she approached. Her dress rustled across the stone floor, and the couch creaked as she sat beside me. For a long moment we remained in stillness, and then her fingers touched my arm. Her warmth was comforting, and I opened my eyes.
"Oh, so you're not sleeping after all," Josephine said. "Are you tired?"
"Not really," I said, pushing myself upright. The book slipped, and thudded against the floor.
"You look positively enthralled," Josephine smiled. I managed to bite back a yawn, bending down to retrieve the tome. In truth, I was more bored than anything else. But boredom had a way of bringing back unpleasant memories, and I was glad I no longer had to face my own company.
"It's been quiet today," I said, staring at the hearth again.
"Yes, and it does you no good when you are not kept busy," Josephine remarked. She rested her hand on my thigh. "How about something different for tonight, then? To help awaken your senses?"
I raised a brow. "What do you have in mind?"
"There is no need to look so alarmed, Emily," Josephine chuckled. "I do not have anything decadent planned." She stood, straightening the pleats of her dress, and then offered her hand. "Would you care for a dance?"
I stared at her.
"Do not pretend you did not hear me," Josephine said. "I know you are still not comfortable with closeness, and I really think this will help you overcome that." Her eyes gleamed. "Come, I saw what you could do at the Winter Palace. And if it becomes too much, just say the word and we will stop."
I sighed, mulling over her suggestion. It was true that I still could not tolerate certain touches, and I hated not being able to return the same affection she always showed me. Perhaps this would be a gentler way to let me face that fear.
I stood up, my legs slightly stiff from sitting for so long. Josephine took my wrist, leading me towards the balcony. It was easily wide enough for the two of us. She faced me, taking my palm and placing it at her hip. Her left hand came to my shoulder, while she threaded the fingers of her right through mine. I swallowed, hoping my trembling wasn't too obvious.
"Don't we need music?" I asked.
"I think your pulse provides a good tempo right now," Josephine teased. My face flushed.
Slowly, we started to move. It felt silly at first, swaying in the silence, but I focused on my feet, matching Josephine's perfectly timed steps. That was when I realised she was indeed following the beat of my heart, although I had no idea how she knew. Perhaps it was because her own heart raced just as much.
The breeze picked up, sending my hair fluttering, and I resisted the urge to break contact and brush it back. It was actually enjoyable, and gradually I started to lose myself in our rhythm. Josephine smiled, sliding her hand to my neck.
"Not bad," she commented. "You seem a natural at this."
I didn't answer, her words provoking an unwanted memory. Lessons started when I was a child, before my magic had appeared and closed that path forever. Although it had only been for a year, dancing had been something I dearly enjoyed, and it had hurt to give it up for sake of something outside of my control. But that night at the Winter Palace had rekindled that joy, and I no longer had to feel ashamed. And now here, with Josephine, I could finally take back a part of myself I had let rot for so long.
She was letting me heal…
Something prickled behind my eyes, and I had to stop.
"Emily?" Josephine drew closer. "What's wrong?"
I could only shake my head, overwhelmed. How could she give so much? All the pieces of my shattered soul were coming back together, and I couldn't do anything for her in return. It wasn't fair, wasn't right…
"Sorry," I whimpered, my tears falling freely.
"What are you apologising for?" Josephine pulled me into her arms, and I shivered, overcome with her scent. No, I would not push her away. I had to face this.
"I'm so weak," I whispered. "You've given me everything of yourself, and I can't even…"
"Hush," Josephine soothed. "Didn't I say this would take time?" She withdrew slightly, and she held my cheek. "You are stronger than you know, Emily. You will get through this. And you mustn't feel you owe me anything. That is not how love works."
I bit my lip. How she could use that word so freely, without burden or attachment…
"I want to give back," I murmured. "I want…to show…"
Her fingers softly brushed my jaw, and she tilted my chin up.
"Then close your eyes," she breathed.
I did as I was told, her breath warm against my skin. My heart thundered, my hands trembling, but this time it was not because of fear. Her lips lightly skimmed my forehead, and then they pressed against my own. It was barely a feather-light glance, but it was enough. Courage I never knew I possessed surged, and I leant forward, wrapping my arms around her. Josephine let out a quiet sigh, deepening our kiss, her fingers tangling in my hair. Her taste was indescribable, banishing the chill within, and all I knew was that I wanted nothing else.
Finally we broke apart, our brows still touching. My chest hummed with warmth, and I tightened our embrace, catching my breath. Josephine was smiling, her eyes content. I could only imagine how much she had longed for such a moment. But I knew it was not enough. Not after everything she had done for me. Yet while the words were on my tongue, that spark of courage had disappeared, and I couldn't bring them forth.
"It's okay, Emily," Josephine murmured, locking her fingers with mine. "I know. You don't have to say anything."
She pulled away, but kept our hands linked. We returned to my room, and sat on the couch again. She let me rest against her shoulder, and her arm snaked around my waist. I closed my eyes, feeling her chest rise and fall with every breath. I held her palm tighter, and whispered a silent promise to myself. I would let this scar finally heal, and I would give Josephine everything I had denied her, and more. Even if I risked the same heartache, even if it would confirm all the whispered doubts in my ears, it would all be worth it. I would make it worth it.
I would learn to love again.