Disclaimer: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and all its associated characters and concepts belong to a whole bunch of people who aren't me, including but not limited to Guillermo del Toro, who is pretty much God. I'm making no profit and intend no disrespect, so please don't sue me.
Summary: Continues in the AU 'verse of 'Unbroken' – follows shortly after 'Been There' (aka Chapter 1 of 'Glimpses'), timeline-wise. A study of Nuala by way of Abe; before she can figure out how to be queen, she has to figure out how to be alive. This isn't PWP, it's too thinky for that, but this is a story about sex between consenting adults. Not terribly graphic.
Abe is at first not sure what has woken him, and then momentarily distracted by the realization that he was, in fact, asleep. He can recall no dreams, has no sense of how much time has passed, but he's drifted to a portion of the tank he doesn't remember entering and his limbs still feel somnolent and heavy, demanding more rest. He'd only intended to submerge himself for a few minutes, long enough to get the unpleasantly desiccated feeling to leave his throat and to be sure the membranes between his fingers weren't going to crack, and then . .
. . and then he'd meant to check on her, the presence he now feels here, somewhere up above him. Her fingers trail in the water and it conducts her essence to him, something that isn't quite sound or sensation.
Nuala flinches back from the water's edge when he surfaces, her movements all furtive and quick, nervous. She ends up with her back nearly to the wall, hands folded in front of her and eyes wide and luminous in the dim light provided by the emergency exits signs (their light is blue, here, not red – he doesn't see red very well, but his appreciation for shades of blue is apparently past human perception). Abe memorizes the exact shade of blue that the light paints her pale skin, and her eyes – there is a faint blue sheen to them, though they remain deeply golden, as if lit from within.
"Your Highness -" Abe begins, at the same time Nuala murmurs, "I woke you," in a tone of soft apology.
They both go quiet a moment. She is absolutely still, watching him, waiting.
"I don't mind," he says. "I hadn't intended to fall asleep anyway, and besides, I'm . . I will always be glad for your company, your Highness," he finishes awkwardly, and tries to resist the urge to shuffle his feet. They make wet sounds on the floor, and his pants creak, and the buzzing of the filters is very loud.
Her skirts don't even sway; he can't look away from eyes, and can't decipher what exactly he sees in them.
"You called me by my name, before," she whispers, still as an image from a dream, a ghost, lost and searching.
"Yes, I – I did," Abe says; something is happening here that he's not sure he really understands, but he can feel it building like the electrical charge in the air before a storm. His body feels hollow, his head light. "Nuala."
She smiles just a little, so tentatively. It doesn't reach her haunted, haunting eyes.
"I didn't want to presume," Abe says.
She lowers her eyes at this, smile slipping; still she does not move. Her eyes flicker up once more, dark lashes gleaming blue in the light, but her gaze finds the water instead of him. "Abraham," she says, hushed and deliberate, as if tasting each syllable.
Then she's quiet once more, and Abraham realizes he's spread his fingers without intending to, hands still held unobtrusively at his sides, trying to find some sense of her, what she needs, what he ought to do. He curls his hands instantly when he realizes what he's doing, horrified at the idea of intruding uninvited on her thoughts – not that he's ever given much thought to his ability as intrusive before, but then, it's never before been a thing of which others were really aware. A thing that might be felt and shared and reciprocated.
She's just watching the water, and doesn't seem to have noticed – and it gained him nothing, anyhow, not even enough to know she is there if he closes his eyes. She is far too practiced at hiding herself away – a thought that brings with it flash of near blinding rage and the urge to discover some way that her brother might be made to feel pain without it rebounding on her. Perhaps if he were to be injured, for example, in parts of the body that she doesn't have -
- but it requires no particular gift of perception to realize that that train of thought is not likely to be what she needs from him now. Abe quite deliberately forces his hands to relax, not seeking, not hiding, just there and waiting. It's so quiet as to be unbearable; he feels as though he is breathing too loudly, and yet, she must want him there. She sought him out. Her eyes are still on the water.
"How do you sleep?" she finally asks, still in that hushed and dreamy voice.
"I just . . float," Abe offers, gesturing – a wave of the hand that he's not sure why he makes. Her stillness makes him suddenly aware of his every movement, too conscious of how much he uses his hands when he speaks. He blinks, and is aware of blinking – how often does he blink? Too often to note each time without going utterly mad, Abe thinks, but her presence has made him strangely enervated, his whole body almost uncomfortably aware of itself.
She is watching the water behind him with a look of obvious longing. "It's so peaceful," she murmurs.
"You're welcome, of course," Abe offers, grasping at straws. "If . .you'd like to swim . . ?"
It sounds vacuous to the point of comedy, to his ears – never mind that the world as you knew it has come crashing down around your ears, I'm sure a nice dip will solve all that – but she smiles softly, head tilted and eyes bright, and then reaches around behind herself for the fastenings of her dress.
Abe averts his eyes and turns hastily away. He'd like to tell himself it's instinct rapidly honed over the past few months of often messy, awkward and prolonged fieldwork alongside Liz, who is both like a sister to him and snappishly protective of her modesty. That in no way explains the sensation that accompanies that bit of gentlemanly reflex - something that crackles, hot and bright, from the soles of his feet up to the back of his neck.
"I'll just -" he tries to say, voice half-choked, once more gesturing aimlessly and calling himself seven different kinds of fool inside his head.
"Abraham?" she interrupts. Her voice sounds strange, but that's as much as he can perceive; matching an emotion to her tone would require far more cognitive function than he feels capable of achieving at the moment. He can feel his own pulse with distressing clarity; his hands are hot with the rush of blood.
"Yes?" he answers – and good God, is that his voice? It's a strangled, unsteady thing, that voice, and too low. He sounds nothing like himself, which he supposes is appropriate, really, considering he feels nothing like himself.
"I'm sorry, I . . I thought . . I'm not very perceptive tonight," Nuala confesses to the back of his head, sounding so painfully lost that he turns toward her without really considering what he's doing.
Her dress is half undone, presumably unfastened in the back, falling away in the front before being caught on her elbows and clutched to her chest, the sleeves still around her wrists. Her shoulders are bare and her hands are very white, wrapped in nervous twists of cloth in front of her breasts.
"There's nothing wrong with your perception, but I want you to know that I respect – that is, that you're not obligated – of course you're not, please forget I said – anything, actually, if you could," Abe concludes, grasping at self-deprecating humor but hearing it fall flat. The room echoes. "Please, I don't want you to feel . . " And words are failing him and he's speaking with his hands again, gesturing helplessly and blinking. The air is much too dry. It is becoming a challenge to breath properly.
"No!" Nuala insists instantly, lurching an uncertain step forward before bringing herself to an unsteady halt, still a pace and a half away. "No, you didn't -" She stops, purses her lips. It's something of a relief to know he's not the only one who seems to have lost the power of language.
"You're . . you're . . most welcome," Abe manages, then closes his eyes, grimacing. "I don't seem to know how to say what I'd like to say."
"Nor I," she confesses shakily. He hears rustling. "Perhaps . . ?"
He opens his eyes to find her right hand outstretched, offering. Her left remains clutched to her chest, holding her dress in place, though only just. It drapes heavily from that single point, so that the sides of her breasts are bared. She's slipped free of the right sleeve; the arm that reaches out towards him is impossibly slender and pale and perfect, a work of art, and it seems absurd that she could want him to touch her.
He takes her hand, and it's not art, it's warm.
Warm, and alive, and fingers twining through his beseechingly, and the only thing more ridiculous than the idea of her wanting him is the realization that she's not sure he wants her. She's not sure he should want her; she feels too insubstantial and frail, that there's far too little of her for anyone to want.
That's all she shows him at first, only a careful, tentative beginning to what she feels – but it takes only the first hint of his incredulity for her restraint to snap, and then her fingers are slipping between his and clutching painfully tight, and everything in her head is flooding into his.
She's afraid – too simple a term, really, and yet the best his abruptly overwhelmed mind can find, and it needs to find something, needs to put the sudden deluge of emotion and memory into some semblance of order. What she shows him is so much more, and different, than he expects.
Her people are dying.
He sees this with all the cruel clarity of her own epiphany on the subject – sees their court of iron and fire, the choice to come to these shores, to hide in the humans' forgotten spaces, sees shame, despair, and finally an old man's face carved of stone, wreathed in contorted branches.
That face is familiar, it is beloved, and it has become the face of a stranger, someone she never truly knew. Her people are dying, fading, and the reason why is, in retrospect, horribly, painfully obvious. It isn't human kind who have brought them to this. She lets him see how she has searched her every memory of her father for some hint of an explanation. She both understands and can't. Grief twists with the belated realization of years of slow betrayal. Truce was not enough; centuries of a one-sided peace weren't enough to undo the knowledge of what terrible things his kind could create if they chose. She doesn't think the decision to punish them all was ever conscious, she can't believe him so cruel – but that changes nothing, now.
Abe is with her as she tries so hard to remember the scent of trees and earth and life, and can't. She's not sure she ever really knew; half her memories are not her own, and all she really knows is hiding. The only thing certain in her mind is that she cannot, cannot return to her people like this. They need more from her – they need a living queen, desperately.
She doesn't know how to be what they need, doesn't know how to be, but she believes – and Abe can feel how terrifyingly precarious is this conviction – she believes that she can learn. Must learn, and therefore will.
And that – and Abe feels suddenly teetering on a cliff's edge himself – circles 'round to why she is here, now, with him.
Her body feels new and strange in her solitary possession of it; for the first time in their shared existence, her awareness of her brother is less than her awareness of herself. She wants, wants like pins and needles in awakened flesh, wants in ways that don't fit well into words – wants the lost scent of green things, and warmth, and rain, dirt beneath her feet and sharp flavors stinging her tongue and touch, she wants so desperately to feel the touch of another living thing – another living mind – his flesh, his mind.
"My skin feels as though it doesn't fit," she whispers, her eyes imploring, "and I cannot rest. I don't want to rest."
Somehow the distance between their bodies has disappeared, and Abe is not entirely sure when or how that happened. Their joined right hands are pressed between their chests. She's still clinging to her dress. "It's alright," she murmurs in answer to his own tangled panic and desire. "This will be alright. It's the one thing I know. Please?"
And he feels the truth of that in her – that he has become, of all strange and petrifying things, her faith. Their meeting, finding one another, is the one great miracle of her life, the one impossible thing the world has given her that makes her hope. In her mind it is only natural and logical that she would come to him with her need to feel alive. She's only uncertain because it is so soon, so much, she thinks, to ask of him.
It's all terribly backwards – she is the miraculous, impossible one – but it makes him feel churlish and ashamed for his reticence.
There's no need to say this; he has only to think of the utter absurdity of her ever believing she could be imposing, as if he doesn't need to be with her, to care for her and please her and know her and . . and everything, as if he doesn't just want her, in every way possible, more than he wants his next breath.
"Oh," she says, very softly – and begins to smile, a slow, pleased, wondering sort of smile that does strange things to his ability to breath at all.
That smile is fleeting, however; in the next instant she's frowning, head tilted. "Why do you not think yourself -" but she stops, because the rest of the question is unnecessary; he already knows what she wants to know, and the answer is there in his mind without his really having decided to answer.
At least, without having decided to answer quite so honestly, which is perhaps unfair. Certainly she's held nothing back from him, but her self-doubt isn't nearly so embarrassing in its source. Hers was earned through centuries of completely inarguable trauma. In comparison to what she's survived, it seems just so . . so petty, that the only time he's ever caught a hint of sexual interest from a human colleague, it was always tinged with a macabre, half-revolted sort of fascination. For most of them, the revulsion didn't come by halves – they tried not to think of him that way at all, which meant, of course, that they did, sometimes obsessively.
His gift for empathy had resulted in a few situations over the years that he'd like very much to label "unbearable", except that he'd borne them, because what else could he do? Asking the new pathologist to please stop examining the fit of his pants and entertaining queasy imaginings of the spawning habits of trout was really not likely to improve matters.
All of which he tries to impress upon her as briskly as possible, with an emphasis on how really unimportant it all is, that he is perfectly happy to be appreciated for his mind and –
- and suddenly there are a pair of warm lips on his, her inarticulate sound of outrage swallowed up by his started gasp. It takes him a moment, through the sudden sensory overload, to realize she is absolutely furious. Her hands are both on his face, leaving his free to find her waist and tangle in the loose cloth of her dress – the dress she's no longer holding up at all, he realizes, and is suddenly excruciatingly aware of the scant few inches that remain between their bodies. He thinks he can almost feel the heat of her bare skin, match to the searing ferocity of her lips slanting across his – and her thoughts, all tenderness and indignation.
She pulls back, and her hands are shaking, splayed across cheekbones and tympanum so that her smallest finger is tracing restless, trembling circles on the very edge of his jaw.
"They're wrong," Nuala says simply, in a voice that quakes.
"It isn't -" Abe tries to protest. It's not so bad, it's not something that bothers him ordinarily, but she won't let him finish.
"It is," she insists. "It's not that you found no willing lovers among them, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glad of that -" and he feels a wave of almost panicked embarrassment wash through her at this boldness, but her eyes remain steady on his "- but they treated you as though you were less than them. As though being different made you an animal. They made you begin to believe that."
"It hasn't been so terrible as that," Abe argues softly; it's all rather humiliating, but that's not nearly as important as the degree to which the subject seems to be upsetting her. "Truly, I've never felt -"
"No," Nuala interrupts again, shaking her head. "That's what makes it terrible."
He can see that she thinks he's lead some sort of half-life – something comparable to what she has endured – and he can't help but find the very suggestion of any such comparison ridiculous. Yes, he was initially a subject of study, and if it hadn't been for Professor Broom –
- he halts this train of thought when he feels the renewed swell of rage and horror it's inciting in her, hastily shoving his hazy memories of those first, confused days of awareness back into their usual corner.
"I've been content," Abe insists, hands clenching in frustration at his inability to convince her of this, bunching in the material of her half-discarded dress. All of the sudden he's run out of dress to clutch, his thumb brushing the bare skin of her waist – and it's so warm, and she shivers just a little at his touch, anger ebbing before a more visceral pull.
She really does want his touch.
"Some day," Nuala says more calmly, "I want to know about that. All of it. I can bear it."
Of course she can; she's the most magnificent thing he's ever seen. He has no doubt of her ability to bear anything. That doesn't mean he wants her to, and certainly not for his sake. There's no need, anyway. It doesn't trouble him.
Except that he's still a bit terrified to move his hand entirely away from her dress, to touch her skin deliberately – he's still waiting, really, for her to flinch.
It's not the same, regardless.
"My brave Abraham," she murmurs, and it's somewhere between being completely mortifying, and being everything he didn't know enough to wish for encapsulated in three words and the feel of her stepping deliberately closer, pressing her body to his. He can feel the softness of her breasts and the movement of her diaphragm as she breaths and the beat of her heart. His hands have to leave her dress, because they have to curl around her, holding her. Her arms clutch around his shoulders and her face is pressed into his neck. It makes breathing a little bit challenging on the one side, but he can't really care, because she's kissing him there, kissing his gills, of all things, which he never really thought of as particularly sensate. They're just what he breathes with.
He really wouldn't mind asphyxiating so long as she didn't stop, and she's showing no signs whatsoever of flinching. It makes her shudder – pleasantly – when he runs his hands up her spine, counting vertebrae with his fingertips and marveling in just how warm she is.
Just how there she is, with him.
"I want to be in the water," she murmurs into his neck.
Maybe it's being in his natural element; maybe it's the way she clings to him – despite demonstrating first that she is a perfectly competent swimmer, diving and surfacing with all the ease of a creature who belongs there – but it all becomes a great deal easier after that. It occurs to him, somewhere between the boldness of her pale hands and the discovery of what interesting things he can accomplish with his own, that he'd been thinking of the whole matter all wrong – as if this were a dance whose steps he'd never learned, as if he might disappoint her by doing it wrong. There are no steps, no dance, and no possibility of any part of this being wrong.
That makes it no less momentarily disconcerting when she laughs. Their bodies are joined and she's wrapped around him and he can hardly think for the feeling of it – has to concentrate very, very hard to remember that her head really needs to stay above the water, and that seems to be his responsibility, since her arms and legs and all of her seems to be too busy clasping him to her as tightly as possible – and she's giggling.
"No, no, no," she mutters apologetically in response to his sudden nervous confusion, shaking her head, lips moving against his lips, his chin, his jaw. "It's not -" She's having difficulty speaking, quivering with her laughter, which is really not such a bad thing from his perspective, really a very interesting tactile experience, but he does want to know what she's thinking, and even close as they are, he can't tell. Her mind is disconcertingly blank, empty.
But bright, in its emptiness; light. She feels shimmering and weightless in his mind.
"I'm . . so much," she manages, lips pressing urgent kisses to the tender skin of his neck, fingers clutching against his back. "So much." She can't seem to stop laughing. His mind supplies the word 'giddy', but it's inadequate. This is beyond that; this is something inside her breaking.
"I'm happy," she finally whispers, quick between the giggles, and he can tell she doesn't think that's adequate expression either, but it's enough for him. He can't bear to be still anymore. He moves and she gasps and he pauses.
"That's alright?" he asks – he really thinks it is, he really thinks he's not sure how he's going to stop if she didn't like it, but his mind is a fizzing, firecracker haze of overwhelming sensation and he wants to be sure. Keep her head above water, he chants to himself, keep her head above water.
"Do that again," she orders, voice low and rough and tremulous, and still laughing.
They lay on the tank's topmost step afterwards, Nuala curled up on top of him, her head on his chest, so that Abe is mostly in the water and she is mostly out. He's a little bit warm and she's a little bit cold and Abe has no idea how much time has passed, but he hopes not much. He hopes it's a very, very long time until morning. His one hand rests possessively on her hip while the other toys with her hair; she's absorbed in the novelty of just breathing, and nothing else.
It doesn't last; he feels her thoughts drawing slowly inward, closing off as the memory of the world outside returns, and mourns for it but can't object. However long or short the time till morning, it will come, with all its burdens.
"I feel no more like a queen than I did before," Nuala murmurs, her ear pressed to his heart. "But I'm still glad to have been with you – to be with you, Abraham."
"Is this -" he begins carefully, dreading the answer.
"No," she says instantly, fiercely, and despite her attempts to shield her thoughts he catches a glimpse of how what she feels for him is all tangled with her need to feel alive, to be real. No matter how long it has been the way of her people, the idea of vanishing like a dream in the morning is viscerally repulsive to her.
"I won't disappear with the dawn," she says, needing the affirmation of the words spoken aloud. "Perhaps I should, but I won't. I can't. You're going to be seeing a great deal more of me."
"I'm very glad," Abe offers, and she sighs, and goes quiet. Her thoughts drift away from him once more, better hidden now.
"Abraham?" she says carefully a moment later. "We never discussed the possibility of . . of children."
Oh good Lord, he realizes, tensing, they hadn't. And they did nothing to avert the possibility, either.
He's in the process of mentally calling himself an imbecile in every language he knows when she raises herself up to look into his face, her own expression carefully closed. "Humans think differently on such things than my people do," she says slowly. "We are so few – but you have spent so much time in human company -"
"Nuala," he interrupts, cupping a hand around her face, her too-calm expression and her hidden thoughts. She's obviously trying to be fair, but the very fact that she hides from him tells him that his reaction is hurting her, and he doesn't want that. He doesn't know what to say, but he knows it's of dire importance that he say something.
"I should have considered this before, it was very irresponsible of me -" he cuts off; her mind is even further closed to him and that train of thought is clearly not helping. Of course it doesn't seem irresponsible to her – her people are so few, the responsible thing is to procreate with abandon.
Is it even possible? It seems doubtful, but Red and Liz have lately proven that a great many unlikely things are possible, in this regard. He'd never before even considered the possibility of having children of his own, and now it seems he needs an opinion as to whether he wants them, right now.
But they wouldn't be children of his own, would they – not only his own. That's not the nature of children. They would be theirs, his and hers. He spends a foolish fragment of a moment wishing they could be just hers – whether there ought to be more creatures like her in the world is a much different question, and far more easily answered. But their child - what would their child look like? What would it be?
"A child would be . . welcome," he says, stumbling over the words, trying to maintain a balance between honesty and reassurance. A child would be terrifying, overwhelming, intrusive . . but hers, and his, theirs. It would be welcome.
She watches his face very closely for a moment longer, then gives him a relieved little smile and lays her head back down. Her hand splays flat across his chest, and he can feel her begin to frown. "The idea troubles you, though," she says. "You're thinking of your friend, the children she carries, and you're troubled. Why?"
"I worry for Red and Liz's children," Abe admits, trying at first to choose his words with care, but quickly giving up. There's no particularly gentle way to say this. "Those worries would be no less urgent for any children we might have, which is not to say that they would be unwanted – not unwanted. But perhaps it is selfish of me to want them." He's a bit startled to realize that he does, suddenly, want them – very much, if not necessarily right now. "What place would they have in the world? When they're grown, I mean."
"Whatever place they can make or find, I suppose," Nuala replies soberly, "the same as any other child come to adulthood."
"But there would be no others like them. You and I have our places," Abe countered, "not that they're easy places, either of them, and yours much less so than mine – but what if that's not the sort of place they want? Suppose they want to be . . oh, I don't know, accountants, or botanists. Teachers. Cake decorators."
"Then they'll have to learn how to become such," Nuala suggests, tilting her head up, smiling a fond if slightly troubled smile, and trying to wriggle closer to him. Abe tightens his arm around her. "And they would have our help."
"The world is hardly ready to accept us as we are - apart as we are," Abe insists, fingers tracing nonsense patterns over her skin; he hates to be the voice of gloom and doom, but believes his concerns are valid. He's seen enough of the muddle Red and Liz have made not to want to start with Nuala by putting on a façade of false carelessness.
He can feel her considering this, carefully – very carefully, and deeply, he realizes as her silence stretches. He begins to worry at what he senses from her. If before, while they made love, something within her had cracked, then now the pieces are moving - shifting like tectonic plates as she lays there so outwardly placid.
She's not hiding anymore, but Abe catches only fleeting edges of the mad whirl of mental images that are churning in her mind. He sees her father's face more than once, and a large number of dank tunnels, battlefields, smell of blood and rust and rot, but also older things, memories of things more basic than any memory he has himself – childhood, pricked fingers and sweets on her tongue and something – something – it's just out of her grasp, beyond coherency or sense, but she thinks – he thinks –
- she can almost, almost remember being very small, running through trees and sunlight, green things, laughing. It's there and then it's gone, too faint and quick to be real.
When she looks up at him some glimmer of burning remains in her eyes, half-remembered sunlight and molten, implacable purpose. Never mind returning to her people or whatever process, mystical or political, may yet remain to cement the fact in other minds – in that moment, she is a queen.
"Then the world will change," Nuala says, just quietly, but hard and inexorable as the earth itself coming to rest, its landscape broken, changed, new.