A/N: I know, I know, yet another story for a fandom nobody recognises. But I encourage anyone who follows my stories to check this book out: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, book one of the Lunar Chronicles. It's a beautiful and wonderfully unique take on Cinderella and I absolutely adored it.
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
Kai sees her clearest on the warmest night of the year.
She appears before him as she always does, dressed in the clothes he saw her in last. Mud clings to the hem of her too-tight gown, soaking the silvery lace. The silk of her bodice is wrinkled as an elephant's hide and the custom-made gloves he'd delivered to her just a few hours previously are now grey with ash and oil-stained beyond repair.
She smiles at him and he notices a grease splotch on her forehead. She's the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. More beautiful even than the Lunar queen. Levana's beauty is nothing but a smokescreen. Like the industrial smog that gathers around the New Beijing marketplace it obscures whatever true beauty might lie beneath. But despite the ache that he feels when he looks at Cinder, her beauty is a natural thing, as clear as the night sky in the countryside she so longed to escape to. It hurts to see her again, but try as he might he can't bring himself to tear his eyes away.
"Kai," she says. She steps towards him, close enough to touch. The sleeve of one side of her gown is tattered and hangs limply from her bare shoulder, tanned skin shining through. He reaches out and presses his fingers into the skin there. She is warm and soft and reassuring. She's here. She's safe. It doesn't matter that she lied. It doesn't matter that she caused him international humiliation just hours after his coronation or that she single-handedly fractured relations between Luna and the Eastern Commonwealth more irreparably than ever before. It doesn't matter that the last time he saw her he'd been forced to choose between her life and the lives of his subjects. He doesn't even think to ask where she's been in the months since he last saw her. The nights he's lain awake torn between hatred and longing for her are swept into the ashes now.
"Cinder," he whispers, as if saying her name aloud would break whatever spell has its hold on them both. It's not just in his head. It can't just be a Lunar trick, because if it was, why has it plagued him all these months since her departure? Whatever this feeling is, he knows now that it's real. It was always real.
He runs the tips of his fingers across her shoulder and then gently brushes her collarbone, hidden beneath rumpled layers of silver and lavender silk. Rather than drawing back and stammering excuses as he has come to expect from her, she leans forward into his touch.
Emboldened now, he reaches for her elbow, his fingers lingering on the hem of her grease-stained glove. She smiles up at him through wide, bright eyes. Slowly, he slides the glove down her arm. His fingers brush along the skin he reveals, not straying, not even when warm flesh moulds into cool metal. She doesn't flinch away. She doesn't say a word. Her smile doesn't waiver.
He grasps her silver fingers in his. His hand seems to envelope hers, but her metallic grip is firm and steady. His eyes meet hers as he lifts her steel hand higher and ducks his head to greet her with a kiss.
Though she has been silent up until now, the moment his lips touch her hand Cinder lets out a little gasp of surprise and draws back. As she moves her legs seem to give way; she sways for a second before tumbling to the ground at his feet. He cries her name once more and tries to reach for her, but it's too late; she's vanished. It's as if the earth itself has taken hold of her and pulled her under. Just one thing remains where she lay. He reaches for it.
He wakes with a start, sweat dripping from his brow, his hand still clenched around the rusted cyborg foot he can't bring himself to throw away.