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When Tapers Burned to Bedward

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Volumnia

I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a
more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I
should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he
won honour than in the embracements of his bed where
he would show most love. When yet he was but
tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when
youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when
for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not
sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering
how honour would become such a person, that it was
no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if
renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel
war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows
bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not
more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child
than now in first seeing he had proved himself a
man.

Virgilia

But had he died in the business, madam; how then?

(Act I, Scene III)

 ***

Virgilia sits silent, between her mother at her right hand and her new husband at her left, replying when spoken to, raising her glass of sweet wine with each blessing and toast. She must seem attentive to the speech given by Volumnia, her husband’s mother, who now calls her daughter in a chiming voice—but she doesn’t hear another word over the wordless clamor in her own head. She must seem attentive because it is her business, now; and for the very same reason she cannot take it in. So much has changed in a day. Now hers, this hall in which she sits; hers the people crowded around, new friends and political allies of an ancient, proud family; hers the man who sits beside her. And she is theirs.

Perhaps she needs the blessing. She drinks wine to it, but barely tastes a drop.

It is half as if the wine has already reached her, as if she is numb with drunkenness or shock. But she is not drunk, and this is not shock, either. She has known for a full year now that this marriage was coming, and she isn’t unhappy. All the same, Virgilia does feel unprepared—as if she’s forgotten something important, left it at her old home where she will not be returning this night.

There is one thing she can do, really should do, the one thing she hasn’t done yet: turn to her left and look, truly look, at the person waiting there. Her head is held at a stiff, half-bent angle so as to appear more intent on Volumnia where she stands at the other side of her son. It takes only a small movement to bring her eyes to Caius Martius.

He is young to be married. Yet, while hardly more than twenty, he is already a renowned warrior through the territories of Rome and beyond—perhaps especially beyond, where rumor says he is already the fodder of nightmarish stories with which to scare children into behaving. Be good, or Caius Martius, the Roman, will get you…

Besides that, he comes from an ancient family so patrician they hardly seem to live on the same coarse earth as others. Before today, Virgilia knew absolutely nothing of him personally. “He is courteous,” her mother’s friends had reassured her, adding with grins, “and very handsome!”

Her few glimpses have confirmed as much: tall, built for power in a lean, compact way, more a panther than an ox. His face gives an impression of sharpness, and would even suggest delicacy if it were not connected to such a body. His hand, when it held hers in a passing moment, cupped it delicately, as if holding a small, live creature, as if afraid to close too hard on it.

As she looks at him now, she still sees the power, the nobility, and the beauty, too. His movements—reaching up to help his mother back into her seat, passing a platter of delicacies to her and a friend, Menenius Agrippa—are graceful, quick but with an air of restraint. She has not seen all that his body can do.

His eyes flicker her way, and he notices her watching. They face each other for the first time. For an instant she thinks the wine has brought a flush to his cheeks, but it grows deeper even as she watches. Because she watches.

As she would to any stranger—anyone she liked and would like to know better—Virgilia murmurs, “Hello.”

It’s a foolish thing to say, and compounding her humiliation, shyness and uncertainty constrict her voice to a high thread. Her greeting can barely be heard, certainly not among the raucous celebration going on around them.

But he has seen her lips move; he understands. He nods to her, sending a sprig in the wedding garland on his brow bobbing. And he replies, just slightly louder, his voice a tantalizing mix of soft and husky: “Well met.”

Something brushes Virgilia beneath the table—Caius Martius’ hand reaching for hers. She lets him take it, but when he would hold her so gently again, she lets her fingers fold around his in a close grasp. In return his grip tightens, but not cruelly, not carelessly. He gives her his strength, lets her feel it without being forceful. She smiles, a grin so wide it bares her teeth. He returns it.

***

She is eager for the feast to end. Not just for the crudely obvious reason—although ever since his touch had skimmed her thigh, however innocently, awareness has prickled of those places hidden under her silken skirts. She wants to be alone with her new husband. To learn him, to know him properly. Only so much of a person can be revealed in the midst of the clamor this wedding feast surrounds them with.

The clamor, though, follows them in the form of an escort to the very doors of their bedchamber. Through the cheers and well-wishes, she can hear ribald jokes and laughter. She and Caius Martius exchange another glance, both flushing. She forces another smile and reaches for his hand. But if anyone else notices, that will only cause more laughter. She lets her arm fall back to her side.

They reach the bedroom at last. Once the door is thrown open, they’re nearly pushed across the threshold by the crush of people around them. And there Virgilia stops, staring, blinking in amazement.

The bridal chamber is ablaze with candles. Clustered around the white-draped sleeping couch, in dishes balanced on stands and in high, narrow stalks of burnished metal, clear tapers fill the air with a delicate odor of burning resinous wax and smoking wicks. They make the place bright as daytime, but with a sullenness to the glow that daylight never possesses. A sudden breeze from the high windows breathes through the room, making the flames dance and stirring air heated to a level just above comfort. At least that is what Virgilia blames for the sweat she feels creeping along her forehead.

Beside her, her husband is protesting. “I doubt that we’ll require all these—”

“Ah, but Martius, surely you’ll want to see your beautiful bride!”

More laughter. The speaker was a woman, her voice throaty and braying, trying to sweeten on those last words. Virgilia turns to try to spot her. She does see Volumnia, smiling sternly at her son. The scourge of the Volsces is actually blushing. It’s different from the flush she had seen on him before—not shy so much as heated, agitated.

“Well, off to bed with you,” someone else says, and between the weight of all the gazes and the way the mass of onlookers seems to take a step forward as one, forcing the two of them back, and the glow in Caius Martius’ eyes that is as sullen and heated as the candles’ blaze, Virgilia’s heart pounds like a war drum. Breath goes tight in her throat, a sense of dread drowning out sweetness.

As the crowd presses, Martius spins to face them. His teeth are bared suddenly, in a grimace that promises harsh words to follow. Perhaps more than words. She sees him then, a man of violence, not just a warrior but a fighter. There is something brutal in him.

But there is something in the men and women he faces, too—not brutality, not even ill-meant, but cruel all the same. To make this an exhibition, another part of their festivities. If this were her home, her mother and uncles and friends pushing (where is her mother? Does she sit in the hall, knowing what is happening here, not caring? Not wanting to intervene in the matters of this house?)—well, Virgilia has been rebuked for her temper often enough, and is timid enough of the Marcia family, to keep it on a rein. Even holding the reins of such anger is an act of discipline, of control.

And then she reaches out and, gently but not shyly, grasps her husband’s arm.

He startles and goes still as her fingers and thumb loop just below his shoulder—not quite meeting, and with muscle corded taut as iron between them. When he glances at Virgilia, the blaze in his eyes dies down. She feels him relaxing in her hold, not by much, though, just enough to reveal his regard.

“I won’t have myself and my new wife made sport of,” he says at last.

“No one is doing such a thing,” Volumnia announces, just as another member of the crowd blurts out, “We never intended to.” Caius Martius glares, and his mother frowns at him, and Virgilia feels the tension returning under her hand. He is prideful, her new husband. And he also, she realizes, is trying to protect her pride. The idea stirs something in her, makes her hold on him tighten.

He turns to face her fully. “Please,” she says, and this time, her voice is loud enough to be heard. “It’s all right.”

“Is it?” His glare narrows on her; then he blinks and the tension there is gone, replaced by something very like confusion. He does not seem to understand disagreement without anger, but neither is he one to fight against anything but what he perceives as anger. And so Virgilia, disagreeing, but without harshness, is something new to him. He listens.

“I…am grateful for their kind wishes,” she says at last. “And wish them joy of the rest of the night. But…” Here she licks her lips. “I do agree, my lord, that privacy would be desirable.”

She doesn’t look at anyone else in the room, because if she does she fears she will also glower, or turn scarlet again. But when she looks at Caius—at her lord, her husband, as she keeps thinking, getting used to the idea and more than used to it—the corners of her lips tug upwards.

“Very well.” His hand settles over hers on his arm. His touch only rests there, not prompting her to release him, though she doesn’t constrict her grip any further, either. They hold the pose in a precarious balance.

“You may go,” he says to the others, without looking at them. “And you could take some of these candles with you.”

“Oh, no need,” Virgilia rushes to add, sensing another argument brewing.

“Of course, if you like them…”

She doesn’t particularly, but she likes the thought of a fight breaking out even less.

Towards the back of the room, the lady Valeria, tall and dark, makes a graceful gesture, shepherding those around her out. Others follow her lead, some more fretfully, others lingering for a last bawdy look and chuckle. The crowd departs like a slow-flowing slick of oil, and finally the door closes behind the last of them. Caius breathes a sigh of relief. His hand still rests over hers, and she is still holding him. Light from the candles gilds his features, but even so his frown furrows shadows as he reaches for the garland on his head and casts it off.

Virgilia’s own garland is pinching her temples. In fact, it has been for hours—itching ever since her tearfully beaming mother slipped it on—but for the most part she has been too distracted to notice. Caius putting his aside has given her permission to pull it free. It drags long strands of her hair with it, tugging at her scalp. She winces at the momentary sting and lets the garland land beside his at the foot of the long bed. Aiming for one of the side tables, with all the burning candles, seemed too much a risk. She wouldn’t care if it caught fire, but if the flames spread then they’d have to call someone down for help, and she would rather not see another human face this night.

The silly thought gives her courage; she releases Caius and walks to the couch. He joins her there, sitting cross-legged and facing her where she kneels at the head.

“I didn’t want there to be a fuss,” he says.

Virgilia nods. You almost caused one yourself, she thinks but doesn’t say, because it’s obvious, because she can see that he already knows.

He drops his head a moment, breaking their gaze. “Thank you, though.”

“It was nothing.”

She sees his mouth twist; he is chewing his lower lip. “You don’t need to call me my lord,” he says. “Not unless you wish it.”

“I don’t mind.” He is a lord, after all, and she rather likes the idea—saying my.

Beautiful, noble, hot-tempered, strong and tense and gentling beneath her touch—he is hers now. The idea does no injury to her pride; indeed, quite the opposite.

“And what should I call you?” he asks.

“I’m not certain.” Lady would sound too formal. At once she understands why he might shirk the noble address. “We’ll see,” Virgilia says. They will have time to get to learn the proper titles.

“And for now…wife?” He looks up; his eyes are washed gray in the light. She can see them but somehow cannot make out his expression—teasing? Hopeful?

He is not sullen, at least. Not unhappy to be here with her.

“Yes.”

The word falls into silence like a cushion. Not an uncomfortable silence, but one that stretches, and with it, stillness that enfolds them like a veil. He takes another deep breath; she discovers herself mirroring it. She waits for him to speak, but he does not. At any moment she expects him to move, to reach out for her, but he seems incapable of it.

This is more than shyness or uncertainty. Remembering how carefully he held her hand before, she wonders if he is afraid of startling her. Already she has startled him, laid hands on him—with familiarity even greater than intimacy, familiarity unasked for, presumptuous, that could have inspired rage. But didn’t.

He is watching her, also waiting, content to wait. Though not, she thinks, uninterested. She still feels the warmth of his flesh, his hands, and his smile.

They match each other in another breath.

His lips are red—by nature, from wine, from the way he bites at them. Virgilia leans forward. “May I kiss you?”

This next breath they do not share—she forgets to, waiting for his answer.

 “Yes.” His hands, which have rested on his knees, rise as she leans closer, his arms coming around her.

His mouth is warm and soft. It’s pleasant, although strange, and she tilts her head, deepening the kiss. With her on her knees and him seated, they are almost of a height, and for a moment she worries about their noses knocking. But he is moving beneath her, too. At first yielding, he becomes hungry. She opens her mouth to him, welcomes in more. His taste floods her, and she tries to identify it. Spice she thinks at first, because it is so vibrant—exotic, a red taste, with a tang like iron, like steel. He had been chewing at his own mouth in his nervousness, had he drawn blood? If so, he does not mind the hurt now. And then Virgilia tries not to care about identifying the sensations that overwhelm her senses, even though they are all so fascinatingly different. The intimacy sets her heart beating like a war drum again, but this time, it is good.

His hands finally settle at her waist and back. She arches into their touch, which is tantalizingly gentle. He is trying so hard to be gentle—so hard that Virgilia finds herself careful in response to it. Careful of him, an idea which should be ridiculous but instead rouses a fierce tenderness. She doesn’t question the reason behind it, instead trusting to her instinct. She cradles the back of his head, guiding the kiss, while she lets her body react to his caresses, showing her appreciation uncalculatedly, and wordlessly. Virgilia wants to tell him it’s all right, that he won’t hurt her, that he shouldn’t fear it. But she fears the words would not escape her mouth, would not be heard.

Caius doesn’t need to hear her to understand, he has shown that already. His hands toy with the ends of her hair falling along her back, combing strands straight, raising shivers. When she trembles, his fingers splay, soothing but also testing—asking consent to continue exploring this body so different from his own. Now she really would tell him to go on, but she has just begun to tease his tongue, tempting it into her mouth, catching it there. Their flesh slides together with exquisite friction. She draws harder on him, eager. It is the permission he needs.

Chills follow in his wake all the way up her spine, the skin along her shoulder blades prickling with such delicious suspense that she could believe she is about to unfold wings.  He mirrors her touch at the nape of the neck, and then his fingers slowly glide over her bare collarbone. Virgilia breaks the kiss to give him space to touch her. The flame-red silk of her wedding gown is sliding off one shoulder. She pushes it down the rest of the way, as he does on the other side.

She grasps the silk over her bosom and pulls it under her high belt, baring her breasts. Goosebumps rise on her flesh in the candle-heated room. Then his fingers trace them, sudden streaks of warmth circling each peak and the valley between. His eyes meet hers and this time there is no blush of embarrassment. He cups one breast and she marvels at the way her flesh fills his palm, how well they fit together.

When he brings his mouth down, licking one nipple to hardness and then suckling, the heat coils and builds, and she had never realized she could ache like this—so much and yet so sweetly.

Virgilia grasps his shoulders, plucks at the cloth covering them. “You,” she says. Unable to articulate more, but saying at least this much; asserting what she wants.

Soldierlike, he is quick to obey. Soldierlike, because he suddenly strips away cloth with an abrupt, almost martial gesture. Because in the midst of it she sees his jaw set, lips—she can still feel their wetness—parting to reveal clenched white teeth.

And when he kneels half-naked before her, she sees his soldier’s scars.

So this is what it means to marry a hero.

There are many of them, too many for such a young man. In all stages of healing—some faded seams of silver, some red and almost raw. Some small and suggesting close risks, near escapes, and some of horrifying size. And they are ugly.

The most prominent runs up the sternum to his collarbone, tending left. Though large, it has mostly healed, and she cannot see how deep it struck. How near he had come to being cut in half. There is a thatch of marks lower, too, dappling his ribs and abdomen with purplish-red and bone white and the yellowed purple of ooofading bruises. All this in contrast to his natural skin, washed sun-golden, and all this on the beautiful form of a lithe, strong young man in his prime.

The scars are like the graffiti streaking the walls of the plebian quarters of Rome; his body looks vandalized.

Are these candles, the myriad flickering tongues of flame, kinder than daylight or crueler? Is she seeing the worst of it?

Caius notices her eyes on them and makes a husky sound, one it takes her moments to recognize as laughter. He traces the long one up his chest. “It was a near thing. He fought well, he who gave me this one. Until the end—he’d thought he’d finished me when he hadn’t.”

He sounds disappointed on the last sentence—let down by the incompetence of the man who had failed to kill him.

And that makes it real to her.

Every mark, just barely survived. Each blow, intended to kill. And it is only foolishness, overconfidence, or luck—all of which he has come to take for granted—that let him be here now.

It is a little like discovering the marks of a ravaging illness on the body of someone she thought so healthy, so well, someone she thought herself meant to build a life with. Virgilia bites down hard on her lip, trying to get a hold of herself. It is too late. Caius has already seen her expression.

His jaw sets again, harder this time. She sees his teeth scrape each other before his lips shut.

Virgilia prepares herself for anger, for the fighter she had seen surface when they were cornered in this room, for the warrior who after all is the reason he bares those scars. She doesn’t know what she will do in response. She doesn’t know what she can do. Screaming back at him would not help matters. The sense of her own helplessness is less frightening than melancholy. They had seemed about to build something, together-before.

He sits still, not meeting her eyes, not moving, saying nothing. In the silence, a candle hisses out, drowning in its own melted wax.

He looks ashamed, Virgilia thinks.

When Caius Martius rises, he gets off on the far side of the couch from her. Because he’s disgusted with her, offended at her own appalled reaction? For an instant their eyes met. No, not disgust.

He lowers his hands to his sides slowly, deliberately. Her heart leaps in her throat. Even now he is so careful not to harm her, not to let her even worry that he might.

Virgilia rises to her knees, leans out and touches him. Her fingers settle just under his collarbone, the heel of her palm on the beginning of that long scar. She presses hard then, almost with violence, unsure how else to make her resolve clear.

Caius Martius winces.

“Does that hurt?” she asks apologetically.

“Not anymore.”

Now she traces over bone and flesh with just her fingertips.  He shivers at the skimming touch, or else at a memory it evokes. “But at the time, it hurt?”

In that soft voice, with it unexpected roughness (or is it the other way around?): “Like hell.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugs. “At least your reaction was honest.”

Virgilia jerks her hand back. Her face is flushing, she knows, yet feels as cold as if frosted with ice.

Caius shrugs again. “Everyone else acts so… They celebrate them. But I don’t think they’d be so taken if the marks were on their own flesh.”

She shakes her head, trying to find words. This is a conversation that requires them. He has already misunderstood her once.

“I’m sorry that it hurts you.”

He blinks at her in frank confusion.

With a sigh, Virgilia presses the heels of her palms to her eyelids. The pressure is grounding, and it has the advantage of blocking him from her sight for a few moments. The look of him is distracting. Even with his expression—betrayed, she thinks, even if he doesn’t realize it or mean to, that is how he looks—and the monstrous scars.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says to her. Something’s odd about his tone. “I’m not afraid of pain.”

The queasy sort of pride he had spoken with earlier is utterly gone. She worries she has insulted him further, implying that pain matters to him. But why wouldn’t it?

Suddenly his hand is on her, pressing over one knee. The cushion dips beneath his weight as he returns to the couch. What an odd pair they make—each half-naked, sitting somber as mourners. That’s it, the oddness. Virgilia realizes Caius is trying to comfort her.

As if that has given her permission, she finds her words at last. “Perhaps I am afraid for you.”

When he looks at her again, in further puzzlement—by the gods, why is concern so hard for him to understand?—she continues, “After all, if my husband is one who goes to wars and…returns…”

“With this grim appearance?”

Just when she thinks they cannot confuse each other further, Caius smiles. And no, his appearance is not grim at all.

But neither is it joyful. There is uncertainty in him, fragility—vulnerability.

Her fingers rise to trace the angle of his cheek. “So long as he returns at all,” she says, “I will be glad.”

“Surely it’s early to vex yourself about that.”

“I assure you, my lord, I had not intended to be vexed.” Her humor does not last past the first words. “But then I saw…”

“You saw.” He holds very still beneath her hand. “You saw the man I am.”

“I already had.” She sets her other hand to his face, holds him still as she leans across the space between them for another kiss. It is light, barely brushing his lips, which barely brush hers in return.

“You,” he states, “did not celebrate these.” With careless fingers, he traces his own scars.

“Does everyone else?” His friends—Menenius, Cominius, Titus Lartius? His family, his own mother?

“Yes, as I said.”

“Would you like me to?”

“I don’t know.”

Her hands move lower to cup his jaw; she feels the pulse in his neck, the way it flutters, his hard swallow. It wakes tenderness in her, tenderness so unbearable she thinks she will fall apart from it, and she does not know how to communicate this in words or gesture. It is clear, far too clear, that Caius is not used to having compassion shown to him, not ever.

He has his pride, and he protects it. That is what his display of anger earlier had been about—he has fought for Rome, suffered for it; he will not become sport to them, too.

This is why he is gentle: he understands pain, the giving of it and receiving. He understands violence, whether or not he loves it; he knows that this is different. He might not be mild but he can be gentle.

“I don’t think I can be happy in something that hurts you,” Virgilia says. Carefully. Gently.

For a moment she thinks he will repeat what he said before: he is not afraid of pain. She knows that. From the marks he bears, if he was afraid of pain he would have died of fear long ago.

She asks, “What about something that doesn’t?”

Her touch moves lower, tracing over him. She doesn’t follow the scars, cannot do that yet. But she doesn’t avoid them either, caressing, feeling all of him; she learns the texture of skin, muscle, bone, and more twisted tissues.

None of these are marks he was intended to survive. Each one of them a failed disaster, a tragic performance never staged—but when a man is called to act in so many of them…

They make him so unspeakably precious. And that is what matters now. Not what the future contains or how long it can be spun out. Not whether what they are beginning here will ever be able to be finished. Only that they are beginning it; that because of chance or skill or luck, he is here; that this amazingly dear moment, they can have.

She presses so close to him that her breasts are flattened, her softness against his scars. Virgilia does not think now of the juxtaposition, whether it is grotesque or beautiful. Despite the light of the candles, there is no one to see, only the two of them to feel. And this feels good.

Her exploring hands find his back conspicuously unmarked. Of course, all his wounds are taken to the front, facing enemies, not fleeing them. And he is too canny to let any sneak behind him. Her nails trace lightly along his spine, too lightly to leave a scratch. Now it is her turn to feel him arch into her touch in response, to be urged on with his reaction, to receive his permission in kisses.

After a time, her mouth leaves his. Her hands return to his face; her fingertips and lips discovering. Caius turns his head and lets her find a deliciously sensitive space at the high corner of his jaw, just beneath the lobe of his ear. She rubs at it with her lips and the tip of her nose, while stroking his short hair until it stands up in feathery tufts. His arms are tight around her, having pulled her into his lap. He’s slender enough for her hands to meet at the small of his back, but there’s a sense of power contained, of immensity, elemental force held by her embrace.

Her skirts hike up as their bodies move together. His hand skims her hip, and she leaves off kissing to nod and whisper, “Yes, yes, do.”

His fingertips slip under the silk and inward, trace through the dampness already there, and when they brush the edges of her folds it sends a stroke like lightning through her body, not so much of mere sensation as the idea of it, the idea of sharing this intimate part of herself. Virgilia loosens her girdle and he helps her pull the long, diaphanous skirt down over her hips and legs. She kicks it aside.  Then she lies back, lets Caius work his way up, fingers tracing from her instep and ankle, calf and knee and thigh, to the apex.

At his touch, she feels herself unfold, opening to him. She feels the wetness dewing, feels him glide through it. His fingers are slender and long, and the first fits inside her perfectly, reaching deeper than she would have thought possible—a sensation strange but also wondrous. His skin is warm even against her aching warmth there, and she feels his strength as he flexes within her, caressing in rapid strokes. The pressure makes her incandescent from the inside. Meeting those strokes, she rolls her hips, faster and sharper, until he steadies her with the grip of his other hand.

“Let me.” It isn’t an order but a request. He wants to learn her body, learn how to please her.

And so she lets him, showing only unconscious reactions. Writhing until she lifts off the bed, but letting his gentle touch press her back down. Sounds she didn’t know she could make surge at the back of her throat. She lets him see this, hear this; lets him learn what good his hands can do.

In a rhythmic tremor, her sex clutches tight around his fingers. He slows his movements inside, while between her folds his thumb finds the crux of her and traces it with small circles. Breathless pleasure builds in every part of her, spreading from where his hands touch through the base of her spine, down to her toes and up to her very brain. Building, always building.

“Wait,” she tries to say, but can’t form the word. She reaches down to grasp his wrist, and he goes still at once.

“I don’t want to finish without you,” she pants breathlessly.

She could, she knows; could release this and let the pleasure come again. But tonight, she wants to join him in this for the first time. And, more selfishly, she wants to see how far this can build, how high she can rise.

Virgilia sits up, closing a hand at the back of her husband’s neck and drawing him close for another kiss. Caius pulls her into his lap, but she reaches down between them, fumbling without taking her mouth from his, finding laces and cloth, baring him. After all they’ve already learned of each other, she is embarrassed by the existence of one last thread of anxiety coiling through her excitement as she reaches for his cock.

At her touch, Caius trembles—also anxious, perhaps, or else just overwhelmed by the sensation.

“Is it all right?” she asks. Her fingers trail along his length, closing in a loose loop beneath the thick head.

“Yes—” His fingers twine with hers. She can feel his pulse thrum, a hot, steady beat. In a slower, gentler, but no less enticing rhythm, their hands slide. He guides her at first, but then his hand drops; from the corner of her eye she sees it form a fist against the silk-covered cushions. His head falls back, and Virgilia nuzzles his exposed neck, nibbles at the sweet point around his earlobe, pleased to know this one thing about him already, pleased to learn more.

Perhaps she should have done as he did just now, touching herself, guiding him with her own hands—but he had done well, very well, and it was important, she senses, that he knew just how well. They will have time for more guided lessons later. Next time—

Oh, but the thought of a next time already makes her breathless. She thinks of how much they will have, what lies in their future, and she wants it. She wants, and can no longer be so complacent with uncertainties.

She feels the sounds he will not voice, his breath trembling in his throat beneath her lips, and she knows that Caius could live forever and she still would not get enough of him. And they do not care, none of them. For all she knows in the morning he will be swept away, caught up in another campaign. To return with more scars, if he returns at all. And even he did not seem to see the wrongness of it, not until he saw that she was horrified.

And she was horrified, not half an hour ago, by the wrong things, too. Letting him think he was ugly. Letting him think he was anything but precious.

There are scars along his thighs and legs, too. Sparser, yet a few look truly unkind. Virgilia lets one hand pass over them, caressing him, feeling hard muscle beneath, feeling his strength and feeling how she makes him tremble.

She grasps his hips to steady herself as she straddles him. Caius’ hand traces down her spine, only to press hard as she begins to sink down. He fills her, far more than his fingers had before, and differently—not better or worse, but as she wants, as they need right now. She rocks her hips as she had wanted to before when she felt his fingers—moving in small circles, feeling the pressure of his cock against every inch of her. Her movements become less hesitant, less delicate, and he begins to move with her with long, rapid thrusts.

Sweat beads between her breasts; his kisses lap it away and, when their mouths meet, she tastes the salt mixed with other tastes, musky, sweet, and clean. Her hands move from his hips to his shoulders, gripping as if for balance, as if to steady herself, and then letting go. She doesn’t need steadying. The feeling of scars beneath her palms has become familiar—silvery depressions in firm flesh, the rasp of more twisted ridges. She no longer minds.

He sows kisses across her face, following the angles of her cheeks, touching more ticklishly along her nose, and with incredible delicacy brushing her fluttering eyelids. Then Caius’ mouth is pressed hard at her neck. She feels his lips working, feels the breath that leaves him in a cry he refuses to voice, exaltation that he smothers against her skin. Virgilia strokes a hand through his hair. And then her fingers knot in it, gripping hard as she feels the last surge of him inside her. He’s coming, and she loves how it feels—to have him, and to have given him this, and to be able to know it so intimately and thoroughly.

She would not have forced down the urge to cry out. She would have screamed to the heavens—let them hear, out in the hall, if they want their reassurances or their sport. Let him hear, let him learn there is no shame in being so obviously taken up in pleasure, in giving over to joy. But her own climax overtakes her with sweeping suddenness. And through it all, she does not hear herself make a sound; she cannot even be sure that she breathes. Her entire body is wracked, shuddering, fragmented, dissolving in sweetness.

Caius catches her, wrapping his arms tightly around her waist as Virgilia’s head falls to his shoulder. She holds him in return. She can feel her heart pounding as though she has run a race, but her breathing, though deep, is slow. Calm pervades her, the soothing afterglow of pleasure.

And then her contented sigh turns into a yawn.

Caius chuckles, only to echo her a moment later. They separate and lie back, almost falling onto the cushions. Virgilia rests a hand on his chest and feels it rise and fall.

He turns to her, smiling. “Wife.”

“Husband.” With a sudden pull, his breath quickens. His eyes hold her gaze a moment before slipping away. It is new, all of this. No wonder if he is frightened by it. In the wake of this storm of emotion and sensation, Virgilia feels more than a little alarm herself.

If so much can happen so quickly…

It is wild and amazing and unpredictable, and at that, she smiles herself. Surprise is mixed with hope.

Caius rises on one arm to blow out the nearest candles, then stands to get the rest. Night falls on the room to the whisper of his breath, his fingers cupping around each flame before he puffs it out. Suddenly he drops his hand with a sharper hiss. He’s been too rough, and a splatter of hot wax spilled across his skin. It’s a small hurt, all things considered, but the unexpected sting of it makes him curse.

Virgilia slips across the bed to his side. He’s picking at one hardening bead, scratching with the nail to leave a stripe of angry red. She cups her hand around his and brings them both up to her mouth. She blows gently, a stream of cooling, soothing air. Then she helps to scrape away the wax, and when it is gone she sucks on the scarlet skin with such easy intimacy as if it were her own. She tastes the grease of the last wax the beneath her tongue, dissolving away.

Caius stands still for all of this. Perhaps she’s startled him again. But she did not want to leave him to bear any pain, however tiny and seemingly insignificant, alone when she was so close. And when she brings her mouth away, he turns his hand to catch hers, and lets her lead him back to bed.

They leave the remaining candles to burn themselves out.

Stretched out on the couch with the wedding garlands lying like crowns at their feet, they curl around each other. Caius’ head is pillowed on her chest, and Virgilia watches her fingers combing through his sweat-darkened hair. Their legs overlap, one of his between hers and one of hers between his, and the memory of their joining still pulses between her thighs, but not with any ache or urgency now.

Cherishing the warmth of his body and the weight of it against hers, she starts to sink into the lassitude overtaking her. But then he murmurs into her skin, “I’m not sure I believe you’ll still be here with the morning.”

He lifts his head to look at her. Virgilia has the oddest feeling that his strange words were meant to pay a compliment, yet he also looks—uneasy. Uncertain.

He is not used to having someone like her with him.

At that, she is not used to having someone like Caius. Virgilia smiles. “And will you be, my lord?”

“Yes.” His arm wraps tightly around her. “Tomorrow, yes.”

And after that—there is no knowing.

But until then, they will be together.

And when they are apart, they will remember this. And look forward to their reunion. And hope, and perhaps sometimes fear. But it makes a difference—to have this man in her life, if only intermittently, is still such richness compared to never having him at all.

She returns his hold and lets her touch promise: he will not be alone again. Not ever. That, too, must make a difference.

He settles beside her once more, their limbs still entwined.

As she closes her eyes and drifts into dream, she remembers the expression on his face at the last. Tender, wanting. And simply, openly happy.

She rarely remembers her dreams, but this night she thinks they are of him.

She rests well.

***

Martius

O, let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I woo'd, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers burn'd to bedward!

(Act I, Scene VI)