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the more you love the deeper you drown

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Courtenay wakes in scorching desert heat. “Mmm,” he groans, reluctant to wake up. “Julian?” The desert’s fine- sun, sand, etc- so long as Julian is there. No answer. “Julian?” he raises his head. Julian is dead asleep next to him, curled under all the stolen blankets and still shivering. “Julian!” In a flash, he’s up and Julian is too, blinking sleep away from his eyes like clouds moving over a clear sky. “Dear-“Courtenay feels helpless; a palm to the forehead proves he is too warm, heightened by the greyish hue that’s blending horrifically with the flush dusting his cheeks.

“’S fine,” the answer is a far cry rom his usual composure.

“It’s not-“

A scowl twists his mouth downwards, “No it is not the bloody malaria.” His voice is scratchy and dissolves into a fit of coughing

Last time he had a relapse, he was burning under Courtenay’s touch, so he can only presume he’s telling the truth. “You were fine last night,” he frets anyway, Julian’s words not really registering. Despite the heat, his feet are sunk in icy water and his heart is pumping fear not blood into his veins. There’s no one to go to for help- it’s the end of summer and everyone gathered at Penkellis has departed and the servants on holidays except the occasional gardener. The whole appeal of the jaunt was the blissful solitude laying like open water at the end of it. Now it seems more like a desert and Courtenay’s doomed Julian, the same way he doomed Isabella.

“Courtenay?” even ill, Julian’s eyes focus upon him with a scary intensity and he pulls his hands away from where they’re tangled in his hair, threatening to tear strands straight from his scalp. “Courtenay, please, it’s- I’m alright.”

“You’d say that even if t’were false.”

Julian sighs. Fair point. “Yes, but... well, it’s not false. It’s not the malaria, I’ve just caught a bug.”

Courtenay clings to his hands. Feels the bones creak, “You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, I am the one inhabiting my own body am I not?”

Despite himself, he huffs out a short laugh and bundles Julian into his arms, wrapping them round his thin frame as tightly as he dares and kisses the top of his head with a feeling of overwhelming tenderness. Nothing makes him feel the way Julian does.

“Courtenay-“ the word against his bare collar bone is even more than his name, a warning not to fall too deeply into his own mind, as if Julian can see his thoughts and understand them as intimately as his shipping ledgers. He closes his eyes, picturing his long pale fingers sift through and unravel the dark threads with minimum effort and complete care. “Courtenay,” Julian repeats. “It’s alright.”

He doesn’t open his eyes. The morning sun is dancing on his eyelids- in such close proximity, it reminds him of how hot it could get in Italy in the summer. Reminds him of Italy. Reminds him of Isabella. His embrace tightens and Julian rubs a hand up and down his back. “Is it alright?” he asks, feeling tired and scared.

“I’m not dying,” he scoffs, deriding the idea in his perfect voice. “And it’s not malaria. Nor are you dying, for that matter. I simply need bed rest... if it makes any difference, just think how it’ll keep you in bed with me for several days.”

Courtenay starts to smile, “Mmm.” He can feel his mind peeling away from the bad thoughts, drifting away from the beaten path onto a new one. “That does sound marvellous. And a perfect excuse to telegraph the others and extend our time here another week.”

“You’d best send word to the servants not to return either,” he agrees, pulling them both back down. “Only in the business of safety, you understand. Quarantine, if you will.”

Courtenay kisses his fine dark hair, “Wouldn’t do for them to come back too soon.”

In spite of or perhaps to spite the sun peeking through the curtains, Julian is already halfway asleep again, curling into Courtenay as a source of warmth, his eyelashes fanning out like little half moons. On one exhale, his breath hitches and he goes into another coughing fit, shuddering with the force of each, the sounds being taken from his throat piecemeal. “Ugh,” it seems to take an age for it to end and the words are as disgruntled as they are hoarse. “Excuse me.”

Courtenay can’t even bring himself to be amused by his good manners, “You’re sure you’re fine?”

“Fine.” He smiles and kisses his cheek, “Even if not, I trust you.”

That’s more than ‘I love you’, but Courtenay says ‘I love you’ anyway- there are worse things in life than telling someone you love them several times.

“I love you too,” Julian mumbles in one breath, asleep in the next. Courtenay doesn’t go back to sleep himself, just lies and looks at him, counting his breathes and soft little snuffes. By the time Julian wakes up again, he’s a lot more convinced things truly are alright.