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Finishing a book has a sort of distinct finality to it. Similar to saying goodbye to an old friend. Bittersweet, yet leaving you with pleasant warmth in your chest. A warmth filled with the memories shared. Wallace never enjoys finishing books; he doesn’t like endings. So when he slaps the hard cover shut, a small sigh leaves his lips.

He stretches his legs, leaning back against the tall shelf now filled with old news. He’s read them all once, which is more than enough for him. Reading them again is simply redundant.

The sun’s rays filter in through the high windows. They reach all the way to the ceiling, filling the room with natural light for most of the day. Small dust particles hover and float in the streams of light; disappearing into the crisp line of shadows. The highlights from the glass just barely reach Wallace’s leg. It’s warm and comforting on the oblong shaped bruise on his shin.

His book is left neatly to the side on the pile of others. It was yet another historical archive of indentured servants within the Arcangelo household. Rather uninteresting, according to Wallace, but it falls in line with the other themes of his father’s collection.

 His eyes follow the dust speckled light, up and over to the far left corner of the study. Tucked away in that corner is a short, dusty bookshelf. The sun’s rays do not reach it, so it sits in the shadow unsullied. He’d never noticed it before. The main aisles usually caught his attention, but most of them have been read. Stored away in his mind, never to be forgotten. He’d like to have more books to read.

“Might as well,” Wallace mumbles halfheartedly as he gets to his feet with a small grunt. His side still hurts, but he knows better than to complain about pain to anyone. He keeps silent about it. Always. Perhaps someone has noticed. Somewhere deep inside Wallace, he hopes they have. He hopes they care.

The study is silent, empty. He is alone for now. He doesn’t mind it, since it’s usually this way. He also doesn’t know when Nicolas would be back. At least with Nicolas, he has someone to talk to. Even if he rarely communicated back, Wallace knows he has his full attention. That is enough for him.

Wallace’s shoes tap soft echoes as he approaches the shelf. His hand reaches out; fingertips gliding over the array of books. The thin layer of dust separates as he feels the spines. It leaves a long dark trail like a wake in water; dust caking on the pads of his fingers. His touch stops a shorter, slightly thinner book. The spine is a deep red with gold lettering.

A Hardened Heart?” He reads aloud, flipping the book over after sliding it from its resting place. The cover is blank, as most of his father’s books are, so that comes as no surprise. This one somehow felt different. At least, a different kind of book than all the others in the library. Most of them are academic in nature; boring mostly. Or archives of the estate, such as the record he’d just finished. Some books in the collection are enlightening; some have concepts that fly right over Wallace’s head. He reads them all the same. This book…

He opens it gently, flipping to a random stiff page and begins to read.

 His strong arms wrap around me. He feels so warm, and I’ve missed it. My heart races in my chest and I can hardly catch my breath. I’ve wanted this for so long. It’s almost like a dream now, being here with him. No words are spoken between us as we embrace, and time itself appears to stop. Only the lengthening shadows give us any evidence of life continuing on.

Suddenly, his hand lifts to my chin. He tilts my face upwards and our eyes meet. They’re so blue, blue, blue. My heart wont stop thumping. His lips are so close to mine. We don’t have much time.

We kiss. Long, deep, passionate. We make up for all those lost moments, and the moments that are certain to be missed. I can’t control myself. His smell is intoxicating, and I want more. I want him. The heat around us –

Wallace slaps the book shut. His own heart pulses, he can feel it in his neck. His cheeks flare. This is not his father’s book, that’s for sure.

“Adults need to read about it too?” He thinks aloud. “So weird.”

Just as he makes a move to put the book back, he freezes. The cover in his hand is just as dusty as the rest. These books have been neglected, forgotten. Sort of…like him.

He isn’t curious. He’ll give it a read for its sake. He is not curious.

That’s what he tells himself anyway.

 

~~~~~

 

Looking over his shoulder becomes habitual with every sound that passes the heavy doors of the study. Mostly it’s the estate’s servants, who hardly give any effort on checking up on Wallace anymore. They pass by without as much as a knock.

Wallace keeps himself hunched over the book. His elbows press against the tabletop on either side of it as he reads through the material. His throat feels dry, but he swallows heavily as his stomach drops.

Suddenly, heavier footsteps outside the door signal the return of the mercenaries. Wallace slaps the book shut when he hears a small tap on the door. The doorknob slowly turns.

Nicolas’ jet black hair pops into the doorframe. Even though the door is barely cracked open, he manages to fit. He peers in, his eyes as tired as ever. A few more bumps and bruises have been gained too. Not as bad as before, but his hands are bandaged again.

Wallace turns in his chair, placing his hand over the cover of the book and waving for Nicolas to enter. He smiles as his young body guard slips into the study, closing the door gently. The soft sound of it latching is the only noise it makes.

“How did it go?” Wallace asks as Nicolas treads slowly up to him. “Did you guys…uh, win?”

Nicolas bows, lowering his gaze to the ground. His tags dangle, the lowering sun’s rays catching on the polished metal. His response to Wallace’s question is a soft nod.

“Good!” Wallace comments. The book under his hand makes his palm feel hot. He has no reason to worry. The fluttering of his heart makes it hard to breathe nonetheless. “It was boring without you.”

Nicolas’ drained face is always difficult to look at; especially when Wallace sleeps in such lavish amenities. He looks so exhausted, sickly. His cheekbones are prominent; cheeks hollowed in obvious malnutrition. However, even with a split lip, his fatigue allows him a smile. The corners of his mouth tilt upwards only for a fraction of a second. But it’s enough for Wallace to notice.

He invites his small body guard to join him, once again having to pout and complain about Nicolas sitting on the ground. Even if he manages to get Nicolas to join him at the table, he eventually somehow ends back on the floor. It feels similar to dealing with a stubborn, untrained dog.

“Ohh, come on,” Wallace complains. He crosses his arms and looks down at Nicolas, who is ignoring him completely (and quite easily) with his nose in a book. “You know what? Here.” Suddenly, Wallace grabs the signing book from Nicolas, slapping it shut poignantly. The sudden movement startles Nicolas, and his eyes widen as he looks up at Wallace.

Nicolas opens his mouth, breathing in shortly. “Wh—

Wallace grabs hold of his arm, lifting him to his feet and guiding him out of the open area and down an aisle of bookshelves. There are scattered piles of books. Wallace has been through them already, and he promised himself he’d put them back eventually. He knows exactly where to go.

Nicolas doesn’t make a noise as Wallace tugs him along. His shocked expression deflates back into his blank, relaxed look.  He merely stares at the back of Wallace’s head, blond hair bouncing as he stomps. Sometimes he wonders how soft it is.

“Sit,” He commands when they finally reach the far end of the study. The room is dyed orange as the setting sun begins to hide beyond the horizon. The high windows give an excellent view of the gradient sky. It’s Wallace’s favorite spot in the study.

Nicolas obeys, sitting cross legged immediately. His tags make small clicking noises when he plops down. His eyes do not leave Wallace’s.

Then Wallace huffs with a satisfied nod. “Good.” He sits down next to Nicolas, handing him the signing book after just a moment’s pause. ‘Hand’ is a rather lax word for his gesture. Shove is more appropriate. “Now we both sit on the floor.”

The young twilight takes the book delicately in his hands. This is, of course, after letting out a small “ouf” when the book is pressed into his gut. He flips it over; thumbs rub idly against the cover. He looks over at Wallace with curiosity.

“Wha nbo…ok ‘ill you read?” The words vibrate in his throat, but it is frustrating when he cannot tell if he’s actually said any of it correctly. It’s why he hates speaking, and why he never wants to with anyone. He’s never heard what it sounds like, what he sounds like, so why would he care to try? Wallace makes it feel okay, though. And his smile always feels… nice. Like a reward for trying. It’s better than the taunting he receives from the rest of the West Gate mercenaries.

“I’ll,” Wallace starts, scooting closer to his body guard. His friend. “Read with you.” He can’t help but think back to the book sitting innocently over on the table. To hide his slowly burning cheeks, he looks down at the book in Nicolas’s hands.

Nicolas considers him for a moment, not fully understanding why he’d want to read about sign language. He knows Wallace was the one teaching him to read and write, but he didn’t need to go that far for him. For a twilight. Maybe he’s just pitying him. Or something else. He isn’t sure about anything when it comes to the young master. He looks down, seemingly at the book from an outsider’s point of view. But his eyes hone in on the mere sliver of a distance between their legs. He can almost feel how warm Wallace is.

He smiles through cracked lips.

 

~~~~~

 

The next morning Wallace can’t open his right eye. It’s swollen and throbs. The skin around it bloomed a deep purple overnight, with edges now fading into green and yellow. He forces it open while looking in the mirror. Red floods over the white, grotesquely so.

His bangs aren’t quite long enough to cover it completely.

 

~~~~~

 

Seeing Nicolas at the edge of the courtyard brings Wallace his first smile that day. Nic’s back is facing the estate, standing guard as he surveys the area. Security has been tighter since a break-in a few days ago. So, he isn’t ordered to stay at Wallace’s side until noon.

There is a slight breeze. It rustles the leaves of the trees the family’s gardener planted many years ago. The sun is already high in the sky, edging on towards lunch time.

Wallace knows Nicolas can’t hear him, but as soon as he approaches, his friend turns his way. It’s eerily like a sixth sense. He bows, as per usual, and shifts his grip on his sword.

“Hungry?” Wallace bounces on the balls of his feet; hands behind his back. He holds warm bread, freshly stolen from the kitchen.

Nicolas, of course, shakes his head in the negative. Instead, he points to his own right eye.

Wallace lets his smile drop. Embarrassed, he lifts a hand to his bangs and combs his fingers through them even more to cover the bruise.

“I fell.”

Again?, Nicholas signs.

Although it hurts—mentally and physically—Wallace can’t help but smile again. As of late, he finds it impossible to keep a smile away when he’s with him. A small twinge of joy fills him when he sees Nicolas use some of the knowledge he's gotten from the book. Someone finally using their brain. He signs back with a nod, Again.

They share bread behind the east courtyard wall.

 

~~~~~

 

Wallace isn’t allowed to bring books out of the library unless instructed so by his home school teacher, but he lets Nicolas borrow the sign language guide. He figures it won’t be missed. No one even knows of its existence. Even if they did, no one would care enough to actually use it and learn. He’s found that not many people actually care to learn. Not when things can go on just the way they are, without any cares in the world.

He also figures A Hardened Heart will not be missed either. Despite this, he still hides in behind his breast pocket; holding his tailored jacket closed as he runs back to his room.

 

~~~~~

 

Candlelight is not as efficient as reading by sunlight, though it fits the circumstance. The air in his room is quiet, empty, but Wallace doesn’t notice it tonight. His eyes speed across the pages; flickering back and forth as the risqué story unfolds.

His heart thumps wildly. He’s never felt anything quite like it. It’s…pleasant. Certainly nothing he’s ever felt before. It isn’t a feeling that he could ask anyone about, either, so he makes of it what he can. It’s simply curiosity. He admits it now. It’s perfectly natural, especially for a boy his age.

He’s just curious.

A new page describes the hero. All the expected attributes of a dashing love interest. He’s compassionate, daring, tall, dark and handsome.

Wallace pictures Nicolas.

He shuts the book, laughing at the ridiculous idea despite the fierce burning on his face.

 

~~~~~

 

Sitting together against the tall bookshelves becomes a natural part of their day. An unspoken agreement that each boy unashamedly looks forward to every day. Today is no different.

Wallace walks quickly through the hallways, passing servants without as much as a good morning. It isn’t much of a good morning as it is. He’s managed to anger his father more than once, which spells bad news for his well being. It’ll be okay later. His father is just stressed. He’ll tell himself his stomach only hurts because he’s a bit hungry now. He’ll eat lunch early.

The windows that line the walls show the dark sky—threatening a storm. Wallace lets his eyes wander out these windows as he makes his way down the hall. Sometimes he wishes the study had books about the weather. He’d like to know how it works.

Nicolas is practically sleeping on his feet as he waits just beside the study door. Wallace greets him with a poke to the forehead.

 

~~~~~

 

When the storm finally hits, it makes it almost impossible for Wallace to focus. The winds blow harshly against the trees, which in turn bend and sway. They tap violently at the windows in sporadic bursts. Each time Wallace falls back into the soothing lull of reading, another blast of wind bangs the branches against the glass. He’s startled every time at the loud noise. Through no fault of his own, he’s grown a small phobia of sudden loud noises. They always twist his stomach in painful knots. Residual fear from unpleasant encounters.

Nicolas notices Wallace jolt again, so he looks up from where he sits across the aisle. He supposes the storm is rather loud, if Wallace can’t pay attention to his book is any indication. He looks down at his own. It’s significantly smaller than Wallace’s, and probably a lot simpler. Perhaps he should be embarrassed; reading at such a low a level at his age. Then again, it isn’t like Gaston actually taught him anything useful. Kill or be killed.

Still, it’s light-years ahead of what he’d ever expect he could read. He owes that all to Wallace. When he looks up again, he feels the vibrations of the clash of thunder outside. Wallace’s reaction is more prominent this time; bringing his book close to his chest.

Nicolas puts his book down and taps his finger on the floor, gaining Wallace’s attention. He lifts his fists. He moves them inward, opening them with his palms facing his chest.  Afraid? He’s smirking.

Wallace’s face appears to bloom a deep red, and his brows knit into a grumpy pout. “No way!” He says, having to turn himself away from his friend. “It’s just annoying.”

The pause between them, along with another startling clap of thunder, proves that Wallace really isn’t a fan of thunderstorms. He jumps at the sudden clash, dropping his book into his lap.

Nic chuckles. It’s soft, quiet, and barely noticeable. But if anyone would catch it, it’s Wallace. He tilts his head to the side, blinking owlishly.

“I didn’t know you were capable of laughing,” He finally says as his lips spread into a smile. This earns him an immediate frown from his friend. Which, of course, only gives way to a bigger smile from Wallace.

A flash of light whitewashes the room for an instant; coupled with another vibrating boom of thunder. Wallace doesn’t realize he’s shrieked until he’s already slapping his hand over his mouth in a fit of embarrassment. His face burns. The heat reaches his ears.

Nicolas is staring. His eyes wide, shoulders lowered. Wallace can’t stand it. He hates being jumpy. He doesn’t want Nicolas to see him.

He pulls his knees into his chest in an attempt to cut himself from Nic’s line of sight. His heart still thuds painfully in his chest as he wraps his arms around his shins. His forehead presses against his knees, hoping to make himself small as possible. It’s just a storm. Loud noises can’t hurt you.

Suddenly, Wallace remembers the book. There was a storm in the last chapter. The hero was a sea captain, after all. Despite the rain falling, she ran outdoors. Into his arms. They embraced while letting the rain soak them through and through—

Stupid, Wallace thinks, Why are you thinking of that now?

A surprisingly cold hand squeezes his shoulder, and he feels Nicolas sit right up against him. His arm is around him, pulling him in till their shoulders pressed together.

Wallace looks up from his personal hiding place; blue eyes blinking blearily at his friend. They don’t exchange any words, any signs. Nicolas doesn’t even look at Wallace; out of respect or something different? Neither of them knows. They sit out the storm, sharing each other’s space.

The thunder eventually passes, and the rain trickles away.

 

~~~~~

 

Staring at the same shelf of books for over ten minutes isn’t exactly how the young Arcangelo had planned to spend his afternoon. The storm had passed hours ago, and Nic was called away by Gaston. Wallace spends plenty of time on mindless tasks, usually to rid himself of absolute boredom.

Now, however, his teeth worry his bottom lip till it’s white and dry. His hands are hanging limp at his sides; fingers twitching every once in a while when the thought of moving them passes. His shoulder still feels like tiny needles are pressing into it. Warm and prickling where Nicolas’ was connected to him.

A Hardened Heart has a sequel.

The small bell from the south wing rings, signaling he’s already late for today’s lesson. He grabs the book and stuffs it into his jacket pocket before jogging out of the study.

He doesn’t really pay attention to the lesson.

 

~~~~~

 

Wallace does not talk think about the sequel. 

Wallace does not think about what the sequel made him do.

Wallace does not think about the sequel.

He was just curious!

 

~~~~~

 

Nicolas is lost in his thoughts, so it would seem. He doesn’t even look at Wallace while they sit together in the study.

They’re at the table today. It wasn’t their choice. A handmaiden had come in and scolded them. Wallace had to hold in a laugh when Nic stuck his tongue out at her when she turned to leave.

Now, he rests his chin in his hand; elbow on the table and eyes cast downward. His, once again, bandaged fingers trace small circles on the dark wood.

Wallace attempts to keep his attention on his book about period style clothing, but his eyes continue to glance upward through his lashes. He’s never seen such an expression on his friend before. All the days tend to blur together with someone without much variety in personality. Seeing him in such a trance-like state is…intriguing. The young Arcangelo can’t help but stare. 

Nicolas is about his age, but the young mercenary’s features are far more mature. His jaw line is set and his cheekbones are high. If he didn’t look so tired all the time, one could say he is handsome. He thinks about the hero in the sequel. 

Suddenly, Wallace wonders what his skin feels like. It’s a different hue than others. It’s beautiful.

He’s curious.

Wallace finally looks away when Nicolas’ dark eyes suddenly dart his way, as if sensing his stare. He feels his cheeks burn again when he shifts in his seat. He lifts the book, setting it upright on the table and pretends to read some more. It’s probably fairly obvious he isn’t reading a single word; not when Nicolas is still looking at him.

Sometimes he wonders if Nicolas can read minds.

 

~~~~~

 

Getting permission to sit in the courtyard in the morning isn’t exactly difficult for Wallace. He knows how to play the system. It’s his father he’s mostly concerned with. But, as long as the servants keep their mouths shut, he’ll be fine.

He doesn’t mention not having explicit permission to Nicolas as he pulls him by the coat sleeve through the back courtyard doors.

The sun is high; sitting alone against a blanket of blue. There is a cool breeze too that sends the smell of spring high in the air.

Wallace easily forgets the worries of his father when he brings Nicolas within the garden maze. It isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s enough that they won’t be bothered by anyone. Which is exactly what Wallace wants. He likes having Nicolas all to himself.

His gait has an unmistakable happy bounce to it as he lets go of Nicolas’ sleeve and heads forward. The gravel crinkles under his shoes when he spins around.

“Let’s sit over there,” He says while pointing to a small opening within the bushes.

Nicolas gives a small nod; following the young master with his sword still in hand like always.

 

~~~~~

 

“No, no,” Wallace laughs and shakes his head. “Hold your hand out like this.” He lifts his hand to his forehead, bringing his thumb and index finger down onto his other hand held in a similar fashion.

Nicolas grimaces, curling his lip in frustration. He sits across from Wallace, cross legged with the damaged signing book in his lap. His eyes glance down at the open page, and he furrows his brow. Fingers wrapped in bandages aren’t necessarily the most dexterous.

“Let’s just,” Wallace begins. He pauses a moment, brining his hands to Nicolas’ wrists. He gains his attention; dark eyes shooting back up to him. “Let’s just take a break. Okay?”

Silence fills the air once again—similar to the feeling during the storm. The wind is a mere breeze now, rustling the greenery that surrounds them.

Wallace keeps his hands on Nic’s. They feel cold. He wonders if he feels cold too.

He’s curious.

He can’t imagine such small hands griping such a powerful weapon. They must be strong, despite their size. Wallace knows Nicolas is stronger than he looks. But to what extent?

Nicolas is still such a mystery.

And Wallace is curious.

As trees continue to brush against each other in a soothing background noise, Wallace shifts his grip on Nicolas’ wrists. He moves gently, as to not disturb the bandaging. He traces the tips of his fingers along the edges of bandage and skin.

His ears feel hot, and he doesn’t want to look up at his friend. His eyes widen when Nicolas’ hands flip over, letting their palms press together delicately. He doesn’t want to look up. He doesn’t want to look up.

He’s curious.

Dark eyes are waiting for blue when Wallace tilts his head up. His bangs fall across his face, sweeping gently to the side when a small gust of wind passes.

Neither of them knows who leans in first. Lips touch together in a chaste kiss. It isn’t fast, but it is still. They both sit in the sensation.

It’s over much quicker than Wallace would have hoped.

Not that he was hoping. He was just curious.

 

~~~~~

 

The morning light slivers its way through broken blinds, annoyingly landing on Worick’s face. He groans awake; eye throbbing with the threat of a severe change of weather later on. He reaches over the pile of blankets. It takes more than a few pats around the nightstand before he grabs hold of his eye patch.

It’s then when small sigh fills the room. Worick ties his patch and flips in the bed. His hair tie is halfway fallen off. His hair probably looks a mess. He doesn’t care.

Nic’s chest rises and falls in a slow, steady rhythm. It’s rare nowadays for Worick to wake up before him.

A smile stretches his lips as he shifts again, putting the side of his face in his palm. His eye lids droop; maybe from being tired, most likely from something else.

If he really focuses, he can still feel the sensation on his lips. Not from last night. But from many, many nights ago. That time almost seems lost now.

But there are very few things Worick can forget.

He was curious.

He still is.