He opened his eyes. Pitch black.
He lied still for a second. He listened. Autumn rains were tapping heavily onto the windows. Rhythmic, harmonious, soothing.
He groped for some recognizable feeling… and he found her. She was sleeping peacefully by his side - as she should, in the middle of the night. Once he found her, his eyes filled in the rest by virtue of familiarity. The bed, the walls, the windows…
He put his hand on her cheek to make sure her breathing was calm, so that he could find calm in her breathing.
As he was slowly gaining awareness of his surroundings, he could isolate the dream from the reality.
This room, reality.
Well… this one was different…
He was getting used to his frequent nightmares. All starting the same. Daphne screaming in agonizing pain. Him by her side. And blood. Lots of blood. Spreading from between her legs to the white sheets, spilling onto the floor, invading the room, washing over him.
Her screams were sometimes accompanied by the screams of a new-born.
Sometimes, he got to hold the new-born, sometimes it remained in Daphne’s arms.
Sometimes, he got to see the new-born, but it did not make one sound in the arms of the midwife with the horrified gaze.
Sometimes, the child could not even get out of Daphne before the room turned crimson.
Every time - blood. Lots of blood. Sticky, warm, heavy… It dripped from his hair, his cheeks, his nose. He looked at his hands, and her blood was on his hands. Every time, he drowned in his wife’s blood as she was lying lifeless before him, because of him.
But, this time… this time was different. Starting the same: Daphne screaming in agonizing pain, him by her side… yes. But this time, no blood. This time, a screaming new-born, but no blood. This time, Daphne was smiling at him, holding their son. A son. He had a son. He was beautiful. Healthy. She was beautiful, and healthy. Strong as hell. And there was no blood.
Daphne was glowing and he never felt prouder for being her husband. She smiled at him. He smiled at her. She asked him if he wished to hold his son. Of course he did. He took him in his arms, slowly, carefully. He was so little, so defenceless, yet so strong - like his mother. He looked at him, and he only felt happiness. Then he looked at his wife, and he only felt happiness. No blood.
And he woke up.
Until tonight, waking up had always been a salvation from those nightmares. Tonight, he wished he could have stayed more, to hold him more, to name him and to kiss him.
But he was gone now.
How was it possible to miss something that never existed? Yet, he did. He missed that feeling in his arms. He missed that sudden sensation of his heart growing thrice its size the instant he saw his son. He missed that little man who looked like he already possessed the determination and the spirit of his mother. He missed that expression on his tiny face that screamed that he came into this world to cause some trouble. He missed his son.
It was not my son, it was only a dream.
He tried to distance his thoughts from that one dream. One - amongst a pool of blood.
Yet, so powerful to make him forget all the others preceding this one, making this one the only one.
Solitude had been difficult to unlearn. But he had succeeded. In time.
He had come to understand the beauty of caring for another soul through his love for Daphne. But he had to also understand, after causing so much pain to the one person for whom he cared the most, that caring entailed vulnerability. In order to love her completely, he needed to let her in. It was hard, at first, to allow someone into the very depths of one’s soul. But once she comfortably settled even into his darkest corners, it became easier, with time, to embrace that her well-being was very much an extension of his, and he needed to take care of himself for her, and he would not have it any other way.
Now… it felt like he was truly ready to let another one in.
He was learning to abandon his past, his anger, his darkest beliefs about himself… but it had never occurred to him to think about a future. He was merely trying his best to not to bungle up the present and to become the man Daphne deserved.
But now… Barely awaken, lying in the dark in the dead of night, he knew what kind of a future he wanted. It was only a fleeting vision, but he was missing it already.
He rolled over on his side to hold his wife. Gently, not to wake her up, but firm enough to relive that sensation in his arms from his dream.
“Another nightmare?”, he heard her whispering.
He had never told her about his nightmares.
The first time he drowned in the pool of her blood, he woke up in terror, barely found her in the dark and held her for dear life. She woke up as well, rattled but calm, snuggled into him, and said nothing.
Second, third, and forth times, he was more careful. He did not even know whether she was awake or not when he held her.
The fifth time, “Are you having nightmares?”, she asked. He did not reply. He only held her tighter, she was awake anyway.
And it continued like this… for weeks? Months, perhaps? It was more than enough, that was certain. She would inquire sometimes, knowing full well the only response she would receive would be a tight embrace. Sometimes she would not even budge. But he would always find comfort in her presence, alive, breathing. No blood.
This time, he wanted her to know.
“Not a nightmare.”
She turned to him in the dark, but he could discern the glimmer in her eyes searching for his. “No?”
“No, not this time.” He tenderly kissed the top of her head, as her head settled into the crook of his neck.
“Does this mean you will no longer interrupt my sleeps?” She trailed soft kisses on his jawline as she caressed his cheek. It was her way of assuring him that she was simply teasing. She would never resent him for seeking comfort in her, he knew that now.
He recalled reading, some years ago in some long-forgotten novel, that new-borns woke up at night to nurse, and he already knew that his wife would never let any other nurse her desperately awaited child.
“I believe this means more interrupted sleeps."
She probably misunderstood his meaning, but he was diverting her thoughts away from his intended meaning on purpose by squeezing her bum.
“Why, Your Grace! Our waking hours are not enticing anymore?”
He smiled, thinking how she would not casually jest if she understood what he was implying. He was not sure whether he wanted to clarify or not... He would much rather continue with the double-entendre.
He enjoyed her kisses on his neck, as he pressed her closer. She was relieved by the fact that what woke her husband was not a nightmare, hence she was indulging in this unexpected wakefulness.
Feeling equally indulgent, he was returning her kisses with accompanying strokes all over her body – right before he unleashed his next tease.
“Our days rather seem… empty”, he said as he slid his hand between her thighs, expecting a resistance prompted by his words. “Would you not agree?”
“I most certainly would not!” Right on cue, she pressed her thighs to prevent his hand to travel further. “Learning how to be a duchess is hard work, you know?”
He had her right where he wanted – worked up enough that he was sensing the tension build up in her body, yet sufficiently aroused that she was remaining in his arms. Consequently, he would enjoy feeling the release of the tension once he replied.
“I would assume learning how to be a mother must be just as hard.”
Aaah… such a delightful feeling. First, her shoulders relaxed. Then, her thighs surrendered. Her arms loosened and her touch softened.
She had been waiting for him to utter these words for so long. He knew. He knew but he had not been able to… He was not actively avoiding it, and he definitely was not denying her a child. He simply could not bring himself to broach the subject – out loud.
His nightmares had been doing the broaching plenty enough. He did not need to be reminded of that sticky feeling of blood any more than necessary.
He knew she was a little bit disheartened every time her courses came. But her disheartenment was only momentary because she knew he was hers eternally, and nothing else mattered. He also knew that she was somewhat relieved that her husband would not be thrust into a journey he was not comfortable talking about. She was understanding, and he was grateful. She had learned that he would unfold – in time. Crease by crease, he would unfold to her his every fear. In time.
He wished he had at least lit a candle to witness her smile. Well, feeling it under his lips would have to do.
“I had more training for motherhood than I had for your dukedom, Your Grace. I should be fine.”
In the same breath, she was delivering both a reassurance about her well-being as a future mother, and a jab for his failure to guide her in her earliest days as a duchess. Is she? No. It was probably not her intention – his guilty conscience was stirred for having let her struggle on her own, oblivious to her pain because of his own demons. One demon in particular.
He smacked the head of his guilty conscience and sent it to one exceptionally dark corner that she could discover later on – not now. Now, he would make the best out of this mid-night cuddles.
“Would you?”, she added. "... Be fine?" He had uttered the words, giving her implicit permission into another dark corner. She was sliding through the cracks.
“If you promise to teach me…” And he welcomed her to that dim attic where his fears about fatherhood hid. “I had no proper training in the matter.”
He sensed that she had an instinctive reply to his request, but she was reluctant to share it. It was a momentary reaction with a barely audible gasp, but he knew his wife too well – curious since it has only been a few months since their wedding day – not to notice it. In order to release that reply, he would have to resort to his charm.
She beat him to it in the charm offensive – before he could take the words out of her, she had already launched an attack on his mouth, hoping that little gasp would be mistaken for desire. He countered the attack with pressing his fingers on the exact spot that would grant him a moan.
And a moan he received. Now his lips were free to extract that concealed sentiment.
“Simon…”, she resisted. He pressed further, she moaned once more.
“You are making it very hard to collect my thoughts…”
“Do not collect…”, he whispered to her ear, releasing his warm breath. Last strike. Now, she would surrender.
“I… I only think…” He stopped playing with her once he realized that she was upset at the mere idea, let alone verbalizing it. She needed to collect her thoughts to let it out delicately. “I mean… you already know how not to be a father.”
Ah, my sweet Daphne.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and put his hands on her back to lock her as securely as possible. He wanted to prove to her with all his being that he would not drift away at the remembrance of his childhood memories. Their eyes were getting used to the dark, but he wished that she saw in his eyes, unambiguously, his unwavering commitment to being a better man for her. I should have lit that candle…
He was here, with her, in this moment, and he would not shut her off.
“Well, I had excellent training in that.”
He snickered, not at his own words, but how these words were spoken so easily. As if that broken boy inside of him was assuring this grown man that it was alright, he could laugh at his pain now. Now that he was loved.
She was smiling back at his lighthearted reaction, but her eyes were reflecting a quiet concern. He kissed her softly, he kissed her passionately. He kissed her in all the ways he knew to tell her how madly she was loved and how it was alright.
She seemed to be thoroughly convinced since she wrapped her arms around his neck and succumbed to his demonstration. But he would not go further. He knew she had been waiting for this moment for so long, he would not be so cruel as to deny her further inquiry that he was confident was boiling inside of her. He moved his kisses to her cheek – still enjoying her, but offering her leniency so that she could concentrate on her probe.
Naturally, she lost no time.
He smiled through his kisses. Such a simple question wrapped in such a soft voice. He heard all of her ruminations of the past few months in these two simple words. She probably had been wondering if love alone was a powerful enough force to mend his long-broken heart, if they would ever be able to get through the tempest within his soul to safely reach the shore… He could not lie to her – not anymore, not even to comfort her – and tell her “Yes, I am completely mended.” Nevertheless, he made sure to show her that every day, he was a better man than the previous day, that he was trying his best to be worthy of her love. Even though he knew that her love was unconditional, it was a challenge he had willingly undertaken to make her proud every day.
“Because I met our son tonight.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away to look at his face. Curse it, the candle!
He did not need to light that candle anymore, for Daphne’s smile was brighter than any candlelight in this moment, having heard her husband utter the words “our son”.
“He was a cranky little thing…”, he recalled, soaking in all the joy radiating from her smile.
“… just like his father.”, they added, simultaneously.
“Who are you calling cranky?” He raised his eyebrow, barely holding in a chuckle.
“My husband!” She kissed his cheek playfully. “Especially when he starts the day in his study, rather than breaking his fast with his wife.”
“I believe he was cranky because I took him away from your arms. That is exactly how I feel when I am away from your arms. So yes… just like his father.”
He was amazed at how an imagined vision of a baby boy had become his son, almost a reality, in their night time conversation. That vision had a character; he had the will of his mother, the temperament of his father, and he was theirs. Simon was missing him so much already that it hurt. It hurt that he was once determined to deny himself this feeling. Even a simple dream of a child felt so much better than all that anger he had nurtured…
Loving Daphne was liberating, so was everything that came with loving her.
“And how did His Grace Simon Arthur Henry Fitzrandolph Basset, the Duke of Hastings, named his heir? I hope it was not as mouthful!” She articulated each one of his names as if she were reading from a book for the first time. For her, he was simply Simon.
He wanted to reply with wit, but suddenly, he froze. An unexpected realization struck him, after a lifetime dedicated to escaping the very idea of an heir. His gaze was flitting fast between her eyes, but he was not seeing her. Incredulous that his salvation was this simple, he was lost in his realization.
Daphne’s eyes were following his flitting gaze with the same pace – not concerned, but curious. He snapped out of his brief distraction and smiled.
“He was not my heir, Daphne. He was our child.” She smiled back. A proud smile. He always felt euphoric making her proud. “We were a family. You, me, and our child.”
“And what a blessed child, for having such a wonderful man as his father.”
Euphoria, pure and unbounded.
He rolled over his back, taking her with him in his arms. He sat her over his hips, trying to absorb the sight of her. Candle, Simon! Her legs around him, her hands on his chest, her mouth approaching to cover his… Nah. He was too comfortable to leave the bed to look for the tinderbox.
“And what a blessed man, for having such a wonderful woman as his wife.”, he whispered as he slowly slid his hand underneath her nightgown, finding the spot he reluctantly had left earlier. “Would you like me to show you how blessed I feel for being your husband?”
“After interrupting my sleep… this is the least you could do.”
He watched her undress herself at a mind-numbing pace. She seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the adoring gaze of her husband roaming all over her body, so she slowed down even more. Undecided between the growing urge to take the lead or bowing to her rhythm, he chose the latter. He pulled his hands away from her and placed them behind his head, feeling her move against him like small waves lapping the shore.
“His Grace is getting comfortable I see.”, she noticed, throwing away her nightgown. She leaned over him, adopting her newly developing seductive voice. “I thought you were going to show me?” Her voice was already quite seducing in any and every tone she spoke, but he favoured this one because it was exclusive to him. Just like her moans - that he got out of her as an appreciation response, by quickly returning his hands to her, as requested.
He grabbed her hips and pulled her up toward him. He wanted to feel those small waves turning into billows on his mouth. She did not hesitate, she moved forward following his pull, eager to enjoy whatever he was to offer. Her body was undulating to the passionate strokes of his tongue, her hands against the headboard, and he was listening to her music, adjusting his tempo to her tune.
He stopped – right before the crescendo. He needed to see her face. He pushed her back with the same smooth movement he had pulled her toward him and straightened up with her.
They were sitting face to face in the middle of the bed, in the middle of the night, her hips on his hips, her legs wrapped around him, her hands on the nape of his neck, his fingers playing with her locks. She was glowing from a mixture of pleasure and perspiration, and he wanted to savour the taste of it, but he could not remove his gaze from her eyes half-closed from his strokes through her hair that followed his strokes through her. So completely his, so in love with him, submitting to this nocturnal dance he was leading because she trusted him entirely…
“Did I show enough?”, he asked with his arrogant smirk – completely aware that he was being cruel, but eager to hear the words of desire spilled through her uneven breathing.
“Not enough…”, she muttered, eyes still half-closed. “Show me some more.”
“More?”, he smiled, reminiscing. He pulled her hair gently to expose her neck, to taste that mixture of glow on her skin, to make her music resume. He moved his hands down to her waist and slid her onto himself slowly, imitating her mind-numbing pace. Aah, home. Her hands tightened their grip on his neck, then the grip turned into an embrace, getting stronger with the increasing intensity he was feeling deep inside of him as her breast rubbed firmly against his chest.
When she hit her delayed crescendo and her tune turned into a soft humming, he felt her pulses within his core. Her embrace loosened and she buried her face into him, trailing appreciative kisses from his neck to his shoulder. He wanted to remain in this moment a while longer, but his body was too enthusiastic to join her with thousand fireworks exploding within him.
He breathed deeply a few times, then took her face in his palms and kissed her longingly, as if he was not still inside of her, as if she was a fading memory he wanted to hold on to forever. She would have been a fading memory, were it not for her love for him.
First time he made love to her, he had believed his heart would burst from feeling that love. Alas, he was not aware that he was not reciprocating that devotion. Then, when he had chosen love over his anger, making love to her felt transcendent – transcending his body and uniting with her soul in that moment. But now… now, he was liberated. Letting go of his vow was a promise made to her, a promise to love her every day as she deserved to be loved. But now… letting go of his fears was an unexpected gift he had offered to himself.
Now, he was free. With a dream, he was free.
“Hmm… I am somewhat convinced that you feel blessed for being my husband.”
“Somewhat?”, he protested. “I would argue otherwise, Daphne, based on the exquisite sounds you made.”
“Oh, silly you, those simply mean that I feel very blessed for being your wife.”
He smiled at her giggles. He stroked her cheeks, looking deep into her big blue eyes. She would never fully comprehend how much she was loved, because he would never be able to quiet articulate that achingly beautiful feeling. But he was certain she was seeing a glimpse of it in his eyes, every time he looked at her.
By the time they rested their heads on their pillow, with their bodies interlaced and their souls united, autumn rains were still tapping onto the window. He fell asleep to its soothing rhythm, hoping to hold his son in another dream.