Ain't it a gentle sound, the rollin' in the graves?
Ain't it like thunder under earth, the sound it makes?
Ain't it exciting you, the rumble where you lay?
- Hozier, 'NFWMB'
Solene’s quarters had no member of the Radiant Host stationed outside—no reason for it, she’d said, when their presence could serve better elsewhere for one who might have need of their strength, and Solene felt that she needed no protection in Meghaduta’s grand halls.
So it is a simple thing for Zero to slip silently into her rooms, a larger suite than her own, though their opulence is equal in measure. It’s early, the golden light of dawn and warm summer air coming through the open windows, the scent of fresh grass and flowers on the breeze. She would have been out of doors, standing on her own terrace and watching the way that the sky changes colors as the minutes tick by—but Solene had promised her a day’s journey out to a place called Kadjaya’s Footsteps, and oddly, Zero had grown restless in waiting.
There is nothing to bore her here in this place called Thavnair; she hardly wants for entertainment or company. It is a kaleidoscope of experiences—bright sounds, sights, smells, things she has no name for but do not overwhelm her so much as they leave her speechless, trying and failing to track them all. Taking it one day at a time, as her new companions had put it, in their strange and generous way.
If there is anything that overwhelms her, it is that. ‘Tis plain in so many ways, the stark differences of their worlds, but the reminder that is as frequent as it is baffling is the manner in which Solene and her companions—her friends—seem all too content to give freely, without expectations in return.
Rather, they often must make efforts to conduct themselves in a more transactional manner, for her sake, for how discomfited she feels when they do not. Solene had done as much when inviting her to come along to the Footsteps, saying, “We’ll be relying on your knowledge to traverse the Thirteenth when we are ready to return. It seems a fair trade to offer you more knowledge of the Source, outside of Radz-at-Han’s walls, if you would like it.”
And it had seemed fair, for Zero couldn’t deny her own curiosity of what lay beyond, and why Solene seemed so eager to go to a place she clearly had been to many a time before. Zero couldn’t fathom it, lacking as she was in a desire to return to the world she called home.
“Will your friend join us?” she had asked then.
Solene had blinked, watching her with a curious gaze for a long moment. She’d settled on an easy smile and a breath of laughter. “Which one? I’ve no plans for additional company, but if you’d like someone else to come along, we can see if they’re available.”
Zero had glanced away, for staring overlong at Solene’s smile was a thing that felt much like staring overlong at the burning sun on this world's horizon. “The man,” she’d said, a bit stilted. And then, since the words had clarified in her mind, “Your man.”
“My man,” Solene had repeated, and when Zero glanced back, she found that her smile had turned—odd? Funny? Teasing, her mind had settled on after a moment, recognizing by slow degrees what was a twinkle of mirth in the woman’s bright, white gaze. “G’raha will likely be working with Y’shtola, still, to parse just what might be possible to accomplish when we return to the Thirteenth. But if you like, I can ask if he might be able to spare the time.”
“It’s fine,” Zero had said, easily dismissing the matter.
“If you’re sure,” Solene had said, looking at her as though something about the whole thing was amusing.
Zero finds them a strange pair—Solene, and her G’raha. The only comparison she can think to ascribe to them is Ciriatto and Farfarello, but she knows the moment the thought crosses her mind that it’s not apt. The latter is what Solene would call a sad thing, two beings that could never—and now, would never—be apart, ever clinging to each other, draining each other in pathetic subsistence.
And that is certainly not the way of the former. Though she has yet to feel as though she knows them both well, it had been clear from the moment G’raha had stepped off the airship and Solene had gone running into his arms that what bonds them so closely is not an ever turning wheel of parasitism, but mutual desire.
Desire. An odd word, an odd thing. Zero herself is possessed of it, though it becomes more and more obvious with each passing day in this strange new world that her desires, much like her tastes, have suffocated in the darkness. In the void, she’d desired aether, survival, to continue on in the long, uninterrupted night without being devoured by another.
But here, the mortals—the people—plainly desire things that are much more complex. Baffling things—things with purpose that Zero cannot fathom, cannot yet understand. She sees it when she studies Solene as keenly as she does, seeking that measure of knowledge, the piece that will finally click everything into place as to why Zenos had fixed upon her so.
And in truth, Zero cannot deny her own interest, the same queer tug in her breast when she watches the woman indulge in her own desires. A different meal every night, drinks, a fondness for all manner of sweets—different things she’d called creature comforts. Clothing, cosmetics, things she points out at the bazaar with a smiling, “Oh, I’ve a pair of gloves like that,” or, “Oh, G’raha would love this book,” or, “Zero, I think this fabric would suit you.”
“Why do people need so much?” she’d asked.
“People don’t need much,” Solene had said. “But we want all that we think will make us happy.”
“This makes you happy?” she’d asked, very nearly reaching out to take the delicate weave between her gloved fingers. She’d stopped just short, hand hovering in the air.
And Solene had laughed, that rich, warm thing, and set down the bolt to pick up another. “This one,” she’d said, unrolling it just enough to wrap a swathe of deep crimson silk embroidered with gilt thread over the curve of her hip. “This one makes me happy,” she’d said, smiling down at it in a strange way—as though when she looked at the color, she was seeing something else. And then she’d glanced at Zero, eyes glittering, and asked, “What do you think?”
She’d gone for her hat, then, tipping the brim down over her eyes without knowing why she suddenly felt the urge to—to hide. “It’s a bright color,” she’d said, stilted. And Solene had laughed again, and bought the bolt, the silk shining in the sun the whole way back to Meghaduta.
That same silk catches Zero’s eye now, standing in the entryway of Solene’s quarters, laid out over the length of a small table further in. It catches the light in the same way, gold thread shimmering. She can’t help but linger on it as she passes by, moving silently through the room. She glances around, bemused by how much more lived-in the space looks compared to her own—a pair of boots by the doorway, two well-worn packs at the foot of a settee, a book and a blanket draped over one cushion. A bowl of fruit on the dining table that matches the one in her own room, though this one is only half-full, clearly partway to being wholly eaten.
She takes an apple from the top, polishing it with her sleeve until it shines appealingly. She makes her way toward the bedchamber to rouse Solene, the door ajar, thinking on what she might offer her in fair exchange for the pilfered fruit—
—and stops just short of the doorway, the apple nearly rolling out of her palm. The very breath in her lungs stills, every ilm of her silent, her eyes fixed firmly on the sight that lies beyond, in a rumpled bed.
Solene’s skin is burnished bronze by the morning’s light, sunrays on every exposed ilm of her; she’s nude, on her knees, hands braced on her man’s broad chest as she moves over him in a steady, rolling rhythm. His own large hands are on the swell of her hips, fingers digging roughly into the softness of her as she—as she—
Fucks him. The word comes into her mind like a stone crashing through water, weighted, and she can’t help but follow the thought all the way down. She can’t help but stand there, transfixed, staring at yet another thing that the people in this world indulge in, apparently, that she knew what name to put to it but had nothing for describing the—
The feeling. Some feeling that wells inside of her, deep in her chest, and a little lower, in the pit of her belly. She watches Solene, the way that her fingers flex on the sparse crimson hair on her man’s chest, pulling a deep groan from him that she answers with a gasping moan, just before she bends and presses her lips to his. And there’s no word for it, but Zero stares, stares at the parting of Solene’s red mouth, and their pink tongues, at how they devour each other, and—
Is it like Ciriatto and Farfarello, then—terribly hungry, consuming? The thought is thin, like smoke fading through her fingers, as she watches Solene’s man—G’raha, her mind supplies, recalling the tender tone Solene always speaks his name in, something fluttering in her chest at the thought—roll her underneath him. He breaks away, laying the full bow of his mouth upon Solene’s breast instead, his lips closing around the dark peak of her nipple and sucking; she says his name, and now it sounds completely different.
It sounds… ravenous. It sounds like the way that, sometimes, Zenos had thought about her—but not the same, still. Not the same as Ciriatto and Farfarello either, not parasitic, not pathetic. It is different, Zero thinks, utterly still.
It’s like… the heat of Thavnair, almost. Balmy, and heavy, enveloping the whole body when one steps into it. The thought sinks in her gut—no longer a smooth stone through water, but a hot, black coal. And it burns as she watches, watches Solene spread her arms over the sheets, back arching—luxuriating in being fucked, relishing the hard pace of his hips as he thrusts into her, more than the way that she relishes all of her creature comforts.
And when Solene cups her breasts in her hands and rolls her nipples between her fingers until she moans, it sends a levinbolt jolting through her—and she nearly reels at the feeling, at the way Solene almost preens underneath her man, smiling at how he groans and says her name, his eyes a deep, vivid crimson—
—and Zero thinks falteringly of the silk, of how Solene had draped it over her body and given her that same, strange smile, that glittering look. And the next thought rises in her unbidden—if she’d taken off her gloves, and rolled that silk between her fingers, how soft would it have felt? As soft as Solene’s rich skin, glistening with sweat in the light of dawn, marked with scars and little blossoms of ruddy color left by her man’s teeth?
Would it feel as warm?
Would she make a sound, Zero wonders, like the one she makes now, when G’raha murmurs low and rough, “Oh—Solene, I’m coming,” as his hips stutter, and he stills deep—and Solene moans, long and shuddering, as if pained, but—
But not. Not pain. Pleasure, her mind supplies, as Solene gasps, “Yes, Raha,” and he puts his mouth to hers again.
“They move their bodies to bring pleasure to those who are watching,” the dragon had said of the moving mortals—the dancers. And she’d scorned it then, the strange, needlessly complicated measures that people in this world took for pleasure.
But this is something else. Something not contrived for many eyes, she thinks, as Solene’s man presses his lips all the way down the length of her body—over her breasts, her scarred belly, the dark thatch of hair between her legs and lower still, until his tongue slides over the glistening folds of her cunt. Until he buries his face there, with a hungry sound, and she whines, bucking at him for more. Not a ritual, but maybe consumption, of a sort.
And yet still, she can’t look away.
Is this what Zenos sought in her, she thinks, eyes fixed on Solene’s face, on the way her brows pinch and her mouth drops open in a high, ringing cry, her entire body locking up, trembling. Her expression glows with utter, sheerest ecstasy. Is this what you can have, with a friend?
It would explain the look she’d worn, the way her nose had wrinkled, mouth twisting wryly when she had answered, “Whatever Zenos may have said, I wasn’t his friend.”
Perhaps it is so, Zero thinks, watching, hardly breathing. Solene had refused to call Zenos friend—but she’d called her man that easily, effortlessly. She’d beamed wide when they’d met properly, introduced him as her dearest friend. And Zero had wondered, but not asked, what makes a friend dear? How is it quantified?
Is it this, she thinks, watching Solene relax into the sheets with a gasping sigh, head lolling to the side, a breathless smile on her face. Her man crawls up the length of her body, burying his face in her neck, his arms wrapped around her. His tail curls over her thigh, flicking languorously back and forth.
They look serene. Satisfied, their pleasure taken. Zero swallows hard, taking one step back—unsure how to feel about the fact that not only does she have no answer for still more questions, but there’s a new feeling that sits deep in her belly. A hollowness hooked in her gut that at first she mistakes for hunger, but it’s not any hunger she’s known before. It aches, throbbing low, as she keeps her eyes on Solene’s contented expression.
And then Solene opens her eyes. She blinks once, and the hazy, soft bliss clears, turning keen instead. Zero stills, pinned in place by that bright, white gaze.
Caught. And she knows naught else to do but stand there, like prey held in the jaws of a trap.
Solene merely stares back, silent, her expression unreadable. Studying her, unfathomable thoughts turning in her mind. And the feeling in her gut nearly sours, but then—
But then Solene smooths a hand up the length of her man’s spine and breathes deeply, eyes fluttering shut. She sighs, a soft and pleased sound, and then wraps her arms around his broad shoulders and rolls them so that her back faces the doorway, and Zero can see nothing of her man save for his hands sliding down to her arse, caressing her, his tail draped over her body. He murmurs something she can’t hear, and Solene giggles quietly.
Zero turns then, her feet carrying her back the way she’d come, silent as the grave the entire way. She doesn’t stop moving until she’s out, out on the steps at the front of Meghaduta, standing at the top and looking at the brilliant blue sky, the warm pinks and golds of dawn fast faded. She releases a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and blinks hard, unbalanced, the shining red apple still held in the palm of her hand.
“You know,” Solene says, halfway to Kadjaya’s Footsteps, and the sudden sound of her voice feels like levin jolting underneath her skin. “I believe you owe me and G’raha a debt.” She glances sidelong at her, and Zero stiffens under her gaze. “For this morning, you took something that was not yours.”
Her voice is perfectly neutral, and Zero isn’t certain of whether that makes her feel better or worse. It makes her feel strange, and she sounds strange to her own ears, when she says, “Name it.” And she halts, then, the path crunching underfoot, the heat blistering. She reaches for her hat again and tips the brim down.
“May I ask you something first?”
Zero blinks up at her; that isn’t what she’d expected to hear. “Yes,” she says.
Solene cocks her head to the side, one long, tapered ear flicking. The silver cuffs that adorn it glint in the midday sun. Her expression is much the same as it had been early that morning, when silently studying her in the shadow of the doorway. After a long moment, she asks, “Why were you there?”
She swallows hard. “I came to wake you,” she says stiffly. “For I was impatient to leave. And… And I don’t—” Her gaze darts away then, thinking of the stolen apple, how sweet it had tasted. “I don’t know why I…”
“Curiosity?” Solene asks, and Zero can’t help but look at her again, brow knitting at how unconcerned she sounds. She had expected—something else. Rebuke, perhaps—not the usual warmth in her gaze, or the way that a smile tugs at the corner of her red mouth, her expression expectant.
“Perhaps,” is all she can say in response. For she can’t say the rest—can’t explain the way she’d felt, watching them together. Something squeezes in her chest, and she frowns.
“Zero,” Solene says, voice low—and something in her coils tight, winding and winding until she finds, curiously, that it’s hard to draw her next breath. She looks up at her, finding only that strange warmth glittering in her eyes.
Zero stares, fingers flexing, waiting for her word—her price for what she’d stolen.
Solene smiles gently, her next breath a huff of soft laughter. “Curiosity is a natural thing. We don’t begrudge you that. The gods know my own curiosity has gotten me into plenty of trouble before,” she says, and the tension in her chest eases suddenly, her lungs filling with something almost like relief. And then Solene adds, “But in repayment, should you ever have a mind to do a thing like that again—you must ask us both, first.”
Zero blinks, hard, her throat working for a long moment. Agreement wars with utter confusion, and the only thing she can manage is a halting, “I don’t understand.”
Solene’s hand comes down on her shoulder then, a gentle pat that leaves warmth behind like a brand. “The next time you wish to watch us together,” she says, leaning down toward her, and something about the words—spoken so softly, so plain—nearly pull a shiver from her despite the heat. “Simply ask us for permission. It’s not like dancing,” she adds, a wry quirk to her smile, that teasing look, “where just anyone is welcome to look on. So you must ask first. Do we have a deal?”
“Yes,” she says, without thinking, staring transfixed. “That’s... That is fair.”
Solene’s eyes brighten, shining like gems from the bazaar. And Zero thinks, perhaps, that though voidsent prefer simpler pleasures—
There is much to marvel at, about the complexity of this world, of its people. And maybe she herself is not as simple a creature as she’d thought.