Darkness saturated the environment from all corners as the mist once more parted above the pool of water. The crushing silence was alleviated only by the infrequent calls of a man’s soothing voice as he beckoned Ellie to the cerulean sphere hovering just above the water’s surface.
Cautiously, she submerged her toes into the pool, then stepped further until she was waist deep. The sphere spun in place while water dripped from its surface with silent trickles.
“… not afraid… this gift…”
Ellie gazed into the swirling colors of the cerulean pearl. Her hand trembled as she slowly reached for it, letting the pearl hover just above her palm. If she could just grasp it, it would be hers.
A horribly sharp pain shot through her arm and froze Ellie in place. The pearl had vanished in the blink of an eye, replaced by trails of blood that branched down her forearm. Jagged, stained teeth pressed into her flesh and pierced deeper as the unseen beast grew increasingly more determined to rip through her.
Ellie’s breath became desperate pants as she attempted to pry the mouth open with her free hand. As each drop of blood clouded the pool in crimson, so too did the water begin to rise higher and higher, slowly from her waist to her neck. Ellie struggled until she took her final gulp of air before becoming completely submerged. Not even this was afforded to her, though, and a muted scream erupted from her throat when the mouth’s razor-like teeth severed her arm.
And, without a single drop of regard, darkness once more claimed this wretched existence.
A terrified gasp parted Ellie’s lips as she propelled upright in bed and pressed her back against the headboard with frantic kicks. Beads of cold sweat raced down her face as her muscles and tendons found purchase. Her hand that was once trapped in the maw of a beast clenched and released, proving that it was indeed still attached. The soft glow from a candle she never lit outlined the relief of finding both of her arms fully intact.
Ellie buried her face in her hands and let out a small whimper. Now parted from her nightmare, she began focusing on the state of her bedchamber. There was still a bit of daylight when she had fallen asleep, but now her room was shrouded in darkness aside from the candlelight on her bedside table.
Placed atop the table across the room was a tray of food. Ellie threw off her blanket and shuffled toward the appetizing spread, but discovered upon the cold touch to her lips that the meal had been there for some time. A few bites determined that it wouldn’t be pleasant to eat in that state, so Ellie placed the fork back down and seated herself on the edge of the bed.
As she mulled over the day’s events, Ellie’s mind strayed toward her family. She was dismayed at the realization that she had hardly given them a thought amid everything that had been happening recently. But soon she could return to them. After all, Gerald’s magic was restored and the Walker had been dealt with. Aside from determining if the other side was safe, there wasn’t much reason left to linger.
But Ellie’s heart tightened in conflict. She didn’t want to leave the Night Realm, but neither did she want to abandon her life in the Prime Realm. Ellie missed her family terribly and wanted to hear their voices, to hold them in her arms, to feel the warm familiarity of home.
Yet in turn, she would lose these same sensations from the Night Realm. Ellie would no longer hear her friends’ voices, no longer feel the warmth of their love and acceptance. Perhaps she could see Gerald on occasion, but not Elise, Bedelia, the goblins, or Janus. Never again would she see Janus’s smile, hear his laughter, feel his touch, bask in his presence.
Ellie’s heart pounded in her chest. She had been avoiding her emotions despite knowing full well what they were. The comfort she felt simply being herself in Janus’s presence—seeing how he accepted her for who she was—was heartwarming. She wanted to be greeted by his smile, to hold him in her arms, to share in their passions together. Ellie wanted these every day of her life.
With a longing sigh, Ellie leaned back on her arms and stared at the parallel wall. The love in her heart filled her with equal parts elation and grief. Knowing that she could have died that day and left so much unspoken left Ellie unsettled. But because of the difference in their realms and mortality, was it better that she simply return home without saying a word? Yet was it possible that Janus felt as she did?
There was only one way to find out. Ellie stormed across her bedchamber and thrust open the door. She did not care what hour it was; it had to be now, while there was still determination in her heart. If she waited, Ellie knew that she would have a change of heart and withdraw her feelings back into herself. She needed the certainty that she felt in that moment to drive her forward.
Yet Ellie did not step into the corridor. Hesitation was but one adversary, but the other was hunger. The last thing she wanted was to confess her feelings only to have it bookended by the grumble of her stomach. Returning to the table, Ellie snapped up the small burlap pouch and shoved a few dried dates in her mouth before once more stepping to the door and into the corridor.
Ellie stood before the entrance to Janus’s bedchamber and swallowed hard the remnants of the dried dates. With a sharp inhale, she raised her closed fist and prepared to knock. Then, hesitation set in. Was she doing the right thing? Was it right to tell Janus how she felt, even knowing they may never see one another again? Would that be unfair to him if he reciprocated her feelings? But perhaps—if he knew—then they could work together to find a solution. And in the event that he didn’t reciprocate and Ellie utterly embarrassed herself, then she would simply lock herself away in her bedchamber until she died, hide in the storerooms and eat meal scraps, or sprint into Haven screaming until Bedelia took her in.
A knock that was considerably louder than Ellie ever intended resonated throughout the corridor. She cringed, then heard a startled shuffle from somewhere in the room beyond. Anxiously, Ellie bounced her her heels and waited for the door to open. Just as she thought she might lose her mind and barge in herself, the handle clicked.
Peering at her through squinted, tired eyes was Janus as he stood in the doorway, illuminated only by the light of the corridor and a soft glow from his bedchamber. His brow shifted as he ran his fingers through his moderately messy hair and let out a confused groan. The sight of him made Ellie anxious about her own appearance, but she would not be deterred by whether or not she looked presentable or as though she had been tossed by strong winds for an hour.
“Ellie? What’s wrong?” Janus grumbled. He leaned back and glanced at the longcase clock by the door. “It’s well past midnight.”
“I need to talk to you.”
Janus hardly had to step out of the way with how Ellie nearly pushed him aside as she entered the room. With a snap of his fingers, he lit a few more lamps and provided the pair sufficient lighting to see one another. Ellie crossed her arms and heaved a sigh as she stood in the middle of the room and waited for Janus to close the door.
“I’ve been thinking about what happened today. Gods, so much happened today. I would’ve been dead if my mind didn’t snap to like it had, when it had, and I’d have been monster food and I would have left so much unsaid, and knowing that I would have terrifies me and—”
“Slow down, now,” Janus muttered in a soothing tone as he walked up to her. “Your words are running together, Ellie. Take a breath before you continue.”
Another sigh—though light and brief—parted her lips as Ellie gave her pathetic attempt.
“When I first came to the Night Realm, the only thing I wanted was to go home. But now—and I don’t know if it’s because of all the books I read or what—but I feel so happy here. I adapted so quickly and became mesmerized by life in the castle and the land. I love everyone so much; Gerald, Elise, the goblins, Rehor, Nairi.”
Her next breath was so drawn that it might as well have been ten times the length.
“But above all, I love you, Janus. Rather, I’m in love with you.”
The only sound against the pure silence was the quiet tick of the clock and pounding of Ellie’s heart in her ears. A tremendous headache drew her hand to her forehead as though she were suppressing it from bursting. Janus was motionless, and Ellie couldn’t bring herself to look at him.
“—And I know.” She motioned her hands with fervent trembles as her tirade continued. “I know I’m just some dumb mortal that can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life. Should I be an apothecary for my mother’s sake? Or should I become a literary professor? But then what if something else entirely speaks to me that I haven’t discovered yet? Why is it so hard to decide?”
The hurried pitter patter of Ellie’s feet carried about as she quickly paced back and forth around the center of the bedchamber.
“I don’t know, I’m so uncertain and anxious and it feels like there’s a rock in my stomach.” She looked over her shoulder at Janus but kept her eyes averted from his. “But I never feel like that when I think of you, and that’s how I know it’s sincere. I’m in love with you and I can’t stop thinking about when you caught me in the library, or the night in the Moon Bell field, or how we’ve flirted, or how you held me the night you drank my blood. I can’t stop thinking about any of it.”
Ellie’s rambling ceased as Janus pulled her into an embrace; she glanced up at the man she had just spilled her heart to, mesmerized by the tender smile on his face. His cool skin and faint pulse contrasted the warmth of Ellie’s face and her racing heart as she leaned against him, enjoying the touch of Janus’s fingers as they ran softly through her hair and calmed her nerves.
“Ellie.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I’m in love with you, too.”
Janus’s words caused her heart to seize in her chest.
“Every moment that you mentioned frequented my mind, as well. I dreamt of how I would divulge my feelings to you, but I could never muster the courage to do so. Some of my dreams terrified me into believing that the feeling wouldn’t be mutual and that you’d think ill of me.”
Carefully, Ellie raised her arms and held Janus, remaining quiet as he spoke.
“My heart would skip every time you’d coquet with me. I wanted to confess to you in each of those moments, but it never seemed the right time, the right place.” Janus let out a defeated laugh. “I’m almost jealous that you confessed first, but I’m just so happy to hear you say it at all.”
“Janus.” Ellie pressed her head against his chest and closed her eyes as tears began to well. “I love you so much. I want to be with you.”
“I love you, too, Ellie.”
Loosening his hold, Janus looked down into Ellie’s eyes and returned the smile that she had first given him. He placed his hands on her shoulders and leaned closer as they both closed their eyes and met their lips in a tender kiss. It was as though all worries that weighed Ellie down had lifted away, leaving her feeling lighter than air as she held Janus in the dim light. At this rate, she felt as though her legs would give out if they kept on like this much longer.
A breath parted their lips as they pulled away from each other and returned to the loving stares they had exchanged only moments before. Ellie placed her hands on Janus’s arms as he held her, growing curious by the nervous way his eyes shifted from hers.
“I’m terribly sorry if what I’m about to say is too bold, but…” He lifted a hand and brushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “Would you stay with me this night?”
Ellie blinked in immediate understanding at the implication behind Janus’s vague words. Though she was stunned by the request, she also by no means objected to it. Despite this, her silence lingered just enough for Janus to begin fumbling with his words.
“I apologize, that was too bold.”
“No.” Ellie placed her hands on either side of his face and gently drew his gaze back toward hers. “In this moment, I want nothing more.”
Elevating on her toes so as to close the gap between them, Ellie once again pressed her lips against his. Janus’s surprise prompted a faint sound from behind the kiss, then he wrapped one arm around Ellie and pulled her into him. Their kiss grew more fervent as they continued, nearly taking them over before they pulled away breathlessly.
Ellie locked her fingers with Janus’s and led him across the room toward his bed. She placed one hand on his chest and smiled as she examined his features.
“I admit, I am a bit nervous,” she muttered.
“Have you never…?”
“No, I have. Just, it’s been awhile, and she and I—”
“It’s alright, Ellie.” Janus placed one hand delicately atop her collarbone and traced the seam of her robe with his fingertips. “I can take the lead, if you prefer.”
Ellie gave a few quick nods as her lips curled inward with a timid smile. A pleasant shudder shook her as Janus’s hand traveled down her body toward the sash of her robe. With gentle movements, he worked the loose knot through his fingers and began untying it.
“If ever you want me to stop, you need only say so.”
She fixated on Janus’s chest as the sash slowly dropped to the floor, and Ellie’s heart then began racing as he returned his hands to her collarbone and carefully pushed open her robe. The cold air swept across her bare form, causing her breath to quicken as Janus pulled the cloth to her shoulders and let it drop completely.
“Ellie.” His hands stopped when he noticed her tension. “Is this too much?”
Reaching up to his shoulders, Ellie began parting the fabric of Janus’s open night shirt in the same delicate manner. Once it had joined her own attire on the floor, Ellie moved down to the sash that held Janus’s trousers at his waist. His breath grew rapid in his flustered state as he watched her remove the sash and let the last of his clothing drop.
Ellie placed her hand upon his chest, her eyes admiring his entire body as he did the same to her. Every moment that passed as the two stood bare in each other’s presence, the more they grew comfortable around one another.
“You’re beautiful, Ellie,” Janus whispered as he touched her arm with the back of his hand.
She brought his other hand to her face and leaned into it with a warm smile as he cupped her cheek. Without hesitation, Ellie stepped closer and reached up to kiss Janus once more. As their lips entwined, he wrapped his arm around the small of Ellie’s back and gently laid her upon the bed. A hundred emotions welled within her as Janus discovered Ellie’s desires through his touch and his lips upon her body. He followed her reactions meticulously and learned what stirred Ellie the greatest, even beyond her own prior knowledge.
Janus eased himself forward and leaned in to kiss Ellie after his exploration of her body. The ardor with which she returned the kiss and ran her fingers through his hair forced from him a small gasp. Ellie guided Janus to lay beside her and, with the same enthusiasm which he had shown her, began searching for his desires. Every approving pant indicated the best sensations that she could seize to heighten his emotions.
“Ellie,” Janus muttered, pulling back before they got too carried away. “Lay beside me.”
Without hesitation, Ellie returned to her place on the bed as Janus positioned himself above her. She read his movements and cradled his body between her legs as Janus began pressing his hips against hers. Elated breaths were paired with every motion, stirring Ellie to grip his back and pull him closer.
What felt like only a moment had been much longer, and Ellie worried that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill one final desire before they reached the apex. Her longing outweighing her uncertainty, Ellie brought her fingers to her collarbone and turned her head to one side, baring her neck to Janus. Noticing her strange behavior, Janus looked at Ellie’s neck and slowed his movements to a stop.
“I know how you feel about this.” A nervous twinge was in her voice. “But I don’t want you to be scared of taking my blood if I’m willing. I love you, and I trust you.”
Janus stared at Ellie’s neck in breathless consideration. His uncertainty had her worried, but Ellie kept her hand to her neck in hopes of encouraging him to drink during this intimate moment.
“Are you certain?”
She replied only with a small nod.
Janus leaned toward her neck, then stopped. Ellie felt his breath upon her skin and sensed his hesitation. Easing her muscles, she then let out a small, contented sigh.
“It’s alright, I promise. I want you to.”
Dispelling his concerns, Janus bared his fangs and gave the smallest puncture near the base of Ellie’s neck. He then pressed his lips to her skin and began slowly drinking as he positioned himself to resume moving his hips against hers. A moan escaped Ellie as she wrapped her arms around him and held his back as they continued making love.
Janus cautiously focused on how Ellie reacted to how he drank her blood, skillfully balancing between that and his motions to heighten their pleasures. They continued on like this for only a short while before their breaths and movements grew more fervent upon reaching their apexes. Though it all seemed to pass so quickly, the end felt like an eternity that neither was ready to leave behind.
As their breaths gradually slowed, Janus pulled away and looked upon Ellie’s face to make sure that she was well. She smiled and leaned in to kiss him, caring nothing for the faint traces of her own blood on his lips. Janus gave a small laugh against Ellie’s mouth as he returned her kiss.
“I love you, Ellie.”
“I love you, too.”
Janus heaved his weight down onto the bed beside her, stirred by equal parts exhaustion and enthusiasm. The confidence with which he turned to his side and wrapped his arms around Ellie caused her to chuckle as she nuzzled close to his body and wove her legs between his.
“I wanted that to never end,” she said with a smile.
“As did I.” Janus stroked Ellie’s hair and rested his chin against her forehead. “I do hope that means my performance was… satisfactory?”
Ellie closed her eyes as she basked in the pleasantness of his hand running down her hair.
“Don’t worry,” Janus said. “I’ll get the salve soon.”
“Good, let’s just stay like this for now.”
The two remained in each other’s embrace as they quietly relished the culmination of their love. Ellie’s heart was light, caring only for her feelings in this moment and nothing for what went on beyond the confines of Janus’s bedchamber. This was her entire world for the rest of the night.
“How are you feeling?” Janus asked, tearing her from her inner thoughts.
“I’m completely fine.” A small smirk adorned her face when she looked up to him. “You know, you’re more experienced than I thought you’d be.”
“Oh?” he simpered. “Did you think me a simple, inexperienced bookworm that wouldn’t know the finer points of making love?”
“Well… maybe just a little bit.”
“I’m hurt,” he gasped in playful shock.
“Well you never mentioned anything about having any former relationships.”
“Hm. That was a very long time ago, now that you mention it.”
“So you did have a relationship before?”
“Ah, well, yes. But it didn’t end well and I would much prefer not to speak of it.”
“You’re so peculiar, asking such things only minutes after intimacy.”
“It’s not as though I’m gonna be jealous of something that’s not even relevant anymore.”
Janus shifted to push himself up by his elbow, then glanced at the cabinet on the far wall.
“We should apply the salve now.”
Ellie sat up and watched Janus with intrigue as he stepped across the room with nary a cloth covering the form of his bare posterior. She was hardly able to tear her eyes away until he turned to her with the salve in hand. Watching his return was a struggle against the very fiber of her being to not blatantly stare at him as he casually strode across the room without a trace of clothing.
Janus delicately placed his fingers beneath Ellie’s chin and moved her head to one side. With a cloth that he had taken from the cabinet, he cleaned away any remnants of blood that had trailed down her neck. Once finished, he used his finger to swipe some of the salve and applied it generously to the bite.
“Look at you,” she said. “Taking care of me so attentively.”
“Well, it’s the least I can do in return for your generosity.”
Upon wiping his hands clean and carelessly setting the cloth and salve on the bedside table, Janus motioned for Ellie to stand and peeled away the blanket. She laughed when he invited her to burrow in first, then turned to her side and watched as he situated under the covers beside her.
“I have a question,” she said.
“Ask away.” Janus leaned his head on his hand and looked fondly at his beloved.
“Were you really jealous that I confessed first?”
A grimace formed on his face. “I may or may not have been meticulously pondering how I was going to arrange my own confession. With that said, to have you come into my bedchamber after midnight with a tuft in your hair and simply spill out everything like a sack of potatoes? Well, it was a little defeating.”
“It’s not still there, is it?” She reached for her head.
“No, I took it upon myself to smooth it out the first time I stroked your hair.” He smirked at the mildly distraught look on Ellie’s face. “Regardless, I’m simply happy that anything was said at all. Though I had a feeling it might be coming.”
“Gerald mentioned that you asked him questions, which in turn made him suspicious.”
“That rat is smarter than he lets on,” Ellie tutted.
“What did you ask him?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Well, I attempted to bribe him with two sausages, but he turned them down.”
“Two! That’s amazing. Wow, he must be more loyal to me than to you.”
Janus let out a playful scoff. “But what was it that you asked him?”
“Nope. This is now a secret between girl and rat, and I will never tell you what I asked.”
A pained groan that escaped Janus gave Ellie cause to chuckle. With a loving smile, she scooted closer under the blankets and wrapped one arm around him before leaning her head against his chest.
“May I stay here tonight?”
“I would have been surprised if you didn’t.” He used his free hand to stroke her hair again. “You’re more than welcome to share my bed at any time.”
“Good. I think the exhaustion is returning and I want to stay here.”
“I feel the same. Let’s sleep, then.”
Janus raised an arm and snapped his fingers, putting out the few illuminated lights in the room. As the darkness set in, Ellie felt Janus pull her in to a tender embrace. She nestled her head against his chest, all concerns fading away in this moment—save for one. There was something that needed to be said before this moment passed and her opportunity was lost forever.
“I have to confess something.”
“What’s the matter, Ellie?”
“I ate some dried dates before I came here, so you kissed my dirty, date-eating lips.”
Though his expression was impossible to see in the dark, the sigh that Janus released was more than a satisfactory response.
“That’s fine,” he said plainly. “I ate a beet a few hours ago.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Fine, I didn’t. But did you really eat one of the dried dates before coming here?”
“I swallowed it right before I knocked on your door.”
“Gods damn it, Ellie.”
She chuckled as Janus’s body trembled with his own silent laughter. Having tormented him enough, she closed her eyes and eased into the comforts of Janus’s bed and his presence.