the necessity of breath

Cain sleeps on his stomach, with his face pressed to starched pillows and blankets piled heavily atop him, even during the hottest parts of summer.

It feels a little like suffocation, and he can’t rest otherwise.

+++

More often than not, Cain’s nightmare are silent.

It’s not that he isn’t screaming, because he can hear his own voice ringing in his ears so loudly than his head spins — but the sound gets swallowed up somewhere along the way, and he wakes with his throat unaffected but his chest aching and raw. There are days when he wakes so tangled within his sheets that it feels he might never fight his way free, breathing with the weight of the entire night pressed upon his shoulders.

These nights happen more than not, and he has heard Riff turning Merryweather away from the door, when she would come to wake him. And Riff, through some magic of his own, times his own entrance perfectly, knocking only when Cain has extricated himself from his sheets and drawn composure closely around himself. The tea he brings is always hot and steeped just to this side of undrinkable, which Cain has developed a taste for, over the years. He drinks and waits as Riff selects a shirt and brings it to wrap it around his shoulders.

Riff brings a blessed steady silence, and Cain breathes that in and holds it as long as he can, wishing it would sink into his skin and stay.

+++

When he can, he stays up late as possible, nursing tea and an unread book or else navigating the waters of society parties that go on until the sky is rose-pale. Sleep has never been his ally, so he prefers to chose his own battlefield — and when he does make his final stand, Riff is there at his side: loyal squire, faithful servant, the air itself. If they are home, he walks with his hand hovering just above Cain’s elbow, close enough to warm without making contact. If they are at a party, he walks just to Cain’s right and a little behind, his measured footsteps setting the pace for Cain’s own heart. If they stop (he thinks as he puts on coat and hat, or as they rise up the stairs), he’s certain his own breast will fail him.

Cain has long outgrown fairytales, but ghost stories will follow him till his dying day. He tracks the pale glow of Riff’s hair from the corner of one eye — his one talisman against the darkness and the grasping bony fingers that pluck at his sleeves from just out of sight. There are times when he wonders if Riff is a ghost himself, cobbled out of dead childhood fancies and small faded dreams as protection.

Once he turned to ask this, the breath already drawn into his lungs, and found himself stopped by a soft shadow on Riff’s cheekbones. Though he is warm, standing a hairsbreadth from touching, he *looks* cold, like human touch might melt him away. Cain feels himself choke, staring until his eyes start to burn, and he turns away, blinking. Riff waits patiently and says nothing about the pause.

Looking back is dangerous: pillars of salt and loved ones lost to the underworld. Cain walks faster up the stairs.

+++

His bedroom is a monster’s den, where things don’t come to life, but seethe dangerously with the *potential*, which is perhaps worse. He spreads his arms and stands still as stone as Riff undoes the buttons of his shirt with steady cool fingers and finally, finally begins to talk. It’s never anything of great importance, just a low steady stream that fills up the empty places that yawn at the corner of one’s eye. Riff does not *prattle*, or chatter idly like Merry does: he keeps a measured tone, discussing the weather, the work that needs to be done, quiet directions (but never instructions, never that).

Riff talks about solid things, dependable things — things one might measure the width and breadth of in one’s own hands.

Riff talks like himself, so gently practical that one might easily be seduced into believing his steady, solid worldview is what matters. In the heavy shadows of the master bedroom his voice is Cain’s sword and his hands are Cain’s shield, and Cain wishes, guiltily (but only slightly; Riff is his, a precious creature trapped within his cage, and so is his to play with as he desires), that it could be enough.

+++

He knows Riff would not mind if he were kissed, but that Riff will never do such a thing on his own. A servant will always be blamed for his master’s sins, and Riff would not willingly bring such shame to the young Count Hargreaves.

Denying frivolous desire for the sake of protecting a greater wish is something that is utterly Riff, and Cain is charmed by it even as it frustrates him.

Still, there are mornings where he has no nightmares, and wakes to nothing more horrible than the sound of Riff opening the curtains, when Riff will put a hand on his shoulder through the blankets to rouse him (and ah, his hand is so very warm even through cloth) and say that Merry is waiting for him — Cain will sometimes open his eyes to find Riff very close, dangerously so, and a slight movement either way might actually–

“Miss Merry would like to have breakfast on the veranda,” Riff says, and pulls back slowly enough that Cain feels warm breath on his cheek. He waits until Riff turns away to the closet and rubs his fingers over that spot, sitting up as he does. He thinks (as he’s done before, so many times, though surely this time he *means* it) that next time will be the time when he kisses Riff.

+++

Riff pours tea — steeped bitter for him, heavy with cream and sugar for Merry. There is a single moment where his knuckles brush the back of Cain’s hand, and he is hardly ice and silver now, his skin warm enough to burn. Hidden behind the teapot, Cain turns his hand and for a moment runs his own fingers across the bone of Riff’s wrist.

For just a moment Riff smiles, and it’s beautiful.

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