[Please read the Instructions before jumping in]
No pulse. Shuni doesn’t have a pulse.
Lucien manages to keep himself from freezing through a pure act of will. He has to be wrong about this, right? The pulse is hard to feel in the wrist anyway; he’s just not picking it up.
“Fair enough, yes,” Shuni says, still involved in a conversation Lucien suddenly feels worlds away from. “Breakups are the common trend of relationships.”
Somehow, he responds like a normal person. “Not for everyone, surely…” He leans in, wrapping an arm around Shuni, kissing his cheek, his jaw, sliding down to kiss him lingeringly on the neck, over where his pulse should be.
Shuni lets out a soft sigh, shifting a little under those ministrations. “Oh, no, you have the occasional childhood sweethearts who stay wrapped up in each other forever, don’t you? But they’re the exception, not the rule.”
No, there’s definitely no pulse. Lucien wildly debates trying to hide that he’s noticed, then throws that thought to the wind. Bloody boxes hidden in a man’s private things is one thing, but they’re already sleeping together, his mouth is still on Shuni’s neck, he has every reason to have noticed it and ask about it.
“Um,” Lucien says. “Sorry. I just. Are you dead?”
“What?” Shuni sits up in the water, frowning at him. “Not since I last checked.”
For a moment, Shuni just stares at Lucien flatly, and then he slowly sinks back into the water again with another sigh. Either whatever Shuni saw in Lucien’s expression reassured him—Lucien himself isn’t sure what emotion he’s showing right now, not the best trait for an actor—or he’s decided that if Lucien wants to be rid of him, he’ll have to haul Shuni out of the tub bodily.
“No,” Shuni says. “No pulse. I’m not dead, though, my heart just isn’t in my body.”
“Oh, well, I suppose that’s fine then,” Lucien says, because what is he supposed to say to that? He sits back, running wet fingers through his own hair. “Is that what got stolen?”
Shuni’s shoulders seem to sag, and his hand comes up to toy with that pendant he’s still wearing over his remarkably shallow chest. “Yes,” he says. “They didn’t steal it directly out of my chest, though.”
There isn’t a scar or anything, but… “Did you take it out yourself? With that?”
“Mm, yes,” Shuni says, smiling briefly. “Think of it as a bottle opener, but for your ribs. My heartbreak was unpleasant, and I didn’t like the recovery from it either. With my heart safely in a box, I feel less. Not nothing, but… not as much. Things simply impact me less deeply. I thought it the best way to manage my recovery. Any lover I took after, I could simply judge how I felt about them from a distance and decide if and when I was ready to put my heart back.”
It all sounds rather exciting, put like that. “So how did it end up stolen? Did you show it to someone?”
“No. I have no idea how they even knew it was there. I check on it every morning before bed, make sure it’s clean, tip out the excess blood. But one morning, it was gone.” He grimaces, but as if he’s really just mildly inconvenienced about all that. “And under the box was the casting call sheet for this play, so I tried out. I’ve been searching the theatre when I can, trying to see if it’s there, and trying to figure out who might have taken it. Of course, this might all be a red herring, to distract me while they abscond with it to… wherever.”
It seems as though Shuni cannot ache, so Lucien decides to ache for him, at least right now. He leans in and hugs him again. “What does it mean for you, that someone else has your heart?”
“Well, the main thing is that they can kill me any time they want. A knife to the heart is as fatal if it’s out than if it’s in, regardless of how properly it was removed.” He seems tired now, and although he’d tensed briefly when Lucien wrapped his arms around him, he relaxes and leans into Lucien’s embrace. “…The water’s hot enough now.”
Lucien turns the gas off one-handed. “Is this why you weren’t Lord Crow’s type?”
“I suppose he must like wilder and brighter things than me,” Shuni agrees. “I don’t have much of a spark anymore. More’s the pity. I’ll have to try another Lord. Maybe the End or the Endless will have some insight, given my condition… I was really hoping the Old Magpie would help, though. But he just unleashed a flock in my face after I explained.” He sounds a bit cross about that one.
It explains the fall into the mud, anyway. Lucien hesitates. There’s a lot on his plate, dreams and prophecies and being drawn into a play that could end the world and all that, but… “I’d like to help,” he says. “I’ll work together with you on this, if you’ll let me—I can at least keep an eye out for a heart. Maybe I can talk to Lord Crow on your behalf?”
“If you can, then I’d like that,” Shuni says distractedly. He closes his eyes for a long moment. “Are you still willing to let me share your bed? Just for sleep. I’m afraid I don’t have much in me right now.”
Literally, Lucien manages not to say. “Of course,” he says. “Let me get you to bed. Are you hungry?”
“I’ll wait ’til morning. I’m too tired to eat.”
He should push Shuni to eat something, even just some bread, but he accepts it instead, and helps dry Shuni and get him to bed. “I’ll be along soon,” Lucien says, “if you don’t mind it being a bit crowded.”
“I don’t care,” Shuni says, but as Lucien turns away, he reaches out and catches Lucien’s sleeve briefly. “…Thanks. It’s really kind of you, under the circumstances.”
“You’ve shown me an awful lot of kindness too, for someone without a heart,” Lucien replies.
Shuni just lets go, so Lucien heads out, bathes himself in Shuni’s cooling water, tosses a last drink back, and refuses to think much more about it at all tonight. When he comes back, Shuni has tucked himself in against the wall to make space and is breathing deeply.
Lucien climbs into bed, trying not to crowd Shuni too much. He puts his head on the pillow, staring at the pale copper locks lying on the pillow next to him.
Despite himself, he falls asleep, and of course, he finds himself back in that awful dream again. This time, he panics, running, calling for something, someone, anyone, looking for something different, something he can do, something he can change.
And he finds something. Someone, sprawled out on the ground, gasping and trembling, as if she’s dying in this air that can’t kill anyone and can’t sustain anyone. For a moment, he doesn’t recognize her with how human she looks right now, but when he turns her over, he realizes she is the Moonlit Lord, her long silver hair gone to dusty tangles. Eight eyes make up her face, each in a different phase, and he stares into the only eye that is fully open, her full moon eye, and trembles. She is so dim.
She gasps, “Help—Help—” and holds a hand out to him.
[Please leave suggestions for Lucien in the comments.]