It had been six months since she had met Raphael in that huge gymnasium. Six months since Raphael had been accompanying her everywhere. They said that a war was brewing. This was the calm before the storm. She was living during the calm, before the storm that would eventually swallow up her father’s kingdom. That’s what they said anyway.
She tried to ignore them. Tried to hear past the hushed whispers and to assume that it was simply the wind howling. She tried her best to ignore the number of people switching positions at scheduled times of the day. Even though they were meant to be keeping her company, she rarely saw her father and sisters.
Issie didn’t mind. She expected her sisters to disappear, after all, their job was to serve as a distraction for other people, not her. She was more annoyed with the fact that Raphael had come with her everywhere. Her father introduced her to him as a friend, but she knew better. She knew he was meant to be her bodyguard, even though she consistently refused his help.
She always argued that he should, and could, be doing a lot more than just simply babysitting her. Raphael always replied that he didn’t care about the time he was ‘wasting’ babysitting her, but she always knew that he did.
“I know he said to watch over me, but surely this is a bit too far.” She said, her voice wavered as she winced.
Raphael stared down at her eyes, before switching his gaze to the needle that was carving a black, thick outline in her skin. The outline of the single rose was almost complete, and Raphael knew from experience, that the pain had only just begun.
“I just wanted to see you squirm.” He said with a smirk. “Plus, I needed to see whether the ink was poisoned. It’s safe now.”
She threw her middle finger up at him, the one finger that she swore was reserved just for him. The regret hit her like a sack of bricks, once her arm was in the air. Immediately, she screwed up her fist into a tight ball, hoping that this would at least release some of the pain inflicted on her.
“Darlin’, you’re gonna have to relax your muscles.” The American southern drawl came out of the tattoo artist’s mouth, hanging especially on the end of the sentence.
Issie smiled and obeyed her instructions. It’s better to smile through the pain, even though she was sure that her mouth was twitching as the needle dug its way into her skin.
“You get three free punches if you get through this.” Raphael muttered casually, looking at his new tattoo in the mirror. “Anywhere you like. Even my balls, if you wanna test your morals.”
On the right side of his ribs was a glass case covered with vines. The vines themselves were intricate and shaded with a dark green. There even was this small inconspicuous crack on the glass, where the case had been squeezed so tightly by the vines. Issie watched as the vines ran the side of his torso, taking note of the fresh bruise beside it. She knew that there was no point of asking him what had happen, since she’d probably turn to dust before she got a straight answer out of him.
As the tears started to fall, she bit her lip. Ignoring the dull of ache of thorns piercing her skin was one thing, but trying to ignore the needle carving its way through, what felt like, an open wound was another thing.
“How long have we got left?” She managed to whimper out.
“Jus’ got the shading on the stem to do so… not long. You’re doin’ great.”
She wanted to turn back, but she knew that watching the needle draw blood from her skin, would make her woozy.
“Yeah, honey. You’re doing so good.” Raphael mocked her, still holding a part of his shirt as he turned around to face her.
She held her breath, not finding the strength in her to respond to him. He watched as her eyelids slightly twitched in pain as she tried to calm her breathing down. Just a little bit more, you can do this. It was mantra repeating in her mind, she couldn’t give up now. He watched as the artists wiped away the blood coming from the intricate birth-lines on her arm.
His hand, before he even knew what he was doing, reached out to her face, softly wiping away the tears. “Hey, it’s gonna be alright.” He softly whispered to her, softly caressing the tip of her cheekbone.
She could do nothing but nod, for the pain was far too great for a response. She melted into his touch, and they stayed like for over thirty minutes, until the tattoo was done. His fingers were rough but they barely touched her face, as they glided over her cheeks in a slow rhythm.
* ~ * ~ *
“I think it looks pretty good.”
Issie stood in front of her floor-length mirror, admiring her new tattoo. It was true what they said about getting a tattoo – get one, and you’ll suddenly want them all. The gradient pink rose blended with her already warm tone, and the thorns were more pronounced, emerging from a single leaf.
“Really? I think mine’s better than yours.” She retorted, even though she didn’t need to. She tried not to wince whenever she moved her arm.
“I can see what you’re saying but you’re absolutely wrong.” Raphael shot back.
He stood up from her bed and gently bumped her out of the way with his hips. He lifted his shirt, to the reveal the torso that she had never really taken time to glance at. She didn’t realise how much blonde hair had covered his chest, making a sort-of soft fur blanket on his stomach.
She rolled her eyes in response, not wanting to amuse him with an answer. As she dropped her arm to the side, her fingers accidentally mingled with his and her mind immediately skipped back to the moment where he was stroking her cheek. She felt the heat rise to her cheeks and scolded herself. He probably didn’t even feel what just happened, so why should she get all worked up about it?
The walk home wasn’t as awkward as she thought it would be. Raphael had never seen her cry, yet he seemed so comfortable with comforting her with so much ease. She wondered whether his mind was also replaying the moment shared between them. She looked back at him as he started to type on his phone. Who am I kidding? I bet he didn’t even think twice about it.
“Is, I gotta skedaddle.” He put his phone away in his pocket. “My presence has been requested.”
She nodded, before carefully collapsing on her bed. He patted down his shirt, skipping the area of his new tattoo, in an attempt to smooth down his shirt. He stretched out his hand and showed her his open palm, and after a few confused-but-awkward seconds, he finally grabbed Issie’s hand.
“This is a high-five.” He spoke slowly as he patted their hands together. “Do they have them from where you’re from?”
“Piss off.” She laughed, after rolling her eyes.
The door slammed shut, meaning that he had finally left her room. She couldn’t help but wonder about what would have happened if she simply intertwined her fingers with his. Would he have looked at her with confusion or would he have bent down and–
What the hell was wrong with her? She wasn’t about to get herself tangled up with meaningless sentiments – she’d rather leave her sisters to that.
* ~ * ~ *
The iridescent light from her laptop screen blinded her sight once she began to open one eye. The comforting darkness didn’t seem so bad now that she thought about it. Just before she could slip back into her dreamland, riddled with fantastical adventures, the door slammed open and she could feel the sudden light behind her eyelids.
Wet hands patted softly at her shoulders and she groaned, rolling onto her other side. She muttered something unintelligible in order to stop them from disturbing her sleep. The sudden cold air yanked her out of her sleep and she turned around to see eyes staring right at her.
“What the–,” She half-shouted, her voice still croaky from sleep.
The blurry face put a finger to their lips before creeping backwards and peeking out of the door. In her very sleepy state, she managed to recognise the creeping figure as Raphael. Quietly, he slowly closed the door, shutting out any light that led into the room. Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
She barely made out his finger pointing to the balcony door. Confused, she followed his finger to the door anyway. Opening the balcony door, she prayed that it didn’t make a sound. She heard his footsteps behind her, ushering her out to the balcony with hand gestures. Issie wanted to ask him what was going on, but couldn’t find the words to complete her sentence.
He jumped down first, landing with a roll on the ground. The thorns ripped at his clothing, and Issie could clearly see that there were inky patches staining his shirt, his hands, and his face. Raphael stood up immediately, gesturing for her to jump down. The thorns dragged at her skin, the same way the tattoo needle scraped itself across her skin, but adrenaline masked the pain. She would feel it later, she knew she would.
She jumped, letting the thorns rip apart her fluffy socks. She landed with a tumble, butat least he caught her (maybe not with his arms but his body). Once she was on her feet, she was pushed by Raphael to run ahead into the woods in front of her.
The sound of gunshots made her stop in her tracks as she sprinted through the nearby pathway. She turned around just in time to see the glass suddenly shatter; a man falling out of the window and landing awkwardly on the ground. Her heart stopped beating for a minute, as she watched in slow motion, a bullet punch through the man’s gut.
Raphael turned around, realising that he was no longer being followed by her. He yanked her forward, even though her heels were dug deeply into the ground. Rocks and thorns dug into the soles of her feet, but she didn’t care. Her family was still inside. Blood was being shed and she was here. There was nothing she could do to protect her family.
Raphael picked her up in his arms, the way that a crying toddler would be picked up and rocked back to sleep, and ran along with her. In the deepest part of her heart, she wished that the bumpy rhythm that he ran with, would lull her back to sleep. That she would wake up in the morning, and tell Raphael about this stupid dream that she had; how it clutched at her heart and left no room but fear in her soul.
She peeked over his shoulder, despite his whispered warnings, and watched as the carnage unfolded before her eyes. The last thing she saw, before the trees hid her view, was her home exploding completely into flames.
* ~ * ~ *
“Is, stop pacing. Please.”
She didn’t stop. The familiar feeling of the soft carpet under her toes no longer added any source of comfort to her. Bloody footprints decorated the border of the room, as she paced around the room, mostly because Raphael never fully got to remove the thorns from her feet.
“Is, please. You’re giving me a headache.”
Still, she ignored him. Shortly before, they had received a phone call that her father and sisters were safe. When she asked after her mother, she received only mumbling and incoherent sentences. Evelyn, her sister, was injured which made her heart race, but her father assured her that it was only minor.
“It’s easily fixed. Don’t worry about the home, it’s not what truly matters at the moment.” Her father had told her.
“Your mother. She isn’t here.”
She stopped. Issie’s face was hard. Except her eyes. Her eyes were glazing up, red from all the rubbing she had been doing earlier to make the tears stop falling. Her breathing was erratic and she could nothing to calm herself down. Dressed in bright pink pyjama shorts and a white t-shirt a couple of sizes too small for her, she was sure that she looked like a mess. There were bloody handprints where Raphael had held her and she was sure that there were leaves decorating her hair. Her black hair was tied into a messy ponytail. Her socks, or what was left of them, were sitting in a sad crumpled pile in the corner.
She opened her mouth to speak, except nothing but a yawn emerged out of it. Through blurry eyes, she peered at the ornately wooden clock, carved in the shape of the sun, to look at the time. Three o’clock in the morning. No wonder she was plagued by tiredness.
She hadn’t been in this cabin since she was fourteen, and had never realised how much the layout of the cabin was unfamiliar to her. She swore she had walked past the same room, at least three times.
“You realise that there’s a staircase near the end of the hall, right?”
Issie stopped in the middle of the doorway, and turned her head slowly towards Raphael’s direction. He was lying on the couch, facing her, with his feet crossed over each other on the ends of the couch. How did he get the packet of crisps he was munching on?
“Shut up.” Issie muttered, grouchily. She backtracked and snatched a handful of crisps before walking to the end of the hallway, only just noticing the entryway to the staircase. She paused, just before stepping on the bottom step, and realised how cold the wooden floor was below her toes. “Raphael.”
She never said his name before. Not like that. Her words were quiet but the heaviness of his name caught him off guard. Her rushed to her side, tripping over fallen pillows, to find her knees shaking. She was crumbling but he caught her before she could hit the ground.
Her walls had fallen.