by for Aya.
It didn't take Jenny as long as she had anticipated to feel at ease between the worlds. Perhaps it was in her nature: it wasn't such a large leap from djinn to genie to Jenny, after all. Maybe she was meant for this place. Maybe that was why-out of all the worlds, out of all the girls-Julian chose her. Of all the basements in all the houses in all the world, it couldn't just be coincidence that the Shadow Men had been trapped in her grandfather's.
The eyes never blinked. That made it easier to adjust to them somehow. Jenny simply started thinking of them as garish wallpaper. The voices were harder to get used to, because they did stop. There was no rhyme or reason to them, no rhythm. The whispers and rasps could disappear for what felt like days, and then just when Jenny would let her guard down, they would be back in susurrations and shrieks. Phantom fingers plucked at her long silk gowns or tugged at her ankles, hoping to make her tumble off the paths that seemed to be little more than starlight in the areas Julian hadn't yet developed, but he never let her come to harm.
The more Jenny saw of her strange new home, the bolder she became. She had abandoned her mundane clothes within days, favouring the surreal, celestial dresses that filled her wardrobes. There was little need for shoes in this place, because whatever she walked on, whether it looked like cobblestones or grass or sand, felt like the softest fur underfoot. She wandered often: Julian was carving a home for the two of them out of the shadows, away from the prying eyes of his elders. When he was busy, the Creeper and the Lurker accompanied her, though she no longer thought of them as such. She called the snake Jormun now, and where there was no path, he extended his great body and let her walk along his back, her bare feet pale against his dark scales. The Lurker was now called Vana, and he snapped and snarled at any shadow that dare detach itself from the omnipresent gloaming to disturb her. This, Jenny often thought, must have been what the making of the Garden of Eden was like. Just Adam and Eve and the Animals. Just Julian and Jormun and Vana and me. And untold scores of other Shadow Men, of course, but she preferred not to think of them. Julian was teaching her the ways of nightmares, and she knew that just as her fear fed them, her confidence drained them. With her feet planted firmly on Jormun's scaly back, with Vana bristling by her side, Jenny would often stare into a pair of the disembodied eyes and smile and say, "You can't hurt me anymore. You are nothing."
Each time she said it, she came closer to believing it.
The eyes weren't everywhere, though. Julian had made sure to carve out a place for the two of them beyond the gawking eyes and guttural snarls, a place where Jenny could have some peace and privacy. Only one room was complete at the moment, but he was building up and out, below and beyond, and their castle in the sky was beginning to blot out the stars. Like a set of three-dimensional blueprints, it was more the suggestion of a shape in places, her mind's eye filling in the blanks, seeing the marvel it would become rather than the work in progress it currently was. From the outside, it simply looked like solid darkness, blacker than the unfathomable depths beyond; on the inside, though, it was like every fairytale castle Jenny had ever dreamed about, as if Julian had pulled the wistful images from her memories and made them real to an impossible, unthinkable degree. No matter how much she jumped on their glorious four-poster bed, it never so much as groaned under the strain. There was not a speck of dust or dirt to be found; no curtain hung askew; no throw rug turned up at the corner. The eyes could still see into the unfinished areas of the castle, but the bedchamber belonged to her and Julian alone; not even Vana and Jormun were allowed inside.
Jenny traced the rune of kenaz where it was etched deep into the thick wood, and the door swung open, revealing Julian sitting in the window seat, gazing out at the ceaseless darkness, brightened only by the stars above and Jenny's garden of silver roses below. As she eased the door shut behind her, she took a moment simply to admire him. Even after a long day of work-though measures of time such as 'day' ceased to exist here, with no sun to speak of-he looked utterly gorgeous. When he had first brought her to this untamed place, she had missed her friends terribly, but her homesickness too had abated. Julian possessed Tom's strength and then some; he had Michael's gallantry, Zach's creativity, Audrey's elegance, and Dee's fierceness. He even had a tinge of Summer's delicateness, deep in those glacier blue eyes, though it was getting smaller and smaller. It brought to mind a passage from a book she had read what seemed like years ago: He made her safe. She made him strong.
Here, in this barren darkness, studded with stars, they had remade each other. Jenny Thornton was no longer the girl she once was, the one who wore what her boyfriend wanted, the one who put everyone else above herself. And Julian was no longer cruel and obsessive. Just as Michelangelo freed angels from the marble, so too had they chipped away at each other's defences and facades until there was nothing left but their deepest selves, raw and ragged. But unlike the sculptor's masterpieces, they were revealed only to each other. Jenny couldn't imagine wanting anyone else to see her this way. And who else could have imagined seeing Julian, the youngest and most beautiful of his kind, looking unkempt, his white-blond hair mussed and streaked with darkness from his labours?
"Did you have a nice walk?" He spoke before he looked over at her, which gave her a moment to prepare herself for the breathtaking beauty of his eyes. But a moment was never really enough, despite the fact that he was the first thing she saw when she woke up and the last thing she saw before she fell asleep.
Beyond the door, Vana whined, and the lovers both laughed. "Always." She crossed the room and sat beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. So much was illusion here, but he was almost unbearably real: the tautness of his muscles, the weariness in his eyes, the gentleness of his touch as he stroked her hair. "The castle looks amazing."
Julian gave a deep chuckle, pulling her close so she could gaze with him out the window. "All it's missing is a sun for you."
"I don't need the sun," Jenny assured him, kissing him gently. No two kisses with Julian were the same, except that each made her heart sing. "I can see just fine by the stars."
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