Title: "Persephone Descending"
Author: monimala
Fandom: "General Hospital"
Rating/Classification: NAC, angst, St/Em-ish, UC, het.
Disclaimer: Nope, don't own them!
Summary: Stefan Cassadine has a logistical problem...but it may not be what he thinks it is.

One push. One shove. And she'll tumble from the cliff, to the rocks below, twisted like a marionette cut abruptly from its strings. One push and her suffering will be eased. One shove and a bothersome problem will be solved.

She leans back against the stone bench, her dark hair whipping around her in the light summer breeze. She is wearing white...a shroud of innocence... and she looks like youth and spring trapped beneath the frost, waiting. Her eyes are distant, she is wholly unaware of his presence, and he thinks, again, that her body bathed in the tide is not so difficult an end to achieve.

His fingers clench around the small ceramic bowl as he subtly clears his throat.

"St-stefan?" she gasps, head jerking up as wariness replaces weariness. "What are you doing here?"

He extends his hands, his tentative gift. "I brought you blueberries," he says, cheeks warming as he realizes it sounds far more asinine now than it did when he watched Mrs. Lansbury transfer them from their green plastic basket and practiced his lines.

"Blueberries?" she repeats, velvet brows knitting together with confusion.

"Not to worry, they are not dusted with arsenic. Merely...'Pixi Stix'." His tongue trips over the unfamiliar name and he feels twice as foolish. "Nikolas indicated they were a confection you enjoyed." He is rewarded with her long fingers closing around a single plump berry. "A peace offering," he says, by way of explanation.

She pops the fruit into her mouth, eyes closing as she savors the tart-sweet burst of juice and sugar. "Peace..." she murmurs, longingly, looking, in that moment, joyous and transcendent.

He is stupidly cowed by the reverence and pleasure in that singular expression. Perhaps pushing her from the cliffs would have been a wiser choice than this. Than offering "pax" and watching the fatigue lines disappear from beneath her eyes as she remembers what it's like to be free of cares, of the shadow of death.

In this moment, Emily Quartermaine is beautiful.

And he is the one shattering beneath her on the rocks.

As she nods her assent, he moves to sit beside her on the bench, careful to leave space between them, perching almost statue-like on the edge, and placing the bowl of berries between them as an additional barrier. She watches him with a tiny smile curving the edges of her lips.

"Do you *ever* let down your guard?" she wonders, reaching for another blueberry and savoring it the same way she did the first.

He simply stares at her, coolly, until she laughs. It baffles him how his iciest glares, his most glacial insults, light fires in her instead of freezing her to the quick. How she illuminates his darkness even as he reaches to snuff out her candle.

"No...no you don't, do you?" She shakes her head, pushing a few strands of hair behind her ear with her fingertips.

"Would *you*, Miss Quartermaine, if you were a Cassadine?" he counters, swallowing and glancing away as she pretends not to notice that the wind and her illness are at odds with her coiffure.

Nikolas has already begun stocking the wardrobe in her room with an array of hats and scarves. It is only a matter of time.

"If I were a Cassadine..." she echoes, shuddering. This time, the berries she takes into her palm are eaten due to reflex, not desire. Something to occupy her mind as she speaks, hollow and wistful. "When I was younger...I always thought I would marry Nikolas some day. That he was just waiting for me to grow up." She laughs at something terrible or wonderful or both that only she can see. "When is that, Stefan? When do we count as 'grown'? And am I going to get there?"

"Do you ask because you want Nikolas to marry you...?" He chokes on the query, on that completely unacceptable possibility. And the other. "Or because...because you're afraid of what may happen to you?"

Her eyes fill with surprise. A sight better than misery. She should know better than to equate him with that young man she refuses to tell, with the family she keeps at arm's length. She should know that he is the absolute master of his modest corner of Hell.

"You...you *know*?" And she glances down at the bowl, at the kindness that he clearly would not be offering were she not...dying. "Of course you know." She nods, tightly, and the waves crash over his broken limbs. "I should've guessed. You've been far too polite to me this past week. You don't need to plot to get rid of me now, huh? My cancer is doing it for you." Her voice falters. "Just...just maybe not fast enough...what a shame. N-not nearly as fast as a fall or a car accident or poison, right?"

"Stop it." He cuts her off, imperiously. "Stop that at once." He cannot, will not, let her know her perceptions are hauntingly correct. That he is everything she suspected and more. That she is everything he feared...and so very much more. "I will admit that knowing the tunnels and passages on the estate has its advantages. I was checking security when I overheard you speaking to Nikolas about your...about your condition." He hates that clinical word. *Condition.* He's heard it a thousand times from Laura's doctors. He hates it and winces. "You must believe, Miss Quartermaine, that I personally wish you no harm. I...I'm very sorry for your suffering."

"You're not." She shakes her head, fiercely. "You're not sorry. God, you're lying, *too*. Even somebody who hates me is putting up a brave face." She laughs and it is sorrow, desolation as she rises. "I can't...I can't do this...I can't let people watch me *die*," she cries, lashing out with one arm.

Berries spill across the damp grass and ceramic explodes into shards.

"From where I'm sitting, I am watching you live."

"Are you? Is this living? Is this?" Her face grows pale...the only indication that her act of defiance, of rage, has taxed her...and he moves quickly...

One step. One hand. And she tumbles into his arms.

One step and her suffering is cradled in his embrace. One hand and a new, alarming, problem presents itself.

"Shhhh," he whispers, instinctively, as her breathing quickens and the panic of her dizzy spell sets in. "It's all right. I have you." She slumps, defeated, against his chest and he checks her forehead for signs of fever with a light brush of his mouth. Thankfully cool, not warm. Perhaps too cool and he uses one hand to unbutton his jacket and draw half of it around her.

"St-stefan...?" she asks, faintly, even as she burrows into the offered shelter, the warmth.

"Emily." Using her name is improper. Is too forward. Ridiculous when he was, mere minutes ago, contemplating her swift and painless demise. But so is brushing kisses across her temple, her hair...and even though he tells himself that this is how he held Nikolas through the chicken pox and chills and nightmares, he knows it is far from the same. "EmilyEmilyEmily." He rubs concentric circles along her back, pretending he cannot feel her ribs, the frantic beating of her heart.

"Wh-why?" Her lips make contact with his throat as she moves her head onto his shoulder. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

His fingers crawl, of their own accord, to the curve of her neck. He could snap, twist, so easily. But instead he strokes, cupping the back of her head in his palm. "You asked...you asked if I ever let down my guard..." When he chuckles, it holds no arrogance...no malice...nothing he intends. "I fear...I fear you have your answer."

Her brows furrow and he traces them smooth with his mouth. Now, he is the feverish one...feeling faint.

"You...you brought me blueberries?" A lilting question, soft and shocked, full of wonder. and of life.

"Yes," he breathes before he kisses her.

He does not glance down at the rocks before he leaves.

At the marionette. Cut from its strings.

One push.

One shove.

His carefully-erected defenses are twisted and dashed, washed over by the tide.

Perhaps next time, he'll bring her a pomegranate, feed her six seeds, and make her his forever.


June 14, 2003.

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