Arlie touched him, all right. She touched him with her lips, with her hands, with the flutter of her lashes. She ran her tongue along his jaw, the seam of his mouth, the curve of his ear. She rolled with him over the blanket, soaking in the scent of his skin and the sound of his groans. She chose the moment to fit herself to him—and then waited for him to overcome the new flood of sensation before she began to move. His face was beautiful in its straining pleasure, his jaw tight and his brow drawn, his mouth as fierce as his need.
But his unfettered gasp reached her the most deeply, arrowing through her body to twist her own pleasure free. From a lazy, gathering delight to something hot and entirely demanding, from thought to pure reaction. When he made that sound again, she cried out in response and his hands closed over her hips, holding them together in the vigor of rhythm and desire.
As she started to stiffen, the hot spark of orgasm upon her once more, he gasped a third time, and again in quick succession, and she glimpsed just enough to know he’d thrown his head back and surrendered himself.
Spark turned to flame and ignited her right over the edge.
He held her as dusk descended, enclosing her in his arms and curving around her back. Just touching, and feeling those faint movements of skin against skin as their breathing settled. She thought he might doze, but knew from the occasional caress of his thumb over her hand that he hadn’t.
He absorbed sensation. He absorbed her. Just as she absorbed him in return—so attuned that she knew when he started to think about leaving.
“You’ll be back?” she asked, the words a little muffled by the fall of her hair and the press of her face against the arm supporting her head.
He combed that hair back. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Perhaps the night after. But then we must be more careful. If I am to come, I must learn silent ways to do so.”
“Tell me,” she said. “I need to understand more. Not about her, but about your home.”
He told her of the wild mountains that crowded settlements down near their edges, and how the small cities were separated by distance—and the holds of power by more distance yet, their craggy holds up high in the foothills. He told her of the nomads who wandered the nearby rolling plains, and of the sea he had never crossed.
He didn’t talk about the fights, or the struggles between those in power that generated them, or the rules governing those fights.
Arlie didn’t ask Jaice any of her questions. She could already fill in too many of those blanks. She had the feeling she’d learn the rest as time passed.
If she was lucky.
And then, with full darkness around them, she made it easy for him. She peeled herself away and reached for her blouse.
He sat. His movements turned precise and efficient—the pants fastened just so, the shirt tucked in this fashion, the over robe secured in that. By the time he finished, Arlie was rebuttoned but still deliciously disheveled, with no intention of being otherwise on the quiet walk home. She gathered up their picnic items, folding and packing.
He made no move up the arroyo. “If I can ask—”
After what they now shared? “Ask!”
“I wonder…” He glanced toward the quiescent doorway, gave her one of those little smiles. “If you might sing me home?”
But he didn’t return the following night.
And he didn’t return the night after that.
There was the faintest brush of an instant where Arlie felt used. No more than that. What they’d had, what they’d done…it had been real. More real than anything in her life so far. And she knew nothing of his world or the difficulties of the doorways, and she knew nothing of what happened there now. She would not assume.
Besides, she might never see him again—and if not, she was determined to treasure him always. To hold tightly to the awareness of other worlds and other places—and that she, above all, had had the wherewithal to sing through the most vital being she’d ever met.
But for now, she ached. The waiting without knowing…
She ached and mourned and lost weight and forgot to braid her hair, until friends at Food Shelf Tuesdays would have no more of it. They saw her fed and dragged out to movies and art shows and summer festivals—and then, when Lammas Night had come and gone and August was behind them, fall flea markets and even a short fun run.
Because she knew nothing of his world and the difficulties of the doorways, and all she could do was wait and sing.
Until one evening, with dusk coming sooner and more crisply, the monsoon season behind them and the landscape of the arroyo below subtly altered in its wake, Arlie snapped through her mourning and into anger.
Why did she have to wait? Just because she’d never seen the doorway herself? Just because she’d never yet glimpsed that other world?
She gathered a kit and stuffed it into her backpack—an all-season coat, bottled water, camping tools and first aid kit. Not too much of any one thing, but enough to face a variety of circumstances for a short period of time. She wore her sturdiest jeans and her hikers, and layered her shirts.
She brought the Taser, too.
And her flute.
She took it all out to her singing tree, and then she did more than sing. She watched the area from which Jaice had so often emerged, and she positioned herself all around it. She sang the same song from each position, and she sang different songs. She put words to Ravel and hummed her way through musical lyrics.
She saw nothing. Through the weeks, she saw nothing at all. August gave way to September and crawled into October, and now she wore the jacket. The thong for one of the knotted necklaces grew thin; she tied it around her flute, touching it wistfully before she lifted the instrument to her lips.
She saw nothing. But she heard…
A flatness. Not in note, but in tone.
Because for all the years since she’d started her musical meditation, she’d heard without truly noticing the quality of song in this air, at this spot. The way it rang free, with just the hint of returning to her on an echo.
There had been no hint of echo.
She faced the long-quiescent spot and closed her eyes, taking her thoughts back to a summer solstice evening and the amazing sensation of his touch on her skin and in her hair and then inside her. She woke all the places that had faltered, bringing to mind all the details of him—the precision of his movement, the silence that settled around him when he set the warrior aside, the consideration of his words.
“Be there,” she murmured, and she spoke not to the doorway, but to Jaice himself. Be there.
She lifted the flute to her lips and played. Long, liquid notes, mellow from the wood and confident from her heart.
And yes, when she moved to face this way and that, when she took careful steps while the song stayed strong—yes, she heard that flat spot.
She defined it.
She stepped toward it.
She stepped through it.