But Jaice’s hand remained, an inexorable request, and his gaze held steady on hers. He presented his hand again, a little gesture of insistence.
Arlie accepted the invitation, letting his fingers envelope hers.
He must have steeled himself. He stiffened with a pained sound, but held his ground. His eyes widened; his jaw went hard. Arlie found that she was the one trembling.
Then again, maybe she was just a little bit shocky, too. A lizard beast from another world, a warrior who felt pain only when she touched him, her own adrenaline still surging in waves through her body.
He released a breath, having accepted the pain. His expression held something different now—something she hadn’t seen before, not once in his time here. A spark of something she might have called hope…or yearning. A daring to want on a level so deep it hardly had a name.
When he tucked his free hand under her braid and around her nape, she allowed it. When the faintest pressure asked her to move into his kiss, she allowed that, too.
His mouth was amazing. It met hers with a soft warmth, not so much demanding as giving. Asking questions, looking for answers, and leaving in the wake of his touch a stunning burst of warmth and fast-blooming desire.
But he trembled, and a groan rumbled deeply in his chest. She pulled away. “Don’t even tell me that hurt you—!” She brushed fingers to her mouth, whispering over where she could still feel his touch. “I can’t stand it if—”
“No.” His voice had taken on a strange note, as if he could barely manage the words at all. He rested his hands on his thighs—a practiced position that seemed to instill some measure of calm. “Far from it. A gift.”
His gaze brought out the heat in her already flushed cheeks. She had no trouble, then, understanding just exactly what that kiss had done to him. “Pain wasn’t the only thing she took from you.” She reached out to touch his mouth with shaking fingers, stopping just short. It would be his choice. It had to be.
He didn’t lean into her touch. But he did capture her hand, briefly twining their fingers together—fully prepared for the impact, this time, and hiding most of it. Just the slight catch of his breath, a shudder through his body as he sat neither quite so straight-backed nor graceful.
“I feel neither,” he agreed. “It makes me,” and his voice took on the tone of recitation, “a more effective fighter. More focused.”
She couldn’t help the protest behind her words, the grief of them. “But why? Why must you fight at all?”
Jaice disentangled her fingers from his and returned her hand to rest gently on her own leg, choosing his response with visible care. “Protection. Occasionally, entertainment.”
“I’m not surprised she needs protection,” Arlie muttered, “if she does things like this to people.” She gave the dead creature a dark look. “Which was this? Protection, or entertainment?”
“Unexpected,” he said wryly. “I never would have brought it here, given a choice.”
Meaning he couldn’t truly talk about it. “Tell me what your world is like, then. Not her, if you can’t. But the world. Is it desert, like here? Do you live in stone or brick or wood? Caves or castles? How do you speak my language? It’s hardly the only one even on this world.”
His laughter was subdued, but she heard it anyway. Felt the strength of the man behind it. He said, “Mountain forest with generous rain. Stone, and neither. And the language is a gift from…” He hesitated, and managed to say, “Her.”
Arlie opened her mouth for more, and he pressed a gentle finger across her lips, wincing briefly at the contact. “Heartsong,” he said. “These are fine questions. But I cannot linger here. Trust me on this—I will be back if I’m able.” His expression turned briefly scorching, hot enough to remind her of their kiss, and the response it had wrenched from him. “I have new reason for survival, now. New reason for everything.”
He shifted as if to rise, and she thrust out a hand to stop him, knowing better than to actually touch him at the moment he would be bringing all his hurts to life. “Wait. Just—wait. If you thought you couldn’t…if you don’t feel—then why would you ever want to kiss me in the first place?”
His smile retained the heat he’d only just turned on her. “With one such as you,” he said, “that which I feel is not the only pleasure to be had.”
Weeks passed. Arlie went out and sang, because it was what she did. She left him a gentle unguent of natural oils for his scars, and after a time, it disappeared. She wore the sash he’d brought her, and she found another complicated little knot of dried grasses strung on a thong—an unassuming thing made with precision and care. At his hand, she thought, and wore that, too.
But she didn’t see him again until scant days before summer solstice.
“Heartsong,” he said, upon finding her there. “She suspects. I could not truly come until the barriers between us thinned.”
Arlie stopped, uncertain at the top of the slope, the long evening still stretching bright before them and the arroyo in full heat of a pre-monsoon day—baking in the shade, broiling in the sun, and dry enough to curl a cat’s whiskers.
He did little more than smile that smile and open his arms slightly, and she threw herself down the hill, coming into them with such emphasis that she knocked a gust of air from his lungs.
Or possibly one of those laughs she loved so well.
As if one could grow to love anything—anyone—over a course of days that stretched over months.
Maybe so, Arlie Parker. Maybe so.
Even if one was so reserved as to have never quite felt that emotion before at all.
He held her well, and then slid his hands up to cup the sides of her face. His hesitation there, looking into her eyes with the gold of his own, gave her the chance to say no.
Arlie tipped her head up and welcomed him, a kiss that enveloped her just as quickly as his arms. Her flush of joy at his arrival deepened into the flush of desire that had been simmering these long weeks, full of the memory of his touch and the look in his eye. After long moments of the glorious feel of his mouth moving against hers, tongues teasing and hands starting to roam, they separated just far enough for speech.
“Still?” she asked, searching his gaze for hints and finding only the wry warmth that had always called to her so strongly.
“Still,” he told her. “I do not pretend to understand it.” He threaded his fingers through hers and turned his hand palm up, regarding it with a sort of wonder. “These fingers, I feel. Not just perceive, but feel. Your mouth, I feel.” He closed his eyes, his expression transported—a thing of joy, a thing of longing.
“And you didn’t know?”
“When we first found each other, no. The meetings that passed, no. There was always a separation by clothing.”
Her gloves. His shirt and robe. His bandage. She took in the significance of that.
He’d cared before he understood what she could give him.
Maybe that’s why her touch mattered at all—because she had mattered first. Or maybe it was her singing, the thing that had drawn him here in the first place.
Not that she could pretend to understand the unfathomable, starting with his presence here at all.
Not, with his arms around her and his body hard against hers, that she cared about understanding.
But she remembered what he’d said upon arrival, and she cared about that. “She suspects?”