The wild irises were in bloom again by the stream in the woods.
Michaela had noticed them that first summer in Colorado Springs. She’d never seen them among the tall, proper flowers of Boston, and she hadn’t spotted them in Colorado either until one of the children, she forgot which now, had brought in a bunch and left them in a jug on the table.
She’d seen them when she came back from the clinic. She remembered that moment, at least, with perfect clarity - she’d opened the door, warm from riding home in the midsummer heat, weary from a hard day of work, smiling at the faint sound of the children playing in the barn, and she’d seen them there, flopping over the sides of the jug, a splash of purple-blue in a golden beam of warm late-evening sunlight. It wasn’t even as if they’d never had flowers in the house before, but something about them made her look at the room with fresh eyes - the plain, clean table, the little bookshelf, the sturdy stove, the quilts and blankets piled neatly near the fire. She’d stood there in the doorway, arrested by the picture and the sudden feeling that, if she went and sat at the table, she would fit right into the image as if she was meant to be there.
She did it, walking like she was in a dream, going to the table and standing with her back to the window so that dust motes danced in the shaft of light in front of her. She leaned in and inhaled the sweet scent of the irises.
The next day, wanting to remember that flash of colour, she wore one of the irises in her belt when she went to visit the Cheyenne.
‘This plant is good for toothache,’ Snow Bird told her, while they sat together sorting supplies. She reached out and touched the flower at Michaela’s waist. ‘Later we can walk together and find some growing, and I’ll show you which parts to use.’
‘I’d like that,’ Michaela said, smiling.
The irises only bloomed for a few more weeks, but by then Michaela knew in her bones that she would see them again when the seasons turned.
* * *
It all seemed so long ago now. Walking on the banks of the stream hand in hand with Sully, her wedding ring still new enough on her finger that she could feel it all the time, she could hardly imagine that there had been a time when she didn’t feel like she belonged in Colorado Springs. These woods, this stream, these clumps of irises growing wild - they were part of her now, mixed up with her own self. Just like Sully was.
She smiled and looked up at him beside her. His eyes were narrowed as he watched in the bright sunlight for the medicinal plants she needed to stock up on. When he felt her attention on him he turned and smiled back, and she caught her breath as she remembered the last time the irises had been in bloom.
It had been a day very like this one - hot and bright and still, the air full of things buzzing and singing and chirping.
‘You kissed me, not far from here, this time last year,’ she said coyly.
‘Kissed you a lot of places, this time last year,’ he grinned. ‘We’d just got engaged, I was kissin’ you everywhere I could.’
‘I’m thinking of a specific occasion,’ she said. ‘The irises - they reminded me.’
He looked around them. ‘Oh... yeah.’ He tugged her hand to draw her closer to him and slid an arm around her waist.
* * *
The day was hot. They’d stopped by the stream for a few minutes to drink and to catch their breath, like they had many times before. But it was easier now to become distracted, planning all the details of the life they were going to make together.
‘We’ll have bunches of wild irises in our new home, once we’re married,’ she told him.
‘You can have bunches of irises now,’ he teased.
‘Yes, but these ones will be different. They’ll be our irises.’
‘Flowers don’t belong to nobody, not really.’
‘You’re spoiling it,’ she said, grinning and moving closer to him.
He touched his fingers to her chin, tilted her face gently up towards his and kissed her. They’d shared enough kisses now that it should have begun to feel routine, but it hadn’t yet - even the thought that it could be routine to kiss Sully was its own thrill. Here they were, walking in the same woods where they had walked together more times than she could count, and his palm was gentle at her neck, his thumb brushing her cheek, and his other arm was around her waist, and she was touching him too, her fingers tangled in his hair, the muscles of his back smooth under her hand beneath the roughness of his shirt, the nudge of his hip against hers as they held each other close, so close, oh...
She was well educated in the things husbands and wives did together and she knew that once she and Sully were married, that would be part of it, but until that moment, that shudder that passed from lips to stomach to... somewhere else, she hadn’t truly understood.
It only became real then, when suddenly she knew what fierce impulse would make a person want to tear another person’s clothes right off, because that impulse was surging through her. She actually had her hands inside Sully’s loose collar and on his shoulders before it occurred to her that she should stop. She drew back, confused. He smiled at her.
The space between them was too wide, she couldn’t bear it. She closed it again, both arms around his shoulders to pull him to her, overbalancing them both. They toppled onto the grass among the irises.
‘You hurt?’ he asked her.
‘No,’ she said.
She could feel the blood in her veins moving faster.
She wrapped herself around him every way she could, legs tangling together, hands moving under his shirt and below his belt, brushing the line of his hip bones. He did the same, hitching her closer. She wanted him to touch her everywhere. He put a soft hand on her breast, and even through the layers of fabric it sent a shock through her. She pushed into it, wanting more.
‘Michaela... do you really want this, now?’ he asked, pulling away from her to look at her face.
She sat up, breathing hard, aware suddenly of her rumpled clothing, her braid coming loose. She blushed.
‘Yes...’ she said, ‘but... I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be proper.’
He nodded. ‘All right. Plenty of time.’
‘Yes, there is,’ she agreed.
She stood up and straightened her clothes and smiled at him like nothing had happened, but she still ached in all the places he hadn’t touched her, still wasn’t touching her.
* * *
Standing there by the stream, their arms around each other, the smell of sweet flowers in the air, it was like they’d stepped back in time a year, except that now she knew that there was nothing to fear and everything to enjoy. This time there was no clumsy falling - she pulled him down to the grass with her and rolled onto her side so that they could lie in each other’s arms, like they did in their marriage bed.
She wriggled closer to kiss him open-mouthed, tasting warm sweetness. He looped one arm around her hips - that was still so new, hands on hips and thighs instead of waist, so many new ways of touching - pulling her to him so that their bodies fit together, angles and curves tucking into corners and concaves. He nuzzled her shoulder, at the collar of her dress. She slipped a hand underneath his shirt and laid it on his chest.
They kissed for a while, holding on tight, and it was its own beautiful thing - they could kiss, or they could touch each other, or they could hold each other, and it was all theirs to choose, and all of it was its own wonder. But this time she wanted to fulfil the promise of that day a year ago.
She climbed astride him and blushed with pleasure to feel him swelling beneath her.
‘What are we doing?’ he asked, grinning up at her.
‘Finishing what we started,’ she told him, leaning down to tug his lip gently with her teeth. Her hair fell around them in a curtain that hid the world.
Sully laughed. No - Sully giggled.
‘That tickles,’ he said, wriggling away from the hair brushing his neck and ears. ‘Can you tie it up?’
She shook her head seriously. ‘No, there’s no time for that.’
She rolled off him and onto her back, pulling him so that he followed her movement and ended on top of her, their positions reversed. She arched, pushing her hips to meet him.
‘Well, all right then,’ he said, smiling at her and beginning to unfasten his belt.
She pulled her skirt and petticoat out of the way, slid out of her undergarments, gasped with want as he touched her to make sure she was ready.
‘Please,’ she breathed.
And then they were rocking together, and although it was still so new it was familiar enough now that they were both beginning to know what to do for each other - how she held him just there and it made him grunt and move faster, how he stroked her here and made her lose her breath for a moment.
He was near his peak, she could feel it. She was close too, but less so. She pictured how sweet it would be to both be there together - they hadn’t ever quite managed it yet. She had a sudden flash of clarity about what would make it happen - it was all to do with angles.
She let go of him for a moment, fumbled awkwardly, throwing them both off.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, at his quizzical look. ‘Wait just a moment, please.’
He paused, trembling with the effort.
She rolled up her skirts so that they made a cushion beneath her hips, lifting her off the ground.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘Now.’
She was right. The angle was perfect. It only took a few moments more and then they both cried out together. Lights danced in her eyes like the aftermath of a star exploding.
They lay there then, waiting for their hearts to slow, talking about nothing, watching the birds and the clouds and the flowers in the breeze until they noticed the time and straightened their clothing and both combed fingers through her tangled hair, laughing when they found knots.
He plucked an iris from the clump beside them and handed it to her with a kiss.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s go home.’
It still gave her a pang of joy to hear him call the new homestead that. But this was home too, this clearing by a stream, this wood, this town, this mountain territory.
She tucked the iris into her belt and followed him.