John Sheridan is a dead man.
He is a walking, talking, breathing corpse, and the next time that I see him will also be the last time that I see him. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Susan Ivanova. . . Just as I start to get wrapped up in my little fire and brimstone Old Testament fantasies, the speaker in my ear crackles as my wingman speaks to me again.
"It's really a lovely day for this, isn't it, Commander?"
"It's space, Marcus. It's black, with little bitty colored specks here and there. Occasionally, there are bigger, brighter specks. It doesn't pay to get too close to them. Space is the same *every* day."
"True, but that doesn't make it any less lovely."
Nobody, and I mean *nobody* has a right to be that upbeat. He just can't be human. Maybe I should have Stephen check his neck for scarring when we get back. . .
"Do you know any good songs, Commander?"
"I don't sing, Marcus. And people who value their lives don't sing around me."
He sounds like a whipped puppy, but at least he doesn't burst into song. Maybe, just maybe, I'll reconsider having Stephen give him that in-depth physical.
"So am I doing all right?" His tone is hopeful.
"If you do anything wrong, I'll let you know."
When John asked me to go on a training flight with a newbie Starfury pilot, I jumped at the chance, because I hadn't gotten to go out and stretch my wings for a couple of months now. The thought of getting away from the station and the mountain of paperwork on my desk sounded like a dream come true. What's that saying? "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."
He is *so* dead.
But there'll be time to think about that later. We're almost at the jump gate. This will be our eighth jump of the day, so they're kind of starting to lose whatever appeal they had to begin with. "You ready, Marcus?"
"Standing by," he answers. "Ladies first."
"No, please. I insist."
"As you wish."
He sounds irritated, but he takes the lead as we near the jumpgate coordinates. Because Marcus' Starfury exits the gate before mine, he catches the brunt of the punishing salvo of heavy weapons fire that crosses our path just as we begin to lose velocity.
"Raider!" Marcus' upper port engine flickers and then goes out entirely, but he compensates masterfully and dodges the next barrage of fire. He's moving to approach the raider from below, so I come at her from above in a classic pincer movement. Their gunner apparently can't decide which of us to target, because he holds his fire until we're nearly on top of him. When he finally fires, his aim is less than true, and Marcus and I rake the ship as we pass her. Her aft weapons must have been disabled, because she has to turn to try to target us again.
It's too little, too late. A Starfury can turn 180 degrees virtually instantaneously, although the maneuver makes you want to lose your lunch. Just as her broad side is turned toward us, Marcus and I switch to continuous fire, not letting up until the ship dissolves in a cloud of burning gas.
It's over, just like that. The entire battle lasted maybe 30 seconds. This area isn't too far from a corridor of pleasure planets, the kind where people with far too much time and money like to vacation. The raider was probably anticipating a nice unarmed passenger ship, full of people who would gladly part with all of their belongings in exchange for their lives. And after they were relieved of their possessions, they would probably have been spaced, so that they couldn't identify the ship that had taken them. I have absolutely no hard feelings about killing the bastards.
I guide my 'Fury over toward Marcus. "How's your ship holding together?"
"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"
"I'm going down, but that gas giant near us has a moon that looks pretty hospitable. Gravity about 0.9 g, with an nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere."
"Forget it. You're not ditching. Cut your thrusters, and I'll tow you back to the station."
"You can't. Life support systems are starting to fail. I have to land. It's my only chance." He begins to make a spiraling descent to the moon's lush surface. "Trust me, Commander, if you have a better idea, I'll be more than willing to entertain it."
I *hate* this. The idea of leaving him behind is even more distasteful than the idea of his being my wingmate to begin with. He's right, though. There's just no other way. "Good luck, Marcus. May God be with you."
In spite of his situation, he chuckles softly. "I have it on good authority that you *are* God."
So someone must have told him about that ridiculous episode in C&C. I'm glad he's still got it together enough to find some humor in this. "Well, not quite, but we're *this* close. I'll stay here until you're down, all right?"
"Getting some turbulence now." His voice is distorted with the severe shaking that his ship is undergoing. "Getting hot in here, too."
'Furies are built tough. They should be capable of handling the stresses of an emergency landing. Don't even think about leaving once you set down, though. They're designed to be deployed from large spacecraft, so they don't have enough power to achieve escape velocity from any normal-grav planet.
"There's some interference, but I've got a vague scan of the surface. It looks like my only choices of landing surface are water or rainforest. Which do you suggest?"
"Forest. Try to slow your airspeed to a virtual stop, and then "drop" onto the canopy. It won't be easy. The thrusters weren't designed for atmospheric maneuvering."
"No one ever told me that flying with you would be easy, Susan, but this is ridiculous. Slowing air speed. . ."
"You land that ship in one piece, and I'll pin your wings on you personally."
"Anywhere I want?"
As I ready a retort, I suddenly hear Marcus cough and issue a stream of epithets aimed at his craft.
"What happened?" I demand.
His transmission is getting distorted to the point where I can barely make out his words between the static. "Bottom port engine just blew. . . took out the transverse stabilizer. . . cabin fire, but I'm . . .ship's rotating!"
With not inconsiderable effort, I try to ignore the undercurrent of fear in his voice. "Listen carefully. Cut your starboard engines by 60 percent. With luck, you can maintain altitude and control your glide for a little longer." Shit. He's not responding. "Marcus, what's your status? Come on, answer me!"
Between bursts of static, I can hear the shrill claxon of his proximity alarm, quickly followed by the shrieking, tearing sound of tortured metal. It seems to go on forever, and the silence that follows in its wake is so profound that I can hear the beating of my own heart.
I try to reach him. "Marcus?" Nothing. I didn't really expect an answer yet. He's probably just a little shaken up from the impact. I should give him a couple of minutes to recover from the collision. Forcing myself to count slowly, I get as high as 43 seconds before I try again. "Marcus, are you there?"
Damn him! Still no answer. He's bound to be all right, though. I'd never tell him to his face, but he's a great pilot. I'm sure he was able to set his ship down without any loss of life or limb. Right? Right. I plot a course for the jump gate, but before I can engage it, I start to get visions of him lying in a widening pool of blood. Or maybe he's hanging upside inside his ship, with the straps of his harness gradually tightening across his windpipe. He could even be trapped inside his 'fury as it starts to burn, slowly roasting him to death.
Damn it, damn it, damn it! I relay a message to the station, giving our location and situation, and then, switching the burners to max, I turn my Starfury and follow him down.
The impact is sudden after the almost careful way the treetops kept me from hitting the ground. I catch my breath, heart pounding in my ears. That's a good sign, isn't it? I'm alive, I know that much, and as I realize this, the roaring stops. It's deafeningly quiet in the craft. And I know right away what it is. The familiar soft static of the radio is gone. I have no way of communicating with Susan. Or anyone else.
Bugger. Now what?
I check myself for injuries. I cautiously test first one leg, then the other. They both bear my weight as usual. My back. I stretch slightly to each side. Everything seems all right there as well. In fact, it seems that my biggest worry right now is sitting tight until the rescue party arrives. I reach over and press the control for the homing beacon. This should work, even if the radio is out. The faint beeping assures me that it does. I only hope that the right people will pick it up.
A crackle to my left catches my attention. Sparks. This day was just getting better and better. I’d managed to put out the first fire, but the extinguisher is probably empty. Time to get out and let Babylon 5 deal with the loss of their craft. I reach for the buckle of my harness. My fingers slip. I try again, but do no better. Calling on meditation techniques learned on Minbar, I force myself to slow down enough to manage the simple procedure. Finally I'm free, and I force the hatch open, thankful that it had landed so that I could open it.
At the last moment I remember the emergency kit. Every Starfury has one, filled with medical supplies, water purification tablets, two days rations, flint and steel, a thermo blanket, a canteen, line and hooks, flares, rope, and a thin, waterproof sheet that serves as a shelter-half. I toss this out of the craft and grab the fire extinguisher once more, hoping it will do the trick again, but only a drizzle of foam sputters out. And then I leave the craft, hoping that nothing is waiting outside of it to eat me. Would be just my luck if there were.
The heat is overwhelming. But the air is heavy with moisture, too, and it bears down on me, worse than any oven. Stifling. It seems to press into my lungs. I immediately begin to perspire in my heavy clothing. My uniform is obviously designed with cooler climates in mind, and I regret having worn my cloak today.
I pick up my emergency pack and pause to look at the hull of the 'Fury. Valen's name, I'm lucky to be alive. Both my upper and lower port engines are out, but I knew that already. What I couldn't see from inside the craft is now clearly visible. Laser burns from the battle and atmospheric entry and scraped, punctured metal from my tangle in the canopy. Looking up, I see sunlight filtering through where the branches and leaves were ripped away as I crashed through.
"No, no one ever said flying with Susan would be easy." Not that I expect an answer.
I begin to move away from the craft--not far enough away that a team can't find me when it arrives, and close enough to guard if my readings were wrong and I wasn't the only sentient being on this moon. Marking my trail as I go, I choose a site a bit higher than the one on which I'd landed to set up a temporary shelter. I had no way of knowing how long it would be before I could be rescued, and I had no wish to sleep in a puddle. I set my pack down on the small rise between two trees.
And then it occurs to me: what if Susan doesn't make it back to Babylon 5? What if there were more raiders? What if, even now . . . No. I refuse to follow that thought through. Nothing has happened to her. She'll arrive safely on the station, order out a rescue team (or maybe no), and that will be that.
With that thought to sustain me, I begin to prepare my camp. I have no wish to sit unprotected through a downpour, and I sense that rain is imminent. I remove my cloak and tunic because it's simply too hot for them, and set to work. First I clear the ground underneath where I'll set up my shelter, keeping small twigs that look dry enough to build a smokeless fire. I find two sturdy lengths of something that resembles bamboo, and using the knife I carry sheathed in my right boot, I sharpen the ends of each, then bury the ends in the soft soil. Next I dig out the sheeting. Each corner contains a small opening, reinforced by a grommet. I thread the rope through these, cutting off the appropriate lengths, and tie one corner to each of the two trees, then lift the opposite end to secure the ropes to the 'bamboo' stakes. Last, I spread the thermal blanket on the ground. I now have a serviceable shelter, a sort of half-tent. And in good time, too, for the rain begins to pelt on my back.
I move underneath the shelter, and start a small fire. It isn't so much for warmth, of course, as to keep away whatever predators might be lurking out there. And it's grown darker, too, as the rain falls in a steady stream. Now I have nothing to do but wait again.
In the silence.
And my thoughts turn once more to Susan. I doubt that she'll return with the rescue team. I don't doubt that she'll send someone out as soon as possible, but she's glad to be rid of me, I imagine. I'd been looking forward to flying with her, even if we were in different crafts, but I had no illusions as to her feelings in the matter. Sheridan had offered the chance of training on the Starfury a few days ago. He would have taken me out himself, but he was busy with other duties, so he'd suggested Garibaldi. Now, I like the man, I really do, but he isn't the woman of my dreams. I'd asked for Susan, instead.
"I'm sure that Mr. Garibaldi is a competent pilot, but I haven't worked with him before. I'd feel much more comfortable if the Commander could take me out. We’ve worked together a lot during the War and I’m comfortable with her," I'd told him.
I'm sure the Captain saw right through my little argument, but he had agreed.
"All right. I'll notify Susan. She'll be glad to get off station for a few hours."
"Would you mind doing me a favor and not tell her that it's me beforehand?" I'd asked, somewhat nervously. If she knew that it was me, she'd find an excuse to get out of taking me out for training. I wasn’t about to risk the chance of her doing that.
He'd looked surprised again, but nodded. "Sure, Marcus."
And here I am. And she's back on station now, glad to have this little episode over with. I frown as I recall the scene earlier.
I'd been standing in the bay, waiting for her, when she'd walked in and seen me. The happy look on her face had quickly changed to one of annoyance.
"Marcus, what are you doing here? I'm getting ready to take out a new pilot, so whatever you want will have to wait."
"That would be me," I'd said, smiling.
"You mean you're the new pilot?"
I could see the list of reasons why she couldn’t take me out for training running through her head. But the only word that she managed before glaring again had been, "Oh."
I tear my thoughts away from their bleak direction. For a moment. Then they turn that way again, in full force. She doesn't want to be out with me. Even for an innocent training flight. She doesn't like me at all.
A sound a few feet away brings me to instant alertness. Something is crashing through the brush not far from my camp. Whatever it is won't find easy pickings here. I reach into my cloak for my pike and extend it. The distinct metal sound rings out, and the thrashing stops, only to start again, this time heading straight toward me. I poise, waiting, for who knows what, and then . . .
"There you are, Cole! I swear to God, if you don't have at least a scratch, I'll rip off your arms and beat you with them!"
Her hair is plastered to her skull, and her uniform . . . Valen's name, her uniform is clinging tightly to every curve. The rain has moulded it to her figure, and for a minute, I'm stunned speechless by the sight.
Finally the ability to speak returns. "Hello, Susan.”
"Well? Why didn't you answer to let me know that you were alive?"
"Couldn't. The radio went out as well."
"Oh," she remarks, then shivers slightly.
The rain is cool, even here in this warm climate. And she's soaked to the bone, I imagine. "You should get out of those wet clothes," I comment.
She steps under the shelter and wrings the water out of her hair. "And what am I supposed to wear, Marcus? In case you hadn't noticed, I didn't bring an extra uniform with me."
"You can wear my cloak," I offer. "At least until your things have dried out. You can wrap my belt around it to hold it closed. The rain probably won't last long, and then you can spread your uniform out to dry."
She eyes me dubiously. I can almost hear her debating with herself. But she's a military officer, and she sees the sense in my suggestion. "All right, but turn around."
I turn and face the rain, while she disrobes. I don't care if she doesn't want me watching her. Or if she's angry with me. She was worried about me. She came back. She came back because she *does* like me. She cares. Now I understand her game. She can pretend irritation and indifference, but she *does* care. And maybe, just maybe, I can get her to admit it.
As soon as he turns his back, I shrug out of the straps of my backpack and start stripping. I wrap the thin survival blanket around myself like a toga, sighing with pleasure at the warmth and comfort that the material provides. After laying my wet jumpsuit out next to the fire, I tell Marcus that he can turn around again.
When he turns back toward me, he just stands there, utterly relaxed, with his hands at his sides, and what can only be described as a smirk on his face. "You weren't shot at, were you? You brought your Starfury down of your own accord."
I settle myself into a cross-legged position next to the fire. "No. I wasn't shot down."
His smile grows broader, and I have to struggle to resist my impulse to forcibly wipe it off of his face. "Then you deliberately ditched a hideously expensive piece of military equipment because . . . ?"
When I don't reply, he tries again. "I think you ditched because you were worried about me. And I think you were worried about me because somewhere, deep down inside, you *like* me."
It's time to put a stop to this. Right here, and right now. "I ditched because I *don't* leave a wingman alone in potentially hostile territory. Not even one as annoying, stubborn, delusional, and narcissistic as you!"
Surprisingly, he nods and sits down across the fire from me. His gaze seems to bore into my own and I try not to notice the way that the flames dance and flicker in his eyes. Finally, after a long, pregnant pause he seems to finish his assessment of me. "You *care*."
How dare he! "Of course I care! I'm not some kind of monster!"
"No, no, of course not," he adds dreamily. "You're more like a fairy-tale princess, locking yourself in a castle of stone, safe because no one can get to you. Except I'm beginning to think that your castle's not stone, after all. It's ice, and at the right time, under the right circumstances, it's going to melt away."
"And you think you're the one to melt it?" I expect him to cringe at the sarcasm in my voice, but he takes it in stride.
He blinks slowly, but refuses to avert his eyes, and I can't seem to tear mine away from his, either.
"Only you can do that, Susan. The fire is already within you. You just have to find someone that you're willing to unleash it for."
He wants me to unleash the fire for him? No problem. I lean toward my drying uniform and pull my PPG from a cargo pocket, rising in a single smooth motion to fire just over the top of his head. As I lower the weapon and return to my seat, I take a few seconds to allow myself to enjoy the way that his eyes are still bulging slightly. I toss the PPG to him. "I've done the hunting, so I'll let you fix dinner. I'm pretty sure it's dead, but take this just in case."
He gets to his feet and walks into the undergrowth. After he finds whatever it is that I shot, he drags it to the bank of the nearby stream to clean it, tossing the offal into the water to take the smell of the fresh kill away from our campsite. He returns a few minutes later with the skinned and cleaned beast, a handful of large palm leaves, and several long, sharpened sticks.
"Stomach contents say it was a herbivore," he says, setting the carcass on a couple of large leaves. "Do you have your analyzer handy?"
I rummage in my backpack as he cuts a small piece of tissue from the haunch of the creature. Finally, at the bottom of my pack, I find what I'm looking for. I hand it to him and he slides the tissue into the sample compartment. It whirs and buzzes for a few minutes before finally giving us the information we need. The meat is free of toxins and should be safe enough for human consumption.
As Marcus goes to gather more wood to build the fire up, I begin cutting up the meat and threading the chunks onto skewers. I prepare far more than we'll be able to eat tonight, but it should keep for a day or two. I don't want the scent of raw meat to attract any unwanted visitors.
Marcus returns with an armload of wood, drops it at my side. "I found something by the stream that might be edible as well. Be right back."
Most of the wood is damp and doesn't want to burn horribly well, but I manage to get a decent blaze going just as he returns with a handful of green stems. Each one has a fist-sized tuber of some sort attached to the end of it. A quick analysis shows that they're also fine for human consumption. He quickly wraps them in palm leaves and sets them with the skewered meat while we wait for the fire to burn down to coals.
We sit together in companionable silence as the rain begins to slack off and the sky slowly darkens. Marcus pushes the wrapped vegetables into the coals and plants a circle of Y-shaped twigs around the fire to help support the skewers. After a few minutes, the aroma of the roasting meat begins to spread throughout our little shelter. I notice Marcus inhaling appreciatively as well. There's nothing like traipsing through a couple of miles of jungle to give you a hearty appetite.
When we judge the food to be done, Marcus pulls the tubers from the coals as I begin to take the meat from the skewers. Unwilling to wait for the food to cool completely, we each grab a piece of meat. As I raise it to my mouth, though, I remember its foreign origin. Marcus stops just before taking a bite as well.
As we look at each other almost comically, he says, "All right. Together then."
I nod in agreement, and we each take a bite of the meat. We chew experimentally for a few minutes before swallowing. It's pretty good, really. A bit bland, maybe, but not bad at all. We end up speaking simultaneously:
"Tastes like chicken."
He throws his head back and howls with laughter. His obvious delight is contagious, and I find myself laughing along with him as we both reach for more of the ersatz "chicken". Dinner is a slow, leisurely affair, and after we've both eaten our fill and the leftovers have been put away, Marcus ventures away from the camp once more to dispose of our trash. I use the opportunity to slide back into my now-dry jumpsuit.
Once again, he refuses to return empty-handed. In one hand, he's holding a enormous purple and gold flower. The other is holding some type of greenish ovoid fruit.
He offers both to me. "I've already tested the fruit. In more ways than one. It's very good."
I take the fruit from him, and for just a moment, have this weird kind of Garden of Eden sense of deja vu. It passes quickly as I take a bite of the fruit. It's absolutely delicious. The flesh is firm, and the flavor is at first intensely sweet, but it produces an almost tangy aftertaste.
He smiles at my reaction and offers me the flower, but I don't take it from him. "Thank you for the fruit, Marcus."
Seemingly nonplussed, he takes the blossom to his side of the fire. After exchanging my waterproof sheeting for his thermal blanket, he stokes the fire up. I sit across from him and take another bite of the delectable fruit as he picks up the flower again and idly caresses its purple petals. Suddenly, with a quick twist of nimble fingers, he plucks one and tosses it behind him.
"She likes me."
I glower at him, but he grabs another petal and twists it off.
"She *still* likes me."
My face is getting hot and flushed now, and I know it's not because of my proximity to the fire.
Twist. Rip. "She *really* likes me."
Goddamn it. Just how many petals does that stupid flower have, anyway? This could conceivably go on all night.
Rip. Toss. "She--"
Before he can finish, the head of the flower explodes in his fingers, gently showering his head and shoulders with a fine mist of gold pollen. He starts sneezing violently, and suddenly I'm laughing so hard that I almost choke on my fruit. Eventually, his sneezes die down to soft sniffles as he uses some of our water to wash his face off. As I finish the fruit and lick my sticky fingers, he turns red-rimmed eyes to mine and croaks, "Since you've apparently got Mother Nature on your side, I'll let you take the first watch tonight."
And with that, he wraps himself in his blanket, yawns hugely, and goes to sleep.
Sunlight awakens me and for a minute I’m confused, but then I remember where we are. Susan and I had taken turns with the watch during the night, and once again, she's on shift. Turning my head slightly, I study her profile. She's staring out of the tent, her PPG on her lap, one hand idly caressing the stem of the decapitated flower. She appears deep in thought, and I have no wish to disturb her.
She turns slightly, and I slam my eyes shut, peeping at her through slits. She looks at me for several minutes, still holding the stem. She's such a study in contrasts. She'd been ready to tear my head off when she first came into the camp, then she'd stripped out of her uniform and sat, like a wood nymph, in a blanket. She'd laughed with me over the "chicken", then looked flustered as I toyed with the petals of the flower. And now she's all business, ready to blast anything that comes near the camp.
"Marcus, it's morning," she says loudly.
I make a great show of waking and sit up. "So it is." I notice that she's still holding the stem. "Would you like another one?" I ask pointedly. "There were some red ones, if you don't like purple--"
"Marcus!" She throws the stem away and glares angrily at me. "Is that all you can think of? I've been sitting here wondering how long it will be before we're picked up."
"Sorry. You sent a message, then?"
"Of course I sent a message!" she retorts. "What kind of officer do you think I am?"
The kind I wouldn't mind serving under. "I just thought you might have forgotten since you were so worried about me," I tease. At her dark, warning scowl, I become serious. "I think you're an excellent officer, Susan, if you can stand hearing that from a 'loose cannon'. All right then. You sent a message. Either it's difficult to get a rescue party out right now, or the message wasn't received at all."
She chews on her lip and frowns. "I wonder if the gas giant had anything to do with the signal. I don't know . . . It shouldn't. Maybe there were more raiders than the ship we engaged yesterday."
"Could they have jamming capabilities?" I wonder.
We stare at each other in silence as we contemplate the thought. Finally Susan ventures, "*If* they do, and *if* the message was jammed, a search party would have to check our flight plan, and jump gates in the area, then the planets and moons. It could take at least a week for someone to find us. Maybe longer." She looks positively horrified at the idea. "My radio's dead too. You weren't the only one that had a bumpy landing."
I'm even more stunned that she came down here at all. She took quite a risk to check on me. Somehow, that makes her frustration over a lengthy stay in my company more bearable. "I've set my homing beacon, as I'm sure you've done. It may not take so long."
"Yeah. You're right," she nods, then stands up quickly. "I'm going to get some water."
"I'll come with you," I offer, standing as well, and grabbing my canteen and the analyzer. "No sense hauling the food back here to check it. If it's not safe we can just leave it."
She shakes her head. "I need some *privacy*, Marcus, if you don't mind!"
"Aah. I need some . . . privacy as well. We can meet and walk to the stream together."
"Suit yourself," she retorts, her voice short and angry. She strides off without looking back to see if I'm following.
We meet back on the path to the stream several minutes later. It's a lovely day. The trees are alive with birds, and insects of all kinds are buzzing about. We arrive at the stream and fill the canteen with the cool, clear water. I lean my head back and take several deep breaths. It feels wonderful to breathe real, un-recycled air again. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Susan is doing the same.
"It feels good, doesn't it?" I ask.
She stops and looks at me. "I'd rather be anywhere but here," she denies.
Anywhere but here, or anywhere but here with me? Patience, old boy. She did come back for you. Finally, I casually say, "And C&C is so lovely this time of year. "
Another quick glance assures me that she is not amused by that comment.
After gathering and scanning some big orange fruit for our breakfast, we sit back and watch the stream winding its way through the forest. I notice that the rocks along the bank are of volcanic origin, and that leads me to wonder if there is a volcano nearby, and if it's extinct or dormant. I hadn't noticed anything yesterday, but then I'd been too busy. "Do you feel up for a bit of exploring?" I ask.
"Sure." She leaps to her feet before I can offer to help her up.
I lead the way as we follow the rivulet up stream. Our path gives us plenty of opportunity for observing the bright green foliage. Trees with huge leaves soar up toward the canopy, vines trail here and there, and lower growing bushes are resplendent in flowers of every size and color and mouth-watering fruit. The smallest we see remind us of raspberries, though they're the size of lemons.
We come upon a clearing suddenly. The stream widens into a small pool, surrounded by a sandy shore and smooth boulders. A waterfall cascades down from an over-hang of rocks from squat hills and crashes into the pool. Sunlight washes over the land, reflecting in the water. This against the backdrop of deep blue sky and lush green tropical plants hits every one of my senses and all I can utter is, "Paradise."
"Paradise?" She looks around. "Maybe. I guess there could be worse places to be stuck. But I still wish this was over."
"Oh come on," I say, somewhat exasperated again, "can't you just relax and enjoy the moment? Look, there are some of those bushes with the huge berries. Let's see if they're edible. I could use a snack."
She picks a berry, and I slice a piece off to scan. It has a sharp, almost citrus, aroma. I inhale appreciatively, then place it into the analyzer. It's clean. We gather several and take them to the pool to wash. The water is warm to the touch. "The rocks are volcanic," I comment. "This pool could be warmed by a geo-thermal vent from a volcano somewhere near here . . . Yes, there it is," I point it out to her.
She follows the line from my finger to the low mountain in the distance and nods slowly. "Well, let's just hope that it doesn't erupt anytime soon."
I ignore the pessimistic response and place the berries on a flat rock nearby, grab one, lean back against the warm stone and take a bite. It's delicious, though a bit unusual: soft and squishy, and it tastes like a cross between blueberries and oranges, completely belying it's appearance. "You know, if it weren't for the circumstances, this would be a perfect vacation," I remark, glancing at her. It's a mistake; berry juice is dripping down her chin, her lips are red and glistening, and she looks, well, completely earthy and at ease, and delicious herself. I tear my gaze away again. "This could be quite fun, actually."
She leaps to her feet. "I have no intention of having fun with you! I know that this is some big adventure for you, but I have duties--"
"And I don't?" What does she think that I do all day?
"I have duties," she reiterates, "and if it weren't for you and your training, I wouldn't be here right now. I bet you asked John for me specifically, didn't you? And you just had to get shot and winged, didn't you? This is all your fault, you know."
She's angry, and by the time she finishes her little tirade, so am I. "Bollocks! When are you going to stop blaming me for things I have no control over? But you're right; I asked the Captain for you because you're a damn fine pilot, and I know you. Satisfied? You didn't have to follow me down here. I can take care of myself, Commander!"
"And I told you that I don't leave my wingman--"
I stand also. "Because you care about me--"
"For the last time, you'd better cut the crap about what I feel, or I'll . . ."
"You'll . . .?"
Something squishy hits me in the face and juice dribbles down into my beard. I wipe it away, already knowing what it is. A berry. The minx is hitting me with berries. Another follows, catching me in the forehead, then one in the open collar of my jumpsuit. I reach for one of the big pieces of fruit.
So she wants to fight, eh?
My vision is obscured by a red haze, but it takes a few seconds for me to realize that I haven't gone berserk with rage. Marcus just nailed me right between the eyes, and the fruit juice splattered all over my face. Oh, he is going to pay dearly for that. He picks up one of the bigger pieces of fruit, but before he can hurl it, I tag him again, high on one of his cheeks. Pulp and seeds gradually slide down his face to drip off of his chin.
I duck as he cuts loose, but he had a pretty good number of the fruits at his side as well, and, within seconds, he lands one on my right shoulder. As I turn my head to look at it, he scores again, this time on my left ear. Oh, he is just begging for it now.
Out of ammunition, I run over to the bush and begin plucking and throwing as quickly as I can, figuring that I'll make up in superior firepower what I may lack in aim. He follows on my heels, putting the bush between us and begins plucking for all he's worth. After that, the fight turns into a series of sneak attacks as we each try to approach from the other's blind side. I score several more hits, but he does too, and in time, we're both covered with fruit juice. This can't go on forever, though. My side of the bush is fully denuded, and his can't be much better.
Hoarding my last precious piece of fruit, I circle the bush as carefully and quietly as I can, hoping to catch him unawares. Suddenly, he's right in front of me. I can't possibly miss him at this distance. As I raise my arm, he lunges, cat-quick, and grabs my wrist, holding it firmly, but not painfully.
Panting softly with exertion, he looks intently into my eyes before wiping away a piece of pulp clinging to my left eyebrow. "Truce?" he offers softly.
"Give me one good reason," I retort.
He licks at his lips and the gesture is simultaneously sensual and predatory. "Because I'm taller than you." He looks pointedly at the last few fruits clinging precariously to the top of the bush, just out of my reach.
He's got me dead to rights, and we both know it. "All right," I agree. "Truce."
He nods. "Good. Then drop your weapon."
I can't resist mocking him. "Don't you trust me?"
His index finger caresses the back of my hand lightly. I try not to let my expression betray how nice it feels. His gaze is glued to my own, his eyes a vivid green well matched by the verdant jungle surrounding us.
"I trust you with my life. You should know that. But I don't trust you not to use that on me when I turn my back."
Still seething inwardly, I shake my head. "You'll have to take it from me." Now what the hell did I go and say something like that for?
His brows lift at the challenge. "Right, then. If that's the way that you want it."
And before I realize his intent, he steps to stand even closer to me, and lifts my hand to his mouth. He holds me firmly in place as he eats the fruit from my palm. My eyes close reflexively as his lips and beard nuzzle against my skin. I wonder if he recognizes the symbolism of this act? A man and a woman, alone in a tropical paradise, he eating fruit from her hand.
My eyes open to find him looking apprehensive, as though steeling himself for disappointment. But before I can say a word, he plucks a fruit from the uppermost branches and hands it to me. "If you still want to, go ahead. I won't stop you."
I feel the weight of the fruit in my palm. It's a big one, full of juice and slightly overripe. I'm sure that it would make an absolutely spectacular stain on his jumpsuit. Or on his face, for that matter.
He stands stock-still, just waiting for the impact. Damn it, why does he have to keep looking at me? Why can't he close those vivid, soulful eyes for just the second that I'd need to work up the nerve to cut loose? There! He's closed them. I cock my arm for the throw, but I just can't make myself do it. For some reason, I can't shake the feeling that if I did, I'd be giving up something infinitely precious.
Marcus *trusts* me. And, like it or not, I trust him, too. But it's more than that. You could call it respect for his abilities, you could call it admiration for his accomplishments, but it all boils down to one thing. God help me, I think I actually *like* him.
He opens one eye warily.
I take his hand and place the fruit back in his open palm. "Why don't you wash up first? I've got some things back at the camp that I want to grab before I try to clean myself up." I gesture disdainfully at my jumpsuit.
"You know," he smiles gently, "you really *are* a mess."
"And you've got room to talk?" I pull at a sticky lock of his hair playfully. He laughs, and suddenly everything is all right between us. I can still hear him laughing to himself as I round the bend that the creek takes downstream of the pool.
When I reach our camp again, I rummage around in my pack until I find the little extras that I keep in my kit: toothbrush, comb, soap, and a small bottle of vodka. In other words, just the basic necessities.
As I head down toward the pool, soap and comb in hand, I meet Marcus coming back toward the camp. His hair is sticking up in wild clumps, and he's still got tiny seeds embedded in his beard. He sees my look and scratches at his chin. "This stuff dries like glue. I just can't seem to get it out."
"This may help, then." I show him the soap. "Come on, let's go try again."
He tries to walk past me. "I'll wait until after you're done."
I grab his arm and pull him back to face me. "Marcus, in case you haven't noticed, we've both got long hair. And it looks like we're never going to be able to get it clean without outside help."
"So you're suggesting that we bathe together, then?" he asks incredulously.
"It'll be okay," I insist. "We're friends, right?"
"We are?" He seems surprised.
"We are," I say firmly, "so come on."
"Your wish is my command," he smiles as he follows me back to our pool.
I remove my boots and PPG and leave them at the bank, but I wade in while still in my jumpsuit.
Marcus just stands on the bank, looking perplexed. "In my albeit limited experience, bathing usually occurs in the absence of clothing, Susan."
Smart-ass. "Yeah, well, it's not exactly like our clothes don't need to be washed too," I answer. Once I'm in up to my shoulders, I pull down the zipper and wiggle out of my jumpsuit, removing my undergarments as well. I hear him step hesitantly into the water as I rinse out the fruit stains as much as possible before rubbing at some of the more stubborn spots with the soap. Wading over to a flat boulder whose surface is just barely higher than the water level, I place my clothes on top of the rock and try rubbing them even more vigorously than before, but it looks like the material is permanently stained with purplish blotches. Chalk up two ruined Earthforce jumpsuits in addition to the two Starfuries. Oh, well.
Marcus finally approaches hesitantly, circling the boulder that I'm working at to take a position on the opposite side. "May I have that, please?" he asks, gesturing at the soap.
"Sure." I hand over the bar. "Let's just hope it works better on our skin than it does on this fabric."
His nose wrinkles as he sniffs at the soap. "I'm not sure which is worse, Susan, being covered with fruit juice, or smelling like lavender."
I can't help but chuckle at his discomfiture. "If you could see yourself, Marcus, I think you'd go for the lavender."
"But it's just so. . .*unmanly*."
"As opposed to walking around with fruit seeds in your beard?"
"Ouch. Point taken." He scrubs vigorously at his beard with the soap, and the resulting lather turns a bright pink. A moment later, he ducks his head underneath the water and comes up again quickly, wiping droplets from his eyes. "Better?"
"Better, but not quite perfect. Hold still." I come around the boulder to meet him and he hands me the soap. After I lather up my hands thoroughly, I put the bar back onto the surface of the rock. He stands motionless as I reach to smooth the suds across his face, rubbing at his beard in a circular motion. Under my ministrations, bits of dried pulp and a few remaining seeds gradually free themselves from the dense beard and mustache.
Even after his face is finally clean, I find myself continuing to touch him. Curious fingers insist on tracing his cheekbones, his eyebrows, the smooth expanse of his forehead. My thumb traces the line of his lips. I suddenly find it hard to believe that I've known him for years, yet I've never before taken the time to notice just how physically beautiful he is.
"Do I pass muster?"
Yes. Oh, yes. Forcibly dragging my thoughts away from the frightening direction in which they were headed, I manage to produce a coherent answer. "Not quite. There's still your hair to take care of."
"Where. . .?"
"Over there." I gesture to the shallows. "There were some lower boulders back that way, just a little below the water level. You can sit on one and relax and I'll just stand behind you."
He heads in that direction, finds a suitable rock, and seats himself, facing away from me all the time. I'm grateful for his consideration, because, once I'm standing behind him, I'm bare to almost my waist.
He leans his head back slightly and I work the lather into his mane, pulling the larger pieces of fruit out as I go. After a few minutes, the clumps begin to soften enough for me to comb through them, removing tiny bits of pulp as well as the ever-present seeds.
"Rinse, Marcus." He obediently ducks his head forward into the water for a moment. When he comes up, it looks *vastly* better, but I still need to wash it one more time. This time, the lather stays white, and as it runs out of his hair and onto his shoulders, I find myself caressing him there as well. I smooth my hands over his lithe musculature, admiring the firmness of the well-toned body beneath my fingers. He is rock-hard, his apparent strength belied by his slimness. It's really too bad that he keeps this body hidden under that cloak all the time.
Wait a minute. Now where the hell did *that* come from? Heat stroke, maybe. Yeah, it's afternoon, and it's getting pretty hot right now. That must be it. I feel a tremor beneath my fingers and wonder at its origin for just a moment before I realize that my body hasn't been totally quiescent while I've been woolgathering. Although my hands are still mindlessly kneading his shoulder muscles, my breasts are pressed firmly against his back.
"Sorry," I murmur as I take a quick step back.
"Quite all right. Am I done?"
"After you rinse again, yes."
He submerges himself again, and I turn my back to him, quickly duck my own head under the surface, and take a seat on the boulder.
At his touch on my arm, I hand the bar of soap back to him and force myself to relax as he begins to rub the lather throughout my own hair. His touch is gentle and considerate, and every time that the comb snags, even slightly, he murmurs an apology. He untangles the final fruity snarl and instructs me to rinse. I reemerge, and he washes my hair again before rubbing lightly at my neck with soapy fingers. When he gets no objection from me, he increases the pressure of his touch, massaging my neck and shoulders with masterful skill. After a few minutes, his hands begin to trace the line of my spine, eventually rubbing against the small of my back until I'm practically purring with pleasure.
My body feels warm, pliant and wonderfully relaxed. The sensation is not unlike the afterglow of a powerful orgasm, except that the hands on my body belong to a friend, and not a lover. I regretfully pull myself away from his deft touch and submerge myself yet again, swimming back toward the deeper water at the center of the pool. I lose sight of him for a moment, but his head breaks the water as he surfaces a few feet away.
"Are we ready to go?"
"I guess so." I look at the pads of my fingers "I'm starting to get pruny." I start to swim toward the bank, but notice that he isn't following. "Aren't you coming?"
He looks acutely embarrassed at the prospect. "Ladies first."
"Look, Marcus, between the state of the only sets of clothes that we currently own and the fact that we'll likely be spending several days together here, it's pretty much inevitable that we're going to be seeing quite a bit of each others' skin. Am I right?"
He nods slowly. "What's your point, exactly?"
"My point is that we might as well get the formalities over with. I think that we'll be much more comfortable with each other afterward. And, to show my sincerity, I'm even willing to go first." Trying my best to dismiss my reservations, I cast aside all modesty and walk into the shallows before climbing up onto the bank. "Well? What are you waiting for?"
He blushes and tries to avoid looking at me.
"We're friends, okay? And I'm pretty certain that you can't have anything that I haven't seen before."
His smile is warm, but strained. "I think I'd prefer to just sit here and soak for a while, if it's all the same to you."
Shrugging, I leave him and begin to follow the stream back toward the camp. After I get about a hundred yards downstream, I realize that I left my sopping jumpsuit back at the pool. Swearing softly under my breath, I go back to get it. As I near the pool, however, I realize that Marcus is no longer in it. He's standing, with closed eyes and bowed head, directly underneath the waterfall, letting the frigid water sluice over his naked body. And, in spite of the chilly water, he is incredibly, tremendously, *spectacularly* aroused.
Wow. Oh, dear God, is he ever aroused. I know that I should leave, that I should grant him some privacy, but I can't seem to take my eyes off of him. In his current state, he is quite possibly the most breathtakingly beautiful man that I've ever seen. I can't help but feel a little thrill of excitement as I realize that *I* am the cause of this reaction. I have to raise my voice to be heard over the sound of rushing water.
He opens his eyes, and the shock in them is almost palpable. His expression runs the gamut from fear to acceptance, and then to embarrassment as he lowers his gaze and realizes that the cold water has had absolutely no effect on him.
Before he can turn away, I walk into the chilly shower with him and grab him by the hand. He doesn't resist, but follows meekly as I guide him back toward the pool. As I push him back into the warm water, I pick up my jumpsuit and boots and take one last, long look at him. He sinks back into the warmth gratefully, but looks up again at the sound of my voice.
"You don't have to hide anything from me. And as for what I said a few minutes ago. . .well, let's just say that I stand corrected." And without a backward glance, I head back toward the camp.
I watch her walk away, her hips gently swaying, and begin a chant to calm myself. I can't believe that she saw me like this, my desire so thoroughly evident, and I'm not only still breathing, but am in one piece. On the other hand, she didn't appear exactly upset.
I consider heading back into the waterfall, but I only get a few steps in that direction when the faint sound of a fired PPG comes to me. "Susan!" I splash out of the pool and grab my jumpsuit and boots without breaking stride. If she's in trouble, I'll . . . Well, I don’t know yet what I’ll do.
I stop short when I reach our camp. Susan is standing in front of the shelter, completely nude, her PPG in hand. Part of me wants to laugh; part of me wonders what in blazes she's firing at, and why she's still unclothed. "Susan, are you all right?" I venture.
"Hell no, I'm not all right! That damn . . . pig just stole the meat we cooked last night, and just look at this!" Furiously, she turns to me, holding up a very torn, tattered, blanket-or what's left of it. I keep my eyes on her face. She's gloriously angry, but at least her wrath is not directed at me this time. She throws it down in disgust. "Now where am I supposed to sleep?"
"Simple. You'll use my blanket."
I shrug. "I'm a Ranger, Susan, remember? I'm used to hardship. I'll be fine." She nods slowly in acceptance, and I smile at her. "Now, since you've decided to show me up and get dinner again," I indicate the freshly killed pig with a nod, "I'll clean this, then we can cook some up. I don't know about you, but food fights on deserted moons tend to whet my appetite."
She shakes her head, rolling her eyes upward, muttering something about smart-ass men, but I'm already intent on my task.
I grab the animal under one arm, and carry it, my knife, and the analyzer to the stream. It takes longer to clean this than it did our 'chicken', and I use the time to think. What’s got into the Susan Ivanova I know? Can it be that she actually trusts me? That has to be it, otherwise, she wouldn't be running around nude in front of me without a care. And she hasn't said a word about the fact that I had a raging hard-on for her some minutes ago. Can it be that she accepts my attraction to her?
By the time I return to our camp with the pig and some more of the tubers I'd found, Susan has a fire going, with our suits spread out to dry. Carefully avoiding her gaze, avoiding looking anywhere in her general direction, I sit and study the flames.
I turn to look at her.
"Remember what I said earlier? We may as well be comfortable with each other. You don't have to pretend I'm not here."
Pretend she's not here? At this moment, I wish she weren't. Being alone in Paradise, with the woman I love, who is naked as Eve, is too much. Eve. I replay eating the fruit out of Susan's hand earlier. Had the same things gone through her mind; had she thought of Eden, and the temptation, as I had? What possessed me to do that, I'll never know, but the expression on her face was worth it. And now . . . How can I be comfortable around her like this, loving her and wanting her so much? But she's right, until we’re rescued we’re going to be spending an awful lot of time together.
"I know," I say, and I hope my voice isn't strained. "It's just taking some getting used to."
She stands up, checks the progress of the pig, then searches through her backpack. "We need to make a full tent. I know it won't keep anything out that really wants to get into our stuff, but I don't want it to be easy, either. And I sure as hell don't want anything getting into my vodka."
"You carry vodka . . .? No, never mind." I shouldn't be surprised. Anyone who has her own coffee plants in hydroponics isn't going to quibble about having alcohol in her survival gear.
I move to help her, glad to have another task to concentrate on. I work methodically as we connect the halves together to make a complete tent, our shelter for the time we're here. It's a flat A-shape, with three sides now closed permanently.
The pig is done now, and after letting it cool a bit, we dig in. It's really not bad at all. It could use some salt, though. Funny that they don't include basic condiments in survival rations. Ah well. Susan takes a few bites, then searches in her pack again and takes out a full bottle of vodka. She drinks almost greedily, then offers it to me.
"Cheers!" I take a sip. The alcohol burns its way down my throat, warming me from the inside.
“You could be a Russian,” she praises.
I smile and accept the proffered bottle a second time. “I do a lot of work around seedy people, remember, and bars are my office.”
She grins, takes a sip this time, and offers it back to me. I shake my head and she stows the bottle back away.
We eat in silence again for several minutes, then Susan says, "I have to admit, I'm impressed at the way you managed to land your Starfury in one piece. You do deserve your wings, Marcus. I'm going to recommend it first thing once we get back."
"You're a good pilot. And I'll pin them on you myself, just like I promised," she adds.
"Anywhere I want?" I ask again.
She sighs. "You're incorrigible. All right. Anywhere you want. As long as you're clothed." She stands, stretches, and goes to check her jumpsuit. "Speaking of which, these are dry."
I slip into my jumpsuit quickly, unable to not watch Susan getting into hers from the corner of my eye. It's almost like a strip tease in reverse. The sight makes me grateful that I'm now clothed again. I grab the waste from our meal and hurry to the stream, splashing the cold water on my face before burying the scraps.
When I return, Susan has put away the rest of the pig, and is sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, combing out her hair again. I'd love to do that for her, but I think I've endured enough for one day, so I simply watch as she runs the comb through the damp strands.
"It's getting cooler," she remarks casually.
I jump at the sound of her voice, and I realize that she's stopped and is watching me. "Yes," I answer.
Once again, silence reigns, as it grows darker. The days here are rather short, and soon she decides that it's time for her to turn in. I expect her to immediately go inside, close the flaps, and go to sleep. I don't expect her to stand at the door and ask, "Aren't you coming in?"
"No," I answer quickly. "I thought I'd keep watch out here for a while."
But at that moment, a crack of thunder warns impending rain. Reluctantly, I douse the fire with dirt and follow her inside. She moves to lie down, and I sit near the now closed flaps, determined to stay as far from her as possible. After a few minutes, however, she complains, "I'm cold. Marcus, there's no need for you to stand watch. We haven't seen any signs of anything really dangerous. And there's no need for you to sleep on the ground."
"What are you saying?" I choke.
"Come sleep beside me. We can share our body heat." She sits up and looks at me. "And that's not a request."
"All right," I concede, "but I want it on record that this was *your* idea." I settle in beside her and face the door. So far, so good.
"I'm still cold. Could you scoot closer and put your arm around me?"
Oh no, not that. Please don't ask me to put my arm around you.
I feel her shiver next to me, and in spite of my misgivings, both mental and physical, Susan's comfort is more important than my own. I do as she asked. I'm immediately assailed by the soft scent of lavender in her hair, and the scene at the pool comes back to haunt me. Vividly.
I remember the way she'd examined every feature of my face, and how difficult it was to hold still under her scrutiny, when all I wanted to do was kiss her. And I can still feel her breasts against my back as she caressed my shoulders, their hardened peaks, and her soft little gasp as she realized how close she was to me. I recall the damp texture of her hair as I washed the berry juice and seeds out for her, and I can feel her soft, smooth skin underneath my soapy hands again, the way she'd relaxed into my touch as I massaged the small of her back, and I can see the outline of her hips in the water. The urge to stroke her everywhere was overwhelming then, just as it is now.
Her voice brings me out of my musings, and I realize, to my horror, that I *have* been caressing her left breast absently, and that the nipple is hard. "Sorry." I move my hand to her waist. Better, but still dangerous. *Think of Mollari; think of Mollari.*
She squirms around a bit more. I wonder if she's having trouble sleeping on the ground. She didn't have last night, so I don't know what the problem is tonight. After what must have been an hour, she murmurs, "Sorry. Am I keeping you awake?"
You have no idea, love. "No. It's all right, really. Here," I offer, "you can lay your head on my arm if you like."
To my surprise, she accepts, and I listen to her breathing grow steadily more calm and even, until she's finally asleep. And then the agony begins. I try to move away from her a little, but she scoots closer, grinding her beautiful behind into my groin. As if I'm not already hard enough, my body responds to the stimulation with another surge of blood, so that I'm now throbbing. I have to get away from her. I start to move, but her voice stops me.
"It had to be him, didn't it? Why did you have to make me . . .?"
"Susan?" I whisper softly, but there's no response. Is she talking in her sleep?
I listen intently, but there's no more. Why did who make her do what? I withdraw my arm and roll onto my back. To my consternation, she moves with me, throwing a leg over my thigh, and an arm over my chest. I adjust my arms so that I can cradle her next to me, and she sighs softly. I grit my teeth and think of every unpleasant thing I can think of, but it doesn't help.
It's going to be a long night.
I come to full consciousness slowly, gradually acknowledging and processing the input from my senses. The first and most obvious revelation is the absence of Marcus' warmth against my back. The second is that it's getting warmer again outside, and lighter as well, so it must be well past daybreak. And in spite of the late hour, I sure as hell didn't get much sleep.
God, what a long night. As if lying on the hard ground didn't cause enough discomfort, Marcus tossed and turned right next to me from dusk until dawn. And then, to cap it off, I had this bizarre dream where I went down to the Zocalo for a drink after my shift. I ended up pouring out my soul to Lorien, who was tending bar. He kept asking, "What do you want?" and when I answered, "Vodka", he just smiled and shook his head. I don't remember much else, but it sure as hell was weird.
At this moment, I think that I'd willingly trade all of my worldly possessions for a single cup of coffee. Instead, my choices are limited to tepid water or tepid vodka. I'm sorely tempted to go for the latter, but it's still too early. I do have *some* standards. Well, at the very least, I can go and get some fresh water. I pull the comb through my hair and brush my teeth with the last of the water in my canteen before heading down to the stream.
Marcus is already there, as I suspected he might be, filling his own canteen. He looks up at the sound of my footsteps.
"About time you got up." But his smile is friendly instead of mocking, and he, too, looks exhausted. He hands me his full canteen and reaches for mine, filling it from the stream for me. "I thought I was going to have to have to resort to extreme measures to get you out of bed."
"And those extreme measures would have consisted of . . .?"
He grins roguishly. "Be glad you didn't have to find out."
As he pulls the dripping canteen from the stream, he stops, peering intently into the water. He points at something beneath the surface, and I step closer, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it is that he's noticed. At first, I can't make out anything, but then I see a slim silvery shape resting on the bottom, its body gently undulating with the current.
"Looks like a fish, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does." He straightens himself back up, drops a purifier tablet into the canteen, and screws the lid back on. "And it's about time that I contributed something to our meals. I'll go fishing later, but we need to get breakfast taken care of first. Any ideas?"
"Well, we could always explore downstream," I offer. "We haven't gone very far that way yet. There's sure to be fruit somewhere along the way, and I've got the analyzer in case we run into something new."
"All right, then."
We slowly make our way downstream, sticking primarily to the grassy banks, although we occasionally have to force our way through patches of underbrush. After about twenty minutes, we come to a tree whose branches are heavy with the pear-shaped fruit that Marcus found on our first night here. The sweet, tangy pulp is even more welcome now, as the day begins to heat up. We each eat two of the large fruits, washing our hands clean of the sticky juice after we're done.
Refreshed, we continue on our way and, after we're perhaps an hour away from camp, we find a large, grassy clearing next to the bank. The shade produced by the overhanging trees makes it a perfect place to rest for a bit. Side by side, we lie on the grassy carpet, listening to the burbling of the stream and the gentle hum of the insects crawling in and out of the huge orange blossoms decorating a nearby tree.
"I could go to sleep here."
"Me too," he answers, "but one of us needs to stay awake. And I've got something that I need to do, so feel free to take a nap if you like." At this, he gets up and inspects a sturdy sapling growing near the edge of the clearing. Nodding to himself, he then uses the saw edge of his survival knife to cut it down. After pulling it back into the shade, he proceeds to strip bark and twigs from the slim trunk.
"Plan on using a quarterstaff to batter the fish into submission?"
He looks up from his work. "Hardly. Besides, I've got my pike back at the camp."
I can't bring myself to pass up the opportunity. "You brought your *pike* with you on a training flight?"
He nonchalantly peels off another strip of bark. "You know what they say: 'Don't leave home without it.' Besides, *you* brought your vodka. To each his own. Or hers."
"Okay, then, if it's not a quarterstaff, what is it?"
"You'll see," he smiles enigmatically. "Now go to sleep, or I'll never get it finished."
"All right, all right." I stretch out languorously before crossing my arms over my chest. "Wake me if you need me."
I sleep deeply, dreamlessly, and wake relaxed and somewhat refreshed. Marcus is no longer in the glade, but standing in the middle of the stream, submerged to the waist. He's peering into the water with great deliberation, and his right hand is holding a sturdy trident aloft. His beard has grown in somewhat since we've been here, and the warm afternoon breeze is blowing his hair around his shoulders. The image is so *primal*, so unlike the way that I'm used to seeing him, that I simply take a seat on the grassy bank and watch him, enjoying the play of sunlight and shadow across his back and shoulders.
Suddenly, with a stab so quick that it's practically impossible to follow with the naked eye, he plunges his spear into the water and pulls it back to the surface. Its triple points are now impaling a flailing, silvery creature about the length of my forearm. Grinning widely, he wades out of the stream and deposits his catch on the bank next to another swimmer that he must have caught while I was napping. Marcus' jumpsuit and boots are lying on the bank, but he apparently balked at taking off his briefs. He's still wearing them, even though they're completely soaked.
"I thought we decided that we didn't have to hide anything from one another, Marcus."
"We did," he agrees. "And I'm not. It was the fish."
I can't help but laugh. "You didn't want the fish to see you naked?"
He throws his head back and laughs with me before proceeding to strip off the wet, clingy shorts. He gestures toward his catch as he wrings the water out of the cloth. "That's not it, either. Look at the teeth on those little bastards. I wasn't keen on the idea of leaving anything hanging about that might have attracted their attention."
Completely unbidden, the memory of the way he looked at the waterfall yesterday, rampant with desire, flashes to the forefront of my mind. "No, that would certainly have been a great loss."
He raises his eyes to mine in surprise. It's hard to pinpoint what's behind them. Caution? Pride? Hunger? Maybe all of the above.
Unable to face that emerald regard any longer, I drop my gaze. Big mistake. Literally. And it's getting bigger. Get a grip, Ivanova. You were the one that was so sure that you could handle this. I raise my eyes to his chest, but that's not much better. His skin is still beaded with water, and, as I watch, the droplets on his shoulders slowly run into each other, creating a rivulet that picks up momentum and recaptures my attention as it heads down toward. . .
Not again. I will *not* go there again.
My salvation comes in the form of what has to be the ugliest fish that I've ever seen. Its death throes cause it to flop right across my feet. Determinedly keeping my head down, I kneel, draw my knife, and stab the creature behind its toothy, oversized head.
"I checked the first one. They're safe." His voice comes from several feet away now, so I hazard a quick glimpse toward him. I'm rewarded with a view of his backside as he climbs into his jumpsuit. His wet briefs are now spread on a rock to dry. "If you'd like to have lunch here, I'll clean those while you look for wood."
"Lunch sounds like a good idea. But I think it's time I did some of the messy jobs, Marcus. You get the wood, and I'll take care of these."
He nods and walks off, and I start focusing on my task. I hope these suckers taste better than they look. The head is all teeth and eyes, four of them, no less, but they seem to have quite a bit of flesh on the rest of the body. After I'm done, I feel much more relaxed. Apparently, there's nothing quite like sticking your hands in alien fish guts to check a raging libido.
By the time Marcus returns and gets a fire going, the fillets are ready. He sets two fist-sized rocks on either side of the blaze. As the fire starts to burn down to coals he digs a third, flattish stone out of the stream and places it across the other two. We bake the fish, sprinkled with sprigs of a pungent herb that I found near the water, on the hot rock. When it's done, we dig in with knives and fingers, delighted at the sweet, smoky taste of the meat.
"You did good, Marcus."
He smiles with pleasure at the compliment.
"But I don't understand why you took the time to carve this." I run my fingertips lightly over the wickedly pointed barbs at the end of the long wooden pole. "Wouldn't it have been easier to use a line and hook?"
"I don't know." He rubs thoughtfully at his beard. "If I hadn't found the right sapling, I suppose I would have, but it's never seemed like a very sporting contest to me."
"There are plenty of people who consider fishing a valid sport."
"But you're not one of them, are you?"
"What makes you think so?"
"I saw you watching me from the bank. Would you have looked at me the way that you did if I had been holding a fishing pole instead of a spear?"
Dammit, I thought he was looking into the water. "How, exactly, do you think I was looking at you, Marcus?"
"With admiration, if I'm not mistaken." He leans a little closer to me. "Was I wrong?"
"No, you weren't wrong."
He moves closer still, and tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear.
"So, then, you liked what you saw?"
I really shouldn't be toying with him like this, but I seem to be helpless to stop myself. "Yes. That's certainly an impressive shaft that you've got there."
His face blushes crimson at the double entendre. Then he smiles sheepishly before his eyes take on a devilish glint. "Well, I was always good with my hands."
What began as harmless flirtation is rapidly turning into . . .something else. Trying desperately to keep from imagining exactly what other things his hands might be good at, I force myself to my feet. "Speaking of hands, mine are filthy, along with the rest of me. What do you say we go back to camp, grab the soap, and then head back up to the pool for a bath?"
He quickly extinguishes the fire and grabs his spear and his shorts. "I'd say, 'What are you waiting for?'"
With a definite goal in mind now, it takes us less than half the time to get back to the camp as it did to make the trek in the morning. By the time we reach the pool, we've still got a couple of hours of daylight left. We both strip quickly and plunge into the clear, warm water. After I've soaped myself to my satisfaction, I leave the bar with him and head for deeper water to rinse.
While Marcus finishes with his bath, I pull myself out and lazily sprawl my body across a sun-warmed rock near the middle of the stream. The surface is smooth and not quite hot enough to cause discomfort. In fact, the combination of the heavy meal, the relaxation from the bath, and the warmth of the sun is beginning to make me drowsy again. I'm sure that Marcus is getting quite an eyeful right now, but I can't bring myself to mind. I've seen so much of him lately that I guess turnabout is fair play. Anyway, I don't even want to consider moving.
Suddenly, without warning, my warm, cozy world erupts into pandemonium, as I am abruptly and unceremoniously drenched from head to toe. As I sit up and wipe the water out of my eyes, Marcus folds his forearms across the rock, *my* rock, dammit, and smiles smugly.
I jump to my feet. "You'll pay for that, mister! Insolence to your flight instructor is punishable by dunking!"
"Dunking?" he says incredulously. "I don't recall reading that in the flight manual."
"Well, technically, I think it's supposed to be either spacing or short-sheeting. We don't have an airlock handy, and your bed is also my bed, so that's out. Now are you going to take your punishment like a man?"
His laughter echoes throughout the glade. "Yes, Commander."
I slide into the water and submerge, diving to grab one of his ankles. He doesn't resist my tug, but allows me to pull him off-balance and into the water with me. Then we both come up for air, wiping the water from our faces.
"So, I assume you've learned your lesson, then?"
He smiles, but his attention is focused elsewhere. On my chest, to be exact. I clear my throat, and he looks up apologetically.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stare. I. . .I just didn't know that they would do that."
I look downward. My breasts are bobbing gently in the flowing water. "Well, now you know, Marcus. And it's okay. I don't mind."
He reaches toward them tentatively, hesitantly, giving me every opportunity to turn away, but my feet seem to be rooted to the pebbled streambed. His outstretched hand comes closer and then closer still. If I hadn't been watching it so intently, I would have never seen the huge raindrop that lands on the back of his wrist, causing him to flinch as though stung. A second later, the deluge begins. We're bombarded from two directions as the rain hits the surface of the water and splashes us from below as well as above.
We hurry to the bank, gather up our things, and run back to the camp, but, tonight, there's no possibility of building a fire to dry our clothes. Instead, we just wring them out as well as we can and lay them in my abandoned sleeping place. After a late meal of emergency rations and a hefty swallow of vodka for each of us, we lie down together, back to back, skin to skin, warming each other under a single thin blanket as the rain continues to fall.
I thought last night was terrible, but tonight is sheer torment. I want her. Of course I’ve wanted her almost from the time we met, but now, when she’s so close, when we’re alone together, the chance of being with her seems just as remote as this moon we’re on, and I want her even more.
Maybe if I close my eyes I'll be able to put everything out of my mind and get some sleep. I try, but it doesn't work either. I see her, hear her soft, husky voice, smell the scent that I've come to associate with only her. I sigh and roll over onto my side.
I see her at the stream today, feel once again the heat of her stare as I'd fished. And I remember her words. "That's certainly an impressive shaft that you've got there." Am I wrong, or was she flirting with me? Really flirting with me. And what did she mean when she blurted out that it would be a great loss if the fish had come nibbling? A great loss for me, or for her? For both of us? And what about at the pool? She was actually going to allow me to touch her then, wasn't she? If not for the rain . . . who knows. But the moment had been shattered, and might never come again.
I roll to my back again. Then to my side. Anywhere but a position that would have my arousal nestled against her. If she starts grinding her backside into me again, I don't know what I'll do. They may as well bring a straight-jacket with them when they come for us, because I'll be mad by then.
Maybe I should just go out into the rain and cool off. Or have a good wank. Or both. I start to move to my feet to do just that.
"Are you all right?" she asks quietly, one hand resting lightly on my arm.
"No." My voice is harsher than I'd intended. "Sorry. I just can't seem to get to sleep tonight. I didn’t mean to bother you."
"It's all right. You didn't sleep much last night, either, did you? I felt you tossing and turning for hours."
"No, I didn't," I answer in a quiet, strained voice. "I hope that I didn't keep you awake as well. Look, I’m just going to step out--."
She moves, sitting up and I can feel her eyes burning into my back. "Marcus, I know what you need to help you get to sleep. Will you let me help?"
"Yes," I whisper, starting to sit up as well, thinking she's referring to her bottle of vodka. The rest of the bottle should just about knock me cold. It might even help me relax enough to be able to sleep. "Vodka sounds good."
To my surprise, she pushes me gently back against the blanket and simply stares at me in the faint dusky light, her look warm, assessing. "You don't need vodka."
"I don't?" I'm uncomfortably aware of her gaze travelling down my body, but at the same time I'm thrilled as I detect the slightest change in her breathing as her attention focuses on my cock. Or maybe that was my own sharp inhale I heard.
"No, you don't," she answers. Then she leans forward to trace her tongue down my chest, following the sternum, then down my abdomen.
I strain instinctively closer to her, even as I take gentle hold of her wrists to stop her. "Why?"
"Why?" Her eyes meet mine, and I swear that they're clouded with something . . . amusement, understanding, lust, what?
I lick my lips. "Yes. Why? If it's pity, I'd rather that you didn't. I can go . . ." I don’t finish, feeling uncomfortable at the idea of telling her I was going to go jerk off. It probably wouldn’t faze her, and she probably already knows exactly what I meant to do, but still . . .
She sits back slightly, giving me yet another unobstructed view of her breasts framed by the cascade of dark brown hair. "It isn't pity, Marcus," she whispers. "I'm doing this because I want to. Because I like you. Does that answer your question?"
I can accept that. I nod slowly.
She smiles lazily and plays her fingers across my chest and down to caress the muscles of my abdomen. "Good. Now just relax, and enjoy."
Her lids lower slightly, so I can't see her expression, then she leans forward again, and this time her mouth finds one of my nipples. I can't hold back the groan that forces its way past my lips. The sensation is both torment and pleasure as she flicks her tongue back and forth, then closes her teeth on the flesh. She moves to the other, and I begin to pant softly as she repeats the treatment there. Looking down, all I can see is the soft waves of her hair as she alternates between the two, and it's all I can do to fight the impulse to urge her further down.
Relax? How can I relax with her lips and tongue and teeth sending such wonderful sensations through me? How can I relax when she has me tense with lust?
But even as I clench my hands into fists to gain control, she slips down, and without warning, closes her hand firmly around my cock, stroking back the skin. I close my eyes and wait, breathlessly, then I feel her tongue darting against the head, tasting the moisture beading from the slit. Then she begins running her tongue up and down the length of me, and I open my eyes and shift slightly, up on to my elbows. I have to watch. I'm just in time to see, as well as feel, her lips close around me and glide down toward the base of my shaft. The slick warmth of her mouth cradles me, caresses me, sheaths me. My breath leaves me in a harsh explosion. "Susan!"
She pauses, slipping me out of her mouth, and gazes almost playfully at me. "Do you want me to stop?"
For a minute, I stare blankly at her. Is she serious? She isn't going to stop now, is she? Then I note the trace of mischief in her eyes and in her voice, and I see it in the soft curve of her mouth. "No. Please," I murmur. "Don't stop."
The words barely leave me before she's taken me in her mouth again, and another low, harsh groan escapes. She slips down again, and I can feel myself glide past her teeth to her throat and back. My eyes drift shut and then open once more. The sight of her mouth around me is so hot, so unexpected. This isn’t the Ivanova I've known these last two years. And yet, she's a woman, too, and that fact has been brought home quite vividly to me, especially this week. But I'd never have imagined that she'd be doing this. Fantasized, yes, but for this to be happening . . . It's more like a hot, wet dream than reality. But it *is* real.
"Ah, Susan! That's good!"
She lifts her eyes to mine, and I see the smile in them, the tenderness. I can't tell by her expression if she's enjoying this as much as I am, or if she's just enjoying my reaction. If I could tell her what it really means to me, I wonder what she'd say? But even with my passion-fogged brain, I doubt that she's ready to hear a profession of love. So instead, I reach out a tentative hand to caress along the side of her neck and her ear, before softly twining it into her hair. She doesn't seem to mind the intimate gesture, but rather, leans into it slightly as she continues to stroke me.
Then, as I bring my hand back to steady my body so that I don't fall back, she changes her method of attack. Before, she seemed to be exploring, learning how I'd react, and now her actions can only be described as aggressive. The caress of her mouth alone demands a response, but she adds her hand, stroking in time with her sucking. My lower body seems to move with a will of its own, thrusting toward this incredible woman.
Every synapse in my body seems to fire at once and surge straight to the pit of my stomach, then to my balls. The release I've craved is imminent. "I'm close," I warn her, my voice ragged and harsh. I don't know what to expect from her now, whether she wants to pull away or continue like this. And suddenly it doesn't matter. I can only feel the heat surge through me, and tension coiled, now squeezed more tightly. "I'm coming, Susan," I nearly shout. She doesn't move as I feel the explosion ripple through my cock and fire into her throat. "Oh, God!"
She sits back, gasping. Finally she catches her breath. "You okay?"
Okay is the understatement of the year. I’d heard that a good blow job could beat stroking off any day, but I had *no* idea. "Yeah. I can't feel my toes right now, but I don't think I've ever felt this good before. No, I *know* that I've never felt so good before."
She smiles as if she's extremely pleased with herself. "I'm glad," she says, and I think she really means it.
"Susan, I . . ." My voice trails away. I want to give her pleasure, too, and I'm not sure how to ask her, or how she'll react.
"It's okay," she whispers, as she idly strokes a lock of my hair away from my eye.
The energetic rush I'd felt seconds ago seems to have evaporated. I don't think I can possibly move, let alone keep my eyes open. And as the fog creeps in, I hear her soft voice from far away:
"Sweet dreams, Marcus."
It's been years since I've been with anyone. Not days, not weeks, not months, but years. More than I care to count. So is it really any wonder that I'm having a hard time sleeping with his warm body pressed against my back? Is it odd that I should be so affected by the warm, masculine scent of him in my nostrils? Should I be immune to the memory of the way he looked earlier in the stream, dripping wet and looking utterly delicious?
Surely not. Not with the way that his body shook against me burned into my brain. Not with his cries of passion still echoing in my ears. Not with the taste of him still in my mouth.
I don't think that I've ever been more aroused in my entire life. And there is only one way that I'm going to be able to go to sleep tonight. Moving as little as possible, I part my thighs and forcibly suppress a shudder as my fingers encounter the warmth and wetness nestled between them. It's been too long since I did even this much for myself, and I have no doubt that the release won't take very long.
"Do you trust me?"
I freeze guiltily, suddenly uncertain that I actually heard that urgent whisper, until it's repeated.
"Do you trust me?"
I turn my head back to face him, and see both hunger and entreaty in his eyes. I must have woken him after all.
"Well, do you?" His voice is low and lyrical.
There can be only one answer. "Yes."
He rests a palm lightly on my hip. "Then let me do that. Show me how you want me to touch you."
Is this really happening, or is this some kind of bizarre lust-induced dream? Surely I can't allow him to touch me in the way we both so desperately want, can I? Can I?
In spite of my reservations, my baser instincts seem intent on betraying my sense of reason. Without conscious volition, my right hand covers his, and slowly slides it up the length of my body. After just the tiniest hesitation, he follows my lead and cups his hand around my breast.
Oh, that's good. His touch is tender, worshipful. But I need more. My fingers squeeze closed over the back of his hand, forcing his fingers to tighten, providing gentle pressure as he continues to stroke me in lazy circles. Mmm. Even better. Then he begins to toy with a hard nipple, and I couldn't stop the resulting quiver even if I tried.
He feels the tremor of my body against him and whispers hesitantly, "Too much?"
Too much? Hardly. "No. Not enough."
His breath is warm against my shoulder as he rolls to his side and pulls me against him until we're spooned tightly against one another. With increasing confidence, he reaches to touch me again, the work-roughened skin of his palm rubbing just the tip of a nipple at first, until the hand gently closes to cup the entire breast.
"So soft. . .so firm. . ."
His voice is strained and I can feel him stiffening against my lower back, but his hand keeps up its slow, maddening work. He lets me have absolute control, guiding his touch where I most want it; now on my breast, then across the skin of my stomach, along the length of my thigh, and back again, over and over and over. My skin is simultaneously soothed and inflamed by his caresses and when the need finally overwhelms me, I slowly guide him to where I have wanted him all along.
I don't know whose hand is trembling more as his palm smoothes over my stomach and then dips down lower still. I separate my legs, awaiting his touch, and, when it doesn't come immediately, I realize that I have forgotten that he's still waiting for me to lead him. No matter what, he won't touch me unless I want him to, unless I *demand* it. Fortunately, I've always been good at giving orders.
The desire to feel him against my center, exploring me fully, becomes overwhelming. I can feel his sudden intake of breath as he encounters soft curls. I still need more. Lower, oh God, yes, lower, and then we gasp in unison; he in astonishment and I in pleasure, as he finally reaches the liquid heat at my core. I guide his fingertips into the warmth, slowly becoming accustomed to the touch of another after such a long time. My flesh parts willingly beneath him, welcoming him with another rush of moisture.
"I never knew. . ." His whisper is full of awe. "The heat of you. . .Good Lord, how could I have guessed?"
Unwilling to wait even a second longer, I apply gentle pressure to his hand, sliding it upward until his slick fingers brush the peak at the top of my cleft. It's almost too much to bear. He begins to massage me, lightly at first, but then more firmly as he sees the effect of his touch on me. After a few moments, he plunges his fingers into my wetness again before returning to my center of pleasure. Then again, and again, faster and faster, until the sensations blur into an unrelenting ache that leaves me gasping for air. I moan low in my throat, and feel an answering nudge against my bottom.
Deeper. Oh, please, deeper. I don't realize that I spoke aloud until he pulls my leg back to lie on top of his own and slowly, oh so slowly, pushes a single finger deep inside. Involuntary muscles tighten, clenching around him.
"Is this what you wanted?" His breathing is becoming almost as labored as my own.
"Yes. No." I can no longer think, much less speak, coherently. "More."
He correctly interprets my meaning, and, a second later, another slim digit joins the first. My flesh stretches to accommodate him, and, for the first time in God knows how long, I feel deliciously full. He gives me a moment to get used to the feeling before he begins to move against me. Back and forth, inside and then out again, with long, slow, even strokes. I had no awareness of the particular moment when I gave up leading him and he just took matters into his own hands, so to speak. It's not important, anyway. I revel in the warmth of his body against mine and the delicacy of his touch.
Before long, my hips begin to rise toward him, thrusting against him eagerly with each stroke. He pulls his hand from within me and brushes slick fingers across my clitoris again. I bite back a cry at the dual sensation.
"Is that too rough?"
His solicitous concern brings a tear to my eye. The pleasure threatens to steal my breath away, but I manage to whisper, "No, no it's good. It's all good, Marcus."
His fingers plunge deep inside again as his thumb moves across me in tiny circles. "Then show me the fire, Susan. Come for me."
"Yes." It's far too late for second thoughts. The pressure builds more and more with each stroke of his hand, with each caress of his fingers, with the glorious friction of his skin sliding across mine. Finally, it becomes unendurable, virtually agonizing in its intensity. White-hot light explodes behind my eyelids as a raw, primal cry is torn from my throat. He holds me tightly to him as nerve endings, stimulated past the point of containment, spasm uncontrollably, sending a rush of warmth throughout my entire body. Safe in the circle of his arms, I shiver in spite of the heat of his embrace. I succumb wholly to the intimacy of his touch. I come undone.
I burn for him.
I open my eyes and breathe in deeply the warmth of Susan's scent. She's lying next to me, and I smile at the softness of her body against my own. I'm still trying to comprehend everything that happened last night. Does it mark a turning point in our relationship? Have we moved beyond the plane of friendship to something much deeper, much more binding? I can only hope so, with every fiber of my being.
Last night. I'm shaken again by the memories. God, I can still feel her mouth on me, warm, moist, bringing me to a shattering climax. But oddly enough, it isn't the things she'd done for me that leave me hungry for more; it's the things she'd let me do for her that have me quaking with such intensity even now. I can't forget the look of trust, warmth, and desire in her eyes as she'd looked at me and whispered, "Yes."
Nor can I forget the way that she moved my hand along her body, allowing me to touch her, to explore. My breath quickens even now as I can almost feel the smooth muscles underneath silken skin and the round, ripe curves. My palm aches to cup her breasts again, to feel the nipples contract and harden at my touch. At *my* touch. *I'd* made her quiver so, and I can't help the deep well of satisfaction that the thought evokes. My hand shakes as I remember the way she'd finally guided me to her, and I begin to harden again at the thought of softly curled hair, even softer skin, and slick, warm moisture, and her whispered plea of, "Deeper. Oh, please, deeper."
And I can't forget the way she'd shaken in my arms, how she'd gasped and moaned as I'd stroked her to fulfillment. Her pleasure had become my pleasure. The need to give to her as much as she'd given to me had been a fever in my blood. And when she'd screamed out as she found release, I almost came again because I was so overwhelmed with her passion. I want . . . no, I *need* to hear those cries again and again and again. She'd shown me the fire, and I am *consumed* by it.
I turn my head slightly to study the face of my love. She's still asleep, and I take my time caressing her with my eyes. It's funny that I thought that I knew her face, but there are things I've never been this close to really see before. Her face is soft this morning. There are times when it's seemed to be etched in granite, hard and unyielding, and there are times it's been furrowed in anger. But not now. A trace of a smile hovers on her lips. I hope that I'm the cause of this transformation. I notice the pattern of freckles across the bridge of her nose. They give her an almost impish look, even in repose as she is now. And I notice that her eyes have few laugh lines about them, as if she's rarely had much to laugh about, and silently, I vow to change that.
I want to pull her into my arms and kiss her slowly and thoroughly to wakefulness. And I want to feel her writhing again, but this time, as our bodies are joined. Instead, I continue to watch her sleep and force my thoughts to less erotic visions.
It's a shame that of all the time that we've known each other, it's taken this to bring us closer. Why couldn't we have been stranded together much sooner? And following hard on the heels of that, I hope that it takes a rescue party a while to find us. After last night, anyone sent to retrieve us wouldn't be a rescue at all, but an interruption of a romantic interlude.
Careful not to wake her, I cover her with the blanket, rise and slip into my jumpsuit and boots. I take one last lingering look at at her. "I love you, Susan Ivanova. With all my heart, with all that I am," I whisper. Yes, finally, the words are out, and even though she doesn't hear them, I feel lighter for my courage in uttering the secret I'd kept so long.
And then I tear myself away from the vision and walk out into the early, clear light. The jungle is alive again with sound after the rainfall of the night before. Everything seems fresh and new, as if a promise of better things to come. Heading to the stream, I gather some fruit and fill the canteens with cool water. That done, I head back to the tent, then stop and pick several purple and red flowers. Satisfied with the colorful bouquet, I walk back to rouse Susan from sleep.
She's awake when I return, and already dressed as well. She glances at me, but doesn't quite look me in the eyes. Is it my imagination, or is that a blush creeping over her face? Can it be that she's embarrassed about last night?
"Good morning," I say cheerfully.
"Good morning, Marcus," she offers tentatively. She eyes the bundle I'm carrying. "What's that?"
I offer her my widest smile. "Breakfast in bed, so to speak. The cafe was out of coffee and croissants, so I picked some delicious fruit and refilled our canteens. I only hope it will suffice. And these are flowers for a lovely lady."
"Thank you." She reaches for the flowers, and it seems that her hand is shaking a bit as it brushes mine. Her soft blue eyes meet mine for a brief second, before she turns away to place the bouquet on her pack. "And thank you for getting breakfast. I'm starved."
"So am I," I say, unable to hide the hunger in my voice.
She says nothing, but dives into the fruit with gusto. I watch in amusement as she devours three before coming up for air and drinking a large amount of water, all without taking so much as a glance at me. Perhaps she *is* self-conscious, but she has no reason to be. God knows, it sounds trite, but I respect her now as much as I always have. So why is she acting like I'm suddenly going to turn into a leering, ravaging wolf?
"Susan, last night--"
"I can't wait to get back and actually *have* coffee," she remarks dreamily, almost as if she's unaware that I'd spoken.
I feel a tightening in my chest at her words. "Are you in such a hurry, then, to go back? I had the idea that you might be enjoying yourself a little. I mean, how often *do* you get a holiday?"
"Not often enough," she admits slowly, carefully. She picks up a flower and begins to toy with it, her fingers sliding up and down the stem. "Still, I miss my bed and my shower."
My breath catches hard in my throat. The combination of the movements of her fingers and the mention of her bed is too much for me to take. Our eyes meet, and I'm almost certain that I see my own longing reflected in her orbs, but then she lowers her lids, and I wonder if I'd imagined it. "I don't," I reply finally. "Even a freezing deluge is better than a vibe shower."
She makes no comment, and I wonder if she's thinking about the other day.
"Yes?" She faces me fully for the first time. Her expression is wary.
This time I lose courage before I can get further. It's obvious that she isn't in any hurry to discuss the things that need to be brought out, so I don't push. Not now. "Would you like to just go for a walk?" I stand and hold out a hand for her.
She eyes me dubiously, then clasps my own and I pull her up. We're close enough to touch, and I can feel the warmth of her body through her jumpsuit. It's not an uncomfortable sensation.
"A walk sounds good, Marcus. I hate to just relax all day."
"And 'relax' is a four-letter word, in your vocabulary?" I tease. "Poor Susan, the suffering you've endured here!"
"Watch it, mister! Don't forget what happens to insolent trainees!"
I give her a bold, brash smile. "Right-o!"
We begin our walk through the brush, back to the stream, and it's almost inevitable that our footsteps should lead back to the pool. Along the way, I spot something similar to a monkey cavorting in the trees, and I reach for her hand to point it out to her. Her palm against mine brings back memories of these same hands lovingly caressing my chest. I begin to ache with the need to tell her everything, but her silence about last night is leaving me again somewhat reluctant to bring the subject up. But I will. Soon.
We continue walking, but suddenly the silence is unbearable. I need to know what she's thinking, how she feels about us. I can't wait any longer. "About last night . . . you don't need to be so . . . What I'm trying to get at is, you're being awfully coy about it. Are you . . . embarrassed?"
"No, Marcus, I'm not," she answers, but she doesn't quite meet my eyes.
"You're certainly acting as if you are," I tell her. "I'm not embarrassed in the least, and I don't know why you should be. We didn't do anything wrong."
She frowns. "I said I'm not, so don't keep harping on it."
"Then, this is okay, too," I whisper, and lean forward to kiss her.
She turns her head abruptly away and my lips brush her cheek instead of her mouth. "No. I don't think so."
What? She can go down on me, let me touch her in the most intimate way, but she can't kiss me? I clench my hands at my sides to regain control of the emotions that rage through me at this turn of events. I let out a deep breath. "I'm sorry. Did I miss something?"
"I can't kiss you, Marcus. Not the way that you want me to, anyway."
The hurt in his gaze is more severe than I thought that it would be. "Then tell me why, Susan. Give me an explanation. You owe me that much, at least."
Why? Because last night was a mistake. Well, two mistakes, really. When I screw up, I really go all-out. But if I tell him that, I'll destroy him, and that's the last thing that I want to do.
I straighten my shoulders and try to work up the courage to give him what he wants--an explanation. "You want to talk about what happened last night? Fine. I'll tell you what happened. Two healthy young people, who also happen to be extremely hard up, were thrown into a situation that would try the willpower of a saint. The circumstances called for desperate measures, so they took care of each other as best as they could."
"That's what you call it? 'Taking care' of me?"
He's crestfallen, just as I was afraid he'd be. "You needed me, and I refuse to abandon a friend in a time of need. You were considerate enough to return the favor. That's *all*, Marcus. Don't turn this into something that it's not."
"Your friend? Is that all that I am to you, Susan?"
"That's right." Liar.
"I see. Well, then, I suppose that you make it a common practice to go down on your other friends whenever the mood strikes you, right? How about Michael Garibaldi, or Stephen Franklin? You've known them far longer than you have me. And I'm sure that you've allowed the captain to hold you in his arms and give you pleasure. After all, you've known him longer than any of us. I'm sure that the two of you are *very* good friends."
"Stop it, Marcus."
"Gladly. If you'll stop insisting that the events that transpired last night were born out of friendship alone."
"You don't know what you're asking of me."
"I know *exactly* what I'm asking and so do you. You can trust me with your life, with your body, but not with your heart? You can't pick and choose, Susan. Maybe *you* can, but I can't."
"You want more than I can give you right now."
"But I'm not asking for any kind of commitment!" His expression lies somewhere in between fury and entreaty. "All I want is for you to acknowledge that our time here has been special to you. Valen knows, it has been for me. And I want more. If that upsets you, I'm sorry, but I can't help it. I want to be more than just your friend, but I can't want it enough for both of us."
No, he can't, but that doesn't keep a part of me from wishing that he could. "I need time, Marcus. And space. Please don't follow me." And then I turn my back and do what I've been doing all my life to people who get too close to me: I walk away.
Don't look back, don't look back, don't look back. I repeat the litany with every step I take until I clear the top of the hill. The terrain here is a lot rockier than the area downstream was, so I have to concentrate intently on making sure that my booted feet make firm contact with each step. I set a grueling pace for myself, trying to make sure that I don't have the time or energy to spare to think about what just happened.
I just walk, putting as much distance as I can between myself and the most infuriating man that I have ever met. But the distance can't erase the pain I saw in his eyes, or the tremor I heard in his voice, or the memory of the way his hands felt on my skin last night. As the sun reaches its zenith, I begin to tire. My jumpsuit is sticking to the skin between my shoulder blades, but I can't bring myself to stop, or even to slow down the pace.
Finally, a rock turns beneath my boot, and I pull up short, testing the ankle experimentally. It's fine, I just twisted it a little, but I decide to stop and take a breather before I do any further damage. Pulling myself atop one of the larger boulders, I find a shallow depression in the top of the rock, now filled with clear water from last night's rainfall. The glare of the sun reflecting off of the puddle's surface blinds me momentarily, but, even before the spot fades from my vision, clouds begin to obscure the sun's light. I dip a hand in and splash some of the tepid water onto my face. It could be cooler, but it's better than nothing. As I reach for another handful, I see my own face looking back at me. And, not for the first time, I don't like who I see.
*Coward,* the reflection seems to say.
I toss a pebble into the pool, and the image loses coherence as tiny waves spread out in concentric circles before reaching the bank and rebounding. The interference pattern that results as the outgoing waves clash with the incoming ones distorts my reflection even further, and I smile bitterly with satisfaction.
I'm just doing what's best for both of us.
The wavelets die down again, and I'm left facing, well, me.
*You're hiding, Ivanova, just like you always do.*
If people would just leave me alone, maybe I wouldn't have to hide. I've survived just fine on my own.
*Survived, yes, but you haven't lived.*
Yeah, well maybe *living* is overrated. I still have control of my life, and I won't risk losing it. It's the only thing left to me now.
*Oh, really? You gave up control last night. And what happened? Did the sun go supernova? Did the heavens fall? He touched you in more ways than one, didn't he? He surrendered control to you, absolutely. He trusted you.*
Maybe he shouldn't have. And maybe I shouldn't have trusted him. When I let people get close to me, I always end up getting hurt.
*And when you push them away, who gets hurt? It's still you. It's always you.*
It'll never work out.
*Especially if you don't try.*
It won't work! I won't be disappointed again. I'm a survivor, dammit.
*You're a prisoner. There's a difference.*
I'm a prisoner just because I choose to protect myself?
*There's a difference between self-preservation and solitary confinement.*
I am not a prisoner!
*Denial is such an ugly thing. Call it whatever you want to, but he was right about you. You've erected a fortress and locked yourself deep inside it. You're hiding from the one person who might be able to help you.*
If I let the walls down, I'll be defenseless.
*If you let the walls down, you'll be free.*
Free to do what?
*Live. Love. You want to love him, don't you? And you want him to love you.*
I don't know what love is any more.
*You knew once. And deep down inside, you still know. You haven't forgotten anything, except who you were, and who you are. Who are you, Susan?*
I am pain. Is that what you wanted to hear? I am anguish, and loss, and betrayal. I am sorrow.
*You are self-pity. You don't have to be any of those things. That's not who you are, that's what you chose for yourself. Who are you?*
Who am I? I close my eyes tightly and pull up my legs until my knees are tucked beneath my chin. Who am I? I am strength and fury. I am power, and passion and longing and determination. I am *desire*. And I am so very, very tired of being alone.
*What do you want?*
Him. I want Marcus.
*So why the hell are you still sitting on this rock?*
Good question. I slide off of the boulder and turn back downstream. When I finally reach the pool again, I see Marcus perched on my rock. Our rock now, I guess. His nude body is hunched over in a position that reminds me of Rodin's Thinker. I almost hate to interrupt his reverie, but I don't think he'll mind too much when he learns the reason for it. I call out his name, and he lifts his head abruptly, greeting me with a wan smile.
He slips off of the boulder and swims toward the bank, stopping just a few feet away from me. "Before you say anything I might regret, I want to apologize. I was out of line, and I never once told you just how much your acknowledging me as your friend means to me. I want to be more than that, of course, but that's totally up to you, and I don't want to rush you in any way . . ."
I really should rescue him, but he looks kind of cute, standing there, babbling incoherently. Finally, though, I have to stop him for the sake of my own sanity. "Marcus."
He winds down and takes a breath. "What?"
"Shut up and kiss me."
The smile on his face is a beautiful thing to behold. He wades out of the stream, picks me up, and spins around giddily, beaming with delight all the while. After a moment, he sets me back on my feet and cups my face with his hands. Moving slowly, cautiously, he brushes his lips against mine in a whisper-soft caress. I try to capture his mouth in a deeper kiss, but his mouth is moving down the line of my jaw to capture an earlobe and suckle on it gently. Tiny shocks course through me, causing me to shiver lightly beneath his touch.
"Anywhere I want?" His whisper is hoarse.
"What?" I turn my head slightly and offer up my neck to him.
He takes the invitation, running his lips over the sensitive skin of my throat. "Can I kiss you anywhere I want?"
I'm on fire just at the thought. "Yes. Anywhere. Everywhere. Just don't stop. Don't ever, ever stop."
Her aching plea sears my blood. I lift my eyes to hers, and see in them all the storm of hunger, desire, love, that I've waited so long to see. After this morning, I wasn't sure that I ever would. I could see traces of fear and doubt then, but I don't see any now. I smile and move back to exploring her throat.
I stop for the briefest second. Even though I've touched her everywhere, seen almost everything, I don't know how she'd feel about me undressing her. "Susan, love, may I . . .?"
I kneel to remove her boots and socks, then straighten again. I slide down the zipper of her suit with one smooth motion, and she steps out of it. I plant a kiss on her left shoulder, idly making little circles with my tongue, before I reach for her hand.
"Come with me," I say softly, urging her toward the water.
She laughs. "Marcus, when you asked if you could kiss me anywhere you wanted, I didn't think you meant in the middle of the pool."
"All right. What did you have in mind?"
I meet her gaze again. "I want to love you here in the sunlight. I want to see if you look and taste as beautiful as you felt last night when I held you. I want to hear all those little sounds you make. I want to feel you shaking with pleasure. And I want to hear that scream again, that long, sharp, piercing scream when you come."
Her smile broadens and her eyes sparkle, challenging me. Well, I’ve had plenty of time to fantasize and think about her. I’ll give her more pleasure, or at least try my best. Carrying our discarded jumpsuits, I lead her out into the warm water, she in her little tank top and panties, and I completely nude. The rock in the pool is perfect for what I have in mind, and the suits will make a cushion of sorts. No need to chafe that gorgeous behind.
I stop at the chest high boulder, setting my bundle down, and turn to her. Oh, Valen! The already revealing tank is now soaked through and transparent, outlining her glorious breasts and plainly displaying her pink nipples to perfection. The sight is too delicious to alter. I leave her tank on, and lift her onto the rock. I cup her breasts in the palms of my hands, then rake my thumbs over the nipples. She groans deep in her throat, and I enjoy the hungry sound, but I'll pay more attention to them later. I shift my gaze lower.
Her panties are likewise soaked, and dark curls are clearly visible. It's another beautiful picture, but these just have to go. I hook my fingers in the waist of the thin cotton, almost ripping the garment in my haste, and toss it somewhere on the rock behind her. She sits back, propping herself with her hands. I can see the anticipation in her eyes and smile, and in her heaving chest.
My anticipation is no less. But I stand motionless for a second. Can I please her this way, too? I'm going to do my best to try. Oh, God, I want to make her come again. My hands tremble as I smooth them over the creamy flesh of her thighs. She parts her legs, and I move between them. I begin to softly kiss the inside of her legs. I feel the slight tremor beneath my lips as I gradually work toward the apex. And then I'm there.
Slowly, I part the soft, furry folds and catch my breath as I expose the dusky-pink, glistening flesh. I am drawn like a moth to a flame by the whisper of her musky scent. I touch my tongue just to the outside of the delicate lips and trace a path up, brushing over the peak of her desire as I had with my fingertips last night. Again. I repeat the motion. Her sharp hiss causes me to look up. Her face is flushed, her lips are parted, and her eyes are dark and heavy-lidded with passion.
Another gentle brush reveals the very core of her, the moisture-drenched opening of her body. Oh, God. Heaven. I caress up the length of the slot, slowly, closer, and then hover a breath of a second, before once more tonguing her clitoris. She reacts with another sharp gasp and an almost imperceptible tightening of her thigh muscles beneath my hands.
"Is that all right?"
Her answer comes in another rush of air. "Yes."
Remembering how she'd enjoyed the gentle stroking of my fingers, I lick my lips and re-trace the path again, but this time, I flick once, twice, the hardening bud. Her reaction is instantaneous. Her hips buck off the rock toward me, and she whimpers, "Marcus!"
The sound of her voice, husky with passion, is music I'll never tire of. I begin to experiment with new ways to coax new sounds from her. I lap softly at the warm, wet flesh, varying the speed and pressure of my tongue. I begin with long, slow, even strokes from the bottom of her opening up to her clitoris.
"Mmm," I hear her sigh.
Well, if she likes that . . . I increase the speed of my caresses ever so slightly, focusing more on the center of her pleasure until she's writhing.
A gentle rain, more like a light mist, has begun to fall, but I ignore it, and so does she. It's refreshing, and wonderfully erotic, like a warm shower. It's just another delicious little fantasy I've had that's suddenly come true, and like the cold drenching from the other day, the light downpour does nothing to reduce my erection. My body screams for relief, but not now, not yet. I want her fire again first. So I keep up the rapid stimulation.
I voice my questions in between licks. "Too much? Not enough?"
Her breath comes in short pants now, and I feel her fingers tighten in my hair. "You know it's good."
Yes, it's good. She feels good; she tastes good, and I love doing this for her. I'm enjoying her and her reactions, the quivering of her thighs, the impatient little movements toward me, the sharp little gasps, and the soft rain glistening on her body.
And the moisture glistening on her folds as it seeps from within her. Something primitive rears up inside me, and I delve into her hungrily, lapping at the silken offering, savoring the taste of her. And then I thrust my tongue into her and feel her walls clenching me as I stroke in and out.
"Oh!" Her voice seems to come from far away. "Oh, that's good!"
I repeat the strokes again and again, teasing her clitoris with a thumb at the same time. She clutches at my hair, trying to pull me closer. The gentle raindrops seem to add to her passion. I'm glad it's not raining harder, because I don't want to stop. Another quick glance at her lust-glazed expression assures me that she doesn't want to stop either.
I change the target of my attention back to the swollen flesh above her wet cleft. I tease it again with slow, smooth laps, reveling in the impatient sounds she makes now, and the urgent lifting of her hips to meet my mouth. Then I begin to lick more quickly, still not as fast as she'd like, but I want to drive her crazy. I want her to lose control again.
"More!" she commands, begs. "There, yes there!" Then her voice fades to an incoherent whimper as I speed up my movements by increments.
"Yes, let go. God, you're incredible like this," I rasp over the sound of the rain. "Sweet. Hot."
I dive in again, this time holding her hips lightly as I continue to lap at her clitoris. She bucks toward me repeatedly, and I add light nips to my strokes every so often. Her fingers thread in my hair, tighter and tighter. Finally I slide my hands around to cup her bottom, massaging the firm flesh. I lift her to meet me, head on, as I close my lips over the sensitive peak and suckle softly.
She jerks toward me, but I hold her fast. I repeat the motion, sucking harder. She begins to spasm in my hands. Again and again, I suckle her, each time more firmly than the last. And each time, her moans grow louder, the movements toward and against my mouth more frantic.
Now, love. Give me everything. Please. Come for me, Susan.
I latch on again, and don't let up. I suckle, I tug, I caress her bottom, over and over. I can almost feel the heat surging through her with every tremor of her body. I want the fire. Give me the fire.
I can hear her almost cooing now as I suckle her, harder, longer. Her voice changes mid-way, just as her body jerks again, then shudders uncontrollably. Her entire body bucks toward me, and her fingers bite into my shoulders.
Thunder rumbles in the distance.
Then all is quiet. Susan is limp in my hands, exhausted, and God help me, hopefully sated as well. She moves suddenly, wrapping her arms around my neck, her lower body pressing intimately to mine. There's no ignoring my arousal now. She pulls my head to hers, capturing my mouth in a deep kiss. I know that she has to taste the evidence of her release on my lips, and I shudder violently at the intimacy of it. She pulls away, and her eyes meet mine as she smiles tenderly.
"Susan," I whisper raggedly, hoping I'm not presuming too much again, "what do you say we go back to the tent, before the storm hits?"
She nods, strips off her tank, and we gather our clothing. Arm in arm, we support each other as we head back to the shore. Panting softly, I reach for our boots, but she stops me with a hand on my arm. I turn to her in confusion, and she smiles mischievously.
"First things first . . ."
His eyes widen as I drop to my knees in front of him and take him into my hand. He is impossibly hard; forged iron sheathed in warm, incredibly soft skin.
He swallows convulsively. "That’s. . .um. . .that's really not necessary, love."
Instead of stopping, I run my tongue along the underside of him, from base to tip before leaning back to admire him again. "No? Then tell me to stop, Marcus. Tell me that you don't need this right now."
He groans low in his throat, and I feel an answering surge between my legs. "I want you, Gods, how I want you, but I can wait, you know. I've done nothing *but* wait for the last twenty years."
He towers over me, but there is submission in his gaze, in his stance. The fine mist that was falling on us in the stream, cooling my overheated skin as Marcus' tongue and lips urged me closer and closer to oblivion, has grown a little heavier, but the temperature has remained warm. Tiny droplets are clinging to
his hair and to his beard, and there is a fine sheen of moisture that glistens faintly on his chest. He is an absolutely glorious specimen of manhood. I chide myself again for the wasted years that I could have spent with him. I don't want to waste any more time.
I cup my hand around his scrotum and squeeze lightly as I rub my cheek against his length. My actions are rewarded with an explosive sigh and a soft whimper. "I know you can wait, but I can't. And it will be better later, if I do this now. Trust me, Marcus. Let me do this for you. Please?"
"You know I could never deny you anything," he whispers. He strokes my face with his open palm. "I just never, even in my wildest dreams, imagined that this would be something that you'd ask for. I may be a fool, at times, but I'm not the blithering idiot that I would have to be to refuse you."
"You're no fool, Marcus."
"Oh, no? What about that time that I . . ."
His words stop abruptly as I take him into my mouth. Gently, softly, I begin to swirl my tongue around the tip. I taste him almost immediately. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but he grows even harder under my ministrations.
He reaches hesitantly to stroke the hair back from my forehead before moving his hands lower. His fingers tighten on my shoulders briefly, then move down to stroke my upper arms. Then, as I slowly lean toward him, taking in as much of his length as I can, he moves to cup my breasts briefly before rolling the
nipples between his fingers. I gasp at the unexpected sensation, and his hips twitch beneath my hands in unspoken reply. I stroke the backs of his thighs as stands rigidly in front of me, and then gradually slide my hands until they're firmly cupping his backside.
Never letting him slide from my mouth, I tug his body slightly toward me, careful not to scrape the delicate skin with my teeth. At the end of the stroke, I apply gentle suction before pushing his hips back away from me, keeping just the very tip of him in my mouth. As I clench my hands again to pull him toward me, he moves forward eagerly against my welcoming lips and tongue. Again, as he withdraws, I hollow my cheeks with suction to maximize the sensation. At this point, I almost expect him to simply seize me by the shoulders and thrust himself mindlessly against me, but instead, he keeps his movements gentle and shallow, meeting me halfway, but not forcing himself too deeply. Should I be surprised that he's so gracious in both giving and receiving pleasure? Of course not. I wouldn't have expected anything less from him.
His breathing grows more strained, and I know that mine's not too even either. I open my eyes again and raise them toward him. He is facing the heavens, with his head thrown back and the tendons in his neck sharply outlined beneath his slick skin. The rain is starting to fall a little harder now, and the impact of
the tiny beads of water against my skin is a source of constant stimulation. I feel so hot that I almost expect a puff of steam each time that a raindrop kisses me. As I watch, thin runnels of water start criss-crossing his chest, but only I can quench the fire raging inside him.
I suck at him a little harder, enjoying the way that he quivers in response. Then, I increase the pace and begin to stroke him faster. Harder still. Faster. My only warning is the way that his fingers suddenly tighten on my breasts. The pleasure far outweighs the pain, and, as we both cry out simultaneously, he fills my mouth, hot and salty-sweet. A moment later, he pulls himself from between my lips, and falls to his knees in front of me.
Under any other circumstances, the expression of awe and wonderment on his face would be almost funny. As it is, it leaves me feeling powerful and pleased that I could give him as much pleasure as he gave me. But we still have so much more to give each other. Thunder rumbles in the distance again and the rain begins to worsen.
I stand and extend a hand to him. "Think you can walk?"
"I'll bloody well crawl if I have to," he smiles. In a moment, however, he pushes himself to his feet and takes my hand as we pick up our things and make our way back to the camp.
It's still raining when we get there. A fire would have been nice, but I don't think that we'll require the extra warmth tonight anyway. I reach for my backpack and pull out two emergency ration bars. He grimaces as I toss him one.
"Eat it, Marcus. You'll need the energy. I intend to see to it personally."
"Oh you do, do you?" He grins and rips off the wrapper with renewed interest.
We sit quietly in the mouth of our shelter, watching the rain while we chew on the tasteless bars and wash them down with water. Finally, Marcus breaks the silence.
"It's not exactly champagne and candlelight, is it?"
"It doesn't matter." I leave his side to lie in our bed, but he doesn't follow me yet.
"Are you sure that this is what you want, Susan? You deserve better."
"The surroundings aren't important." How can I make him understand what I feel for him? "*This* is what I want. I want to see the look in your eyes as you push yourself inside me. I want to feel your heart beating in unison with mine. I want to hear your voice break on my name. I want it all, Marcus, and I want it
He turns surprised eyes back toward me, and my skin flushes with the heat of his gaze. "I want those things too. I can't remember a time when I didn't want them.”
"Then come here."
He settles himself at my side and we reach for each other, exploring slowly, carefully, memorizing the places that elicit a sigh as well as those that cause a ticklish flinch. As his hand slides softly across my stomach, he pauses.
"And if there should be a child?"
"There won't be. My implant is current."
"It's not that I'm questioning your motives or anything, but why the sudden change of heart about us?"
I rub my fingertips idly against his chest. "My heart didn't change, Marcus. My fear just kept it in check for the last few years."
"Surely you're not afraid of me?" he prompts, showering my ear and neck with tiny kisses.
"No, it's not you. It's the fact that everyone that I've ever loved left me. Some died. Others just went away and never came back. And the last one hurt so badly that I swore I would never let it happen again."
"I'm sorry." His whisper is almost as soft as the lips that he's sliding across my throat. "So what made you decide to take a chance on me?"
"When I went upstream, I saw my reflection in a pool. And I saw a woman who was so committed to preventing pain that she refused to even admit to the existence of joy. Logically, one cannot exist without the other, right? But a future without pleasure. . .I decided that I could no longer tolerate that kind of
"There will be moments of pain for us, Susan. You and I both know it." His breath fans softly across my skin. "But maybe, if we're lucky, there will be pleasure as well, enough to see us through the dark times."
"Yes." I slide my hand across his abdomen, not bothering to try to hide the huskiness in my voice. "There will be pleasure."
My breath catches in my throat as he slides his lips away from my neck and takes a nipple into his mouth, tugging firmly at it with lips and tongue. The shock courses throughout my body, centering itself at my core. My legs part in unspoken invitation and Marcus moves to lie between them, his body hot and heavy
atop my own.
My fingers sift idly through his hair as he continues to suckle at my breast and, before long, my hips begin to undulate beneath his. "I think it's time, Marcus."
I can barely make out his breathless murmur, "I couldn't agree more."
But, instead of pressing down deeper against me, inside me, his weight lifts from my body. Then quick, dexterous fingers spread open my folds, and his tongue darts out to flick the aching peak at the top of my cleft. It is simultaneous agony and ecstasy, and I shiver as my hips lift toward him. He repeats the touch a second later, a light, teasing contact that is gone in an instant.
"That's. . .not what I meant," I gasp as he continues the sweet torture.
"I know." He brushes his beard against the sensitive skin of my inner thigh. "Are you going to tell me to stop?"
"Good. I love the way that your body shakes when I do that."
And he does it again and again, until I twist helplessly in his hands and the need to have him inside me becomes intolerable. As I sit up and reach for him, he rocks back on his heels and pulls me into his lap. He cups my rear firmly with both hands and keeps me from making that most intimate of connections
complete. I drop my head to his shoulder and pray for control, almost losing it when he speaks in that beautiful, accented voice of his.
"Look at me, Susan."
I raise my gaze to his and realize that he's giving me exactly what I asked for earlier. He begins to lower me against him, and I stiffen abruptly as I feel his hardness nudge against me, and then slip inside. He gasps at the contact, but his eyes remain glued to my own.
"Tell me what you see," he pants softly.
It's impossible to define the maelstrom of emotions in his expression, but I do my best. "Passion. Pleasure. Adoration. Love."
"All of those," he nods, "and more. Do you want to know what I see?"
He lifts me away from him, and I wrap my legs around his waist as he pulls me back into his lap. He plunges much deeper this time but, in spite of all the years that have passed since I last had a lover, there is only a fierce, hot ache that in no way resembles pain. He sets a maddeningly slow pace, and, as
his hands grip my hips tightly, I'm totally at his mercy. In between deep, lazy thrusts, I rake my fingers through the dark, curly hair scattered across his chest and trace circles on his shoulders with my tongue.
And it's good, it's so very, very good, but he's withholding the release that I'm quickly becoming desperate for. My left hand clutches at his shoulder for balance as the right slides down between our sweat-slicked bodies. Anxious fingers explore our union, now circling the base of him and squeezing lightly, then smoothing over the velvet lips that are so eagerly embracing his length. We gasp in unison, breathing deeply of air redolent with the mingled fragrances of jungle, rain, and sex. My touch slides across my clitoris just as he rears up beneath me again, and my back arches violently at the sensation.
One of his hands slides up to support my lower back as the other grabs my wrist, his grip firm, but not painful. I wonder briefly if I've offended him in some way, but then he slowly, deliberately lifts my hand and holds it up between us. His eyes seize mine hungrily as he plants a kiss in the center of my palm before guiding my glistening fingers to his lips. There is a sudden lurch in my
midriff as he swirls his tongue around my fingertips before pulling them further into his mouth, scraping my knuckles lightly with his teeth.
He keeps his hold on my wrist, but doesn't resist me as I pull my fingers free of his lips and slide them between my own, tasting our mingled essences. It is an act of worship, of communion: a total acceptance of ourselves and of each other. He stifles a groan as I touch my fingertips briefly to his lips once
more before dragging them downward over his chin and then down the middle of his chest and stomach. My mouth finds his throat, and I feel his pulse thrumming beneath my teeth, a perfect counterpoint to the rapid pounding of my own heart.
Then my hand drops into the liquid heat once again, stroking both of us firmly, indiscriminately. He trembles and whispers my name, and Valen's, and God's, his voice breaking on all three. As the hand at the base of my spine pulls me tightly against him, I arch my back again, and he leans forward, just until my shoulders are resting on the ground. There is nothing tentative about the way that he sinks himself inside me with short, swift strokes. My body matches his rhythm instinctively as my hips rise repeatedly to receive him.
Each thrust is delicious agony. In spite of the passage of time, I remember this well. The warm, pulling sensation that starts between my legs and ends somewhere around my heart, the strain in my thigh muscles as I move to maximize the friction, and the frequent shudders that rack my frame are all familiar to me, even if they seem like ancient history. How could I have gone so long without this? How could he?
And then it doesn't matter, because, within the space of a few seconds, it's better than it's ever been, and far, far more than I can endure. Fire races along my tortured nerves, igniting everything in its path as it burns this moment indelibly into my memory. Internal muscles flutter helplessly in the aftermath, clenching themselves around him repeatedly. He pauses to savor the sensation, and, in turn, is himself lost. A few final strokes elicit low groans from both of us.
Utterly spent, he stretches out on the ground next to me, pulling the blanket over us as I roll to spoon myself against him. For once, he seems to be speechless, and for the next few minutes, the sound of our labored breathing drowns out the other jungle noises. The daylight fades quickly, and takes our
consciousness with it.
It's still pitch dark when I wake to the feel of rigid heat against my back and the touch of his right hand gently stroking my hip and thigh. Still spooned tightly against him, I simply lift my right leg over his own and snuggle even closer. After a moment's hesitation, his hand moves lower, gently exploring me,
teasing me until I can no longer stand it, and I tilt my hips toward him, guiding him inside me and biting back a moan as he penetrates deeply.
Then he wraps his left arm around me as well, pulling me closer still and tracing tiny, feather-light circles around my swollen nipples with his fingertips. His other hand is still exploring the warm, wet folds that are now wrapped tightly around him. I'm completely unable to keep from writhing in his grasp, and the sensation seems to inflame him even further. His teeth close gently on the skin at the nape of my neck as he pulls himself out of me, only to thrust back in a second later. A shower of sparks dances behind my eyes, and my teeth close on my lower lip as I swallow a scream.
His fingers are still caressing my breasts with exquisite gentleness, still moving against my clitoris in long, slick strokes. His body is wrapped completely around mine now, but instead of feeling suffocated, I feel pampered, coddled by the lavish, unselfish attention. Then he thrusts against me again and logical thinking departs.
His fingers pinch a nipple lightly. Thrust. He captures my clitoris between thumb and forefinger, rubbing it with infinite gentleness. Thrust. His beard brushes against my shoulder as he nips and nuzzles the skin on the side of my neck. Thrust. Then he repeats the cycle again. And yet again. Until I'm murmuring his name with each gasping breath, and he's helpless to contain a moan each time he buries himself inside me. Until we both become consumed with the ecstasy, with the all-encompassing need, with the desire to give and to receive pleasure, and with the fire.
Always, with the fire.
Susan stirs in my arms and lifts her head. “Good morning,” she murmurs. She smiles at me, not shielding the emotion in her eyes. A nice change from someone who isn’t a morning person by any stretch.
Tenderly, I stroke the hair back from her face. I had no idea that it was possible to hit the depths of despair and the heights of wonder and ecstasy within the space of a single day. And yet I had, and for the first time in what seems ages, I feel a sense of belonging, of contentment. I am happy. It’s humbling to see her so vulnerable, so open. Am I worthy of such trust? I truly hope so. I kiss her, gently brushing my lips across hers, savoring the exquisite sensations. “Good morning, love. Sleep well?”
“Yes. Although you’re really too hard to make a comfortable pillow.” She caresses my chest and abdomen playfully as she teases.
I cock an eyebrow up and grin at her. “I don’t recall any complaints about my hardness yesterday, or last night.”
“No. No complaints.” Her voice is husky, though still playful. And then a moment later, she’s quietly serious. “You have a beautiful body, Marcus.”
“Thank you,” I stammer, looking at her in wide-eyed wonder. I’ve never considered myself especially handsome, and as for my physique, well, I’ve sometimes thought it left a little to be desired. But I suppose what matters is that Susan finds me attractive. “But your body is *far* more beautiful than
It’s her turn to blush, but her smile is full and radiant. “Thank *you*.”
She moves her mouth to capture mine in a deep kiss, and for several long, blissful minutes, we share our joy in this way. I know that I’ll never tire of this woman. How could I, when she’s everything, my world? We break the kiss, and lie, bodies touching, hands and lips wandering where they may. Just being close is enough right now.
“I don’t want to move. But, there’s something we need to take care of. I just forgot about it with everything that’s happened the last few days. Both our Furies have their locator transmitters on. I think we’d better go turn mine off so we don’t confuse a rescue team.” Susan leans up on an elbow. “What do you think?”
What do I think? I think everyone else can just bloody well stay away from here. At least for a few more days. I can’t help teasing her, just a little. “You want to get rid of me so soon?”
She laughs. “No, not on your life. But as much as this time here with you *has* been special, Marcus, we can’t stay forever. You know that. We’ve been here a few days, and if a rescue party picks up two signals, five kilometers apart, that will just make it difficult for them.”
“Yes, that would be the best thing to do, I suppose.” I nod at her reasoning. As I told her, I do admire her intelligence. Not to mention her leadership abilities. Besides, much as I’d like to, I’ve never been fond of lying around all day. Gently, I urge her off me. “All right, then. We’d best get going. Let’s take a pack with us, carry something to eat along, make a day of it. But first, I don’t know about you, but I feel rather in need of a bath.”
She nods, stuffing some fruit and leaf-wrapped roast pig into her backpack, checking to make sure there’s plenty of soap left. “The pool it is, then.”
We arrive some minutes later, after having filled our canteens at the cooler stream. Dropping the backpack and my bundle of clothing, I take her burden from her hands, placing it near mine, and together, we walk into the warm water. I reach for the soap, urging her to the boulders in the shallows. “You first.”
She ducks her head, and as she comes up I wet the soap, making a lather, then work it into her hair. As my fingers work through the silky strands, I recall the last time I’d done this for her. In a way it seems like a lifetime ago. I’d been hesitant to touch her then, afraid that some small part of my feelings for her would manifest itself in my fingertips and impart that knowledge to her through her skin. Everything is different now. So very different.
She responds slowly, dipping her head back, and I slide my hands back into hair to work out the last of the soap. Finally she moves off the rock and stands in front of me, and I begin to wash her. My hands are slippery as I glide them over her in moves meant more to caress than cleanse. Down her back in slow, lazy circles, up and down her hips, and around over her pelvic bone, stopping below her ribcage. I repeat the movements again and again. I luxuriate in the feel of her satin skin, and in her soft sighs. She shivers slightly and moans as I move to cup her breasts, weighing them, moulding them, before rolling the nipples between my fingers. One arm reaches up to curl around my head, and she breathes my name in rapture. I gasp with pleasure as she leans back against me, against my arousal. My hands slip down, and her legs part automatically, allowing me access to her. I toy with the rapidly moistening flesh with gentle fingers until she moans and writhes impatiently against me. Then I release her before I take her where she so obviously wants to go. Where I got the strength, I’ll never know.
Her voice is shaky with need as she turns to me, rinsing the soap from her body. “Oh God. I’ll get you for that.”
And she does.
She washes my hair slowly, her breasts pressed into my back, her hips undulating rhythmically against my buttocks until I am on fire. Finally she instructs me to rinse, and when I’m standing again, she caresses my skin with soapy hands of her own. Neck, back, arms, thighs, all are subject to her torment. Gentle hands. Burning hands. Just when I can bear the teasing play no longer, one strong, slim hand closes around me. Long, even strokes bring me rapidly to the point of no return while one finger toys with the cleft between my cheeks. I don’t bother to hold back the ragged sigh that forces its way past my lips as she works her magic. I am totally at her mercy. I buckle at her touch, then groan in unbearable frustration as she stops. Sweet, heady torture. I turn slowly, and our gazes lock. “Do you have *any* idea what you do to me?”
Her answering smile is both innocent and sultry. “I have an idea.”
I return her smile as I stroke along the length of her jaw. Her eyes have a darker shade. Are my own as passion-glazed? Is she trembling as much as I am right now? My voice is soft when I answer. “Oh, I wager you do.”
I take her hand and we wade back onto the shore and the soft, green grass. We lay side by side, facing each other, our ragged breaths mingling. Slowly, deliberately, I caress her chin and lips, parting them, then cover them with my own. Our tongues slide together, then part, to alternately explore the other’s mouth. Her left hand moves from my side to my buttocks, idly stroking the flesh, and my erection begins to throb even more insistently. I answer by once again cupping one of her breasts, my thumb flicking over the nipple until it’s pebble-hard. I roll to my back, pulling her on top of me so that my own hands can roam at will over slightly damp, silky skin. Then I lift her body, pulling her forward, and continue teasing the warm flesh, lapping at it with my tongue. Past the point of endurance, one hand slides under my head, crushing me to her breast. How can I refuse? I close my mouth over the peak, alternately tracing circles and sucking firmly until she’s panting.
Gently, I release her and urge her forward more until the she’s poised over me, thighs each side of my head. “Let’s see how you taste this morning.” But as I begin to bring her to my waiting tongue, she resists.
“I have a better idea,” she says, as she turns to reposition herself. Her knees planted on either side of my head, she faces my feet, and I have no time to think about what she wants because it suddenly becomes deliciously clear as her mouth closes warm and wet over me.
Gentle suction causes my hips to buck upward, and a harsh moan escapes dry lips. Unable to do anything but respond in kind, I grasp her hips and pull her to me. The scent of lavender does little to mask the subtle odor of musky arousal, nor does it alter the delicate salty taste. Conscious thought fades now, and instinct, primal and earthy, takes its place. I give; I receive. Our hands and mouths seem to work in unison, spiraling each other toward the pinnacle of gratification. She strokes my cock firmly, sucking all the while; my own tongue darts again and again over her peak as fingers caress her quivering, slick muscle. Pleasure splinters through me as her thighs tighten, jerk, tense. The dampness washes over my tongue. Triumph, then powerlessness, as my body surges to answer the demand of her mouth.
She is shaky as she moves back to collapse in my arms. I can’t move now either. After a few moment Susan leans over me, her lips brushing mine in a tender caress. The taste of our mutual release mingles, like before, unbelievably intimate. No shame, no denial, only pure acceptance,
unconditional trust. And again, there is no need for words.
Finally, we move again. The sun is already halfway to its zenith as we begin the trek northward, following another, smaller rivulet, toward Susan’s Fury. Occasionally we hold hands, but more often than not, the brush is too thick to walk side by side. In those cases, I follow her. After we’ve gone about two and a half kilometers, we decide to break for lunch. We halt near a flat boulder surrounded by thick, tall trees.
“We should be close,”she informs me between bites of pig. “Another two, two and a half klicks.”
“That’s fine. And then I suppose we just wait until someone answers my signal.” I take a huge gulp of water. “I know we have to get back, but I *am* going to miss this place.”
Her voice is so unusually soft I almost don’t make out her words. “So am I. I’m happy, Marcus. *Really* happy for the first time in God knows how long. You’ve given that to me.”
“No.” I shake my head slowly, refusing to take credit for that. Perhaps in some small way, but not entirely. “No, you’ve given that to yourself.”
She smiles, and her eyes light up. “Either way, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
I nod back. “I’m glad.”
We sit in comfortable silence for a while, then my thoughts begin to wander back to our lovemaking. I haven’t really been able to put it out of my mind, just shoved it aside for brief periods. But following her, watching her delectable bottom encased in her suit, all I could think about was the softness of it as she wrapped her legs around me as I entered her finally. And now, much as I’d enjoyed the release she gave me with her mouth earlier, I crave the closeness, the impossible tightness of her, the heat, the silky wetness enveloping me, clasping me. I simply *have* to be inside her again. Like a starving man who’s suddenly found a banquet in a desert, I crave more and more and more. I watch as she lifts the canteen to her lips, lips that have given me such pleasure, and the ache to be one with her again is unbearable. She lowers it and stares back at me knowingly, in open invitation, searing demand.
With a harsh groan, I pull her into my arms and cover her mouth with my own. Her lips part, and I plunge inside the warmth, my tongue moving with hers in a slow duel. Valen, I love the taste of her, the feel of her. I reach my hands up to caress the delicate shell of her ears and realize that her hair is still
braided. I love the feel of her hair. I pull the catch out and unravel the plait, tangling my fingers in it. Much better. My lips brush every inch of her face in tiny, soft kisses before she tilts her head back, offering me her throat. I whisper my need huskily against the satin column. “I can’t get enough of you.”
Hands work busily over my shoulders, down to the zipper of my suit. “I know.” Her words come out in a sharp, breathless moan as I nibble at an earlobe. “Want you too.”
In a matter of seconds we shed our clothes and Susan lies back on the rock. There is very little foreplay this time, but she’s wet and welcoming as I enter her and begin to move. I groan hungrily as she tightens her inner muscles, matching each upward stroke with a searing clasp. The pleasure is white-hot, piercing, all-encompassing. There is simply no way to tell her how good it feels. My hand finds her clitoris to help bring her the fulfillment that I am so rapidly building up to. As she begins to writhe beneath me, I surge into her in an alternating series of short, quick and long, deep, thrusts. Her muscle quivers around me and moisture drenches us both. I am lost in her.
She murmurs my name again and again, and I lose control. There is no rhythm in the way I thrust into her now, only the overpowering need to spill myself inside her. I move to capture her lips, and our cries of release are muffled, even as our bodies shake in the aftermath.
“You are incredible,” I whisper to her finally. “Incredible.”
“You’re not so bad yourself,” she breathes smugly back. A short laugh escapes her. “Why do I get the feeling we’re not going to get that beacon turned off today?”
“Who says?” I plant another sharp, brief kiss on her mouth. “Last one dressed cooks dinner!”
We both fly into our clothes and gather up our belongings. It’s still a way to go, and who knows when we might get rained on? We head out again through the thick grove, through a field shimmering with impossibly bright yellow flowers, chatting softly along the way, touching each other as much as possible. Somehow, I know that Susan is thinking the same thing I am: beautiful as this moon is, it can’t begin to match what we’ve found here.
Finally, she slows and points. “It’s just past those trees there.”
We move forward together, as the brush is less dense, making it unnecessary to travel single file. I see her craft, gleaming in the sunlight through the remaining trees. A few more meters and we’ll be there, our task for the day completed.
“Yeah, someone ditched her here, all right.”
We freeze, heads whipping toward the unfamiliar voice, then to each other, then back again.
“I thought you said this place was uninhabited,” Susan whispers.
I lift a hand toward her, then let it drop at my side. I’m just as baffled as she is. “Nothing showed up on my scan. Whoever it is must have picked up the signal. The question is, who?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Slowly, we make our way forward, crouching behind the thick scrub. Two rough looking men are walking around the Fury, trying to figure where it came from. Susan grabs my arm, and our gazes lock, but this time in worry rather than passion.
They're too far away to make out what they're saying, but we can't get any closer without risking discovery. We watch them for a minute, just long enough to determine that the two of them seem to be alone. I tug on his arm and Marcus follows as I creep back until we're completely shielded by the undergrowth.
"Are you armed?"
"Just with this," he pats the cargo pouch on his thigh, and I can make out the outline of his pike beneath the material, "and my knife. I didn't bring my PPG."
"I've got mine, but they're both heavily armed, and they've got body armor as well. Let's go back to our camp and get my pack and your weapon. They have enough of an advantage already without us having to deal with reduced firepower."
We jog through the forest in tandem, moving as swiftly as possible without making any noise that might attract unwanted attention. Fortunately, we're surrounded by natural cover, and the fruit stains on our overalls are even helping in that regard, lending something of a camouflage effect. As we approach our camp, we slow to a crawl. It doesn't take long to determine that there are more of them, and they've beaten us here.
We arrive just in time to see two more raiders walk out of our shelter. The taller of the two, a redhead, although graying at the temples, looks to be in his mid-40's. He's solidly built, and his armor does little to disguise the dense musculature of his upper body. His companion, several years younger, has a much slimmer build, but the puckered scar across his cheek indicates that he's certainly no stranger to action. The older man opens his palm and shows the contents to his blonde companion. "Long hair, and lots of it, plus it smells like perfume in there. No real man would be caught dead smelling like that. I'll bet you fifty credits that the pilot's a woman."
Blondie licks his lips. "You think she'll be pretty?"
Red grins maliciously. "We've been out here for eight months, junior. Eight fucking months of living with forty men and three women. After looking at your ugly face for that long, I don't think I give a fuck whether she's pretty or not. Do you?"
"No, not really." He looks around our campsite again. "So what do you think happened to the other pilot?"
"Well, look at the goddamn ship, man, or what's left of the fucker. If he was here, there'd be two sleeping places in there instead of one. I expect that she landed in the other 'Fury, came over here to check out the wreck, and pulled what was left of the bastard out of the ship. Unless I miss my guess, there'll
be a grave somewhere around here. Shouldn't take too long to find it in this heat."
A cold sweat breaks out on the back of my neck, and I shiver in spite of the heat. It was only through pure luck that things ended up the way that they did. The scenario that the raider just outlined could just as easily have happened instead. So they know that I'm here, but we've still got an ace in the hole. They don't know about, don't even *suspect* that I'm not alone. We can use that to our advantage.
After we pull back from our campsite a little, I outline my plan to Marcus. As I expected, he hates it.
"It's too risky, love. We'll find another way."
"We'd better find it fast then, because once the men back at my 'Fury figure out that no one's been there in days, they're going to head over here. And then it'll be four against two. I don't like those odds, Marcus."
He purses his lips and exhales softly. "I'll only have the one chance.”
"That's all that you'll need."
"All right, then. But only if you take the PPG."
And I thought *I* was stubborn sometimes. "And where exactly am I supposed to hide it?"
He runs his fingers through my hair. "Right here. I'll tie a half-dozen strands around the trigger guard. You'll be able to pull it free if and when you need it."
I shake my head. "No dice, Marcus. You need it to take care of them."
"I'm more comfortable with this." He pulls his pike from its pocket. "Trust me. It will be enough."
There's no point in saying the words out loud, because I know he's thinking them already. *It better be.*
When we reach the water, just a few yards downstream of our camp, Marcus disappears into the undergrowth like a wraith. I kick off my boots and shuck my clothing before throwing myself into the waist-high water with a loud splash. The PPG bumps softly against my skin as I carefully position myself so that my back faces the opposite bank. Then, I scoop handfuls of water over my face and chest. The water's chilly, and my nipples stiffen at the contact. It certainly can't hurt matters any.
I don't have to wait long. Within seconds, the raiders run up to the stream, their pistols held at the ready. When I catch sight of them, I manage to force a shriek from between my lips, and I quickly cross my chest with my arms.
Red and Blondie practically skid to a stop at the water's edge. Red claps a hand to his friend's shoulder. "How about that. She *is* pretty. What we can see of her, anyway." He waves his gun meaningfully. "How about you put your hands on your head and come on out of the water now, sweetheart?"
The leer on his face is absolutely revolting. If he actually put his hands on me, I think I'd most likely retch in his face. What Marcus and I have shared in the last few days has been absolutely incredible. I wonder, and not for the first time, how some men can take something that should be so beautiful, so *meaningful*, and twist it into something so ugly. I lift my arms slowly, tentatively, giving Marcus all the time he needs to circle around them. As my hands circle behind my head, I slide my fingers around the grip of the PPG.
Just in case.
I see him now, and breathe a small sigh of relief as I take a tentative step forward, doing my best to radiate fear and uncertainty. Marcus moves with a fluidity that would make a feline jealous. In order to keep my eyes from flicking to him involuntarily, I keep them locked firmly on Red's face, sensing that he's the more dangerous of the two. Marcus is standing directly behind them now, and, even as I watch, he lifts his collapsed pike, placing it directly between their thick skulls. A split second before their brains process the flicker of movement in their peripheral vision, Marcus triggers the mechanism that allows the pike to spring open. Red and Blondie fall like trees. I wade over to the bank and put my jumpsuit on.
Blondie twitches a little and opens his eyes, but Marcus' quick boot to his temple takes care of him. Red, on the other hand, is bleeding profusely from the side of his head. Even as I finishing zipping up, he quits breathing.
"Must have pushed a bone fragment into his brain."
Marcus doesn't look even slightly remorseful, nor should he. I'm sure the bastards had every intention of raping me. And we'd have a pretty hard time keeping tabs on not just one, but two prisoners. But we can still turn this to our advantage.
I quickly tell Marcus what I've got in mind, and we drag Blondie into the forest. Marcus places him in a sitting position with his back to one of the larger trees. After tying his hands securely together behind the trunk, I spread his legs as far apart as I can and tie a rope to his left ankle. The rope then goes around the back of the tree, makes a loop around the tree and his neck, holding his head upright, and then circles back around the tree to fasten to his other ankle. He won't be able to put his legs together without strangling himself.
After making sure that he's still completely out, we go back to the stream and drag Red's body back as well, tying it in a similar fashion to another tree maybe ten yards away from the first one. Then we wait. After about 15 minutes, Blondie begins to show signs of coming around.
I turn my back to him and make sure that he has an unimpeded view as Marcus promptly walks over to Red. "Where did you come from?" There's no answer, of course. Marcus' foot lashes out, and the sound of a rib breaking is clearly audible. "Who are you working for?" This time, his foot sinks into the man's midriff, and the air in the corpse's chest is forced out with a soft whoosh.
Marcus turns to me. "I don't think I'm going to get anything out of this one. Oh, but wait, I just saw Blondie blink. I think he must be faking unconsciousness."
I turn and scrutinize the prisoner. His eyes are still shut, but there's a lot more color in his cheeks. There's a very good chance that Marcus is right.
"One way to find out." I squat in front of Blondie, pull my knife from its sheath, and sink about a quarter of an inch of the blade into his thigh.
He jumps reflexively and his eyes pop open. "Shit!"
I wipe the knife tip clean on his trousers. "Yeah, he's awake."
Marcus turns back toward Red. "You've got one more chance, mate," he threatens. Then he leans forward as though listening to a whisper. "What did you just say? Oh, really? Well, the sentiment's hardly original, and I hate to disappoint you, but it looks like *you're* the one who's fucked." And with a single swipe of his knife, Marcus slits the man's throat, quickly moving to obscure Blondie's view of his friend. We don't want him to notice that the flow of blood is just a trickle instead of the gush that would normally be expected.
Marcus crouches down in front of Blondie and plunges his knife into the dirt between the prisoner's legs, a hairsbreadth away from the man's crotch. "Your friend wouldn't tell us anything useful. I certainly hope that you're more inclined toward cooperation."
He's totally helpless now, but he's still showing a spark of bravado. "Let me guess. You guys are going to play good cop, bad cop, right? She's going to sweet-talk me for a while, and if I don't cooperate, I get turned over to you?"
"No," Marcus says pleasantly. "We're going to play bad cop, *worse* cop. You should've heard some of the things that she wanted to do to your friend. He was injured, so we knew from the start that he wouldn't last as long. So, you see, we flipped for you. She won. You lost. Take it like a man." He looks pointedly down at the knife between the man's legs. "Well, at least while you've got the relevant parts, anyway."
Blondie blanches and takes a deep breath. "You'll just kill me anyway."
I crouch in front of him and pull the knife from the dirt. "Not if we don't have to. You had to come from somewhere. That means that you can take us there, right?"
He nods hesitantly. "I guess I could. But what's to keep you from killing me when we get there?"
"Nothing. But as long as you can help us, we'll let you live. There's an automatic death sentence for piracy in this sector. Help us, and we'll get your sentence commuted to life in prison. That's the best we can give you. Now spill your guts or we'll spill them for you. There are still two of you out there, and we can always try again on one of them."
I test the edge of the knife blade with my thumb and try to give the appearance of speculating what horrible acts I could commit on his person. He doesn't have to know how hard it was for me just to give him that little cut in his thigh.
"There's a base. . ." he starts hesitantly.
"Where?" Marcus asks.
"Northwest. Maybe a hundred klicks. We got here by skimmer. We would've come sooner, but the skimmer wasn't working, and we just got the parts we needed for it yesterday. We had to get out here to turn off the beacons before your people came looking for you."
I slip the blade back into its sheath. "So far, so good. How many people at the base, and how many ships do you have?"
"Maybe fifteen people. . ."
I pull the knife again and put it at his throat. "Think again, Blondie. We know there are more of you. A lot more."
"No, really," he protests vehemently, his eyes rolling with fear. "Carter sent most of our ships out after you landed here. There aren't that many of us left. Like I said, maybe fifteen people, and two shuttles."
"Where are the ships going?"
"They're still in-system. There's a ringed planet on the far side of the primary. Four light cruisers are hiding between the rings, waiting."
"Waiting for what?" Marcus prompted.
"Waiting for your people to arrive and find the emergency transmitters we planted on one of that planet's moons. Carter figured you took one of our ships, so he's going to take one of yours. Whoever comes to get you is flying right into a trap."
The words hang heavy in the air as my eyes meet Susan’s. Knowing our resources are limited on station, we both realize they’ll probably only send out one or two teams at a time. The odds are stacked against them, but maybe they don’t have to be.
“Keep talking,” Susan demands, pressing the knife closer. “What kind of defenses do you have at the base?” When no answer is forthcoming, she tilts her head to me. “Maybe I should just kill him. He’s too stupid to know more than what he’s told us already.”
I have to stifle a smirk as the man’s eyes widen in fear. If he knew Susan as well as I do, he’d realize she was bluffing in a heartbeat. As it is, I play along, shaking my head firmly. “No, we may need him yet.”
“You never let me have fun,” she growls petulantly.
Blondie jumps in quickly. “Anti-aircraft, perimeter guards. That’s it. We’ve never bothered with more because the base is in an extinct volcano. The heavy metals in the rock interfere with scanners. They play hell with our comm. gear too, so we had to build a sixty-foot signal antenna made up to look like a damn tree.”
That certainly explains why I didn’t pick up any signs of them on my scan before I’d crashed. My skin crawls in belated apprehension. The volcano. We’d been sleeping, cavorting, making love, right next door to the enemy. Thank goodness they hadn’t had their skimmer fixed before now. We might have been caught unawares, and the story would have been very different.
“You people jammed my signal, didn’t you?” Susan asks. “I want to know how.”
“Jamming ring. No signal that doesn’t come from us can get out unless you’re past all the equipment.” He pauses to smirk. “Yeah, Carter figures we’re invincible here.”
She gives blondie a disgusted look and stands, motioning me to one side. “We’ve got to get into that base. They’re sure to have a comm-center. We can’t let our people be ambushed.” She glances back at Blondie, who’s straining to hear our hushed voices. “We’ll have to take care of him, too, so he doesn’t shout a warning to the others when they come.”
I nod. “Take off your tee. I’ll use it to gag him. But, out of sight,” I add hastily. “He’s seen far too much of you already.”
She flashes a grim smile back at me as she heads into the cover. “Now isn’t the time to be jealous.”
She’s back quickly, and I take the soft cotton garment and kneel before our captive. I wrap the tee-shirt around him, forcing his mouth to bite into it before tying it firmly. As I’m doing this, Susan proceeds to strip the men of their weapons. We now have two additional PPGs and a menacing looking knife. As I’m more comfortable working with my hands, I insist that Susan take both sidearms to supplement her own. If we’re successful, and we’d better be, we’ll have even more weapons with which to infiltrate the base and come out intact.
I lead the way back toward the camp. There’s no sign of the other party having found it yet, and that’s to our advantage. Wasting no time, I grab my PPG while Susan hefts her pack. We hurry stealthily forward to the flat, open area where I’d crashed. If the other raiders want to land a skimmer, the best place will be here. The surrounding foliage will give us ample camouflage from any aerial observation, and there are plenty of boulders near the trees to provide cover.
We take up positions about ten meters from each other. We can see each other clearly and can communicate with signs if need be. Again, we move quickly. There’s precious little time to waste. I can already hear the soft hum of an engine. Our quarry approaches. I settle myself more comfortably into the leaf-covered ground and nod to Susan, who also hears. She reiterates, “Whatever happens, we need that skimmer.”
“Aye-aye.” I flash her a reassuring smile, then my gaze hardens as I turn back to visually follow the path of the hovering craft. I don’t like to kill, but sometimes there’s just no choice. And I’ll do whatever it takes to protect Susan. I could have strangled the other two with my bare hands for what they wanted to do to her. But there are others to worry about now, so I shake off the momentary resurfacing of anger and readjust my grip on my firearm. It’s actually lighter than my pike, but it’s unfamiliar in that I haven’t used one in a very long time. I just hope that my aim is as accurate as it once was.
As expected, the raiders land near my disabled Starfury. Within seconds the two rough-looking men step out into the clearing. They look around warily, and for a second I wonder if they’ve spotted us. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Susan inch closer to the rocks that shelter her position.
“Where the hell are Mac and Wayne?” one of them barks. “They were supposed to meet us back here.”
His companion waves an arm around. “How the fuck am I supposed to know? Maybe they found something.”
I release my breath slowly. They haven’t spotted us, but it won’t be long before they start looking around for their comrades. Susan and I exchange quick, surreptitious glances. The men are still too close to the skimmer for us to attack without harming it.
Move, dammit! As if they heard my silent demand, they walk cautiously toward the Fury. One pauses to scratch his ass before he peers at the burned out engines and shakes his head. They’re now about thirty meters from us, but slightly below. It should be easy enough shots to take them out. I glance at Susan again. She’s biting her lip, waiting for the best time to move. Any second now. Any . . .
I catch the signal out of the corner of my eye. Susan moves quickly into a kneeling position, and fires. The closer man drops, his arms flailing to the sides. The second raider fires wildly in our direction. He’s either a bad shot or too spooked to aim accurately. From my own new stance, at the side of the rocks, I lift the PPG, sighting down the squat barrel. Calmly, deliberately, I squeeze the trigger. The second man stumbles to his knees, firing again, reflexively this time.
“Get down!” I yell. She flattens herself against the ground just before the bright glare of fire whizzes past. I turn to fire again, but he’s already joined his motionless companion on the ground. I stand and stride quickly to Susan. “Are you all right?”
“Of course. Nice shot.”
I smile, helping her to her feet.
She checks the charge on her sidearm carefully, before tucking it into a pocket. “Let’s go retrieve Blondie and get to that base.”
First, however, there’s the matter of these two, or more specifically, their weapons. We can use every extra weapon we can find. We strip them of their PPGs, and then, decide their body armor isn’t doing them any good, but it may us. We work together to strip the suits off the dead bodies, then don the protective garments. Fighting for your life isn’t the time to be squeamish about such things. The kevlar is lightweight, flexible, serviceable. The suits will give us an extra edge as we make our sortie into the raider base, unless, like us, they think to take head shots.
We trek back to where we’ve left Blondie trussed up along our own familiar path. We’re still on guard, even though we’ve taken care of this group. There’s no way to tell if others might come looking for them if they don’t call in or return to base at a certain time. The raider is still out when we reach him. Susan begins to untie the man while I remove the gag and shake him roughly.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.” His eyes flare open, staring at me in confusion before he tries to grab my throat. I jerk him abruptly to his feet, twisting his arm behind his back. Susan proceeds to tie his hands, then jabs her firearm into his back. “You’re coming with us,” I growl. “And if you’re smart, you won’t make any sudden moves.”
“All right! Just keep your crazy girlfriend away from me.”
We walk back to the skimmer in silence, but at the craft, Blondie makes a bolt for it. Susan shoots above his head without so much as batting an eye. If it had been any closer, I swear she would have set his hair on fire. As it is, the man stops dead in his tracks. “Next time you try something stupid, I won’t fire above your head,” she warns quietly.
“You won’t get away with this,” he informs us. “You’ll be shot down before you get ten feet inside the compound.”
I level him with my deadliest stare, the one that’s warned off the wisest of the Down Below miscreants. “Let us worry about that.” I shove him rudely inside the skimmer, then climb in and help Susan board.
In minutes we’re hovering above the treetops toward the volcano. The craft is swift and handles well. It should take us no time to get there. I only hope we’re not too late. We *have* to be on time to warn the others. I won’t accept failure, and neither will Susan. I’m torn from my musings as she thrusts a canteen and another meal bar toward me. I accept it with a smile, thinking back to that other time I’d needed one for energy. This time isn’t going to be as pleasant.
“Where do we go from here?” I ask, when we’re in sight of the volcano.
Another jab of Susan’s PPG finds his voice. “Circle around. The face is lower on the other side.”
“Is there a password?”
He hesitates, but before I can ask again, he answers, “No. No password. Like I said, we don’t need much in the way of defenses.”
I loop around the volcano as he’d instructed, and sure enough, the face is lower. I guide the craft higher to clear the rim, and then begin the descent. Beside me, I feel Susan tense. We;re going into something we may not get out of. Even with the added weapons and the body armor, we’re still outnumbered. We’ll have to depend on each other, trust each other’s instincts and abilities, like never before. I squeeze her hand gently. “With any luck, we should be able to sneak in to the comm-center without too much difficulty and warn the station.”
She smiles faintly. “Yeah, well, I know how you feel about luck, remember.”
“I’ve changed my mind since then.” I swallow convulsively, and my guts twist at what we’re about to walk into. It’s not fear, but what I haven’t said that causes the agitation. Maybe she knows, maybe she;s guessed by now how much she means to me, but I want more than anything to say the words to her, just in case. “There’s something I have to tell you. I l--.”
She cuts off my words with a quick touch of her fingers to my mouth. It’s as if she doesn’t want them said in front of our captive, as if that would make them a profanity somehow. But her eyes smile briefly into mine. “I know.”
“Oh, *very* touching,” the man behind us sneers.
We yell at him simultaneously. “Shut up!”
There’s no more time for talk now, as I bring the craft to a smooth landing near the shuttles. We depart the skimmer after a careful perusal of the makeshift ramp. Susan unties Blondie’s hands, and gives him yet another warning. “Don’t forget, one sudden move, and you won’t live to see
He doesn’t budge. “Walk,” I order.
“You’re not my type. Now move.” I shove him ahead of us, hoping that no one will look too closely at Susan and I. The ramp is in shadows, as is a good part of the base. With any luck, we’ll pass for the two raiders we killed, at least on first notice.
Suddenly a voice barks out of the darkness, “Halt! Who goes there?”
“Shit! You scared the hell out of me. You guys have been gone all day. Where’s Mac?”
My body tenses for action, my brain leaping, calculating. The guard isn’t stupid. He’s bound to realize that we aren’t the other two raiders.
Blondie makes another run for it, this time toward the guard. He waves his arms frantically. “Earthforce, you idiot! Earth--!”
I never see Susan move, but she fires at the same time I do. Blondie sprawls prone on the ground, but the other man is able to sound an alarm before I fire again. So much for the element of surprise. A light comes on in the distance. My frustration is heartfelt. “Bugger!”
“You can say that again!”
Damn it all to hell. I thought things were going a little too smoothly. If the little creep wasn't lying about there being only fifteen people left at the base, and if those fifteen included the five that we've already taken out, then there are only ten left. That's five to one odds. Not great, but I think we can deal with it.
I take the time to grab the sentry's rifle, since it's got better range than the sidearms we've been using. Instead of moving toward the base, though, Marcus is making a beeline for the shuttles. I catch up with him just as he reaches the first of the two vehicles.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Before I can stop him, he jumps into one of them and starts warming up the engines as I follow him inside. "I would have thought that it was obvious. We need to warn them, Susan. Once the shuttle's away from this planet, it'll be possible to broadbeam a warning to the others."
"We can find their comm center and send a message from down here."
"And if our rescuers come before we can get a message off? What if we're killed? This is the only sure way."
"They'll intercept. We'll be cut down long before we reach the jump gate. And I have no desire to commit suicide now, not after. . ."
He takes my hand and squeezes it briefly. "Neither do I. And there's no need to go as far as the jump gate. Once the shuttle's clear of the jammers, we'll send the message and come right back down."
He makes it all sound so simple, but if anyone could make it work, it would be us. I close the hatch, slide into the co-pilot's seat, and begin to pull up navigational information. A sudden glow on a second monitor draws my attention. It's a surface scan of our immediate vicinity, including the base. Opposite ends of the landing field are now bright with the fiery red color that indicates that weapons are live and hot. They must be the anti-aircraft emplacements that our prisoner mentioned.
I hit the hatch release as I get out of my seat and scoop up my rifle again. As Marcus turns his head to see where I'm going, he notices the display. A second later, he's on his feet and reaching for the gun. "I'll take care of them. Go ahead and take her up."
I refuse to turn the weapon over to him. "How long has it been since you piloted a shuttle?"
"Why does it matter?"
"Damn it, Marcus, we don't have time for this. How long?"
His expression is guarded. "Two weeks, perhaps three."
"It's been over two years for me. I'm going."
He doesn't argue with me. He'll never know how much I love him for that. Instead, he pulls me into his arms. His kiss is hard, hungry, full of longing, and all too brief. "I do truly love you, you know."
I know, I've always known, but I can't say the words right now. As I jump back outside and palm the door control, I call out, "Be damned careful, Marcus. If you don't come back in one piece, you'd better not make the mistake of thinking that a little thing like death is going to keep you safe from me!"
The only reply is a steadily increasing whine as he begins to feed more power to the engines. I move back to a safe distance as the shuttle begins to lift. There's a flicker of motion just at the edge of my vision. As I look toward it, the camouflaged turret swivels upward, trying to get a bead on the shuttle. I fire four bolts from the rifle in quick succession and am rewarded with a shower of sparks. The gun's muzzle droops satisfactorily.
Good. That’s one down, anyway. Now for the other turret at the opposite corner of the field. Using shrubbery for concealment, I creep toward it. So far, there still hasn’t been any sign of raider activity. They must be all holed up inside the base. Then the turret begins to lift, and there’s no time for finesse. It targets the fleeing shuttle and gets off a very brief salvo before I get to my feet and shoulder the rifle again.
I must have gotten the power source because within seconds the metal begins to glow a dull red. The muzzle drops, and molten metal runs down its length in narrow, silver rivulets. Both of them are out of commission now, and I don’t see any others nearby. I ease myself into the dense foliage at the edge of the landing field and wait impatiently for Marcus’ return.
I'm still gratified by the fact that, when push came to shove, he did what was right, regardless of the consequences to me. Now I know for sure that we can still work effectively together as a team. He doesn’t really fall under my command, and I don’t fall under his. If things had been any other way, I would never have allowed myself to feel the way that I feel about him. I couldn’t have indulged in the luxury of loving him and being loved by him in return.
As it is, I don’t know how different things will be when we get back to the station. My life belongs to Earthforce, and his belongs to Delenn, for at least as long as she remains Entil’zha. Can we possibly find a way to fulfill our duties and maintain an outside relationship at the same time?
I hope so. I certainly hope so, because I brought down the walls for *him*, goddamn it. And if I have to build them back up again, I'm afraid that they're going to become permanent.
It's only been a few minutes, not nearly long enough, but I crouch quietly anyway, straining in a vain effort to hear the sound of the returning shuttle. I don't hear the engines, but I hear something else. . . something just at the periphery of my auditory range. I can't tell exactly what it is, but I don't like it. It sounded too much like the scrape of leaves against canvas or the squelching sound of a boot landing in a puddle of mud.
It could be an animal, but I doubt it. Instead, I have the sneaking suspicion that I'm not alone. Taking a firmer grip on my rifle, I try to determine which direction the stealthy noise is coming from. Should I wait here and hope that they don't find my hiding place, or go on the offensive? Okay, so it's an easy choice.
I see the top branches of a slim tree move, maybe twenty-five yards away. Okay. I've got a bead on him now. Slowly, stealthily, I creep toward the tree, stopping every few seconds to check my surroundings. There's no repeat of the earlier noises. Maybe he's moving farther away from me. When I get within ten yards, the treetop quivers again, almost imperceptibly. I can just barely make out the trunk from here, and it doesn't look big enough for a person to hide behind or climb. Maybe it really is some kind of animal. I edge a little closer, looking up into the branches. There's nothing visible. I drop my gaze again and my heart stops in my chest. There's a rope tied to the damn tree.
Just as I turn, a booted toe strikes my wrist and the rifle flies out of my grasp. I try to reach for the PPG at my waist, but it's too late. I'm thrown to the ground and smothered by the weight of what can only be an exceptionally large human being. Who apparently hasn't taken a bath in a while. He holds my wrists together with one hand while the other frisks me with ruthless effectiveness, even going so far as to search, embarrassingly thoroughly, underneath my body armor.
Finally, he lets me up. He is indeed a bear of a man, and not much more attractive than one. At least two meters, and maybe 120 kg, none of it fat. He's dressed in camouflage fatigues, and his face is even painted to make it less visible. Add to that the fact that he's got several special forces patches on his sleeves, and I don't feel quite as badly about my capture. Still, I *am* embarrassed, and I can't resist getting in at least one dig in return.
"I hope it was good for you, because if you ever try that again, your hands are going to come back with a lot fewer fingers than they started with."
He grins mirthlessly. "Oh, I wish I had the time test that little theory of yours, but I've got orders to get you back as soon as possible."
"Get me back where?"
"You'll see soon enough." As he tucks my weapons into his belt and picks up my rifle, I notice that there are tattoos on both of his hands. Each knuckle, including the thumbs, bears a single capital letter. The two words that they spell out are a pretty good indication of who's running this show: EARTH FIRST.
Not just raiders, then. Terrorists. In the first few years after the Minbari war, they had quite a following, but they gradually became relegated to the fringe, although they seem fairly well-equipped and supplied now. They're primarily ex-military. People who still can't face the fact that a lot of their friends died in a war that we, in fact, started. People who refuse to acknowledge that anything good could possibly come out of alien hands. People who actually still believe that crap that ISN was broadcasting in the final days of Clarke's puppet presidency.
They're deluded, and they're dangerous. And as much as I hate to admit it to myself, I'm scared. Part of our academy training includes techniques to try to get closer to your captors, to make them see you as a person so that it will be harder for them to kill you. I really have no desire to get close to this cretin, but I guess it wouldn't hurt to try to strike up a conversation. At worst, I'll be ignored. At best, I might be able to get some useful information out of him. As he pushes me through the trees, I ask, " So what exactly are you going to do with our ship in the extremely unlikely event that you manage to capture it?"
"So someone's been talking already, huh? What'd they tell you about us taking your ship?"
Not nearly as much as I want to know. Next time, I'll ask more questions. "Enough."
"I guess it doesn't matter if I tell you. I don't know what Carter's going to do with you, but it's a sure bet that you're never leaving here alive. If they send a regular cruiser, not much. Add it to our fleet. But if it's a White Star, well, we figure we'll just destroy Babylon 5 and everyone on it. How's that sound?"
He's too cocky. This isn't as obvious as it looks. He's got to have an ace up his sleeve. "Even assuming that you could learn to fly it, the station's not without defenses. One White Star alone would never be enough to destroy her."
"Not even if we pack it with nukes, open a jump gate right on top of the fucking station, and then steer it right into Command and Control?"
Dear God, he's right. It could be done. Hell, it's *been* done. There's nothing left of Z'ha'dum now except a radioactive cinder. There's so much more at stake than Marcus and I thought. If he doesn't get that message off in time. . . It doesn't even bear thinking about. He will. He has to.
Once we're out of the trees and back on the shuttle pad, he forces me into a quick trot. It isn't much longer before we're inside the compound. I memorize the route we take, just in case I'll have an opportunity to use it to get out later. Wishful thinking, probably, but all it takes is one little break.
Finally, he leads me into the control center. I take a quick head count. There are seven more of them in here, but only a few are wearing sidearms. A slim, raven-haired man turns as we walk in. He's not physically imposing, but he radiates quiet authority. Unlike the others, who are dressed in ragtag assemblies of mismatched fatigues and muddy boots, he looks every inch an officer. His uniform is faded and obviously old, but it's clean and neatly pressed.
The scarlet scarf around his neck dates it, though. Earthforce did away with that uniform style nearly ten years ago. He's even wearing the uniform jacket, although this climate is certainly too hot to do so comfortably. This must be the infamous Carter. I hate him already.
"Well done, Tate." He nods his approval.
"Sir," my *escort* replies. "Where do you want her?"
"Bring her over here." He steps to one of the consoles. One with a vidscreen. Shit. I know what's coming next.
I try to dig in my heels, but it's hopeless. The enormous son of a bitch puts an arm around my throat, lifts me off of my feet, and carries me unceremoniously to just within range of the vid pickup before setting me back down.
Carter leans over his tech's shoulders. "Is the shuttle clear of the jammers yet?"
"Not yet, sir, but it won't be long."
"Open a channel for me."
Goddamn it. Sometimes I hate being right.
I try to burn the image of her standing there, rifle in hand, into my brain. I hope she knows how much I love her, how much I need her in my life. I try to show her with a desperate kiss. Not a last kiss, though. I’m coming back to her, of that she can be certain.
She’s gone from view now, as the door slides into place. “Be careful, love.” My voice sounds loud inside the craft. Then I shake myself. There’s work to be done. I strap back in and prepare for takeoff.
I pull the throttle back, and the shuttle responds. My departure is smooth, almost too easy. I clear the volcano’s walls and press the control forward. The craft glides through the sky as I maneuver it toward the atmosphere at an angle. Immediately, flashing streaks pierce the air around the craft. I’m under fire.
I begin a series of twists, wing dips, anything, to make me a harder target to hit as I wait for Susan to do what she’d intended. The shuttle accelerates smoothly, responds to the slightest pressure on the controls, and any other time I might have reveled in the sheer pleasure of flying it.
Roll. Dip. Twist.
Fire passes the starboard wing. I bank sharply to the left. The barrage of fire stops abruptly. I smile briefly. “That’s my girl.”
“Girl.” The single word breaks into the otherwise quiet cockpit. She’d have my head if she heard that. I can’t help smiling more broadly.
My smile changes to a deep frown. What in bloody hell have I done? I’ve left her down there with obviously desperate people, people who would love to get their hands on an Earthforce officer.
I shouldn’t have let her stay behind.
I know she’s right, of course. We’re both soldiers, we both have jobs to do, and we both understand the risks involved. Hell, just living is a risk. But that doesn’t stop the man from arguing with the warrior. One of us had to stay and knock out the antiaircraft weapons, but why did it have to be her? Yes, perhaps I have the most experience piloting shuttles recently. Is that a valid reason for me to go? I know the answer to that, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
Bugger it all, why does she have to be right?
I can’t dwell on that now. There’s a message to record, and the craft demands my attention. The pressure in the cabin is building, and I set the controls to compensate. Fortunately, I don’t need a heavy flight suit to withstand the atmospheric pressure, or I would have to return and acknowledge defeat. Still, it’s slightly warmer in the shuttle than before. I set the recorder and begin to speak.
“Ranger Cole to Babylon 5 or any inbound rescue party. Do not follow the distress signal. It’s a trap. Four light cruisers are waiting to ambush you. Repeat, you’re coming into a trap. Cole out.”
I pierce through the final layer, toward stars that look so near I can touch them, and yet so far away. Like Susan, once. God, I hope she’s all right. If she just stays hidden now, surely with the extra weapons and her soldier skills, she’ll be all right. She has to be. Losing her before would have been painful. Losing her now would be unbearable.
Even more determined now, I push the little craft to its limits. All I have to do is send the message and fly back down for her. Simple.
I should have known better.
Everything happens at once. The comm-screen in the shuttle abruptly flickers and clears, revealing what can only be the inner sanctum of the raiders. Oh, God, no! If the raiders are contacting me, that can only mean one thing—they have Susan.
Sure enough, a man about my build, dressed in an old Earthforce officer uniform steps into view. He’s obviously in charge. He can only be Carter. “Hello my friend. I know you want to warn your people about us. If I were in your position, I would, too. I admire your effort, in fact. But before you do
anything you might regret later, you should take a look . . .”
His voice trails off ominously, for effect perhaps, but that sure as hell isn’t necessary. I’m already almost sick to my stomach with dread.
And then Susan is carried into view. The bastard has his grimy paws around her neck! She’s quiet, but I can see her defiance in the set of her jaw. She doesn’t appear hurt, but damn it . . . I clench my hands into fists. What I’d really like to do is shove them down that son-of-a-bitch’s throat, but I can’t.
Carter smiles at my reaction. He already smells victory. “I see that you want to keep your lady safe, and she is your lady, isn’t she? You shouldn’t have left her behind, my friend.”
“What do you want?” I demand harshly, my eyes on Susan again.
“It’s very simple, really,” he gloats. “If you don't turn that shuttle around, she dies. If you try to send a message, she dies. If you cut off this transmission, she dies. Do you sense a trend here?”
What do I do now? Think, Cole, think! I can’t think. So I do the one thing I haven’t done in years: I pray.
Carter motions to Susan. “Tell him we’re serious.”
Susan complies, her voice soft, shaky almost. “Marcus, if you love me, if you’ve ever loved me, you’ll do exactly as I ask.”
A flash of light signals the jumpgate opening, and for a second, I tear my eyes away from the vid-screen. Coming through the gate is the most beautiful, welcome sight I’ve ever seen. I look back at the feed in time to see Carter’s smirk of satisfaction as the White Star glides smoothly into view.
“Send it Marcus!” Susan yells, her voice full of command again. “Send it now!”
I say another quick prayer and hit “Send.” I hope to God the message is received.
I only took my eyes off the screen for a second, but when I look back, Susan is gone.
The angry epithet is followed by a shrill scream and the loss of the feed from the base.
“Susan!” No answer. “*Susan!*”
Special Forces, my ass. He must have stolen that jacket, because he sure as hell didn't earn those patches. Tate may be as strong as an ox and as quiet as a churchmouse, but he's not exceptionally bright.
We were taught in cadet training that men have a biological imperative to protect certain portions of their anatomy. Blind eunuchs don't generally get the opportunity to pass their genes on to the next generation. But both of my hands are free, and he's taking absolutely no measures to protect himself. I made it easy for him to take me, and, as a result, he's underestimated me. I'm going to make him pay dearly for that.
He gets up on his tippy-toes as soon as I grab him, but he doesn't scream until I twist. Then he doubles over, making it just that much easier to reach his face. My nails have had a few days now to grow in, and they've become pretty effective weapons. As soon as his free hand leaves his crotch to cover his eyes, I take my PPG from his belt. Tate starts firing his gun blindly. He misses me completely, but he takes out the comm console, the tech that was sitting there, and one more of his friends before the others hit the deck and I put him out of his misery.
Still lying prone, Carter tries to kick my legs out from under me, but I anticipate the move and counter with one of my own. I get a firm grip on a painful pressure point in his shoulder and put my gun to his head. As it turns out, the human ear is just the right size to cradle the muzzle of an Earthforce standard issue PPG. The symmetry is too perfect for words.
That was almost too easy. Thank you, God. Keeping Carter's body between us, I pull him upright and carefully back away from the others, three of whom are holding drawn weapons. As I force him into a chair with his back to me and take a seat on the console behind him, I notice the open equipment locker in one corner of the room. It should do nicely.
"Okay. One at a time, I want the those of you with weapons to place them on the floor." They look at me like I've suddenly grown a second head, so I twist the muzzle a little further into Carter's ear.
"Do it!" he orders.
Obviously used to obeying his orders, they comply immediately.
"Hands on your heads, and back up until you're against the wall. You," I gesture toward a gangly young man who looks all of seventeen years old, "pick them up, very carefully, and put them in that locker."
He does as I order and waits for further instructions.
"Good. Now close it and lock it."
He shuts the door and spins the dial on the combination lock before taking his place back against the wall.
So we sit. And we wait. And wait. And as I begin to calculate how long it might take before Marcus gets down here in a vain effort to try to avoid thinking about how much I need to pee, I feel something move against my arm. It wasn't much, just the slightest twitch, but I'm sure I didn't imagine it. I squeeze Carter's neck lightly and my fingers encounter something that seems much more solid than it should. I pinch harder, and it moves again in response.
Oh, God. There's something beneath Carter's scarf, and it isn't just his neck. I read the reports, heard the first-hand descriptions of what Marcus and Stephen encountered on Mars. Carter is a puppet, no more, and no less, serving masters whose wishes are so similar to those of his followers that their possession of him is a logical choice. I don't know if they can transfer themselves from one host to another, and I don't intend leave it there long enough to find out. But first, I want his people to see just exactly who's been calling the shots for them.
There's a pack of cigarettes on console next to me, the self-igniting ones, no less. It's been years, and after the week I've had, I think I deserve to indulge myself, just this once. I pull one from the package, squeeze the filter, put it between my lips, and wait for it to light.
"So someone tell me why all of you follow Carter." The silence is deafening. "Oh, come on. Surely one of you has a reason."
Finally, one of the men raises his head and looks at me with blazing hatred. "He's not afraid to fight for what's right."
"Oh?" I pause to take a long drag of the cigarette and successfully resist the urge to cough up a lung. Ick. How could I have forgotten how awful these things taste? "Well, why don't you tell me what you think is right? Do you think it's right to destroy a space station and kill half a million people?"
"People?" he laughs. "They're all either aliens or alien-lovers. We don't need their kind."
"You may not need the aliens, but some of them need you. They need you to do their dirty work, because they can't show their true faces in the light of day. The truth is, you've been taking your orders from them."
"You're crazy," he mutters under his breath.
I lean forward and whisper in Carter's ear, "If you try anything, if you even twitch, I swear I'll blow your head off. And they'll still see, afterward."
His shoulders slump in defeat as I unknot the scarf. I can almost see the thing out of the corner of my eye, but when I look directly at it, it vanishes. I take the cigarette from my mouth and touch the lit end to Carter's Keeper. With an unearthly howl, it detaches itself and falls to the floor, scuttling around madly as it searches for a place to hide. I finish it with a single shot. I was prepared for Carter to turn on me, but he throws himself to the floor instead and crawls over to the thing while the rest of his cronies sit and watch in open-mouthed horror at the spectacle.
"You didn't have to do that." He turns angry, accusing eyes toward me.
I can't believe this. "You mean you *wanted* it to ride you? What kind of sick son of a bitch wants to be controlled like that?"
"Earthforce cashiered me after I failed a psych screening. I joined Earth First, and that's when it found me." He reaches out and tentatively and caresses the creature's mottled brown skin. "It told me all the right things to say. Told me what to do and how to do it. For the first time in my life, people looked up to me."
He looks up at his followers. The faces that once held a respect that almost bordered on worship are now twisted with contempt and loathing. Something within him seems to snap as his mood changes from sorrow to fury in a split second.
"It's over now, and it's your fault! I'll kill you for what you did!"
Far faster than I would have thought him capable, he throws himself at me. The first bolt from my PPG misses wide and plows into the floor. I correct my aim, and the second takes him in the right shoulder, but it doesn't stop him. He crashes into me and his good arm grabs my right wrist. He snarls with fury as he tries to turn my weapon back toward me. I use both arms to try to force it away, but he's got the adrenaline strength of the truly insane on his side.
Then his mouth opens wide in surprise and bright arterial blood dribbles over his lips and chin. His legs collapse beneath him as his body falls forward. I shove his dead weight off of me just in time to raise my gun as I see that one of my other prisoners has overcome his shock and is trying to make a break for it. The PPG bolt that hits the door jamb next to his head changes his mind, and he slowly moves away from the door and back to his spot on the floor. Only then do I take the time to look back at Carter's body.
The cause of death is pretty obvious. The slim handle of a throwing knife is protruding from the back of his neck. I look up at the others again and see that the one that I thought just a boy is slowly pulling the knife's mate from his boottop. He holds the blade between thumb and forefinger and places the knife on the floor before kicking it over to me.
"Why?" I ask.
He shrugs. "I always knew there was something wrong with him, but I could never figure out what it was, exactly."
"Thank you. . .?"
"Seth," he supplies.
"Thank you, Seth. How did you know? About him, I mean?"
He gives me a sick smile as he rubs his forehead. "I just felt it. I'm a P-3, ran away from the Corps a few months ago. I could tell that he was different, but he promised to keep me fed, clothed, and away from the Psi Cops if I was willing to work for him."
"You're talented in more ways than one." I crouch down to pick up his knife and admire the weight and balance of the blade before placing it on the console. "It must have taken years of practice to develop your skill."
"Not really," he smiles. As if to prove his point, the knife begins to rotate in slow circles.
He's not just a knife-thrower and a telepath, then. He's also a teek, and a damn good one, by the looks of it. He probably could have taken my PPG from me any time that he chose to. That kind of power, if used indiscriminately, could be tremendously dangerous to him and to everyone else in his vicinity. He's going to need strong leadership and self-discipline in order to use his gifts to his fullest ability. "What's the extent of your involvement here, Seth? Have you killed anyone?"
He wiggles his fingers meaningfully. "I fix stuff. I have an affinity for metals, as you may have noticed. And no, I've never hurt anyone." His voice hardens as he continues, "But I will before I let the Corps take me back again."
He may well have saved my life. There's no way I'll turn him back over to them. "There are alternatives to the Corps, you know."
He snorts with disdain. "Sleepers? I'd rather be dead."
Sleep is our prison. . . I struggle momentarily against the deluge of memories of my mother and the drug-induced haze in which she was forced to live until she, too, decided that she'd rather die than Sleep. "No, Seth. I'm not talking about the Sleepers. There are other ways, other paths to take."
He's suspicious, and he has every right to be. "You'll see. There's someone that I'd like you to meet. He's a member of the Anla'shok, what we call the Rangers."
"And what is he to you?"
Companion. Friend. Partner. Lover. He is everything to me. "He's someone I trust."
I have to try again. I don’t expect an answer, though. Perhaps gunfire disabled the comm-equipment down there. I don’t know. Shaking, furious, and sick at what could happen to Susan, I speed toward the White Star. I want to go back down right away, but I’m only one man.
A new voice comes in loud and clear. “Marcus, is that you?”
Lennier. What’s he doing out here? “Yes. I’m coming in to dock. Are there any other ships with you?”
“No. Just this one,” he replies.
Damn! “All right, listen carefully. There’s an ambush waiting for you--four light cruisers in the rings of that planet on the far side of the primary. Who’s with you?”
“Mr. Garibaldi, Dr. Franklin, and a small company of Rangers.”
Double damn! It’ll have to be enough for two assaults. I don’t know how much of an asset Franklin will be. He might come in handy, though, after I’ve stuffed Grimy’s entrails down his throat. “Roger that, Lennier. The Commander is still planet-side. I need some men to go back down with me. Can you spare any?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Good. I’m docking now.” I guide the shuttle into the White Star’s docking bay and climb out. The first person I see is Garibaldi.
“She’s down planet-side.” I answer, trying to step around him to get to the weapons locker near the bay. “The raiders have captured her, and I’m going back."
“Are you out of your mind, Cole? How could you leave her behind like that?”
My temper snaps. I grab the Chief by his throat and slam him against the shuttle. He’s too tall for me to lift him off his feet, but he’s clearly surprised. “Don’t *ever* question my motives again! Got that? Do you
think I would have left her if I’d had a choice?”
My rage evaporates abruptly. I release Garibaldi and turn to face Stephen. “I know. I just want to get back down there to Susan.” I face the Chief again. “I’m sorry. I’m worried about her.”
He pulls his collar away from his throat and twists his neck experimentally. Then he smiles. “Well, I was *this* close to kicking your ass, but I guess I’ll let it slide this time.”
I nod and motion toward the shuttle. “Coming?”
“You bet I am. Let’s saddle up.”
Franklin and another Ranger join us, and in minutes they’re donning protective suits. Garibaldi hefts an assault rifle as I go over the lay-out of the base. “They’re holed up in an extinct volcano. Last contact I had, they had Susan in the comm room, but she could be anywhere now. We took out five of them before we split up, so there should be ten left--if our source wasn’t lying.”
In no time we’re speeding back to the surface. Garibaldi rechecks his PPG again and makes sure the charge on the rifle is good. Franklin watches me curiously. Eric is piloting the shuttle. I stare out the portal at the stars. And I try to think about the pleasant things: the sight of Susan wrapped in a blanket, our food fight and first bath together, the feel of her skin, the touch of her lips, making love with her. Had it only been this afternoon?
Please let her be all right.
A hand on my shoulder draws me from my blank perusal of the screen. I stiffen slightly. I don’t feel like another bout with Mr. Garibaldi. But the voice isn’t the Security Chief’s. “Marcus?”
“She’s going to be fine, right, Stephen?”
The hand on my shoulder tightens. “Yes, she’ll be fine. I know how you feel about her--.”
I turn to face him, and I can’t hide the sheen of tears in my eyes, try as I might. “No, you couldn’t possibly. It’s more than that now. She and I . . .” I pause, not wanting to reveal too much. But I can tell from the glint of surprised pleasure that I’ve said more than enough.
“I can’t think of two people who deserve each other more, and I mean that in a nice way. She’s never opened up to me much, but I know that she’s been let down a lot in her life. She needed someone like you, someone she can depend on.” He nods matter-of-factly and his grin broadens. “And you needed someone like her to keep your butt straight and out of *my* hair for a change.”
I smile a little at that.
“She’ll be all right, Marcus. She’s tough. And she knows how to take care of herself,” he reassures me again.
“I know.” I think of the way she’d handled herself today. But she hadn’t been outnumbered, and I’d been there to back her up. “I know she’s a good soldier, Stephen. It doesn’t stop me from worrying about her.”
He nods and claps my shoulder again. But before he can say anything else, I jump up. “We’re landing.”
We barely touch ground before I leap out and start running toward the compound, both PPG and pike at the ready. I don’t make it more than twenty meters before PPG fire scorches the ground in front of me. Using the nearest tree for cover, I target my assailant and fire. My shot is straight to the head, and he drops satisfactorily. I smile and start to move, only to see Garibaldi aiming straight for my head. Instinctively I duck. The shot blasts over my shoulder and a scream of pain follows. I nod once, turn and run toward the main part of the base.
I burst through a door, PPG and pike in hand. It’s ungodly quiet in here, and I’m not sure what that means. Chills race up my spine. My heart beats faster. I hear a movement off to my left and turn in that direction. And I stop short.
Susan is sitting cross-legged, talking to a boy who can’t be more than seventeen. She’s telling him about the Rangers as she holds her PPG on a group of raiders. A few others are lying on the floor, dead. It looks as if Carter is among them, as well as the ox I wanted to thrash. I can’t believe what I’m seeing, but the image doesn’t fade. Susan has taken over the base. I can’t help smiling at that.
“Is the training hard?” the boy asks her.
“Perhaps I can answer that,” I announce loudly, walking forward into the light, collapsing my pike and stowing it and my gun away in a pocket of my body armor.
The joy is evident in her eyes as she leaps up and turns toward me. “Marcus! Did you send the message?”
“I did better than that. I brought the cavalry.”
She looks at me in puzzlement, but then smiles as she sees the others rush in behind me. “Leading the charge, huh?”
“Yes.” I fight the urge to take her in my arms and hold her tightly against me. That will have to wait until later. There are too many witnesses now. “I see you have things under control.”
She smirks. “It wasn’t too difficult.” She gestures to the boy. “There’s someone who wants to meet you, Marcus. He’s interested in joining the Rangers. He’s skilled in repairs and weapons, among other things. And he saved my life.”
That’s all I need to know. I turn to the boy standing hesitantly behind her and offer my hand. “I can’t thank you enough for what you did . . .”
His grip is firm, and his eyes meet mine without fear. “Seth.”
I smile back. I like this young man. “Seth. My name is Marcus. I understand you want to join the Rangers?”
“Yes, sir. She mentioned that it might be a good thing for me.”
“And perhaps you’ll be a good thing for the Rangers. We always need good people. I’ll talk to my superior once we get back, put in a word for you.” He nods his thanks, and I glance around for the others. Garibaldi, Franklin, and Eric are seeing to the prisoners. Once again, relief washes over me that Susan is all right. I turn back to her. “Could I see you alone, Commander?”
She nods quickly. “Seth, why don’t you see if you can get the comm. equipment back up.”
I glance at the consoles. Wires are hanging out around a gaping PPG burn. I doubt that I could repair such a mess. “Can he do that?” I ask.
Her smile is enigmatic. “Trust me.”
I will. I do.
I smile and tilt my head toward an exit and head that way. Seconds later, I hear footsteps behind me. She nearly screams when I grab her and gently shove her against the wall. I cover her mouth with mine, kissing her with all the fear and relief that I’d felt for her as my hands busily roam wherever they
can reach. I lift my head finally. “You scared the hell out of me! When you disappeared, and I heard a scream, I thought . . . Please don’t put me through that again.”
“I won’t.” She shakes her head for emphasis. And then, one hand cupping my face, she adds, “I love you, Marcus.”
I meet her gaze slowly, stunned by what she’s just said. She looks the same as I feel. It must be a shock to her, too. I felt the same way when I first realized I’d fallen for her. “I’m glad,” I whisper. She pulls my head back down to hers for another kiss, and I wrap my arms around her, holding her tightly. I feel light-hearted suddenly. Nothing can go wrong now can it?
We jump apart and turn as one toward the intruder. Garibaldi stands there, smirking. “Thought you might want to know the comm-system is back up.”
Susan glares at him. “Thanks. Is that all?”
“Yeah! That’s all.” He turns away, still smiling. Then he adds, over his shoulder, “Except that it’s about time.” He whistles as he strolls away.
I close my eyes. I know how much Susan values her privacy. To be caught, by Garibaldi of all people . . . I’m dead. “I’m sorry, Susan. I didn’t think anyone would follow us.”
A quick kiss surprises me. “Forget it. Someone was bound to find out sooner or later.” She heads toward the door, straightening her appearance as much as possible.
“Stephen knows, too,” I warn her.
She stops in her tracks and looks back at me. “I see. You didn’t tell him, did you?” Her voice sounds hard, and I wince slightly. Perhaps one knowing isn’t as bad as two. She almost laughs at my expression. “No, I guess you wouldn’t. Come on, Cole. Let’s go see what’s happening up there.”
We enter the room just as Lennier’s face appears on screen. He’s smiling. “Well?” we ask in unison.
Lennier inclines his head slightly. “The raiders were . . . foolish enough to engage us. Three cruisers were destroyed, and one severely disabled. We’ve taken the crews prisoner. It was a piece of . . . pie.”
I choke on my laughter. “Well done, Lennier. We’ll be joining you shortly. Out.”
We leave the compound, Garibaldi and Eric taking the prisoners, Franklin helping one wounded out. The dead will have to stay for now. Seth follows Susan and me out. “What happens now?” I ask.
“I’ll send teams out to recover the ‘Furies and the bodies once we’re under way. And when we get back on station, and after we’ve de-briefed, I’m going to have a nice hot shower, and sleep.” She turns to me. “And you are going to have dinner with me. My place. Tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there.” As if anything short of death could keep me away. We’re at the shuttle now, and I pause to take in the scenery of the surrounding forest. This place has brought us together, and in a way, I’ll be sorry to leave.
She moves closer to me, and her voice is quiet. “I had a good time here with you, Marcus.”
I start to speak, but Garibaldi calls out, “Are you guys coming?”
Susan smiles and motions toward the shuttle. “Let’s go home.”
The flames are flickering in his eyes again. Not from the campfire this time, but from the lit candles scattered throughout my quarters. I finish undressing first and pull the covers back before sliding between the luxuriously soft sheets. When all of Marcus' clothes are hung neatly over the back of a chair, he takes our flutes from the table and pads softly over to me. This time, instead of cold water and ration bars, it *is* champagne and candlelight, but, somehow, it's not the improvement that I expected.
Noticing my apprehension, Marcus slides onto the mattress and caresses my fingers as I take the glass from his hand. "Having second thoughts about inviting me over here tonight?"
"Not second thoughts," I demur. "Not exactly, anyway. It just feels like we're starting all over again. I don't mind that, but I don't what to lose what we had while we were planetside, either."
"Neither do I," he adds softly. "So many good memories. . . "
So many good memories. . .and a few bad. I cast those aside and focus on the pleasant ones. After a few seconds, his thumb gently traces the line of my lips.
"That's a lovely smile. What are you thinking about?"
"Waterfalls and overhanging branches, wide, flat rocks in the middle of streams. Do you remember the way it felt when it started raining, Marcus?"
"Mmmm," he nods, "I'll never forget it." His eyes glow with the memory.
My body recognizes the unspoken invitation and responds with a sudden pang of longing. The circumstances are different, but the desire is the same. I still want him.
I empty my glass and set it on the nightstand. "I'm going to miss the rain."
Before I can reach for him, he slides off of the bed and cups my face between his hands. "Close your eyes, love. Keep them closed until I say otherwise."
There's no longer any question of trust between us. I do as he asks, and he pulls back the covers and picks me up, gathering me gently into his arms. He takes several steps, and after a moment, sets me back down on a cool, unyielding surface. My calves and feet dangle off of the edge, but the rest of my body is comfortably supported.
"You're on the boulder again, Susan. Can you feel it?"
And suddenly, I can. I feel the rock, heavy and solid beneath me and I know, even without seeing, that he's standing directly in front of me, wearing the same eager, awestruck expression that he wore then. "I feel it, Marcus. "Now what?"
"Wait." Something tiny, wet, and cold lands on the tip of my nose. I struggle against the instinctive urge to open my eyes as I feel the strange sensation again, this time in the hollow of my neck. Then a few more tiny droplets of moisture fall across my body. They begin to land faster and faster, and I shiver at each cool contact. A particularly large drop lands on a nipple, and I feel it contract tightly.
"It's raining," I whisper with wonder in my voice. "How did you make it rain?"
"Ssshh. Tell me about the rock now. Tell me how it felt when I touched you."
"I don't know if I can describe it. . ."
"The heat. . .the rain. . .I felt like the rain was the only thing that was keeping me from bursting into flames. I felt like I was burning, like my blood was boiling. I remember lying there, shivering all over, not because of the coolness of the rain, but because of they way that you touched me. I felt . . . *golden*."
"You were," he insists. "You *were* golden. You still are."
The 'rain' continues to fall gently across my hips and my thighs.
"I want to touch you again, Susan. Will you let me touch you?"
"Yes, of course."
His voice is hoarse with emotion. "And will you let me love you?"
I struggle to swallow the lump in my throat. "Always."
And then his lips are on me. First kissing the tip of my nose, then brushing against the hollow of my neck. I bury my hands in his hair as they move lower, closing with infinite gentleness around a nipple. He swirls his tongue around the tip a few times before sucking on it firmly. Then he moves away again, kissing my stomach and my legs. Everywhere that the rain fell, his mouth and lips and tongue follow, taking away the cool moisture and leaving fire in their wake.
Without warning, more droplets land on my lips, and even as my tongue darts out instinctively to catch them, I feel his breath warm on my face. Our tongues brush each other lightly, but even that fleeting contact is enough to make me gasp. He quickly takes advantage of my surprise, tracing my curve of my mouth before slowly deepening the kiss. He tastes of the champagne that he's been sprinkling all over my body.
Then his mouth abruptly leaves mine, and, even before I can ask the question, he says gruffly, "Keep your eyes closed. You're still on the rock."
"I'm still on the rock. . ."
"It's not raining any more. You're warm and comfortable."
"Yes," I agree. And I am.
His beard brushes against my navel and he chuckles at the resulting quiver. I feel another rush of moisture between my thighs, and I spread them, offering myself to him. He moves lower and I can feel his hot breath caressing me now, scant millimeters away from where I want him most. He blows tiny puffs of warm air across my skin, teasing me with the expectation of the touch of his lips, the caress of his tongue.
Finally, just as my frustration begins to peak, he whispers, "Now."
I tilt my hips toward him, impatient for his touch. Gentle fingers reach for my folds and pull them apart, exposing me completely. I tremble beneath him, anticipating the heat of his mouth against my flesh. I wait for another heartbeat. And then another. Time loses meaning as my other senses strive to make up for the loss of my sight. And then, just when I begin to think that I'll go mad if he doesn't touch me immediately, a fierce shock wrenches a gasp from my lips.
I had expected a hot, demanding stroke of his tongue - not the thousands of tiny effervescent kisses currently cascading over the most intimate part of my body before pooling beneath me. Instead of dampening my desire, their coolness, so different from the sensation that I had readied myself for, only serves to inflame it even further. Then he slowly laps at a trickle of wine on my inner thigh, and I almost come right then and there. He gives me a moment to recover before following the rivulet up toward its source.
The warmth of his tongue against my cool flesh produces yet another shock. He explores me slowly, taking the time to savor each little moan and gasp as I writhe beneath him. His mouth soothes away the shock of the cold and replaces it with liquid heat. The sensation is completely different, but no less
"Marcus. . .I want. . ."
"You want what?"
"I want you. . .inside me. . ."
"Soon. . ." Strong hands pull me toward the edge of the table. ". . .but I want you to do something for me first."
My mind races, trying to comprehend the possibilities, but I draw a blank. "Like what?"
He places a final, gentle kiss on the inside of my thigh. "Lovely as it was, the tent was too dark sometimes. I want to *see* how you like to be touched. Will you show me?"
"Am I allowed to open my eyes and watch you watching me?"
He pauses to ponder the question. "Eventually, but not just yet. All right?"
I take up right where he left off, tracing tiny circles around my clitoris with my index finger before reaching lower still. Oh, God, I had no idea I was this wet. Or this hot. My flesh seems to burn beneath my own fingertips. I shudder and force myself to slow down. I want him to get an eyeful.
I tremble, and my fingers falter at the sound of his voice. But the need quickly overcomes the surprise, and I continue stroking myself idly. I can hear him moving around the room now, and the slightly smoky scent of the candles seems to intensify, as does the red haze just beyond my closed eyelids. It's impossible to tell how much time passes, but it doesn't seem to take very long before I begin to miss his touch.
A second later, my lower legs are lifted and draped around what can only be his shoulders. His lips brush against the inside of my right thigh and I twitch sharply when the caress is repeated on the other leg. He slowly begins to plant a trail of delicate kisses along each thigh, constantly moving upward, upward. Suddenly, I feel the flick of his tongue against the back of my hand.
My arm jerks reflexively, but he gently captures the tip of my index finger between his teeth before I can pull away. He releases me a moment later, only to close his lips over my clitoris. And then my fingers and his tongue are working in tandem, sliding across me, over me, into me. Never dueling with each other, but moving together in complete cooperation. The pleasure isn't complete, though. It gradually transforms into a deep, grinding ache of longing. Marcus understands what I need, what we *both* need, and straightens up as my ankles cross behind his back.
"Open your eyes."
The first thing I notice is that he's taken all of the candles and placed them in a loose circle around us. My eyes quickly adjust to the lighting, only to roll shut again as buries himself inside me with a quick jerk of his hips. A soft cry escapes my lips as the pleasure ripples throughout my body. After the sensation begins to subside, I force my eyes open again.
Marcus is looking extremely satisfied with himself. He's been giving me instructions all night. Now it's my turn.
Oh, God. Apparently, the first one was just a tiny indication of what was to come. After a minute or so, I'm able to speak without gasping for breath.
"You're awfully quiet tonight, Marcus. Anything wrong?"
His method of reply results in a violent arching of my back, a burst of red behind my eyelids, and a sudden clenching in my midsection. So close. . .so close . . .
"Nothing's wrong." His voice is amused. "Actually, for the first time in my life, everything's right. There just aren't any words to adequately describe how beautiful you are right now."
He doesn't need the words. I see everything I need to know in his eyes.
"You're quiet as well, love."
"My words are inadequate to the burden of my heart."
He chuckles softly and raises his eyebrows. "You knew, then?"
"Not right away, but I looked it up about a week later. It didn't come as a big surprise."
"I'm glad you knew." His eyes glitter with expectation. "And those words have never been more true. Show me the fire, Susan. Burn for me."
"No, not for you." As his jaw drops in alarm, I quickly add, "*With* you. Together."
He nods slowly. "Together."
As I lift my hips toward him, he slides his hands underneath me to pull me even closer to the edge of the table. He pulls out of me and, to compensate for the loss, I reach to touch myself again. He pushes himself back in almost torturously slowly, but it's enough. In fact, it's too much. The pleasure comes in heavy, dizzying waves, and I give in to it gratefully.
"Beautiful." Even before the tremors have fully ceased, Marcus carefully pulls me upright. Still divinely impaled atop him, I slide my arms around his neck as he carries me back to the bed. After so long on "the rock", the mattress feels almost obscenely soft. There is nothing soft about him, however, as he moves against me in fast, fluid strokes. After just a few seconds, he slows and begins to shudder with the force of his climax. My legs wrap themselves around his waist again as I pull him close to me, enjoying the way his weight presses down into my body.
His voice is ragged as his lips caress my ear. "I don't know how to thank you, you know."
"Thank me for what?"
He lifts his head to face me and I see his eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "For taking another chance, on me of all people. For trusting me."
"I think you've adequately expressed your appreciation." I wrap my hands in his hair and pull his head down to me, doing my damnedest to persuade him with lips and tongue that the pleasure was mine.
After a few minutes, he starts to stiffen against my thigh and comes back up for air. "I have, have I? In that case, do you think I could thank you again in, oh, twenty minutes or so?"
"Make it fifteen, and you've got yourself a deal, mister."
He laughs with delight, and the motion causes his chest hairs to rub against my still-sensitive nipples. Fifteen minutes may be too long. "Oh, you are *so* demanding."
"Is that a complaint?" I trail my fingernails down his back threateningly.
"No, never," he protests. "It's a sacrifice, of course, but I'm willing to do it. For you."
"Actually, Delenn should be thanking me as well."
"I hope you won't mind if I ask her to pursue a different avenue for her expression of gratitude." I slap his behind in mock punishment and he snuggles his face deeper into my neck. "So why should Delenn thank you?"
"Because I no longer have any desire to leave her a widow."
After a final kiss just beneath my ear, Marcus yawns and rolls off of me to lie by my side. I miss his warmth already. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"It doesn't matter." Forcing myself upright, I throw my legs over the edge of the bed. "I think I'll open the other bottle of champagne."
"Want any help?"
I motion him back with a wave of my hand. "No, you stay right there."
"Trust me, Susan, I'm not going anywhere."
I look back at him over my shoulder and see nothing but sincere, open honesty. And for maybe the first time in my life, I truly believe.