Linka slammed into Wheeler at full force, almost knocking him back into the waves. He let out an oomph as he stumbled backwards, and his arms came around her – at first for balance, but when he realised it was her, he tightened his hold a little, chuckling.
"If I knew this would happen I'd drown myself all the time," he said breathlessly, water running from his hair and his clothes.
"Nyet, you are not drowned," she sighed with relief, burying her face in his neck. She was vaguely aware of Gi and Kwame chattering excitedly, making their way back to the beach, but Wheeler had stopped all efforts to leave the water. The waves swept around their knees and she could feel the undertow sucking against the backs of her legs, threatening to pull them back out to sea.
"You okay, babe?"
She nodded and loosened her grip on him, but he squeezed her a little tighter, lifting her a little and pressing her against him. Over her blonde tangle of hair, curling wildly in the wind and the spray being blown back from the sea, he could see Kwame, Gi and Ma-Ti settling in the sand to wait for them.
"Are you hurt?" Linka asked anxiously, her cheek still pressed against the cold, wet material of his shirt.
"Well now that you mention it I might need a little mouth-to-mouth," he murmured, bending his head.
"Bozhe moy." She shoved him away, but she was smiling, a gentle flush on her cheeks.
He laughed and took her hand, wading back to shore, the wind chilling him through his wet clothes, but a decidedly pleasant heat remaining in his skin where she had touched him.
She sat up, cocking her head and straining to hear the noise again. Tap, tap, tap.
"Gi?" she whispered. She glanced across to the other bed, barely visible in the dim light, but Gi's bulk was distinctly heavy with sleep, her breath deep and even.
Tap, tap, tap.
She crept out of bed, pulling her robe around her, and crept to the door, turning the handle quietly.
"Boo." Wheeler grinned at her as she peered out at him and she sighed and opened the door wide.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I can't sleep. Come for a walk with me."
"Now?" she asked in amazement. She grabbed his wrist and tilted it, looking at his watch. "It is past midnight."
She didn't really want an excuse, and was relieved when she couldn't readily find one.
"Let me get dressed," she whispered.
"No, come on." He tugged her gently out into the corridor.
"Shh." He grinned at her again, and led her to the doorway that opened onto the stairwell. "Up here."
"The roof?" she asked. "What about all that smog?"
"Cap took care of most of it. Come on."
She followed him up the dark staircase. The hotel was quiet and dim – a television sounded somewhere, muffled in the darkness, and a door slammed, but he led her up the stairs and out into the cool night air.
"Are the others asleep?" She was suddenly nervous of the silence, and hurried to fill it with conversation.
"Mmhmm." He stopped by the ledge that ran around the edge of the roof. The air was still slightly acrid, but stars glimmered above and the breeze was cool and clean on their faces.
"You were not hurt today?"
"Nope." He grinned at her and shrugged carelessly. "I'm fine. Though, you did knock the breath out of me when I got back to shore."
She spluttered. "I would have knocked it out of Kwame, but Gi got there first," she said, avoiding his eyes.
He laughed, and stuck out his lower lip. "Tell me that's a lie."
"Perhaps," she admitted, trying to sound reluctant about it.
He sat on the ledge, his feet dangling a couple of inches above the surface of the roof, and lifted his other hand to hers, straightening her fingers gently and watching her Planeteer ring glimmer gently in the light coming off the street below and the moon above.
He looked up at her and she was gazing down at him rather worriedly, her robe hanging off one shoulder and her hair tousled about her in a pretty halo.
"What's wrong?" he asked her, shifting his eyes down to her hand again, enfolded in his own. He traced his fingers across the delicate line of her knuckles, not wanting to let go of her just yet. Not until she made him – which she would do, eventually.
"Nyet, nothing. Are you sure there is nothing wrong with you?"
"Nah. I just couldn't sleep." He frowned slightly, his fingers trembling across the thin skin of her wrist, her pulse humming steadily under his touch.
"Well, we are going home in the morning," she said, sounding somewhat nervous. "You should try and get a little sleep, at least?"
He shook his head. "Can't."
"Why?" Her voice was a sigh of exasperation, and he smiled up at her.
"I wanted to ask you something," he said.
"Oh," she whispered. She stammered for a moment, trying to find a proper sentence and failing.
When he kissed her hand, her voice died away entirely, her eyes wide and gazing down at him in shock.
"Linka you drive me crazy sometimes," he murmured. "I can't keep up with you. You spend all this time rejecting me and laughing me off when I try and get close to you and then when something happens – like today – you run up to me..." He sighed and shook his head wearily.
"I was worried," she said breathlessly. "You had been down there in the water for so long..."
"Come on, Linka," he whispered, staring up at her. "Do I ever have a chance with you? Really? You have to know how I feel about you by now..."
"Nyet," she said, tugging her hand out of his gentle hold.
"What?" His face paled.
"Nyet, I do not know how you really feel about me," she said, tucking her arms across her chest. "All the time you are making jokes and – and being confident."
He grinned, and shook his head, laughing a little. "Okay, well..." He kicked his heels against the concrete a little, frowning as he thought through things.
Linka was very aware, suddenly, that she was not properly dressed. She tugged her robe around her and tied the sash tightly about her waist.
"Are you cold?" he asked, shrugging out of his jacket.
"Nyet, just undressed," she murmured, folding her arms across his chest again.
He raised his eyebrow and opened his mouth, but closed it again slowly, evidently thinking that the remark he had been about to make was perhaps better left unsaid.
"Well, here," he muttered, handing her his jacket.
"It is a warm night," she said, shaking her head. "I am fine, really."
He shrugged and laid it aside. "Suit yourself."
She stood there awkwardly and he looked past her, out over the city which twinkled and shone prettily.
"Well..." He shrugged and sighed. "Come on Linka, what are you confused about?"
She glanced at him nervously, and then to the door. "Wheeler, I do not think we should talk about this now."
"Why not?" he asked, sounding frustrated. "It's the perfect time to talk about it, Linka."
"Talk about what?" she asked, stamping her foot. "You never explain yourself, Wheeler. You make jokes and you get jealous when I do not pay any attention to you, but you never explain anything!"
"Well, I love you!" he said, jumping to his feet and setting his jaw. "How's that for an explanation?"
She gaped at him wordlessly, not sure how to respond, and he sighed and strode back to the stairwell, snatching up his jacket and bunching it in his fist.
"Forget it," he called back. "Forget I said anything – just pretend it's a bad dream."
The sight of him disappearing back into the shadowy stairwell prompted her into action, and she ran after him, her heart racing, remembering the panic she had felt when he had been trapped in the train carriage. Remembering the panic she felt whenever he was in danger, or whenever someone else showed the slightest interest in him. Whenever she thought he'd get sick of waiting for her.
She crashed into him from behind and he tumbled down three steps onto the landing, the wind knocked out of him as she landed on top of him, brushing her hair from her face and blinking back tears.
"Do you mean it?" she asked, planting her arms either side of his shoulders and gazing down at him.
"I think you punctured my lung," he gasped, wriggling beneath her. "Let me up."
"Nyet," she denied, clamping her knees to his hips and pressing her weight onto him. "Tell me if you meant it, Wheeler – and no more jokes."
"I meant it, okay?" he said, somewhat reluctantly. He fixed his eyes on her bare shoulder, emerging once again from under her robe. "You can forget it, if that's easier for you."
"Why?" she asked softly. She moved her arms, sitting back on her heels, still pinning him gently to the threadbare carpet with her weight.
"Well just if it's too awkward for you," he muttered, wriggling underneath her. "Let me up, Linka."
She shook her head hopelessly. "Why do you love me?" she asked softly.
"I – oh. I dunno."
She rolled her eyes and started to climb off him. "Fine," she sighed. "You are right, we will forget it. We will call it just another joke, just another stupid mistake."
He reached up quickly and cupped her face, lifting his body to meet her as he brought her lips down to his and kissed her tenderly.
She gasped in soft surprise, but she didn't move away. She had imagined kissing him before – imagined it that same afternoon, as she had been tearing down the beach to fling herself into his arms. She had imagined it as she sat opposite him in the geo-cruiser, she had imagined it as danger had been bearing down on them, and she had imagined it whenever she had caught him looking at her ever-so-admiringly.
But her daydreaming had never given her the idea that kissing him would be so wonderfully pleasurable.
Linka was a rather clinical person – always taking delight from logic and reasoning. She had never been one to spend much time with idle daydreaming, and her various, scattered fantasies involving kisses with Wheeler always indicated that it would be brief and serious – something inevitable. She knew he liked her, and she knew she liked him, and she thought maybe that's all there was to it. A kiss certainly wouldn't prompt much more – it would just confirm what she thought was already there.
But this was entirely different to anything she may have predicted. The world tilted around her and her stomach swirled, leaving her breathless as he moved his mouth gently against hers.
"Nyet, stop," she gasped suddenly, pulling away. "This is not a good idea, Wheeler."
"No, shh, it's a very, very good idea," he whispered, reaching for her again. "Come here."
She was pliant against him, lowering her face down to his to meet him again, opening her mouth slightly against his kiss. His hand cupped her jaw and she felt his other arm curling around her waist, pulling her closer to him. As she felt his tongue, she realised her own hands had moved over his body – one bunched in his t-shirt and the other around the back of his neck, her fingers pushed into his hair.
Unnerved by her own sudden boldness, she pulled away again – though she was unable to suppress a gentle sigh of disappointment as air and space came between them.
"Linka, don't," he whispered, tangling his fingers into her tousled hair and pulling her close against him. His nose nudged her cheek, his lips whispering kisses across her skin. "Don't go; I'm not going to be able to stand it."
"We should not be doing this," she said, and she sounded quite tearful. She rested her forehead on the warm, firm comfort of his shoulder.
"Why shouldn't we?" He shuffled underneath her slightly, still pinned to the floor by her weight, his legs propped up on the stairs she had knocked him from.
"It is too complicated." She scrubbed tears from her face and staggered to her feet. "I am going back to bed."
He grabbed the bottom of her robe, forcing her to halt, and he scrambled to get to her, wincing as he shifted position.
"No, I mean it," he gasped, and his hands came to her hips and pushed her gently against the wall. He stood on the stair below her and their eyes were level – but she kept hers trained downwards, away from his gaze.
"I mean it, Linka," he whispered. He slid one hand inside her robe to rest against the thin fabric of her nightgown. "You leave now and that's it, for me. I'm done."
"With the Planeteers – with everything."
"I mean it," he said, and he sounded so desperately pleading and so unlike himself she raised her eyes to him in surprise.
"Linka, I told you I love you – and I meant it. I love you. And after I got out of that train carriage and you greeted me like that on the beach..." He shook his head, not sure where his thoughts were leading him. "I hate all this back-and-forth bullshit," he whispered, sounding frustrated. "I need to know if you feel the same way or if I'm just wasting my time. Because if I'm wasting my time I don't think I can be around you anymore."
"That is why we must not do this," she sobbed, covering her face with her hands. Alarmed at her sudden tears, Wheeler moved his hand from her hip to her elbow, as though to support her gently.
"We must not complicate things like this," she said, her voice muffled from behind her palms, which were clamped heavily over her face. "When things go wrong what will happen to the Planeteers? What will the others think?"
"Who says things are going to go wrong?" he asked, stroking her hair. "Babe, things between us are going to be complicated either way." He grinned and nudged her gently with his forehead, disturbing her hands so he could see her eyes. "I'd just rather it was a happy complication."
She gasped softly with the last of her tears, trying to get her breathing back under control. Not sure what to say to him anymore, she simply put her arms around his neck and rested her cheek on his shoulder. "I do not want to lose you," she whispered.
"I'm not going anywhere, okay?" he promised, feeling guilty all of a sudden. With a soft laugh, he shook his head. "As if I could ever leave you behind, anyway. You're stuck with me whether you like it or not."
"I like it," she answered. She could feel his hands on her back, soothing her, and she sighed, feeling somewhat sleepy again now.
Wheeler pressed a soft kiss to her bare shoulder and tugged her robe up again. "I guess I should let you sleep," he said, though his voice sounded odd, and she knew if she left now they would each get up in the morning and it would seem like none of this had ever happened.
"Nyet," she whispered. She tightened her hold on him a little and he lifted her gently, setting her down on the stair and settling next to her. His jacket lay uselessly next to him, and he picked it up and draped it around her shoulders.
Linka stared down at her bare toes, torn between her exhaustion and her desire to stay with Wheeler. It had been a dramatic couple of days – full of dangerous, tiring work – and not to mention the flight to Australia, which had thrown them all into a heavy state of jetlag.
"When the carriage sank into the water," she said slowly, "I thought it was full of people. And I was worried, of course. But then Ma-Ti confirmed that they were – they were not real people. But he said you and Kwame were on board." She drew in a shaky breath, and kept her eyes focused on her feet, though her vision was blurring with tears.
"I felt such panic," she said. Tears slipped down her cheeks. "I had been worried before I knew you were there, but...This was different. I could see the water where you had disappeared and I knew the air was escaping. I was too frightened to even tell Gi to use her ring – and, I think she was too frightened to think about it.
"I was holding my breath, trying to see how long you could have." She looked up at him then, her eyes wide with fear, tears brimming over. "I could not do it – I had to breathe, and I thought you had drowned."
He touched her face softly, brushing tears away with his fingertips. "We had air for a long time," he whispered. "Water only came in once I got the door open."
"But you took so long to come up," she sobbed.
He cradled her in his arms, kissing her face and the top of her head. He felt guilty about bringing her out of bed. It had been a long day, and to have a conversation about their complicated relationship seemed rather selfish of him.
"Let's get you back to bed," he sighed, taking her hand and enfolding it securely in his own. "It's been a long day. We can talk about this another time."
"Nyet, there is no point," she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
His heart sank. There it is. No point, Wheeler. There's no point.
"No point?" he asked. He felt rather weak, as though all the blood in his body had simply drained away and refused to flow back to his heart.
She lifted her face up to his and met him with a soft kiss. "I did not mean it like that," she whispered.
"How did you mean it?" He was finding it hard to keep his hands off her. All he wanted to do was gently pin her down and feel the soft, warm length of her body against his own. He kissed her again, pressing his lips softly against hers, which trembled slightly.
She shook her head, staying within a breath's distance of him. She let her lips brush softly against his, and then he was kissing her with more force, pressing her back against the banister and wrapping his arms around her. His hand tangled in her hair and tugged her head back gently. She opened her mouth with a soft gasp and he moved his tongue slowly into her mouth, touching her and tasting her tenderly.
This time, she let her arms slide around his shoulders, her fingers winding into the rumpled hair just above his collar so she could hold him closer to her.
They broke apart for air, breathing heavily, and he nuzzled into her neck, kissing the sensitive skin of her throat, lightly perfumed with vanilla-scented soap.
"Linka, I love you," he murmured, trailing his fingertips down her back and moving a palm along the curve of her waist.
"I love you too – please stay," she whispered. "Do not leave me..." She shrugged her hips closer to him suddenly, her legs tangling against him as he leaned over and kissed her again.
"Say it again." His voice was soft and breathless, his forehead touching hers gently. "Tell me you love me."
"I love you." She clutched him tightly. "Ya budu vsegda lyubIt' tebya."
He shook his head and smiled. "Don't know what that was," he whispered, "but I liked it."
He pulled her onto his lap, her knees settling either side of his hips, his mouth instantly seeking hers again. She cupped his face and he propped himself up on his elbows, the stair behind him supporting their combined weight as the hotel slept dim and hushed around them, the stairwell silent but for their kisses and whispers.
"Should I be concerned that neither of you appears to have had any sleep?" Gi asked, leaning over the back of her seat in the geo-cruiser and slapping Wheeler's knee gently. She glanced at Linka and grinned, but the blonde avoided eye contact and burrowed into her seat, pretending to read.
Wheeler grinned tiredly. "Concerned? No." He leaned his head back against the window and yawned. "No concern."
"I still think there's some significance there," Gi said teasingly, turning around again and toying with her iPod. "But if the two of you are going to remain so secretive..." Her mutterings trailed off and she sighed happily, distracted as she scrolled through her music.
Wheeler stretched his hand across the aisle and met Linka's, lacing his fingers through hers. She squeezed gently and he smiled.