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a splendid affair

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Amaya’s head is already buzzing pleasantly by the time Janai spots her amidst the crowd. The human General is propped against the wall, wineglass in one hand as she watches her eldest nephew in the middle of the dance floor, hands wrapped in Rayla’s, the two of them laughing as they spin around together. Janai doesn’t say anything as she stops at Amaya's side and she glances at Janai with a quirk to her lips before taking another sip.

To the left of the dance floor, King Ezran and Queen Aanya converse quietly, a pile of jelly tarts between them. The two human monarchs laugh at something, eyes lighting up before bending their heads back together to continue their conversation and Amaya turns her head.

She dips her chin in wordless welcome and Janai inclines her head for a moment. “I hope you don’t mind me joining you,  Queen Amaya.”

Amaya snorts, flapping her free hand.  Not Queen,  she signs before taking another sip from her wine.  Ezran was ready to lead and I was ready to step down.  

I wish I could do that,  she snorts and leans against the wall.  Sorry I missed the coronation.

Shrugging with an easy smile, Amaya looks back to the dancefloor.  I know you were busy with your own things,  she signs absent-mindedly and Janai allows herself the moment to simply  look  at her.

Never the one for overbearing finery, Amaya’s dress is more of a long tunic. It's the same deep blue as the shirt she wore beneath her armor back all those years ago when she was in Lux Aurea as a political prisoner, piped in gold, the high collar accenting her thin throat elegantly. The sleeves hug her arms, muscles shifting when Amaya brings the globular glass to her lips and Janai looks away quickly, a flush that isn’t her natural body heat spreading across her face.

One would think with five years between them, only once a year meeting at this Gala besides the letters sent back and forth, Janai's feelings for Amaya would fade. It seems — most unfortunately — that they've done nothing but linger and Janai takes a swig from her glass that would  definitely  make her sister frown.

The fifth annual Celebration of Peace Gala is nowhere to ogle the most decorated General in human history — aunt to Prince Callum and King Ezran, previous  Queen regent  of Katolis - Janai reminds herself, friends as they are or not. She knows the warmth in her chest goes leaps and bounds beyond friendship. Thankfully, it's small mercies that the Gala is being hosted at Lux Aurea this year and Janai can write off any flush on her cheeks as excitement and the alcohol in her system where no one can question her.

She  is  Queen after all.

Taking another sip, she grimaces at the glimpse of her advisors in the crowd. It's only her history of Lux Aurea that she's been able to dodge them all night so far; helped by her knowledge of dark corners and empty hallways. She blinks away sudden tears at the memory of Khessa and her discovering those same hiding places as children — long before they would cover for the other if they snuck away with a... companion . Lux Aurea’s palace is full of winding corridors and hidden rooms built into sloping walls and Janai remembers more than once accidentally finding her sister in them with Suri.

She supposes she'll never have to worry about walking in on them again. Suri and Khessa were both ripped away in the same night, and Janai is left behind as Queen in her sister's place.

There’s a tap on her shoulder. Janai blinks, realizing she’s been staring down at the glass clutched tightly in her hands, frowning, and loosens her hold.

Amaya’s eyes are sympathetic, somehow understanding despite Janai not having said a word. It’s something she forgets about the General sometimes, only seeing her once a year despite their letters — she’s uncannily skilled at hearing things never said aloud despite her inability to hear at it. Even if Janai had never told her in her letters one night; when the palace was too empty around her, the crown too heavy on her head, she knows that Amaya would  know . Her brown eyes are soft, slightly glassy with her intake of alcohol, as she sets down her wine glass to sign.

Care to dance, Queen Janai?

Janai snorts but sets down her glass as well.  Are you sure you're able? You're looking a little off-balance, General Amaya. I wouldn't hold it against you if you couldn't waltz.

Amaya rolls her eyes, smirking, and Janai bites back the way her breath hitches in her throat when Amaya's hand touches her forearm. While Amaya has tight-fitting tan trousers beneath her blue tunic tucked into brown leather boots, Janai is in all the gold-and-burgundy finery of a Queen of Lux Aurea. Her arms are bare, though, so she can  feel  the twisted burn scar on Amaya's palm when her hand rests directly against Janai's warm skin.

Neither one starts although sees Amaya blink oddly. Whatever expression she had made at the moment passes quickly and Janai bites her tongue.

She will  not  let herself lose it over the feeling of the burn scar on Amaya's palm — the same one Amaya inflicted on herself to keep Janai from storming the palace tower all those years ago, too keep Janai from killing herself. All of a sudden that's all she sees — fire in the tower, dark purple twisting around the Light, Khessa's body and screams literally fading away as her body burnt away in a fall she could never get up from, Suri's limp form falling to the ground like their Queen.

Janai blinks away tears. 

Blissfully oblivious to Janai’s thoughts as she is, Amaya doesn’t stop at her arm. Instead, it slides down until their fingers trail together and Amaya is holding out a palm, face-up. 

An invitation extended as well as her hand. 

May I have this dance?  she signs simply and Janai reaches for her. When their hands brush Janai jolts back slightly but looks back up at Amaya.

Her smile is reassuring and Janai takes a deep breath.

You may.

Despite her doubts they're both sober enough for it, despite her avoidance of the dancefloor the entire night, she wraps her fingers around Amaya's. The moment she does it seems the ballroom softens in noise and when Janai finally tears her eyes away from Amaya's face, she sees it  has. 

The room's gone silent.

All eyes settle on them and Janai is reminded for the thousandth time that she is the host. She's spent the night so far on the fringes, drinking wine and talking to diplomats and delegates and stubbornly ignoring the dancefloor — she can't anymore.  She doesn't want to.  Straightening her spine under the heavy gazes she feels Amaya do the same beside her. The entire room seems to hold their breath as the two women step forward, heads held high, Amaya's hand sliding to the crook of Janai's elbow.

By the time they reach the middle of the room, everyone has cleared out. 

Amaya's hand travels down her forearm to clasp palms for a single moment before her hand falls away and Janai leads her around so they're facing each other, coming to be just a single pace away. Time seems to slow, slower than ever before, then Amaya's bowing at the waist, hand fisted over her breast and Janai inclines her head in acknowledgment. 

She rises and their eyes find each other's again like second nature. Amaya's breathing heavily, cheeks flushed from alcohol and the hundreds of heavy gazes pinned on them and Janai finds with a start she's breathless, too.

Heat that isn't from the bodies pushed together into the ballroom flashes through her and Janai steps forward. The warmth bleeds into her limbs, much more than the alcohol and she  knows it  but she forces it down. Even though there's barely a pace between them she finds herself merely inches from the General and in the hanging moment before the first chord strikes, she slides her hand around Amaya's hip to rest against her back.

Amaya's breath hitches and she leans, ever-so-slightly, into Janai. 

Janai finds herself incapable of looking away from the General's mouth, slightly parted, warmth breath puffing through them. She would be happy here, forever, she thinks — Amaya in her arms, close enough to feel her breath and see how her chest heaves, forever balanced in the moment before the music starts. Time is suspended as Amaya's eyes flit up to hers and then the first chord strikes.

The crowd around them fades into nothingness, drenched into silence only they exist. The waltz is slow, regal, dripping from one smooth note to the other and Janai tucks her other hand against the curve of her spine. The first motion is simply swaying and Janai keeps her hand on Amaya's waist as they move into the first turn.

The Royal Waltz is stunningly simple but Janai's seen it done a hundred times and knows how elegant it looks. How many times has she been one of the eyes, watching, as the Queen spun her Chosen around the dancefloor, crown gleaming, eyes sharp and motions quick?

She remembers Khessa doing this at every gathering; she remembers her sister extending her hand to Suri every single time and them taking it. She remembers Suri's adoring eyes as they watched their lover, the Queen, spin and twirl underneath the lights of Lux Aurea, bathed in gold.

Where Khessa favored yellow, Janai prefers burgundy.

Amaya's eyes never stray far from Janai's face. Even as she spins them; slow, easy; neither one of them seems able to blink. Soon Amaya is standing in front of her again, close enough Janai can feel her breathing, and the arm tucked behind her back comes up to slide beneath Amaya's right.

She brings them up, down. It's a simple wave-like motion but as the music starts to swell and the motion becomes more pronounced, their hands coming to lift over Amaya's head, Janai mourns having to release Amaya's waist. Then she's spinning Amaya, hands above their heads coming to propel her back after a long-drawn moment until Janai's hand then settles again on Amaya's waist.

Her head spins with something that isn't alcohol or quick motion.

Amaya's hands are not idle, either. She's following Janai's every movement, letting her lead, but when her hand settles on the side of Janai's face as if to cup it Janai can't help but smile. She knows it's nothing more than a quirk at the side of her lips but Amaya smiles back and Janai  aches.

The hand against her face she uses to push Amaya away - and launch her into the spin. Amaya's dress isn't floor-length so the full effect of the quick turn is lost but Janai finds herself breathless regardless. 

No matter how many times Amaya spins away, she always comes back and Janai is less than a hair's breadth away to catch her. Amaya's hand ghosts across her cheek against before she's gone and Janai swears she feels the General's thumb trace down one of her marks before disappearing again.

Janai chases her. It's easy to align herself with the graceful, powerful movements of Amaya's body until that's all she can see. In the in-between, she wonders how she never noticed the General's elegance before; the same fingers that can clutch a shield her height are long and pale when they wrap around Janai's forearm.

Her heart  lurches.  Where Janai's skin is always warm — a perk of being connected to the Sun Arcanum — Amaya's is cooler. The jolt of lightning beneath her skin at the feeling of Amaya's hand on her arm is nothing compared to the throbbing in her face. Janai's cheeks burn with the lingering smile she can't get rid of but she finds she doesn't want it gone. 

When Amaya's hand leaves her forearm to spin again, Janai simply extends her hand and waits.

Beautifully, Amaya doesn't disappoint.  She never does,  Janai thinks dimly and loses herself to the way their fingers feel slotted against each other when they bring them above their heads, leading Amaya so close that Janai can see the flakes of grey and green in her eyes.

She's  magnificent.

They repeat the motion — stepping back until only their fingertips touch until coming back in quickly, hands clasped. But this time, when they both back away, Janai swoops in and smoothly slides her palm up Amaya's waist to settle right below her shoulder blades.

Amaya gasps. It's a small sound, barely there, but Janai savors it. It's for her, after all, and she'll take what she can get.

Then Amaya's hand is settling on her shoulder, their hands held out to the side of them and clasped, and they're twirling. Faintly Janai registers their turns are becoming larger and larger and the ballroom murmurs around them as they step back to allow the Queen and her Chosen more room, but she knows they only have eyes for the other.

All too soon it's time for the presentation and Amaya's hand leaves her arm to be spun out. Janai spins her out until they're both facing the crowd, arms outstretched to hold the other, and they stay there for a heartbeat.

Even while the crowd claps, Amaya's gaze never leads Janai. Flushed as she is, she knows the shiver that travels down her spine isn't from her temperature. They repeat the motion to the other side and then Amaya is back in her arms, pressed to Janai's chest, and Janai lets her eyes dart to the side to show Amaya how to position her head so she doesn't go dizzy.

Nodding once, Amaya tilts her head back and to the side. 

The motion exposes her neck, the long column of her throat leading from the collar of her dress to the sharp cut of her jawline and Janai's mouth goes dry. She's so  close  it would be easy and press her lips to the place where she can see Amaya's skin undulate as she breathes heavily.

She all but floats through the turns, spinning, spinning, having to restrain herself from leaning in and kissing the alluring line.

Amaya's spine is curved gracefully where Janai's hand lays against it.

A quick twirl and then they're pressed together again — Janai leans Amaya against her side to spin them quickly — then the music swells louder than before and Janai slides her hand lower, lower still.

Amaya's eyes flash in the chandelier light. 

In a quick, single motion, Janai lets both of her hands slide to either side of Amaya's trim waist and  lifts.  The General is lighter than Janai expected and she perches above Janai for a drawn-out heartbeat Janai wishes she could live in forever. She tilts her head back to watch and Amaya's heavy breathing mixed with breathless laughter makes her chest stutter.

It's then Janai realizes how her eyes are level with the swell of Amaya's chest and lowers her as the same heat as before returns but slower this time, dripping,  tempting. 

Enticing.

Amaya's boots meet the ground and their faces are level. They're both flushed, breathing like they're just fought instead of danced, their noses almost touching. Every stuttering exhale Amaya gives is an inhale Janai takes and vice versa and they're revolving around each other until the music skips.

Janai's reminded that Amaya is trusting her wholeheartedly to lead her to the beat of the music — she wonders if Amaya can feel the vibrations of the strings at all through the thick sole of her boot and the responsibility on her shoulders doesn't cripple her but makes her stand straighter. Amaya  trusts her.

Their hands find each other over their heads like before and Janai is twisting to dip Amaya, hand wrapped around her waist as Amaya's arm steadies herself against Janai's back. 

The dance doesn't end until Janai brings Amaya back up and she wonders for a moment if she could keep Amaya like this — cradled to her as she is, them both glowing with their shared dance and mulled spice wine. Even dipped as she is, Amaya doesn't look away from her and Janai watches with rapt attention as her tongue darts out to wet her lips.

The heat in her stomach  tugs  almost painfully. As much as she wishes it didn't have to, the dance must end so Janai lifts Amaya and steps away. 

Janai's hand feels painfully empty and cold without Amaya's within it.

Around them, sound starts to bleed back in as the music fades. The crowd claps, all smiling, and Amaya doesn't blink away from Janai's gaze as she sinks into a low curtsy. The applause hangs with the last note and they're both chuckling heavily as Janai holds a hand to her upper chest as a sign of respect and thanks.

It's then the realization hits her —  Amaya is her Chosen.

Suddenly Janai feels drunk not only on the wine that's been flowing all night but the smell and feel of Amaya in her arms. Even as Amaya smiles at her, cheeks flushed and hair rumpled from where it curls against her cheeks, Janai feels empty, floating, like Amaya is an anchor and she's now lost amongst the clouds.

The ballroom moves around them. The next song has begun and the paired couples pour into the wide circle Janai and Amaya created with their exaggerated spins but Janai seems rooted to the spot in the middle of it all.

Amaya lays a hand on Janai’s forearm, jarring her out of her thoughts. When Janai swallows the urge to kiss her  extremely  reddened lips from her blush and raises an eyebrow, Amaya jerks her head to the side as their palms slide together. As if she'd be able to refuse, Janai nods and follows, dazed, eyes locked on the interlocking fingers; four fitting between five perfectly.

It's as if they were  made  to fit together.

The spinning colors on the ballroom blur together behind them as Janai lets Amaya lead her. It only occurs to her after Amaya changes direction three different times, slipping between people, that the General has no clue where she's going. A fraction of an idea forms in Janai's head and she tugs gently on their clasped hands. Amaya pauses, half-turns, and Janai points to where she knows there's a door out of the large ballroom; to where she knows they can be alone.

The thought sends a thrill through her. 

Amaya pulls her towards it and the moment the door closes behind them the sound of the ballroom dims so abruptly that Janai feels like she's underwater. Even the sound of Amaya's heels against the marble floor feels muted somehow and the General turns to face her, dropping her hand.

I'm sorry,  she signs and Janai frowns — Amaya's smile is suddenly, inexplicably gone.  I didn't think everyone would watch us like that. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.

It clicks in Janai's head at the same moment she's shaking her head, stepping forward. Her fingers itch to take Amaya's hand to reassure her physically in all the ways she knows she struggles to express and she doesn't realize she's done so until Amaya's breath hitches, Janai's mouth is being pressed to pale knuckles. The corridor is dark, the only light coming in through the windows but it's enough for Janai to see the bright flush that colors Amaya's cheeks. Her eyes widen as the blush spreads to her neck and Janai drops the hand after a stuttering moment.

You didn't make me uncomfortable,  Janai signs and pointedly ignores how all of those who watched them dance and knew the significance of the waltz probably thinks they're sneaking off for... different  reasons.  I wanted to dance with you or I wouldn't have said yes. Even if we were watched the entire time.

Do you know why they were staring?

It's Janai's turn to blush and she shakes her head. Amaya's contemplative frown deepens at that and she looks down the hall long enough for Janai to rearrange her face like she hasn't just lied through her teeth. 

If they didn't already know, everyone in that ballroom knows  damn  well what that waltz meant by now.

She's breathing normally now, but the idea of returning to the ballroom turns her stomach so Janai taps Amaya's hand.  Want a tour?  she asks when Amaya turns.

Amaya's face brightens considerably when she nods and Janai's heart warms at the motion. Then Amaya's looping her arm through Janai's smiling so brightly Janai swears the corridor lightens, too. 

They're off. 

The palace halls are quiet around them. All staff that isn't working the gala tonight either with catering or making sure the party doesn't get out of hand have been given the night off so they're completely alone as they wander. Every few steps Amaya's left shoulder brushes with Janai's right and as they turn the corner, Janai finds the motion no longer knocks her lungs breathless but that she's rather come to crave the physical touch.

Janai points out little things as they walk —  a vase from the Earthblood Kingdoms,  she signs and Amaya studies the smooth veneer. It's too dark for her to see the clay design properly so they move on and Amaya finds herself content to stay where she is.

She knows she should she be anxious about getting back to the gala; to keep an eye on Callum, Rayla and Ezran but instead she's here, tucked into Janai's side as the Sunfire Queen tells her about the woven tapestries and various gifted knick-knacks that line the moon-lit hall. Amaya soothes herself with the knowledge that there's no more war and in the event of anything happening, Corvus is skilled enough to protect her nephews and Rayla if need be. Even on the arm of Queen Fareeda tonight, she also knows Opeli wouldn't hesitate to jump in if necessary. Despite her resignation of Katolis' Master of Ceremonies to become Evenere's Princess Consort, Amaya knows her deep-set loyalty still lies with their child King.

It's reassuring and Amaya relaxes back into Janai's side. She finds herself unable  not  to melt into the elf's warmth — an advantage of the Sun Arcanum, she supposes. 

There's a tap on her hand and she blinks. Janai's eyes are worried.

You alright? You're slowing down.

Amaya snorts.  Guess I had a little too much to drink, plus that dance took a lot out of me. I'm not a soldier anymore.

We can sit,  Janai signs and Amaya shakes her head.

I may not be as young as I once was,  Amaya chuckles as they continue their tour down a different hall,  but I'm not old either.

They both laugh at that and Amaya's hit with the recurring realization that Janai and she are barely years apart. She knows from Janai's letters that the myth elves are immortal if not killed is just that — a  myth Our sub-century lifespan is the same as yours,  Janai had written to Amaya's inquiry and Amaya remembers staring down at the calligraphy

At the end of the day, they're just like them.

Amaya studies Janai's profile when she isn't looking. She follows the slope of her nose, the bow of her lips, the sleek line of her jawline. She traces the yellow henna beneath her eyes like rays of sunshine on her cheeks, the dull gleaming of the crown on her brow, the way her horns - tipped with gold — sparkle in the moonlight.

She knows Janai's stunning radiance when illuminated by the sun, by flames but what takes her breath away in a way she knows isn't the alcohol is how the moonlight falls across her features. Amaya hadn't expected Janai to look so ethereal under the glow of something that wasn't her Arcanum but Amaya studies the swoop of shadows around her lips, dripping off her nose, and has to look away quickly.

It seems their constant correspondence through letters have not staved off Amaya's feelings as she had once hoped. The warmth that curls in her ribs — wholly not from Janai's body heat but  Janai  herself — is the same Amaya felt all those years ago when Queen Zubeia's voice rumbled her to the core and when Callum took Rayla's hand as Zubeia gasped, Amaya took Janai's.

In that moment, she hadn't expected Janai to take hers. They had both been exhausted, barely standing on their feet, covered in burns and dirt, the remnants of adrenaline slowly filtering out of their systems. Amaya hadn't been sure what she was thinking when she reached out and punched Janai's arm, smiling smugly. What she expected was for Janai to roll her eyes, maybe walk away — but when she rolled her eyes she took Amaya's hand instead, smiling warmly before looking up at Zubeia.

Their palms had pressed together; Janai's hands bare as they were and the glove burnt away from Amaya's. 

Amaya had swallowed down the hitch in her breathing, smiled back, and as she looked back at the towering frame of the Queen of the Dragons before her, had felt that warmth curl low in her chest. She had convinced herself it was respect —  Warrior's Honor,  Janai had called it back in Lux Aurea, according to Kazi. It was nothing more than mutual understanding the relief of surviving Viren's attack.

The feeling hadn't gone away but burrowed it's way into her heart and stayed there, festering, marching her pulse along until the moment Amaya held out her hand to Janai in a mirrored parallel to all those years ago. 

May I have this dance?

Just like before, Amaya hadn't expected Janai to take it but always the one for surprises, Janai  had.  With only the slightest bit of hesitation, she had taken Amaya's hand, pressed their palms together, and smiled so widely Amaya thought fiercely for a moment it was night because the sun was in her expression.

Amaya wasn't stupid — she had felt the gazes of the room fall on them. Even as Janai led her to the dancefloor, chin high, and Amaya felt the music start as the vibrations climbed up her legs, she knew what she doing, who she was doing it  with.  The Royal Waltz was a tradition dating back so long she hadn't been able to find the origins.

She hadn't expected Janai to lead her into the Royal Waltz,  especially  with  Amaya. 

As her  Chosen.

It probably wasn't her intention,  Amaya reminds herself as she watches Janai's hands explain the tapestry between two balconies. Even as she studies the callouses on the elf's hands from her sword, all Amaya can think about is how they felt against her waist, lifting her, the warmth of her palms seeping through the material of Amaya's tunic and how her face flushed.

Amaya felt as if she was flying, in that moment. Her hands had found Janai's shoulders as she gasped, laughing, and had sworn in the split-second she looked down that Janai had been staring up at her like  she  was the sun in her sky. Like  she  was the one decked out in gold and burgundy finery, the one with the literal sun under her eyes, the one spinning her around instead of the other way around.

She blinks. Janai's hands have stopped moving and she's staring past Amaya, unblinking, something like bitterness in her eyes. When Amaya follows her eyes all she sees is a door, hidden partly by shadows.

Tapping her shoulder, Janai startles and looks away. Amaya frowns, stepping in front of her so she can't flee.  What's wrong?

Nothing,  Janai signs quickly and Amaya crosses her arms, eyebrow raising in disbelief.

You and I both know that's bullshit.

Janai snorts but the smile doesn't reach her eyes.  Your friend was right. You have a foul mouth, General. Should I call him to censor? You are talking to a Queen after all.

Swallowing thickly, Amaya pointedly does  not  think about how foul her mouth is or the things it could be doing.  One Queen to another,  she says instead and pushing down the heat curling low in her belly, stoked by the alcohol and the way Janai's eyes flash in the moonlight. 

She searches quickly for a subject change and she finds it. Amaya's eyebrows crease as she signs  Who is that?  and points.

Janai follows her finger and her smile turns brittle — something akin to grief. It occurs to Amaya suddenly that this palace is filled with ghosts from her past and is about to suggest they move on, head swimming, when Janai begins to talk, stepping forward.

"My grandmothers," she says and Amaya watches the movement of her lips in a way that isn't intimate. Her words feel too important, too big to simply sign, and Amaya is quiet. "Queens Aditi and Haimi, my mother's mothers. I never met Grandmother Aditi - she died long before I was born."

Amaya slips her hand into Janai's. Even though Janai squeezes her hand in gratitude, she doesn't stop looking at the portrait on the wall. "She was one of the first casualties of the Startouch mage Aaravos before King Avizandum imprisoned him..."

She exhales shakily without finishing and Amaya watches, worried. 

"...and yet he still managed to kill my sister and her lover," Janai finishes and Amaya's eyes widen.  So that was who was on the tower that night with Viren, glowing purple and silver-

"The King of the Dragons imprisoned him in an enchanted mirror that he kept in his nest but it went missing the night Azymondias - your nephew's Zym - was presumed to have been killed. I suspect Katolis' High Mage took it too, along with the Dragon Prince's egg."

Even though she can't hear it, Amaya can sense how frail Janai's words become at the end and her blood boils at the thought of Viren. For not the first time and she knows won't be the last, she wishes  she  was the one to take his head off his shoulders, not Claudia and Soren. Bitterness sweeps across her tongue as she realizes that both she and Janai's sisters had been felled by the same man indirectly.

If not for Viren, maybe Queen Sarai of Katolis and Queen Khessa of Lux Aurea would still be alive.  If not for Viren...

She pauses.

If not for Viren, Amaya would've never transferred to the Breach in her grief, never would've been promoted to General, never would've led her own Batallion to clash with a certain Sunfire elf and her troops over and over until it literally ended in fire.

If not for Viren, Amaya never would've met Janai.

She studies Janai's profile. It's unsettling to think about a world in which Amaya would still remember how Sarai's nose would crinkle with laughter yet she would be without Janai's hand in her own. Most likely, one or both of them would've been killed in a further battle, never having known the other for a moment.

The thought sends a shiver down her spine and when Janai looks over, concerned, Amaya offers her a weak smile. She releases Janai's hand if only to sign.

It's times like these I wish I could've killed Viren myself.

Janai chuckles but the mirth doesn't reach her eyes. "Me too," she murmurs and looks back up at the painting. "Me too, General."

A tap on her shoulder.  Tell me about them.

A real smile this time.

Alright.

Neither one knows how long they stand there — bathed in moonlight, shoulder to shoulder, staring up at a portrait on the wall. 

Between watching Janai's fingers paint a picture for Amaya to understand rather than just see, Amaya studies the figures in the picture — the strong set of Aditi's jawline versus the easy line of Haimi's shoulders. Aditi stands taller than her wife while Haimi is more slender, willowier, and Amaya sees both of them in Janai's smile from their forever-immortalized expressions. Where Aditi's hair is dark red, so much like Janai's and braided back in twists, Haimi's is a golden yellow and lays on either shoulder. 

The Queens are shoulder-to-shoulder, dressed in similar golden-armor finery to what Amaya remembers the late Queen Khessa wearing and when Amaya points that out, Janai's lips quirk.  Ceremonial armor, of course,  she signs.  Nothing of substance but twice as heavy. I hate the stuff but Khessa loved it.

I remember.

There's a twinge in Janai's chest at the mention of her sister but it's faded with time, leaving a warm glow instead of memory. She snorts.

Haimi hated it too. My mother said it was because she was a soldier long before she was royalty.

Amaya bumps their shoulders.  Like you.

Janai pauses and Amaya's fearful she's said something wrong when Janai just nods, a contemplative expression working across her face as she turns to Amaya.  Like me.

You look like her you know,  Amaya signs quickly, eyes darting to the painting of Haimi's face before back to Janai.  Your grandmother. Queen Aditi.

Janai gazes back up at the painting for a moment.

I know. Mother used to tell me all the time that it was so peculiar that I looked so much like Aditi and with Khessa it was the opposite, so we gave each other our grandmother's marks. Mine, like Haimi's and hers like Aditi.

Janai falls silent and Amaya hears the words unsaid —  Khessa was like Aditi. Gone too soon, leaving Haimi behind. Leaving  Janai  behind.

Amaya studies the painting. It's true — the same rivers of gold that run down Haimi's cheeks and ring her eyes are the same ones on Janai's face, illuminated by the glow of the moon. Her eyes catch on the half-circle at Haimi's upper arms, points of sunshine pointing downwards, before traveling to the dark skin above Haimi's skirt and the markings that are painted there.

She flushes suddenly, looking away.

Her mind reels. If Janai's markings are the same as her grandmother's, that means—

Amaya clears her throat. Janai, oblivious to Amaya's thoughts, looks at her worriedly.  Are you alright, do you need something to drink?

No,  she shakes her head quickly and waves off Janai's hovering hand.  I'm fine. What did you say?

Focusing on Janai's hands is harder than ever because all Amaya can see is her own, sliding beneath the material of Janai's dress, fingertips sliding over her warm skin, tracing the line of ink across her abdomen-

You're turning red!  Janai signs, concerned, hand catching her elbow.  Are you breathing fine? Are you sure you don't need to sit?

Amaya needs to do a lot more than  sit.  She looks everywhere but Janai's hand on her arm, the warmth sinking through the fabric of her sleeves to heat her insides, stirring the fires deep in her stomach to roar higher and Amaya pointedly does  not  think about how warm she would be if they bodies were pressed together.

For a moment she swears her heart flutters in her chest. As if Janai can hear it, her eyebrows crease further together and Amaya scrambles to divert attention — she is  not  confessing her five-year-long crush while drunk and thinking about taking off Janai's clothes when her host has been nothing but kind and courteous to her. Her eyes catch on the wall between the next few windows to their right.

Your mother?

Janai still looks worried but when she glances over, she nods.  Khessa and I's parents. My mother looked exactly like my grandmothers.

Amaya walks closer. It's true — the woman in the painting has Haimi's shorter stature but stands with the same authority as Aditi — auburn hair cropped close to her head. On her brow is the same gleaming crown that her mother, her eldest, and now her eldest daughter wears and Amaya thinks of how many elves have worn the diadem and fallen.

She makes a silent vow to not let the same happen to Janai if she can help it.

The next portrait in the row Amaya recognizes. The stern gold eyes of Janai's older sister stare back at her and she's dressed in the ceremonial armor, short scepter in hand. Even in the dark hall, the markings on her cheeks seem to glow and Amaya can imagine Khessa and Janai as children, running around, naive and innocent before a war twisted them apart. Her chin is sharp, shoulders set as she resolutely looks ahead for the rest of time. 

When Janai steps to join her, her presence is heavy and silent at Amaya's side.

Janai doesn't say a thing as they stare up at her sister's portrait, a slight hitch to her breathing. While she told Amaya stories of each monarch before, her fingers don't move as they gaze at Khessa's royal portrait. 

Of their own accord, Amaya's hands start to move.

My sister never wanted to be Queen.  She sees Janai's head turn to watch her hands but Amaya doesn't look at her, too afraid the words will dissolve of her own nervousness if she does.  She just wanted a good home for her son after her husband's death and I wanted the same. Callum was so young — he didn't understand his father was gone. Katolis took us in when we were alone, the three of us against the world. Sarai never intended to fall for Prince Harrow but she was his bodyguard and Captain of the Crown Guard long before they were married, as talented as a warrior she was. 

Janai dips her head to acknowledge and Amaya chuckles.  I remember the first time I caught them sneaking off together during a ball, at their own wedding reception! Sarai swore me to secrecy and promised they would be more discreet but it never worked. Turns out it's hard for a King and Queen to sneak off together when they're the hosts.

The shaking of Janai's shoulders makes Amaya grin. She reaches down and takes the elf's hand in her own, letting her fingers slot themselves between Janai's and sighing when they slide perfectly into place, like a puzzle.

We do the best with what we have,  she signs simply and turns to face her friend. The same warmth from before builds behind her ribs but doesn't spread lower into her belly but rather blossoms there at how Janai looks right back at her.  I wouldn't be here without Sarai, even though it's without her and Harrow. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Janai's eyes soften. 

Neither would I,  she responds after a moment of hesitation and glances back at her sister's portrait. Amaya squeezes her hand and Janai squeezes back.  Thank you, General.

Amaya.

She inclines her head.  Thank you, Amaya.

They're quiet for a moment before Janai's hand slips from hers — Amaya feels a flash of sorrow at the loss of contact — and comes up to sign.

Khessa never married but I knew she fancied Suri; everyone knew even if those two refused to acknowledge each other outside of Khessa's bedchamber. I think she liked it that way, until that moment when she turned and Suri was gone. Aaravos took their body before she had a chance to fight and then she was gone, too. 

Amaya lays a hand on Janai's arm and the elf smiles hollowly.  They used to sneak off, too though. We used to explore these halls as kids so she always knew the best places to hide away in with them; unfortunately, so did I. Catching Suri and Khessa going at it was my talent, I guess.

They both laugh at the image - Amaya can almost see it now; Janai accidentally stumbling into a room she was never meant to find, her sister in a compromising position with her lover, lips swollen and spilling excuses. It's something Amaya remembers well from Sarai; her sister was a soldier, a formidable warrior, but around Harrow and tipsy on wine she turned into a handsy teenager.

I'm sorry they never got a chance to be happy,  Amaya says before she's realizing it and when Janai's eyes slide to the hand laid against her arm, Amaya snatches it back with a flush. 

There's a sort of bitterness in Janai's expression but she looks contemplative.

I know they valued their time together, even if it wasn't as long as either of them wanted. I have to believe they're together, now, somewhere.

The silence now is less heavy between them now and Amaya bites back a satisfied smile when Janai takes her hand. She's just turning to sign something when she spots the wall beyond Janai's shoulder and steps around her. Their hands, still intertwined, pull the elf along too and Amaya grins giddily at her. 

You didn't tell me you had one too!

Janai laughs fully at that, bending at the waist for a moment before she's wiping at her eyes and gazing up beside Amaya.  I didn't think it was important! All Queens get one.

Amaya's eyes roam the painting. It's undeniably and beautifully Janai — dressed in a red dress that looks similar to her grandmother's as she stands tall, gold armor at her shoulders and hips, but where Khessa held a scepter, Janai's hand rests on the sheath at her side. Even Queen Haimi's sword was unsheathed, set in front of her with the blade down but Janai is simply half-turned in the portrait, hand resting but not pulling the weapon.

She knows if she squints she could see the glow of the Sunforge blade, the same one that sliced through the collarbone of her armor all those years ago at the Breach. Amaya's gaze travels from Janai's hand to her arm - plated gold armor again, similar to the ones she wore as Golden Knight but not as sincere — before to her shoulders and finally to her face.

There's a fierce expression on her lips but when Amaya leans forward, she sees the proud twinkle in her eye, the way her lips quirk at the edge with victory. It's an expression Amaya knows well, an expression she could never forget.

The elf steps back, crouched, and Amaya glances down. There's a smoldering cut in her armor, stinking of burning metal and the elf grins mockingly before beckoning her hand, egging Amaya on as the General herself did moments ago.

Amaya attacks against her better judgment. She's never been one to turn down a fight. Unbeknownst to her, the cut in her armor sears deeper until the heat of the blade burrows near her heart in a way she won't recognize until she's raising her shield to complete the barricade and glances back, smiling, just to find Janai already looking at her.

Janai returns the smile. They win the battle   the war. Time marches on.

A wave breaks Amaya out of her own head. She blinks owlishly for a moment and Janai smirks, crossing her arms.  You weren't looking at the art!  she mocks with a grin.

I am.

Janai's breath hitches at that and Amaya steps close enough to feel the heat radiating off the Sunfire Queen. Her heart hammers inside her ribs, teetering on the edge of hopeful and Amaya takes a deep breath, not blinking as she leans close enough to feel Janai's breath on the bow of her lips.

Neither one of them blinks. Amaya's eyes trace the soft planes of Janai's face — a face she knows so well and hasn't even realized until now. While the figure of Janai in the painting is striking it doesn't hold a candle to how the elf flushes deeply when Amaya's eyes snag on her lips.

Their noses bump. Amaya huffs, lungs constricting with the close movement as Janai's eyelids flutter and leans in, leans in,  leans in—

She stops.

Janai's eyes open. For a moment they're both frozen, staring at the other and Amaya swallows thickly.

She will not do anything Janai won’t reciprocate — she’s waited  five years  for this moment. Another split-second of waiting is bearable. 

Janai murmurs something Amaya doesn’t catch in the moment before her hands come up to cup Amaya’s cheeks. She steps impossibly closer until their bodies line up, almost touching, like they were meant to be and Amaya can only blink dumbly at her - eyes darting from Janai’s amber eyes to the alluring wine-drunk seam of her lips. They’re flushed already, parted with how Janai stutters to breathe and Amaya’s head spins with the effort of restraining herself. 

When Janai’s tongue darts across her lips, wetting then, Amaya’s resolve weakens. She knows how positively  wrecked  she must look already — chest heaving, pupils dark, flush working down her neck and across her collarbones. (Suddenly, she is all too grateful by the high collar of her tunic.) It all crescendos wonderfully when Janai’s palm settles gently on her cheek and the warmth of her palms burrows pleasantly beneath Amaya’s skin and she sighs languidly. Drunk on something more intoxicating than rich red wine, something headier and far potent, the buzz from her head slithers down the curved knots of her spine to settle between the crux of her thighs and she bites back a groan as her eyes flutter. 

Janai’s eyes burn lustfully across where her top teeth have sunk into her lip. If Amaya is flushed, than Janai is simply awash with a staining blush across her entire body, a thought that sends a jolt through Amaya’s stomach. 

The movement tugs her forward without her knowledge until she’s inevitably pressed further against Janai as the elf gives her one last lingering look before she bridges the gap between them in a single, swift movement. 

At the first touch of their lips, Amaya’s knees threaten to give out and she grasps urgently at Janai’s shoulders as if she's deprived of the contact. Her fingers brush the golden upside-down suns painted on either of Janai’s upper arms and the elf shudders magnificently under her touch. A gasp floats between them — from who she doesn’t know — and Amaya falls head-long gratefully. Janai’s lips are just as warm as the rest of her, soft and red like a ribbon, perfectly parted to fit Amaya’s. She tastes of the glass of wine Amaya watched her drink before the dancefloor and the tang of sweat that shone on her upper lip as she dipped Amaya in front of the entire Gala, breathing heavily, face and arms flushed beautifully. 

It’s  perfect

Amaya leans desperately closer. As if amplified by their proximity, Amaya swears the air around them wavers with heat as Janai tilts her head and deepens the kiss. Amaya kisses back with the same heated fervor, tilting her head as she melts into Janai's lips.

When Amaya tentatively swipes her tongue over the sultry seam of the elf's lips, Janai doesn't hesitate to let her in. The inside of Janai's mouth is just as searing as the rest of her but it's gentle enough that it both soothes and stokes the fire deep in Amaya's belly into a roar, a wildfire.

She hadn't realized they were moving until her back hits the wall and the moment breaks. When Amaya looks up through arousal-lidden eyes, Janai is staring back at her, not blinking, both of their chests heaving so that they almost touch.

Neither one of them says anything but then Amaya is nodding, wrapping her arms around Janai's neck, and it's the only sign either of them needs.

Yes.

Janai's swooping down to capture her lips with an intensity Amaya responds with. It's almost a battle; their teeth scraping together, swallowing each other's ragged breaths, noses bumping and hands roaming. When Janai presses close, trapping her against the wall Amaya pushes back, raising herself up to her tiptoes to claw at her shoulders. The Sunfire elf follows her line of thought quickly, driving her up the wall until Amaya wraps her legs around Janai's hips.

Then she  hoists  her into the air.

She'll never admit to how she  squeaks  when Janai's hipbone thrusts to the space within Amaya's spread thighs, slotted perfectly between. Even with Janai's lips claiming her own, she hears the sound and grins wickedly against Amaya's swollen mouth. 

By the way Janai's fingers dig into the soft skin of Amaya's thighs where she holds her aloft, Amaya knows she isn't alone in the blistering lightning that's coursing through her. Every slide of their lips together sends another wave of goosebumps and heat down her spine, pooling where Janai has fit her hips between Amaya's legs, pressed to the crux, and Amaya can't help the groan that drips out when Janai takes her lower lip between two teeth.

She's glad Janai's supporting her, then, because Amaya's entire body turns to jelly.

Amaya nips at Janai's top lip in weak retaliation and Janai's vibrating moan rolls through Amaya's entire body, coaxing a long moan out of her. At the response, Janai pushes ever-closer until every line of their bodies is crushed together and Amaya's legs are tightening around her; the motion squeezing Janai's hips to Amaya's and they both exhale shakily into the other's mouth at it.

The spinning in Amaya's head isn't from the alcohol, or Janai, but a burning for air so she breaks the kiss breathlessly and sucks in large pants. Her fingertips scramble across Janai's back and shoulders, fisting in the fabric, as instead of taking a break as she is Janai instead latches onto her jawline.

Amaya can do nothing but hold onto Janai as she licks and nips at her jawline. Only the vibrations in her throat let Amaya know she's moaning freely into the empty hallway around them and when Janai hesitates for a split-second before biting down at the middle of her neck, Amaya's hands bury themselves in her braids and  tug.

It's Janai's turn to pant and Amaya melts into the fervent heaves against the sensitive skin of her neck. Janai doesn't stop there, though — her lips span the expanse of Amaya's pale neck, kissing every inch and following closely with her tongue, nipping whenever Amaya gasps and soothing it with a lathing lick a moment later.  

Cradling Janai's head in her hands, Amaya suddenly  despises  the high neckline of her shift. All at once it's too hot inside the stifling fabric, even worse than in the ballroom despite the chill of the empty corridor and Amaya forcefully breaks Janai's lips from her pulse point.

Janai's eyes are dark and blown-wide when she looks up at her, lips swollen and slick and Amaya shivers at the sight. Janai looks uncertain abruptly, lowering her feet back to the ground with the nervous thought that Amaya's changed her mind but Amaya shakes her head and grabs at her hips.

She makes sure Janai isn't going to leave before letting go.  Okay,  she signs as she inhales heavily, trying in vain to catch her breath but the heat between her thighs and coursing through her veins seems to have permanently stolen it.  Move. Alone, now.

Although she's incapable of forming full sentences, Janai has always been able to understand her perfectly and the doubt disappears from her eyes. This time, though, when she leans in and Amaya meets her halfway, the kiss is softer, slower. It's no less passionate but rounded around the edges, communicating all the longing thoughts and lingering looks from the past five years and Janai gasps into her mouth for a different reason.

Amaya relishes in it.  

They stumble around the corridor. While the kisses start off as quick pecks they grow longer until they're both gasping for breath again, right back to where they were when Amaya's boots dug into the small of Janai's back and Janai bit bruises into Amaya's neck. Already the bite marks are starting to darken, shadowed by the General's jawline and Janai can't help but lean down to chastely kiss them. 

Amaya pants heavily, eyes fluttering closed at the sensation. Blood rushes through her ears, all of it pooling either at the teeth-indented bruises littering her neck above her dress' collar or the space between her thighs and Amaya  aches. 

She wasn't kidding — she can barely contain her fingers from creeping under Janai's clothing and relishing in the elf's vibrating moans as she does so. For not the first time, Amaya is grateful the halls are empty because she's never been one for patience and every second they're not behind closed doors Amaya grows a bit closer to stripping  right fucking here.

The fire beneath her skin is raging higher with every minute and it's beginning to burn away any last shred of decency Amaya's ever clung to.

She wants Janai alone and she wants here there  now.

Janai must sense her frustration at being torn between being kissed senseless and finding a room because she's reaching down and sliding her hands slowly to Amaya's backside. Amaya groans at the slow progression of warm hands down her back and eagerly wraps her legs around Janai's waist when the hands settle on her thighs, skipping over her ass.

Plenty of time for that later,  Amaya thinks to herself and buries her face in Janai's neck. With Janai's hands holding her against her body as she secrets them towards wherever her bedchamber is, Amaya is free to lathe her affection over sepia skin.

Pale hands roam the bare skin of Janai's bare arms as she nibbles on the fully-exposed neck before her and Janai's throat hums with her moans. There's a stutter to her step when she turns the corner, the offset of her step sending the two off-balance and slamming Amaya's back into the wall.

It knocks the breath out of her and in her surprise, she bites down  hard  on the skin near Janai's skin.

The growl that vibrates through the elf at that makes Amaya's head spin. One hand disappears from underneath her to lay against her back and after a moment, starts to the inch the fabric upwards. Being as tight-fitting as it is, it doesn't go very far and Janai groans, frustrated.

Amaya chuckles into her mouth but it's dripping with arousal. They need a room and they need it  now  or she knows they'll do something they'll both regret after.

Room,  she signs and pushes Janai's chest away so the kiss breaks.  Room. Don't care where.

Janai's eyes gleam after a moment of thought.  Close by,  she mouths and Amaya clings to her as she takes down the hall. Dimly, Amaya thinks how ridiculous they must look — the General of the Standing Batallion's leg wrapped around the Sunfire Queen's waist as the monarch feels up her ass, both of them with rumpled hair and wrinkled clothes.

Amaya is really,  really  thankful they're alone. 

Janai stops at a shadowy doorway and as close to being alone as they are, Amaya nibbles at the dark bruise on her neck from where she'd bitten down before. The Sunfire elf trembles for a moment as if her knees are going to give out and she yanks Amaya's mouth back to hers as she fumbles the door open.

The room is dark except for the beams of moonlight across the floor and Amaya doesn't  care.  Janai kicks the door closed behind her and strides to the middle of the room before letting go of Amaya completely.

With a squeal, Amaya drops onto some soft surface — probably a chaise — but every rational thought flies out the window the moment Janai's body follows and with the realization they're completely alone, Amaya lets herself go.

Wandering hands find places to linger. Janai's lips are just as warm and soft against hers, if not a little more swollen and slick than their first kiss in the hallway but Amaya doesn't care. With the door between them and anyone out wandering the halls at this time of night, Janai's own hands have gotten brave.

Amaya's head spins when Janai's hand settles on her ribs, over her tunic, and her thumb slides ghosts over the slope of Amaya's breast.

When Amaya inhales heavily, Janai pulls back from the kiss. She's hovering above Amaya on the chaise, one knee on either side of her hips and a hand planted near Amaya's neck to keep her above and Amaya heaves from her place on her back. For a heady moment, they simply watch the other as Janai's right hand lays splayed against her ribs.

Janai doesn't look away and doesn't stop her ministrations on Amaya's side. They're both still fully clothed but in the dark, only illuminated by moonlight, it feels more intimate than if they were completely naked.

Amaya all but trembles underneath her gaze but when she sees Janai is as well, her heartbeat soothes. They're both so new to this but they're  together  and that's what matters in the end. Amaya wouldn't have it any other way.

A thought forms in the back of her head and Amaya reaches for Janai's hand with shaking fingers—

Janai sucks in a sharp gasp. Amaya's hand wraps around the wrist of the hand on her thighs and then she's dragging Janai's palm upwards, over the swell of her breast and the dip of her collarbone, past the base of her neck to settle—

To settle—

Amaya's eyes never leave hers even as she lays Janai's palm against the skin under her jawline. Janai nods, barely able to breathe through the heat that spikes through her and Amaya leads Janai's fingers to slip between the overlapping fabric that makes up her tunic.

When the first button pops open, Janai can't stop herself.

One knee moves from the outside of Amaya's hip to press up between her thighs, pressing Janai closer and Amaya moans languidly as Janai leans forward and takes the newly-exposed piece of skin into her mouth. Head spinning, Janai licks and nibbles at her neck even as her fingers are already traveling to the next button aided by Amaya's guiding hand.

Her nose presses to Amaya's skin — usually so cool but now feverishly warm — and Janai shivers when a thrill goes through her as she reaches the base of Amaya's neck. Every button makes a dull sound as she undoes it, spreading the two flaps of fabric aside with care before lathing her tongue over each patch of exposed skin and Janai unwraps Amaya like a present.

Amaya's hands, though, are not idle either. As Janai kisses down the column of her neck, hands buried in the dark waves on either side of her face, Amaya traces Janai's side with pressing hands. They're insistent and Janai grins when she bites down on Amaya's pulse point and the woman's hands fly to her hips, gripping.

The fingers flex, indenting the soft skin of Janai's hips as Janai lathes her tongue over the sore spot. She leans back to admire her work and captures Amaya's lips for a sweet kiss before — holding her gaze — pops open the next button down. Janai watches Amaya's breath hitch as the fabric falls open, exposing creamy pale collarbones to the moonlight-lit room. Janai lathes her tongue over each protruding bone, fingers working quickly to unbutton the rest of Amaya's tunic as she nips at the peaks. The tunic falls to either side revealing planes and planes of smooth skin above the hem of her trousers and breast bindings and Janai thinks amusedly she's just unwrapped her favorite present.

For a moment all she can do is stare. Amaya is laid out beneath her, smiling softly, and a hand cradles her cheek. Janai leans her head into the touch for a moment before she's moving downward, scraping her teeth across the skin above Amaya's breast bindings and Amaya shudders beneath her. 

When Janai's lip brushes the cotton fabric, though, she slows.

Amaya looks down at her and nods.  Go,  her eyes seem to say and Amaya is the one to reach around when Janai hesitates and unravel her ties. She props herself up on her elbows and Janai watches, transfixed, as the cloths fall away into her lap.

She's  beautiful.  Janai doesn't realize she's said such out loud until Amaya flushes and leans back into the pillows.

The blush on her cheeks doesn't stop at her face, though, and Janai reaches out a tentative hand to follow the path it burns. She follows the flush down Amaya's neck, across her chest, stretching to the peaks of her breasts— 

Illuminated by the moonlight and completely bare from the waist-up, Amaya  glows.  Awestruck, Janai doesn't realize she's reached out until her hand ghosts around the slope of Amaya's left breast and the General groans, sinking into the warmth of her palm.

Janai maps every inch of her skin with her fingertips. Amaya is ticklish, she finds — she dips her hand into the low contours of her stomach and around the sides of her high waist and Amaya squirms in a way that isn't arousal, light laughter dripping off her lips. Eager to taste her General's laughter, Janai leans up to kiss her gently.

Somewhere between the corridor and this chaise,  the  General became  her  General and Janai finds she likes the sound of it.

Amaya's lips are warm from their previous kisses and she sighs happily into Janai's mouth. It's slow, soft, just lips against lips and nothing more, and Janai drags her hand back up to the skin just below Amaya's breasts — the one part of her upper body she hasn't touched yet.

Her hand stops. Amaya whines impatiently into her mouth, rolling her hips so that her chest presses upwards but Janai keeps her hand where it is. The next time their lips part to suck in air, though, she plants a kiss on the corner of Amaya's mouth and works downward from there.

Amaya's hands fly to her hair. Janai smiles at the sensation of Amaya burying her long fingers in her braids, not guiding her lips but joining them instead and Janai kisses the purpling bruises on the side of her neck sweetly. That earns another low moan, a roll of Amaya's hips against the chaise and Janai doesn't linger this time.

She pauses right before her mouth reaches where Amaya's breast bindings pressed into the skin and instead of continuing, kisses the pink line. Amaya's chest stutters with the weight of her frustrated sigh and Janai lets her lower lip drag along the seam for a moment before shifting.

Janai slips her knees between Amaya's thighs and presses her lips chastely to the hem of her trousers. Amaya's stomach rolls beneath her with her moans and Janai works her way  up  this time, kissing each line of her abdomen and the scars that litter it, skirting around her belly button and tracing the gentle curves of her hips and waist.

By the time she's reached the skin beneath Amaya's breasts —  again  — her lover is panting headily, hips working in not-so-subtle but unconscious circles against the chaise. Her head is thrown back, ears and neck flushed, hair a mess and her pupils are blown wide when Janai taps her pointer finger to her hip to get her attention.

The evidence that Amaya's literally  trembling  in anticipation of her touch sends lightning coursing down Janai's spine. Teasingly slow, enough that Amaya almost growls at her, Janai dips her head and — still holding her General's gaze — presses a closed-mouth kiss to the peak of her breast.

Amaya's long, relieved sigh deflates her chest as Janai kisses the other just as sweetly. Then, still staring up at the woman laid out beneath her, Janai closes her lips around her left nipple, rolling her tongue around the bud before creating a seal and  sucks.

The response is immediate. Amaya's hips jump as her back arches severely, so pent up that the sensation of Janai's tongue circling her nipple while being trapped inside the wet heat of her mouth sends her flying wildly over the edge. Dimly, Amaya registers that she's crying out hoarsely as she shakes and quivers in Janai's arms, mouth open in a silent pant as she comes down off the high in a silent pant that gets stick somewhere between her lungs and tongue.

Her whole world goes  white.

Janai watches Amaya come apart beneath her. Shaking arms claw at her shoulders and Janai kisses up the side of her neck as she shudders and gasps her way down from the cliff edge that  Janai  sent her careening over.

It fills her with a lustful pride — watching Amaya come because of  her.  Even as her entire body quakes Janai presses close and holds her, peppering kisses across her cheeks and against her hairline, ending with a peck to the tip of her nose as Amaya's spasms become nothing more than small quivers.

Welcome back,  she signs smugly when Amaya's unwound her arms from Janai's neck. Through lidded, blissed-out eyelids Amaya glares half-heartedly in a way that's ruined by the satiated smile on her face and Janai can't help but lean down and kiss.  Good?

Great,  Amaya signs with still-shaking fingers and Janai feels her leg hook around her waist before the world turns on its axis and  her  back hits the chaise instead. Janai blinks as Amaya grins victoriously, perched on her thighs, before she leans down to brush her lips over the seam of Janai's.

The tables have turned. Janai lifts her head from the pillows to kiss back with more pressure but Amaya clicks her tongue, turning her head away so Janai falls back into the chaise.

She's not  too  upset though — Amaya leaning forward like this makes her breasts drag across the front of Janai's dress and Janai sucks in a sharp breath at the dull sensation but it's enough to light every nerve in her body on fire.

Every nerve that wasn't  already  smoldering.

Amaya sits up to settle herself against the firm skin of Janai's lower abdomen and Janai cups her hips, thumbing her finger across the curves. For a moment they just stay there; staring at each other in the moonlight before Amaya grins. 

My turn.

Janai swallows thickly at the words, a motion which Amaya must catch because her smile turns shit-eating and she's leaning back down to kiss the dark column of Janai's neck. Pinned down by Amaya's body weight as she is, Janai can do nothing but moan as Amaya mirrors her earlier ministrations against her. 

Suddenly Janai  gets it. 

When Amaya slips her dress off one shoulder and then the other, kissing each marking that lies there before moving inwards, Janai  gets it.  When Janai exhales shakily as Amaya's hand fondles the slope of her breast through her dress material until she presses a thumb to the erect nipple as she nibbles at her earlobe and Janai's vision goes white and starry —  she gets it.

As Amaya collapses on her after, kissing the sweaty skin of Janai's collarbone as their chests press together and they both drift off, Janai  gets it.  She gets the stories her mother told her of her grandmother's grand love, the looks shared between Khessa and Suri when no one was looking, the clasp of Callum and Rayla's hands on the dancefloor as they spun circles around the other, four intertwined with five.

Although she dares not say it, Janai recognizes it.  Love.

She kisses Amaya's forehead; the only skin she can reach, and closes her eyes. It's been  five years.  They deserve some rest.

Amaya's shifting makes Janai open her eyes.  Tired already, My Radiance?

It's 'Your Radiance,' Janai chuckles and Amaya's lips quirk knowingly.

I know. That's what I said.

Janai wraps her arms around the woman, clutching her against her body and buries her face in her hair. Since the end of the war, Amaya's begun to grow her hair out. Years ago, on the back of Janai's griffin flying towards the Storm Spire, Janai had asked her about the close cropping of her hair.

"Your hair," Janai says around the third hour into their flight. It is silent, eerily  —  and Janai's chest is hollow. She wonders if striking up a conversation with her...companion will fill the emptiness in her stomach and stop her mind from replaying the moment Khessa fell over the edge, screaming, too far away to catch, always too far — 

Amaya's eyebrows crease. When her gloved hand comes up to tug at the fringe around her eye, Janai huffs. Too bad she didn't bring Kazi along; their help would've been invaluable.

If Janai thinks too long about their jumbled-together plan, she'll go mad so instead she nods. "Your hair  —  why is it short?"

She knew soldiers that preferred short hair in her force for combat reasons but something nags at her, telling her that Amaya's shorn hair isn't for convenience. Janai searches through the saddlebags and produces a short roll of parchment and a piece of charcoal, turning on the saddle so that Amaya can see her lips properly.

Until the two of them either reunite with Kazi, Amaya's interpreter from her Batallion or Janai learns the finger-spelled language, they're reliant on writing. Janai hands the paper over and after a moment, Amaya smooths the parchment over her thigh and begins to write.

The air whips past them, ruffling the corners of the parchment and Janai watches Amaya's face as she writes. The human General's face is softer in daylight rather than illuminated by the harsh shadows of the fire cell in Lux Aurea and Janai studies the curve of her shoulders. If not for having seen her without her armor, Janai would think she is a formidable, unflinching warrior but underneath it all Amaya is the same as her  —  simply a human rather than elf. Her petite shoulders carry the weight of her people just like Janai's now do and while the armor cuts an impressive figure, Janai thinks dimly she prefers the woman without.

She blinks. Amaya is smiling a bit bitterly, holding out the parchment for Janai to read. She takes it.

I lost my sister too,  she's written and Janai looks up sharply, half-tempted to shove the parchment back at Amaya but Amaya simply nods, motioning for her to continue.  In my family, in my culture, we cut our hair after the loss of a loved one. Sarai was the love of my life, my older sister, the sword in my hand as much as I was the shield in hers. When we lost her, I was hurt. There was nothing I could do. I only heard about it after. I was a warrior, she was my sister, and I couldn't save her in the end. I haven't let it grow out since.

"So you keep it short to honor her?" Janai ponders when she looks up.

Amaya nods, motioning for the parchment back and Janai hands it over. The General only scribbles a single line this time before holding it out and Janai's eyes skip over the words.

I keep it short because I miss her. When I am happy again, as I was with her, then I'll let it be.

Janai had swallowed thickly, handing the paper back and turning on the saddle. The sky had stretched infintely in front of them and they rode in silence until the Storm Spire loomed in the distance.

They hadn't had time to talk after that.

Amaya taps her cheek and Janai blinks, jarred from the memory.  You're smiling. What are you thinking about?

You,  Janai points simply and chuckles at how the woman's eyebrows crease.

Me?

Your hair,  she corrects and spins a loose curl around her finger.  About how you told me once you wouldn't grow it out again until you're happy.

She looks away when she signs it — it is not her place to ask, after all, even if she craves to, wishes to see Amaya's brown eyes light up as she does when she smiles widely, a smile meant for  Janai  only in the still darkness of the drawing room but Janai knows she can't take credit for any happiness Amaya feels.

A thumb presses to her chin, fingers curling underneath and Janai startles. Amaya turns her head and smiles softly, other hand coming up.

I am happy,  she simply signs and leans in. Their lips brush and Janai sighs, melting into the touch, hands coming to rest against the curves of Amaya's hips. Her eyes are so close to being shut that she almost misses how Amaya's fingers move.

You make me happy.

Janai —  Janai, makes her happy.  She knows she isn't the singular source of Amaya's newfound happiness since the war's end; she has her nephews, Rayla, Gren, her soldiers and friends back home, but Janai takes what she can get, reciveing what she's given.

She leans up to capture Amaya's lips, drawing her back down until every line of their body is pressed together again. When they break for air, foreheads coming to rest against each other's as they gaze into each other's eyes, Janai grins softly.

You make me happy, too,  she signs and the moment Amaya's eyes break from her hands to her face, she's cupping Janai's cheeks and pulling her back in, flipping their bodies.

Janai will follow Amaya anywhere and she's no happier than when Amaya is beneath her, legs wrapped around her hips and drawing her in for another searing kiss. She knows suddenly they will not leave this room anytime soon, and swipes her tongue over Amaya's lips. There's no hesitation in how Amaya opens her mouth, inviting her in.

Even as Janai's tongue slips into Amaya's mouth and her hands explore her body again, Janai knows this moment goes far beyond any kind of sexual feelings — Amaya's let her map the upper part of her body, every dip and curve of her skin and Janai the same — but it goes deeper than that, more  intimate.

They've let each other in and Janai knows she wouldn't have it any other way.

By the way Amaya peers up at her through lidded eyes, gasping from the kiss but eyes gleaming in ways that Janai now understands, she knows Amaya shares the sentiment without saying a word.

Suddenly every moment from the last five years is worth it — the long, lingering looks she thought went unnoticed, the brushing of their hands when they walked together, the blushes on cheeks before turning away. It was there the whole time and Janai is determined not to waste a single second more.

Amaya's legs tighten around her, drawing her impossibly closer, and her answer is in the shape of her lips.

Yes.