Relative disclaimers apply. The theme song for this story is, of course, "Breathe" by Faith Hill. A million thanks to Deirdre for the Norse terms, and to Rosemary and Lynne for their invaluable input.


Breathe


by Rachel


Chill pewter clouds choked the sky and loomed threateningly over the delicate seaside cottage. Inside, however, all was warm, fire-lit, and soothing. Romelle lay back in the bath, enjoying the steaming water and taking sensual delight in the way it cocooned and warmed her weary limbs.

There were, she thought, quite a few perks to be found in having for a lover the grandson of a witch-and then laughed when she tried to envision Sven's reaction should she ever broach the idea to him. Most likely he would smile that odd little half-smile that somehow encompassed everything from undying affection to serene indulgence of all her mad schemes-and shake his head. She sighed. She suspected it would take quite a jolt to release Sven from his present state of self-deprecating modesty. She knew in his heart he did not any more believe he was anything less than her equal in worth and station, and yet- She cast her glance about the bathroom and giggled as a new thought amused her that, based upon material belongings, Sven probably came with a more impressive dowry than she could ever hope to offer-if such archaic practices still existed. Pollux was a poor world, struggling to dig its way out of the wreckage years of corrupt government and war had wrought. Here- She ran her fingertips over the sleek wet marble and jade of the bathtub. Here was another universe entirely. Here she was completely at peace. Here, where there was no one to threaten her, she was better guarded, felt safer and more secure than ever she had on Pollux. Even the flames that flickered brightly in the fireplace to her right bore a charm that diminished the smoke and prevented their going out should Romelle fall asleep in the tub-which she was wont to do during her convalescence.

Ironically, that was the one thing that prevented her from being utterly happy in this place so far away from her home: Sven…and his reaction to her illness. It had taken her almost a week to recover from that mad flight from Paxa to Earth. The only thought in her mind had been to reach Sven as quickly as possible. Somehow she had forgotten she should also be taking care of herself. She had barely eaten, had slept not more than two hours a night-and only then at Hunk's sharp urging-during the four-day flight. So when at last she reached Sven-in that dreamlike, crystal moment when she stood before him in Trondheim Spaceport after so many long, agonizing days-all the strength that had brought her so far abruptly gave out and she had wilted completely. For four days following she had been too weak to leave the bed Sven and his grandmother, the witch Yukiko "Hoshi" Shirogane, had set aside for her in Hoshi's cottage by the sea. She had slept-and dreamed some of the wildest, weirdest dreams in all her life-and been forced to swallow all sorts of herbal remedies from Hoshi's garden. And Sven had fluttered about her-it amused her now, to think of him fluttering, though it hadn't, then-nervous as though she were made of glass and likely to break at the slightest touch. He blamed himself.

"I should never have left you at Paxa," he had said in a ragged voice the first time she had been well enough to sit up and converse.

"And if I hadn't treated you so monstrously," she had snapped back, annoyed, "you'd never have left." She was grumpy, tired of lying in bed all day, and longing for the intimacy her illness had denied her. She glared at him across the expanse of her bed.

"I promised I'd protect you." Turning away…

"Maybe," she'd said in a low, waspish tone, to his hunched shoulders, "it's not your protection I want so much as your body." She had meant to say "your love", but the instant before the word came out she'd decided it might be more productive to wrangle with him, just a little. It hadn't been.

"I'm yours," he'd said, simply, and leaned over to kiss her. And she'd been too weak to throw her arms around his neck and draw him down into the passionate embrace she desired. So, sadly, she'd desisted.

If she hadn't known him so well, that exchange might have worried her. But she knew his hesitation had nothing do with any diminishment in his love for her. He was still Sven-attentive, considerate, wonderful. The instant she had been well enough to walk out of doors he had whisked her away on a slow, gentle tour of his favorite parts of his homeland. It had taken as little time for her to fall in love with the country as it had for her to fall in love with the man. She had been charmed by the old, solid feel of the cobblestone streets that meandered through the smaller towns. The high, jagged fjords and the raw, misty seacoasts had filled her heart with a longing for romance and adventure that she could not quite explain. She had asked Sven, only half joking, if foreigners tended to become drunk on the crisp, slightly briny air that filled her lungs at the high altitudes. He had laughed and assured her that natives were not immune either, but she had seen in his eyes how her rapture had touched him.

He showed her the towns, introduced her to his Norwegian friends-who had embraced her like a long-lost daughter. ("Well, you do look more Norwegian than I do," he'd said with a smile as she'd described animatedly the warm welcome the folk had given her after she'd gamely attempted a few halting greetings in Norske.) He'd laughed openly and loudly at the hideous faces she'd made the first time he'd convinced her to try snofrisk, a white cheese spread made from goat's milk. After watching her splutter, and dodging her furious little fists, he'd mollified her forever with a surprise gift of Freia chocolates, and a box of the cloudberries she'd already acquired a bit of an addiction to. When she grew weary, and if it was not raining, he would lead her to the little seaside cliffs only he and the grey seabirds seemed to know. There they would sit on his spread-out jacket on the cool grass, his arms tight about her shoulders, watching the sun drift away beyond the horizon, listening to the breeze whistling through the trees and the crash of waves far below.

It was heaven…but for one thing.

Angel, she had thought of him, even before she knew exactly what the term meant. (She'd studied, when she'd had the inclination, the myths and legends of the various civilized worlds in the Twin Galaxies, and had read briefly of such things.) Angelic he was, though he bore scant resemblance to the chubby-cheeked, dove-winged babies she'd seen in illustrations, or to the ethereally beautiful, golden-haired seraphs she's also read about-but for one thing. He would not touch her. Not in the way she wanted to be touched.

He kissed her softly when they were alone together, and he held her hand, kept his arm about her waist as they walked through the towns and over the hills. But whenever she hinted (and with rapidly decreasing subtlety) that she would like a bit more, he shied away, those long, beautiful raven lashes sweeping down to shadow his midnight blue eyes, his pale cheeks dusting crimson. He never quite offered an explanation for his behavior, but she understood him well enough. To give in to her wiles would be to declare the misunderstanding that had almost torn them apart forgiven and forgotten. And that he could not do, not when they still had to stop every twenty minutes during their exploration of the countryside so that she could catch her breath, not when he knew dreams of losing him forever still haunted her nights. She had suffered visibly from their separation, while he had not, and for that he had to atone.

"So I must suffer, too," she thought crossly. "Unfortunately, if I put it to him that way, he'll never even look at me, again!" Her expression softened abruptly. "Oh, my love," she murmured, gazing at the flickering firelight. "Grovel once, and then carry me away! I don't regret anything that brought me to you."

She had thought, in the beginning, that Sven's hesitation might have to do with Lotor and Brashia. Even here, the memory of the Prince of Doom's brutality terrified her. If Sven was with her, or his grandmother, or his sisters, she had nothing to fear. But at times when she was alone-such as now-then she still felt vulnerable if she thought about what had happened…even knowing in her heart her enemies could not find her here. She shuddered and slid into the hot water up to the base of her neck, her body gone suddenly cold at the memory of Lotor's cold, contemptuous smirk as he forced himself into her again and again… vNo! No, no-that was over, done. Forever. On Altea she had not thought about the past. It was only since that idiot Brashia had tried so ineptly to claim her hand that her old fears had resurfaced, to be compounded by Sven's insane anxiety over hurting her. "Idiot," she thought, as much at herself as at her absent lover. It had been hard-very hard-to go to him that first time, to open herself to him. He knew he had her heart and she knew how much he loved her. Still, those long nervous minutes, standing before his closed bedchamber door on Altea, in her borrowed robe, her wet hair clinging to her throat, had almost dashed her courage. What if…she had thought, her hand poised over the locking mechanism… What if it did hurt, even though it was Sven? If there were even the slightest discomfort, she feared she would freeze. The memories of Lotor would return and she would not be able to go through with it and Sven-Sven would know. And he would understand…but he would be hurt, too, and so deeply. But it had not hurt-not one bit. The past had fallen from her like a chrysalis the moment he had looked up to see her standing there, and once he caught her up in his arms, she forgot there had ever been anything to fear. It had, rather, been-perfect. Sven was as ardent and passionate in his lovemaking as he was in everything he did, but gentle also, and so tender it stopped her breath.

She missed the intimacy. However darlingly he acted toward her now, it was not his whole heart he was showing her. There was a leash on his emotions, one forged of self-accusation and regret. She would snap that leash. Boldly she lifted her head and straightened her shoulders. "I fear nothing," she said heavily. "What's done is done." Ah, Sven, when will you realize what we do is the opposite of what he did to me?

Outside the cottage the clouds were breaking. Grey rain hissed against the glass in the window and the trees in the yard writhed in the wind. Romelle regarded the storm with a level gaze, her chin high. She could not stare down the storm-nor had she any inclination to. She shrugged, tossed her hair, and returned to her bath. From a little plastic basket at the side of the tub she drew a small bottle and, smiling and inhaling deeply, flicked it open and poured its contents into the steaming water with abandon. Replacing the bottle, she plucked up a sponge and a bar of scented soap, and relaxed against the slippery back of the tub, enjoying the scent of lavender and vanilla as it rose to her nostrils from the water.

She had a plan.

Her morning shopping trip to Oslo with Sven's sisters had proved extraordinarily fruitful. Not only had she replenished her wardrobe (her knack for setting off on an adventure and neglecting to bring with her a single change of clothes had become a joke between her and Sven) and discovered a boutique that carried a close approximation of her favorite scent, but she had found in Sven's eldest sister, Mariana, a friend and ally. While the two younger sisters, Nora and Greta, disappeared into their favorite record store, Mariana, who knew some degree of Romelle's dilemma, caught the princess by the wrist and pulled her, laughing girlishly, into a lingerie boutique across the corridor.

"Men," she had said, her dark blue eyes flashing knowingly while Romelle gaped at the flimsy undergarments about her, "sometimes need a little prodding. No matter how charming we are, there are times when only a good slug in the face-or other parts, in this case-will bring them to their senses." Then she set to work.

While Romelle, still at a loss for words (half the items on the shelves and hangers around her would be deemed unsuitable by even the most liberal of Polluxians), tried to picture the stunning Mariana Bjørnsen ever requiring sleazy undergarments to bewitch a man, the other young woman tore through the store like a whirlwind, seizing items and tossing them at Romelle. When she'd made a suitable pile she shoved Romelle in the direction of the fitting room. "I'll be out here," she'd said. "Or in the next stall, trying things on. Let me know how it goes. And don't you dare be modest. Get something that will knock the accent right off the boy."

While Romelle stood, red-faced, in the dressing room before a full-length mirror, the pile of garments still untouched at her feet, she'd called out, hesitantly, "Mariana…why are you doing this?"

She'd heard the other girl's laugh floating to her through the partition to her right: "Because I love my brother and he loves you. And I want to see him happy." And in that instant Romelle did what everyone seemed to do inevitably; she lost her heart to Sven's sister.

It did not take Romelle long to cast aside her inhibitions. At first she'd had some difficulty, maneuvering herself into an intricately laced scarlet slip, the completely sheer fabric of which covered about a hand span of her skin. She shook her head at her reflection and her cheeks went nearly as red as the slip. "But he has seen me in much less," she reminded herself. Still, she couldn't control her blush as she found herself trying vainly to pull the front of the slip a little farther up over her breasts.

Unfortunately, that hoisted the bottom a little too high for her comfort. She giggled despite herself and pulled the slip back down over her thighs. "Sven," she purred at her reflection and cocked her hip provocatively. Another giggle escaped her lips as she surveyed her ridiculous posture. "If he sees me in this he'd probably swallow his tongue." She thought for a moment, then added, with a laugh, "And I would be very disappointed if he did!"

After that it became much easier. She actually had fun and managed to find a racy emerald slip of softest silk that would stir Sven's lust-but not induce congestive heart failure. The slip clung loosely to her hips as she twirled before the dressing room mirror, grinning in sheer girlish delight. The deep V-neckline emphasized the fullness of her curves, but the delicate cream-colored lace that lined the neckline and the hem preserved some of her modesty. The rich color brought out the vivid blue of her eyes and the rosiness in her skin perfectly. She and Mariana had left the store giggling and plotting like a pair of master criminals.

The slip lay waiting for her on the bed she shared with Sven. Her plan was to be clean and in it by the time he returned from work-which would be soon, she calculated, though she'd lost track of the time since slipping into the tub. He would enter the cottage cold and wet and tired, and there she would be, fresh and sweet-smelling as a blossom in her scandalous little slip, a flask of hot saké in her hand and two cups waiting by the softly made bed. Smiling, she poured a generous amount of shampoo into her cupped hand and began to scrub it into her hair.

It was lovely of Hoshi to lend them her cottage during their stay on Terra. The bathroom, with its spacious tub and unending supply of hot water (courtesy of an underground hotspring and the ingenious engineering of Sven's architect father) delighted Romelle. At first she'd felt guilty, forcing an old woman out of her home-though Nora and Greta had been ecstatic that their beloved grandmother was to live with them in Oslo for a time. But Hoshi had insisted and at the time Romelle had still been too weak to argue. Sven had fewer qualms and Romelle had to wonder jealously if he hadn't, in the past, brought other girlfriends to this cottage while Hoshi was away. Mariana had once made a remark that roused her suspicion. She had not asked him, however. Their truce had been too fragile then.

Maybe she would ask him, she thought fiercely, as she dug into her shampoo-covered scalp with her short nails. Not tonight, obviously, but in time… Her jealousy, she knew, was irrational. He loved her. He could have had a hundred girlfriends and that would not change her security in his love. Still… She wanted to wait until he was completely ensnared. Ensnared. She did not like the word. She did not want him as her captive-as Mariana had teased-she just wanted to bring him to his senses. Give him a jolt. Surprise him.

So wrapped up was she in her scheming and grooming that she did not hear the door to the cottage open. Rolf, the Bjørnsens' faithful, very mangy Norwegian elkhound, had been brought back to Oslo earlier by Greta and Nora, so that Romelle and Sven could be completely alone, so he was not there to alert her with his barking. With the shampoo still in her hair, her eyes were closed, and she was halfway through the fourth stanza of a very long--and bawdy--song her nanna used to sing long ago (when she thought Romelle was not listening), when she heard the muffled crunch of footfalls. They were coming from the kitchen-where she'd left heating the saké and a Japanese-style meal she had picked up with Mariana! She bit her lip and sat straight up, her hands poised over her hair. Footsteps came closer, and then,

"Romelle?"

Frantically, she cast about. How could she have so lost track of the time? What was he doing home so early? So much for her surprise! In a moment he would pass by the bedroom and find the emerald slip. Her hair was still full of suds; there was no time for her to rinse it, dry herself, and make a mad dash for the bedroom. As she sat in the bath, desperately trying to conjure the plan that would salvage her thwarted surprise, there came a soft rap upon the bathroom door. "Ren'ai?"

She blinked. "I'm-I'm in here, Sven," she called, her voice gone suddenly thick in her throat.

"I know." Was that a ripple of amusement she detected in his voice, through the thin wood? "May I come in?"

Romelle glanced across the slippery, cold tiles to where Sven's old bathrobe-which she had been borrowing-lay where she had tossed it, far out of arm's reach. "I'm not decent," she hedged, trying to think.

There was a pause, a soft chuckle, and then, "That's fine with me."

"Sven?"

"Romelle. May I come in?"

She wound a soapy tendril of hair about her finger and bit her lip. "Of course," she said and slipped into the water as far as she could.

The door opened slowly and Sven poked his head in. His thick raven hair was wet with rain, and windblown. He looked tired, wet, and cold. But a corner of his mouth quirked upward into a smile that belied his bedraggled appearance. The smile deepened and a sparkle lit in his deep blue eyes as he stared, unabashedly, at her slender white neck and shoulders. Her blush deepened under his frank scrutiny. He slipped into the bathroom all the way and closed the door behind him and she saw, to further her distress, the bottle of saké in his fist. "Ren'ai," he murmured. "The slip is lovely…but I don't think it's quite my size."

"Oh, you!" She nearly vaulted from the tub. Watching him shake with laughter, she seized the wet sponge and hurled it at him with all the force she could muster. He caught it deftly, crossed the floor, and sank to his knees on the tiles beside the tub, setting the saké bottle down beside him. She glowered up at him. "That was meant to be a surprise," she fumed, finding courage in anger. "You," she said heatedly, "were not supposed to come home early. You were supposed to arrive home in time for dinner, and to find me in my slip…"

"Why?" he asked, quite casually. "I prefer you this way." Her mouth froze mid-retort. Laughing, he opened his arms to her. Her furious expression melted as she flung her arms around his neck-and recoiled at once with a sharp yelp as the frozen droplets that clung to his clothing and skin flecked her naked body. Looking up at him in bewilderment she realized for the first time that his clothes were soaked. The long, lean muscles of his chest and shoulders were clearly defined beneath his clinging blue turtleneck. The longish, shaggy black hair clung to his pale brow and cheeks in wet tendrils. There were even droplets in his lashes.

"Did you walk home?" she murmured. "Why?" she asked, when he nodded.

"Because," he said softly, tracing the line of her face from cheek to jaw, his dark eyes glittering in the reflected firelight, "I had to get to you as soon as possible."

"But why?" For an instant she quailed. What danger could possibly have found them in this peaceful corner of Universe? But his steady smile allayed her fears.

He leaned forward, his elbows on the wet marble rim of the tub, his gaze locked intently on her face. There was a light behind his pale countenance like the sun about to break through grim storm clouds. "Because," he breathed, "I realized, standing there on the docks in the rain, that I have been running away from the thing I love more than anything else in the world." He was so close she could taste his fresh, spicy breath upon her lips. She inhaled softly, enjoying the scent of his nearness, while her mind slowly began to register what he was saying. He brushed the soapy hair away from her face tenderly, smiling as flecks of shampoo clung to his hand. "It suddenly occurred to me what an idiot I've been. Henrik had me helping the damn tourists reel their boats back in, after the storm warning. Real drudgery. But there I was, ready to dash out into the storm. And I thought-what was I doing there? There was something very familiar about it. Was I looking for something? I kept telling myself that I needed a job, since I'm not in the Garrison, anymore. But-" His eyes, changeable as the colors of the sea in the storm, had gone misty grey. "But-that was stupid," he said. "There was a moment before the storm broke when I had this moment of clarity. I looked at the breakers and I realized what I was seeing. It was like that moment before I ran back into Galra Castle, on Doom. Yes, I wanted revenge, but it was more- I was running away from what I could not believed I deserved. Why did I join the Garrison, anyway? I was looking for something. I thought I knew what it was-then I met you. You're what I've been looking for all my life. I was angry when the Garrison discharged me. But I'm not angry, anymore. As much as I loved everything the Garrison gave me-I love you more. I love you more. I'm tired of running, ren'ai. As soon as I realized that, I-had to get to you as soon as possible."

Romelle listened, all her senses suddenly acutely aware of nothing save Sven: the texture of his thin, soaked shirt beneath her fingers and the hard, rippling muscles underneath; the scent of the rain in his hair; his deep blue gaze, the rapid flutter of his throat. Wordlessly, she took his cold face between her hands and drew him closer, gently kissing away the raindrops that still clung to his lashes. There was a rumor of the sea breeze that clung about him always and she inhaled deeply, loving the smoothness of his skin, the heat of his breath against her throat. Presently she drew back slightly, and smiled. "Oh, my love," she said, laughter rippling her voice, "and now are you going to return to your monosyllabic state?"

He chuckled softly, a corner of his mouth quirking upward. "It did take an effort. But I had to tell you…" He shook his head. "Romelle, I'm so sorry for-"

"Stop." She placed her hand gently over his lips. "No more apologies." Her smile deepened. "Now, if you'll wait, I'll rinse my hair and then we can…" But even as the words passed her lips a new thought took her and she saw, from the way his eyes glittered and began to drift downward toward the parts of her the soapy water did not conceal, that the same thought had occurred to him. He leaned forward to kiss her and she threw her arms around his neck and lifted her lips to his in a kiss born of weeks of restrained longing. He drew her against him, his fingers digging into the smooth skin of her shoulders and back and there was no need for her to doubt that the desire he had kept captive was equal to her own.

Her breath quickened as he released her lips then planted a soft kiss on the corner of her mouth that sent tingles up and down her arms. He kissed her cheeks, her eyelids, then he moved downward and around, to nibble her earlobe. A cry escaped her lips, one that was almost a sob. "Beloved," she whispered as his lips moved from her ear down along her throat to nuzzle her collarbone. She slipped her fingers under the high collar of his shirt to stroke the smooth, wet skin of his neck. Without, she knew it should be cold. The storm tore against the windows and the fabric that brushed her nude body was chill with rain. But the ball of heat pulsing in her belly obliterated everything beyond his touch, warmed her cool limbs, and spread outward to engulf them both. She withdrew her hands from his collar and brought them down to his waist so she could get him out of his soaked shirt.

Her movement was arrested, unfortunately, as he choked abruptly. "I swallowed some of your shampoo," he spluttered at her concerned look. She laughed. "First things first," he said, releasing her briefly so he could move around to the head of the tub. "All right, come back here." She slid so that her back was to him. The wave of desire that had been checked temporarily returned as he began to knead her hair with strong, deft fingers. "It's been a long time since I've done this," he said as he massaged her neck and the base of her skull.

She giggled. "So I'm not the first lucky lady?"

He found a plastic cup on the shelf on the side of the tub, filled it with water, and poured its contents over her head, keeping his hand over her eyes and mouth. "I used to help my mother bathe my younger sisters, when they were much smaller. It was-not quite like this, however."

"So gallant." She kissed his palm. "So I have nothing to be jealous about? You were a saint, always?" She gasped as the hot water ran down between her shoulder blades.

"A saint? Hardly. I had girlfriends. I even slept with most of them." He kissed the top of her now-clean head. "But I never loved anyone except you."

"Really?"

"Yes. There were one or two I thought I was in love with. But I was wrong. There were some I liked, very very much. But never…" He stumbled, grasping for the words. "But I never… Until I met you, no one ever inspired me. Trust me, ren'ai." Brushing her hair aside to kiss the nape of her neck, "You are the only woman I've ever chucked a career for."

She tilted her head to regard him over her shoulder. "I'm so sorry about that, love. If the Garrison would take you back, you know I would not stand in your way." She flushed as he raised an eyebrow. "Well, I would probably not be very happy, but I would stand by you."

He planted a soft, upside-down kiss on her upturned lips. "I know. I did not have a choice, then, but if I did, I'd have chosen you. Know that, ren'ai. You are also the only woman I've almost died for."

He said it flippantly, but the words thumped into Romelle's heart and lodged there, cold as ice. She turned abruptly, capturing his large hand in her small one and bringing it to her cheek. "Don't," she pleaded, "don't talk about such things. I can't bear even the thought of losing you."

He cupped her cheek with the hand she held, and traced a line from her temple to her jaw with his free one. "I'm so-" He caught himself, smiled, then said, "I promise." And kissed her.

The urgency returned, so swiftly and with such force that it took Romelle by surprise. She sank against him, slipping her hands into his shirt, stroking his taut, well-defined belly and chest with light, cool fingertips. He inhaled sharply as one of her small hands wound its way around his waist to caress his lower back, then drifted lower. "Oh, God," he whispered hoarsely, bending to nibble along her collarbone. "I was an idiot…" He gripped her shoulders, then her waist, then lower, stroking and caressing as his lips lazily explored her soft, shimmering skin.

"At least…you wised up…" Romelle gasped. Her head was thrown back so that the ends of her hair trailed in the water. She wanted to say something more, but his touch banished all coherent thought. All she wanted-was to be closer, to feel his skin burning against hers, to lose herself to him completely. She also wanted to do something for him so he would know that she meant exactly what she had said-that if the Garrison officials had decided he could still serve despite his injuries she would have understood, and she would have stayed with him. "Sven," she murmured. He sighed against her breasts. "Sven." She tugged at his hair gently and he lifted his head. His beautiful eyes were misted over grey, glowing softly. She traced his bottom lip with her forefinger. "Sven, I want to massage your back." He frowned. There was a beat and then-his smile returned. He began to shrug out of his turtleneck. "No, let me," Romelle insisted, swiping his hands away. She planted a smacking kiss on his chin and bent to work.

She began at his back, reaching around, and very slowly lifting his shirt. His skin was cool beneath the damp fabric. She tilted her head back to see his expression. He was watching her, his mouth set in a soft, uncertain line. But she read deep trust in his eyes. "I love you," she said.

"I know."

She lifted the shirt over his chest, rising to pull it over his arms and shoulders, then cast it aside, to be at once forgotten, upon the floor. "Is there something I should be doing?" he laughed nervously, moving his arms this way and that, as though unsure of where to put them.

"Just stay there," she murmured, her gaze drinking in the pale skin of his tummy and chest hungrily. "Trust me." Feeling terribly naughty and blushing furiously she kissed his navel. She felt the muscles in his tummy tighten under her lips, heard his sharp intake of breath.

"That's the wrong side, ren'ai. Or is this a scouting expedition?"

Giggling, and deciding that she liked being bad, she flicked out the tip of her tongue, gently grazing the taut skin of his abdomen. She circled the navel lazily, enjoying the cool, faintly briny taste of his flesh, then, emboldened, ventured downward to the waistband of his jeans.

"Romelle." At his strangled groan she glanced up, found herself gazing into a flushed, tortured expression. Her gaze flickered downward again, then back up, her lips folding in an understanding smile.

"Sorry, love." Hastily she undid his belt buckle, eased his jeans over his hips. "Snowflakes?" She asked, intrigued, plucking at the waistband of his boxers.

"A Christmas present from my sisters," he explained. "You know, I can take care of all this…much faster." And indeed he did. In short time boots, jeans, and boxers lay in a haphazard pile on the tiled floor and, after some maneuvering and much sloshing of the water, he was in the bathtub with her. She wrapped her legs about his waist, drew him against her, easing his head back against her shoulder. She scooped up some water in her cupped hand and dribbled it over his chest. He caught her small hand, brought it to his lips, and then held it against his heart, sighing contentedly. For a long while they lay wrapped about each other, content simply in each other's warmth and silence. By and by, though, Romelle stirred and, kissing his earlobe, murmured, "You're making me forget my objective. Unless you don't want me to…"

He muttered some denial, then grunted as she bent her knee behind his back, forcing him into an upright position. "How tense you must be, love," she sighed regretfully. "I haven't done this in a long time."

Actually, she hadn't ever done it exactly this way. He was intensely shy about anyone, even her, whom he trusted above all others, seeing his back. And with good reason. His back was ugly, she thought, wincing faintly as she laid a gentle hand between his shoulder blades. His skin was pale as chalk, which emphasized the spider web of scars that traced from his lower back to the nape of his neck. The robeast that had felled him on Arus long ago had nearly impaled him, and the reminder of that horrific wound remained in the form of a shallow, discolored crater a few inches to the left of the small of his back. The skin about the injury had healed thick and callused, hardened by years of fighting to survive in the Pit of Skulls on Planet Doom and the tracks left by the laserwhips of Zarkon's merciless robot soldiers. It had frightened her the first time she had accidentally caught a glimpse of this mute testimony to the suffering he had endured during two years of captivity. The fine, strong muscles beneath the ruined skin had not healed properly, either, she knew. They contracted painfully at times, when he was tense or when he moved the wrong way. Usually she could ease the worst of the spasms with her deft fingers. She hated to think of what he must have gone through during their separation, when he was too proud to ask anyone else for help. A surgeon could undoubtedly do something for the scars, and she had even suggested it to him, once. But he refused, and she understood him perfectly, so she never suggested it again. It would mean, she thought, a denial of the past, and that he would never do. The spasms, too, could probably be eased to an extent by a therapist, but the internal damage the robeast had done had gone untended for so long that any therapy would be a long, painful process, and Sven was anything but patient. No, the Garrison could not take him back in such a condition. Still, if there were a way of healing him completely, even if it meant he would have to return to the Garrison, she would take it in a second, and then follow him wherever he was sent.

But she could not do that. In her heart Romelle knew that only time and love would heal Sven completely, and those she could give in vast quantities. So she reached out wordlessly and, gripping his shoulders, began to knead the taut muscles in a strong, slow, circular motion. He gasped sharply when she dug her small fingers into a painfully cramped knot, then sighed with relief as the muscles relaxed under her deft, knowing touch. "Is this how geishas do it?" she asked, when she had at last eased most of the tension in his back and shoulders and he was again breathing easily.

"Geishas?" he said, faintly. "Where did you learn about those?"

"Oh"-working her way down his ribs-"from the books your grandmother has lying about here. I've been reading as much as I could about your kingdom-countries, I mean-while you've been away. Your histories go back quite a deal farther than Pollux's! Which makes sense, I suppose. There's so much to learn." Feeling a little mischievous she leaned over to get the little bar of vanilla scented soap she had been using on her own skin. Rubbing it between her hands until she had a good lather, she then set the bar aside and began to stroke Sven's back, arms, and shoulders gently. She went on as she worked, "And, Sven, I want to see your world. I want to see more of Norway and-and other countries, too. As much as I can, while we're here. Will you take me?"

"Hmmm?" He was breathing deeply, leaning into her touch, his eyes closed.

"About-when there's time? Do you know, I've never seen a desert, except in pictures? Or a rain forest. And-I was reading about hotsprings. I love what your father made for your grandmother, but I want to see a real one. Are there any in Norway?"

"I'm sure there are. There are some great ones in Japan. Elskling, shall I take you to Japan?"

"May we?"

"If there's time-certainly. I would love for you to see the country I went to school in. You would like it, there. Not the cities-you would not like Tokyo, I think. It's hundreds of times as crowded and noisy as anything you'll find in Norway! But the countryside…and the ocean. I should show you the university I went to. And I'll introduce you to my Japanese friends. I'll take you to the temple my grandmother's family served, long ago. It's still there, at a tiny mountain spring on Okinawa. I'll take you to a hotspring, too, if you like. A real one. With monkeys."

"Monkeys! In the springs? With people?"

He laughed at her incredulous tone. "Of course. They won't harm you. They don't even eat foreigners. Not beautiful ones, anyway."

She snorted indelicately and clouted him, without much force, between the shoulders. "Well, I should love to see where you grew up, regardless. I can swim with monkeys if you want me to." She kissed the skin where his neck met his shoulder, then leaned against him, her cheek pressed against his shoulder. Tracing idle circles on his chest, she mused, "I wonder if there are hotsprings on Pollux. Can you believe I really don't know? No one has ever explored much of my world. There's never been any inclination to. We were always fighting. But, Sven-I want to, now. Pollux is a good world. There must be parts that are just beautiful. Not as beautiful as here, but there must be more to it than little villages and craggy mountains. If we do go back I want to find those places. First we'll go to Castelbran. That was my mother's favorite castle when she was alive, and mine, too. It's set high in the Ravenspires and overlooks a pure green valley." She sighed. "Sven, will you teach me Norwegian?"

He had to laugh at her string of nonsequitors. "You're flying high, elskling. And we haven't even started the saké, yet. Why do you want to learn Norwegian?"

"Well…so I'll know what you're saying when you call me names."

"I don't call you names."

" 'Elskling?'" she drawled, fumbling with the pronunciation. "And kanil…kenal…"

"Kanelbolle?"

"That," she said, and tugged on his hair.

He tilted his head back to favor her with an upside-down grin. "Never worry when I call you min elskling. As for kanelbolle…it's more fun when you don't know!"

Before she could protest he'd whipped around to face her, the pressure of his lips against hers leaving no room to argue. She slid easily into his embrace. Her own mouth locked with his eagerly, her tongue flicking out the taste his lips. After several long, languorous minutes he let her go to catch her breath. She clung to him, breathing heavily, running her tongue over her own lips and smiling. He grinned down at her, feeling his desire stirring again and powerfully. With one hand he pushed the tumbling dark gold hair out of her face. She looked up at him, her deep blue eyes dilated and shining. "Here's your first lesson in Norwegian, min elskling," he murmured huskily. "Say 'Gi meg ett kyss.'"

"Does it mean what it sounds like?"

"Just say it."

Blushing and stumbling, she said, very slowly, "Gi meg ett kyss."

"Hvis du insisterer." He brushed her lips softly with his own. Delighted with her accomplishment, she parted her lips beneath his, wound her arms about his neck. As the kiss deepened, he gathered her closer against him, positioning one arm behind her head to protect her from the hard marble as he eased her back. His other hand drifted down, tracing the gracefully curving line of her. He hesitated, as he always did, before his touch became too intimate. Invariably it was she who initiated their lovemaking, and he let it be so because he feared pressuring her if she were not in the mood. He would do anything in the world to avoid causing her hurt, but sometimes it was so difficult to go slowly. He wanted her desperately. He slid his hand up her thigh and let it rest lightly on her belly. She did not flinch. Rather, her thighs parted automatically, her slim legs sliding up to twine with his. He felt the ripple of excitement pass through her, so, relieved and emboldened, he grazed her belly and ribs gently with his fingertips. Her breath quickened, but her arms only tightened about his neck, her sweet kisses growing deeper and more ardent. He cupped and caressed the soft mound of her right breast, stroking the hardened nipple with the pad of his thumb in the slow, circular motion. She tossed her head against his arm, tangling them both in the wild cascade of her long gold hair.

His arm protectively about her shoulders, Sven raised himself into a semi-seated position and gathered Romelle across his lap. Her head lolled against his shoulder, her wet, tangled hair clinging to his arm. Her eyes, upturned to his, were misted over, wide and trusting. Her lips were half-parted and curved in a tender smile, warm and pink as rose petals. Her whole body seemed to glow softly with its own light.

He kissed her softly. "Lesson two," he breathed against her lips. "Elskling, vill du ligge med meg?"

Fair brows drawn together, she repeated, uncertainly, "El-elskling, vill-"

"Nei, Romelle min. Don't repeat. Answer. 'Ja' or 'nei'."

She looked up at him skeptically, and then-not quite understanding, but sensing she was being teased, "No!" She pursed her lips up at him, certain she'd won…whatever game he was playing with her.

This was clearly an unexpected development. "Fine!" Caught out, he started up, nearly spilling her off his lap as he did. She yelped in surprise and grasped him about the waist to avoid being dumped into the water.

"Sven, Sven," she exclaimed, scrambling to right herself. She laughed. "Yes, then! I changed my mind! Yes!"

"That's different." He flounced back into the water, sloshing quite a bit over the side, and held out his arms to her. She was in his embrace in an instant, burying her head against his chest.

"What in the world did you ask me?"

"I said," taking her chin between his thumb and index finger and tilting her head back so that her eyes looked up into his, "'Darling…" kissing her eyelids "…will you…" the corners of her mouth "sleep with me?" chastely upon the forehead.

She glowered. "As if you needed to ask! Silly man. I was right to say 'no.'" Then she laughed. "Well, I sincerely hope our children never ask me what was the first thing I ever learned in Norwegian!" She'd said it teasingly, but the import of her words struck her and, looking up into his face, she saw they had affected him, as well. Our children, she thought, reaching up to brush aside the errant raven forelocks that were forever tumbling over his brow. How possible it seemed. How completely, delightfully possible! His gaze had gone soft and utterly adoring. "I'm so happy, Sven," she whispered, hugging him close. "I don't miss anything. Crowns and castles and servants…not any of them. I don't need them." She rested her cheek against his breast, the rapid beating of his heart the only sound she cared about. "My life has changed so much since I found you. And I would not give up any of it-not a single kiss-for anything, not for all the crowns of Pollux. I feel so strong just being here, with you. We can change things. I know it. In this beautiful world where I can love you…we can do anything."

He looked down at her, careful not to let his smile waver. Her lovely, heart-shaped face was upturned to his, her small, rosebud lips curved upward at the corners. The fervent innocence of her avowal caught him in a wave of tenderness and a need to take her even closer-but he held his passion in check for a moment. This was the second time she had mentioned Pollux in the span of fifteen minutes, and it troubled him somewhat. Did she think about it, then, all she'd given up to be with him? He believed her when she told him she had not been happy at the court of her father's day. But Bandor was ruler, now, and adored his sister, would treat her as she deserved. Bandor would stand up for her before the Council, which still harbored her father's allies and did not like the princess. Sven loathed the Council-because they still chafed under Bandor's authority and because they had attempted to foist first Lotor, then Brashia, upon Romelle. They would certainly not approve of the mate she had chosen. And he'd be damned if he ever again let anyone but Romelle make the decisions that would affect her life. He would defy the Council now, if she wished it, though at present he wanted as little to do with Polluxian politics-or any politics-as possible. But if she truly wanted… Still smiling, he studied her face intently. There was nothing there to belie her words. Her eyes, shadowed by sweeping golden lashes, were bluer and more pure than a cloudless summer sky, deeper and more serene than a mountain lake. He read no regret in those clear pools that reached to her very soul. The lingering sorrow he had sensed in her these past months had lifted. She was free. Her smile was one of such perfect contentment that he almost wished they could lie thus forever. But he absolutely could not, anymore. Drinking in the flawless curves of her slender figure, the scent of her skin and hair filling his senses, her little hands making a playful exploration of his nether parts, he knew that if he did not do something about this fire that was mounting slowly between them, he would go mad.

He hugged her tightly and buried his face in her hair, letting the sweet, floral scent of her wash over him. "We'll do it, ren'ai. Everything you say. And I-don't regret, either. I don't regret what brought me you." Kissing her with burning intensity, keeping his face close to hers so she would not see the tears that touched his lashes-the last he would shed for his past-though everything else about him radiated pure joy, "I love you."

It swept over them again, fast as wildfire, that pulsing, almost aching need for one another. The world about them seemed to dwindle and fade so that there was nothing at all beyond the rim of the tub. He could not control himself, though he tried. Some little voice in the back of his mind told him that this was not right, it should not be in this place… But Romelle, smelling like a field of wildflowers, her breath sweet and hot in his mouth, her hands tracing paths of pure flame over his body, shot down any rational voice. And he…let the burning flood take him. Easing her with him into a seated position, he bent her back, one arm wound supportively around her waist. He pushed the clinging wet hair away, baring her throat and torso. Desire pulsed through him, almost blinded him. A deep growl rustling in his throat, he gathered her into his lap and, bending forward, kissed her fiercely, first on the lips, then slowly, languorously, lower. The lean muscles in her hips contracted sharply when he reached her breasts, bucking her upward, and closer against him. She clutched his hair with one hand, stroking the sweat-slicked skin of his upper back with the other. His free hand stole around her waist, brushed her soft belly, then dropped down to stroke the inside of her thigh. She rose abruptly to her knees, granting easy access to his probing hand. Slowly he pressed his fingers against her skin and slid his hand upward. She cried out with pleasure. He had to stop. With each throaty moan that escaped Romelle's lips as his touch deepened, it seemed less and less likely that they would make it out of the tub and to the bedchamber at all. The water seemed to turn to steam as it lapped their writhing bodies, so hot was it becoming. The hard, cool rim of the tub connecting forcefully with his shoulders jolted him back to reality, however. He looked up, dazed. Romelle was straddling him, her small hands on his chest, her long hair falling about them both like a curtain of burnished gold. Ignoring the dull throbbing of his shoulders, he reached for her, again. Her blue eyes were laughing as she shook her head. At his questioning look, she replied, blushing, "I-I don't think we should do this…in your grandmother's bathtub. The marble-it's rather hard." She bit her lip. "As you've no doubt noticed."

It took him a moment to catch his breath. She was no help, craning her neck and planting little kisses all over his throat and chest. "It will be in the tub, love, if you don't let me up," he muttered, lifting her face between his hands. She slid off him and started to get up, but he told her to wait. So, while she leaned over to retrieve the forgotten flask of saké from the floor, he clambered out of the tub to grab up the bathrobe. Lifting her from the water and holding her close under his arm, he wrapped them both in the voluminous folds of the oversized robe. Then they ran-as quickly as they could over wet marble, entwined as they were about one another-to the bedroom. There they passed the day and the night, too, all thought of the outside world-and such trivial matters as galactic war and planetary politics-quite forgotten. Outside the cottage the storm raged, dwindled, and subsided.

FIN


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