Despite the blaze of the fire, cold crept into the cave, bearing down on the inhabitants. Numair shivered, rubbing his hands together and breathing on them to try to regain some semblance of feeling. He picked up his quill, intent on finishing his update despite the fact that it was barely legible.
They had been caught by a blizzard in the mountains south of the City of the Gods on their journey home, and had been holed up in the cave for the last two days.
"Fine thing; the greatest magical summit in a century and the weather mages can't predict one damned blizzard," he grumbled, squinting at his letter to try and determine if it was clear that he had written that they had been waylaid, and not died. Initially vexed that Kit had not wanted to make the winter journey, he was now viciously envious of the dragonet who was, no doubt, curled up in front of a fire with a full belly as he sat freezing to death.
He cursed as he tried to roll the parchment but fumbled the seal. When it was finally secured he threw it on top of his pack to send at first light, and put aside his travel desk so as to move closer to the fire. He held his hands out, relishing what warmth he received and wondering if they should make a second fire at their backs.
Daine sat across from him, head cocked as if listening to something far off. Despite her earlier grumbling, she seemed calm.
"Anything interesting?" He asked, recognizing the look.
He wasn't sure she'd heard him until she broke into a grin, " yes ." She stood, suddenly, moving to the back of her cave where their extra supply packs sat. He heard her rummaging through them, flummoxed at what could possibly compel her to leave their meager circle of warmth.
She stepped back into the light moments later, wrapped in her thick wool coat and clutching a bundle to her chest. She threw his own cloak to him, beckoning.
"Come on," she tugged on his sleeve. He balked.
"Numair," she sighed, but smiled. "It will be worth it. I promise."
"Remember when you promised to be on your best behavior in Carthak? You destroyed the palace and effectively staged a one-woman coup."
"That was needful. Put on your cloak."
"Daine ," he groaned, "it's pitch black out there."
"It's a full moon. Your eyes will adjust." When he did not move she pouted, "I won't complain at all next time you want an assistant to help with your star charts."
He sighed, relenting, and pulled the heavy fabric around his shoulders. She grinned and grabbed his hand through the fabric of their cloaks and led him from their dwelling. She tightened her grip when they stepped into the night, snow crunching beneath their boots.
"Watch your step," she turned back to him just enough that he could see the glint of her eyes reflecting amber instead of blue. He allowed her to lead him as his own eyes adjusted. They moved carefully but quickly enough, the thick crust of ice allowing them smooth passage so long as they tread lightly. Twice they broke through and Daine laughed while Numair cursed.
"What colorful language," she teased.
"I'm regretting this already."
"You won't for long; we're almost there."
She led them left, slipping through a gap in a cluster of pine trees. The needles prickled at his cloak as he followed her and she murmured for him to watch his step. They were moving downward at a gentle grade, but their path was slick. With a small yelp she slipped and lost her traction. He reached out and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her against his body as they slid at a creeping but precarious pace.
"Are you alright?" He asked when they had stopped and he was reasonably sure he could pull back without falling on his rear. He placed a finger under her chin, raising her face to meet his gaze.
"That was hardly harrowing, Numair," she laughed and leaned forward against his chest, "but yes. And guess what?" She jerked her head to her right. "We're here," a grin spread across her face as she backed away. He followed her direction to see a pool of water resting at the base of the slope. The water reflected the moonlight, but despite the frigid winter air it was not frozen over. The rocks cradling it were clear of snow, and steam rose in steady tendrils into the air above it. A hot spring.
"So? What do you think?" She asked as he came to stand by her side, at the edge of the pool.
"Fascinating," he crouched, waving his hand over the water and feeling it's warmth. "I've read about them, but never actually seen one."
"Really?" She crouched next to him, "there were some near the village when I was young. They were a hike to get to though."
He reached out, touching the surface tentatively. It was hot, but not unpleasantly so. The water was opaque and smelled of sulfur.
"The books don't do the smell justice," he made a face and she laughed.
"It fades," she stood and placed her parcel on the ground. "Come on; let's hurry. It's cold ."
"What?" He nearly choked and looked up at her.
She gave him a confused look, hands working at the clasp of her cloak. "Well I didn't bring you all the way out here to look at it."
He shook his head and stood, "That's really not appropriate, Daine."
"I couldn't care less what it's not; what it is is warm." She rolled her eyes and he reached out to stop her from removing her cloak.
"Tempting, but out of the question I'm afraid."
She sighed and shot him an exasperated look, "Numair—how many court gossips do you think spend their time skulking around the mountains? Even you are not that interesting."
"Gossip is not the issue."
"It's not?" She cocked her head.
"It's cold and I am going back to the fire. If you would like to stay—"
"So you're going to leave me out here all on my own?" She asked, the picture of innocence.
He hesitated, irked that she knew just how to play him. He knew she was highly capable, just as she knew he would never willingly leave her alone in the mountains at night during winter.
"Come on," she put her hands on his, "just look at it. It's plenty big enough for both of us, and just think of how nice it will be to be warm for once."
He followed her gaze, feeling his resolve waver as a suspiciously well-timed winter breeze moved through him. "Fine," he groaned and marveled as a feeling that could only be described as preemptive regret washed over him. "But turn around—" he balked at how quickly she broke into a grin and began to shed her clothes, turning away with a blush as she dropped her cloak to the ground and lifted the hem of her tunic.
He disrobed more tentatively, more self-conscious than he could remember being in a long time. He was still unclasping his belt, a feat made more difficult by the trembling of his hands, when he heard her get in. Her sigh was nothing short of pure, unadulterated bliss.
His belt finally discarded, he made short work of his breeches and loin cloth. When he turned to enter the pool he found her looking pointedly in the other direction, a smirk gracing her features. He was grateful for the dark to conceal what he was sure was a head-to-toe blush and stepped into the spring. After being cold for so long it was almost painfully hot, but adjusted quickly enough as he settled in and felt his body relax. Unbidden, he let out a groan of delight.
"I told you," she was grinning at him—all mischief and delight.
"I am not endorsing this as an acceptable pastime," he mumbled. "No matter how much I enjoy it."
"If it's too dark you can conjure those little lights."
He gathered a small spark of light at his fingertips but held it in place, thinking better of it as he looked at her. Her hair pooled around her shoulders, trailing in the water behind her. Though the water was thick and milky in the dark he wasn't sure how much the light could reveal and the top of the water already pooled dangerously low against her breasts.
"The moon is quite nice tonight, actually." He let the light fade and she nodded, accepting his answer. He tilted his head back, reclining as far as he dared without risking his long limbs brushing against hers. True, the spring was big enough to create distance between them, but not by any generous margin. "I think I'll just stay here until spring, thank you very much," he murmured to no one in particular.
She laughed, running her hands through her hair and massaging the roots. Normally, he would have offered to do it for her. It was a ritual he knew relaxed her and he could perform under the guise of an innocent, friendly gesture—at least in private. He dared not offer tonight. Not in such a tempting setting.
Seemingly satisfied she looked at him with a grin. "One more thing," she waded to the edge, pulling herself enough to reach for her parcel which had been discarded on a nearby rock. He looked away as the smooth expanse of her back and sides of her breast were exposed. Years of shifting her form has done little to preserve her sense of modesty. He saved the lecture, however, anticipating her usual dismissive response that it was nothing he hadn't seen.
She shivered as she fumbled with the parcel, finally returning to the water with a sigh of relief and revealed her contraband.
"You've brought drink to warm us when we stargaze," she struggled to uncork the bottle; a well-aged Scanran whiskey.
"That's very different."
"How so? Cold nights, stars—seems similar to me."
"We're clothed, to start."
"That's only one thing different."
"Are you being difficult on purpose?" He pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering what god he had offended to be in such a position. "Why do you even have that?" He couldn't think of a single instance where she'd brought liquor on the road with them.
"That Scanran mage gave it to me to bring to Alanna. Apparently they had talked about it when they met last summer, but since she couldn't come—" she finally uncorked the bottle with a soft pop .
"So you're stealing as well as being a bad influence?"
"Oh, piddle. She'll think this story is a fair better present," she winked at him.
"If you tell anyone about this," he groaned, rubbing his face.
"You're being dramatic."
"Daine—you can't coax a man into skinny-dipping with you, ply him with drink and then tell people about it without expecting certain assumptions."
"You took very little convincing, to be fair" she shrugged. "It's taken more effort to pull you away from a book."
"I take offense to that."
"That doesn't make it any less true." She grinned at him, taking his distress anything but seriously. "I suppose I shouldn't suggest a game then?"
He eyed her, warily, not sure if he wanted to engage any further. He was already concerned they were playing a game; one for which he didn't know the rules but was pretty sure he was losing.
When he didn't answer she took a sip from the bottle, not breaking eye contact, before handing it to him with a challenging look. He hesitated but reached out to accept it, too enraptured with the threat of crossing lines he had worked so hard to cultivate to refuse her.
He took a generous swig, feeling the liquid burn his throat as he swallowed. He handed the bottle back to her, laughing to see the surprise written on her face.
"Expecting me to choke, magelet?" He was a little offended.
"A little, yes," she said, eyeing him with an appraising eye. "You always refuse when Sarge challenges you."
"Ah, yes. That, my dear, is self-preservation learned the hard way. You don't know everything about me."
"I am well aware of that," her grin returned, "and it is exactly what I'm hoping to correct."
She tapped her finger against the bottle. The look on her face perfectly formed to tempt him to ask for elaboration. When he didn't fall for the bait she rolled her eyes. "I told you I have a game."
"I think you've already gotten me into enough trouble for one evening."
"No trouble; just a pleasant evening with a friend," she shook her head, eyes wide and innocent. The swig she took and her grin when she wiped the alcohol from her lip, however, somewhat ruined the initial illusion. "It's called two truths and a lie. You've heard of it?" She asked when he groaned.
"I don't know why you think I live under a rock. I'm a little worried as to where you're picking all of this up though." He'd been so distracted by the situation at hand he hadn't thought to wonder who she's been making mischief with before. It wasn't something he enjoyed dwelling on.
"Maybe you'll find out," she winked. "So you have to say two things about yourself that are true, and one that is not. If I guess which one is a lie you must take a drink."
"And if you don't, you must drink," he grinned despite himself.
"I see I have a challenger on my hands. Why don't you go first then? See if you can best me."
He sighed, leaning his head back and racking his brain for something that could get by her. "Alright," he drew circles in the surface of the water with his finger, "I speak five languages, I am allergic to hazelnuts, and," he grinned, "as a student I once ran through the observatory naked on a dare."
"You are not allergic to hazelnuts."
He scoffed, "you didn't even stop to think about that one."
"I didn't have to!" She raised an eyebrow, "I'm right, aren't I?"
"Yes," he sighed, "the streaking didn't even make you pause?"
"Because you're so modest?" She ran her gaze up and down his bare chest, and he was sure he must be blushing. He took the bottle with a scowl, and accepted his defeat.
"Don't get cocky," he shook his head. "We're just getting started."
"I'm going to hold you to that," she turned away, looking at him over a bare shoulder. "Okay—when I was very little I wanted to be a raccoon when I grew up, the first time I used a sling I hit myself in the head when the stone bounced off a fence post, and my first kiss was when I was fourteen; at the Swoop." She looked towards the sky, smiling softly.
He stretched his arms out across the rocks behind him, drumming his fingers against the stone. "You could at least try a little harder. You wanted to be a blacksmith when you were young."
"Wrong!" She turned to him, the sudden movement sending waves rippling across the pool. "Blacksmith was when I was a little older. There was a raccoon who used to creep into my room before that—I liked his mask and wanted one of my own. There may have been overlap in my aspirations for a while there," she giggled.
"A blacksmith raccoon?" He laughed, as a thought occurred to him, "and to think—of the two you've achieved the latter . What's the lie?" He reached for the bottle, taking another drink.
"I was fifteen when I was first kissed. Midsummer."
"Ah, gazing into pools for your true love?"
"Hardly," she snorted, "knee deep in horse muck and blindsided. Yours?"
"Forever ago, now. Gods, I was nervous. All elbows and knees; poor girl." It had been a long time since he had thought of that memory.
"I'm sure she enjoyed it," Daine teased. "Now, your turn again—try not to keep losing or I'll have to carry you back."
He sat straighter, shaking out his arms and making sure to splash her as he did so. "My favorite play is Far and Away , I have five siblings, and I have read the complete collection of The Rise and the Fall of the Thanic Empire twice."
She gaped at him. "That's cheating."
"What?" He was incredulous. "I am not a cheater."
"You have six siblings and you've read that wretched series once . You nearly threw yourself a parade you were so relieved. I've never seen you hate books so much."
"Daine, I have five brothers and sisters," he laughed, shaking his head in triumph. He raised his hand, steam rising off of it, and counted, "Pattel, Haran, Kerinna, Adasa, Gellab—"
"And Mattan ," she couldn't contain her laughter.
"Gods above, I forgot Mattan," he blanched.
"I don't know how; he causes you more trouble than the rest combined."
"Probably willful repression," he grimaced. "Do I have to drink?"
"Two lies; twice I've bested you."
"I think you should take one too," he grimaced as he took a generous swig.
"For posterity?" She asked, but accepted the drink readily.
"No, because i'm just drunk enough to finally call you out for kissing my brother ," he leaned forward, fixing her with an incredulous look.
"I never!" She sounded genuinely offended.
"Mattan is not the most discreet, magelet."
"He's also a fanciful dolt," she shuddered. "I did nothing of the sort, but not for lack of trying on his part. I can't believe he told you I fell for his tricks." She shot him a sour look when he continued to stare at her in disbelief. "Numair; who are you going to believe between him and me?"
He sighed, relenting. "I can't find fault with that argument."
"I can't believe that's what you think of me," she shook her head. "Of all the Draper brothers, you know I'd go for the tallest." She winked.
"Ah, Haran then."
"Of course." Their attempts at seriousness were interrupted as they failed to contain amused smiles.
She moved around the edge of the pool, trying to find a comfortable perch and finally settling near him. Her thigh brushed against his as she spoke, "scooch over; you're taking up the only decent seat." He complied, looking away and trying not to think of the feeling of her skin against his.
"Let's see if I can throw you an easy one," she bit her lip, "Thayet gifted me a gown that I'm too nervous to wear in front of others, I almost got a tattoo when I visited the Bazhir, and I considered saying yes to Kaddar's offer of marriage."
"You almost got a tattoo ?" He sputtered. "Gods above; what possessed you?"
"I liked them!" She shrugged, but looked sheepish. "I'm not sure who would have been angrier—you or Alanna."
"Equally and in turns, I'm sure. And in the interest of playing the game correctly, despite my concerns I know you—you have no interest in ruling. I saw your reaction to him and quite frankly I don't think I've ever seen anyone more actively avoid it. Although that may be something for you to talk to Alanna about."
Daine plucked the bottle from its perch and accepted her punishment with a flourish that drew a laugh from her companion.
"What were you going to get?"
"Oh," she looked away, taking another sip and sinking lower into the water. "I can't remember."
"I will need to be far drunker to admit to it." She shook her head and laughed.
"That can be arranged." He reached out and tapped the bottle still clutched in her hands, nudging it towards her.
"Numair," she gasped, "I never; are you trying to get me drunk ?"
"Oh no; you are squarely to blame for all of this," he shook his head and cursed when he felt the tie in his hair snap. He turned to locate it, but relented quickly. It was too dark, and he'd had too much drink to make a fuss of it.
When he turned back Daine had moved away and was half out of the pool again. She pulled her clothes towards her and worked to untangle them. He was about to ask if she was ready to head back when she dropped back beneath the water and turned to him, triumphant.
"I thought I had one!" She held up a leather tie. "Turn around." She pushed his shoulder, directing him. He complied and felt her settle behind him. Water rippled in the scant space between their bodies. He jumped when he felt her hands on his neck, gliding up to wrangle his hair into place. She laughed, the sound muffled from where she held the tie in her mouth as she worked.
"What?" He asked, trying to keep his voice steady. She was working her hands through his hair steadily, fingers sliding through his locks in a way that made him shudder.
"Remember the first time this happened?"
He smiled; the memory was a good one. "You'd think I would have invented a better hair tie by now." He remembered the first time he had suffered this inconvenience in her company, but certainly lost track of how often it had happened since. He'd remember this one, though.
"It's nice that some things stay the same." Satisfied with her work, she held his hair in place with one hand and used the other to secure it with the tie. Her hands dropped to his shoulder where she hesitated. "Although it's nice when some things change, too." Her fingers slid over his shoulders—feather light and raising goose bumps in their wake.
They stayed still, neither speaking. The moment stretched out, something unspoken that hung in the air like the steam that rose around them. Something that was so near to tangible, but that disappeared when you reached out to grasp it.
"The Bazhir," she said quietly but it was startling against the charged silence. "they use their tattoos to tell stories. Their stories. The things they've done—their victories and failures. The places they've been. The people they've loved; family and friends and," she trailed off, tracing circles on his skin.
"I had been thinking a dragon for Kit." She hesitated, dropping her voice, "and a hawk." The rest of her statement went unspoken. Numair crossed his arm across his chest to cover her hand with his own. He licked his lips, searching for words that had been on the tip of his tongue so many times before.
He twisted, looking back to meet her gaze. She had drawn closer and he could feel the length of her body grazing against his. He'd wondered, idly, if he's been so worried about maintaining the boundaries of their relationship that he had missed when they'd crossed a line.
He searched her. She met his gaze steadily. There was something in her eyes that he didn't recognize—an odd experience after so many years. But he didn't dare try to place it, lest his wishful thinking get the better of him. She dropped her gaze and he released a breath he didn't know he was holding as she pulled away.
"I'm so glad you didn't get a tattoo," he grinned at her and she splashed him. Just like that and a line was redrawn. "What's wrong with the dress?" He asked after a silence.
"Hm?" She cocked her head.
"You said Thayet gave you a dress—"
"Oh!" She laughed. " That ." She sunk into the water, disappearing up to her eyes.
"What's wrong with it?" He couldn't help but laugh at her—basically a pair of wide eyes topped with curly hair peeking at him from the pool.
She rose just enough to speak. "I just can't pull it off," she groaned with a wistful sigh.
"Not your color?"
"No, It's not my shape . It's just not made for the likes of me."
"I'm not following; you always look lovely, Daine." He tilted his head, meaning the understatement.
"Oh, I scrub the dirt off well enough but this dress is made for a different type of woman all together."
"You're only a different species some of the time, you know."
She shot him a sour look. "Very funny. I mean that it would be more fitting for a woman more," she hesitated, rising up to reveal her shoulders and gesturing in a way that left little to the imagination as to where she found herself lacking. "Well, more fitting for the type of women you like."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Please, don't play coy. You know you have a type."
"I'm not sure I like how that sounds." He shifted, never realizing that she paid enough attention to his affairs to notice patterns.
"You might not like how it sounds, but you certainly seem to enjoy the results." She replied, dryly.
"I don't even sure how to respond to that." He was sure he was blushing. "There may be some similarities in some of the women I've courted—"
"Courted is a generous term," she mumbled.
"You're not denying it."
He sighed, knowing a losing battle when he saw one. "The point that I'm trying to get to is that you don't give yourself near as much credit as you deserve. I've seen you turn heads even if you haven't. You're a beautiful woman and," he licked his lips, hesitant, "alluring in your own right."
She couldn't help the pleased smile that spread across her face. He complimented her often enough, but never in such an intimate way. A beat of silence passed in which he was worried he'd crossed another line.
"Maybe I'll reconsider it," she shrugged and broke eye contact, trying to conceal a smile that wouldn't quit.
"Oh, no," he laughed. "I've already said I've seen the hearts you capture in cotton. You've no business wearing something as scandalous as you're describing. That's just trouble disguised as fashion."
"Like you don't like a little trouble," she winked and it was his turn to look away. He reached for the whiskey and took a drink, hoping she wouldn't notice how her words excited him.
"We're getting off track." He held out the bottle and she accepted it. "I've never broken a bone, my middle name is Davit, and I've loved one woman." He could taste whiskey on his tongue as he played with fire.
"Your middle name is not Davit."
She gaped at him. "How did I not know that?" She pouted, and took a generous drink.
"I stopped using that long before I let go of Arram. My parents couldn't agree on a first name, or so they told me. So they gave me both."
She looked thoughtful and lifted the bottle to her lips once more. "I wish I'd known you back then."
"I don't." His voice was quiet. "I don't think you would have liked me much." He meant it.
"I could never not like you."
"I'd prefer if we never had to test that theory."
She handed the bottle back to him and he accepted it. He leaned back and took a long drink, the rules they'd outlined breaking down. She studied him with a calculating look.
"So Varice—" There was always a hint of disdain in her voice at the woman's name and he chuckled, despite himself.
"Yes, very much. At the time."
"No; it was another life. I was someone else. So was she."
"I meant who else since?" She raised an eyebrow when he didn't respond. "Too many to count?"
He laughed, "hardly. But leave me some secrets until dawn, magelet."
She pouted, moving to sit next to him again. He knew he should move again but he didn't, and she didn't ask. Instead she leaned her head against his shoulder, arm and thigh resting against his own. He sighed, sinking lower into the water and enjoying intimacy he had no right to.
"I'd like to know. Someday; if you'd like to tell me." She broke the silence, turning her head and brushing her cheek against his arm.
He took another drink, hesitating. "I might just tell you. Someday." He handed off the bottle when she reached for it.
Daine sighed, a content sound. "I've never seriously courted someone—no one I wanted a future with, anyway. A couple have been fun enough, passionate even—" she shook her head, laughing softly. "I'm getting off track. I've never seriously courted, I would like to travel to the Yamani Isles—preferably with you, and I've never been in love."
He turned her words over in his mind. "Rowan; he was quite serious about you."
She handed him the bottle. "But I wasn't about him. It wasn't fair to him, in the end. Him talking about the future and me enjoying him for the now."
"You did the right thing then. Many wouldn't." He nursed the drink. He was beginning to feel unfocused—from the drink or her body pressed against him or both.
"I still let things carry on too long. By the time I realized it was more than fun for him," she shrugged and let the rest of her statement trail off.
"So if you weren't in love with him," he murmured, tracing circled against the stem of the bottle. She'd talked about the Yamani Isles and the people there many times. "Is he married?"
"Gods, no." He could feel her bristle at the implication but she didn't move away. She pressed against him in a way that made it hard for him to think, and he thought to lift his arm and pull her closer to him but didn't. He could only push things so far without gambling everything. Losing everything.
"I'm sorry; that was rude. I'm just wondering why you wouldn't be with them."
She sighed, "Love's not guaranteed to go both ways."
"I know, but anyone who wouldn't return yours is a fool. Who is it?"
"I think perhaps we should both keep at least one secret tonight. The same one, I suppose."
Something nagged him, far in the back of his mind past the drunkenness, and the languid heat, and the way she pressed against him. Something he's worked hard to subdue. Hope, or something like it. And with hope came something more familiar; a warning to tread carefully. Concern that he could ruin her. Fear that she would let him and willingly.
They sat together for a long time, watching the moon as it reached its peak and when it began to descend he spoke quietly. "My favorite pastime is riding." He licked his lips,"I want things to change, and I don't think it's the right time for them to—not yet; not now."
When he was worried she wouldn't reply she spoke. "Okay." She left it at that, bringing a hand to rest on his arm with a light squeeze. It's warmth eclipsed everything.
"We should head back soon. Before we cook ourselves." He wasn't sure how long they'd been there, but certainly longer than was advisable. Long enough to see the stars change. Long enough to cross lines. Long enough to draw them again.
"Just a little longer." She squeezed his arm. "I'm not ready."