Authors' Note: This chapter, and this chapter only, is rated NC-17 for sexually explicit content and mature themes, including BDSM implications. More senstive readers can skip to the next chapter without losing the thread of the narrative.
The afternoon's march had taken the rebels through most of woods and left them near the road to Bevelle, in an area of the forest riddled with small brooks and springs. They would rejoin the bulk of the army, still waiting at the gates of the city, early the next day, but for now everyone was left to find a night's rest and relaxation. Driven by a common impulse toward privacy, Nooj and Paine wandered away from the main encampment until they found a small secluded clearing with a purling stream fringed by bushes and young trees. Paine took the folded blanket Nooj had draped over his shoulder and shook it out, spreading in a natural bower formed by the crystalline leaves of one of the graceful hedges which grew nowhere in Spira save the Macalania Woods.
"Are you feeling all right?" she asked. "I brought us some of those stuffed rolls and couple of bottles of ale."
He laboriously lowered himself to the fabric. "Yes. They did a good job plastering over the nicks and slices. And I put some fruit in my pocket. How's your head?"
Her smile was brittle. "It's okay. Here." She handed over a large bun filled with meat and cheese. "We need food ... and drink." Plopping down beside him, she set the stone bottles near at hand. "How're the ribs? I didn't realize they were broken."
"Fine. I think they were only cracked. I didn't feel it at the time." He peered inside the bun, approving of what he saw, and took a huge bite.
"Well, naturally, you were ..."
He swallowed and interrupted, "I was so sure you were dead." He seized her hand and gripped it painfully hard.
"I'm not, so stop thinking about it." She flashed a brilliant smile up at him.
"I wouldn't have survived you, no matter what I promised Sir Auron." He looked at her solemnly.
She leaned against his arm and breathed deeply. "Don't say things like that. You'll make it through, and so will I. And that's an order. Now drink your ale."
For some time, there was no talking as the two ate with increasing appetites. Neither had realized how hunger had been subjugated to more basic desires and concerns. When the last scrap of fruit had been consumed, they looked at one another and grinned self-consciously before going to the little brook and washing away the stickiness of their feast.
Sprawled once more on the blanket, Paine gazed at the man propped on his elbow beside her. "You're alive." It was between a question and a declaration.
"I shall try to stay alive so long as you are with me." He knew she was starving to hear him pledge that to her again. He captured her lips in a tentative kiss, rejoicing in the soft response. He sat up, pulling her with him and gently began to unbuckle her leathers. There was no rush this time; the night lay before them so he was slow, deliberate, savoring the unveiling of her body.
When they were both clad only in the light of the twin moons, Paine began her own exploration of him. Her tongue traced a lingering path along his torso until she reached her goal and tenderly took him into her mouth, her warmth making him cry out and arch his back in pleasure, burying his fingers in her short soft hair. She caressed him without hurry, letting the unique and separate sensations wash over and around them both, pausing to prolong the moments, his touch and taste intoxicating her like a potent drug.
When he finally could hold back no longer, she felt herself filled with the salty tang of life itself. She swallowed and slowly trailed her kisses up to claim his lips. He tasted himself on her tongue and knew they were one, finally and forever. They curled together, content and satiated for the moment.
In the midst of his satisfaction, Nooj sensed the emptiness he had come to dread. The habit of suppressing his emotions had become too strong for him to easily break. Now he recognized the need, the physical need for a powerful stimulus to force him to feel what should come easily. It had been so for years. So it was now. He had yielded himself completely to Paine, laying both his love and his honor at her feet, and the coldness he should have, but had not, expected was slipping into his psyche like icy fingers into a glove. With a sense of helpless frustration, he tried to repel the invader but a lifetime of practice was too powerful for his newly awakened feelings to confront. He was not sure what to do. He was certain he loved Paine, beyond all reason. But would she understand what he needed, and would she accept what he felt impelled to do? How could he even ask her?
He had meant it when he promised Paine he would not seek Death so long as they were together. What he had not taken into account was the part being Taydrcaagan played in keeping him safe to be around. More lethal now than when he had first become Deathseeker, he was not sure how much control he could exercise over his impulsive behavior. He was afraid, not for himself, but for his lover. He was conscious of the need to possess her totally, to make her a part of him in every way. Would he be able to stop short of breaking her? He could not assure himself that he could.
He bent over her, looking earnestly into her face. "Paine, you must understand something. When I told you I loved you, I meant it and today when I gave you my word, I meant that too. I am not a liar."
She opened her eyes wider and surprise flooded into them. "Are you trying to tell me something? You're... not changing your mind. Are you?"
He hesitated and her heart fluttered with fear in her breast.
"No. No reservations. None. There has been a change between us but it's not about my feelings. You're a part of me now. I want to make you mine entirely. I want -- no! I need to possess you, to have you totally." He was trying to convey something vital to her without actually verbalizing it. She could feel his urgency battering at her comprehension.
"I want that too." She reached for him but he drew back, catching and imprisoning her hands.
"Wait. You have to listen. I may hurt you but that doesn't mean I don't love you. I may not be able to avoid hurting you. I'll try not to but there's no promise..."
Paine was still, searching his expression for clues to his words. He had been rough with her in bed before. But this was the first time he had ever given her any sort of warning, and the look of worry in his eyes was totally new to her. What boundary was he afraid of crossing? An image came to her then: that of the spectral woman she had fought so many nights in her dreams. Death, Nooj's dark mistress, the fantasy he had given up to be with her. What kind of release might a man need, that he sought out Death's embrace?
All these thoughts crossed her mind in a flash, settling finally on a conclusion. At last, she nodded. "I trust you. I love you. You won't hurt me more than you can help or more than I can bear." This time when she pulled him into her arms, he came.
When he raised his head from her, reluctantly relinquishing her lips, he unwound her arms from around his neck and placed them at her sides. "Lie still. I want to make sure you feel everything I do to you."
He took her left nipple between his lips, pulling at it like a suckling child, flicking it with his tongue until she could not stop herself crying out in mingled pleasure and pain. Not satisfied, he bit down, nibbling and squeezing the sensitive area with his teeth. She clenched her hands into fists and made little moaning noises from behind her tightened lips. When he was done with the left nipple, he turned his attention to the right one, treating it in a similar fashion. Paine felt as though all her nerves had diverted themselves to the abused nubbins; when he lifted up, the very air was like sandpaper drawn across the swollen tips.
"Are you all right?" Nooj asked. "You taste of honey and life itself. I need to feed from you." With the forefinger of his left hand, he drew a circle around the aureole of her breast. The cold metal of the finger, discernible even through the leather of the glove, made her flinch away as the new sensation assailed her.
"Don't move. I don't want to have to restrain you." He remembered past nights when he had used straps and ropes to bind a woman to the bed so that he could do what he must do. It seemed important to him that Paine accept his acts and permit him the freedom of her body. He was not sure why this should be so, but it was. "This is just to make sure you feel what I do."
He remained looking at her body for a long time before he drew her hands above her head, positioning them so that her wrists could be held in a single grasp if he chose. Then he roughly forced her legs apart and drove into her with no preparation. She had not noticed that he had become hard again, concentrating as she was on the fire in her breasts. Unready for the sudden assault, she almost cried out as she felt his flesh battering into her most tender parts, the metal sheath scraping against her inner thigh. It hurt, and yet she discovered pleasure behind the pain, her arousal growing as he began his rhythmic movements. She fought the urge to reach for him, to press her hands low on his back and help control the tempo. Holding his request in her mind, she imagined bands keeping her arms down, these self-imposed restraints the only thing holding her back. But she could not lie completely still, her treacherous hips rising to meet every thrust, and as her excitement grew it took every ounce of her will to obey his wishes, to keep her hands quiet and let him do as he would.
Nooj was lost in the welter of pleasure which swept through all his body. He was in possession of his desired lover. With that as his impetus, he drove harder and more deeply into her until he seemed to be wearing her like his own skin, until he thought he felt with her, knew her pain and her joy. He lay heavily upon her body and pulled her to him with all his strength as he felt the climax seize him and in the spasm of fulfilled need, he bit deeply into her neck where it joined her shoulder and drank the blood which he found there.
Too surprised to scream, Paine sucked in a loud gasp of air. The invisible bindings that had held her arms down snapped, and she grasped his back, clawing at him, unsure whether she was trying to scramble away or pull him closer. Her fingernails raked down his skin, digging deep, drawing blood. As her hands traveled lower, they curled around his buttocks, and she drove her nails in, pushing him still deeper as she rocked against him.
He was astonished to feel the tearing of the skin across his back. Just as he was sinking into the accustomed exhausted sense of loss after completion, this! With a sudden leap of excitement, he recognized something he had hoped so long to find: a fit adversary in the amatory wars. He pushed himself up, still lodged inside her, and looked into her face. She was defiant, a little frightened but not giving in, not trying to escape. Her eyes met his with cool challenge and he laughed with pleasure. So the wench would fight, would she? He relished the sting of her nails digging into his flesh and ground his hips into hers, feeling himself swelling again. Using his weight and his strength, he pinned her down so that she was helpless -- or so he thought. Her hands were still free but he was confident he could deal with that. She would learn who was master here.
Then an alarm sounded in his mind, and he paused in his assault. This was Paine, his love. He let himself sink into her eyes again and recognized the fire burning there. She understood! She was willing, even eager! He threw back his head and laughed aloud as he had not laughed in many years. "So, Madame, you will have your wish. I shall take you so completely you will limp worse than I when I am finished."
He resumed his conquest, his right index finger brushing across a tender breast yet again. But the pain of any touch in that area had long passed the point of being pleasurable, and she snatched at him, catching his hand and slamming it into the ground, her movements cat-quick, not giving him any time to think about overwhelming her with strength. She had allowed him to dominate her and take control, understanding that he wanted to test her, discover her limits. Those limits had finally been reached, and now she felt a sudden, powerful need to turn the tables and watch him battling against constraints she had imposed.
"Not if I finish with you first, Captain," she panted, and raised her face to his, capturing his mouth in a brutally passionate kiss. She tasted the salty tang of blood, first hers and then his as she sucked on his lower lip and bit down, her free hand tangling roughly in his braids.
With an abrupt movement, he escaped her bite and reared over her, pounding into her loins, the blood from his torn lip dripping on her face, where it formed crimson tears as it flowed across the curve of her cheekbone. His teeth bared in a savage snarl, and he watched as her eyes lost focus and her body arched to meet his. Then he felt the deep thrumming inside her and she was holding him like a cat clinging to its prey as her breathing quickened and little cries tore from her throat. She was spinning, falling into a vortex as all the tension in her body released at once, rocking her in a powerful, bone-rattling climax.
She fell back, gasping for breath, flaccid in all her limbs. He withdrew and cradled her in his arms, turning them both on their sides. Her fingers were still caught in the webs of his hair and he carefully positioned his head so that he did not bruise her hands. As she panted against his chest he slowly traced the line of her back and cupped her buttocks. When she opened her eyes, she found him looking at her from only a short distance away so that all she could see clearly was the dark irises still glowing with passion.
"Paine. Are you all right?" he whispered. At her nod, he shifted to lying on his back and lifted her on top of him. "Mount me. There is more waiting for us yet. Or shall I take you again?"
She took another moment to recover, just breathing, timing her inhalations with the rapid rise and fall of the chest beneath her cheek. Then, before he could react, she sat up and straddled his waist, pinning his body in place with her legs. "Neither," she said. "Touch me." He reached for her with his natural hand, and she slapped it away. "No. The other one." She ached for the feel of the cool, smooth metal against her skin, but she also knew it took tremendous concentration and control for Nooj to stroke her with the machina, and she needed to see him in that state, forced to hold back and take care as he pleasured her.
A small smile touched his lips as he placed his left hand on top of her head, running a single fingertip through her hair, along the top of her ear, down her cheek and her jaw line and the side of her neck. His touch was light as breath of air, almost imperceptible, and she shivered with anticipation. Purposefully avoiding her abused breasts, Nooj traced the sternum between them, then caressed her stomach, her hip, her thigh, taking a leisurely path to his ultimate destination between her legs. Shifting his gaze there, he found the source of her pleasure and began his attentions. Paine watched him watching her, both of them utterly focused on the caress he was bestowing. Her breath began to come short as he brought her closer and closer to the peak, the hard metal sliding against her, inside her. The wave crested and then paused, swelling impossibly high until it finally broke, and she grabbed his shoulders, nails digging in again as she shuddered and trembled against him. Before the tremors ended completely, she shifted backwards, finding his shaft and sheathing it.
He groaned, the sound ripping the air, and he moved his hands to her hips. She stopped her movements, wrapping her fingers in his and pulling their joined hands away, locking them down on either side of his head. "No," she said, her tone commanding. "My turn." It was not a secure hold; he could break out easily, with even half his strength, and they both knew it. He let her imprison him, oddly excited by the prospect of submitting to her, of abdicating control. Looking up into her flushed face, seeing the imperious demand in her posture, his loins tightened, a great hunger for her overwhelming him.
Satisfied that he had submitted to her will, she settled into place and started to rock, lifting her hips so high each time that he almost pulled free, then sliding back down with an achingly deliberate slowness. Her face was inches from his, her hair falling down and tickling his nose, their eyes locked together. Each thrust came a little more quickly than the last, the difference between each almost imperceptible, but the changes added up and soon she was riding him, man and woman both gasping and moaning as they came closer and closer to fulfillment. He lifted his head up enough to close the distance and took her mouth, heedless of the pain in his bitten lip, and their tongues met, twining and tasting, echoing the movements of their joining.
When the peak came at last, they reached it together, and Paine released Nooj's hands so that she could cling to him, her quivering body pressed against his as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her so close that she could hardly breathe. "I love you," she murmured into his neck. "Oh, how I love you."
"You are my anchor to life. You make me feel," he responded when he could speak again. "You give me reason to continue, Paine. I cannot let you go. You are my mirror, my echo, my soul." He held her as though to relax his embrace would be to risk being swept away by a tsunami. Burrowing his face in her hair, he shook like one seized by a sudden chill and she wrapped her body more closely about his to comfort and warm him.
After a while they became themselves again and sprawled beneath the bower like castaways tossed on a hospitable shore. They slowly turned to face one another and smiled with mutual and grateful recognition. He reached out with his right hand and tenderly cupped her pudenda in a gesture of protection and possession. She shifted only enough to rest her head on his broad smooth chest and suddenly sleep overcame them.
He awakened in the freshness of the pre-dawn hours, the time when everything seems possible and the spirit is eager to carefully inscribe shapely new words on a new page. His first movements indicated why he had woken so early as the claw marks on his back stung his memory to life and his swollen lip made his dry mouth more uncomfortable. His hair was tangled into clumps and obscured his vision, already blurred enough without his spectacles. It was not an auspicious beginning. He felt battered and torn, as though he had just fought a duel with a coeurl. Then he saw Paine dimly illuminated by the light of the second moon. She was lying sprawled at his side, her white skin blotched with patches of darkness. He gently touched one bruise and smiled crookedly. They had played rough games last night, testing one another and exploring what limits their radically changed relationship could bear. He had his answers and hoped she had hers. Only his reluctance to disturb her sleep kept him from wrapping her in his limbs, both flesh and machina, and holding her to him as closely as he could. They were one, finally; they had become a single being last night in the midst of the struggles and the fulfillment. All the barriers between them had been burned away in the passion of their joining. She was his; she was him. And he was one with her. He could no longer lie there beside her and not caress her, so he gingerly slid from their sleeping place and went to find some water to wash his mouth and splash his face.
When he returned with a filled flask for her refreshment when she woke, he saw that her eyes were open and gazing at him with serene acceptance. Without words, he handed her the bottle and she drank, not moving her eyes from his face. She set the container aside and reached up to pull him to her embrace. He lowered himself to the bedroll and with amusement felt her starfish palm press against his chest, checking for his heartbeat. Assured that he did, indeed, live, she kissed him with great care on the unswollen corner of his mouth, her tongue slipping between his lips like a kitten daring a taste of milk.
"I love you," he said when his mouth was his own again, the words slightly slurred by the distorted lip.
She said nothing, happiness and contentment overwhelming her beyond words. Instead she smiled at him as her hand lightly caressed his hair and the back of his neck. Then she drew him down for another tender, delicate kiss, closing her eyes to better drink in his touch, his scent, his presence. He loved her, he lived for her, he possessed her totally. It was everything she had ever hoped for and better than she could have possibly dreamed. With a soft sigh, she shifted and pressed the entire length of her body against his, molding herself to him, to her other half, her perfect fit.
They lay together, exchanging caresses for a long time. To Nooj, it seemed as though his machina hand felt the smoothness of her skin and the warmth of the blood suffusing her body. The phantom pain had become a phantom pleasure as he watched the synthetic fingers stroke her ear and the line of her jaw. He traced the swelling of her biceps as she pulled him more tightly to her and marveled in the grace of the legs which wrapped around his hips.
Without effort or decision, they were one again. She admitted him as naturally as a flower opens to the sun, drawing him inward to his goal. As they moved gently together, the discomforts of the earlier part of the night were transmuted into a growing sense of anticipation which climaxed in a transcendent moment of enduring passion. When the tremors had ceased, leaving behind the residue of fulfillment, they looked at one another through the eyes of the just created, the newest dwellers in paradise.
"I love you," he murmured into her hair. She spread her palm on his chest and smiled drowsily as she tumbled over the edge of joy into sleep.
Paine is on the Calm Lands. As always, it is a beautiful spring day, but there is no Kaith this time, only the dark woman with the flashing black eyes, and the wind has already risen, whipping around Paine's legs and face. The duel is intense, swords flashing at incredible speeds through the air, and has been going on for a very long time. Now the specter is pressing her advantages in height and weight, and Paine can feel herself starting to fade.
And then she notices another figure on the battlefield. It is Nooj, standing behind her opponent, some distance back. He is unarmed and too far away to come to her aid, but he raises his head just enough to meet her eyes. Just looking at him is enough to renew her, and so she stands up straighter and redoubles her attack. Her enemy is taken by surprise and put on the defensive, each parry a little slower, a little sloppier than the last. Paine realizes that they have somehow exchanged weapons, that now she is wielding Nooj's broadsword. In the waking world, it would be too heavy for her to even lift properly, but in dreams she is powerful and the hilt fits her hand as though it were made for her. She can feel other hands guiding her movements, one of flesh and one of metal, and she draws further strength from their presence. With a shout of triumph, Paine lifts the sword parallel to the ground and thrusts at her rival, running her through the breast. The other woman screams, collapses, and disappears in a burst of a thousand pyreflies, taking the sword with her.
Hot, sweaty, panting with exhaustion, Paine looks up to see Nooj limping toward her, closing the distance between them as the wind dies down. He stops, meets her eyes again, and nods, an almost imperceptible smile touching his lips.
Nooj woke up and Paine was crying. She had wrapped herself entirely around him, one hand stroking his hair while the other rested in its accustomed spot over his heart, her cheeks wet, her body wracked with silent sobs.
"Love?" he asked, dragging himself into wakefulness and pulling her tight. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Paine shook her head. "Nothing," she finally choked out. "Nothing at all." She raised her eyes to his face, and he saw that they were shining with relief. "It's real. You're really going to live."
"Of course I am. I gave you my word." He smiled indulgently and kissed away the remnants of her tears.