Breathe in. Breathe out.

By: Jessica Brandon

Breathe in. Breathe out. Again. Keep breathing. The young man sat on the edge of a cliff, facing the sunrise. Dark hair, the color of the sky before sunrise, wisped in and out of his vision, caught by the wind and held back only by a beige bandana. His feet dangled idly, casting no shadow in the still dim light. Over cast with seriousness, his face had a light dusting of freckles barely noticeable. It was his nature, to stare like that, and his brow was level over his eyes. He seemed almost without emotion. Almost, but for the way his clear green eyes revealed everything. At least to someone who knew him, those eyes were the window to his inner feelings and thoughts.

Below him the world spread out in all directions like a blanket. This was his favorite place. Here he could be quiet. He could think without worrying about his father and younger brother. The people below were waking up and leaving their huts in his village, and he only watched, a diminutive figure against the backdrop of the mountain. He watched his brother run to the water to wash before anyone else was up. Dunny was self conscious that way. His stomach twisted sharply as he watched his father leave the tent and walk away from the village. He did so every morning, walked out to the desert to his wife's, the man's mother's grave. Raw grating pain beat inside him with a tumult of emotion still. She had known him. She had understood him when all he and his father seemed capable of doing was butting heads. When she died he lost that connection to reality, he lost his spring board and friend. Dunny was more like their father Ira than the man could ever hope to be. But that was nothing he could change. It was pointless to worry about things he couldn't change.

As the sun rose it bathed him in its warm light and brought a piece of comfort to his troubled soul. He whispered a thousandth good bye to his life giver and stood slowly, aware that Dunny would be looking for him soon. Chores would start and life would go on, on and on.

His grey cloak hung slanted over his left shoulder but he never bothered to fix it. Like everyone else in the village, he wore leather sandals and carried water with him everywhere. The sandals were not convenient for climbing down the mountain, but he was used to it. Climbing was second nature, and his body was firm. His muscles were well used, he wasn't very large, but he was strong.

The mountain path led downward steeply and he was careful to pick his footholds wisely. His thoughts focused so entirely on his downward plunge that the scream which split the air behind him sent him tumbling a few steps in surprise before he could reach out and grab a tree to steady himself.

Instinctively he turned and sprinted back up the path and veered towards the direction of the scream. Eye scanning, squinting in the still dim light, he saw the ground disturbed near one ledge and knelt quickly to check below. A few feet down he saw a female body lying with her legs twisted in a position no one's body could hope to achieve naturally. His breath caught in his throat and threatened to break his stoic manner.

How am I going to get her up here?

"Can you hear me?" His normally soft voice sounded unnatural when raised.

The girl's head lifted. She looked up and met his eyes with hers, she was clearly in tears. Her face was desperate.

"Help me!" She called back, unable to even reach out an arm.

"I'm coming down," he answered, quieter than before. Quickly forming a plan to tie a harness around his waist for her to sit in while he climbed back up, he unfastened his cloak and cast it aside, revealing muscular bare arms and a long white scar. And then he began pulling a length of rope from his pack and crossing it around his torso. Whimpering noises reached his ears as he moved on instinct, fingers and nerves jumping to life as he lay on his stomach and slid down the side, picking his way carefully down to the ledge. As he climbed he planned each of his footholds for the way back up. Her soft sobs became audible in his last three steps down.

What is she doing out here? Where did she come from? He left his questions inside, assuming she would explain once this was over. After another glance he grimaced, her leg looked broken, or at least out of joint. He knelt over her, going to work without so much as an introduction. Ripping away cloth from his tunic, bracing her leg with a strong stick from a nearby tree, he wrapped it tightly and tied the knots off. She whimpered but didn't cry out. Her soft blue eyes watched him work quietly and when he sat back, unraveling his rope, she sat up carefully.

"I'm Alana," her voice was almost inaudible.

"Jake," he replied, unaware of the curtness in his voice as he tied off a loop around his waist. She didn't seem bothered by it. She was only thankful to have a savior.

He stood and offered her a hand to stand as well.

"Don't stand on your leg." He frowned as she hissed, gathering her in his arms and slipping the harness over her head. She automatically put her arms around his neck and held on tight. Pausing for half a moment, Jake couldn't discern the origin of the sudden tingling all through his body. He reached up and lifted them both up and up, never missing a beat or a foothold. She closed her eyes and pressed her face against his back, afraid to look down, he assumed. When they reached the top he found a secure hold, helped her climb onto the ledge with his free hand, and pulled himself up swiftly afterwards. A little winded by the whole ordeal, he sat down and leaned forward on his bent knees. She twisted herself awkwardly until she sat beside him.

"Thank you," her whispered voice fell in the morning air. When she fell she thought she'd be left down there for dead.

Jake didn't answer; he turned to nod at her and stopped, his eyes flashed as he saw her for the first time in the bright sunlight. Her hair was full, curly and golden. Her eyes were the softest blue he had ever seen. Even with tear streaks on her cheeks she was beautiful. She smiled genuinely.

"You're welcome," he whispered back. Staring longer than customary. She stared back.

"I would have been lost without you," she smiled softly again and leaned forward. His eyes widened when he realized her intent and closed when felt the warmth of her lips on his. This kiss again, lingered longer than customary.

What are you doing Jake? You don't even know her! He broke the kiss and looked back over the cliff. Hot pins and needles shot through him, and his stomach lurched all at once. Head spinning, hardly able to recognize his surroundings, Jake held his breath as she sat back, a little surprised with herself as well, but far from embarrassed. After another long and awkward pause, he stood and untied the rope, trying his best to ward away the shaking. To make his vision clear again. To try and forget how very soft this complete stranger felt. He stuffed it back into his bag and put it on before picking his cloak up. She sat up straighter and he saw that her clothes were torn from the fall. He reconsidered himself, hesitating for a moment, and then draped the cloak around her shoulders. She looked up, still smiling and struggled with the fastener. Fighting a suffusion of red over his face and neck, he leaned over her to help and she warmed at the closeness.

"You should be more careful around here," he mentioned, slipping his hands under her arms and helping her to her feet.

"I'm sorry," was all she said. His curiosity started to burn in the back of his head. Normally he wouldn't have to ask to have someone explain things to him. Most, if not all, women he knew loved to tell a story. But Alana kept mostly quiet as he helped her along. They made slow progress until half way down she suggested he carry her on his back. She could lock her legs around his waist and wrap her arms around his shoulders. Because the path grew steadily shallower from that point on he agreed and hefted her onto his back. Immediately engulfed in her smell, he felt that same swirling starting within. A dizzying cadence that threatened to consume him. Her face was beside his left cheek. Her hands against his chest, her chest pressed against his back. He could feel her every breath and smell her. She smelled fresh like the desert after rain. This might have been a very bad idea…

"Jake!" A tiny figure bellowed from the village limits. He didn't need to come closer for Jake to recognize the mannerisms of his young brother. He could feel Alana smile again against his skin. That brought his thoughts to her face when she smiled, and her lips. He reflected on their kiss, allowing himself to consider another for less than a second before jerking his thoughts back under control.

"What happened?" Dunny asked when he reached them. His eyes were wide and his mouth hung open. She is beautiful, Jake thought to himself, sympathizing with his brother's reaction.

"She fell," Jake stated in his no nonsense way, gently hitching her back up and scowling at his kin's obvious interest in the girl.

"I was out for a walk, I couldn't sleep, it was dark," one of her hands fluttered to her forehead and back down.

"I've never seen you before, where do you come from? How long will you be here?" Dunny chatted cheerfully along side them as Jake brought her to his father's hut. Ira was the leader; he would know what to do. He could call the medicine woman and they would take care of Alana. He wouldn't have to worry or think about her face and her kiss.

"I live in Terue," she started. Dunny gasped, Terue was on the other side of the mountain.

"You must have gone for a three day walk!" He exclaimed, not letting her finish.

She laughed. The sound tickled his ears and sent another jolt through him that almost caused him to stumble.

"No, I was visiting friends in the mountains," she explained to Dunny. Jake stopped listening and starting thinking, why didn't she ask me to take her back to her friends?

Dunny held back the flap of their father's hut and let Jake enter with his precious load.

He shifted her weight gently so she could lean on him and sit down on the medicine couch. He leaned down to help steady her and when she was settled she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him surprisingly close in a hug.

"Thank you," she whispered again. He let himself be hugged, trying not to smell her. Ignoring the overwhelming need to touch every part of her. He thought once more of kissing her before unintentionally shaking his head and carefully pulled away. She seemed to understand his feelings and let go. Her face showed no signs of being upset. He was glad. Dunny's face was there to greet him when he turned, an eyebrow raised and mischief playing in his expression. Jake glowered, flustered, angry at the heated flush he knew had swallowed up his face.

"I'm going to get father," he looked away from both of them and marched out of the tent.

"Do you want your cloak?" Dunny called after him. Jake wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a dig at him or an actual question.

"When I got to their cabin they weren't there," Alana's voice quivered just a little at the end, and Jake frowned. He considered putting a comforting arm around her, wondered if that would cross any lines, and decided against it. "So I went looking for them. I went to another's cabin and found a message for me saying they were heading to Kippour for a bit. I was on my way back when I slipped and fell. I thought I was going to die there. My family thought I'd be with my friends in the mountains for a few days and my friends didn't know I was coming," she sighed and turned. He wished it was brighter out so he could see her eyes. "Then you came along and rescued me." She hugged him again.

It was three days later. The medicine woman had healed her leg on the first day but recommended she rest for at least four days before returning home. To avoid embarrassment from Dunny, Jake only went to visit her early in the morning when his father was gone and Dunny was bathing. He thought about what would have happened if he didn't stay on his cliff late that morning. If he had missed her, never gotten to stare into her eyes or kiss her...

Stop it Jake! Jerking abruptly he scolded himself again. When she jumped as well he realized that he had automatically slid his arms around her and she was leaning into his chest. Then he realized that neither of them had spoken in that long span of time. But when he looked down at her, and he watched her chest rise and fall rhythmically he knew she was sleeping. The sun lit slowly in the room, brightening with ever second, and he swallowed a warring need inside him. He did not want to be there if Dunny came in, or his father. But she looked ten times more beautiful while she slept and he couldn't bring himself to do it. Instead he carefully lay down with her, assuring himself that he would only be a few more minutes. That she would wake soon and he could leave. He watched her face carefully, memorizing every line and shadow. Slowly his eyes began to fall and he fell asleep beside her.

"Alana?" Dunny knocked on her door. When there was no answer he opened it a crack and hoped to catch a peek of the beautiful girl sleeping. Instead he saw her curved up against his brother's body spoon-fashion. He smiled and tried not to laugh out loud as he shut the door. He knew about Jake and the early morning visits. He must have fallen asleep after being up so late the night before on patrol. Thinking about patrol made Dunny frown. Tonight was his night...

When Alana's eyes finally fluttered open again she found herself gazing into Jake's. The endless green therein caressing her face gently, assuring her things that only her heart could understand. She smiled warmly.

"How long have you been awake?" She lifted her arms and stretched.

"Long enough," he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer. Jumping at the electric feeling of his body against hers, she let her arms fall gently around him, her breath caught in her chest and she could only watch him as his face inched closer. Eye gently drifting shut, she could look away until he had pressed his lips against hers. A conflagration of heat burst forth then, searing her soul, burning his kiss into her mind. She would never forget it, and welcomed the kiss while meeting his outreach equally. He stopped thinking. He didn't want to think anymore, he just wanted to be with her. He wanted to express his feelings before she had to leave.

It was the beginning of something he could almost grasp. Something that felt like forever, and made it seem not nearly long enough at the same time. They parted slowly, coming up for air, eyes still closed, and he pressed his forehead against hers. The room swirled, tossed them back and forth while they lay still. He used his mental discipline to stop any thoughts of regret and just focused on her eyes.

"You're beautiful," he breathed. He felt safe with her. He could sense her heart and knew that he was safe to talk to her. She looked into his eyes, seeming to understand everything just by one glance. She only smiled back to him and then nestled her head into his shoulder. He closed his eyes, wanting to stay there and hold her for the rest of the day.

When he opened his eyes again they darted to the window and he caught a glimpse of the sun's position. He bolted upright. "It's past noon!" He exclaimed. The thoughts he had been trying to push away came back with a force he couldn't fight. Not on his own anyway.

"Don't leave," Alana's hands crawled up his back and sent shivers down his spine. She tugged gently on his shoulders and pulled him back down with her. "Don't leave me," she repeated, kissing him again. He relaxed and let her convince him. She was intoxicating, undeniable, a force of nature in herself. She had the power to destroy him right there, in one movement of her hand. When they were settled again she took a breath as if to say something then stayed silent.

"What is it?" He asked. She stared at the ceiling and opened her mouth again.

"I never thought I'd act this way with anyone I just met," she sounded thoughtful but Jake's face started to turn red again. She felt his embarrassment and quickly turned to explain. "But I like it."

"You do?" The surprise in his voice made him frown.

She giggled, "yes."

He didn't say anything for a long time and she had just started to fall asleep again when he spoke.

"I like it too."

That was two weeks ago. Now Jake sat on his cliff, watching the village as usual. He replayed their parting again and again in his mind. He walked her back home, a three day journey. He told her all about his family, his mother, his life, and she shared her life with him. They had grown closer and he almost didn't come back. But he was the prince. When his father turned sixty next year he would have to step down and let Jake take over leadership. He had responsibilities and couldn't ignore them. Even for love...

"I think I'm in love with you," she had whispered into his lips. Her could hear the tears in her eyes and kissed her again.

"Me too," he had searched her eyes for reassurance. When she could get permission from her father she would come back. That was their arrangement. She would send message to him in a couple weeks. He was counting the very minutes until he could touch her again, until he could hear her voice. If only he had more money he would pay her father and take her for his own. But the Shakli were poor and he would just have to wait.

Jake closed his eyes and remembered their last kiss, he brought his knees up to his chest and tried to close the hole he felt growing in his chest. Breathe in. Breathe out. Again. Keep breathing...