This chapter is a stronger M than usual.

If you want or need to skip this, plot resumes in the last paragraph.

Also, as this is a double update, make sure you read Ch. 24 first.

I near wear a path in the bedroom floor with my pacing, back and forth in front of the green walls, the big beds, going to the window, the chests, the door. The sun is starting to sink below the city walls, and there's still no sign of the General. Would that the bond be working, and us anywhere but this city, so that I could know he was close by.

I have more to think about than I've ever wanted. The Queen's request... it isn't just an excuse to get me away. If someone like her says it's important to the war, then no doubt it is. Paraz thinks it's a chance to give me the things I've always said I've wanted. Jara thinks we can talk them around, but I'm not so sure of it, not with the kingdom on the line. And Alim, damn him, has thrown another pole into all of this spinning water. What will he do to the General if I leave? And what does it say about me, that I'm willing to let him?

The door opens and Asotegi steps in, his hand pausing in the act of swinging off his cap when he sees me. "Calentine?" he calls. "Are you—all right?"

"Not hardly," I growl. The sight of him makes me angry and relieved all at once; I want to take his dark hair between my hands and either kiss him or give him a shake. "I spoke to the Queen."

"I see." He slowly slips off his cap, turning to set it neatly on the hook by the door and, perhaps, to get a little distance from me. "And your answer?"

"Why do you want me to leave?" I throw at him instead.

His shoulders settle, his head bowing slightly towards the stone of the wall. The setting sun casts him in darkness, his uniform gold with the fire burning in the lanterns along the walls. "I do not. I want you to stay safe," he replies quietly. "There is a difference."

"Safe?" I demand, grabbing his arm. "How is sending me away going to make me safe?"

"The eastern war is nothing like the west," he says to the wall. "There soldiers, armies, humans die, and I would keep you as far from that as I can."

"Oxshit!" I snap. "I could slip and break my neck tomorrow no matter where I am! Would you really keep me away for years just because I might be safer?"

"I do not... I... I understand your anger. Nonethless, I feel that the west is still safer for you than where I am headed."

"Is that really why you're doing this?"

"I... why do you ask?"

"I also spoke to Alim."

"Oh gods," he mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I can only imagine that conversation. What did he say?"

I take in a breath, and growl, "That you expected me to betray you!"

"Betray?" His head jerks towards me, looking truly startled.

"He said you expected me to get a wife! Do you really think I would do something like that, without so much as a beg-your-pardon?"

"It is common amongst my people that, while separated, one might find another spouse," Asotegi says slowly, turning at last to face me again. "Especially if children are involved. It is expected, even."

"It's not in mine!" I shout. "We stay together for life! If you want me to marry, then you're saying you want me gone!"

"No, I—" he flinches in my arms, his head hanging. "I did not consider, did not—remember. That is not what I meant to imply, and I am sorry you took it as such. Forgive me."

Feeling sick, I break away, shoving a hand through my hair as I get my distance across the hard stone floor. "Right, but... damn it, I wanted a few weeks to think about this, not to be sent halfway across the kingdom! Finding someone to marry, I..." I resist the urge to kick the heavy bed and go over to the window instead, digging my fingers into the wood frame. "I'd be giving you up without my own say-so," I say in a low voice.

"You wanted time to think about—what? I thought what plagued you was relationships, but I assumed you meant its physical components."

"That's right. I was planning to consider whether I wanted to find a wife, or stay with you," I say to the window. Outside it, a million people with much less complicated lives are doing their shopping, loving, going to bed. I envy them. "I never thought the choice would be forced on me like this."

"A moment." When I turn back, he is staring at me, his hands loosening and clenching at his sides. "I think there is something I do not understand. When you told me that you wished to return to your village to consider our relationship, surely you did not mean—you would determine if you would stay with me forever? When you say 'find a wife or stay with me', you mean exclusively? For life?"

Putting it that way makes my anger give an embarrassed sort of fizzle. "Well, yeah," I murmur. "If I introduce you to my aunt, then it's a done deal. That's why I need to give it some thought. It's... quite a decision, what with you being a noble and a man and everything."

"I—you—" I have never seen him at such a loss for words, nor so pale, going nigh white as the window frame as he sinks down onto one of the wooden chests. "You are—serious?"

My heart sinks down with him. "Should I not be? Er, I guess I never thought of asking you, since I figured you knew. Do you not want me around that long?" The thought twists my gut like nothing else, and I try to remind myself that I haven't done anything thinking yet, that I shouldn't be asking this until I know. But what's the point of figuring it out at all, if he doesn't want me around?

He covers his face with his hands, curling forwards. "Gods of my ancestors," is all he murmurs in reply.

"Er... Paraz?"

"I... I must do some thinking of my own. A few minutes, please. Gods of my ancestors."

"That seems reasonable," I say, hesitant-like. "But, um, can you at least tell me if you're angry?"

"No. No," he repeats, lowering his hands again to give me a very slight, wan smile. "I am not angry, merely very—you know, I am not confident I know the word for it. What is it, when you realize that the world is very different from everything you ever thought, and the mistakes you have made with this misinformation may be insurmountable?"

"I've no idea about the word," I say, "but I'm well familiar with the feeling."

"That, then." He rises, holds a hand out towards me. "I assure you, I am merely so completely overwhelmed that I cannot even give you the most base of the reassurances you deserve. Perhaps a return to normalcy is in order? I will have food sent up, and... perhaps we should both freshen up before dinner."

I can't tell if he's saying I smell or if he just wants that time to think, but I don't see any way to refuse, even if the anxiety is tearing little shreds through me. "Sounds all right," I manage.

"Good. Anush will show you where to go."

He waves me out the door, where the little old housekeeper stands, beaming at me. I stare a long moment at the gap as the wood swings shut, then sigh and turn back to her. "I've been told to freshen up," I tell her. "What does this entail, like?"

"Not to worry, dear," she tells me, taking my arm in her wrinkled hands. "You just follow me."

She leads me through the house, down a hallway I've not set foot in before, to a wooden door set in the gray stone. Bowing, she pushes the door open. The room beyond is devoted to a basin fit for a king, a roaring fire, and a windowed view of the whole city.

I step inside, staring around me. Someone has taken the time to paint scenes on the walls of wading cranes and river reeds. Fresh flowers are tied over the door, a few petals scattered on the floor, and the whole place smells like spring. "What's all this?"

"Oh, they love a good cleaning, says it starts life over with a fresh slate. The lords and ladies often take an oil scrape, but I thought you might be more comfortable with a hot bath."

I'd never heard of the former, and never had the latter; sometimes the sea would be warm, but that was the closest any of us got. "But the dzali hate water," I murmur. "Why is this even here?"

"Might be he had this ordered for you, then. In you go, dear."

He built a bathing room for me... Those sure make it look like he planned on me sticking around. But not forever, apparently. So why would he do it? Men have gone mad, faced with problems like this.

The bath all the splendor the bards sing about, with sweet-smelling herbs floating in the soothing water and the smoothest soap I've ever seen. I'm too rattled to enjoy it properly, but if he wants time to think, then soaking in a hot bath while I wait isn't the worst of hardships.

As I'm lazing in the water, one of the stable boys comes in to wash my hair. I tell him I don't need help, but he says if his hands don't come back pruned his grandmother will just send him in again, so I submit to this odd luxury, too. Afterwards, he brushes it with an ivory comb and binds it back with a gray ribbon.

"Just the shade to match your eyes," he tells me. "Granny's been hanging onto it ever since she spotted it in the market."

The staff think I'll stay, enough to buy me presents. That, too, is something to consider.

While I dry myself by the fire, the boy runs out and comes back with an armful of cloth. "You're supposed to pick whatever you like," he tells me. "They were gifts, I think, but none of 'em got my lord duke's size correct. Everyone thinks he's taller than he is, since he's so fierce."

All of the robes are far too fine of a cloth for me, and I end up with the plainest of them, a long bronze-cloth coat with some sort of flowers embroidered neatly at the edges and linens beneath. It is the only one that doesn't have sleeves that droop half to the ground.

Instead of the bedroom, he leads me to a balcony, a cozy open space with lanterns lit to accent the stars and a fine, thin fabric hung between the squared marble pillars to keep out insects. The wooden floor is covered with brightly stitched rugs in blues and red and golds, embroidered pillows, and a low, round table, heavy with platters and cups painted with hillfolk patterns.

Paraz is seated by himself in his folded-leg style, and, despite everything, he takes my breath clean away. I don't normally care a fig for fancy outfits, but the rich cream robe he wears makes him all but glow in the night, its red trimmings setting off his dark hair and those emerald green eyes.

We stare at each other for a moment, me in the doorway, him with his head tilted back, the pulse beating in his long neck. "Do you want me to stay with you?" I ask in a low voice. "Or do you just want me around for a few years?"

"I never considered the possibility," he says, equally quiet. "Not once. You must understand that it reflects in no way on you, only my past. Words seem inadequate, but I can only say that the thought makes me... breathless."

It's a start. I relax into a smile, and he very slowly smiles back. "I'll accept that," I say, then nod to the table. "So... what's all this?"

"I thought we might submit fully to civilization, and have evening tea," he says, rising.

"Then what—Your hair!" Before I can help myself, I cross the space to take a bit in my hand, spreading the soft, thin strands between my fingers. Instead of black, they are a dark, dusky purple, their color rich when taken apart and only just different from his normal shade when they all lay together.

He makes a soft sound, a blush starting on his cheeks, and I remember a little late that he tends to be sensitive about the topic. "Ah... yes. As it is improper for formal events, the dye was designed to wash out quickly with certain crushed powders. Though this is not formal, I thought you might be concerned it was the pink you did not care for."

"I really wouldn't care if it was," I say firmly, setting the lock back down and smoothing it back off his face like he prefers it. "It looks—nice. Like right after sunset."

"Thank you, I..." He clears his throat, still looking hopelessly embarrassed and pleased as a parrot besides. "Tea?" he asks faintly.

To spare his feelings, I nod and sit with him, mimicking his posture on the cushion next to the table and setting my staff off to the side. "If tea is the drink of civilization, I guess I'll have to have some," I say, "but I always associated cities with ale."

His eyes crease a little as he pours from a metal, long-stemmed pot into two of the cups. "I fear tea is all I have. Here." Asotegi places one of the cups before me and the other in front of himself.

The tea is light and flowery, tasting of fruit and something sweet, but it could be swill-water for all I notice it. I drain the cup and blurt, "I'm sorry to be rude and bring up serious topics at the table, but... you still haven't told me if you want me to stay. I mean, if I have to go to Rzalez's castle still, not forever."

Asotegi sips at his own tea, watching a spot somewhere over my shoulder. I wonder if he's nervous, too, but it doesn't show on his calm face. "I still am convinced it is the safest place for you. Of course, as you are your own person, you may make your own decision, and I will back it before the Queen."

"Right," I murmur. "And I thank you for the consideration. But, uh, you do want me to come back, right?"

Now his gaze flicks towards me with a heat hotter than the flames that took down the castle, a desire stronger than any of the walls around us. "Yes," he says simply. "Are you hungry? Please, take anything you'd like."

Still reeling from that look, I try to focus on the food. I don't recognize most of what's lying out on the table and can't keep any of the names straight as he tells me them, save that there seems to be a lot more "soaked in berry juice for a week before it was baked" and "carefully preserved in oak" instead of my preferred "chopped its head off this morning." They all taste great, even if I do still long for Auntie's fried eel.

He fills up my plate again when I clear it, frowning to my objections that I am full. "You do not eat enough," he says sternly, reminding me of Emelia. "Should I send food home with you? Is the village well stocked?"

"I'll be fine," I reply, laughing. "But thanks."

He sighs, shaking his head. "As you will. Supplies are more difficult to come by in the East; we may not have your ships to rescue us."

I'd been so wrapped up in worrying about my own journey that I'd not spared a thought of his, though it bites through me now. "Um… you'll take care, right?" To hide the gruff worry in my voice, I add, "No running off into the woods without blankets, or the like?"

The corner of his mouth curls again, an effect which, combined with the lanterns' golden lights, makes him so lovely I can barely stand it. I have to swallow and look down at my food. "I will aspire to do my best. Perhaps I shall even pack an extra sheet."

"Good," I say, a little too sharp. "I'd like to find you in the same state I've left you."

"Mm." He lifts one of the little dough balls covered in crushed nuts, then sets it back down, rolling it neatly to the side of his plate. "You have made up your mind to return, then? I thought you wished to think the matter over."

"Well, I—" I swallow, watching him tentatively. "Even if I obey and go back to Rzalez, pardon, Duke Rzalez's castle, I don't have to get a wife. I can come back after, right?"

"You will always be welcome wherever I am," he says at once, then smiles slightly. "Even if you bring a wife to meet me. You are still my naval adviser, are you not?"

I grab his wrist, scanning his face, but there is only a sort of weary kindness there. "I am," I say. "Always."

That emotion flashes again in his eyes at my words. He pulls his arm away gently, wipes his fingers on a rough cloth—unlike the townsfolk, they don't have water bowls, of course—and sets it aside, rising. I tilt my head back as he comes to stand over me, his face too lost in the shadows overhead for me to read it. "Have you had your fill?" he asks quietly.

Nothing in me could say no. The butterflies suddenly tumbling through me worse than ever, I nod and rise too. "Couldn't eat another bite," I say honestly.

His hand reaches out, trailing down the open neckline of my robe. "None?" he asks in a low voice.

I'd seen the General trembling with lust, and wild with it, but never like this, almost—flirting, sort of. I can banter with a city girl all day, but I've never been very good at the honest sort of flirting, mostly because it is rare for anyone to do it to me, and the experiences afterwards never turn out very well. "Er," I say, feeling my cheeks warm. "Um. You know, Alim also told me that if I wanted to change your mind about sending me away, I should try to seduce you."

He sighs, lowering his eyes. "That does sound like him."

"Right, well, I wanted to say that's not what I want to do. I mean, I don't want to do that, this isn't about manipulation or anything, I just... I just really want to kiss you, if that's all right."

The corner of his mouth twitches helplessly. To make up for my foolishness, I turn to actions instead, cupping the back of his head and pressing a kiss against those smiling lips. There's honey on there, the taste of the tea, and I've just realized that I volunteered myself to be two months away from this. Groaning, I pull him closer, clenching my hand into the fine strands of his hair as if that will keep him near.

Just as eager, he backs me up against one of the columns with his kisses, his fingers working their way into the edges of my robe. It slides off my shoulders until the cool night wind bites through the thin cloth beneath it. Asotegi, though, is as warm as a bonfire, and with him pressed against me I have no complaints.

"You are," he murmurs above me, pulling away just enough for me to realize that I've half slid down the column through pleasure, "so lovely," and he kisses me again.

It's an odd compliment, but if thinking me lovely means he wants to do that to my neck—I sag further down the column—then he can call me anything he wants.

There's so much we need to talk about; I should push him away and make him give me a straight answer, figure all this out. But I can't swallow back all my whimpers as he traces along those nerves with his tongue, only his hands, hard on my shoulders, keeping me upright. How he can make me simply want to stay here and tremble for days on end, I'll never know. I've never been one to just take pleasure, but every time he touches me, I can only wait, aching, for the next one.

Auntie didn't raise me to be greedy, though. "What do you want?" I ask when I can. "And don't go be saying 'you' again, because that's just not fair."

"Unfair, but true." He nuzzles against my ear, making me shiver.

"I mean it," I growl.

Kissing the skin there, he brushes his tongue against the side of what must be a thousand nerves, and I slip down further. "Anything," he whispers into it. "I swear it. You could do naught but kiss my fingertips, or strike me down, or have me on the rooftop. I do not care."

Some might long for a lover like that, but I'd be happier for a straight answer. I yank him down for another kiss, and this time he gasps. He does seem to like a little forcefulness, which seems strange, for a man who is so used to others jumping at his orders. Maybe he likes someone to call the orders once in a while for him. Or maybe it's just that I'm showing interest in the proceedings, when it's been one-sided for so long.

I try to straighten up for better purchase, but my damned knee gives out and I drop back with a yelp. Asotegi catches me before I can fall so much as a hairsbreadth, setting me back on my feet like I weigh as much as one of those pastries on the table.

"Perhaps we should return to the bedroom?" he murmurs.

I don't even remember how we make it there. It seems impossible to let go of him, my hands roaming wherever they can reach, his mouth hot and wet on every bit of my skin. I hope like hell the people that work here have gone elsewhere, because I don't think I can stop.

When we are through the door, I shove him back against the wall like I had wanted to do in the tent, meeting his lips hard. The cry he makes against my mouth is like a lightning bolt all through me, and I know if he asked me what I wanted, I would say this; knowing I can make him sound like that, like his every nerve is on fire, is the best feeling in the world. His hands slide desperately across my back, pulling me closer and closer.

Pinning him like this makes my skin sing, my heart thunder in my chest. It makes Astoegi softer and rougher at once, now moving where I press him, his lips answering to mine, but with a ripple of muscles underneath that remind me he could have me halfway across the room in an instant if he wanted to. But he doesn't; he lets me run a hand down his chest, shivering but not pushing me away as he sometimes does when I brush against a sensitive spot on his ribs. He gaps when my fingers reach the hard bone of his hip, his eyes half shut as I kiss my way down his neck.

I can't help but notice the robes make it clear what the thick army trousers do not. He is hard against my leg, a growing patch of wetness sinking through the layers of my own clothes. Plain as dirt, it reminds me that he is a man—not that I hadn't noticed it before, but sometimes I can think he is just Paraz, and ignore the rest.

Now that I've noticed, it's difficult to ignore, for more reasons than that. He's never complained about the ache, not once, in all the nights we have been kissing, or even hinted that that just kissing isn't enough for him. Now… his tongue slides against mine, and when I groan his hips twitch, just the slightest bit, against mine. And just as subtly he moves back, pressing himself further against the wall, so as not to bother me. Kindness, as usual.

But it would hardly fair for me to mind, when I'm aching as badly as I can ever remember. Every time he makes one of those faint noises, it grows worse, and yet the kisses are so sweet I can't stop them. It is a pleasure I can hardly bear but can't seem to give up. Maybe this is why he hasn't complained, if this is what he's been feeling.

His lips, soft as silk, his tongue, wet and pleading—"Calentine," he groans against my mouth, and I grab his shoulders so hard I fear I might leave bruises, desperate to get closer to him somehow.

When I slide my hands down his chest, brushing against his skin through the thin cloth, he cries out in a way that makes my cock leap just from the sound. I want a thousand things I can't name, his touch, his breath hot and desperate against my cheek. His robe comes apart under my hands, giving me so much golden skin to taste I hardly know where to start.

"Wait," he whispers instead, the opposite of everything that pounds through me. His eyes are half-lidded, gaze jerking here and there on my face like a trapped animal's, as if only his will holds him back. "The bench there. Sit on it."

If he asked me to leap from the window, I'd do so without hesitation. Still, it seems a terrible thing to back away from him, like stepping of my own will into ice water, even that short distance to the bench against the wall nearby.

The view, though, is worth it—his nigh-wild eyes glittering in the firelight, his lips red and redder with kissing, parted and panting as he stares at me. His bare chest glistens, and that enviable warrior's frame makes my breath catch again.

Asotegi steps forward and, as if he does not intend to, puts his hands on my shoulders, his thumb running up and down the side of my neck. It's not a bad thing to be looking up at him, when I've had my head down for so long. "Yeah?" I whisper, in case he needs prompting to remember that he's supposed to be kissing me again.

But instead he kneels with that grace I always envy, not breaking gaze as he crouches between my legs. It brings him uncomfortably close to the mound creasing my robes, and I try to tug at the edge of the material some, as if that will make it less obvious.

"Please," he says simply. I have no idea what he's asking for, but I'm nodding all the same. I would give him almost anything, now.

He reaches forward, splitting the robe beneath the belt, and I have to resist the urge to pull it right back; the part of me that always remembers he is a great lord and I a poor villager says that presenting him with anything laying under there is probably a sin. Then again, it is him doing it in the first place. Chiding myself to patience, I clench my fists at my side and try to remember how to breathe.

Still watching me, he parts the linens as well, and then I really do forget. I honestly can't figure out what he's doing. It seems like sex, more than kissing at least, but he's taken none of his clothes off and the sex I'd known, there wasn't any clothes. All I know is that it is very, very hard to think with him looking at me that way.

"Close your eyes," he murmurs, and that does give me pause, because it seems an awful lot to ask of a man when his privates are hanging around in the air and he isn't sure what's going on. But I trust him. I shut my eyes, even lean my head back against the wall, like I do this every day and am relaxed as a summer's day. Surely not nigh shaking with nerves and wonderment.

There's a light touch on my cock—his fingers, I think, then Asotegi's fingers, and have to swallow suddenly, because that seems like a privilege I haven't earned. I don't even know if I can bear to touch him yet without turning coward, and yet he's willing to run his thumb up the whole of my length in a way that makes me shiver down to my toes.

Then another touch at the top, and I almost tell him just a little to the left. It feels wonderful, and yet it's just a tiny bit off of the spot I know makes me sigh.

But then my world bursts into stars and colors and a thousand tumbling things. There is wet heat everywhere, everything just right, and I shout and open my eyes and nearly come on the spot, because it is his mouth sliding down my length and I've never felt the like.

It's more than just the feeling, though there is plenty of that, and more than just the way his tongue touches down at the base, yanking a cry from me before I can help it. It's his expression, the furrow in his brow that he always gets when he's concentrating. The lay of his long dark eyelashes against his cheeks. One of his hands rests on my thigh, the other sliding between my legs to rest on the spot his mouth can't reach, almost delicate. Everywhere he touches burns so sweetly I can barely breathe.

He pulls up again, and down, and this time is even more overwhelming than the first. My nerves are fraying every which way, I have to keep fighting an urge to shut my legs right quick, because it's all too much; it's the most heavenly feeling I've known, and the most tormenting all at once. My hands itch to move him away or pull him closer or do something, anything, to make him feel like this too. When I groan, his fingers twitch, tightening against me in a way that makes me grit my teeth together and my own hands clench tighter.

"Paraz," I gasp, and his eyes open at once, flicking up to me green and intense. That, too, is almost too much. If I get any harder, I don't know how I'll live. "Can you—" I mean to ask him to stop, to let me figure this out. His tongue brushes me again, and I can only groan and say, "Faster?"

Something warms in his gaze, and then his eyes drop shut again as he obeys.

I end up with my fingers digging furrows into the wood, curled over him with my lip caught between my teeth as he goes on and on. A heat rises in me to match his movements, pulling whimpers unbidden from me as it grows, making my legs burn to move and my hips to rise, no matter how I struggle to keep them still.

But even something as perfect as this can't go on forever. When I feel a sudden tightness, I gasp, "Don't know if you—maybe humans are different—your mouth, I don't—"

He touches his fingers to my lip in answer; at least I hope it's an answer. Since I'm desperate for any part of him, I kiss them, put my tongue to them, and he makes a noise himself, no matter that his mouth is still on me.

Then his angle changes, and I nigh black out, the world wavering before my eyes as the fire tumbles out of me, and still he's moving, until I can't bear any more pleasure and not go join the saints in the sky.

As I gasp and shudder, Asotegi rises to his feet again, wiping his mouth absently with the back of his hand. There seems to be a question about him, but I only have one answer, which is to gasp, "Holy fuck."

He smiles then, in an amused and self-satisfied way, and I can do little more but stare up in frank admiration. When I can remember how to breathe again, I manage, "You can seduce me... any time you want…"

"That was not my intention, either." Reaching out to cup my cheek, he looks warm and happy and relaxed, a mood on him as rare as the emeralds in his eyes. "If you can stand, the bed may be more comfortable."

He might as well have told me that the moon is more comfortable, too. But the floor seems mighty inviting. I slip my way off the bench, leaning my head back against it as I watch him. "Come here?" I beg, tugging on the bottom of his robe.

"Anush may not forgive the stains on this silk," he murmurs, but he kneels down beside me, his cream robes meeting the gray stone floor again. As he's arranging himself, he winces and rubs at his knees, but stops the instant he sees I'm watching, yanking his hand away. "I, ah," he says, finding sudden interest in looking elsewhere, "may not have thought that fully through."

I snort, amused—anything would make me happy right now—and place a hand on his knee myself. "I've heard practice leads to better planning," I tell him, stretching out on the floor like a cat. "Might be that would fix the problem."

A smile flickers across his face again, but seems oddly strained. I can't figure out why, until I shift my grip on his leg and he sucks in a short breath of air. Right—I might be ready to take a nap in a sunbeam, but he's still suffering without relief.

It makes my contentedness fade a little, as I consider. "Er," I admit quietly, tracing a circle in the smooth cloth with my thumb, "I really wouldn't have the faintest idea how to go about returning what you just did."

"I would not expect you to," he says, quickly but firmly. "Such things are not everyone's pleasure."

Another thing for me to think about. There are other ways, though… Smiling to hide my embarrassment, I tell him, "I've always thought myself good with my hands." If he's willing to put his mouth all over me, there is no way any but the worst of cowards could deny him that.

He goes very still. "Is that—is that so," he says faintly.

Well, that isn't a no. "Lay down?" I suggest, and he slowly, stiffly spreads his length against the ground, moving like one wounded. He's turned so that his back is towards me, and I wonder again at his request for me to close my eyes. Does he not like to face his partner during this? Is it custom? There's so much I don't know, so much I've got to learn.

His breathing is very shallow, faint jerks of his chest, and I wish I knew—Feeling very foolish, I simply ask him. "Is something wrong?"

"I…" Asotegi starts hoarsely, then buries his face into the crook of his arm and admits, "I cannot help but fear that you will flee now. It would be my just reward, for having arranged that you should go. Sometimes I look at you and feel so terrified I cannot breathe, knowing that any moment now might be the last time I see you."

"I won't go," I tell him, pressing my hand against him as if to hold my promise in his skin, "but why would you think that?"

"Because I want you too much," he gasps, "and I know well that anything I have dared to want—"

"I'm not leaving."

When I finally get his robes pulled apart, his skin is as soft as rabbit's fur whereas I'd always found mine a little rough, but it's not so different, similar shape, similar size. Nothing to fear.

He hisses in a breath, then nods, to my words, or permission to continue, I can't tell which. Either way, I know to slide my hand down.

Asotegi shouts as if I've taken the ground from him, as if he's falling without end, so sharp I flinch away. A moment later his hand is at his mouth, and he bites down hard on a knuckle as red races down his cheeks and across his chest. He curls around my hand, nigh stopping it in place. "Sorry," he says around it, squeezing his eyes tight shut, "Sorry…"

"No harm done," I murmur fondly, and pull up again, more slowly this time in case I had startled him. Of course, now he's decided not to make any noise at all, though his teeth draw a drop of blood on his hand from the effort. I adjust my grip, trying a firmer grip with my palm, then a lighter one with my fingertips, and still he is silent save for his sharp breaths.

"Listen," I say, nigh desperately, "I really don't mind, kiss me if you want to, but I'm treading unfamiliar water here. I need some kind of signal of what you like and what you don't or I'm not going to be able to figure this out." If this turns out like one of my brothel visits, I am going to give up on sex altogether and become a monk.

He nods, letting out a breath as he uncurls again, his legs going back against me. I slide my fingers along the underside of him, testing. His head falls back against the stone, his mouth parting as he gasps. "That," he whispers.

When I run my thumb over the head, something I'd always found to be ticklish on myself, he gasps as if he can't help himself. So I do it over and over in different paths until I'm slick with the wetness there, until he's whimpering nigh continuously, his fingers scrabbling against the floor

"Does that hurt?" I ask, feeling incredibly shy but not sure how else I will find out.

"No," he gasps, "n-no, I love that, I have never been able to keep up the motion so long on, ah, myself... please, though, if you continue, gods, it will be over too soon."

I obediently switch back to the longer strokes up and down his length, but I can't keep from grinning. I can't remember ever wanting to grin during sex before. "I thought you wanted this?" I tease, letting my fingers brush between his legs when I reach the base, and the tip again at the top.

He groans again, starting to curl into a ball around my hand again as if he's helpless to prevent it, and gasps, "Forever. If only."

It's nice, how comfortably we fit together. Each tug I give along his length rocks his hips back against mine, and I can't help but feel a thrill myself, a warm fizzle that spreads along the whole of me rather than gathering in one sharp part for a few moments. Since I won't be able to get hard again few more hours yet, I would have never expected this; just pleasure, no painful ache behind it. "You feel nice," I murmur absently in his ear.

Asotegi cries out at that, burying his face in his hands as I keep moving.

I daresay I had learned every way a man had of pleasuring himself this way when, after too many bad experiences, I'd stopped going to the brothels for anything more than a chat with the girls. I'd volunteer to stay behind and watch the ship when all else were ashore, and learned to make do with limited resources.

I try to remember what I've learned the best I can, now slowing down the strokes, twisting a little along the way; that doesn't seem to make him gasp any differently than he had before. But when I turn my grip a little so that my thumb traces along the back while the pads of my fingers run down the underside, he makes this shaky cry that makes me groan in turn against his neck.

Now he's moving his hips in time with my movements, little sways that make it seem like this, too, he's holding back. I curve my fingers so that I trace the edge of my nails down his cock instead of my fingerpads, trying it out. At that he all but shrieks, bucking against me helplessly. "I guess you like that," I say, a little proudly, and do it until he begs me to stop again.

I run a thumb between his legs, a place I've never found interesting but one that he seems to love, trembling like that. "Please," he gasps. "Oh gods, Calentine."

"What do you want?" I ask, pressing up against the spot.

He looks at me through narrowed eyes, his head thrown back as he gasps, and I have to swallow roughly. "Faster," he whispers.

I keep my grip firm and let my thumb run down him like he'd enjoyed, sliding it over the crest to pick up some of the slick there, so my touch doesn't burn him after this long. So wet, for me— I bury my head down further, gritting my teeth as I struggle against the rising feeling in my own groin, and my stomach, and chest, and legs. Still not lust, not really. Mushier feelings: adoration, compassion. Damn him for being so beautiful, for reminding me of what I am going to miss even just by visiting my family.

My hand flies along him as his groans rise and fall endlessly. I cling to him with the curve of my neck, the round of my shoulder, wishing there was some better way to get my other arm into this, if I could find some other way to make his breathing grow harsh.

His hips move wildly now, pulsing into my grip, and I oblige, going faster and faster as I gasp roughly against his back. Then he makes the softest noise, swelling beneath my hand as his head falls back, and suddenly my grip is sopping while he gasps as if his voice has been stolen away.

I keep stroking until he's shaking, something I've always longed to do to myself but never gotten the will together to do so. I am gasping as hard as he is, with some kind of wild happiness that is unlike anything else I've known. My fingers are wet and slick, but instead of wiping it off I close my hand; proof that I can make him feel as good as he had done to me.

Time passes in that hazy way after release, maybe minutes, maybe hours. As my pulse slows and I can start to think of things that aren't lust, I realize that the rough stone floor really is uncomfortable; my close leg has gone all needles. Shifting, I murmur, "Paraz?"

"Don't go," he whispers.

I stare at the back of his head, feel the soft movements of his breathing against my chest as my heart thunks against him. "You want me to stay?" I ask, elated and worried and conflicted all at once.

But my only reply is his soft sigh; he's asleep, his head crooked in his arm, his hand still loose on my wrist. With his hair mussed and his robes every which way, he looks more fragile than he usually does, none of that harsh air.

I look at him and know I have so much to decide. There's the Queen's request, and him being a lord and a man, and a hundred other things besides. Just because his kisses can make my soul ache, his touch brush everything in my heart, that doesn't mean I should walk by his side always. But it is a damned convincing argument.

A/N: Part II DONE! What can I say, I like absurdly long sex scenes. I waffled as to whether or not I wanted to include one here, but decided to go for it.

Like last time, I'm taking a break from posting for a few weeks so that I can get Part III well on its way. This means better writing for you, and less going 'uh, you guys need to reread Ch 30 because I had to completely redo it' for me. I 99% hope to post the next chapter on the 31st (Tuesday). In the meantime, I'll still be posting things on the blog (google livejournal, iceramyst), including whether I'll hit that the 1% chance of delay or early success.

Finally: one of my favorite authors once said that for every word you write, you need to fill your head with a thousand more in its place. I've been having trouble finding books to replenish my word supply lately, so while I'm plotting and typing away, send me suggestions of books to read! I don't care what genre or even fiction vs. non-fiction, just write why you like that book.

See you in Part III—it has action! Adventure! Romance! Pirates!