A muffled cry took Zander from his book. He looked around wildly, and was on his feet in an instant when he heard a louder scream. A scream that sounded like his name. A scream that came from Aida's cabin. Maybe it wasn't practical for him to go to her, when Sky and Jace were both nearer, but he had never before been practical when Aida was concerned. He was out on the deck in a flash, the light in his cabin still on and the door swinging on its hinges because he didn't bother to shut it. Nothing in there held higher value to him than Aida's wellbeing.
No one else had gone to her cabin. He rapped quickly on the door, praying something terrible hadn't happened.
"Aida?" he said hesitantly. "Did you just call me?"
She muttered something to herself from the inside, and then padded on bare feet—shoes made a very different sound—to throw her door open. Her eyes when they looked up at him were strangely bright, and there was less color in her cheeks than usual. Her hair was a mess from tossing and turning in her bed, and her clothes were very askew, but still covered everything. Zander wondered, quite irrelevantly, why she was sleeping in the Ildisian robes.
"Aida!" he exclaimed the moment she opened the door. "Are you alright? Are you hurt? Did something happen?"
"No…" she mumbled. "I…uh…had a bad dream. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up. It was…never mind. I'm sorry."
He looked down at her, his heart stirring with emotion. Why wouldn't she meet his eyes?
"No, it's okay," he said softly. "I was…worried. Are you alright? Do you need anything?"
"No, I'm okay," she insisted. "I just…I need to wake up. That's all."
"You know…" Zander said, almost shyly. "I could just stay here and read…The, uh, cabin is quieter, so you would be doing me a favor."
What was it about this small, green-eyed girl that turned him from a cool and confident mage into an tongue-tied human teenager, one incapable of forming a coherent sentence without blushing or stumbling? She just seemed to bring out the very worst in him. And yet, she also often brought out the very best.
Her throat worked convulsively for a moment, and though she tried to cover her face with her small hand, Zander could see her warring with herself. Did she admit this one small weakness and let him stay? Did she cling to her pride and send him back to his own cabin? It was his selfish desire that she fall to the former, and allow him to stay, even if he did nothing but sit at her bedside and read until she fell asleep. Just being near her was more than enough. It was far more than he thought he would ever have had again.
She didn't look at him when she spoke, and her cheeks were very bright pink in comparison to her naturally pale complexion.
"Stay…" she murmured. "If you can. Please."
The way his heart leapt was a little overboard, but he didn't mind. He smiled softly down at her and took her hand; his much longer fingers almost completely engulfed her own. Looking down at those brilliant green eyes, glowing brightly in the moonlight filtering in through the window, he couldn't help but feel something inside him tighten.
"Okay," he said, voice warm. "I'm here if you need me…Just…trying to…read my book…"
A small, mischievous smirk curled the corner of her rosy lips.
"Read?" she repeated. "You sure there is nothing better to do?"
She'd teased him like that many times. Many. She would make a poorly disguised innuendo, and he would answer with an equally teasing response. He never thought much into it—it was just one of those things he did naturally with her, one of the few things that he wasn't awkward about with her. But all those other times, they had been with company. Tillie or Sky, or little Seena had always been nearby. Faelern and Jace, too. Those conversations had been shared out in the open, in front of many people, and usually beneath the sun. This time, though, something felt different. Lit only by the moon and the stars was a cabin that was entirely empty of anyone but the two of them, standing so close that Zander could feel the heat coming off of Aida's slender body.
"Aida…" he almost growled, one hand reaching out to span her jaw. A small breath of surprise escaped her as he tilted her face up. "Don't tease me like this…"
Slowly, very slowly, he slid his fingers down her neck, along the line of her shoulder, to circle her bicep and pull her closer. She followed easily, and her free hand reached up, mirroring the placement of his. The feeling of her cool fingers resting on the bare skin of his upper arm sent goosebumps of desire down his arms, and he shuddered.
"I can hardly keep my cool around you…" he continued, and his voice had turned into something akin to a gravelly purr.
His hands slid back up her body, slowly, so slowly, to cradle her face so delicately that she could have been made of glass threads and not shattered. Both of her hands were now pressed against his chest, their temperature sneaking past the thin material of his top. Was she standing on her toes? Her lips were so close…
"You are so cruel…" A hoarse murmur. "You…Don't understand…Do you?"
He was leaning in, slowly, so slowly. The suspense was driving him mad with longing, but at the same time, it was that burning desire burning in his chest that made him move slowly. It was like he was teasing himself now, moving so close to her that her sweet breath ghosted over his lips, but not actually touching her yet, as though he wanted to see how close he got before it was still too far.
The next time he spoke, the words fell against Aida's parted lips.
"I love you."
Not waiting for an answer, because he had now, officially, 'lost his cool'. She was too far away. So, leaning in that extra millimeter, he closed that distance, and slanted his mouth across hers. Her fingers curled in the black material of his tunic, one of her nails catching his skin past the lacing and eliciting a low groan from him. His fingers slid back, pushing her hair from her face and curling in it at the base of her neck.
Oh, Eanna, he'd all but forgotten this. How it had been to kiss Aida, to have her flush against his body, to move his lips easily over hers, taking control. It was a rare thing indeed for Aida to allow this, but he hadn't noticed her seeking dominance in their few stolen kisses. She's been more than happy to let him take the lead, and that was what he did now. Cautiously, ready to withdraw if she protested, he sipped his tongue past her lips, just enough to touch hers, and then he retreated. She stiffened against him for a moment, and a noise of surprise escaped her, but then her tongue shyly followed his.
The heat inside him seemed to intensify tenfold as he stroked her tongue with his, and then sucked gently on it. Aida's gasp was very nearly a growl, and she clutched him more tightly, until not the thinnest slip of paper could fit between them. This made him hotter than ever, and that fire pooled lower in his stomach, swirling furiously. Aida was very nearly shaking in his arms as their kiss became hotter, more passionate. One of his hands slipped from her hair and slid slowly, oh, so slowly, down her body, following every curve, to slide around her waist.
It was so hard to be mindful, kissing the love of his life with such passion, but Zander managed to shuffle forward, Aida cooperating easily, until he fell on top of her on the lumpy mattress the captain called a bed. She arched beneath him, still kissing him like there was no tomorrow, and he reciprocated. The furious blaze inside him grew to even greater heights, and Aida wasn't helping it cool off. Every time Zander thought he had reached the peak of what he could feel, Aida amped up the fire of her movements.
That was when he realized something.
He broke the kiss off abruptly, breathing hard, and leaned his forehead against her shoulder, propping himself up on his forearms and knees before he crushed her with his weight. The second he pulled back, Aida froze beneath him, though her body still trembled slightly.
"Zander…" she said hoarsely. "That…What…"
"I'm sorry, Aida," he said, voice surprisingly angry. That anger was directed at himself, for being so insensitive. "This time, I honestly forgot."
"Forgot…?" Aida repeated slowly, clearly confused. He sighed, and didn't move from where he hid in her shoulder.
"Remember, when I kissed you on the cliff just outside of Valond?" he said.
"Do you remember what you felt then?"
"Like I was on fire," she snorted.
"Do you remember what I told you after?"
She thought for a moment. Zander knew the exact moment she understood, because she sucked in a sharp breath.
"When you're intimate with a mage," she said hesitantly. "Like kissing and stuff…you feel…what they feel. Right?"
"Yeah," he answered. "I'm sorry. I was going to—I didn't think about you. You were responding that way because I'm a mage…I'm so sor—"
"Are you stupid?"
He blinked, and leaned back to look her in the face. She was giving him an expression that suggested she had never seen him before.
"Uh…what?" he said, numbly.
"I was responding that way because you're you," she said with a smirk. "You being a mage has nothing to do with it."
"But—when I stopped—You—"
She shrugged as much as she could, pinned beneath him like that.
"I didn't exactly expect you to stop," she pointed out. "And I'm not saying I didn't feel what you were feeling. It was a little shocking for you to take that away. But I don't care. I kissed you because I wanted to."
"Aida…" Zander murmured thickly. She smiled.
"Oh, and something else Zander."
"I—Yes?" he said, still a little lost. She wasn't angry with him? She didn't think that he was taking advantage of her, kissing her and more while she was under the side effects of him being a mage?
She leaned up, smiling, and propped herself up on her elbows. Like that, their faces were level and very, very close.
"I love you too," she whispered against his lips.
He couldn't fight it when she covered his mouth with hers—it just felt too good. Falling back into her, he thought of nothing but her sweet taste, her rapidly rising body heat, the way her hands slid up and down his body. But, when those wonderful, wonderful hands moved to the lacing of his shirt, he managed enough self control to catch them with one of his hands and guide them away.
"Not tonight, Aida," he said softly, brushing a kiss across her forehead.
She looked up at him, smirking slightly. "Then when?"
He smiled. "All in good time. You'll have to make due with this for now."
"I think I can live with that," she agreed, leaning up for another kiss. He chuckled and pulled away, keeping her pinned down so that she couldn't get up. "Hey!"
"You need sleep," he said seriously, rolling off of her and onto his side. She pushed herself onto her side as well, facing him, and smiled. A real smile. Not the sardonic one that seemed to have become her trademark, or the martyred one she wore when she was the butt of a joke. An honest, true smile, one that lit up those beautiful emerald eyes.
"Yes, Master Zander," she said. He laughed and pulled her close, rumpling her hair.
"I told you not to call me that," he said. She shrugged and snuggled into his chest, tucking her nose into the hollow of his throat and curling her hands between their chests. He smiled down at her and slid an arm around her waist.
That night, Zander fell asleep with his hand still stroking Aida's silver hair.