"I still wish I had been the one to find him on the field of battle." Gunther's voice was quiet; meditative. Gravelly and rough around the edges with drowsiness. Jane felt his words more than heard them, because she was lying curled into him, with her head resting on his chest. They were still atop the tower, with Gunther's cloak now spread like a blanket over both of them. "I suppose," he continued, "that I will wish that forever."
Jane, who had been on the point of drifting off to sleep herself, thought of her recurring nightmare and had to suppress a shudder. "Do not wish for that," she said. "It will not change anything, so what is the point of wasting energy on it? He is dead - that is what matters."
"I know, but -"
"But nothing. Leave it, Gunther - I mean it."
He sighed. "Only because it is you who asks."
She smiled, her lips curving against the fabric of his shirt.
"Does this mean that now you will do whatever I ask?"
"Huh. Perhaps. If you keep kissing me like that."
"Then you can start by sparring with me again. If you let yourself get anymore out of practice, beating you will not be a challenge any longer... and where is the fun in that?"
"Is that so!" Gunther's voice was still sleep-husky, but colored now with high amusement. "You talk very large, my lady knight. But we will see in the morning; and the sweetest kiss in all the world will not entice me to let you win.
"It is fortunate, then," Jane responded archly, "that I have no need of such favors, Gunther Breech! I will beat you fair and square."
"Really. Well, time will tell."
Jane snorted mightily, but gave up pursuing that particular line of conversation.
"So what happens next?" she asked, letting her eyes fall shut and just breathing in the scent of him.
He was stroking her hair, slowly, lightly, absently.
"Well, I think you should make amends with Dragon, for one thing. We spoke the other day, he and I, and he is pretty... ripped up about this falling out you two have had. He was only looking out for you, Jane. You are not stupid - you know perfectly well that you were in no condition to spend several hours a day in the air. You could hardly stay upright - what if you had fallen from his back? Think what that would have done to him - think what it would have done to me."
It was Jane's turn to sigh. "I know. I know. All right, I will seek him out tomorrow - right after I am done knocking you flat on your - hey!"
He had wrapped a curl of her fiery hair around his finger and given it a sharp little tweak.
"Oh, very mature, Gunther," she groused. He laughed and again she felt more than heard it. They lapsed into contented silence once more and this time Jane did doze off for a while... until the first, faint pink streaks of dawn began to lighten the horizon.
Then her head came up with a start.
"Maggots! Can we really have been here all night! If my mother realizes we have both been unaccounted for..."
She scrambled to her feet and Gunther got up after her, more slowly, yawning. "If your mother realizes," he echoed, "then what?"
"Are you insane! You know the conclusion that she - that everyone - will reach! She will... she will..." Jane seemed at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of calamity that would have to follow.
Gunther closed the distance between them with a single stride and reached out, catching her face between his hands again, causing her breath to hitch in her throat. "She will insist that I make an honest woman out of you?" he asked, and that odd expression of humor-battling-uncertainty was back, luring just beneath the surface of his face. "Would that really be so terrible, Jane?"
"No, it... of course not, I..." she was completely flustered now, staring into those eyes the color of sharpened steel. She stopped. Took a deep breath. Thought a moment. Came to a positively stunning realization.
"Well... well, no, it... I suppose it could be... could be... amazing, actually," she said slowly, feeling the force of the words as she spoke them. But then she stopped; frowned. "As long as..."
Gunther's brows drew together too, mirroring her troubled expression. "As long as...?" he prompted.
"As long as... we would both still be knights, right? We would both still be... equals?"
"Equals? No. Not equals - never. Jane, we are not equals even now."
She gasped and tried to wrench herself away from him, but he had anticipated it and held on, pulling her even closer, both his hands going now to hold her by the shoulders. "Jane, look at me. You are, and always have been, by far my superior in nearly every way." He quirked a half-smile, watching her face as his words sank in. "It is all right, though," he said then; "it was hard for me when I was younger, but I forgave you a long time ago."
"Do not. The more you protest what I just said, the more you prove my point. Now. How about that sparring session you promised me last night? Ready to be taken down a peg or two, my over-confident lady?"
A bright wave of color suffused her face. "By you, Gunther Breech? I think not!" Disengaging from him, she turned toward the steps with a determined air. "Come on, then, if -"
Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw that he hadn't moved.
"The castle will already be stirring," he said quietly. "You know how early Pepper and Rake rise, and Sir Theodore too, not to mention your mother. If we go down together, and are seen... then conclusions will be reached like you said, and there will be only one way forward. And under those circumstances, things will happen fast. So if you are... not entirely prepared for all of that just yet, you had better go on alone. I will wait here for a while and meet you in the courtyard in... twenty minutes, perhaps?"
Jane turned slowly back to face him, then stood perfectly still for a long moment, head cocked ever so slightly to the side, contemplating. It was a life-altering decision she had in front of her. When she made it, though, she made it with certainty; no hesitation, no second thoughts. She crossed back over to where he stood.
"Gunther, you are my match in every way," she said simply, and the look in her green eyes was very nearly fierce. "I am through with denying it - to myself, to you, or to anyone else. We go down together."
She extended her hand to him; he took it. Then pulled her in for another nearly desperate, earth-shattering kiss, fusing and locking them until they had to break apart, for air. Still, they stood there for a long moment, pressed into each other; eyes shut, foreheads touching, hair mingling, breathing hard.
"I love you, Jane," he whispered hoarsely, and she didn't think she'd ever get tired of hearing it, not if he said it fifty times a day for the rest of their lives.
"Come on," she murmured. "I am ready. So ready." She found his hand again, twining her fingers tightly through his.
And they descended the steps together, in the pale but strengthening light of the new day.