Kahlan wants to ask Zedd not to go, but she's seen him like this before; stubborn, determined, and plain intractable. He's packed and ready, with enough food to last him through the night, and he shoots her a last look, almost apologetic.
"We could still go with you," she says again, but he shakes his head. The first time she'd offered, he'd glanced hesitantly at Richard, and insisted that he'd rather visit his old friend alone. She doesn't know why he doesn't want Richard to come along, and she knows better than to ask; she enjoys pushing Zedd, but she's wise enough to choose her moments, and this isn't one of them.
"I'll be quite all right. The two of you should get some rest. We'll have a hard day ahead of us tomorrow."
He leaves before she can protest further, and Richard smiles, like he's looking forward to the respite. Kahlan's feet are aching, too, her legs cramped and sore, but being alone with Richard bothers her more than another day of travelling. She can see the way he looks at her still, like even after everything she's told him, he still has no intention of staying away from her. She worries, too often, that he'll do something foolish.
More than that, she worries that when he does, she won't try to stop him.
She spends the morning clearing the camp, spreading the ashes from the fire (we're just going to have to rebuild it again tonight, Richard says; she ignores his protests), organising their supplies. They're excuses, all of them, to stay away from Richard, and they run out around lunchtime.
"You're keeping busy," he remarks, as she sits across from him, the remains of the campfire between them.
She shrugs. "We'll have to leave early tomorrow."
The food is still over by Richard, and trepidation wars with the gnawing hunger in her stomach. Noticing the direction of her gaze, he stands, bringing the loaf of stale bread with him as he sits beside her. His fingers brush hers as he hands her a piece, and she pulls her hand away, doesn't risk looking at him.
"You could just relax," he says.
"We can't afford to relax," she says. She finishes her lunch hurriedly, as if to emphasise her point, and stands before he can move to help her. "We should take advantage of the time we have."
"All right," he says. He wipes his hands across the front of his pants, brushing away the crumbs, and stretches his legs out in front of him. "I'm going to take advantage of it by resting."
She can't fault his decision; most of the tasks she's considered, even the unnecessary ones, are finished now, and there isn't much left to do. There is a river not far from where they've camped, however, and after a morning of physical exertion, she's sorely tempted to bathe.
Glancing back at Richard to make sure he isn't following, she sets off towards the river bank. The river is cool and calm, and she dips a hand in the water before slipping out of her dress. The air is refreshing as it hits her skin, the light wind picking up a chill from the water.
"I thought I'd -"
Kahlan turns as Richard comes up behind her, sees the flicker of interest in his expression a second before he looks away. She takes a step back, stumbling as her foot hits the water's edge, and he rushes forward, his arms closing around her waist just as she catches her balance.
"What are you doing?" she asks. She hadn't heard him, hadn't noticed him at all, and that - combined with her state of undress - has put her on edge more than she'd like to admit.
Richard lets his hands fall to his sides, and she pushes past him towards the relative safety of the tree line. She shivers, and spares a regretful glance at her dress, still lying at his feet.
"I was catching you," he says, as if it should be obvious. "You were going to fall."
"I was fine," she says. "I thought you were resting."
He shrugs. "I thought I'd come see what you were doing."
It's patently obvious to both of them what she was doing, and she tries not to blush as she looks down at her shift.
"I wasn't spying on you." He takes a few steps forward, closing the space between them, and she backs up until her shoulder hits the hard trunk of a tree.
"I didn't say you were." She can't quite look at him, doesn't want to see whatever is in his expression. "You should go."
He's either being wilfully stupid, or he has no idea what his presence is doing to her. With Richard, it could be either.
"You know why."
"No." He takes another few steps forward, until he's close enough that she could reach out and touch him. "I don't."
"Yes, you do." Maybe not leaving had been a mistake; she honestly thought that after what she'd told him, after what had nearly happened, he would have understood.
"You don't have to be afraid to be alone with me," he says, reaching out to take her hand. His skin is warm, and she can feel her heart beating a little faster at his touch. "It's all right."
She shakes her head. It isn't him she's afraid of.
"You can touch me."
"I can't ..." she says, and he misunderstands, gripping her hand tighter.
"Yes, you can." He places her hand on him, underneath his shirt, using her hand to trace the firm skin of his stomach. "I'm not afraid, Kahlan. I know you would never hurt me."
"I might not have a choice," she says. She has to make him see, while she still has the will to do so. "If we ever ... I wouldn't be able to control myself."
"I'm sorry," he says quickly. He releases her hand, but she leaves it where it is. "I didn't mean to pressure you. It's just ... I know you feel the same way about me. You said so yourself."
"This isn't about how I feel," she says. But she moves her hand up to press flat against his chest, where she can feel his heartbeat.
"Because some things are more important." She lets her hand drop, smoothing the fabric over her hips unnecessarily. "Our mission. Your destiny."
"Maybe they don't have to be." He steps forward, closing the gap. "Maybe we can have both."
"How can we -" she begins, and stops as he feels his hand on her hip. It moves down over her thigh, his fingers tracing circles above her shift, bunching the fabric until he's touching her bare skin.
She sucks in a breath. "Richard, it's dangerous."
He kisses her, then, his lips soft on hers, and this isn't just dangerous, it's potentially catastrophic. His hand continues its slow path upwards, reaching the apex of her thighs, and she breaks the kiss.
"Richard, you know we can't."
"Do you want to?"
She should say no, has to say no, but she does want to; she's wanted to almost since the first time he touched her, without fear or hesitation.
She nods, and bites her lip as his fingers slide across her. She can feel herself ready for him, feel the way he speeds up, increasing the pressure against her skin. This is a mistake, she thinks, as if it will strengthen her resolve to put an end to it. This is a mistake, this is a mistake, this is a mistake.
He isn't touching her anywhere except under her shift, but even so, she can feel her skin growing warmer, her breath coming quickly, shallowly. She wants to reach out for him, to touch him, but she can't; she has enough presence of mind left to know that. Instead, her arms arch up, her hands closing over the rough bark of the wood, splinters piercing the skin of her fingertips.
"Richard," she says, and it's a warning. Her eyes lock with his, cautioning him to stop.
"It's okay," he says. "Trust me."
She can only nod.
He backs away, so they're barely touching; there's barely any contact between them, now, but it's enough. She can feel the last of her conscious thought slip away, feel her power building, coursing through her body. Her hands grip the tree tighter. It has no soul, no consciousness, for her to confess, and the power seems to hang in the air around her for a moment before dissipating.
"Richard." Her eyes snap open; he's standing before her, his expression dazed.
"Wow," he says, and draws back his hand. He looks down, flexing his fingers, and then his gaze travels slowly back up until he's looking at her.
"Richard?" she tries again. Mistake echoes heavy in her ears.
"I'm here," he says, and she draws in a breath, sharp and ragged. "It's okay, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere, Kahlan."
No, she thinks. Her heart is still racing. He's not going anywhere.
She stopped wishing for that long ago.