Okay, here we are right at the very end.
Just to let you all know, I have made a very few minor corrections throughout the rest of the story as well. I wrote this over two years, so there were a few small inconsistencies that I wanted to fix up, and I even found a few typos that had previously made it past my eagle eye.
To the reviewer (bibliotaku) who suggested the epilogue be set in Greece - you were spot on, that is exactly what I planned the epilogue to be ;)
Thanks again to all for following and supporting - I've had such a fantastic time!
"I used to dream about this, you know," Michiru whispered. "Living in a house with you by the sea." She glanced at Haruka's moon-silvered profile, then swivelled her gaze up to the cliffs above. She could just see the outline of their ramshackle cottage, blending into the vastness of the empty night sky.
Besides the cottage, there was nothing else to be seen. No other dwellings interrupted the skyline. No town lights glittered in the distance. There weren't even proper roads around here. Nothing but cliffs and goats and empty golden beaches that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Michiru was definitely glad they had come to Greece.
Haruka's straight, uncompromising nose softened in a rueful wrinkle. "I'm sorry. I ran from you so much." Gently pulling Michiru closer, she brushed their lips together with a smile warming her voice. "But I'm glad you chased me. You're the only person I've ever met who can out-run the wind."
Tickling wavelets rippled at Michiru's ankles, and the ocean whispered of hidden seaweed grottoes and shipwrecked treasure. The wind was speaking to Haruka; something about the wild joys of flying unrestrained far out to sea and teasing the waves into great swells that rolled and crashed with mad and glorious power.
"So," Haruka said, a slight tremble in her voice, "Shall we walk for a bit?"
"To the cove on the other side of the rocks," Michiru agreed. She hoisted the light backpack onto her shoulder containing towels and a few other necessities.
They walked hand in hand through a world of silver sand and glittering diamond sea. It almost could have been the long lost Kingdom of the Moon, resurrected this one night for the soldiers who still carried the memory of its beauty in their hearts.
The cove had a wide crescent of sand encircled by high boulders on either side. There was very little surf along this stretch of coastline, and the sea lapped at the shore of this secret beach with the gentle kiss of a lover. After scrambling over the rocks and selecting a spot on the sand above the high tide mark, Haruka and Michiru unpacked the towels and spread out the thick, plaid rug with an almost ritual solemnity.
"Haruka…" Michiru began, not really sure what she intended to say.
During the last few months, there had been no shortage of physical intimacy between them. Indeed, it was almost inevitable given the fact of Haruka's lingering injuries and Michiru's determination to care for her. Haruka had been a cooperative patient in every way, yet Michiru knew that she'd chafed at her weakened state, and on more than one occasion had wondered wryly of what Michiru must think to be catapulted straight into the role of nursemaid after everything that happened.
Washing sheets and changing bandages was not exactly the height of romanticism after all, and they'd both agreed that sex was off the agenda until Haruka's burns faded. Which, in some ways, Michiru reflected, was a bad thing, since it created an atmosphere of waiting; an awareness of this thing that must happen between them at some future and unknown date.
But really, Michiru wanted to say, it didn't matter because sex was one expression of love but not the whole, and to treat its current existence or lack thereof as somehow symptomatic of the status of their whole relationship made her distinctly uneasy.
She smoothed the edge of the rug with her hand.
"That night at your apartment…What I wanted was to be close to you. To show you what I still felt; to know you felt it for me. But I know now, Haruka. There's no need for this ceremony. It doesn't need to happen now. There doesn't have to be a date for it."
Lying stretched out on the rug, Haruka smiled up at her. "I know that love. That's not why I suggested this." Her gaze wandered towards the ocean. "I just don't like this tension between us. My burns are gone; you don't have to look after me anymore. And there's no point dancing around each other, waiting to see who will make the first move. I wanted to cut through all that." She sat up, fingers reaching to rest over Michiru's. "Let's go swimming. Whatever happens after that…is fine."
Michiru allowed herself to be tugged to her feet, to be drawn into the warm, buoyant water. She swam with a kind of dreamy contentment, watching the moon's quivering, broken reflection and half listening to the eternal song of the sea.
She touched Haruka, or Haruka touched her, and any lingering discomfiture was gone, washed away in the gentle ripple of the outgoing tide. The two women didn't speak much. They didn't have to. Their hands and their bodies knew a deeper language; one of breath and blood and slowly building desire.
In time, both the towels and the rug were needed; the first to dry the streaming silver water, the latter for a bed beneath the star-studded sky. Amidst sweet and gentle kisses Michiru worried at the edge of Haruka's bathing suit, slipped her hand beneath the damp fabric to find the warm swell of flesh within.
Haruka responded with a nip and a gasp against Michiru's lips. Her fingers flexed on Michiru's thigh, travelled just far enough to rest within maddening proximity of where Michiru would have really preferred them to be.
With a frustrated mewl Michiru tried to shift closer, but Haruka moved her hand away with a low chuckle. Her lips ghosted over Michiru in the torment of half-touches; she murmured her determination that this would go slower than the last time, that she would linger over every breath and word and tremble of her lover's skin.
"Last time," Michiru explained between kisses, "I couldn't keep my hands off you."
"Last time…" Michiru felt the clench of Haruka's abdomen beneath a questing hand. "Was something I hadn't experienced with anyone since you went away. I just wish that afterwards things had gone differently. That I hadn't just…watched you sleep, too afraid to let myself touch you."
There was sadness in Haruka's tone, and unspoken apology for the way events had unfolded that night in her apartment.
Michiru hid her response against Haruka's shoulder, happiness fluttering in a way not entirely appropriate as she heard of her lover's repentance. "Doesn't matter," she insisted, her voice muffled against Haruka's skin. "There have been many nights since that one where we haven't been divided."
"But none like this," Haruka said.
The sea whispered softly in Michiru's ears. "No," she agreed, features curving into a smile. "None like this."
She pulled Haruka down with her, welcomed the removal of her bikini top and the kisses that followed. Starlight rimmed the pale gold of Haruka's hair; in her eyes lurked a tenderness that took Michiru's breath away.
Beneath her, she felt the sand squeak as it moulded to the curves of her body. The warmth of the breeze was like gentle fingers caressing her breasts, and when Haruka sat up to look down at her, Michiru deliberately removed her own pants and opened her thighs just enough to provoke.
Haruka's breath hitched. Not taking her eyes from Michiru's, she removed her one piece bathing suit more slowly than necessary, watching Michiru watch her. Her figure was fuller than anyone would have guessed from the clothes Haruka usually wore, but what held Michiru's attention was her unblemished skin.
Twice now Haruka had been burned, twice she'd mended slowly month by month over nights of pain and tedious days of boredom and snatches of sleep. But only the most recent time, the time that wasn't as bad as the first, had she allowed Michiru to help her through it.
What it had been like to feel Metalia's fire Haruka still didn't speak of, nor the horrific injuries of which she surely would have died if not for the Silver Crystal.
How painful must it be, Michiru wondered, to have to regenerate bone.
Sweet and warm Haruka covered her, wanting to know the meaning of that pensive gaze, but Michiru only smiled up at her and drew her into a searing kiss sealed with an insistent sting of teeth.
When they parted, swollen-lipped and heavy-eyed, Haruka ducked her head to run her mouth down Michiru's chest. Clever fingers shifted to tease the crease of her thigh, dancing lightly over her skin in a tattoo of delightful torment.
Michiru threw back her head and moaned; propped her elbows beneath her to better survey the progress of her wicked lover. "Haruka!" she admonished, though she hardly knew whether she was asking for this to stop or continue.
A smile like the curl of a sea breaker tugged at Haruka's lips. Salty gusts ruffled Michiru's hair and her heart pounded wildly. She was going to go mad soon if Haruka didn't touch her.
As if in response both of Haruka's hands were against her, so suddenly Michiru lost her purchase and collapsed onto her back with the stars reeling above her. The wind took her cry, carrying it far out over the moonlit surface of the sea to fly with the night-birds that hunted the quicksilver fish.
Wet breath tickled her, and the lightest flicker of tongue. Michiru clenched her teeth against another moan, and words decidedly less polite. Another glance confirmed Haruka was still watching her, eyes half closed in lazy satisfaction as she licked a long, deliberate stroke.
With needful fire flaring in her belly, Michiru twisted a fist into the blanket beneath her and shuddered. "Tease!"
Laughter rippled up from Haruka's chest. At last she settled to her task; fingers exploring, tongue circling, caressing, coaxing Michiru to a blinding crescendo of pleasure. In the passion of her touch she met Michiru's desire with her own, reforging with tender care those links of trust and intimacy and love that had so nearly been destroyed.
Afterwards, she nuzzled Michiru sweetly and Michiru held her close, heart almost bursting with the intensity of feeling overwhelming her, with the physical sensation of having Haruka here, in her arms, skin and scent and body melting into her own.
"I love you, you know that?" Haruka whispered, eyes meeting Michiru's own in a gaze that held nothing back.
"I know," Michiru answered with a catch in her voice. "I love you too." They didn't elaborate further, for those words alone were enough when said in the context of this night, with the memories of the last few months still fresh between them, with knowing they had not succumbed at last to Metalia's hate.
An edge of mischief crept into Michiru's smile, a promise of recompense for the unbearable teasing to which Haruka had subjected her. Never taking her eyes from her lover's, she trailed her hand leisurely down Haruka's body, not failing to note the speeding of her breaths, the wildness brewing in her eyes, the tremours of need as Michiru touched her.
Pleading, Haruka nudged forward into her hand, wrapped her leg round Michiru's waist for purchase. Together they fell into a rhythm as natural as the ebb and flow of the tide, Haruka clinging to her as shudders wracked her body and she sobbed Michiru's name in the rapture of her release.
They rested, panting, limbs still tangled; in a slow and almost imperceptible progression of stealthy kisses Michiru continued to make love to her, couldn't resist tasting Haruka until she came again.
The night grew old and the moon went down. Still they touched and whispered of what had been and what was to come and slept at last, lightly, with beach towels pressed into service as makeshift covers.
Sticky and sandy but strangely content, Michiru awoke eventually to find Haruka still glued to her side, face peaceful in sleep, her short hair stiffened with salt and standing out at outrageous angles.
She smiled indulgently and disentangled herself to sit up and contemplate the ocean before her. Everything was hushed in tones of blue and grey, but watercolour stains of mauve and pink and gold were leaking into the sky where dawn was breaking on the cusp of the glowing horizon.
Soon, she thought, the world would be filled with colour, and the sun would shine blazingly hot in a clear blue sky and on the cliffs above them the goats would start to bleat and birds would usher in the new day with throbbing songs of joy. And Michiru could think of nothing better than that Haruka would be there to share it all with her.