Normally, Arianne greeted the coming of spring with open arms and a happy heart. But she did not find her customary joy in the melting snows, the budding flowers, the returning birds. She began gathering items to last Quintus on his long journey to wherever he might go next.
He had told her why he had left the wall. Of the deaths of his friends, the treachery of the other Romans. She told him he would find employment elsewhere. Sellswords were in high demand, times being what they are. He agreed, if a bit reluctantly.
"Besides," she continued, gathering her snares. "Even at a modest salary, you could live in much grander style than anything I could afford you."
His calm, thoughtful gaze found her once again. "That depends on your definition of 'grand'," he said.
"Yes. Well," she stammered. "I'll return shortly." She ducked out of the cottage and darted along the path to set up her trap line.
She lingered, taking much more time than was necessary. Or wise. The sun was dipping low in the west and she cursed at herself for being such a coward. She'd be up half the night by the time she finished cooking the evening meal and cleaning up afterwards. And with everything she had to do through this season, it would be autumn again by the time she was able to catch up on sleep.
Picking up her pace, she hurried back to the hut. As if running would reverse time, let her catch the several hours she had lost.
The first thing she noticed was the smoke wafting from the chimney and the smell of stew. She entered quickly, baffled. "You didn't have to do that," she started to say. "I was going to-"
And that's when she noticed the flowers. Hundreds of them. Tiny clouds of sweet-smelling wildflowers gathered in bouquets on the table, woven into the thatch on the roof, hung in garlands from the rafters. She turned in a slow circle, eyes wide as she took in the sight, a smile on her face as the sweet smell pervaded her small home. "How- Why!" she gasped.
"Your supper's getting cold," he said. As if he hadn't just achieved the most amazing feat she had ever witnessed. "It's not as good as yours, of course. Nothing is. But you were so late I thought you'd be hungry."
Her head spinning, she sat down at the table, and reached for her bowl, nestled in a riot of wildflowers. Carefully, she lifted a spoonful of stew to her lips and blew a bit of steam away before eating. "You're right, this isn't as good as mine," she said without thinking. And then choked on her stew when she realized what just came out of her mouth.
He just laughed softly. "Still honest."
She fought back her coughs and swallowed before meeting his eye. "Why did you do this?"
He sat down across from her and was quiet a moment before he spoke. "I wanted to. I like doing things that surprise you. That make you happy." He broke eye contact, stirring his stew. "When I returned from the wall. You smiled. It was the most beautiful smile I've ever seen. And it was for me. I'll always treasure that." He looked up to meet her eye again. "I wanted to give you something. A memory to treasure, one like that."
"But... why?" She began to tremble, fearing what he would say next but unable to stop herself from asking. She wanted to know everything, to wonder at nothing after he left.
"Because I love you. The witch who refused to bewitch me but did despite herself." He stood and made his way around the table, closer to her. She began to tremble in earnest. "And all that I endured last autumn, I would do ten times over. Because it led me to you." He knelt before her, and took one of her hands in both of his, pressing her fingers to his lips. A reverent gesture. "But I cannot bear to cause you distress." He kissed her fingers again. She could scarce breathe. "You are right. I could find another place for myself in the world. But..." his voice softened, and he swallowed. "But the only place I want is here. Beside you. If you would have me."
"Don't go," she whispered. "Stay with me."
He looked up at her, his fingers tightening on hers. "As long as you would have me," he breathed.
She pushed herself away from the table and slid to her knees on the floor with him. "Will you kiss me, my patient love?" she said, lifting her other hand to slowly trace his jaw with her fingertips.
He laughed softly. "I can offer much more than that," he murmured before closing the distance between them, his lips gentle on hers.
She made a low, hungry sound in the back of her throat, his kiss and his touch reigniting feelings she had tried to extinguish. He rumbled in response and gathered her close, his fingers threading into her hair. "Not here," he murmured, pulling back just enough to speak, his lips still brushing hers. "Not on the floor."
She giggled a little as he lifted her. "You Romans are so decadent," she teased, nibbling his lips.
He carefully laid her on the bed, lowering himself over her. "I've spent enough time sleeping on the ground," he said softly, his lips quirking, a spark of humor in his eye. "One gets sore after a few hours."
"A few hours?" she giggled, pushing herself up on her elbows.
He deftly untied the stays of her bodice, his fingers slipping beneath the fabric to cup her breast. She gasped at the feeling, his rough fingers on her sensitive skin, and curled toward him. "My honest love deserves no less," he said, tightening his hold, his thumb playing over her nipple. He leaned toward her, pressing soft kisses along her collarbone.
She sighed and lay back again, slipping her arms around him. "I have dreamed of you," she admitted, feeling a little foolish. And then feeling foolish at feeling foolish, considering her present situation.
"I could scarce think of anything else for these past four months," he growled against her skin, his other hand traveling down her side to gather a fistful of her skirt, pushing it high on her hips. "These damned clothes," he huffed in frustration. "What I wouldn't give to put you in a stola. And then tear it off."
She gasped and giggled even harder, squirming beneath him to slither out of her dress. Her movements drew a groan from him, and she felt the hardness pressed against her thigh. She shivered, her arousal pulsing hotter between her thighs. "And what would you do once you had removed this stola," she purred as she stripped layer after layer after damnable layer of wool and linen. The attempt to be quick and alluring was proving to be more difficult than she had anticipated.
It didn't seem to be bothering Quintus, whose hungry eyes followed her every movement while he quickly shed his own tunic. "Gods, where to start." He stretched out over her, his hands skimming over her breasts, her sides, her hips and thighs. His lips hovering over her skin, breathing soft, hungry, reverent kisses to the hollow of her throat, over her collarbone, and down to her breasts. "I would pour wine over your skin and lick it off," he murmured, his tongue playing over her nipple. She shrieked with laughter and wrapped her legs around his waist. He grinned against her skin, his nails dragging over her hips before his searching fingers traveled toward her center.
"And then?" She squealed as his fingers slipped into her cleft.
He didn't answer with words, he simply followed the path of his fingers with his mouth, looking up at her as he pressed hungry kisses to her center. She stared at him, her eyes wide. "Just... like that?"
He groaned quietly as he opened her with his fingers. "Sweeter than wine," he murmured before tracing his tongue along her, centering on her nub. She arched her back, lifting her hips as his lips and tongue began to do things she never had thought possible. She gripped his close-cropped hair tightly, writhing, gasping for breath. He smiled into her, pleased by her reaction. He curled his fingers inside of her his lips wrapped around her nub. She wailed as her back arched, pressing herself into his touch, his mouth.
And then he was on top of her, inside of her, heat and strength and solid muscle. His fingers slipped in between them, searching to keep touching her, to bring her to climax again. She clawed at his back, half in ecstasy, half in an attempt to convince herself that he was actually there, this was actually happening. His lips brushed her throat, murmuring prayers of thanks to his Roman gods and she wailed again, clutching him tightly, writhing beneath him as she shuddered. It was almost too much. Too much too fast.
He cried out with her, his back tensing beneath her nails as he thrust deeper. His movements became less measured, more hungry. The months of longing and denial building up a desperate need for her that he had kept closely guarded. Now revealed. He held her down by her hips and pressed his forehead against hers, staring deep into her eyes as he took her so forcefully she could barely breathe, barely think, could no longer tell where her body ended and his began. And then he cried out, his whole body shuddering. She held him deep as he pulsed into her, panting against her throat, his hands curled over her backside.
Draping her arms around his neck, she laughed breathlessly. "I thought you said 'hours'," she teased, smoothing his hair.
He smiled blissfully. "Give me a few moments," he rumbled, kissing her throat. "I keep my promises."
"Roman diligence," she sighed, pressing a kiss to his forehead. "I've heard of such things."
He lifted himself up on his elbows and looked at her. His eyes no longer thoughtful, but tender. A small, wondering smile playing over his lips as he touched her hair. "My Arianne."
She gasped and shoved at him playfully. "Yours, is it? I'm beholden to no man."
He grinned, unmoved by her shoving. "You told me once that you were free to choose."
She nodded, her giggles dying away. "I did."
He slipped his ring off of his thumb, and kissed her palm before sliding it onto her finger. "It would be the greatest honor I could ever hope for, if you were to choose me." He said, looking up at her with a hint of uncertainty.
She curled her fingers into a fist, holding tight to the ring, several sizes too big. "I do choose you," she whispered.
He broke into a wide smile before gathering her close and kissing her deeply once more. And proceeded to make good on his promises. All of them.
Many thanks to Solitae for being such a wonderful beta. And to Ouyangdan, Tjadis and Sol for all their encouragement.