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They Talked Enough Sense Until I Lost My Mind

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Pelle is eight when he loses his parents to a fire.

His brother Ingemar is ten. That’s why he watches the flames—he’s older. He can bear it. Pelle can’t.

They’re alone. He’s never known grief like this, or loneliness like this. It’s too much for his small body to bear. The universe has opened up to him in the most horrible of ways.

And then—then people come for him. At first the child services people, who are no nonsense, towering frowning giants. They say he and Ingemar might be separated, even as they cling to each other. But then more people come. They are kind and smiling. They have adopted other children who need homes, just like Pelle and Ingemar, they say. They’ll take care of them.

Papers are signed, and then Pelle has a whole new family. He has more brothers and sisters than he knows what to do with. He has uncles and aunts and many mothers and many fathers. When he cries, they cry with him. If he puts his arms up, someone is there to carry him and hug him close. He is never without comfort, or companionship, or a listening ear.

Pelle loses his parents, but he gains a whole new family—the kind of family that others can only dream of.

 


 

Pelle doesn’t feel particularly special, growing up.

He’s special, of course, just like they all are. But he’s not any more special than anyone else is.

Ingemar feels differently about himself. He stares into the flames at times, when they’re all around the hearth during the harsh winters. Pelle thinks winter might be his favorite, since they all get to sing songs and tell stories around the fire, and he can curl up with the other kids and whisper back and forth with them, warm and safe, into the wee hours of the night. But Ingemar will just stare into the fire, like he’s seeing something nobody else can—no, like he’s yearning. What he’s yearning for, Pelle doesn’t know. But he knows that there’s something inside his brother that wants, and wants something in particular, even if he won’t voice it.

When he’s fourteen and Ingemar is sixteen, they’re taken aside by their leader. Pelle has always liked Siv. She’s stern, which intimidated him at first, but now that he’s known her for so long he understands that it’s the way she has to be, to be a good leader. She’s also fair, and thoughtful, and makes sure that everyone is put in the community role that will make them happiest.

Siv serves them tea, and talks to them about how well they’re doing in the community, and especially how good they are at reading people.

“You’re very good with understanding them,” Siv says. Pelle feels proud. He does like people. He likes helping them. He always has, and he knows everyone in this community so well, it’s easy to figure out when one of them is sad, or frustrated, and how to help.

“That’s why we’re going to give you a special job.” Siv explains the Midsummer ritual that’s coming up in a few years.

They do a Midsummer ritual every year, and a Midwinter one. But apparently, every ninety years, they have a special one that ensures the continuation of the community. It’s been going on for centuries. It’s how they show their full devotion to the gods and nature, and renew their vow to put their own community, their true way, above all others. It shows what they will sacrifice and what they will risk for their community and their truths.

After all, just as a community needs new blood so there is no inbreeding and weakness, so gods and nature need new blood, too.

Pelle’s not so sure about this. It’s one thing to burn the bodies of the elders that die every Midsummer. Their time has come, and they go willingly, joyfully, ready to be reborn. But lying to other people? Luring them here to die? How can that be right?

Ingemar, on the other hand, is ecstatic. He wants to know more about the ritual, more about all of it, and Pelle thinks perhaps his brother has finally found the thing that he was yearning for, the thing he wanted and saw when he stared into the flames.

Pelle tries not to think about it too much. It’s years away, yet, the special Midsummer. But it will come, and for once, destiny doesn’t sound like such a great thing after all.

 


 

Christian is an asshole.

That’s why Pelle’s friends with him.

He was always interested in the history of his community when he was a kid, and so it makes sense to take up an anthropology major, focusing specifically on art. Once, right after the fire, the child services people had a therapist spend some time with him and Ingemar, and asked him to draw things. He drew his parents, dead, and the therapist had seemed upset.

“It’s all right,” Siv had told him, after he’d confessed it to her and she’d gifted him some art supplies. “Drawing it gets it out of you. Like sucking poison from a wound. You can’t keep it inside.”

That’s one of the big things about his home that he didn’t appreciate until he got out into the rest of the world. Out here, everyone’s stuffing their feelings down. Humans are full of emotion and imagination, it’s what makes them so amazing, and yet here everyone acts like crying, or feeling anything at all, is wrong. Like it’s weakness.

He doesn’t know what Ingemar’s doing about his picks, but Pelle quickly decided he wasn’t going to offer up some random innocent person to be sacrificed. He was friendly with some people, found they were good people, and let himself drift away. Kept searching until he found Christian, and Mark, and Josh.

Josh is actually a good guy. Way too wrapped up in work to pay attention to things like people or being a good friend, but honestly, it’s far from the worst trait Pelle’s seen in anyone. Josh is a decent person, all things considered.

Christian and Mark, though. Sometimes they say things and Pelle has to actively choke down on the anger that rises in his throat. Like when Mark says something sexist about one of their professors, an insanely smart woman named Dr. Karlson, or when Christian rolls his eyes at his phone when Dani calls him.

Pelle… Pelle’s able to admit that he’s not exactly unbiased, where Dani’s concerned.

He first saw her at a party, one she obviously didn’t want to be at. Dani’s a quiet person, the sort of person you should take for picnics and hikes, someone who appreciates the value of just sitting together reading books. Not the kind of wild party girl that Christian’s always favored, and Pelle really doesn’t know why the two of them are together. Even if Christian were a more considerate person (and he’s not), they’re simply not suited for each other.

At the party, Dani had found some friends and was talking to them—her face in profile to him, framed in the window, the darkness beyond and the light from a streetlamp working to both illuminate her and cast her into shadow—and something in his chest had gone tight.

He’s had plenty of casual girlfriends. But he’s never felt something like that. Like someone had a string wrapped around his lungs and then pulled on it.

The more he talks to Dani—which admittedly isn’t often—and the more he sees of her, and hears about her from Christian, the tighter that string seems to get. He hates when Christian answers Dani’s phone calls like he’s being dragged to the guillotine. He hates that Christian tells Dani to be dismissive of every problem, to practically cut herself off from any friend if that friend ever has ‘drama’, how he tells Dani to lighten up, to be more outgoing, to stop being so frigid.

Dani’s not frigid. She’s soft. Sometimes, she reminds Pelle of a rock—cold and hard to the ignorant, but steady and supporting, warm once the sun lands on it.

He wants to be the sun for Dani, and he hates himself for feeling that way, because he knows he has no right. No right at all. Not when she’s with someone else. Not when he has to go back home. Not when he’s taking Christian with him so that Christian will die.

Josh, he sort of hopes that he won’t have to sacrifice. The guy’s not so bad. Flawed, of course, who isn’t, but he’s not nearly as bad as Mark and Christian. Siv will probably want him, though. Josh is fascinated by their culture and Pelle worries he’s going to try and learn too much and it’ll get him into trouble.

In fact, that’s what he’s trying to discuss with Josh when they’re at the diner. He wants to see if he can persuade Josh to take a detour, look at some interesting ruins in, say, Denmark for a bit. Get Josh to arrive after the Midsummer ceremony. He can pretend it was an accident, that he got the dates mixed up. Josh’ll be pissed, but he’ll also be safe.

And of course, Christian derails the conversation talking about Dani.

It’s not his place to say anything, he knows that. But gods, he wishes he could shake some sense into Christian. Or that he could say all the things he really thinks. He has to keep Christian’s friendship so that Christian will agree to go on the trip in summer, and that means he has to nod along instead of tell Christian off the way he really wants, but it’s so fucking hard—

Christian’s phone rings. Dani again.

Pelle looks at him. Are you going to answer it?

He knows what it is to be scared for a sibling. Ingemar and he… didn’t speak for a while, a few months back. Ingemar told him what he was planning—

I’m going to be the volunteer. I want to do it.

You can’t be serious.

I think I’ve wanted to do it since Mama and Papa. I’ll join them, Pelle, don’t you see? I’ll be with them. Just like I wanted to that day.

You’re not well. You’re talking crazy. I’ll tell Siv—

I already spoke to Siv and she gave me her blessing.

—and Pelle didn’t really take it well, at the time.

He’s… sort of made his peace with it. Ingemar is stubborn, too stubborn, and once he sets his course he won’t stop, not even if the heavens themselves opened and tried to drive him back. Pelle would rather his last few months with his brother be good ones, rather than ones filled with fighting.

Dani deserves someone who will listen to her and reassure her, who will help her help her sister. Not someone who tells her to dismiss her sister because what he really wants is to dismiss Dani.

Pelle selfishly hopes Christian will break up with her. Not that he’ll court Dani after that. There’s no time, not when he has to go home soon. And he’s always been shy when it comes to things that are really important to him. But Dani deserves better, and then he’ll stop feeling guilty about taking Christian to his death, and—

Christian answers the phone, and even though he’s standing a few feet away, Pelle can hear it.

The screaming.

 


 

He loses track of how many times he tells Christian to get Dani help. To go to her. To hold her, like he means it.

Dani’s looking for shelter from a storm and all she’s got is a lean-to. No wonder she isn’t recovering. She needs people who will feel with her, grieve with her. She needs to feel purpose again. She needs a new family, just like he did when he was a child.

And Christian’s about as warm to her as a block of ice.

Gods, the things he wants to say to Dani. The things he doesn’t dare. How he wants to tell her not to hold back her tears, not to hide them in bathrooms. How he wants to hold her as tightly as he can so that she can let it all out. How he wants to give her paints and colored pencils as Siv did for him and say draw it all, leech the poison.

But he can’t, he can’t he can’t. She’s not his, they’re not even proper friends, he has to hold his tongue. He has to hold it in.

 


 

Siv wants to see him, of course. He’s been expecting a meeting with her.

“You were right,” she says, as he sips his tea. “Christian will be a good choice.”

A good choice, yes. As a father—biologically, if not in personality—and as a sacrifice. Maja, poor darling, has wanted a child since she was ten. She wants nothing more than to hold her baby. Siv has decided to let her have her child a little earlier, then, a little younger, so that she can be with it for the first year or so before she goes out into the world.

“How do you feel about Ingemar?”

It’s the question he’s been dreading. “I don’t know. I understand, but I’m also angry. It’s… different when it’s the end of your life. Ingemar still has years left. Forty years, at least! And he doesn’t want to do anything with it?”

Siv looks out of the window, where everyone is going about their preparations for the festival. “Sometimes, we have a pain that doesn’t go away, no matter what we try. Remember that Ingemar will be reborn. Perhaps he will be Maja’s baby. And when he does, he won’t carry this pain with him anymore. He will be free and can live a full life. If one’s life is not full, if one cannot truly live it, then what is the point? Best to try again.”

Pelle feels weak. He feels like an unbeliever, like he’s failed somehow, but he swallows and says, his voice sticking to the back of his throat, “but I won’t have him anymore.”

Siv gives him a warm smile. “Of course you will, Pelle.”

She cups his cheek. “You’re always so sensitive to the pain of others. It’s such a strength, but such a burden. I know. You will see him again, though. When he is reborn, you’ll know. You’ll look into his eyes and see that same soul. He won’t ever really leave you.”

Pelle takes her hand, and squeezes it, and is comforted.

“Now.” Siv draws her hand back, and her tone is brisker. “Dani.”

…ah.

“Ingemar and Maja have said you talk about her a lot.” Siv’s smile is amused.

The girls, when they go out into the world, often get pregnant on purpose and return home to give the babies to be raised by the community. It ensures that the gene pool remains strong. But it would be cruel of him, or of the other men, to get a woman pregnant. They’re taught to be careful. He knows that’s not what Siv’s asking, not why she’s smiling at him.

“I think she would be happy here,” he confesses.

“And that has nothing to do with how you feel about her?”

“It…” He looks away, unable to take Siv’s unflinching gaze. “I want the best for her.”

“We shall see.”

He looks back at Siv. “You won’t—” You won’t sacrifice her?

“She can’t go back.” Not after all that she’ll have seen.

It’s clear: Dani must join, or she must burn.

For the first time in his life since he joined the community, he’s afraid.

 


 

Dani wins!

She wins, she wins, she wins.

She’s the May Queen! She’s their queen, she’s one of them, she’s one of theirs. She rules over all, she’s safe, she’s safe, she’s the May Queen and she’s safe!

He completely forgets himself, barely stops himself from sprinting to her, flowers already on her head and draped around her. She’s smiling, she looks dazed but happy, and gods he wants to hold her and never let her go, not ever, and before he can stop himself he takes her face in his hands the way he’s always wanted and he kisses her.

Christian is wrong, he’s so wrong. Dani isn’t cold or frigid. She’s warm, and soft, and yielding. She presses up into his kiss, she tastes like honey—probably from the drink the women take before they dance—and it’s only after he pulls away he realizes what an idiot he is.

Does he feel like home to you?

The way she looked at him, then. The understanding in her eyes, the silent no in answer. It meant something, but it wasn’t exactly a declaration. It wasn’t like she was saying she was leaving Christian for him, or even that she was leaving Christian at all. And he wasn’t telling her how he felt, not in so many words, although he’s sure his gestures said it all. He shouldn’t have kissed her. It’s not time. Not time for that, if there ever will be.

But even though he shouldn’t have—he doesn’t regret it. Not when Dani has to be pulled away from him and keeps staring at him until she has to turn away. Not when he can still feel her lips against his.

May Queen.

May Queen.

 


 

The fire is starting to die down, and Dani has sunk to the grass, her hysterical laughter turning into quiet, almost calm crying.

The women need to go to her now. They’ll prepare her, for she must talk to Siv. Because this Midsummer is special—the May Queen becomes their leader’s successor. She trains, and takes over the role when it is their leader’s time to die. There are other ways of choosing their next leader, for the years when they do not have this special Midsummer. And all other May Queens only reign for the year, chosen to bless first during ceremonies and opening the Midwinter rituals.

But Dani is special. Dani will lead them all.

Everyone congratulates him. “We’re so proud of you,” one of the elders says to him. “You brought us our new leader.”

Pelle isn’t proud of himself. He knows it’s a great honor to be the one who brings in the sacrifices, and that bringing in their May Queen and Siv’s successor is a feat unprecedented. But Dani’s the one that everyone should be proud of. She won that competition and she made that choice. Not him.

The women come up to her, but Dani shrugs them off. “I—I need a moment.”

He crosses over to her before he realizes what he’s doing. Crouches down. She looks burdened, but also free. Is that not what being a queen means?

“Dani?”

She looks up at him, and something like relief breaks over her face. “Hi.”

He laughs. “Hi.” He offers up his hand.

She takes it, and he guides her to her feet. “You need to meet with Siv, so that you can start learning about your new role.”

“My role?”

“You will be her successor. Siv will explain it all better. But the May Queen who is chosen in this ceremony, in this Midsummer, she reigns always. She takes over when it’s time for our leader to be reborn.”

Dani gapes at him. “But… but I… I can’t be a leader.”

“Why not? You’re smart. You understand pain and the importance of family. You’re thoughtful. You fit in well here. Why couldn’t you learn to lead?” Why can she not see herself as he sees her?

Dani looks down at the grass, as if she’s trying to test something, then looks back up at him. “I don’t want to go back home.”

“Then don’t.”

“He didn’t feel like home.”

Pelle nods. “I know.”

Dani looks like she might say something else, and it feels like his heart is beating so loudly the whole valley can hear it. But then she closes her mouth and clears her throat. “Would you lead me to—to Siv?”

She’s still holding onto his hand. “Yes.”

 


 

He has no idea what Dani and Siv discuss. It’s not his place to know. Instead, he helps the others put away the ceremonial clothes, and pack up the supplies, and scatter the ashes of the fire to the four winds.

Goodbye, he tells his brother. The look of—of happiness on Ingemar’s face when he went in… Pelle had never seen anything like it cross his brother’s face before. He knows, now, what Ingemar wanted when he stared at the flames as a child. He wanted to crawl inside.

Goodbye. I will try to understand. I will try not to be angry. We’ll do better next time, you and me.

Maja, who has been glowing with happiness the last few hours, eager to tell anyone and everyone that she’s going to have a child, runs up to him. “Siv wants to see you.”

“Of course.” His role in the community has been fulfilled, and now Siv will give him a new role. The others in the community who are his age will be going back out into the world to finish their pilgrimage and their degrees, but not him. He’d have to answer too many questions about what happened to his traveling companions.

Besides, Dani is here. And where she is, so he wishes to be. To help her, even if he’s permitted nothing else.

When he gets inside, however, Siv is not alone. Dani sits there, a simple circlet of flowers upon her head, clad all in white once more.

“Pelle.” Siv smiles warmly. Knowingly. “I’ve been discussing with Dani how things work, and what will be expected of her as a leader.”

He nods. Dani will have a lot of responsibility on her shoulders.

“She wants to speak to you, as well. Hear things from your perspective.”

Dani looks at him, a challenge in her eyes. They’re rimmed red.

Pelle swallows. Nods. “Any question, I’ll answer it honestly.”

Dani raises an eyebrow. “No half-truths?”

He shakes his head, trying not to throw himself at her feet. “None.”

Siv nods at Dani. “I need to supervise things. And make sure Maja doesn’t make everyone sick of her.” This last is said fondly.

Once they’re alone, he sits cross-legged on the floor. Dani is looking down at him, at once vulnerable and imperious.

“Will this happen every year?” she asks. “Is it really just a ninety-year thing?”

“It’s truly only ninety years. I’ve never seen this before and I’ve lived here since I was eight. Usually it’s only those who are seventy-two who die. We burn them and mourn them. We have a May Queen and she opens all other ceremonies for us.”

“Are all… is all sex like that? What I saw with…”

She saw. Fuck. Pelle closes his eyes. She wasn’t supposed to actually see that. Maybe it’s good that she did, that she saw what kind of person Christian was. Nobody forced him. He was given the choice to do it or not, and he chose to do it. But that didn’t mean he wanted—he didn’t want Dani to have to see that.

“No.” He breathes carefully. The distance between them feels like a gulf. A canyon. “Maja wanted to be pregnant, and she was nervous about her first time. The ritual was to enhance the possibility of a child, and to help Maja feel supported. It’s about the woman, not the man.”

“So I wouldn’t… have to…”

Pelle shakes his head. “People can love who they love, here. There are formal handfastings if you and your partner want one. Or you can simply be together until you’re not. It’s up to you.”

Dani gives an odd half-laugh. “I’m not sure who would want me anyway. Christian always said I was—” She cuts herself off with a motion of her hand.

Pelle moves forward, up onto his knees, reckless, before he can stop himself. “Christian was an idiot, trust me, Dani. He wanted you to be someone else, someone you’re not. If he’d been able to think about anyone other than himself, if he’d ever—” He bites down on his tongue, tries not to damn himself any further.

Dani stares at him for a long moment, lips parted, her face flushed. “I keep thinking about you kissing me.” It’s a whisper.

His heart wants to fly right out of his mouth. “I’d do it again, if you let me.”

Dani reaches out, her fingers trembling as they comb through his hair, and it feels like a benediction. He closes his eyes, lets her stroke through the strands, lets her shaking fingertips trail down the curve of his face, trace his nose, his cheekbones, cup his jaw.

“Is this because I’m the May Queen?”

He opens his eyes. Her hand is still pressed to his cheek. “I don’t serve the May Queen. I serve Dani.”

He can see her breathing pick up, see her pupils get wide and dark. Does Siv know what’s happening in here? Probably. Does he care? Not in the slightest. Siv had a consort before. His time came three years ago. She knows what this feels like, surely. This drunk spell he’s under.

Dani slides her hand to the back of his head, clasping, her fingers tangled in his hair, and he thinks she means to draw him up, but first—first he wants to show her. What he wants for her, what he wants to do for her, how he wants to serve.

His hands on her knees makes her jump a little, but she parts her legs as he spreads them. He can hear her breath hitch as he pushes her dress up her thighs, the smell of her getting stronger, sharper.

“Pelle.” He stills, unsure if her voice means for him to stop, but then she pushes his head forward, a shy look in her eyes, and he smiles at her and goes.

He takes his time, kisses up her thighs, feels her tremble. Did Christian ever do this for her? He doubts it. It wouldn’t even have occurred to him. More fool he. Dani’s quiet, yes. She stays very still, but she is not cold, oh, no, she is warm, warm and responsive, slowly sinking into the chair, pushing into him, as he kisses his way upwards.

When he noses at her folds, she sighs, tension bleeding out of her. She strokes his hair like it’s soothing her, like she enjoys feeling his curls wind through her fingers, and if he were a cat he’d be purring.

She’s wet, she’s slick, and he can’t help the hot curl in his chest. He did that, he’s drawing that out of her, and he knows she can feel his satisfied smile as he presses his mouth to her.

“Oh.” It’s the smallest of gasps, but he drinks it up. He’s careful, slow, steady with the strokes of his tongue. He wants to learn her, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Dani’s not loud, but her breath catches on the things she likes, and so he chases that, until her hand is no longer stroking but clenched tight in his hair.

Pelle has to press his hands into her thighs to keep her still as he twists his tongue into her and Dani makes a noise halfway between surprise and pleasure. He doesn’t speed up, but he does press more firmly. Deep steady strokes, just like rowing. Every time he presses the flat of his tongue against her clit, drags it nice and slow, Dani shakes violently.

He wishes he could speak, could coax her through it, that’s it, darling, let go, I’ve got you, but he can’t, so he just pours it into everything else instead. Strokes the soft skin of her thighs, curls his tongue inside her, scrapes against her clit, tries to make her feel held. I’ve got you.

Dani gives a sharp, high-pitched whine and floods his mouth, salty and sticky, her legs shaking and her hand going slack in his hair.

He licks her clean, and then carefully kisses her thighs again. He doesn’t want her feeling neglected in the afterglow.

“Oh,” Dani repeats, softly. “Oh.”

He pushes back onto his heels and waits, his hands on her knees to keep her steady. Waits for his queen.

“I never…” Dani shakes her head. “I’m sorry. Um. That was just. Wow.”

“One to five stars,” he says, affecting a serious tone. “We appreciate feedback, it shows up on our ratings.”

Dani laughs, hiccups, wipes at her eyes, laughs a bit more.

He strokes the inside of her knees. “Dani. The moment you came here, you felt it. I know you did. You belong here. You fit in here. You could see how special this place is, can’t you? Stay. You’ll have a family again, like I did. You’ll never be alone again.”

Dani’s back to stroking through his hair. “I shouldn’t.” She inhales shakily. “But I will.”

He forces himself to stand. His knees hurt, and he’s so hard he thinks he might fall over. “I’ll get Siv, then.”

Dani looks startled, perhaps as though she was expecting something else, and he can feel her eyes on his back as he leaves.

 


 

He definitely jerks himself off in the outhouse afterwards, Dani’s gasps playing over and over in his head, making him wonder what other sounds he could coax out of her, if he was patient and took the time to learn her body. He can’t stop thinking about her questions, and his heart is beating out a frantic tattoo in his chest, a rhythm repeating, pick me, pick me, pick me.

 


 

Dani’s with Stiv for two more days, seeing no one, receiving the training and the education that she will need to become a part of their community.

Pelle tries not to claw the walls with his anxiety.

He wants to see her. He just wants to see her, she doesn’t need to give him anything, he knows that she was expecting him to want her to reciprocate but that wasn’t what it was about, he was giving, he just wants to give to her, that’s all, she doesn’t—

It’s dark out, and everyone’s asleep, when he feels someone touch his shoulder.

He rolls over. Perhaps it’s Maja, who is anxious about the baby and something going wrong. Perhaps it’s one of the children, having a nightmare.

It’s Dani.

She’s wearing a thin white shift and nothing else. “Will you come with me?”

He follows, barefoot, in his thin cotton pants and shirt, out of the sleeping barn and into the grass, until they’re far away, near the tree line.

“I asked Siv…” Dani’s arms are wrapped around herself. “I asked Siv if she had told you to do that. To convince me.”

“She didn’t.”

“That’s what she told me. She told me…” The breeze whips Dani’s hair around. “She said that you loved me. That you would call back to report, to catch up, and it was all Dani this, Dani that.”

He feels flayed raw, like it’s not Simon that was turned into a blood eagle but him, his organs on display, hanging for all to see.

“Is that true?” Dani asks. “This whole time?”

“I couldn’t tell you.” His voice is hoarse. “You barely knew me.”

“You gave me that drawing,” Dani says. Her arms fall away from herself. “You kissed me. You—I don’t know what’s up or down but you feel—you feel like home, Pelle, and I—”

He pulls her in, to hold her, and Dani grabs his face, kissing him. A groan comes out of him, out of the very earth beneath them, and he winds his fingers in her hair, clasps her to him, never wants to let her go.

“He made me feel so cold,” Dani whispers, even as she presses frantic kisses to his face. “I feel so cold, Pelle, I want to be warm, I want to be home, it’s so cold—”

“You’re warm,” he promises her. “He was wrong, you’re warm, I’ll help you, you’re warm, Dani—”

They fall onto the grass and she pulls her shift up and off, and he groans again like a falling tree, setting his mouth to her neck, her breasts, her stomach, everywhere. Dani’s hands find his hair again and she trembles and sighs, then whimpers, then pants.

When his fingers rub against her Dani chokes, her fingers moving down to his shoulders, nails digging in. He stares at her face, their mouths inches apart, breathing each other in like the sky and the earth, the two first lovers.

“What do you want?” he whispers, sliding two fingers into her. “Dani, Dani, what do you want?”

“In me,” Dani orders. “Hold me, inside me, I want to feel held.”

He buries his face into her neck as he slides inside of her, his toes curling into the dirt, his hips jerking. She’s so sweet and warm, she is his queen, she is setting him ablaze.

She never quite screams, but he shifts angles until he finds what makes her sob a little in the back of her throat and then he follows that. His thrusts are shallow, but she wanted to be held, and so he must hold her, cannot deny her, rocking them together as Dani begins to meet his thrusts with her own.

There,” she whispers brokenly. “Oh, yes, there.”

His back is a mess of marks from her nails, flayed open indeed, and sweat has made a thick sheen on both of their bodies by the time she arches, biting his lip, drawing blood. It’s the sweetest thing he’s ever tasted.

“Dani—” He should pull out, just in case—

Dani’s ankles lock around him. “I said in me,” she whispers, orders, regal as if she was on a throne.

He spills inside of her, shaking all over, and Dani coos in satisfaction.

They kiss, deep but lazy, as he rolls to the side, takes her with him. Keeps holding her.

“I’ll stay,” Dani whispers. “I’ll stay, and I’ll learn, and I’ll lead, and I will handfast you.”

“Yes,” he promises. Swears his fealty. He wants to never leave this spot. The night air is just right. They have no need of a blanket. They can sleep right here. “Yes, Dani.”

He can feel the string around his heart, tight enough to choke him, but that’s all right. Dani holds the other end.

And she is a benevolent queen.