They return from the mission with their lives and some crucial intelligence, but little in the way of concrete gains. Zephie keeps her head high, her back straight, as she gives her report to Count Alex's council of whining jackals; she knows better than to display weakness in front of them. It takes a careful eye and long practice to see where exhaustion rounds her shoulders, stiffens the gestures of her hands. Rue knows her that well, and hates Alex's useless generals for every moment they keep Zephie standing before them. They are not worthy to address her as equals, much less question the value of her efforts.
When they finally allow her to go -- as though it is their place to dismiss Lanzheim's rightful queen! -- Rue follows her, quiet and close; Crocell mocks her for being the princess's shadow, but she refuses to be baited. It is her place, and she is content in it.
Zephie does not allow herself to relax until they reach her quarters; there, with the door safely closed and locked behind them, she lets her shoulders slump. "Sometimes, I think that part is worse than the fighting," she says.
"If we could afford the losses," Rue says, and then stops herself. She knows her duty, and assassinating Zephie's arrogant fiance's lackeys is not it. "I wish I could spare you the indignity," she amends.
Zephie gives her a tired, honest smile. "Thank you," she says. She sits down on the edge of the bed and slips off her shoes, then reaches up to peel off her dress. The fine fabric is dusty, no doubt stained with sweat and likely worse -- but it is another part of the endless political game, for Zephie to look the part of the princess even on the battlefield.
"Shall I leave you to sleep?" Rue asks. Her own room adjoins Zephie's, one of the few things on which Zephie absolutely would not compromise when conceding -- too much -- to Alex's terms.
"I'd be glad if you would stay," Zephie says softly. She eases her dress off, and Rue does not look away, even though the scar still livid below Zephie's ribs shames her. In every other way -- Rue would not complicate their lives by saying it, but it's true -- Zephie is perfect, the soft swell of her breasts, the faint flush to her skin, the sweet curves of her hips and thighs. She stands, slides her dress down, steps out of her underthings. "You must be exhausted yourself, Rue," she says.
Rue shakes her head. "It's not so bad," she says; she is tired, but not enough to want to be sent away. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Zephie looks relieved that she asked, an Rue wants to reproach her for being uncertain -- Rue will always be there for her, whatever she needs. "If you feel well enough to channel Kan...."
"Of course," Rue says. "Please, allow me." Lightning Kan is not as well-suited to restorative uses as wind or even ice, but it has therapeutic properties when handled carefully. Rue retrieves a crystal from her bag and snaps it, releasing trapped Kan into the room; manmade structures block the natural flow of Kan, so there is none to draw on in the environment unless they bring it with them. The power housed in one crystal should be more than enough for this.
Rue focuses her breathing, lets the swirl of released Kan settle into her body and charge her flesh. She nods. "I am ready when you are."
"Thank you," Zephie says. She lies down on her bed, on her stomach, her head pillowed on her arms. Her shoulders rise and fall with her breath; Rue can see the tension she carries there despite her efforts to relax.
Well. It is a good place to begin, then. Rue sits down beside her and stretches out both hands. She does not touch Zephie's skin, not quite -- only comes near enough to feel Zephie's radiant warmth, and then wakes the Kan in her hands.
Sparks crackle from her fingers, and the room smells sharply of storms. Zephie muffles a tiny whimper in the pillows, and follows it with a sigh of such pure pleasure that it makes Rue flush. Too much of this power at once is paralytic, but tiny doses like this can be...relaxing.
Lightning is a power constantly in motion, like fire; Rue cannot hold it still, and would not want to. She passes her hands over Zephie's skin, letting the current move through her and out of her hands. Zephie trembles beneath her as the current arcs between them, muscles tensing and shivering. It's an element she cannot hold, so it crackles through her and away again -- but it takes her tension with it, leaves her melting into the sheets with her cheeks flushed and sighs of pleasure on her lips. Rue shifts back, bringing her hands down: the small of Zephie's back, the swell of her buttocks, the long lines of her thighs.
"Rue," Zephie says softly, plaintive. The way she moves is not entirely the fault of the Kan; she pushes up voluntarily to meet it, arching her back, flexing her thighs. "Rue, please."
"Anything," Rue murmurs. "I would do anything for you."
Zephie spreads her legs, rocking her hips; her salt darkens the scent on the air, and Rue's hands tremble. She reaches between Zephie's legs carefully, keeping that tiny separation, not quite letting herself touch. The power pulses from her in waves, slower than her racing heartbeat, and each pulse makes Zephie arch and shudder a little harder than the last. Her pleasure comes like the flow of Kan, in rising, repeating waves, not like the savage single strike of wild lightning. It wrings her out, leaves her trembling and gasping, skin sheened with sweat, by the time the last of Rue's Kan is spent.
"You are well, princess?" Rue asks. She pulls back carefully, slowly.
Zephie rolls over and looks up at her, cheeks pink, eyes dark with pleasure. "Wonderful," she says. "Thank you."
She reaches up before Rue can take her leave, catches Rue by the shoulders to pull her down. After all the careful not-quite-touching that came before, the sudden contact makes Rue feel like she's been struck with elemental force herself -- knocked dizzy by the sharp wind of Zephie's strength.
"Princess," Rue says.
"You were about to try to leave, weren't you?" Zephie says. "Without letting me do anything for you at all."
"You were exhausted," Rue protests. "You need your rest."
"So were you," Zephie says. She pulls Rue closer, and that feels wonderful. "You do so much for me, Rue. Let me be kind to you, too."
"You are impossible to refuse," Rue says, trying to stifle her smile, and Zephie kisses her. The princess has always been stubborn; finally, Rue thinks she is learning to be glad.