Part 2a

Author's note: Any films or television programmes mentioned in this book are imagined and have no connection with any real films or programmes that may have similar titles (I have no idea if there are any such).


Serenity, felicity :-)

Part 1






Chapter Four


Living Together


Saturday 8th July, Year 1 :


Vibeke drifted through fleeting dreams that seemed hazy as if she was looking at soft sunlight through warm mists. As she slowly rose towards consciousness she became aware of the deep comfort of her limbs, the softness of the bedclothes about her, the pleasant lethargy she felt.

More than anything else she was aware of the soft, strong body pressed against her, wrapped about her. Vibeke was lying on her back and Ember's head was upon her shoulder, her arm about her waist, one leg over one of Vibeke's. Vibeke held Ember in return, he arms about her.

This is how I always want to wake up , she thought.

She took in the scent of Ember's hair and gently nuzzled the top of her head. She listened to Ember's steady breathing and could feel her heartbeat against her. Each breath brushed across her bare breast, and that certainly felt good. A smile came to her face as she considered how they had brought each other to delightment and fulfilment time after time the previous evening and during the night. She felt a pleasant soreness between her legs that was a nice reminder and her breasts were rather tender.

Happiness filled her so deeply and so fully that she wondered how it was possible.

Glancing about the room she saw that the light that seeped about the curtains was grey and muted. At the edge of hearing she could hear the softest patter of fine rain against the outside sills. The large bed was on the north side of the bedroom and there were windows on the south and east sides, dark red curtains closed. Glancing at the clock on the chest of drawers on her side of the bed, Vibeke saw that it was just before half past eleven. Not as late as she might have expected - they had last been awake around seven o'clock, and had sat and drunk some water and held each other for a little while after giving each other so much pleasure.

Ember stirred in her arms and let out a tiny squeak that made Vibeke grin. Turning slightly, clearly rather confused, Ember reached up with one hand to pull down the sheets a little. Then she faced upwards a little and one eye fluttered open and peeked up at her. Ember's hair stood out at all angles and Vibeke could not help but smile and chuckle.

'Hmph,' said Ember, raising her head further, blinking at her and rubbing her eyes. 'And just what is so funny?' She returned Vibeke's smile.

'Well, you . . . Except that it's more that you're charming, adorable, incredibly cute, utterly gorgeous and definitely edible.'

'You think I'm edible, huh?'

'Well, yes. I did think that would have been rather obvious during the night.'

Ember adopted a mock offended look. 'Are you suggesting that I am no more than a gastronomic object to be consumed? What about my inner self?'

'Well, that tasted pretty good too. Although, I do not wish to actually consume you. Rather just to taste you, kiss you, lick you, nibble upon you.'

Grinning, Ember raised her hand to her face and shook her head a fraction then ran her fingers back through her unkempt hair. 'Kind of like a sensual lollipop?' she asked. 'I think last night gave me some memories I'll never forget. In fact most of our nights seem to be like that.'

Vibeke watched then as Ember settled down upon her again, her head against her upper chest. 'I love you Vibeke,' Ember said, her voice soft and utterly serious. There was no humour in it - just a profundity of meaning that seemed to come from the deepest part of her and which went straight to the deepest part of Vibeke. 'All that I am is yours if you want it.'

Vibeke held her close. 'And all that I am is yours.'

They lay together for another few minutes. Vibeke realised that she was on the verge of falling asleep again, such calmness filled her mind and such deep relaxation and lassitude touched her muscles. She guessed that Ember must feel much the same.

Then: 'Why don't I start getting some breakfast ready while you take a shower?' Ember suggested. Her voice was muffled against Vibeke's skin and the top of the duvet. Then, propping herself up on an elbow, she continued more clearly: 'Then I'll take a shower. I mean, I'd like to take a shower with you but there's a serious risk we might end up back in bed, which, admittedly, would be very nice indeed. The trouble is that I am hungry. Of course, much though I would enjoy having something to eat, it would not be as good as making love to you again, but I fear that if I do not satisfy my body's serious need for energy then we might be impoverished later on in terms of our spending time exploring each other's bodies and pleasures.'

'That was almost legalistic,' Vibeke said with a smile. 'All right. Let's get going.' And she winced and groaned slightly as she sat up.


Vibeke stood in the bathroom, towelling dry her hair. When she was done as much as she cared to she stood for a moment, naked, looking into the mirror above the sink. She grinned more widely when she realised that a quiet and fulfilled and happy smile had been touching her mouth and lent light to her eyes - it seemed to have become a near permanent fixture since she had met Ember.

Back in the bedroom she dressed in comfortable grey leggings and a dark green t-shirt then brushed her damp hair. As she did so she could hear Ember pottering about in the kitchen. The wonderful aromas of coffee and frying bacon came to her, making her feel ravenous. It was amazing to her when she considered it that she was sharing her house, her life, with another. It was so very different to the solitary existence she had led for so long. It astonished her that she had found it not merely easy but positively exciting and enjoyable that Ember was living here with her, to see her every morning and evening and sometimes during the day, to hold her through the night. She did not feel that she had made any difficult adjustments or that she had made any troublesome compromises. Rather it was as if she was now able to live in the way that her deeper self had always wanted and craved.

It was because of Ember, she knew. She was fully aware that sharing her space with anyone else, no matter how easy going they might have been, would have been a real struggle and would have made her feel deeply uneasy. Better solitude than that. But to go back to that solitude now or to be without Ember at all was simply unthinkable.

Walking down the hall and turning into the kitchen, she stopped for a moment and regarded her love. She was wearing a comfortable-looking bathrobe of deep blue that was rather ragged but which Ember clearly liked. Her feet were bare upon the tiles. She was concentrating upon making pancakes, and Vibeke saw a small smile was on her face that matched the one she had seen on her own face when she had stood before the mirror.

Vibeke walked over to her and stood beside her. 'That is some feast you have going there,' she said. 'It looks and smells absolutely fantastic. Would you like me to finish it?'

'Thanks. I'll take a shower myself now.'


A little over ten minutes later they sat at the small kitchen table.

'This has got to be the best grapefruit juice I've ever drunk,' Vibeke said.

'And this is the best coffee,' Ember remarked.

'As for the food . . .'

They did not talk much for a while then, quiet with their own thoughts, immensely enjoying the meal. Vibeke looked out of the window for a little while, taking in the grey day, the low clouds, the mist that hung still in the air and the drizzle that fell through it. It was quite a warm day. Two sparrows and a blackbird pecked at the ground near the base of a bush.

Then she looked back at Ember and took a sip of her coffee at the same time that her love took a sip of hers. They gazed into each other's eyes.


Vibeke washed up. Afterwards as she dried her hands Ember entered the kitchen and went over to stand by the window. Vibeke joined her, standing quietly for a little while, looking out. It was still drizzling though the mist had mostly cleared. The patter of rain against the sill and against the leaves of the climbing plants on the walls and of the trees came clearly through the partially opened window. Scents of wet and growing things came to them and a slight, pleasant, damp coolness.

'It's a sleepy day,' Ember said softly. 'A time of contemplation, as strange and mystical spirits dance and hide among the raindrops, mischievous and diminutive beings mutter incantations beneath the leaves, and the clouds become full of the slumbering thoughts of the old gods.'

Vibeke enjoyed Ember's words but did not say anything.

'Who used to live here?' Ember asked, her voice soft.

Vibeke regarded her for a moment, taking in the paleness of her face and eyes in the grey light. 'I am not sure,' she replied. 'My guardian left me everything that he had. The estate was not worth much and was certainly not in order. We lived in his house in Barrow and he died there when I was in my third year at university. Although he had the rights to his house and to this one, he had debts and had to mortgage this place. And he never managed to pay off the mortgage to where we lived. For a while I was thinking of offloading both properties and renting or trying to buy a new place for a kind of fresh start of my own. But I realised that I liked this place, and where it is, and I'm glad I decided to stay here. It suits me somehow. My guardian told me that he had inherited it from his great aunt, a woman called Penelope Lambrick. I don't know whether she actually lived here - he said that he only recalled her living out her later years at a townhouse in Winchester. Sometimes I think that it might be interesting to find out a little bit more about Penelope Lambrick but at other times I imagine that she would have been as interesting or ordinary as anyone else. I have hardly been the most sociable person during my life, so perhaps I would do better to learn something about the living.'

Ember brushed her fingers along Vibeke's arm. Then she looked around. 'This place does seem to reflect you,' she said. 'The structure is old and I sometimes see you as if you have an old soul - and I don't mean that in a negative way at all, simply that you sometimes seem to have a depth of experience and emotion that might almost go beyond one life. At the same time its design is straightforward and unpretentious, just as you are straightforward and honest. And the fact that you have kept the furnishings sparse seems to reflect the way you are quite quiet and do not advertise yourself in any way. Your depth is revealed instead in subjects you have studied, the journals you write, the music you listen to, your inner thoughts and feelings.' She gave a little shrug and looked up into Vibeke's eyes with a sideways smile. 'You never know. Maybe an older incarnation of you had this place built according to your own design, knowing that a younger incarnation would live here.'

'Hmm,' Vibeke said. 'If so, then that older incarnation should also have anticipated that you would be here too and that it would be your house as much as mine.' She paused for a moment then said: 'Do you feel comfortable here, like you want to live here, like it is your place? It's important to me that you feel that it is. If not I would rather find somewhere you like.'

'I like being here very much,' Ember replied. She wrapped an arm around Vibeke's waist and pressed her head into her shoulder for a moment. 'I'm quite looking forward to bringing the last of my painting and drawing things over from Mrs Waechter's. I think that once I actually start painting here it will make me feel very good. I hope you don't mind the scent of oil paints and turpentine.'

Vibeke shook her head then felt momentarily puzzled. 'Why haven't you painted anything yet? Is there a reason? I know you've been sketching a lot but . . .' She was concerned that, having been living here with her for almost a month, there might be something holding Ember back.

'Nothing bad,' Ember replied. 'Actually I've really enjoyed making all those sketches. I have a lot of ideas and I'm trying to separate them out, see what themes I most wish to explore. I have more ideas than I could ever possibly have time to paint and I like coming up with interesting arcs and variations rather than just very different or disparate works.'

Ember stepped back and took Vibeke's hand and led her past the dining table and into the living room. Vibeke did not miss that there was a sense of purpose to her decision to go into the other room.

They halted in front of the sofa. It was a comfortable but rather battered piece of furniture, its dark red leather scuffed and needing treating. There was a single chair at an old-style desk in one corner and there were bookshelves - simple shelves of untreated wood that might have been used in a storage room rather than a living room - that were full of books and CDs and stacks of CDs and some DVDs. There was a television and basic DVD player and there was a good quality stereo system. The parquet floor had clearly been set down quite a long time ago and needed sanding and varnishing. There was a rug between the sofa and the TV and stereo. There were two small lamps set on the floor and several candle holders about the room with candles of several colours in various states of burning down and melting.

'No ornaments,' Ember said.

Vibeke shook her head. 'I never really saw the attraction of them for the most part. I always wanted to put some artwork on the walls but something held me back, as if I didn't want the intrusion of some artist I did not know in my own home.' She smiled at Ember then. 'I would really like it if you would select some of your paintings and set them around the house. It would be really good.'

'I'll do that,' Ember said with a warm smile. 'Will you help me choose?'

'I can if you want,' Vibeke replied. 'But I know that I'll be happy with whatever you most like and in fact I would like it to be something you determine, something just from you, without anticipation of my response. An expression of self.'

'All right. Speaking of expressions of self, can we go to the garage and have a look at your weights? Maybe you could show me some exercises that might be good for me.' She grimaced slightly, amused at herself. 'Not that I feel like exercising at all right now, since I seem to be aching in all kinds of curious places, but I'd like to be prepared for when I do try.'

'All right,' Vibeke said. 'I'll be happy to show you.'

A minute later they made their way through the drizzle and down the front path to the single-car garage on the left. It was a small building of whitewashed concrete blocks with a flat, slightly sloping roof. Vibeke let them in through the side door and turned on the light.

Ember closed the door behind her then looked around. 'Not a lot of clutter,' she said. 'Just exercise gear, a punch-bag and your bike. Very you .'

'Well,' Vibeke shrugged. 'I keep the few tools I need in the garden shed.' As she regarded the punch-bag that hung from a beam, the bench and the free-standing weights, the stacks of metal discs and the contraption against the wall with all its pulleys and presses, she felt a curious glow of pride. Even the simple, thin blue carpet she had laid out seemed just right. She had spent many hours in here, simply exercising, blanking her mind to anything but the heat in her muscles and the rhythm of her breathing - unless, as she sometimes did, she exercised more gently and allowed her thoughts to wander wherever they would.

Except . . . 'You know, sometimes I wondered why I exercised,' she said. As Ember looked at her curiously, she considered her thoughts before saying anything more. Then she continued: 'I know that it made me feel better. I'm not someone who can go without physical exercise and movement for very long. I start to feel uncomfortable, irritated and a little anxious if I do not move and make demands of my body. So it makes me feel better and I do enjoy the glow and the peacefulness and the physical relaxation afterwards. I even enjoy the exercise itself a lot of the time, that feeling of my heart beating strongly, of the blood flowing in my veins, the heat of my skin, the rush of air in my lungs. I like the feeling of strength it gives me.

'But exercise is also associated with looking good and being healthy. And I never had anyone to look good for and could not really imagine finding anyone I might want to look good for - until I met you. As for living healthily, I did not much think about it. My diet is fairly good and I exercise a lot, so I am healthy, and general physical well-being is important to me. But I really did not think much about the future, did not really care if I might live a long life or not. I was neutral at best about being alive at all.'


Ember watched Vibeke as she spoke. She was facing her but Vibeke was turned slightly away, looking mostly at the weights and bench though apparently not seeing them. Not for the first time she saw the bleakness that she had sometimes seen behind Vibeke's gaze - as if the darkness of her pupils led not to the warmth that she usually sensed there but to a place of shadows, as if a dark shroud was lowering across her mind and her heart.

She wanted to know more about this darker side of Vibeke but was uncertain for a moment what to say. Instead she simply reached out and brushed her fingers up and down Vibeke's upper arm and gave her a little squeeze.

Vibeke looked across at her and gave her a small smile. 'Sorry for sounding rather depressing.'

'You have nothing to be sorry for. I like hearing you speak, like taking in everything you say to me. Even the more difficult things are valuable to me, making me feel that I can know you more fully. Perhaps I can take those more difficult memories you have and shine them until they are clear with the reflection of understanding, and then give them back to you. I would like that.'

Vibeke stepped towards her and embraced her, holding her tightly. Ember savoured the feeling of Vibeke's body pressed against her, her cheek against the top of her head, enjoyed the scent of her and of the clean cotton of her t-shirt.

Stepping back at last, Ember said: 'It is a strange thing. We were both alone for much of our lives but it seems to have hurt you in many ways.' She hesitated before continuing, not wanting to make Vibeke feel uncomfortable. 'You felt unwanted, I think.'

When Vibeke looked down and nodded there was a hint of tears in her eyes, a sudden liquid shimmering. 'But I felt confused as well,' she said. 'Among most of the people I knew I did not really want to be wanted. It would have made little difference to me - their view of me did not mean that much as long as it was not hostile.' She shrugged slightly. 'I wanted to be valued by someone that I valued.' Looking into Ember's eyes: 'I imagined what it would be like to have real friendship.' Smiling: 'But I never imagined what I have with you. I could not imagine anything so profound and wonderful.'

Ember smiled in return, looking into her eyes. She felt the connection between them deepening, bonding them ever more strongly, a near tangible emotion of togetherness and endless warmth and love.


A little later Vibeke and Ember sat on the sofa together, each of them sipping a cup of tea that Vibeke had made. For a while they were silent, simply enjoying each other's warm presence.

'I love the delight that you see in everything,' Vibeke said. 'I have said it before I know, and I'm sure I'll often say it again. It just always amazes me.'

Ember entwined their fingers and just smiled.

'Sometimes it seems as if you can find enjoyment as if there was something good in every day of your life. I know you have had a difficult life in some ways and it amazes me and inspires me that you managed to deal with it so well; that you were able to find gladness even when the things around you were not going well.'

'It is only when I think about it that it seems unusual,' Ember said. 'I know that many people find that when something goes badly wrong, it becomes like a dark lens through which they see everything. But I have never been like that. Even in the most difficult foster home I was in there were good things. There were times when I was bullied but I found that I could not take the other, bigger children very seriously. Their spite and malice and their need to prove themselves and take out their frustrations on others was merely absurd to me, a manifestation of their own problems and very little to do with me. I was afraid of being hurt and there were times when I was hurt. But afterwards I did not think about it much. There was still the beauty of the plants growing in the scruffy garden - even the weeds fascinated me. There were the endless and never-repeating patterns of raindrops on the sills and running down the panes of the windows. There was the kindness of a cook who gave me a pat on the head when she gave me my dinner. And when I lay in bed I always had my dreams of other places, strange worlds. I know that I did not have close friends, and none at all really of my own age, and I sometimes wished that I could have. But I was still happy, most of the time. There were so many fascinating things about me and within me.'

Ember looked into Vibeke's eyes and saw the bright and deep emotions that were there. She smiled, realising that she had deeply moved her.

'Lie down with me, my love,' Vibeke said. And she set down her near-empty mug of tea and settled herself upon her back on the cushions of the sofa with her head upon the padded arm. Ember settled in beside her on her side, between Vibeke and the sofa's back. She rested her head upon Vibeke's shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist as Vibeke held her and traced slow, gentle, abstract patterns upon her lower back.

Then, softly and not for the first time Vibeke said: 'It's odd and intriguing that neither you nor I have any idea who our biological parents were. And that we never really had any very close friends.'

Ember smiled. 'Maybe we both appeared out of the ether as infants, and were found and taken in. Maybe we never had any parents at all, except in so far as we are children of the stars. Maybe that is also why we had no close friends: because we felt, though perhaps did not think, that we were other, different, strange. And maybe when we met each other we were finally meeting another who was also a child of the stars. And so we knew each other, recognised each other, right from the beginning.'



Chapter Five


Watching Television


Thursday 20th July, Year 1 :


Vibeke was quite tired. For four days running she had had to work extra hours at the nursery, getting there earlier than usual so as to make a delivery, then staying late in order to do some work on the trees, including cutting several of them down and cutting them up. The owner of the nursery, rarely there, had stated that he wanted it done by the weekend. She understood that there was some urgency in the tasks given the saplings he wanted dug in - they were vulnerable and should really have been planted in spring. But she also suspected that he was simply taking the opportunity to demonstrate that he was the boss by telling her to do something that was difficult. This did not sit well with her, but there was little enough she could do or say about it.

Cycling home on the Thursday evening, she found herself very glad that the long day was over. She knew that she would be able to finish all her tasks with relative ease tomorrow, and then she could enjoy the weekend.

Under a twilit sky of amaranthine clouds and a darkening blue vault, she pulled into her tiny drive, climbed off her bike and wheeled it into the garage. As she made her way to the front door of the house, she smiled - as she seemed always to do when she came home and she knew Ember would be there.

Opening the door, the notes of some early Baroque music drifted to her in stately harmony from the living room; and the delicious scents of fried spices made her realise how very hungry she was.

She set down her small backpack, then wandered through to the kitchen. Ember looked up at her when she entered, grinning broadly. 'It's almost ready,' she said. 'Ten minutes at the most.' She was stirring vegetables and sauce in the frying pan and at the same time had taken a sample of rice to see if it was nearly ready.

'Ember, that smells absolutely delicious.' Vibeke crossed the small space, squeezed Ember's shoulder and leaned in for a brief kiss. 'And I will take a quick shower and get changed.'


A little more than an hour later, they sat together on the living room sofa, each with a mug of tea. Vibeke had washed up, and now they had the rest of the evening just to relax.

'That really was a fantastic meal,' Vibeke said. 'So full of flavour. You could run a successful curry house. I really liked the cinnamon and cardamom chicken. And the fried spinach was great. I liked that you used a lot of chillies.'

Ember patted Vibeke's belly. 'I'm glad you enjoyed it. I don't recall the last time I saw you eat so much.' She smiled and reached to the coffee table and picked up a box of chocolates. Unwrapping the cellophane that covered it, she said: 'Maybe you'll manage one or two of these as well. I've always thought that sweet things taste especially good after something very spicy.'

'A gift from a customer perhaps?' Vibeke said with a raised eyebrow. It was not unusual for Ember to receive a small gift of thanks when she did a particularly good job - which was, as Vibeke understood it, all the time - especially if she had sewn a wedding dress or other special occasion piece of clothing.

Ember nodded. 'I made a ball-gown for Andrea Seavers. She's quite a character. Loud but probably quite kind I think.'

'She does a lot of charity work,' Vibeke said. 'She orders a lot of flowers for the old people at the home, and makes sure they have some kind of surprise for their birthdays if they don't have any family to organise it.'

'I imagine she sings happy birthday louder than anyone else too,' Ember said with a chuckle, and offered Vibeke the open tray of chocolates.

Vibeke selected one. Then she took the tray from Ember and set it down on the coffee table. Leaning in close, Vibeke said: 'I think this particular chocolate belongs to you and that, in its essence, it has a cosmic imperative that requires it to end up in your belly.' And with that she held the chocolate to Ember's mouth so that she could take a bite.

Watching Ember bite the chocolate in half, seeing her white and perfect teeth and full lips close upon it and watching her eat, Vibeke immediately decided that she had made a good decision in feeding her love. As Ember savoured the chocolate Vibeke merely regarded her, rapt; and then fed her the second half.

And then Ember selected a chocolate for Vibeke, and fed her too.

A few minutes later they settled down and Vibeke turned on the television. 'I am happy to be a couch potato this evening,' she said.

'Me too,' Ember replied. 'Is there anything you want to watch? Any film you'd like to see?'

'Um . . . Damn, I think my brain isn't working. I'd be happy with pretty much anything actually. Will you select something?'

'Sure,' said Ember. She stood and crossed to the shelves where the DVDs were stacked. 'How about Ragnarok ?' she asked after just a few seconds.

'Good choice. A perfect mixture of action and relationships.' And Vibeke watched as Ember kneeled down and put the DVD in the player. She felt a warm glow fill her as she regarded her. Ember was wearing cream shorts and a green top with spaghetti straps that was quite revealing. She was barefoot and Vibeke was aware of the slight flush to Ember's skin - it was a hot summer evening.

Soon they were watching the film, Ember leaning slightly against Vibeke's shoulder.

After a break to use the bathroom and to make more tea, the film came to an end and the credits rolled to stirring music. After using the remote control to turn down the volume, Vibeke shifted around slightly and leaned in and embraced Ember, holding her close, feeling the heat of her skin, breathing deeply of her scent and the fragrance of her hair. 'I love how you smell so good,' she said without really thinking.

Ember chuckled against her. 'The feeling is certainly mutual.'

Holding each other they made themselves comfortable. Vibeke sighed with contentment and said: 'It's amazing how much watching a film or television programme with you makes it such a different experience to watching on my own.'

She felt Ember's smile rather than saw it. 'You mean I'm terribly distracting? I thought I was quite quiet, rather like a mouse.' Then: 'I know what you mean. I feel the same.'

'It is amazing,' Vibeke said. 'It's exciting because I know that we are sharing the experience, which is magical in itself. I'm also aware that if we see something good - or spectacularly bad - we can talk about it and explore it or even laugh at it. No doubt we will even refer to some films many years after watching them, enjoying our memories of what we saw together. And there's also something else. It's as if we have planned and then done something pleasurable and which has great value. And that is so different to when I used to watch films alone. Then, I often felt as if I was merely passing the time, or felt I should be doing something to get somewhere more meaningful in my life. With you it is as if we have succeeded in some good task.' She looked across at Ember then. 'Oh, and I really love it when you squeal with delight, or grab hold of me with fright.'

'Oh, Gods,' Ember said, blushing slightly and covering her forehead with her hand. 'I can't help it if I'm excitable, or easily scared.'

'I wouldn't want you to help it. I love you very much for your excitability. It makes me feel remarkably alive every time I am aware of your wonderful delight in even small things. As for being scared sometimes, it's really quite charming.'

For a while, they were silent, simply cuddling each other, and Vibeke wondered at the bliss she felt. And then, she became aware of Ember's emotions, that something had deeply moved her. Softly she said: 'Tell me what you are thinking.'

Ember shifting and looked up at her and Vibeke was startled to see the liquid softness of welling tears.

'Tell me,' Vibeke said, very gently.

'It's such a simple thing,' Ember said, and Vibeke heard the happiness in her voice. 'It's just that you said we could refer to films years into the future. And I suddenly realised that I cannot imagine being apart from you even though we haven't known each other for very long. And that thinking about being with you in the coming years beings me such an amazing sense of excitement and joy.'

'I cannot imagine being apart from you either, Ember. I want to be with you and feel like this forever.'



Chapter Six


Buying a Car


Wednesday 26th July, Year 1 :


'Have you ever owned a car before?' Vibeke asked as they took the bus across town to the home of a man who had advertised in the local paper that he was selling a ten-year-old Volkswagen. They were sitting on a double seat near the front of the lower deck and there were only a handful of other people on the bus. The passing streets and houses, shops and offices were darkened and pale in the cool grey light.

'No,' replied Ember. 'Since I can't drive, I never even thought about buying one until now.'

Vibeke looked at her, slightly shocked. 'Um . . .'

Ember gave her a small, apologetic shrug and her limpid, light blue eyes were almost glowing. 'Will you object very much to driving until I can take my driving test?'

'No, not at all. I just . . . Actually that's pretty funny.'

'You know, since you pay the mortgage and we're sharing the bills, I'll actually feel a bit better knowing I'm paying for the car and its running costs. I know it silly, that you don't expect anything from me, but I want to contribute.'

'I understand that,' Vibeke said. 'Whatever jobs we may have in the future, and even if one of us is earning much more than the other, we'll just contribute what we feel glad to. In fact I don't really feel much of a sense of your money or my money, your income or mine. I'd be happy to make my bank accounts shared with you if you want.'

'You can have mine too.'

So strange, so amazing, Vibeke thought. She had never thought it was possible to have such a level of trust in anyone. Yet, with Ember, she had no doubts at all and she knew that Ember felt the same way about her. But it was much more than a simple trust in basic honesty. Rather, it went far beyond such that Vibeke was profoundly aware of the way that Ember so deeply desired her happiness just as Vibeke's desired Ember's. Furthermore, in accepting - indeed marvelling at - each other as they really were, there was an ease about their being together.

As she thought about how Ember desired her happiness Vibeke felt a constriction in her throat and was filled with happy emotion. Thinking of Ember's happiness and how she could make her as happy as possible made that feeling all the stronger.

When Ember reached out and took hold of her hand, squeezing it, she looked across at her and was sure that Ember knew what she was thinking and feeling: it was all reflected back to her in her large, deep silver-blue eyes.

After a little while Vibeke looked out of the window at a small stretch of woodland that was dark in the damp, murky light. Then, turning back, she said: 'Do you like Volkswagens in particular?' she asked.

Ember nodded. 'Some of them. I'm hardly a car enthusiast but when I saw the advert I thought maybe it would be promising.'


Saturday 29th July :


'Isn't this exciting?!' Ember said as she almost skipped down the front path, carrying her pack over one shoulder and jingling the car keys in her hand.

Vibeke smiled as she locked the front door behind them, then turned and followed her love to the gleaming, metallic, graphite-coloured Volkswagen parked in front of the garage. She and Ember had spent quite a while cleaning it inside and out the previous evening, and now it seemed more truly theirs.

And today, they would take it out for a longer drive in the country, hoping to explore a new place or two and just see where their instincts took them. Though Vibeke had brought a map with her, they hoped they would not have to use it.

They climbed in and buckled up. Vibeke slipped the key into the ignition. Then she sat there quietly for a moment, staring straight ahead. 'We have everything we need?' she asked.

'A rather large picnic lunch, plenty of water, coffee. Emergency snacks. A blanket. Waterproof jackets.'

'Money, driving license. Each other.'

Ember nodded. 'Each other. That's the most important thing. Also we have good weather - sun, blue skies. Plenty of roads to choose from, hopefully without traffic.'

'Senses of humour?' asked Vibeke.

'Yes, I think so. And CDs for the stereo.'

'And gravity.'

'Well, yes. Is it necessary to remember that, though?'

'Probably not. It just seems important that, as we are driving, we don't suddenly find ourselves drifting off the planet and out into deep space. Interesting though that would be.'

Vibeke turned the key and the engine came easily to life. Putting it in gear, releasing the handbrake, she eased off the clutch and pulled to the edge of the road and out.


They drove southwest, towards St. Bede's forest. Vibeke drove without much care for what route they took, simply maintaining her sense of direction and keeping an eye on road signs. She avoided faster roads and simply enjoyed guiding the car along country lanes among hedgerows and fields, and through several small villages and a town with two interesting-looking churches facing each other across its central square. Whenever Ember called out a direction she always followed it.

The sun was bright and the world seemed to have taken on a slightly golden glow, as if the air was gilded, tinged, enriched. The day was warm but not too hot and there were no clouds at all in the blue sky. Scents of meadow flowers came to them sometimes, and resin and pine from woodlands. The smells of sheep-farms passed, and clear breezes touched with stone and heather came to them from higher areas on the edges of the moors.

'How do you like your new car?' Vibeke asked.

'I'm really pleased with it. It's good to be out here with you, just going.'

'It is good to be here,' Vibeke agreed.

A little later, when they had been driving for just over an hour, Ember said: 'How about up here? It looks pretty good.'

They had passed over a low stone bridge that crossed a stream, and then the road climbed up the one side of small valley. On the right was some old woodland, gnarled, stunted trees growing from among moss-covered rocks and boulders. On the left, just as they crested the low hill above the valley, there was a ridge and then some open woodland, rocky areas and then fields.

Vibeke slowed until she found a place where she could pull the car onto the verge. After turning off the engine, she turned to Ember and grinned. 'Let's explore,' she said.

A few minutes later, carrying their picnic things in their small packs, they made their way over meadow-grass among small, angular oak trees, and past birch trees that drooped and bobbed in the soft breeze. Coming out on the far side of the ridge, they both stopped and looked about them.

'Wow,' Ember breathed. 'Some luck.'

Vibeke nodded, seeing the way Ember beamed as she looked about her. Before them were some rocks, then a sizeable pond that was about twice as long as it was wide. About half of it was defined by flat-topped rocks that led down like steps to its clear water, and the rest surrounded by pebbles and then grass, and just a little sand as well. There were three trees at the far end - a willow and two birches - and, as they watched, a duck and six ducklings emerged from beneath the hanging veils of leaves.

Ember chuckled and made her way down the rocks, Vibeke following until they were just above the water. On a large, flat surface of sun-heated stone, they set out their picnic blanket and unpacked their lunch. About them the warmth of the day was like the soothing touch of deity of comfort and peacefulness, pleasantly counterpointed by the coolness that drifted upon the air from the pond before them. The water shimmered in the sunlight as if it was alive, dancing with its partner the wind, tiny waves shifting back and forth across its surface as the gentle breeze picked up and fell away. A few insects hummed past, with purposes that seemed to make humanity's designs seem somehow absurd, and a bee explored a small clump of delicate pink-mauve flowers, seeming to bounce from one bobbing head to another.

'This is great,' Ember said, and took off her sports shoes and socks and set them to one side; and wiggled her toes in the soothing breeze.

Vibeke decided to do the same.

And then, she looked across at Ember as she was unwrapping some salad she had prepared that morning. She took in her movements, seeing the sureness of her shapely fingers, the shifting of muscles under the smooth, slightly tanned fair skin of her bare arms. She watched each of Ember's breaths, feeling such a sense of life radiating from her. Her skin was slightly flushed in the heat, lending her a pink and healthy glow. When she looked up, Vibeke found her breath taken away by the brightness of her silver-blue eyes, that seemed to reflect as much of the brilliant day silver-blue mirrors might.

Ember regarded her, a momentary look of pleasure and humour being replaced by a more serious expression that went far deeper; and for a while they just gazed at each other, each lost in the other's beauty.

At length, Vibeke reached out and took Ember's hand. She raised it to her face, and kissed the palm, and the inside of the wrist. She felt the slight shiver of Ember's fingers against her cheek, and smiled.

A little later, as they ate their lunch and reclined in the sunlight, Vibeke said: 'Tell me about the book you were reading during the week. You seemed really quite absorbed in it. Once I even heard you gasp with surprise.'

' The Silent Forest ,' Ember said. 'It is a good book. At least, I like it, though I'm not sure that very many people would.' She took a cherry from a small pile and popped it into her mouth, chewed and removed the stone. 'It's a story set in the mythical times of Ancient Greece, about a girl who meets various of the gods and goddesses, giants and monsters, dryads, river deities and more. She is manipulated from all sides, though she is also helped by some. What I like about the story is her aloneness. Even as a child she is apart from others because of her the obligations placed upon her and the encounters she has. As she grows up she tries her hardest to make good decisions and take good action when there are often very few choices, and none of them good. Though she has some success, and even makes friends, she soon loses those she cares about and becomes, later in life, utterly lost.'

Vibeke enjoyed listening to Ember speak. She loved the sound of her voice and the way she formed each word. 'It sounds like the kind of book that you might like,' she said softly. 'Me too, I think.' Then she looked across at her - they were side by side, Ember propped on one elbow and turned towards her, Vibeke propped on both elbows. 'You have a wonderful voice,' she said. 'And you know, you also seem to a have a slight accent. It is nothing very obvious, and I cannot identify it as coming from a particular place or people, but it is a distinctive way of speaking. It makes me think of distant stars and cosmic mysteries. Mixed with your voice and lips and tongue, it becomes something exotic and also rather erotic.'

Ember chuckled. 'I'm glad you like it.'

'Did you live anywhere where you might have picked it up?' Vibeke asked. 'I have a feeling it is just yours, but . . .'

'I think it is mine too, though I do not know why I speak slightly strangely. I am aware of it, but it is the most natural way I have.' She stared at the surface of the pond but Vibeke knew she was really looking into the past. 'When I was eight and nine years old I lived in Houndstone, at a foster home not far from the centre of town. The home was loud and some of the kids were troublemakers, but they learned to leave me alone when they found that they didn't understand me and that they couldn't feel any kind of control over me like they wanted. I had a little table behind my bunk. It was next to a window - the room was on the second floor - and I used to spend hours and hours sitting there reading, and drawing pictures that were suggested by what I read. Sometimes I even wrote out the plots and characters of a few stories of my own. And I remember all my trips to the library, looking for books that I might like to read. I used to go two or three times a week. I really liked reading the old myths. At first I read mostly Greek and Norse myths since those were the most obvious ones, but later I read Egyptian and Indian and Japanese and Sumerian myths, and more. I really enjoyed it.' She shrugged slightly. 'Once I talked to my teacher about it. She was very enthusiastic, and I liked that. I wished I could talk about it more.'

Vibeke watched as Ember fell silent, contemplating her words and manner. Then she said: 'I used to read and look through lots of books about dinosaurs.'

At this, Ember looked at her and beamed, then laughed gently. 'I'm sure you did. That is just so . . . you . I imagine you dreamed of wandering through swamps in the Cretaceous, watching tyrannosaurs fighting with triceratopses.'

'Well, actually . . . yes.'

'Was that the beginnings of your interest in biology? Or did something else trigger that?'

'I'm not sure really,' Vibeke replied. 'I've thought about it at some length. I'm certainly glad that I studied it at university. I don't think I would have been as happy with any other subject, and although I went into botany for my master's degree, it was important to me to have studied animal biology as well. When I was child and during my teens, I watched a lot of nature documentaries and read or looked through a lot of books about natural history. Oceanic life was the most interesting to me I think, though by the time I was applying to universities I knew that I wanted to go in the direction of plant biology.' Vibeke paused and shook her head a fraction. 'But there was another reason for my initial choice of studies. I wanted to understand myself - and other people too - and I see myself and others primarily as animals, evolved in certain ways, exhibiting certain patterns of behaviour. It was more interesting for me than psychology and sociology. Actually philosophy interested me too, but I felt that I could learn what I needed to about that by myself.' Looking across at Ember again she said: 'What about you? How did you come to want to study fine art?'

Ember leaned back and cushioned her head upon her pack. Staring up into the sky, her eyes briefly tracking the paths of a few birds that flew swiftly, swooping and changing course then pressing onwards, she said: 'It was a difficult choice. I also considered archaeology, and English literature - though I tend to have rather extreme reactions to stories and poems, often really disliking what others consider indisputable classics. But really I just wanted to develop my own ability to paint, and I wanted to be surrounded by the paintings of the old masters, and discussions of their work, and to understand a greater range of art. I really liked the fact that I had a teacher who was fascinated by the ancient and medieval artists of Byzantium, China, India and elsewhere.' She smiled. 'I always have this amazing reaction now when I smell oils or turpentine. I feel this sense of familiarity, resonance, depth and potential. It was nice to set up my painting gear in the spare room and to touch brush to canvas again. I'll do that rather more from now on I think.'

'I'd like to watch you,' if you wouldn't mind. Vibeke wondered at this. It was more than just a passing fancy. She had little doubt but that watching Ember paint would be truly fascinating.'

'I'd like you to model for me,' Ember replied. 'Clothed, naked, and everything in between.' For a moment she looked almost shy, then said: 'Can I paint you while you are working out with your weights?'



Chapter Seven

In the Darkness


Wednesday 2nd August, Year 1 :


Ember awoke with the sense that something bad had happened. She guessed that it was about three o'clock in the morning and a glance at the glowing numbers of the bedside clock confirmed she was only five minutes wrong.

She recalled that she had fallen asleep on her side, with Vibeke at her back, curled about her, cradling her and making her feel so wonderfully safe. Vibeke had run her fingers through Ember's hair, brushing it back from her forehead, and had kissed her beside her ear, as Ember had marvelled at how contented and fulfilled she felt. She had squeezed Vibeke's hand, which rested upon the bare skin of her belly. And then, though she had wanted to stay awake so that she might savour the warmth of emotions that sighed through her like a warm breeze through the palms of some tropical island, her consciousness had soon enough been stolen away into peaceful slumber.

Turning, she found that Vibeke was lying on her back. Despite the dimness - just a faint orange glow from a distant streetlamp crept around the edges of the curtains - she was still able to make out the tenseness revealed in her face, as if she was trying to shout out but couldn't. She saw the twitch of her hand beneath the covers beside her chin. Most of all she was aware that Vibeke's breathing was erratic, laboured, almost gasping.

'Vibeke, wake up,' she said softly, reaching out and squeezing her shoulder.

Vibeke shifted of a sudden, her head turning fully towards her. Her eyes were open a fraction but she was obviously still asleep and dreaming, her eyes moving behind her lids. Ember did not miss the mixture of fear and desperation written on Vibeke's face.

'Wake up, my love,' she said more loudly, though still gently. She brushed Vibeke's hair back from her face and gave her shoulder a little shake. 'Wake up, it's just a dream.'

With startling abruptness, Vibeke visible relaxed, taking in a deep breath and letting it out. Her eyes fluttered open and after a moment's disorientation she looked at Ember and a look of relief crossed her features. 'Oh, Ember,' she said. She shook her head and sat up, and reached out and grasped Ember's hand, holding her tightly. She ran her fingers back through her long hair and rubbed her eyes.

Ember sat up beside her. 'Vibeke,' she said softly. She rubbed Vibeke's back with a soft, circling, comforting motion. 'I'm here,' she said. 'It was just a bad dream.'

Vibeke's head dropped. 'Yes, it was.' Then she looked up again. 'Thank you for waking me.'

Ember just gave her a small smile. 'Would you like to talk about it?'

Vibeke did not reply for a moment, seeming to think about it. 'Let me just go to the bathroom. I'll be back in a moment.'

As Vibeke went to the bathroom, Ember went out to the kitchen, naked and barefoot. She splashed some cold water onto her face, then went back to bed, sitting up against a pillow against the headboard. As Vibeke joined her - also with a damp face - she handed her one of the two glasses of water they kept on the bedside table, and took the other for herself, and took a couple of gulps.

In the darkness, Vibeke sat next to her against another pillow, leaning slightly against Ember. Once she was settled, she said: 'I dreamt I was a child. I was at school and all the other children were taunting me, standing around me and pushing me. I knew I could push them back, that I could hit them and that I could hurt them, but I stopped myself from doing so - I did not want to hurt anyone, knew that if I did I would feel terrible guilt.' She shrugged and then said: 'And that part of the dream was true, and just the same as my memory of what happened. But then I was walking home and I felt this sense of absolute terror. I was afraid that you would not be there. I thought, in my dream, that you did not exist, that I had just imagined you. And when I reached my guardians' house in Barrow, the front door was open. I walked in and my foster-father was not there. Everything was dark, the rooms filled with brown light, the furniture old and sparse, the spaces seeming wrong. I searched frantically through the downstairs rooms, looking for you. And then I found my foster-mother in the dining room, lying upon the table. She was dead, draped in a sheet, and I recalled that she had died from a brain aneurism a few weeks earlier. Somehow, seeing her did not disturb me but the dread that filled me became worse - it was as if she was a symbol that you were not real. When I ran upstairs and looked into all the rooms, you were not there. But there was one door that was shut and I could not open it. Then I found that I was back downstairs, and tried to get back to the door but could not find it again. I knew that if I could not find the door, then you would be gone forever.'

Ember listened, and heard the way that Vibeke's voice became hoarse as she told the story. When she fell silent, she realised that tears were falling from Vibeke's eyes; and immediately she shifted, and held her to her. With her fingertips she brushed the tears from Vibeke's face, and then she kissed the top of her head, and ran her hand up and down her arm. 'I am here,' she said. 'And I will never let you go, never leave you, if there is anything at all I can do about it.'

Vibeke sniffled. 'I will never leave you either,' she said softly. 'I do not know how it happened so absolutely, but it would be like ripping out my own eyes. In my dream I felt as if I had been torn in half. It was awful. Such a sense of barrenness filled me, such blackness and despair.' Sitting up for a moment, Vibeke reached for a tissue and blew her nose, then settled back into Ember's embrace.

They sat like that for a while, Ember holding Vibeke, trying to make her feel safe and loved. She was as amazed as she always was by the astonishingly deep tenderness and strength of feeling that she felt for her. And as Vibeke relaxed into her embrace, she knew that Vibeke felt it too, this bond that connected them so fundamentally, in the very deepest parts of their existences.

'I feel so good now,' Vibeke said, her voice full of warmth and wonder.

At length, they settled down and went back to sleep, Vibeke's head on Ember's shoulder, her arm across her waist, as Ember held her - a reversal of their more customary position.


They arose at their usual time of six o'clock. After a shared shower - rather quicker than either of them would have liked, for they both felt powerful stirrings of desire as they soaped each other and washed their hair - they dressed and sat down to eat breakfast together. Usually Vibeke arose a little before Ember and went for a run, unless Ember decided to join her. But today Vibeke had to be at work at around half past seven, so there would be no early morning run.

In fact Vibeke was glad that she was not heading out along the lanes and paths to the bridge and around. She was feeling a little washed out after the dream and powerful emotions it had evoked the previous night. Besides, it was a dull and grey day, the sky and air tinged with a subdued softness that suggested that staying indoors - and best of all staying in bed - were good ideas.

Ember poured tea for them both from a large pot. While Vibeke ate cereal and toast, Ember just stuck with toast.

'You like Marmite, don't you,' Vibeke said with a smile. It was a not a question.

'Yes, I do. Do you have a problem with that?'

'No, not at all. I like Marmite too. I just notice that with you it seems to be something of a religious experience. A morning ritual. When you take that first bite of Marmite on toast, it is as if you are communing with some great deity, a Lord of the Universe.'

'Are you suggesting that there is no Marmite God? I mean that would be blasphemous and I might have to report you to the Church of Marmite for heresy.'

They looked into each other's eyes, smiling. Vibeke marvelled at the way the grey light was made into a clarity of amazing colour, light blue and icy silver in Ember's gaze.

As Ember poured a second cup of tea she said: 'Did you sleep all right in the end? You seemed fairly peaceful.'

Vibeke nodded. She was very aware that Ember had not been sure whether she should ask the question. She wanted to be comforting and wanted to know that Vibeke was all right and if there was anything she might do, but she also did not want to bring Vibeke's mind back to the dream unnecessarily. Reaching out and taking Ember's hand, Vibeke entwined their fingers and said: 'I love that you are so sensitive to the effects your words or actions might bring. And thank you for being concerned. It's a while since I've had a bad nightmare, let alone one so awful, but it made such a difference that you were there - that you are here.'

Ember gave her a small smile and handed her her refilled mug of tea. 'Did you have nightmares often before?' she asked. 'Not about me, obviously, but . . .'

'Sometimes. They've changed a lot as I've become older. As a girl I dreamt about people full of hate, chasing me. As a teenager I mostly dreamt about being alone, feeling that I had driven away everyone who cared about me and being sure that it was my fault.' She shook her head a fraction. 'When I was five years old, I found my foster-mother lying on the kitchen floor. I tried to wake her up, and couldn't. I didn't really understand, but knew she would never wake up again. Her eyes were open. So then I just sat there and waited. My foster-father came home about three hours later. Later I thought that I could really have been traumatised by it, and I know my foster-father was worried about me and was very concerned and caring during the following weeks, while he was grieving silently. But the truth is I did not react badly to it. I missed her, and I was sorry for my foster-father, but it did not seem to me to be such an awful thing that she had died. There was such a peacefulness about her as she lay there. There was nothing ugly at all. Just a quietness. Her face was relaxed, her eyes defined more by the laughter lines that surrounded them than by the blankness of her stare. I remember that as I sat there I almost felt as if I was sitting in an empty church.

'But I do wonder if her dying was part of what coloured my dreams of loss and rejection and self-hatred. Perhaps it went with my deep sense of disconnection from others, my feeling of being lost.'

Ember swallowed her last piece of toast, and sipped her tea. Then she looked into Vibeke's eyes and said, quite simply, without judgement and with much tenderness: 'I'm sorry that you spent a lot of your life feeling rather empty and lost. I'm sorry that depression and despair were a part of you for so long.'

Vibeke was slightly surprised at this, realising the extent to which Ember had come to know her; and she was also moved. Though she had been completely honest with Ember, and had volunteered information about her past, her desires, and almost anything else, she had not dwelled upon the unhappiness very much. She did not much like thinking about it, and she had never wanted to give the impression that she felt any self-pity or was subtly asking for help. It was not that she was too proud to ask for help if she needed it - she had done so on occasion. Rather, she simply felt that her life was truly hers and that the depressions she had suffered were, while real and sometimes deep, hers to deal with and not an excuse for anything.

She gave Ember a small smile. 'Perhaps I would like to talk with you a little more about it,' she said. Then, with a wider grin: 'But you know, I feel so happy being with you, I've been so happy over the past few months since I met you that those times of bleakness seem like they come from a different life.'


Later, once Vibeke had left for work, Ember cleared the kitchen table and washed up their breakfast dishes. As she did so she thought about what Vibeke had said. And she considered some of the many ways in which she could make Vibeke happy, how she could make every day special and full of colour and light and warmth for her. Just thinking about it filled her with excitement and she giggled once as she considered the joy she might be able to create for Vibeke and see reflected upon her face.


That evening, after a light evening meal, they went out into the back garden and sat upon two deckchairs. The weather had brightened during the day and now there was a hazy sunset, the sun a carmine sphere settling into a bed of mauve and yellow clouds. They each had a cup of tea, and sat close together. Sometimes they would reach out and touch, fingers brushing fingers, entwining, loosening, dancing across soft skin. For a long while they did not say anything, but simply enjoyed the quiet of the evening, the occasional and sleeping songs of birds, a flight of geese or ducks across the sky, and the ever-changing, ever deepening colours and light. The scents of roses and honeysuckle came to them from the beds and frames where Vibeke had planted them.

'I felt like I was of no value,' Vibeke said of a sudden, quietly.

Looking across at her, Ember was glad to see that Vibeke had a slight, self-deprecating smile upon her face. She gave her hand a small squeeze.

'As a child I was alienated. My foster-father did his best, but he became increasingly distant as time passed. I sometimes wonder if he was actually slightly ill. Once I suggested he see a doctor, and he knew that I meant a psychologist. I think perhaps he knew that he was starting to suffer from dementia, but it was also as if he knew he would die before it became to serious.' Vibeke raised Ember's hand and traced the shapes of her fingers one by one. 'But it wasn't the alienation that I found difficult. It was the sense that I was of no value. I helped at the old people's home in Barrow, reading books to those who couldn't see well enough any more, or simply chatting with them. They liked me and were glad I was there, but somehow I could not feel anything. I knew that they valued me, and I was glad I gave them some company and entertainment, but it seemed to have very little effect upon me, at least in any deeper sense.'

After a short silence, Ember said: 'It is difficult to change such things. We cannot usually decide how we feel about things. We can usually only decide what to concentrate upon.'

Vibeke looked across at her then. 'Being with you, I feel not only valued, but treasured. And I can actually feel it, for the first time in my life.'

'I am glad.'



Chapter Eight




Friday 11th August, Year 1 :


Ember sat at her workbench at the dressmaker's shop. She was humming happily to herself and, after each few bars, would insert one or more words. Amethyst, compassion, shield of my protector, touch , and Clyde the Cat were some of them.

When Evelyn Compton entered the workroom, Ember noticed but it did not occur to her to stop.

'What are you doing?' Evelyn asked after a few seconds.

The surprise in Evelyn's voice made Ember look up. She was not quite sure why Evelyn would be surprised and so she simply said: 'I'm making a t-shirt with a Clyde the Cat design. I couldn't find a Clyde the Cat t-shirt where he had quite the right expression, so I decided to make one.'

Evelyn regarded her steadily. 'Clyde the Cat?'



Later, on her way home from work, Ember stopped at the shoe shop that was just down the road from the dressmaker's shop. She pushed open the door and a bell sounded above it. To one side, a mother was helping her young daughter try on some shoes. On the other side, the shop's owner was standing behind his desk, writing in a ledger.

He smiled when he looked up over his half-moon glasses and recognised her. 'Ember!' he said. He was a rather distinguished-looking middle-aged man, bald on top with grey at the sides, wearing a shirt and striped tie and grey cardigan.

'Hello Mr Chalmers. How are the fish?'

'Very well. The new goldfish seems to be getting along quite well with the others.' He stood then. 'Now, your requested delivery came in.'

Ember was delighted to hear this and her hands came up in small fists. She realised that the mother, holding a small shoe, was looking at her curiously.

'If I can just remember where I put it,' continued the shopkeeper. He scanned the shelves behind him. 'No, I must have put it in the storeroom. One moment.'

Ember waited, and a few seconds later he emerged carrying a shoebox - one that was a little larger than most. He handed it to her, and Ember quickly and eagerly opened the top. A beaming smile lit up her face. 'They're just perfect!' she said. She checked that the size was right and then looked up into Mr Chalmers' amused face. 'How much are they again?'

'Seventeen ninety-nine. I'm glad you like them.'

She chuckled. 'Hang on, let me find my purse.'

A minute later, Ember was walking homewards again, humming to herself, modifying her melody of earlier, delighted with what she had ordered and bought.

The early evening air was warm and pleasant, the sunlight golden and copper through hazy clouds. Ember took in the familiar streets and houses, the small green she passed, the wood on her right. Soon enough she was home, turning down the familiar path to the front door.

Home, she thought. Our home. And it felt like home to her far more than any other place she had lived.

She let herself in and her suspicion that Vibeke was already back from work was immediately confirmed - Vibeke's small backpack was near the door, her keys on top. She set her own down beside it - the t-shirt and shoebox were inside it.

Vibeke came from the kitchen then. 'Hi, Ember,' she said with a smile.

They embraced in the hallway, holding each other close, rocking slightly.

'It's good to be home,' Ember breathed after a while, her cheek pressed against Vibeke's upper chest and neck.

'I'm glad you're here too,' Vibeke said, drawing her fingers through Ember's hair at the back of her head, then holding her tighter for a moment.

After a while, stepping back but holding Vibeke's hand, Ember said: 'Something smells really good. You always smell really good of course, but I mean something to eat. I'm very hungry.'

'Penne with mushrooms, spinach and cream, black olives and garlic,' Vibeke said. 'I hope it'll be all right. I'm not as good at cooking as you are.'

'You're pretty good you know,' Ember replied. 'Is there time for me to take a quick shower?'

'Sure, I haven't put the pasta on yet.'

Once Vibeke had turned back to the kitchen, Ember picked up her pack and went through to the bedroom to remove and hide the surprises she had with her. Once that was done, she stripped out of her clothes and padded to the bathroom, showered and washed her hair, towelled herself dry, and returned to the bedroom to change into comfortable clothes to relax in for the evening - soft black shorts and a mauve t-shirt. After brushing her short blonde hair, she returned to the kitchen.

Vibeke was standing in front of the table, facing her and clearly waiting for her.

'Hi,' said Ember, feeling such a sense of warmth suddenly filling her.

'I decided to pick you some flowers,' Vibeke replied. And she stepped towards her, bringing her hand from behind her back. She was holding a small bouquet of yellow meadow flowers and white daisies, with a few leaves about them.

'Oh, they're beautiful,' Ember exclaimed, taking them from Vibeke and slowly raising them and inhaling their delicate fragrance. 'Yellow flowers. They're really nice.'


Vibeke's breath had almost been taken away when Ember had rounded the doorway into the kitchen. It was amazing how Ember could do that to her. She took in her beauty, the loveliness of he face, the large, silver-blue eyes that were so clear and light in the golden evening light. She took in the shape of her body, strong and curved, feminine muscles and movement and an unconscious eroticism. Her skin was slightly flushed, slightly damp still from her shower, and her hair was rather wet still, but it framed her face perfectly.

And then she had handed the flowers to Ember, and as she saw the way Ember beamed at her with happiness, she felt as if she might simply melt into a puddle on the floor. She wondered how she had become so soft, but then thought it did not matter - not if it made her feel like this and if she could make Ember feel like this.

Ember looked from the flowers to her and back, then up into her eyes again. 'Yellow flowers,' she said again.

Vibeke gave her a small shrug and a sideways smile. 'I remembered that you said you liked them most a couple of weeks ago. And I didn't want to just give you some flowers that might be found in a florist - I mean, I work in a nursery so it would hardly be . . . Anyway, I went up into one of the fields behind it and gathered them for you. And said your name with every one I picked.'

As Vibeke watched Ember, she saw that tears welled in her eyes, though she was smiling brightly. Reaching out, she brushed two falling tears from Ember's cheeks with her fingertips.

Ember sniffled. 'Sorry,' she said, still grinning, and chuckled.

'I love you Ember.'

Ember came to her then and threw her arms around her waist - careful not to damage the flowers she still held in one hand - and buried her face in Vibeke's chest.


A few minutes later they sat down to eat together. Vibeke had served up the meal, and Ember had filled a vase with water and arranged the meadow flowers within. Now the flowers were on the table, just to one side of them. Though dusk was not yet drawing in, Ember had also lit a single tealight that she placed between them.

They did not talk much, but every so often Ember would look up at Vibeke and feel a rush all over again at the fact that she was there with her, that they had found each other and they were together.


Saturday 12th :


Vibeke awoke lying on her side. She was vaguely aware that Ember was not there and had got up a few moments before - to go to the bathroom, she assumed - which was what had woken her.

As she opened her eyes, she saw that a curious, cute, fluffy creature with huge eyes and golden fur was staring back at her from a distance of about six inches.

Clyde the Cat? she thought. And a smile graced her face.

It was a few seconds later, as she shifted in the bed and reached up to touch the furry animal, that she realised that Ember was crouched on the other side of the bed a little way down, only blonde hair and eyes visible over the edge, staring at her.

Vibeke chuckled and propped herself on one elbow. She looked at Ember and said: 'Good morning.' And then she lifted up her Clyde the Cat and regarded it. 'You brought me a Clyde the Cat slipper,' she said, unable to stop smiling.

'There's a note in it,' Ember said.

Vibeke removed the small, folded piece of paper from inside and read it.

I've lost my friend , was written on it.

'Hmm,' said Vibeke. 'I wonder if Clyde's almost identical friend has run off somewhere and is hiding.'

'Maybe,' said Ember. 'I looked, but you know Clyde, he can be pretty mysterious. I'm sure he'd want you to find him though.

'Right. Any clues?'

'Well . . . maybe some help. Will you stand up and turn around?'

'All right.' Vibeke climbed out of bed and stood, entirely naked, before Ember. When she turned her back to her, Ember climbed onto the bed at her side.

'Here, let me dress you properly so that you can search for the other Clyde more effectively.'

And then Vibeke helped Ember help her to put on a t-shirt. When it was done, she looked down at the front and her bemused smile became a grin. 'This is just great!' she said. 'My very own Clyde the Cat t-shirt!' She ran her fingers over the material that had been sewn over the front of the cloth and which defined the cat. Several different pieces had been used, in four different colours. The expression of the cat was perfect - mysterious, warm, amused. 'You made this,' she said softly, turning to Ember.

'Well . . .' Ember shrugged, climbing down from the bed. 'I didn't see one I liked in the shop when I had a look, and thought I'd try.'

Vibeke gave her a hug, then stepped back from her. 'Thank you.'

'And now you'd better go and find the other slipper.'


A few minutes later as Ember was setting out breakfast, she grinned as Vibeke said in an almost outraged voice: 'I can't believe you put the other Clyde in the fridge.'

'He ran off by himself,' Ember protested. 'Probably he was just hot. It's a warm day.' Then, turning to Vibeke she said: 'The summer's been pretty warm so far, so I know slippers aren't that useful right now. But I'm sure there'll be a few cool evenings, and I just wanted to get them for you.'

'I wonder if my Clyde t-shirt would like your rabbit t-shirt,' Vibeke said. 'We'll have to find out.'



Chapter Nine


Painting and Exercising


Saturday 19th August, Year 1 :


Vibeke :


I step from the living room onto the small patio area. The sun is bright, slanting from the southeast. It is warm for the time of day and the air is still, but the early morning is a good time to be outside in sunlight and to be still. Later it will probably be uncomfortably hot.

You are sitting upon one of the kitchen chairs, on the lawn, your easel and a canvas in front of you. You are just setting out your paints, your pallet, your brushes and a jar of turpentine. You clip a photograph onto the edge of the easel - an image of a beach where we walked, and a headland and nearby, wind-sculpted trees. I was not aware of you when you took the photo. I am in the centre, lying mostly on my side on the sand, propped up on one elbow, looking out at the sea. You have told me that you will make a few changes to the image in your painting, not wanting to make it simply realistic but also suggestive of emotion and thought.

For a minute I return to the kitchen. I take the other chair from the kitchen table and take it out into the garden and set it about five feet behind and to one side of you - sitting there, I will be able to see you and the whole canvas, but do not want to be so close that I disturb you. Then I go back to the kitchen again and make a couple of mugs of tea. I bring them out, set one down beside my chair, then hand the other to you.

You look up, and your eyes catch the sun - liquid, limpid silver-blue pools - and I am willingly captured by your beauty. You smile as you see that I have brought you some tea, and I think you are slightly surprised that I am there - perhaps your thoughts were upon the painting you are about to begin working on. Your smile is full of joy, and a deeper moment is reflected in it too, and in your eyes - love that connects us, almost tangible: tender but powerful, making us both feel so wonderfully vulnerable to each other's regard. Your lovely face is angelic, brightly lit, framed perfectly by your pale blonde hair.

'Thank you,' you say, and take the mug by its handle.

'It's hot,' I say as you bring it to your mouth, but you only inhale the fragrance. 'Do you mind if I watch you? I would really like to.'

I can see that you feel almost shy for a moment, but I also know that you do not like to be ruled by self-consciousness. You nod once, and give me another, smaller smile. 'Maybe you will sing for me while I paint?' you ask, but I know you are not really serious.

'I think that would definitely distract you. I think it would distract me, too.' I squeeze your shoulder, then gently run my fingers through the hair over the pretty pink shell of your ear. I smile back at you, then retreat and sit down upon the chair that I carefully positioned for myself.

Taking up my mug of tea, I watch. I like how you are dressed. You have chosen a short-sleeved blouse that is slightly frilled, with many buttons down the front, and a long, cool white skirt that is very light and looks very comfortable. I suspect you could wear such a get up in the nineteenth century on a relaxed summer's day in the country with friends and that you would not look particularly out of place - not that I know anything much about clothes from that era. And perhaps young ladies of those times were encouraged to paint as you do - maybe it was considered terribly cultured. Though I doubt many women wore their hair short back then, not that I know much about that either. I smile when I realise that you are barefoot, the pink toes of your shapely feet peeking out from the material of your skirt.

A minute passes as you mix the first of the paints that you will need, squeezing a few different-coloured blobs from tubes, then adding some to each other and stirring until you have the right tones and hues. The smell of oils is clear in the air, suggestive of the possibility of great masterworks. A minute passes before you set brush to canvas, and I am already amazed by how much detail I take in of your movements and expression.

I am aware of how you sit, the angle of your neck, the set of your shoulders. I see the way you regard what you are doing with gentle thoughtfulness and calm alertness. I see the slight rise and fall of your breasts as you breathe, the slight expansion and relaxation of your chest and belly. Breathing in time with you, I enjoy the sensation. And I watch your hands most of all. I have always known that you are extremely dexterous, that you have an extraordinary flair for any kind of fine work. I have always loved your hands - and smile as I reflect that there is no part of your body that I do not love - they are not narrow and fine-boned like a tall and thin woman's might be, but rather have a wonderful mixture of femininity, shapeliness, and also strength. Your fingers are not long but they are quite delicate. Though most women have longer forefingers than ring fingers, I see the differences between yours as obviously attractive. You are not wearing any rings. So far I have refrained from buying one for you, but I will.

Then you select a brush, and set it to paint and then to canvas for the first time. I am aware that you have not sketched out your picture with a pencil, to set the paint over it. I can see that you do not need to.

And I watch as you paint. You are remarkably swift, making your lines and strokes and shadings with consummate ease, apparently effortlessly - though I see the tranquil concentration that is revealed in your gaze. You do not seem to struggle or wrestle with your ideas or approach, but rather seem simply to release what you want, like a waterfall on a sunlit mountain, letting rainbow-hued creations fall into the light. There is something deep and fluid about your way of doing this, as if you have some key to the most profound parts of you and can express what is there in infinite ways.

You take a break after about an hour, sitting back and regarding what you have done for long seconds then turning to me with a smile. 'What do you think?' you ask, and I can see that you know that I am amazed.

'I think you are truly talented,' I say. 'You know that I think you are unique, so full of light and beauty that it so often takes my breath away. And your painting has that light too, such a beautiful expression of you.'

'Well, it is not finished yet, and will take a while more.' You set your pallet down, and set your paintbrush with the others you have been using in the jar of turpentine. Then you stand up and stretch, her your fists above your shoulders, then stretching your arms above your head. I smile as I see you do this. Damn, I smile so much when I am with you.

I stand too and step across to you, and we hold each other close. 'Would you like something to eat?' I ask softly after a little while. When you shiver slightly I know that it is because of my breath against your ear.

You nod against me. 'Let's go in and make ourselves a good snack.'


Sunday 20th :


Ember :


I follow you to the garage. I have my sketch pad with me, though I am not sure I am going to use it - I suspect I might have trouble concentrating on anything other than my erotic fascination with you when you start exercising. When I told you I would like to watch you exercising entirely naked, I remember being surprised by myself, not that I wasn't entirely sincere. I guess I just wanted to see it so much, and it was such a clear desire, and I so worship you beauty, that I did not even blush - at least, for a few moments until a flood of images came to me as I consider what I had just said.

The day is surprisingly cool after the heat of the past few days. A gentle breeze blows across my skin as we walk down the front path to the garage that you have made into your own compact gymnasium. The clouds are low, unbroken, and there is a sense of imminence in the air that I feel, such that I think it will rain later.

You step through the side door and I follow you and close it behind me. I watch as you walk to the centre of the space and turn towards me. You stand straight and I can see that you are breathing slightly more deeply than usual, standing with strength and conscious balance, preparing yourself. I take in the simple clothes you are wearing - a faded, pale mauve tank top, black sports shorts, white trainers and white socks with the tops rolled down. Your skin, tanned with the summer, contrasts with your footwear. Not that it shows with what you are wearing, I am aware that you are slightly self-conscious about how the paleness of your skin that has not seen the sun very much - where your shortest top or shorts cover you - contrasts with your skin that has been exposed. But I do not care. I know that you spend a lot of time outside at work and that you have to keep as cool as you can; and also that you are not so concerned about your image that you feel a need to even out your tan at every opportunity.

I sit down cross-legged on the floor against the unpainted wall at the back of the garage. I will not disturb you from here but can see everything. The punch-bag is just in front of me to my right. The weights bench is beyond that to the left, and the tall weights machine is against the far wall.

I set down my spare pencils beside me, prop my sketch pad on my knee, then open it and am ready.

And you begin to stretch, moving slowly, standing forwards and raising your hands over your head in a classic yoga 'archer' pose. After a while you adopt the same pose with the other leg forward. You push your head back, then stand straight. You shift and relax your arms and shoulders. Then you pull on a pair of lightweight gloves and walk towards the punch-bag. There is an obvious and clearly conscious ease and calmness about the way you move. Your limbs seem loose and at the same time ready to whip into clear and powerful responses.

Then you release a series of punches, none of them very hard. I can see that you are not clenching your fists very tightly and that the impacts against the punch-bag are very light. You told me that slamming your fists into it with all your strength for an extended period of time would result in aching and perhaps damaged joints. Now I can see that you allow the bag to cushion the blows, to give you a sense of distance, but not to receive the full force you able to exert. But as the minutes pass and your speed increases, sometimes nevertheless you hit the punch-bag harder. Though I can see that you are holding back, I am still very aware of the way the weight of it shudders with each strike. I tell myself to ask you just what thickness of wood or brick or ice you are actually capable of breaking if you hit it with all your strength.

Then you kick the bag a few times. Shortly you take off your trainers and socks and set them neatly by the door, then return to the bag and launch into a swift and varied sequence of kicks that you repeat at length and then vary for several minutes. Front kicks at different heights, kicks to the sides, sideways kicks that you put your hips and weight behind that I think might rip the bag from its chains. Then spinning back-kicks that start low and go higher and higher until they are above your head. I have loved your long legs since I first saw you, but did not consider them such weapons until now.

And I watch the muscles of your legs sliding under lean skin. Your limbs are straight and so pleasing in shape to me. I watch the calf muscle and quadriceps of your left leg tense as you launch a kick with your right. I see the perfect articulation of your hips. I see the turn and push of your left foot against the floor as you go up onto the ball of the foot and shift.

I realise that I am smiling.

I listen to your breathing, coming more deeply now. You have been working on the punch-bag for fifteen minutes or so. I sense that you could probably keep going for hours, but suddenly you step back. For half a minute you simply walk up and down, breathing and relaxing.

Then you turn and look at me for the first time since you began to exercise. You give me a wide smile. Your face is faintly flushed, and the pinkness is also across your upper chest. I can see that the veins in your arms and hands are dilated. You have not yet worked up a sweat.

I am aware that I have not actually drawn anything at all on my sketch pad.

'You want me to be naked as I lift weights,' you say. I am not sure if you intended it to be a question but it does not come out as one. I can guess you know my answer, hedonistic and marvelling as it might be.

I nod, but say: 'I see such beauty in you anyway.' This is not merely erotic for me. I see that very clearly now. I realise I am leaving it up to you.

You regard me for a long moment, then reach down and pull your tank top over your head. You throw it into a corner. Then you slip out of your shorts and throw them after it. Standing straight, you look down slightly, breathing deeply and steadily, wearing only your sports bra and skimpy underwear. You take off the sports bra first and discard it, your beautiful breasts released from their confines. Then you slip off your panties and stand before me completely naked. Slowly, you look up into my eyes and I can see that you enjoy watching me as I do not know whether to return your look or simply slide my gaze across the magnificence of your body.

I smile widely, and realise that you are smiling too. I can feel that we both feel extraordinarily happy.

You set your underwear on top of your other clothes, then walk over to the weights bench. The barbell lies across the supports and you remove four of the iron discs that are clamped in place on it so that you can start pressing at an easier weight as you warm up.

I can see the number of pounds that each disc weighs, moulded on the sides of them, and wonder how you can possibly lift so much. You are not heavily muscled, simply athletic rather than like a body-builder, but you are clearly very strong indeed.

Then you sit down on the bench, lean back so that your back is flat, and slide up the bench so that you are under the weights in the right position. Your legs are apart on either side of the bench - the leg curl mechanism is at the foot of the bench - and I find myself staring at your centre, at the triangle of soft curls of dark red-brown hair and the soft folds of your half-concealed centre. I recall the wonderful taste of your arousal with powerful clarity and feel a flush race across my skin and a heat in my lower belly.

I look up and see you reaching for the bar of the barbell. I can see that you are breathing deeply, readying yourself for the first repetitions. Then you lift the barbell from its supports and bring it down across the juncture of chest and neck. Your chest is pushed up. And then you exhale as you push the weight back up until your arms are straight. You breathe twice, then bring the bar down, inhaling deeply. Then again, exhaling, you push up.

You do fifteen repetitions. Then you settle the barbell back on its supports and you sit up. You look at me and smile. As I look into your eyes, the contact is startling.

You pick up a dumbbell, set your elbow against the inside of your knee, then execute fifteen curls. I watch the muscles sliding beneath your skin and I want to rest my fingers against you so that I might feel those powerful cables contracting and thickening. When you are finished with your right arm, you repeat the curls with your left.

Then you cross over to the machine against the wall. You adjust the key that slides into the weights to determine how much you will lift, and then stand straight and take hold of the pull-bar above your head. You hold the handles at the ends of the bar so that your hands are far apart, rather than the handles close to the centre where the cable connects before passing over the pulleys to the weights.

You are standing with your back to me, and I watch as you pull the bar down until it is close to the back of your neck. You let it up again, then pull it back down so that it is in front of you. Then you release it again and pull it to the back of your neck again, then up and to the front. Each motion is long and smooth and you make it seem easy, though you are almost lifting your entire weight from the floor with each pull. I watch as the muscles ripple down either side of your back.

You go back to the bench, increase the weights on the barbell, and settled down to do another set of repetitions. This time you do ten. Then you add weight to the dumbbell, and do another set of curls with each arm. And then you return to the machine and the pull-downs, again with more weight.

You repeat the simple circuit, and by the fourth set I wonder at the changes in you. The veins in your arms and hands are dilated. Your skin is flushed and a light sheen of sweat covers you. The muscles that you have been exercising are swollen with blood and heat and effort.

Breathing deeply but steadily, you stand and turn towards me as you finish the fourth set. We are smiling at each other, and I can see that you are very happy with the effect that watching you has on me. I have no doubt that you can see some of the desire that I feel.

I have not drawn anything of course. Now I simply discard my sketchpad and pencil and stand up and walk towards you.

'There are many possible exercises I could do here,' you say. Your voice is slightly husky. 'I could do some others if you wish.'

I reach out and rest my fingertips upon your upper chest. I can feel the cool sweat over the heat of your skin. I close the space between us and place a gentle kiss upon your salt skin upon the top of your left breast. I lick you once, and taste you. Then I pull back - though it is hard to do so and a fire has lit deep within me that will not go out now and which demands attention. But I say: 'Will you lie on your front and do some hamstring curls?'

'No problem,' you say, with a slight flourish as you draw your hair back from your shoulders.

You set the weights on the contraption at the foot of the bench, then lie down on your front and set your ankles beneath the pads on the bar. You reach before you so that you hold the top of the bench and your shoulders are slightly raised from the padding. The you draw up the bar, raising your feet behind you. I watch the sliding of your hamstrings. You release the weights, straightening your legs, then pull again. Standing there, I stare at the shape of your legs as you exercise, but then my gaze is drawn upward to the curve of your hips and the beautiful shape of your bottom, the slimness of your waist and the shape of your torso up to the high set of your shoulders.

I kneel beside you, and slide my hands over your shoulders and down your back. The heat and the sweat of your flushed skin is remarkable to me. I lean down, and place soft kisses in a path across your skin, and trail my tongue over you in between each gentle nip. I make my way across your lower back, over your bottom, to the back of your right leg. I am aware of salt and skin and heat and you. I am aware of the scent of you that I love so much and the recognition of which goes so deeply within me.

After a little while, I realise that you are lying still and that I am simply trailing my fingers over you, as if I can capture your shape and beauty like a sculptress, committing your structure to memory by touch. I use more force then, squeezing your shoulder muscles, then kneading the muscles down your back on either side.

Then I stop. 'Perhaps you would like to go inside, to bed,' I say softly. 'I can give you a full massage if you want. And then . . . more.'

You turn, and peek up at me with one eye obscured by your unbound hair. 'I would like that,' you say.

I stand and pull you to your feet. You dress quickly, though do not bother with your trainers or socks, and we hurry from the garage back to the house. Then we almost run down the hall to our bedroom, and slip out of our clothes quickly.

'Will you join me in the shower?' you ask.

'I rather like the taste of your sweat,' I say. 'But all right. Let's just try and make it out of the shower too.' And I pull back the back the bedclothes in readiness for when we will fall into it.

To the bathroom then, and you turn on the water and test its temperature, then we step together into the bath and pull closed the shower curtain.

We hold each other beneath the pounding water, and I feel such gentleness in your strength. For a moment I can feel tears in my eyes even through the falling water, such emotion wells up within me. I have never felt desire anything like that which you can so easily trigger in me, and it seems inseparable from the love which I can feel wrapping like a fist about my heart - love from you and for you, mixing and igniting together.



Chapter Ten


Helping Out


Saturday 2nd September, Year 1 :


Ember and Vibeke walked from central Otterhampton towards Mrs Waechter's house. They had just been to a hardware shop to buy some nails and to collect a sharpened axe-head. Though they could have driven, the way was not far and the weather was good - warm and dry, though light, high clouds often obscured the sun - and they had decided they would prefer to walk. Earlier, they had eaten breakfast in bed, then made love at length, and slept again for a little while. It was past ten o'clock by the time they had got up. Now it was good to walk at a fairly leisurely pace, sometimes to talk a little.

As they turned from a row of shops into a residential street, they saw a group of young men ahead of them, walking towards them. There were five of them and Ember guessed that they were in their late teens and early twenties. They were loud, their voices brash and full of arrogance. They swaggered as they walked, everything about them seeming to be a repulsive demonstration of how strong and important they considered themselves to be. Ember suspected they were rather drunk, no matter the relatively early hour of the day.

As the young men neared, Ember noticed a slight change in Vibeke. It was not an obvious thing, for she did not seem particularly concerned or anything other than relaxed. But she seemed to have a heightened alertness about her, a readiness, and Ember almost felt as if a powerful energy, hidden beyond usually impenetrable walls, could now be felt radiating from her. She did not miss the fact that Vibeke moved across the pavement so that, when they passed the young men, Vibeke would be the one closer to them and that Ember would be shielded.

A few seconds later the group passed, laughing and swearing. A couple of them looked at the two women and their eyes lingered on Ember, but they did not say anything and just went onwards.

A minute or so later, as they turned into another street, Ember said: 'You were ready to protect me.' She spoke softly and realised that there was more emotion revealed in her voice than she had expected.

Vibeke looked at her and smiled slightly sheepishly. 'I know it wasn't very likely that anything would happen, but I couldn't have just ignored the possibly or left you vulnerable.' She paused for a moment and then said more quietly: 'It went really deep in me.'

'I feel very moved that you wanted to protect me,' Ember said. Then, with no humour at all and with a sudden realisation, she said: 'If they had been aggressive towards us, I think you would have been able to fight them off easily.'

Vibeke gave her a little shrug and said: 'I don't know.' It was almost a sigh.

Ember regarded her curiously. After a while she decided to say what she was thinking, but was worried that she might bring up something that might make Vibeke uncomfortable. After some thought she said: 'If you don't want to talk about this it's all right. And you can tell me to stop talking of course.' She gave Vibeke a sideways, slightly humorous smile at this. 'But I've noticed that you don't much like to talk about sports, and from what you told me you've barely participated in any sports since you were a child. I'm just curious as to why. You like exercising, and you even have some interest in watching sports - tennis and cricket occasionally on television. And those young men we just passed . . . It's almost like you don't want to have to reveal your physical abilities, even though I know they are amazing.'

Vibeke regarded her for a few seconds and Ember was glad that she did not seem disturbed by what she had said. She seemed thoughtful and intrigued more than anything. 'You're right,' she said as the turned into Mrs Waechter's street. 'I've avoided most physically competitive activities for most of my life. At the same time, I've sometimes pushed myself hard in things I can practice alone or which I can practice without competing. When I was a teenager and went to martial arts classes, the teacher and his supervisor several times asked me to enter competitions, and I always refused. They never understood why and I did not explain. And when I was at school and had to participate in sports, I avoided such things as squash and tennis if I could, and used to do deliberately badly in athletics - still near the best of the class, but nothing like what I was capable of.'

'I think you could have been a really amazing sportswoman at almost any sport,' Ember said. 'Even competing professionally.' She nodded to the little green on the corner just past Mrs Waechter's house. 'Let's go and sit on a bench for a little while.'

Vibeke nodded, and they crossed the quiet street. 'Maybe I could have been a sportswoman. I know I was pretty good. I still would be if I trained. But something held me back. For much of my life I have felt rather averse to what most people consider success. I did not want to have a high-powered career, did not want to struggle and compete. Not in any sense, whether sporting or in some corporation or in any kind of business or field. To an extent I simply wanted to live rather quietly, which is partly why I came to live here and why I work at a nursery. And though I cannot say that my job fascinates me or deeply satisfies me, there are things about it that I like and which can be quite rewarding.'

Vibeke fell silent for a while, and they walked through the open gate onto the green, and sat down on a bench in the muted, hazy sunlight. Around them was a well-tended lawn, and tall shrubs and young trees hiding the streets around, making it an oasis in a tiny suburbia. There was only one other person there - a late middle aged man who was reading a book, sitting on the far side of the enclosed area.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder, Ember leant slightly against Vibeke, and Vibeke took hold of Ember's hand and held it close.

'I also feel a kind of paralysis and a hint of fear,' Vibeke said. 'When I think about attempting the kinds of things that are required to be what other people consider successful, I know that I would be more than competent in most ways, and that in some fields I would be a natural. Still, I do not like the idea. A deep sense of tension comes to me when I think about it, though I do not know where its root might lie. Sometimes I wonder if it is a manifestation of some kind of self-destructiveness that is a hangover from having lost my real parents, and my foster-mother dying, and the fact that I never fitted in with my peers through both primary and secondary school. In the end, I don't know. But as a result, and because of my choice not go down the path to great successes, my life has been small in some ways.' She leaned the side of her head against Ember's then and said, while Ember knew that she was smiling: 'But my life with you is not small. With you my emotions are so often a downpour of happiness and joy, bliss and wonder.'

Ember wrapped her arm around Vibeke's waist, and held her close.

'And you know,' Vibeke said, 'I could ask you the same kind of question.' She said this gently, and Ember giggled. 'You are such a wonderful painter, and you could have been wonderful at so many things, yet you did not try to promote your artwork or follow some dream of success. Instead, you became a dressmaker - albeit an extraordinarily good one.'

'You are right of course, about me choosing a life of littleness too,' Ember said. 'Or feeling unable to choose another life.' She chuckled. 'Actually, I do not think I could ever have had success in the business world. People think I'm a bit weird you know. Noticing strange patterns in things and being really happy about it, when no one else can see anything at all - or if they do they consider it banal.'

'Hmm.' Vibeke ran a finger in abstract patterns across Ember's jean-clad thigh. 'I don't think I could be successful in a corporation either,' she said. 'I suspect the other workers would think of me as threatening in some ways, or just too different.'

'I'm glad you're different,' Ember said, leaning slightly harder against Vibeke. 'It's good that we're both a couple of weirdos.'

'I agree.'


When Mrs Waechter opened her front door, she gave them a big smile and her eyes twinkled with happiness. 'Ember! Vibeke!' She gave Ember a warm hug and then, after just a moment's hesitation, gave Vibeke a hug as well - which Vibeke had to lean down to accept. Ember did not miss that Vibeke was quite touched by the gesture.

'Come in, make yourselves comfortable,' Mrs Waechter continued as she ushered them through to the kitchen. 'I was just going to make a pot of tea. Are you hungry? I can make some sandwiches if you haven't had lunch, and we could eat them outside.'

'Thank you Mrs Waechter,' Ember said. 'Maybe when we've finished helping you in the garden. A cup of tea would be good though.'


A little later, after chatting for a short while, Vibeke and Ember set about the work they had agreed to do in Mrs Waechter's garden. A tree had died close to one of the fences, and once Vibeke had fitted the axe handle back to the newly-sharpened axe-head they had brought back from the hardware shop, she set about cutting it down. It did not take her very long, and she enjoyed the physicality of the work. Though she could have brought a chainsaw to do it - she could have borrowed one from the nursery - she preferred using the axe and was glad not to have to endure the loud noise a chainsaw would have made.

Ember, with her small camera, took a several photographs of her as she swung the axe; and another as the tree fell.

Then, as Vibeke used axe and handsaw to cut the tree up, Ember set to work digging out and redefining a flowerbed that had become completely overgrown. Though Mrs Waechter tended the garden well, this was a piece of heavier work that she had been relieved to ask for help with.

After a couple of hours, the two of them stopped for a break. Standing facing one another, Ember and Vibeke found themselves grinning as they regarded each other. They were rather flushed, their jeans and t-shirts streaked with mud and dirt, and both wore heavy gardening gloves.

Removing one hand from its glove, Ember reached out and brushed some pieces of bark from Vibeke's hair. 'We look pretty good,' she remarked.

They turned then as they heard the clink of glasses, and saw Mrs Waechter setting down a tray upon her small patio table. A jug of water with slices of lemons in it, glasses and a plate of biscuits awaited them.

As they walked over, Mrs Waechter said: 'Would you like anything else? Maybe tea? I know it's hot, but . . .'

'This is great,' Ember said.

The three of them sat for a little while, relaxing. Ember was glad that Mrs Waechter was grateful to them for their help but seemed neither to see it as her right nor as something she should feel guilty or indebted about. And she knew that Mrs Waechter would always be willing to help them in any way she could.

'I've almost finished cutting up the tree,' Vibeke said. 'Then I'll stack all the logs and sticks.'

'While you're doing that, I'll mend the fence,' Ember said. At the back of the garden, four cross-pieces had rotted or fallen away. It would not take long to nail the replacements in place.

'You girls are just wonderful,' Mrs Waechter said, looking from one to the other. Her eyes twinkled, and then she became suddenly serious, regarding them more intently. To Ember, she said: 'I know I never said anything, but I always hoped you would meet someone who could fill your heart with love and make you whole. There's not a sweeter or kinder person in the world than you are, and it was difficult to know you were alone for so long. I know you always said you were happy, but I'm so very glad you and Vibeke have found each other.'

Ember smiled at her, then turned to Vibeke and looked into her eyes, and suddenly found herself lost in a moment of deeply shared knowledge and emotion. She reached out and they entwined their fingers together.

At length, turning back to Mrs Waechter, Ember said: 'Thank you, Mrs Waechter.'

'Oh gosh,' Mrs Waechter said. 'Look at me.' And she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.


Later, as Ember and Vibeke made their way back home, Vibeke said: 'Why do you always call her Mrs Waechter? You've known her for a long time, and she doesn't seem to be the kind of person who cares much for titles or formality. I find it sounds rather nice, in an eccentric, respectful, old-fashioned kind of way. I was just wondering if there was a particular reason.'

Ember looked up at her. They were holding hands as they walked. 'There is a reason actually. I called her Mrs Waechter when I first met her, and I could see that she rather liked it. It was as if she was warmed by the sound of it. When she told me I could call her by her first name, she barely seemed to notice, so I went back to calling her Mrs Waechter because I knew she liked it. It took me a while to work it out, but the reason is simply that it reminds her of her husband. She just likes to be called by her married surname. They were very happy together from what she's told me and from what I can hear in her voice and observe in her manner when she talks about him. From what I understand, he was quite quiet but very kind, and with a gentle and rather romantic sense of humour.' She shrugged slightly. 'He died fifteen years ago, from a heart attack when he was at work. I find it impressive that Mrs Waechter dealt with it so well. I don't know whether she really accepted it, but she certainly didn't let it make her bitter. I think she was depressed for a while, but saw that as something she just had to work her way through.'

'She never met anyone else?' Vibeke asked. 'Never wanted to re-marry?'

'Not that I know of. I think she would rather consider herself still connected with him than to really move on. I can understand that actually, though others might choose differently.'



Chapter Eleven




Sunday 3rd September, Year 1 :


i: Waking


Vibeke was making her way through a garden that was of a form she had never seen before. It was as if she was surrounded by natural sculptures of meaning; as if the dreams of the gods were revealed here and a veil had been drawn back from her eyes such that she could now perceive and understand the deep natural truths of reality. Beds of plants whose leaves, flowers, petals and thorns were more like crystals surrounded her, and among them were small, curious monoliths of eroded stone. The sky was a low and powerful presence above her, seemingly aware of her, enveloping her - of deep hues, dark green and muted mauve and streaks of bronze. Ahead of her was an old wall of red brick, stained green with moss and time, blocking her way like a line of impassable warriors that had dedicated their lives to never letting anyone pass. Yet, to her amazement, they parted before her, the wall was revealed to have a door, and she went through it.

'Ember?' she said. Around her was a small courtyard, in the centre of which a fountain danced in sudden sunlight, an angel trapped in this finite space, lost, hopeless, but embracing its endless movement. Beyond it was a statue of white marble - a wondrous sculpture of a naked and utterly beautiful woman in whose form seemed revealed the most absolute and exquisite truths. Even as she watched, the statue came to life and approached her.

'Vibeke,' the statue said in a voice that startled her as if she was suddenly held in a warm embrace that changed everything.

'Ember,' she heard herself say, and wondered how she had not known that this was Ember, the only real love she had ever known.


Vibeke woke, and the profundity of what she had felt resonated within her. She shifted slightly in bed, turning towards Ember, who lay facing away from her. She snuggled up to her, sliding her arms around her and holding her close from behind. As she did so she smiled as Ember shifted backwards into her, pressing herself even in sleep more closely into her embrace. Vibeke raised her head a fraction before she settled into her pillow again, and in the faint grey light that filtered through the half-open curtains she saw Ember's lips pull upwards at the corner in a slight smile in a her sleep. And then Vibeke settled down, amazed by the intensity with which she was aware of Ember's warmth and softness - naked skin against her - and her delightful scent that suggested so much, and the movement of each of her breaths, the beating of her heart, the softness and fragrance of her hair. She closed her eyes, savouring the bliss that she felt. And as she held Ember, she smiled again as Ember's hand moved in her sleep and came to rest upon Vibeke's hand that rested gently upon Ember's lower belly.

Vibeke remembered her dream, and hoped that she would recall it later in the day; and then she allowed herself to drift into comfort and dreamlets and slumber.


When Ember woke, she did so quite quickly. She felt good, and rested. She felt almost immediately and unusually awake. She felt a smile tug at her mouth as she became aware of Vibeke's arms about her, one under her head and the other over her side such that her forearm rested across her belly.

It was early, the sun not yet up. A glance at the clock told her it was ten minutes before five o'clock.

She turned in Vibeke's arms, and Vibeke shifted. Then they were lying in their more customary position - Vibeke on her back, Ember on her side with her head upon Vibeke's shoulder and her arm wrapped about her waist. And Ember was aware that Vibeke was awake.

'Vibeke?' she asked, and could hear the smile in her own voice.

'Hmm?' A smile was in Vibeke's voice as well.

'You are more and better than anything in my life, and you have brought me such happiness.'


ii: Running


Vibeke and Ember each went to the bathroom, then dressed in shorts and t-shirts, socks and trainers. In the kitchen they drank water and a little orange juice. Then they headed out the front door and Vibeke locked it behind them. Outside the air was cool and fresh - perfect for exercise.

They walked for twenty or thirty yards, then they broke into a slow jog.

Ember concentrated on her breathing and the steadiness of her stride, easing into the exercise. It was always a little uncomfortable at first - but then she would find a rhythm and would soon feel very good. As their pace picked up just a little - though no more than she would be comfortable with - she looked around them. It was barely half past five in the morning. The sun was up now but they were running in shadow - the deep shade of trees and hedgerows contrasting with the bright pinks and yellows and deep blue of the sky. The last three cottages on their early morning route were behind them and they would be out among fields and woodlands from here to the small stone bridge they would cross before heading back.

For a little while Ember focused upon the air rushing in her lungs and the beating of her heart. She enjoyed the feeling of strength and balance she was filled with as they exerted themselves a little more and ran up a short but fairly steep slope at the corner of a field, leaping from stone to stone at times on the tumbled, rocky ground. Then they were on easier terrain again, and turned onto a farm track.

Ember was very aware that Vibeke could easily run faster than this, but she was also aware that, in them being together, Vibeke was very happy. Sometimes Ember would catch Vibeke glancing across at her with a look of pride and shy love, and it would touch Ember's heart such that a couple of times her breath caught with emotion.


iii: Breakfast


Back at their house, Vibeke and Ember drank down glasses of water and then took a shower together. Afterwards they dressed in comfortable clothes and went through to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

'Let me make something fairly substantial,' Ember said. 'I am very hungry.' She opened the fridge and looked inside. Then she looked up and said: 'Would you like to watch television after breakfast? I feel like a little laziness.'

'Sure. I'll lay the table and then see what I can find that might be worth watching.'

Fifteen minutes later Ember served up their breakfast - fried eggs, mushrooms, sausages, tomatoes, mustard. She set the plates down at their customary places across the corner of the kitchen table. Vibeke had already set out a plate of toast, butter, jars of marmalade and Marmite, a large pot of tea, milk and large mugs.

Sunlight flooded from the east through the window, and they basked in the clear light and the sense of relaxation that they felt after their run and their shower.

'This looks great!' Vibeke said as she poured tea for both of them.

Ember regarded her with a curious intensity of a sudden. Their knees brushed against each other as they sat there, and Ember reached out and took Vibeke's hand. Then she smiled and let go, and picked up her knife and fork.

For a little while they ate in more than companionable silence, and Vibeke was very aware of how happy she felt and how happy she could see that Ember felt too.

Vibeke deliberately took her time eating, enjoying each morsel, savouring the flavours, aware that her hunger and the exercise they had done intensified her enjoyment. She realised that Ember was eating slowly as well, and sometimes she noticed a little smile touch Ember's lips. Sometimes they merely looked at each other, into each other's eyes, full of tenderness for each other.

Through the open window the sounds of summer birdsong came to them, gentle and calming, complex and beautiful.


iv: Television


As Vibeke settled in the corner of the sofa, Ember squirmed around until she was leaning back against her, her legs along the cushions.

'Comfortable?' Vibeke asked.

Ember wriggled against her slightly and gave her a little giggle. 'Very.'

'Good.' She ruffled Ember's hair, then picked up the remote, turned the television on and flicked to the channel she wanted. 'Now, if I'm right, we should be just in time for an episode of The Force .'

' The Force ?' Ember repeated. 'Oh wow, I haven't watched that since I was a teenager and student. I really liked it.'

'All right. We have our cups of tea and a packet of chocolate biscuits. We have each other. I think we're all set.'

'I think so too.'

They watched as the opening credits rolled and then the action started. It was an American series set in Philadelphia, a police procedural that was almost hard boiled in style yet which had a healthy dose of humour and three great characters: Hudson, the witty and diminutive hero, who was able to put together even the most obscure facts to solve a case; Jaimie, the charming, compassionate and beautiful heroine, who could talk almost anyone into anything; and Lauren, their secretary, who was something of a genius in seemingly every field.

Vibeke and Ember watched through the forty-five minute programme almost without a word. They drank their tea, and handed each other biscuits. Vibeke ran her fingers across Ember's arm in comforting, almost unconscious contact, and Ember kept her hand on Vibeke's thigh. Occasionally Vibeke leaned her head against Ember's.

When it was over, Vibeke turned the volume down and grinned at the good choice she had made.

'I really enjoyed that,' Ember said. 'Did you work it out?'

'No, I didn't,' Vibeke replied. 'I think I was concentrating too much on the acting and the characters to try to solve it myself.' She gave a little shrug. 'Although I'm not sure I could have.'

'I guessed about a third of the way through who it was, but wasn't sure until a bit later. I really like the two actresses.'

Vibeke looked at Ember's profile and saw a certain thoughtfulness there. 'You do?'

'Yes,' replied Ember. 'Don't you?'

'I think they have great chemistry. They look so different to each other but they're both attractive.'

'It was probably the main reason why I used to like watching it,' Ember said. 'I always used to think that Jaimie and Lauren should get together. They obviously like each other, and their banter is sometimes provocative. They seem to have a real affection for each other too.'

'Hmm. I liked the same thing, though I didn't really think about them actually being romantically involved. It would've been nice, but it wasn't the kind of programme where that was going to happen. I guess it's just a bit too old, too much a cop show before being a drama. And I guess the market for same-sex relationships isn't so big.'

They were silent for a little while and Vibeke did not want to say more. She could see that Ember's manner was rather serious and guessed she was thinking of the past and perhaps of difficult times.

'It was strange, growing up and knowing I was not attracted to men,' Ember said. 'I never said anything to anyone for such a very long time. And then after watching twenty or more episodes of The Force , and lying in bed and dreaming about Jaimie and Lauren being together, I suddenly realised what I was doing and how impossible and disconnected it seemed. I felt as if I was falling from a great height when I realised that my fantasy, which seemed so real, was just a fantasy about two television characters.' She chuckled then. 'I think I was quite addicted to the programme and to the thoughts it provoked in me. I'd always known I was attracted to girls - always identified with falling in love with the heroine even in the earliest fairy stories and children's stories I read or was read. But I think I didn't realise the potential power of such an attraction. Watching The Force gave me a greater idea. But then, meeting you . . . Well, that just went beyond anything I'd ever conceived of.'

'Did you try to meet any girls who might feel the same way?' Vibeke asked after a short silence.

Ember shook her head. 'I'm not sure why. I think I never really saw relationships as something to be sought out and achieved. I don't mean there's anything wrong with that - certainly not. I just mean that I could not see it as a thing to be tackled like another task and worked towards. Silly really - I mean, it's not like there's anything wrong with going and out and meeting people and also hoping that one might meet someone special. I'm not honestly sure where my reluctance came from.'

'I was much the same,' Vibeke said. 'In fact I was a real loner, very reclusive a lot of the time.'

A minute passed in quiet thought, then Ember stretched charmingly, yawned delicately and then squiggled around so that she was facing Vibeke. 'Hey,' she said. 'Shall we take a drive up the coast? Maybe go east? We haven't been that way together. I could make us a good picnic lunch.'

Vibeke grinned. 'I was just thinking you looked so damn cute when you stretched and yawned and turned to me. And yes, a trip up the coast would be great.'


v: The Coast


Vibeke drove, watching the road and their surroundings while Ember spent rather a lot of time just watching her.

'You look pretty comfortable,' Vibeke said, glancing at her with a smile.

'I am,' Ember said with a returning smile. Her right ankle was tucked under her left leg and she sat turned slightly towards Vibeke. She was wearing green shorts and a loose-fitting, sleeveless yellow t-shirt. Her fair skin was slightly tanned and her pale hair was slightly unkempt from the wind that blew in through the open window. Even when Vibeke looked at her just for a moment it struck her how very beautiful and healthy and full of life she was.

The sky was a clear blue, the day warm but not too hot. There was not too much traffic on the roads. They watched as the fields passed, and the edges of the national park to their south. Their route took them close to the coast, heading east in the direction of Bath. They passed through fishing villages and a couple of towns, and past many bays and peninsulas and over high cliffs.

'There's a fort up ahead,' Ember said after checking the map. 'Medieval apparently. I wonder what it was guarding. Maybe sometimes marauders came in from the sea.'

'Maybe,' said Vibeke. 'Or maybe it was a stronghold for a local lord who was concerned about his neighbours. There were many baronies and fiefdoms during early medieval times. A great deal of in-fighting. The kings of England tolerated it as long as the lesser nobles and lords obeyed him. Perhaps it would have been very difficult for the king to actually police his lands. And maybe all the in-fighting and vying for favours weakened those who might otherwise have made trouble for him.'

They drove for half a minute in silence, then Vibeke looked across and said: 'Do you want to stop at the fort?'

'Mm,' Ember replied. 'Yes. Maybe there's somewhere there we can have some ice-cream.'

Vibeke chuckled. 'Ah. All is clear.'

Five minutes later they were parked at the edge of a small village whose houses and shops were built on quite a steep slope around a cove. There were forty or so dwellings. The fort was on a high promontory just to the northeast, but even from a distance it could be seen that it was simply some jumbles of rock and fallen walls that were little more than mounds of stone. A few lonely, wind-sculpted, stunted pines stood about it.

Vibeke and Ember climbed from the car. 'Ice-cream hunt first?' Vibeke asked with a grin.

'There was a shop just back there,' Ember replied. 'Let's have a look.'

They walked hand in hand along the quiet, curving street. Small houses were joined to each other on one side, many of them painted white. There was a pub or small hotel opposite them, lower on the slope. The beach curved beyond, mostly sandy, but with sea-carved stone showing or jutting in places, and boulders beyond. They could hear the sussuration of the waves rolling in and sliding back. Gulls drifted around the headlands to either side and the salt breeze was touched with a faint scent of smoke and seaweed.

An old lady was standing in the doorway of one of the small houses they passed. She was gazing out into the distances, her wrinkled face almost devoid of expression, but her watery blue eyes seemed alert - it was almost as if she was waiting for something to appear out on the sea. She was bent and rather plump and wore a loose, rather ragged print dress of large blue checks.

The shop was a mixture of newsagent and grocery, every shelf crammed with a remarkable variety of products. The middle-aged Indian man at the till nodded to them and smiled. 'Good afternoon,' he said. There were no customers apart from Vibeke and Ember.

Ember located the ice-cream freezer quickly. Vibeke enjoyed Ember's excited pleasure as she gave a little dance. 'Oh, these are good ones!' Ember exclaimed. 'I haven't seen this brand in a long time.' Looking up, she said: 'What do you want?' And she looped a finger through Vibeke's belt and pulled her closer.

They both selected large chocolate ice-creams on sticks, Ember's with nuts and raisins. Vibeke paid for them before Ember could take out her money.

'Do you know anything about the fort on the hill?' Vibeke asked.

The shopkeeper gave her an apologetic shrug. 'I should, I've lived here for twenty years. I'm not sure there's much history known about it though. Mrs Caldwell who works with the church is something of an enthusiast about local lore. I heard her talking once about this place being a bronze-age settlement.'

Vibeke nodded. 'Thanks,' she said.

The man nodded back and his eyes were twinkling. She realised that he was enjoying her and Ember's presence. She guessed he found them rather attractive.

They stepped back out into the warmth and the sunshine. A gentle breeze blew, then dropped away and the calls of gulls passed over them, then receded.

Eating their ice-creams, they made their way back past their car and up the road a little way, then turned onto a small path that led over the headland. Before long they were at the top, and walked over grass that was kept short by the grazing of sheep, and among a few small pines to where the mounds of stone were.

They walked around the place, wondering what it might have looked like when it was built or still in use. It was not a large place, and there were only a couple of fragments of wall still intact - the rest had simply fallen. There was also an area that was slightly lower than most of the ground, floored with several slabs of flat stone, around it a few more large stones defining a near semi-circle.

'It's amazing to think of how different people's lives must have been,' Ember said as they stood shoulder to shoulder, looking across the fort and out to the green-grey sea. 'I don't know if this is a thousand years old or more or less, but so many perceptions of the people who lived here - or built it, or fought in defending it - must have been so very different.' She looked up into Vibeke's face. 'Imagine seeing the stars as twinkling points of light without thinking of them as distant suns. Imagine looking out across the sea and the oceans with no idea at all how extensive they are - whether they are small or go on forever. And places that must have seemed no more than myth or speculation, while most nations and peoples were simply unknown.'

Vibeke absorbed Ember's words. 'I wonder if it made them more aware of some things,' she said after a little while. 'They might have stood here and simply absorbed the sea and the sky and the sunlight just as an experience, rather than needing to assign too many concepts to it. Perhaps the most enlightened of them sometimes assigned no concepts at all.'


vi: Climbing


After returning to their car, Vibeke and Ember drove another five miles to the edge of an area of hills and moors. After parking in a small car park provided for visitors and walkers to the area, they took their small packs and headed up into the rolling countryside.

A drifting, indecisive wind moved about them, bringing scents of heather and flowering gorse. Ember enjoyed the exertion of the walking up the fairly steep slope before them, feeling the heat and strength of the muscles of her thighs, aware of the deepening of her breathing and the strong beating of her heart. She knew that their walk would not be a great exertion, indeed that it would be less trying that most of the runs they went on in the mornings. Perhaps it was the ease of her moving across the rather rugged ground that made her exult in it, aware of her strength and well-being.

As they reached the first low summit, the view ahead opened up before them. Glaciated hills and scoured granite moors were before them. Small, steep-sided wooded valleys divided the hills, most of them with streams and small rivers.

'How about heading to that highest hill over there?' Vibeke said.

'It's not very high,' Ember replied with a grin.

'No, it isn't. But I think we should feel that we are in rugged and demanding terrain and that we are intrepid and brave explorers. We will not merely climb that hill. We will call it a peak, and we will not just climb it but conquer it.'

'Conquer it?'

'Yes. Although I seem to have forgotten our flag. To be really banal we should really plant a flag.'

'I'd rather sing a song. Or just eat lunch there. And then maybe sing a song. Maybe a song about a piglet.'

'Do you know any songs about piglets?'

'No. That's probably one of the reasons why I'd like to sing a song about one.'

'Well, I guess that makes sense.' Vibeke reached out and squeezed Ember's shoulder and they looked at each other; and Ember wondered at the affection that they shared in those few seconds.

And then they set off for the hill that Vibeke had indicated.


Half an hour later they settled down in an area of heather away from any path. There were some large boulders to their right, to one side of the top of the hill. From their packs they took out the food and water they were carrying.

They ate lunch mostly in companionable silence.

They took a spontaneous, unexpected and rather long route back to their car and it was more strenuous than they had anticipated. They walked over peaty ground and over rocks and through heather and had to cross numerous small watercourses. Much of their route was determined simply according to whim. Ember would often remark upon some landmark or wander to some place because it looked interesting and Vibeke was more than happy to let her explore as much as she wished. After an hour they found themselves not closer to their car but further away.

And Vibeke also was responsible for the extended length of their walk. While Ember tended to be distracted by the shapes of stones or the colours and clusterings of flowers, Vibeke three times suggested they ascend to the top of one low hill or another.

By the time they returned to where they had parked, both were pleasantly tired.

Sitting on the front seats, they both took off their walking boots.

'Are you all right to drive barefoot?' Ember asked.

'I'll put them back on in a moment.' Vibeke smiled. 'Did you enjoy our walk?'

'It was great!'


vii: Love


Vibeke opened the front door of their house and stood aside for Ember, then followed her in and closed the door behind her.

'Cup of tea?' Ember asked her as she set down her small backpack and walking boots.

'Sounds great.'

Vibeke unpacked their lunch things and put what needed to be washed up in the kitchen sink while Ember made a large pot of tea. Then they sat quietly together at the kitchen table, hand in hand. They sipped from their mugs of tea and then drank more deeply once it was cool enough.

Ember reflected that there was a curious poignancy of emotion between them and in the moment. She was very aware of the sunlit garden outside and the golden light that streamed in through the window. She was very aware of the kitchen around them - its shape and dimensions, the pine cabinets, stainless steel sink, oven and gas stove, the sturdy and unvarnished table at which they were seated. She was aware of her own breathing and her heartbeat and the pleasant sense of deep relaxation and enjoyable sleepiness that she felt.

Most of all she was aware of Vibeke. Their right hands were upon the surface of the table, touching each other lightly, their fingers shifting lightly in gentle caresses and connectedness. Sometimes they looked at each other almost shyly, looking into each other's eyes. And Ember saw that Vibeke's gaze and expression reflected her own emotional openness and vulnerability. She could see Vibeke was so very aware of her just as she was profoundly aware of Vibeke.

And then she realised that Vibeke was breathing in rhythm with her, her chest rising and falling slowly and gently at exactly the same time. For a little while she watched as she raised her mug and took another sip of tea.

'Did you do that deliberately?' she asked, smiling.

Vibeke raised an eyebrow. 'What do you mean?'

'You have been breathing in time with me.' She paused then said: 'I've noticed it before. I've synchronised my breathing with yours because I wanted to sometimes as well. I really like it.' She realised that she probably looked slightly sheepish when she said: 'I like watching the slow rise and fall of your breasts.'

Vibeke looked down for a moment. 'I have also intentionally matched my breathing to yours on quite a few occasions,' she said. Looking up again: 'But this time maybe it was just luck - though I do not think so. I think I just did it automatically, subconsciously.' She shrugged slightly and gave Ember a little smile. 'Well, I'm glad of it.'

Ember squeezed her hand. 'I don't think it was luck either,' she said. 'I think that we are simply matching each other, recognising each other more deeply.'

After a minute or two, Vibeke set down her empty mug. Then she looked into Ember's eyes and said: 'Would you like to take a shower with me?'

'Is there some reason you would like to take a shower with me?' she asked mischievously. Then she shook her head with self-deprecation and said: 'No, wait, it does not matter. I would be very happy to take a shower with you.'

Vibeke grinned and stood and pulled Ember to her feet. Together they made their way from the kitchen into the hall and down to their bedroom, where they stopped in front of their bed.

Vibeke turned and unbuttoned Ember's shorts. Then she slipped her hands beneath Ember's sleeveless t-shirt and over the skin above her hips and around her chest, caressing her gently about her ribs; and Ember shivered with pleasure at the warm glow and the pleasantly tingling sensation that raced over her skin from Vibeke's touch and which ignited a fire deep in her belly.

Ember found her breathing catch and deepen slightly. She found herself smiling, though unsurprised when she became aware of the pleasure revealed in her expression. She wrapped her arms around Vibeke's waist and brought her close, burying her face against into her chest, holding her tightly, savouring the scent of her love, the press and strength and softness of her body against her. Loosening her hold, she took hold of the bottom of Vibeke's t-shirt and lifted it up and over her head. She held her close again, inhaling her scent and feeling amazed by the sensuality of it and the press of soft, warm skin against her. She ran a few small kisses across Vibeke's chest, then pressed her face against her again. Reaching around Vibeke's back, she deftly unclipped and then removed her bra. As she took in the perfection of Vibeke's breasts and leaned forward against her with a soft moan, she wondered at the power of the rising desire that she felt, that was so great that it rushed through her in an irresistible wave that swept her under.

Together then, with smiles and touches of tender pleasure, they quickly removed the rest of each other's clothes. Once that was done, Ember took hold of Vibeke's hand and led her into the bathroom and to the shower. She turned the tap, adjusted the temperature, checked the water with her hand and then stepped within.

Vibeke followed her in and closed the shower door behind them.

'I like being in here with you,' Ember said.

'Really?' Vibeke took the bar of soap and a sponge from the shower shelf, created a lather, then diligently began to soap and gently scrub Ember's body. When that was done, Ember returned the favour. They shampooed each other's hair, then helped each other rinse off, standing together under the waterfall of warm water. For a little while they held each other close and tightly. Ember wondered at her need to hold onto her love, squeezing her around her waist and pressing the side of her face against her upper chest and shoulder, and feeling Vibeke holding her back, her strong arms about her.

At length they turned off the shower and used thick, soft towels but, impatient and still a little damp, soon left the steam of the bathroom and went back into the bedroom.

Vibeke pulled back the covers of the bed, then fell backwards onto the sheets and drew Ember with her. Ember came down on top of her and simple lay there for long moments, staring down into Vibeke's eyes and brushing her damp hair back from her lovely face. She rose and fell slightly as Vibeke breathed, and she could see the flush of warmth and desire revealed in Vibeke's face. Her mauve eyes were darkened and just suggested that hint of a ruby colour that sometimes touched them. Her pupils dilated were but there was no forgetfulness there, no clouding because of lust, rather an extraordinary openness about her as if she was drinking in everything about Ember that she could - and, it seemed, almost disbelieving her happiness in them being together.

'My heart and everything that I am is yours,' Ember said softly.

'You are my heart and my life.'

Ember pressed her forehead against Vibeke's, and then kissed her way down past one shapely ear, across the side of her jaw, then finally pressed her mouth against Vibeke's soft lips. At the same time she felt Vibeke's fingers entwine through her hair.

For a long while they kissed, full of tenderness and rising desire. Then Vibeke rolled them over so that Ember felt Vibeke's weight upon her. Then Vibeke kissed her way down her neck, biting gently at her pulse-point, then slid down until she could caress and kiss her breasts, bestowing much and lingering attention upon them.

And so time dissolved and awareness narrowed until all they knew was their experience of each other - and widened too, for they were filled with this experience, with each other. Lingering kisses and caresses, the sliding of skin against skin, the pressure of body against body was all they knew. Sometimes they looked into other's eyes. Sometimes they held each other tight, eyes closed against the pleasurable intensity that burned through them in liquid heat. Ember pressed her thigh against Vibeke's centre and felt the rocking of her hips against her. She tasted the sweet, slick wetness that flooded from Vibeke's centre and lapped at her and buried her face between her legs. She lost herself, the universe seeming to explode outwards in an eruption of light that flooded back in on itself as Vibeke held her tightly and slid her fingers in and out of her. On and on they loved each other, until finally, after one more simultaneous and tender delightment, they found themselves lying in a dazed and wondering and pleasure-filled tangle of limbs.

After a little while, Ember's breathing and thundering heart slowed to something approaching normal. She turned slightly, resting her head upon Vibeke's shoulder and wrapping her arm about her stomach, and felt Vibeke holding her back, her arms about her. She smiled as Vibeke gave her a little kiss upon the top of her head. She breathed deeply, intensely aware of Vibeke's scent - of sweat and arousal. She nuzzled Vibeke's skin, then settled down again.

And slowly, breathing deeply but more slowly, they drifted into half-dreams that were full of contentment and bliss and a sense of thundering profundity.


viii: Romantic Meal


After waking, Vibeke and Ember took quick showers - separately this time. When Vibeke, who had gone second, came out to the kitchen, Ember was just setting a fresh pot of tea, mugs and milk upon the kitchen table.

They sat at their customary places across the corner of the table. They were both wearing bathrobes - Vibeke's was a deep red and Ember's was of light blue.

As they sipped tea, Vibeke smiled when she saw that Ember had a blissful, almost lost expression upon her face. Her eyes were staring at Vibeke's chest and she had slipped a hand inside Vibeke's bathrobe, drawing it apart a little. Her fingers were tracing gentle, abstract patterns across the skin of Vibeke's upper chest and around the curves of her breasts.

'You seem to be enjoying yourself,' Vibeke said with a chuckle.

Ember stopped what she was doing of a sudden and blushed slightly. 'I'm sorry. Just can't keep my hands off you, it seems.'

'Don't stop, if you don't want to,' Vibeke said, suddenly serious. 'I wasn't meaning to tease you. I really like that you want to touch me.'

Ember met her gaze for a moment and smiled. 'I like that you want to touch me,' she said softly.

A few quiet minutes later, as they finished their tea, Vibeke said: 'Would you like to go out for a meal with me? If you are anything like as hungry as me . . .'

Ember nodded, and entwined her fingers with Vibeke's and then raised her hand to her lips, and kissed each of Vibeke's knuckles. 'I would like that.'

'There is that restaurant by the river that we have not tried. It seems like quite a romantic place and the evening may be warm enough for us to sit outside.'

Half an hour later they were ready to go. They had not dressed formally but had decided against jeans and t-shirts as well. Vibeke wore elegant black trousers and a white blouse with loose sleeves drawn in at the wrists, open at the neck and with a ruby pendant upon a silver chain just above her cleavage. Ember wore a long, loose-fitting skirt of light grey-mauve cloth, and a red blouse that had lace edges. She wore light golden chains at wrist and neck, and three matching chains dangled from each ear.

Before leaving they stood together before the tall mirror in their bedroom, holding hands.

'We really do make rather an attractive-looking couple,' Ember said, smiling as she regarded their reflection.

'I think we do,' Vibeke agreed. 'Taller and smaller, dark red and light blonde. And much more than what is immediately visible.'

Ember turned around once, and then faced Vibeke, holding both her hands.

'Shall we go?' Vibeke asked, raising one of Ember's hands as if to escort her with much chivalry to the front door.

They took their bags from the top of a chest of drawers, and headed for the car.


Twenty minutes later they were seated at one of the three tables that was out on the patio at the back of the restaurant. One of the other tables was occupied, but the one between them was not. The patio was built such that it jutted slightly from the building and its edge was directly above the edge of the narrow river that ran below. From where they sat, Vibeke and Ember could look down into the dark flow, and see the lights of a few streetlamps and houses reflected in the swirling, inky liquid, and the reeds and grasses that moved and bobbed with the current. A small family of ducks appeared as they watched, swimming slowly upstream and stopping to investigate a thicker patch of weeds and bushes on the far bank.

A candle burned and flickered upon their table, and more candles, protected from the wind by coloured glass - red and dark blue - were lit in sconces upon the narrow wooden pillars that supported the roof over the patio. Earthenware urns were set here and there, with climbing plants ascending the pillars, two of them blooming with fragrant yellow and mauve blooms.

The light that came from inside the restaurant was muted and soft, and the conversation from the few customers there was inaudible except when one or another waiter or waitress passed through one of the outer doors.

For a few minutes they looked through their menus as they sipped water and ate a little bread that they dipped in a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

'Glad they provided this,' Vibeke said. 'Otherwise I'd probably scarf down my entire meal in about three minutes.'

'Yes, I feel rather ravenous myself.'

Shortly their waitress returned to them - a girl in her early twenties, with mousy brown hair and round, innocent looking eyes. She made Ember think of a spaniel that liked to please its owner and was no doubt a likeable woman. 'Are you ready to order?' she asked.

They did so, having planned to share what they could.

'Anything else to drink?'

'No, thanks,' Vibeke said. She had asked Ember if she wanted to have some wine with the meal, but Ember was indifferent at best and Vibeke did not really want any.

The waitress thanked them and took their menus.

'You are not too keen on wine or other alcoholic drinks,' Ember said, her thoughts apparently along the lines of Vibeke's.

Vibeke tilted her head slightly. 'No,' she said. 'I like the taste of some dry, intense red wines very much. And some real ales are good too. And a few other drinks are hardly objectionable. But although alcohol makes me feel good in some ways, it nevertheless muffles my thoughts, dulls my perceptions and makes my emotions somehow shapeless. I do not want the crystal clarity with which I perceive you to become blurred. I want to perceive you perfectly, and be as awake as it is possible to be as I do so.' She fell silent for a little while, thinking before she continued. 'You are the most precious thing in my life. You have so much beauty. For me to turn away from that even for a moment . . . I would rather savour every moment with all the alertness and wakefulness that I can.'

Their starters arrived shortly, and they ate in companionable silence for a while, though they were both intensely aware of the other. Often they would simply find themselves staring at each other. Both of them sometimes looked up to find the other staring and then blush a little as if they had been caught. They lightly touched hands upon the table, and smiled at each other.

'Pretty good seafood selection,' Ember said as she sat back. They had eaten shrimp and mussels and oysters, lemon and lettuce, and fresh bread. The starter had been a taster more than anything, but had been very good.

When the waitress returned with their main courses, they saw that they were much larger. Vibeke had chosen trout, fried potatoes and salad, while Ember had chosen spinach lasagna and salad. The servings were more than generous.

As they picked up their knives and forks to dig in, they met each other's eyes and Ember said: 'Well, we ordered rather different things but could we share a few bites?'

'I'd like that.'

A little later Ember looked about them with mock furtiveness. Then, keeping her voice low, she said: 'You know, I feel a certain tenderness, a very pleasant ache in a rather special place.'

Vibeke looked at her affectionately. 'Me too. For a while there I was wondering if I would be able to walk straight for the next couple of days. But it is actually just a rather nice reminder.'

'It is,' Ember agreed. She took a small bite of her lasagna, chewed slowly and swallowed - clearly savouring the morsel - and then said: 'After we make love, do you sometimes find that you have amazing little dreams?'

Vibeke looked up at her, almost startled by Ember's words. It was strange that they had not talked about this before, though perhaps, as was the nature of dreams, they tended to hide themselves from their more waking moments. 'Yes, I do,' she said quietly. 'And they are amazing.'

Ember nodded. 'They are fleeting but they seem to be so very deep,' she went on. 'Sometimes I feel as if I am recognising a kind of truth that I have always known or which lay deep within me, and think that if I could only grasp the meaning that floods through me I would be everything, would know the deepest of all secrets about myself and about you and about the universe.' She shrugged slightly, self-deprecatingly. 'I know that sounds exalted but it's really how I feel. It's quite extraordinary. I wish that I could hold onto those moments and fall into them. It is almost like I am falling into you.'

Vibeke regarded her with a gentle smile. 'I have the same experiences,' she said. 'I cannot describe them in any way other than the way you did. But they are so blissful. I have occasionally had equivalently blissful dreams during a night's sleep but it has been very rare indeed. It's incredible that when we make love it always triggers them though.'

They were silent for a few moments, and then Vibeke carefully cut a small forkful of trout, rained a little lemon juice on it, and held it out for Ember. She grinned as Ember's mouth closed about it, removing it from the fork, then chewing and tasting it.

'Good?' Vibeke asked after she had swallowed.

'Good. Can I have another piece?'

'Of course.'


Vibeke had golden pudding with custard for desert, while Ember had hot chocolate fudge cake with liquid chocolate drizzled on top. They drank a pot of tea, and took their time with finishing.

'That was a great meal,' Vibeke said, leaning back and folding both hands across her belly.

'It certainly was. I'd like to sit here for a little while just to digest, but maybe afterwards we could drive out of town and go for a short walk? I think I need to burn just a little of this energy before we go to sleep tonight.

Vibeke thought there was a twinkle in Ember's eyes and said: 'Sure, I'd like that.'

Ember smiled, then looked about them, taking in the mildness and peace and the lights of the night. The stars were out and a crescent moon was rising. 'Oh look,' she said then. 'The ducks are back. Maybe they live here.'


ix: Stars and Moonlight


They had parked their metallic, graphite-coloured Volkswagen in the small car park at the front of the restaurant. They were quiet as Vibeke drove into and through central Otterhampton and back to their house. They only stopped there for a couple of minutes to change into training shoes and grab a bottle of water and a couple of lightweight blankets, and then they set out again, driving four or so miles to where the hills became more pronounced. Vibeke much enjoyed the drive, and the quietness of the roads, the headlamps cutting a bright swathe through the darkness ahead of them. She concentrated upon her driving and was very aware of each curve of the road, each change of gears and the way she controlled their speed with ease and smoothness. A few times an oncoming vehicle's lights appeared, bright and harsh, swelling and then flashing by them. They passed a few muted glimmers of lights from farmhouses and a few cottages. Vibeke watched as a plane crossed the eastern sky, betrayed by its steadily flashing lights.

She reflected that there was an intimate and tender peacefulness between her and Ember now. She found that Ember glanced at her from time to time; and for a minute or two they held hands until Vibeke needed to change gears on a steeper slope and curve.

They parked at a small layby and sat still for a moment in the abrupt silence after Vibeke turned off the engine. Then, with a gentle smile, Vibeke climbed out and Ember did the same.

After locking the car, they set off up an easy path that led along the side of a field that had been left fallow. It had not rained for a few days and the going was not difficult, but nevertheless they were glad they had stopped to change footwear. The moon was rising and, though less than quarter, threw sufficient silver light across the ground for them to see well enough not to trip. The stars were remarkably bright in the sky and there was no cloud to be see beyond a faint haze upon the horizons.

After about a mile and half, as they reached the top of a hill that was carpeted by heather and cropped grass, they stopped by a stand of boulders. 'This seems like a good place,' said Ember.

Vibeke unfolded one of the blankets she was carrying and threw it out from her while she held two of its corners, then let it settle upon the ground.

They sat down then, and Ember unscrewed the top of the bottle of water and handed it to Vibeke. After taking a few gulps Vibeke handed it back.

'This is nice,' Ember said with a chuckle, and in the silvery dimness Vibeke saw that she was smiling as she looked out across the landscape. The fields and woods and hills were dark, and here and there was the twinkling yellow light from one or another house. In the distance they could see some of the lights of Otterhampton, and of another town rather further to the east. A gentle breeze had picked up as it had become later and though it had been very comfortable to sit outside at the restaurant, now the air was becoming rather chilly.

But it was the lights of the sky that caught their attention.

'Will you lie with me?' Ember asked.

Vibeke nodded, and lay back, and Ember lay down beside her. They lay very close to each other at a slight angle, their heads almost touching, their arms brushing, and they held hands. Vibeke pulled the second blanket around them so that they were comfortable. The warmth of each other's body and the cosiness beneath the blanket contrasted with the cool air whispering over their faces.

For a while they gazed up into the immensity, marvelling at the countless stars that glimmered and twinkled so brilliantly above them. Vibeke felt almost as if they would fall upwards into the endless, velvet depths of blue-black sky and diamond stars - and thought that as long as Ember was with her, she would not fear the enormity or the loneliness of tumbling among the distant stars. Then she chuckled at this notion, that seemed both grandiose and suggested she was a mushball that Ember was able to melt into a puddle of warm goo on a remarkably frequent basis.

She grinned to herself. 'You realise you've made me incredibly soft,' she said with mixed amusement and pleasure.

'Have I?' Ember seemed to consider this for a while, then said: 'I find it hard to imagine you ever being anything other than sensitive before I met you.'

Vibeke thought about the matter too. 'Maybe you're right. I guess I just never had the experience of feeling like this before and the mixture of vulnerability and tenderness I feel towards you is quite overwhelming - in a very pleasant way.'

Ember brought Vibeke's hand to her lips, and gently kissed her palm. 'I feel the same,' she said.

They were quiet for a couple of minutes then, before Ember said, looking up: 'That looks like a cartoon bear pulling an enormous jar of marmalade behind it.'

'Really? Show me.'

'Look.' Ember pointed. 'There's the face, with the eyes and nose as three bright points. You can see the paws beneath. And back there is the jar of marmalade.' She traced the outline.

'Hmm. You're not wrong, except . . . how do you know it's a jar of marmalade? It could be a barrel of jam.'

'No. Definitely marmalade. A bear like that would only pull a jar of jam after it on a Wednesday, so it can't be that.'

'Fair enough.'

Later: 'I think that's a frog down there beneath the jar of marmalade,' Vibeke suggested.

'You're right. Why is it carrying a duck on its head?'


x: More Love


It was midnight when they got back home. After undressing, brushing their teeth and taking yet another quick shower, they tumbled into bed. Extracting herself again for a moment, Ember managed in the darkness to locate a box of matches upon the bedside table and to light the solitary, half-burned nightlight that was there.

Then Ember squirmed across to Vibeke and laid her head upon her shoulder and wrapped her arm across her belly. She smiled at the press of Vibeke's warm skin and soft flesh against her and the amazing feeling of safety and love she felt in Vibeke's embrace. She snuggled a bit closer and sighed with happiness.

'It has been a wonderful day,' Vibeke said a moment before Ember was able to say the same thing.

'It really has. I hope we will have many more days like this.'

They lay quietly for a little while, and Ember realised that the day was not even over. She had not considered closing her eyes to go to sleep and she was aware that Vibeke was fully awake beside her - seemingly lost in contemplation of the pleasures of them spending such a blissful time together.

'Of course, the day is not over yet,' Ember said, giving voice to her thoughts.

And she drew back the covers to one side of her and wriggled around until her head was resting upon Vibeke's thigh and her knees were by Vibeke's shoulder.

Slowly then, she reached out and brushed her fingertips across Vibeke's ribs, and over her stomach, even as Vibeke turned slightly to give her better access. She felt Vibeke kiss her way up her thighs in turn, and slide her fingertips up the outsides of her legs and around her hips, then down through the soft curls above her centre.

Ember felt the amazing sensitivity that raced across her skin, the pleasure in the touches. She felt her breath catch, and realised that she was smiling in gentle awe of the love she felt for her beloved Vibeke.

Making love was different to how it had been earlier in the day. Then it had lasted a long time - and several times - and had been full of passion and fire. This time lasted just as long, but it was a slower, more languorous love: lingering kisses and caresses and explorations that were always gentle, bringing each of them to the edge of the summit and holding them there for a long, sweet time.


xi: Sleep


Later, in the small hours of the morning, Ember and Vibeke lay close and warm together as the candle flickered and the flame became smaller. They were lying on their sides, facing the same direction, Vibeke holding Ember from behind, her hand pressed to Ember's stomach, Ember's hands pressed over Vibeke's.

Vibeke nuzzled Ember's hair and breathed in her fragrance. She felt the gentle movement as Ember breathed, and could faintly feel the steady beating of Ember's heart.

'I feel so safe, so protected,' Ember said softly, putting into words what she felt so often when she was in Vibeke's embrace.

'I feel that way too, when you hold me,' Vibeke replied. 'I don't really remember feeling accepted much in my life, or accepting myself. But with you I feel loved.' As she felt Ember shift slightly, settling down, she said: 'Sleep well, my heart.'

'You too, my life.'

A little while later, Vibeke was aware of the slowing and deepening of Ember's breathing as she drifted to sleep. For a while she remained awake, not wanting to sleep even though she knew she would be tired tomorrow - indeed it was too late for them not to be tired tomorrow anyway, not that she in any sense regretted it.

Sometimes, she reflected, she liked to wake up during the night and lie there for a little while, resisting sleep. She liked to be aware of Ember being with her, lying beside her or snuggled up against her. Such moments made her nights seem not merely passed in unconscious slumber, but savoured as much as she could.

At last, as the clock passed half past two and the candle finally glimmered one last time and died, Vibeke closed her eyes and allowed herself to fall into a deep and restful and utterly peaceful sleep.



Continued in Part 2b


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