Liam lay on his back and considered this. He had no idea what a cat was or why curiosity would kill one, but he did empathise completely with that proverbial creature.
"If you move," said the voice above him, "I will crush your throat." Liam lay very still beneath the weight of the man on top of him. A wood staff was pressed beneath his chin, leaving him just enough air to remain conscious and yet not to be a threat. Or able to speak and explain himself.
Just as oxygen deprivation was about to send him unconscious, there was a sharp jerk to the staff and then the man toppled slowly to one side. It happened so quickly that he didn't even have time to panic that the bandit was delivering his promised death's blow.
Air rushed back into his lungs down his abused throat and he coughed reflexively, wincing at the pain that knifed through his battered ribs and curling protectively around them.
"Making friends, Liam?" A very familiar and wryly amused voice cut through his suffering. A slender hand gently tipped his head back slightly and he felt cool fingers on his throat. "Nasty," the voice murmured.
"Emi?" He rasped.
"Hush, don't try to talk just yet." He ignored this piece of sage advice,
"Is he dead?"
"No, but he'll have a very bad headache when he wakes up. I have some water, it may help your throat." Liam grunted and felt her hand slide under his head, lifting it slightly so that she could press the bottle against his lips. The liquid was cool and went a little way to soothing the fiery burn in his throat, enabling him to speak his next words more easily.
"You followed me." Guilt flowed across Emi's face, but she nodded without hesitation. It was one of the things that he loved about her; she never hesitated to own up when she had done something wrong.
"Thank you," he sighed wearily. She smiled then,
"You're not cross?"
"I'm not exactly in a position to be," he replied reasonably.
"I'll have to remember that," she helped him to sit up and then gripped his shoulders as he swayed, "rescue Liam from bandits and avoid a scolding."
"You make me sound like a tyrant," he wheezed, clutching at his ribs. She pushed his hands away and tugged his shirt up. "Emi..." Her hands roving over his ribs sent a host of conflicting messages to his brain and he caught at her fingers.
"I have to see if you have broken any ribs," she said, tugging free from his weak grasp. He gritted his teeth and tried to redirect his mind,
"Why were you following me?" Hot colour flooded her cheeks and she didn't look up from her task.
"I found that I had to go to Caritha and since you were going... I thought I'd keep you company."
"I thought that..." he broke off with a gasp as her hands pressed against a particularly sore spot. She mumbled an apology and continued. "I thought that you were going with the caravan a few days from now. During the full moon. In safety." She pulled away and he let out the breath he had been holding. She had no idea of the havoc her touch had on his body. The blush, which had been slowly fading, rushed up again,
"Yes... well..." That was another thing he liked; she always made an earnest effort not to lie and it was obvious to him that her first words had been, if not a lie, then at least not the complete truth. He waited patiently.
She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye; "I didn't like the thought of you going on your own." His eyebrows shot up,
"You didn't..." She hurried on, interrupting his incredulous response.
"And rightly so, it appears," she pointed out. Liam chuckled softly. He wasn't so small as to point out that she had only succeeded because she had taken his attacker by surprise.
"And I'm grateful," he said warmly, bringing the blush to her cheeks yet again. He wondered whether he could find anything else to say that would bring the colour up again; it was enchanting to watch. She beat him to it.
"Why did you take this path?" His lips twisted, his expression chagrined. He had hoped she would forget, though he should have known better.
"Curiosity," he said finally.
"Curiosity," she repeated flatly. He was surprised to see the bleak look in her eyes.
"Curious about what? How long it would take to be attacked? How many bandits would beat you up? How long you could last in a f-fight?" Her voice wavered dangerously and he reached out, trying to soothe her fear,
"Emi," he murmured, shocked by the strength of her feelings, even as hope surged through him. She shook off his hands and rose abruptly, her back to him as she checked on the bandit. Suppressing a groan at the effort, Liam struggled to his feet and limped painfully to stand behind her. He felt his breath catch in his throat as he saw how small and slender she was in comparison to the brawny man on the ground. She could have been killed. Or worse.
"Emi," he took hold of her shoulders and gently turned her to face him. Her nose and eyes had gone red and her face was blotchy with unshed tears. Deeply shaken at this sudden change from gentle nurse to anguished woman, he pulled her close, seeking both to comfort her and needing to hold her close for his own sake. "I'm sorry," he murmured, stroking one hand down her back, "I didn't think..." What could he say? "I didn't think of the risks," he said finally.
"You could have been killed." Her voice was thick with unshed tears.
"Ssshhhh," his own voice was rather ragged of a sudden and this had nothing to do with his sore throat, "but I wasn't."
They stood like this for a while, until Liam felt her deep-seated trembling slowly fade and his own calm was beginning to be rapidly replaced by desire.
"Emi..." He paused, uncertain of whether he was about to do the right thing, "Emi," he tilted his head down as she remained pressed against his chest. He needed to see her face, the expression in her eyes to know if she was open to what he was about to suggest. "Do you... have you... do you think..." He stopped himself from stuttering yet another opening and swallowed,
"Emi, do you know what a cat is?"
"A what?" Her head lifted then and, seizing the opportunity, he kissed her.
As first kisses went, it only missed being disastrous by the fact that he actually met her lips with his. She went rigid in his arms, a little squeak of surprise making him jump and then flinch at the pain this caused him.
"Liam!" she whispered, her eyes wide with shock. His heart felt as if it broke at that moment and he felt another moment of affinity with that cat. Not only had his curiosity gained him a sound beating, but he had lost the respect of the woman he loved; had loved, in fact, for several, wretchedly secret months. Perhaps curiosity would kill him after all.
He loosened his grip and let his arms slide up to her shoulders. He told himself that this reluctance to let her go had nothing to do with the fact that it was probably the last time he would hold her and everything to do with not letting her stumble and fall.
"Sorry," he rasped, physical and emotional pain mixing in equal quantities in his throat. He let her go.
"Why... Liam... A cat?" Emi sounded as disjointed and bewildered as he felt. He tried to laugh, but couldn't.
"A saying," he managed to force out through numb lips, "just an old saying. I wanted your attention."
"You have it," she assured him softly. He shut his eyes and then snapped them open as he felt her fingers on his lips. He took in a shuddering breath at her touch and then held it at the look in her eyes.
"You keep saying my name," she murmured, moving closer until only a breath of wind could have passed between their bodies. Her hand slid slowly across his lips, across his cheek and then round to the back of his head.
"Yes." He could think of nothing else to say, but slowly, gently moved his arms around her and pulled her close.
"You took me by surprise." His mouth crooked into a smile,
"That was the intention." She lifted herself up onto her toes,
"Surprise me again," she whispered and he did.
This second kiss was worlds apart from the first and when they broke apart, he took it as a good sign that she was smiling in that soft, mysterious way of all women greatly pleased.
"Mmm?" He bent his head again.
"What is a cat?"
His laughter was free and joyful and filled the forest.
------- The End.