His expression softened. “All right, Etta. All right.”
She sat down in the mud and leaned back against one arm of the gate as Nicholas settled across the other. She finally saw what he’d been doing when he had left her by the stream: cutting wood into bowl-like shapes. He held one out to catch the rain in its hollowed belly and passed it to her. Etta gulped it down in a single sip, then held it out again to collect more, as he did the same. Digging into the sopping wet bag, he removed his soaked shirt with a mournful look and passed her a bright little bundle—bananas.
Etta greedily tore into the first one, breaking its soft center into pieces as Nicholas gave up on wringing out his shirt and tugged it back on. Raindrops dripped from the arch in soft patters, catching the dim light. The water collected and flowed down the paths worn by hundreds of years of footsteps. In the distance, if she squinted, she could see pale-limbed trees growing into some of the structures, devastating whole sections of walls with their roots and branches.
It was the return of the singing birds that made her close her eyes, simply breathe in the damp air. When she opened them again, Nicholas was watching her, his knees drawn up, his expression inscrutable.
She could feel him drifting away on the tide of his thoughts, so she swam out to meet him.
“How about a kiss, hey?”
Etta liked that she was still able to startle him, just a little. The blank look of concentration broke as he barked out a laugh.
“I don’t know if that’s a wise idea. We’d never leave.”
There it was: the bold line of his smile. Her blood heated at the sight of it, and despite her own flirting, Etta felt herself blush at the promise underlying his words. But just as quickly as the smile appeared, it slid away. He reached for her injured leg, inspecting the healing cut. Nicholas shook his head as he unwound the wet bandage. One hand grasped her ankle, the fingers stroking the curve of bone, while the other ran up the length of the muscle, skirting around the puckered red wound. Etta felt a prickle of goose bumps rise in the places he touched. A different kind of ache hollowed the pit of her stomach, and the echoing heat rose up over her chest, her neck, her face, until all of her ached with the need to touch him in return.
He leaned forward, pressing a faint kiss to a bruise on her shin she hadn’t cared to notice until now.
“It’s not your fault,” she said softly. If she had been paying attention, she would have been able to avoid the snake in the first place. Etta had never doubted that for an instant.
The reply was whispered against her skin. “I’ll come to see it that way eventually. For now, let me wallow a bit.”
Etta smiled sweetly, pushing up onto her knees. She crawled the distance between them, listening as his breathing grew more ragged. His gaze focused on her face. His hands curled over the top of his knees, and they were shaking as she put hers over them.
Picking up his right hand, she pressed a soft kiss to the rough, scarred knuckles, and as he shuddered she felt an answering shiver low in her stomach. She set his hand back down and rested her arms over his hands, trapping them against his knees.
“You make…” Nicholas trailed off as she leaned forward, brushing a faint kiss across his lips. When he didn’t lean back, when she breathed in his soft exhale, she did it again, applying a little more pressure. She felt him try to tug his hands out from under hers, but she held firm, watching as a look of amazement spread over his face. She worried, just for a moment, that she was trading one obsession for another—trading the high of performing for this strange sense of freedom, for the way a wild, unfamiliar part of herself was opening up around him. He made her feel brave; he let her be who she was unconditionally, without judgment, and because of it, she felt life shifting around her into something that felt much more beautiful and clear.
He said the words so quietly, she wondered if she’d imagined them. “Then it’s the same for you?”
She ran her nose down the length of his, and there wasn’t a part of her that wasn’t humming, that wasn’t rejoicing in this tiny, perfect symphony of happiness.
“Release me,” he said hoarsely. He was strong enough to pull his hands away by force; her thoughts spun in a dizzying dance of want and confusion and desperation. “Etta—”
He leaned forward and captured her lips, stealing the kiss himself until she had to come up and gasp for breath. Nicholas pulled her back under, and this time she did let go, only to take his beautiful face in her hands, to let his hands tangle in her hair, around her shoulders. If the sky had opened again just then, Etta didn’t think she’d feel the storm at all—not when she was caught so deeply in this. Time was tugging at her back, insistent and demanding, passing faster and faster, but all she wanted was to stay there, to smell the sea on his skin and press her face to that part of his neck where it seemed to fit perfectly, as if it had been made to hold her and her alone. If there was a place to go where time might forget them, she wanted to find it.
He was breathing hard enough that she felt his heart jumping against her ribs, and she knew hers was doing the same. She turned, running her lips along the curve of his ear, her fingers pressed against the solid muscles of his back.
“We can’t,” he said into her hair, half-pleading, “we can’t make this so bloody difficult.”
What was she even doing—torturing herself with what she couldn’t have? She could fight this, whatever force it was that dragged her back to him, that knotted their yearning. Attraction. She would go home and he would go home, and whatever kept pulling them back together would be dissolved by distance and time and death.