Cracked Open: book 3

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Seven

Ciro

There was something about slow dancing that ran chills up my arms. I could feel the way she rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel her hands gradually tunneling their way up under my shirt ñ skin contact. I don’t think she was using me any more. I think she needed this. She needed to feel, I don’t know what. I just knew she needed to be held.

For a while I wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but soon I was holding her. Holding her like she needed to be held. I was silently telling her that I would be there for her, even though I wasn’t sure why I was telling her this. The future wasn’t clear. I slid my fingers through her braided hair, and neither of us cared that the braid released more silky strands. The short pieces of her brunette hair framed her face delicately. I rested my other hand around her waist, and in response ñ so unlike her, even I knew ñ she inched closer into my chest.

The dance was short, filled with long close moments. I guided her slowly around the room. It was different, but in a good way. It was like our souls were now getting to know each other. We didn’t want wild. Instead, calm and soothing. We learned each other in a softer light.

I breathed. She breathed. It was perfect.

I pulled myself out of the memory of last night, and watched as Kaia dug through her garden, although it was the middle of winter. She didn’t know I was watching her. And no, I’m not stalking her. That’s not what I would call it. I haven’t gotten that desperate yet...yet.

I sighed quietly and felt like I was a teenager who was seeing his crush up close all over again. I tensed, pushing those thoughts away. I knew she was just using me. I should keep my distance.

But Kaia confused me; I think she had mixed emotions. She doesn’t know what to do with me. I smiled slightly at that, taking another step, trying to stay between the trees.

As I watched her hands work and her face pinch together slightly, I wanted to trace my thumb along her brow; try to relax the tension. I knew she’d been thinking hard for the past forty-five minutes- probably longer. Without realizing it, my feet shuffled closer while I studied her. I was almost through the clearing of trees and stopped right behind the closest one. Kaia’s hands froze, and her thumb caressed the leaf of a flower. Her muscles momentarily tensed, and then relaxed. Kaia raised her gaze to meet mine.

The cold air cut through my lungs when I saw the harsh slash of dirt across a cheek. Then she sat up completely, not backing down from my presence, but almost welcoming it. I stepped into her space.

At this point we breathed each other’s air, and could practically feel each other’s warmth ñ from memory of course. Or maybe not.

Even though we were breathing, it seemed like her deep breath and the swipe of the back of her hand across her forehead broke the unseen spell. “What are you doing here?”

I shrugged not quite ready to speak yet.

Kaia huffed and her warm breath puffed out as a cloud. “How did you find me?”

I shook my head this time but answered. “Well, I knew your mountain from a few days ago. I asked my tree if it knew anything, and here we are.”

She looked down at her dry, dirt-covered hands, irritated. Kaia rubbed the tips of her fingers together and harshly exhaled again, and then she looked up and something changed in her eyes.

“Walk?” At this point I knew she needed to think, and to think Kaia needed to walk. I understood in a way. I knew it helped her clear and organize her thoughts. I liked when she shared her thoughts with me.

My blossom simply nodded and turned into the trees. She knew I would follow her, and for a moment it bothered me that she knew me that well.

I followed her after realizing that and knew I didn’t really care. I ran my fingers roughly through my hair and took a handful of steps to catch up with her.

Once I caught up with Kaia, I saw she had her arms loosely crossed, both hands grasping her biceps. I knew she wasn’t cold and needed the distance, so I gave her the time as I walked next to her.

There were moments when I heard her breathe more heavily. A few times I watched as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms. Kaia was becoming more and more distressed, and it made me uncomfortable as well.

Stopping her with a simple touch, I encouraged her, “Give me your hands.”

She turned to me and just stared. “What?” I knew she was asking herself unanswered questions about me.

I grabbed her hands firmly, but with gentleness, and rubbed my thumbs along the back of both hands. She breathed out, slowly relaxing just from my touch. Encouraged by that, I concentrated on the feel of dirt on her hands.

Soon enough, I felt her eyes on my face, and the sheen of dirt was falling to the forest floor. I could feel the slow growing energy from her and looked up to watch excited shock run across her face.

“How’d you do that?” she breathily exclaimed.

Kaia

Ciro dropped my hands, leaving them at my sides, now cold, and brushed it off as if it were nothing.

“No, seriously.” I couldn’t drop it. And this was one of the rare times I considered showing interest in what Ciro had done. I wanted to know what that trick was. Come spring or summer that would be handy to know.

Ciro’s piercing green eyes cut though mine and I was almost tempted to look away. Almost.

Then in the flattest tone I ever heard from him, he said, “My sister taught me. Said I would get a girl someday.” Ciro paused for a moment and studied my reaction.

I had none. I never knew someone to sound the same way I do, while feeling nothing all the time.

Once more continuing, he briefly gave me a look I felt I should have known. “I used to practice on her all the time.” Maybe I didn’t recognize it because I’ve detached myself for too long.

“Where is she now?” I asked without thinking, and risked looking into his eyes.

As we walked, I moved a tree branch out of the way without touching it. Ciro didn’t even blink. I guess he wouldn’t, because he was mindlessly pushing mushy leaves out of the path we were walking as well.

After a few minutes of silence and Ciro having time to chew on the question, he simply stated, “Missing.”

“Missing -”

Ciro cut me off then, and quickly explained. “She doesn’t want to be found, not since -” he quickly let that thought leave his mind before it could slide out his lips, and looked down at me, uneasy. Then it’s as if his mind was made up and his pupils cleared like a cloudy sky would. “Tell me, Kaia,” I shivered at his unusual use of my name, “If I tell you something that I usually don’t tell just anyone, would you tell me something about yourself that I want to know?”

I looked at the bare trees for a long time, and I’m glad he saw me nod, otherwise I would have had to voice my answer. I did not want to do that. In my gut, I think I knew what was coming.

“Okay.”

It was quiet for an extensive amount of time, and I could almost hear him thinking it through. I could see his face, shadowed with a dark past, change many different times. I felt like I should have known those expressions.

While he thought through everything -- I didn’t mind -- I could smell the damp dirt under the half melted snow. I could hear the hush of the forest. The breeze that soon came was the only sound, making goose bumps rise along my skin.

I was brought out of the feeling of my forest when Ciro began to speak. “You know I’m a tree spirit.”

I nodded, even as he continued. His origin showed most in the way his veins glowed green all across his skin.

“My sister was a tree spirit, but...she lost her tree. She lost the connection with her tree. Laurel felt lost for a very long time. As a tree spirit, a tree is a part of you. When you lose it, you lose yourself. She lost herself and felt ashamed. Because she lost a part of herself, Laurel could no longer love herself. She no longer felt loved.” Then almost as if he wanted to end his explanation he quickly confessed, “She’s gone.”

Ciro was in a dark mood after that, one I recognized well. I gave him a moment to compose himself. As quickly as his dark mood swept over him, like a fog, it dissipated and he smiled brightly. It was forced, though, and his eyes were still blank. “So tell me, Blossom, what is your story? What makes you so cold and closed off?”

It was my turn to take a long pause. I didn’t know where to start. Because I didn’t know were to start I just...didn’t.

Ciro knew what I was doing, and dragged me against a tree and slid his warm body against mine.

My breath was cut off and my voice box wanted to moan. Breathily I spoke, “I know what you’re doing.”

“Oh yeah?”

I nodded numbly. He was close enough to break me. I didn’t want to break in front of him. I didn’t want to let go and cry, but it was coming. I could feel it in my stomach and throat. I wouldn’t tell him what he was doing, but he was being dark and demanding. He expected to get what he wanted.

“I had a lover.” Then I stopped, not wanting to continue.

“Well of course you did, you’re a nymph.” I could hear the quiver in his voice when he tried to play off his jealousy with a cocky remark.

“No Ciro, there’s a difference between a lover and a sex buddy.” I looked at Ciro for a brief moment and saw his mind turning, trying to understand.

For a long time Ciro was silent, and I couldn’t help myself but be hushed by his lack of a response. If he wanted me to continue he would have said something else in the way that made me resent him in the beginning. Now I saw through it all. He had a hard past, and a family that was spread out. He had no one...but he found me and never stopped following me. For some reason only known to the gods, Ciro saw something in me that needed to be opened.

I was brought out of my daydream, and Ciro’s face was pulled into focus...very close focus. I could feel his warm tantalizing breath on my cheek, and it was distracting. I was going to break.

My breath hitched and my throat was so tight that I squeaked out, “Please don’t.”

I was going to break. I could feel my face getting hot, too hot too fast. I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to be pushed.

“Kaia, I can’t stop. I want you to tell me. I won’t judge you, or blame you.” At that, I whimpered. “I promise I’ll catch you if you fall. Blossom, I want you to pull me close and trust me, not push me away. It’ll only hurt us both.”

My face was burning from tears that were relentlessly being held back. I don’t think Ciro has ever said anything so close to my heart before. No one was able to say the right words.

Needing not only the tree’s support but also the knowledge that he was right there, I placed my forehead against his.

Yes, I was completely out of character, but maybe I needed to be for this.

Taking a deep shuddering breath, I spoke quickly before the tears beat me to it. “Seraphina died four months after birth. He wasn’t my mate so she didn’t have a soul. Or half a soul a nymph is born with before they find their mate and it becomes whole.”

Looking into Ciro’s eyes, I quickly realized the mistake. Seeing the emotion there opened the floodgates, and I sagged into him. Ciro caught me ready and willing.

I was so lost in the flood of sorrow; I could no longer hear my voice as I spoke again, “Ciro,” I was begging, “She was my baby girl, and it was all my fault because the man was not my mate. She had no soul -- no way to live.”

Ciro swept me up away from the tree trunk before I could fall to the ground. “Shhh, Kaia. It wasn’t your fault.” He tried to comfort me, and I could tell he was a little uncomfortable with my crying.

I shook my head. I think I was trying to dislodge the painful memories from my mind, but Ciro took it differently.

Pulling me away from his warm chest, I tried to control my gasps as he promised, “It was not your fault. Do you hear me, Kaia?”

I nodded.

Ciro watched as I came out of the deep abyss, with his help, and wiped my salty cheeks. Then he kissed away the sorrow that was now fresh inside my heavy chest. It was a promise that he would be there, at my side, for a long time to come.

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