HOVER, Shower Scene--Jackson POV
By: Melissa West
I press my forehead against the stone wall of the shower, my body heaving in anger and frustration. At Zeus. At Ari.
The hot water flows over my skin, stinging the raw ciphers, but I barely notice. My thoughts cut too deep to notice anything else.
There are only two people I care about in this world. Two. And Zeus has his fists around both of them, their lives in his hands. Anger rips through me again, building on itself until I feel like I might explode. I draw a breath, trying to calm down, and then the tension is too much, the rage, the fear, the ache in me to do something, anything, and knowing there is nothing I can do. Nothing!
I punch the wall as hard as I can, ignoring the pain that surges through my knuckles from the impact. I’m ready to do it again, eager to do it again, when I hear the shower door creak open. I flip around, my eyes widening as I take in Ari’s face, her resolve, that intensity that orders me to shut up even before I’ve opened my mouth to speak.
But I’m too angry to remain quiet, too rattled to keep still.
“Are you insane?” I shout, making sure to keep my back against the shower wall. She doesn’t need to see how disgusting the ciphers look before they’ve healed, the deep slits into my skin, blood mixing with water.
She inches toward me, her hands out like she’s trying to calm a wild animal. I feel like a wild animal. “Look, I refuse to fight,” she says, her voice softer than I expected. “Not now. Not ever. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Mami. She asked me not to, likely to keep you protected. She loves you so much.” Her gaze drops for a beat. “I love you so much.”
The words hit me square in the chest, soothing the tension in my shoulders, reminding me why she’s my match. Through and through. Ari is mine. And I am hers.
I start to respond, when she says, “Which is why it hurts me to see you hurt. It hurts me to know that he’s hurting you and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. You won’t even let me see it. I just... Please...let me help you.”
I shake my head. “You can’t help me.”
She steps up to me, and I feel my resolve faltering. She places her hands on my arms, and the sensation her touch sends through me is so close to hope that all I can do is stare. “Actually...I can,” she says. “I should have told you this sooner. I don’t know why I didn’t. I just...”
“What are you saying?”
Her eyes meet mine. “I can heal.”
“What do you mean?”
“Emmy taught me. I’m nowhere near as good as her or the other healers. But if you’ll let me, I can show you, I can try.” She starts to turn me, but I hesitate, my eyes on hers, but then I hear her words again in my head—I love you—and suddenly, I think I’d let this girl lead me into the fiery pits of hell if she asked. If it meant having her, I would go anywhere. Do anything.
I release a breath and turn around, my eyes clenching at the soft gasp from her lips, her hand shaking against my arm. I know what she’s seeing. How it looks. How every visible bit of skin, every inch, is covered in markings, some put in so deeply they look more like scars than tattoos. There are too many to count, many crossing over each other so my back is more green than tan. I swallow hard, my eyes lifting, and I wonder if I made a bad decision showing her this. Some things can’t be unseen.
“Why isn’t xylem healing it?” she asks as she moves her fingers easily around a fresh cipher on my right shoulder. The feel of her fingertips on my bare skin sends a shiver down my back despite the heat from the shower. Suddenly, I am hyperaware of where we are, me naked except for a thin river of blood coating my back. It takes everything in me not to turn around and pull her to me. I want to wrap my body around her and never let go.
I remember that she’s asked a question and have to order myself to focus so I can answer. Every nerve in my body is buzzing, tuned in to her fingertips as they glide over my skin, her slow, steady breathing. The feel of her body just inches away from mine.
It’s too much.
“Ciphering is an old form of medicine,” I finally say, grateful for the first time that I’m not facing her. Else she would know—would see—my true thoughts without my having to say a word. “For a cipher to work, it has to heal on its own, once the skill or virtue becomes a part of us. Originally, they were used to gauge when the sickness they were intended to medicate no longer ailed the patient. Now, I think Zeus just enjoys knowing that we’re suffering in the name of greatness. A healer can...”
Her palm presses into my shoulder, and my body jerks with need so intense I have to rest my forehead against the shower wall to keep steady. Warmth spreads from her palm all around my shoulder, taking with it the pain. Driving me more and more insane.
I peer over my shoulder, to where the cipher used to be. “How did you do that?”
She doesn’t answer me just yet. Instead she asks, “How many do you have?”
Goose bumps rise on my skin as she presses her fingertips to my side, and I tense, aching for her to continue, yet desperate for her to stop. I don’t know how much longer I can hold on. “I stopped counting when I received my fiftieth,” I say, my teeth clenched to keep me from moaning.
“Fifty? How are there even fifty skills or virtues worth having?”
“Some are duplicates. I guess Zeus felt those skills were especially lacking.” I shrug, unsure of what I’m even saying at this point. I can’t think or process anything but her and me and this shower and all the things I want to be doing right now. None of which has anything to do with talking.
“I’m sorry he’s done this to you,” she says as she makes her way to the small of my back where a large compass bleeds down over my ass. Her fingertips linger just there, resting in place, and it’s enough. This moment. What she’s doing. Every bit of emotion I have for this girl rises up inside me, and I can’t keep still another second.
I turn around and face her, shaken, even after all this time, over how unbelievably beautiful she is. “This, what you did, it’s amazing. You’re amazing.”
“No, I’m not. I’m reckless and prideful and selfish. And I’m scared, Jackson. I’m so scared.” Tears well in her eyes. “I should be focused and ready. I should be brave. But I’m not. I’m afraid of so many things right now that I can hardly breathe. I...”
“Shh...” I brush her soaked hair away from her face and place my hands on either side of her face. “There’s a reason why everyone comes to you, Ari. Why Emmy came to you. Why Mami came to you. We know that you can succeed where others have failed. So you may be afraid, and that’s okay, but you should know that the rest of us aren’t and it’s because of you.”
Her lip trembles. “But what if I can’t—”
“But it’s Zeus. He’s—”
“You will, Ari. You will.”
Her eyes lift. “What if I fail?”
I stare into her eyes, the passion and drive and everything that is only Ari staring back at me, and then before another word can pass, another second of hesitation, my lips crash into hers. For a second the kiss is gentle, tasting, experimenting with this new word love. But the moment is too raw, our bodies too close, and I’m pushing her drenched shirt off her shoulder, my mouth moving from her lips, to her neck, to her collarbone, my tongue sweeping across her delicious skin, and I want nothing in the entire world more than I want this moment to go on forever.
Ari’s eyes close and she moans softly as my palm finds her breast, my fingertips on her nipple through her thin shirt, and suddenly all thought is replaced with passion.
I yank her shirt off, tearing it in the process and tossing it to the floor, as I lift her up and wrap her legs tightly around my waist. Using the wall for balance, I take turns kissing her lips, then her neck, then her breasts, and back until I’m sure I’m going to explode.
With heavy breathing, I gently set her down and pull away, intending to ask permission for what I want to do next, but the words never leave my lips. Instead, I slide a hand down the curve of her waist and grip her hips tightly, my eyes darkening as they flick down to her pants and then back to her face. And then before doubt can seep into either of our minds, I unbutton the pants and slide them down, pulling her to me again, now nothing between us, just skin against skin, and I know that this moment will remain etched into my mind for the rest of my life. I love her with such an intense need that for the first time in my life, I feel whole, I feel right, I feel as though every flaw I have is now erased, filled by her. She is my perfect opposite, and I will love and protect her.