Chapter 22 – Iona
We stand at the center of an underground world.
I do not know how long we stood at the falls, but it felt the appropriate way to say goodbye to our friend. After what seemed an eternity, the sun had risen to its highest point, directly overhead – that’s when Jagger spotted the cave mouth downstream of the area we traversed near the Dead River yesterday. I suppose we failed to notice it before because of the heavy rain and…other distractions. But we noticed it today, and after a relatively easy hour-long hike to the entrance, we now stand inside this undiscovered private haven from the chaos of the world and the danger of the Hunt.
This is the most breathtaking place I’ve ever seen. After a short hike down its steep entrance, the cave ceiling now looms fifty yards above our head and stalactites hang decoratively, reflecting golden shimmers and sparks off of the underground lake below. Jagged pieces of rock litter the edges of the cave floor, intermixed with tall stalagmites – some taller than we are. Rocky outcroppings line the walls as far as I can see in every direction, one descending into a delicate waterfall, filling the pool in front of us. The flat, smooth ground descends slowly down toward the water’s edge, darkness concealing the cave’s mysteries beyond our line of vision.
An air of mystery lingers here, and for a moment the cave’s cool air makes me shiver.
Noticing my chill, Jagger takes a small step toward me and gently drapes his arm across my shoulders. Warmth floods the places where his skin touches mine, and I try to conceal the smile I feel down to my toes as I let him lead me toward the water. It’s not like that with him. For him anyway.
We drop our backpacks and sit – close, only inches apart – and I slip my aching feet out of my boots. Gingerly, I dip a toe into the water, testing its temperature, then slide both feet in with a satisfied sigh. The chilly water soothes my muscles and blisters, and feels better than anything I’ve felt in a long time.
Jagger follows my lead, and we sit together in peaceful silence, soaking our tired feet for several minutes.
“Let’s just stay here tonight.” I say. “I don’t think I can stand to go back to a Checkpoint and…” Tears spring unbidden to my eyes and I swallow them down – I will not cry. “Just, with Kalliope, I mean. What if they haven’t found her or anything? Or…what if they have bad news?”
Jagger nods, silently. I am thankful he understands.
“I have something to tell you,” I say with a silent prayer to the gods for strength. “When I found Matteo’s backpack yesterday, I kind of…looked inside.”
His eyebrows raise in surprise. “You searched his backpack? That doesn’t seem like you, gods, Iona, he only just died in front of our eyes only hours before.”
“I know, and normally I wouldn’t have invaded his privacy like that. I just had the strangest feeling that there was something in there that Matteo wanted me to find.”
Jagger’s eyes soften. “And? Did you find anything?”
“Actually, I did.”
I tell him of the stolen moments of privacy with the backpack in the checkpoint last night. How I dug in and found nothing, thinking myself horribly selfish for inventing a reason to go snooping through my dead friend’s backpack – until I found it. Crumpled at the very bottom of the backpack’s main compartment, underneath The Order’s flashlight and compass and canteen, lay a small fold of paper. That I wrote it off as likely unimportant, a sentimental note from his family brought with him into the mountains. But when I unfurled its still damp edges, the message it contained boggled my mind beyond comprehension.
“Do you want to look at it now?”
“Later,” he says. “I need to stop. I need a break.” His eyes land on mine, his voice gentler now than before. “I want to see it, but later.”
The smile he offers makes me forget all about the note. He is so close I can hear him breathing, even over the sound of the water trickling and swirling. His arm brushes mine when he leans forward, and I feel the thrill of our touch warming my body all the way down to my toes. Our eyes meet in a sidelong glance, and for an instant I allow myself to believe that he feels what I feel, too.
It’s easy to fade back into reality when he breaks the gaze. I focus my attention on my hands folded in my lap. Our silence is no longer comfortable.
“Iona,” his pleading, repentant eyes capture mine. I stare back and am surprised to see – dare I say it – a wanting. His hand moves to cover mine in my lap. Gently his fingers slide between mine, interlacing in a woven tangle I never want to unravel. This is different from the way he held my hand in his at the waterfall. It is more urgent, and much less friendly. I smile again, but this time I don’t try to hide it.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “This is…difficult… for me.”
I can see the war of conflicting thoughts, emotions, raging internally. The strength it takes him to wrestle whatever thoughts he’s battling shows clear on his face. After a few moments, he smiles up at me and gives my hand a soft squeeze.
Before I can think better of it, I lean forward and place a gentle kiss on his lips. I feel a thousand things at once – delight, excitement, fear and pleasure, yet simultaneously I nothing nothing but the gentle pressure of his soft lips against my own. Then I pull away, forcing myself to hold his stare and see the truth of his reaction.
He looks down, leaning away from me and his eyebrows knit together, deep in secret thought. Several long moments pass. Turning to look at me, his eyes hold mine in a contemplative sideways stare. Heat rises in my cheeks and I am sure I’ve made a grave mistake. But I find that I cannot break from his gaze.
Then, in a motion as swift as it is sudden, his palm encircles the back of my neck and he pulls me into the warmth of his body. His lips land gently, questioningly on mine. My answer comes in the form of my palm rising to the hard muscles of his chest. Then his lips press more intently, showering me in kisses of tenderness unknown and of ardent demand. They linger there for a few wonderful moments before he pulls back. His eyes don’t just capture mine, they command my entire being. I am captivated by him, utterly and completely his even for this brief moment.
“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that,” he whispers.
“You have no idea how much I want you to keep going.”
“Thank the gods for that,” he says with a wicked grin.
Before I can think better of it, I press myself into him. His once tentative kisses now come harder, more passionate. He nibbles a path down my neck, stopping to pay special attention to the place that makes my voice catch in my throat. With a hand tracing my spine and landing on the delicate, sensitive skin on the small of my back, he pulls my body even tighter into his. My skin comes alive where he touches me, my heart dancing with thousands of thunderous beats.
Though his voice is nothing more than a whisper, I swear I hear him murmur, “Thank you, gods,” in between kisses. It feels so good to be this close to him in this way, and our bodies mesh into a perfectly complete puzzle. The intimacy is comforting, and I can tell that we both feel it. We sense each other, complement each other. We complete each other.
His callused fingertips trace the neckline of my shirt collar on my skin, teasing my collarbone before his touch travels down to my hip. Slowly, he lifts the hem of my shirt and carefully pushes it up, up to expose the pale, smooth skin of my stomach. He breaks free from our kiss, his eyes piercing mine.
“Tell me now, Iona, if this isn’t what you want. I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself after much more of this.”
“Don’t you dare stop,” I whisper without a moment’s hesitation.
I’m rewarded with another one of his enchanting smiles. He pulls me into his lap, and there, in the place where our bodies meet beneath our clothes, I feel that he wants me as much as I want him. My heart is in my throat and I am electric with excitement. In one swift motion he frees my body from the constraint of my soft, faded shirt, caressing and kissing my breasts and then nibbling a tantalizing path downward before laying me down on the silent cave floor.