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The Muddy Layers of Love

Copyright © Emmi Lawrence

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.

Short Story (Approx. 5400)

Neveah hesitated, her sopping hair held in one hand, her drenched dress scrunched up in the other and her chest heaving from her breakneck run through the woods. The humidity sat heavy in her lungs as the last trickling of a summer rain pattered in the leaves above her head and dripped into the mud with tiny plunks. The ripples bounced off each other like her thoughts, keeping her focused on that mud and what it contained.

Or rather, who it contained.

The bridge, if you wanted to call it that, was a couple of rotting sheets of unused bark wood. The pieces that were thrown out at the lumber mill, cut off first so the blades could shape the rest down into straight solid slabs. Someone had jammed a few pieces perpendicular into the mud and laid more of the cast-offs against them and the bank. People since had simply added to it as the boards underneath had begun to crumble, leaving a mess of bark and rot and splinters that kept a person’s feet about two feet out of the mud. Less if the rain had been especially harsh.

The banks themselves were caved in, grass overgrowing into miniature clay cliffs. A couple of oak trees had massive exposed roots that desperately struggled to hold onto the soil, keeping the section where the bridge sat narrow. A few yards to either side and the river of mud expanded too far for a bridge of this shoddy caliber to be of any use.

Giving her heap of messy hair another squeeze, she pushed it to her back, scraping off the locks that had become plastered against her partially exposed chest. Then, attempting to keep her dress taut about her thighs, but still giving her room to move, Neveah took that first precarious step upon the bridge.

The wood creaked and wobbled under her wet, dirty flats, but held. Behind her came the faint honking cries of the watcher cranes. She could envision their sleek orange and violet bodies lifting from the inner cove, their senses extended, looking for her. It wouldn’t take long, they knew her spirit wake, had stalked her by it many times. Just never with such a deadly inquisition following them.

She took the next few steps in a hurry, ignoring the way the bridge creaked and rocked beneath her until she almost lost her balance. Her skirt slapped wetly against her thighs as she flailed to correct her footing.

“White? Plain white? Why not something colorful with stripes or patterns? White is so boring, Neveah.”

She froze, steady once more, at least upon the bridge. Her heart was pattering against her ribcage as she watched the mud shift. Arms emerged, caked with the orangish-brown mixture. Fingers curled around the bridge, causing it to shudder under the strain. The muddy apparition folded his arms against the wood and cocked his head at her with a saucy smile and dancing eyes.

“Not today, Ki,” she whispered. “Please…not today.”

He frowned, the expression becoming more human as the mud sluiced off him unnaturally, shifting color as it formed Ki’s body instead of merely covering it. Neveah closed her eyes as the mud sucked into Ki’s hair, opening again to see his clay-brown eyes staring up at her and his mop of chestnut hair curling at his cheeks and against the nape of his neck.

“Ne-ve-ah, since when have I ever left you alone?”

“Never,” she said.

Ki’s smile was bright and gorgeous. He lifted a little out of the mud, his torso bare, the brown of his nipples cresting the edge of the bridge as he flexed his muscles. Down below, the mud slid into the newly revealed curve of his buttocks.

She looked at the other side of the bridge. Just a few more steps. Five, maybe six. She’d gotten this far often enough, staring longingly.

And always, Ki stopped her.

The first time, she’d stopped and chatted, finding his company refreshing after the overbearing presence of the Marzadian ruling family she’d married into. Then, when he’d seemed upset at her leaving, she’d made a point of visiting. At first, it’d been in the off chance he’d relax his guard one day, let her pass across the muddy Afraandi River that helped marked the territorial line between Marzadia and Azosahl. Then, she’d stopped hoping and started coming for him, because, while he might be a mud man guardian, cousin to the clay golems that blocked the north and the mud sprites that gathered in the south, he loved life in such a way that made even Neveah smile.

She took another step, aligning herself next to his arms. Then another. She felt his hand upon her ankle, his thumb stroking the wet skin. Yet, when she looked down, he was squinting up at her instead of trying to sneak another look up her dress. He blinked when a last raindrop hit his cheekbone.

“Where are you going?”

Nowhere.

She hesitated, staring down at Ki, pale brown eyes that held more knowledge than anyone about how she’d felt the past two years. The yearning for home. The humiliation at being married off for a peace that hadn’t lasted. The agony of passing her first tiny stillborn child when someone had slipped a toxin into her food. The resignation when it happened again four months into her second pregnancy.

He’d held her. Kissed the top of her head. Made the mud dance, swirling into tall spirals. And when she’d murmured her murderous desires, Ki had shaped the mud into the forms of the people she most hated and let her stab them over and over with sticks and stones and fists.

Do you feel better, he’d asked.

She had raised her thumb and forefinger.

I wish I could do more.

You could flood their city with mud, smother them with it.

He’d smiled sadly. I could try, Neveah, if that’s what you want.

Her heart had leapt.

But there’s a lot of children in that city. A lot of innocents. Other people who visit me sometimes. Do you still want me to?

She’d shaken her head, ashamed that the predominant emotion stirring in her heart was jealousy that she wasn’t special to Ki. That he was merely special to her.

And still he’d refused to let her pass.

Now, she turned away from him to gaze in dreary frustration upon the opposite bank where the huge violet-striped black butterflies had flitted out from hiding and gathered upon the trunk of a bright white sycamore. Some randomly danced around the base in circling clusters. She’d thought the rain would last long enough to keep these ones away. Special, she knew, despite their beauty. Dangerous and deadly. The bane of the Violet Mirage that separated her from what had once been home.

But she’d take her chances because she didn’t have a choice.

“Away,” she said in answer.

The short honks of the watcher cranes came again. Louder. Fiercer. On her trail.

A shot of adrenaline gave her the courage to run. Her damp feet felt the pressure of the uneven bark through her flimsy shoes and the bridge jolted under her sudden speed. The butterflies spooked, half of them lifting into the air, dotting the sycamore.

Before she could touch down upon the opposite bank—her feet still a step or two away, tantalizingly just out of reach of escape—Ki had her arm, yanking her back toward him. She spun, almost tumbled into the mud, then hit hard against his warm chest. She pushed and struggled with him.

“Let me go, you spineless, useless servant!”

His eyes grew round and the grip he had on one of her wrist loosened. Neveah shoved him, pushing away the ugly feeling in the pit of her stomach when she caught sight of his hurt. Free, she staggered backward and pirouetted, ready to leap into the rivulets of water escaping over the muddy shelf held up by the tree roots.

The butterflies surged towards her, their wings sparkling with the growing sunlight as the clouds broke. Beautiful bearers of bad news.

Ki grabbed her around her stomach and before she could escape again, he yanked them sideways, spilling them into the mud. They landed heavily. At least Neveah did. Ki probably didn’t feel the impact at all. She managed to straighten herself out, but there the mud held her, weighing down her legs just as Ki’s hands weighed down her arms. Mud made her dress heavy and dripped off her wet hair.

And the rain had stopped, leaving behind a sticky, itchy atmosphere in the late afternoon.

“Ki, why can’t you just let me pass?”

“Why do you want to? It’s almost certain death to cross into the Mirage. You know that.”

“It’s my life to take that chance on.”

“But it’s my job to make sure no one passes.”

She threw her hands up, effectively removing Ki’s fingers. “Can’t you not be a mindless servant for one moment of one day. Just look away, pretend you didn’t see me or that I was too fast. They can’t punish you.”

Ki was already shaking his head, but it didn’t seem to be in negation, more in disbelief at what she was suggesting. “Why risk it, Neveah?”

She started to drop her hands, looked down, then crossed her  arms to keep them out of the mud. The cries of the watcher cranes began to become more frequent as they congregated. She could feel her expression twisting in the face of Ki’s blind obedience. Angry that he would stop her despite the long hours they’d spent together, when his laugh had lit up her world when everything seemed bleak even under the suns.

She pursed her lips and looked back to Ki, meeting his gaze with a heated one of her own. “I discovered who poisoned my children. Who had them poisoned, I guess I should say.”

“Neveah…”

In a caustic tone, she spat out, “My father-in-law didn’t want filthy Azosahlese blood tainting his family line, no matter that he set up the marriage. My mother-in-law told me when she was drunk a few days ago. She was sorry, she was so, so sorry.” Neveah gave a snort of disbelief, shaking her head and dropping her voice. “I was so angry, Ki. So angry.” She lifted her hands and scraped at the mud on them, cringing when her mind flashed blood instead, decorating reality with subversion.

“What did you do?”

She folded her hands against her chest. “Let me go, Ki. Please, just let me go.”

Ki shook his head firmly. “You’ll die if you cross.”

“I’ll die if I don’t.”

“What did you do, Neveah?” The watcher cranes sang against, giving his fierce words emphasis.

She blinked back tears. “I was still so angry,” she whispered. “And he’d left his medicinals out. So I… It wasn’t even consciously done. I didn’t think about it first. It just happened. I just scooped them up and dropped them in. They sizzled.” She blinked rapidly and looked back up at him. “And then his heart stopped when he drank it.”

The cranes were close, their honking cries coming nearer, overlapping one another, fast becoming a cacophony. Loud shouts followed in their wake. The noise livened the woods, startling the birds from their perches.

Neveah tried to jerk away, but the mud still held her fast, locking her stiffly to await her coming execution.

“Ki.”

He turned around, watching the underbrush shifting, his muscles stiff with tension, perhaps even indecision.

“Ki!”

She hit the mud, trying to push away and when that proved useless, she twisted her body around and caught upon an exposed root and began pulling desperately. The mud resisted, trying to yank her back as her body slowly sucked free. Her arms burned, her ears ringing with impending doom. She could almost feel the slick kiss of steel cutting through her stomach when the shouts turned into familiar voices.

But it was Ki’s familiar voice in her ear, insisting she let go. “Now, Neveah. Let go!”

“Get off of me.”

His fingers came around, closing over hers, mud leaking from his pores, caking her flesh and coating the roots, making them slick. She tightened her grip and pushed back at him with her shoulder.

“They’re here, Neveah. Let go, or else they’ll catch you.”

“They’ll catch me if you don’t let go, Ki.”

She glanced behind them as she resisted Ki, seeing the cranes first as they came winging softly under the canopy, their sleek bodies almost out of place in between the trees. One landed upon the bridge and let out another honk, spreading its wings wide. Behind it came the men of Marzadian’s guard.

Her fingers froze, locked tight about the tree root, and her body went dead as she met the gaze of the first man, saw him raise his sword and call to the rest. The man went to step onto the bridge, startling the crane into taking flight once more.

In her ear, Ki was still speaking. First coaxingly, cajoling her into letting go as his fingers attempted to unwind her grip. Then angrily, old curses spilling free from his lips, damning her for ignorance and who knew what else.

It was when his voice turned pleading that she finally tore her gaze from the man crossing the bridge, her blood rushing in her ears, fear keeping her stiff. Ki’s eyes were wide and horrified. His arms were shaking, his body pliable in a way that no man would ever be, as if he couldn’t hold the form, wanted to collapse back into the mud, have a true emotional breakdown.

“I understand.” He choked on the words. “I care, I get it. I was here, I remember, I get it. Just let go, Neveah. I need you to let go.” His fingers were more mud than muscle or bone, bending uselessly against her own. “I love you.” The words were a mumbled blurry mess as his lips malformed.

She gave a huge sigh, closed her eyes on the butterflies flitting against the tree trunk and the man getting into position above them, his feet braced upon the old cast-off wood.

Then she let go. Turned so her face touched Ki’s. Felt his mud ripple against her cheek. Brought her arms up to clutch at him as the sword whipped through the thick air.

Ki gave way under her hands, nothing but mud sluicing down her body, dragging her. Pressure behind her knees had her falling backwards as the blade cut straight through Ki’s body, scraping her chest. Neveah felt her dress pop open. The light graze stinging along a line between her breasts.

Then Ki’s muddy river rushed about her shoulders, cradled her head. Swallowed her down, down, into the depths she’d only heard him speak of before.

Mud clogged her ears, pressed against her mouth, filled her nostrils. She didn’t dare open her eyes.

However, she still felt.

Caresses upon her skin, as if Ki ran his fingers along her exposed flesh. Her soggy flats slid from her feet. Her dress caught, dragged at her until the mud tugged and twisted it off her shoulders and down her body.

She felt engulfed with Ki’s presence, his body morphing about hers, holding her, kissing her. Light brushes upon her nipples. Tentative strokes that started at her belly and slid down to tease her clitoris.

Air escaped her, then was brought back, her lungs filling almost on their own, banking the fear of drowning until her chest heaved breaths trustingly, as if Ki filtered the mud for her, pushing it aside.

The edge of panic that had been hovering just under her skin evaporated as Ki’s voice whispered in her ear. Words that had no meaning to her, subverted by the mud. His body spoke louder, rushing against her nakedness like an old lover, knowledgeable and skilled.

When his fingers slid down her belly once more, she lifted up, meeting him, wrapping her arms about his back and pulling him close. Lips brushed hers, but didn’t attempt to tease hers open. Stiffness ground against her groin, but didn’t attempt to push in. Not hesitant, but polite.

Her heart still beat with the song of adrenaline. Her limbs shivered with it. Shook with it. The aftereffects made her dizzy with crazy thoughts, some of them flipping end over end in worry about her lack of a future. Others driving her wild with want, a want she’d kept stifled for too long. The two threads spun together, urging her.

So she gave in to it for the first time since she’d met Ki. Instead of simply holding him in those muddy depths, she danced against him. Instead of simply enjoying the gentle grinding of his cock, she wrapped her legs about his hips and guided him inside. His muscles strained to not push, strained to keep up that polite desire and she knew that if she could open her eyes, she would see the laughter in his own tempered with shock at finally being given what they’d both so obviously desired.

She’d been a good wife for too long, struggling to devote herself to a man she barely knew and couldn’t stand. To a man who’d been flippant about her losses and uncaring of her loneliness in a strange place surrounded with strange people.

Ki’s face buried into her neck. She stroked his curls, feeling the slight give of his scalp that came from not possessing a skull. She held him tight and started a rhythm, encouraging him to let go.

And he did. The mud shuddered around them, crashing against her in time with his thrusts, his hands seeming everywhere, playing the sensitivities of her body. And when they flipped over in his muddy river that had swallowed her, she rode him, angling herself just right when she came down until her orgasm rushed up, tingling throughout her body.

Ki’s movements became frenzied, his kisses openmouthed upon her neck, across her collarbone until he froze, his cock swelling inside of her. Then he gathered her to him, stroking her hair, massaging her butt until his penis slid from her.

Neveah hadn’t been aware of them moving, but when they crested the surface of the river, she gasped, opening heavily crusted eyes to see her naked muddy body settled in an alcove. The river had carved out a space under a trio of trees. Thick roots, larger than the ones she’d been grasping at, curled down around her. A few heavy drops hung suspended along the curve of the clay swooping over her head. One fell with a plop into the mud.

She felt Ki’s arms, firmer now, encircle her middle under the mud, coming up so that he pressed against the underside of her breasts. Tiny pinpricks of blood attempted to sneak past the mud plastered to her chest, but to no avail. Breath heated her neck, Ki obviously uncaring of the mud that clung to her hair and stuck to her skin.

“Thank you,” said Ki.

“For what?” She asked, hoping that he wasn’t referring to what they’d just done. Blinking against the mud, she searched for anything recognizable, but wherever along the river Ki had taken her, it wasn’t close to the bridge. Here, the river seemed wide. Uncrossable.

“For letting go. For trusting me to save you.”

“I almost didn’t.”

“I know.” He pressed his mouth against her ear. Almost a kiss. Not quite. As if he was suddenly afraid.

“You could have let me cross. I could have tried for home.”

“But you told me they wouldn’t accept you back. Not the people who matter, anyway. That’s what you said when the peace shattered last year. Remember?”

She closed her eyes. “Politics.”

“I’ll never understand it.” Ki’s tone turned bland, less emotional, more pragmatic. More like him. “Besides, you wouldn’t have made it. The Violet Mirage extends too far. You’d have become lost in it.”

“You don’t know that.” She reopened her eyes, pausing to remove some of the mud from her eyelid before reaching down and slipping her fingers over Ki’s.

“I do. People have crossed before. And those unprepared, especially those who cross solo, will call out in pain for days. Days that I’ll hear them, unable to reach them, unable to help them. And then…they just go silent. It would have killed me to have that happen to you too.”

She shivered though there was no breeze. Ki held her tighter, his penis pressing against the small of her back, hard again, like dried clay.

“Don’t you have other visitors?”

“A few,” he admitted. “Children mostly. But none are you. The people of Marzadia view me as a thing or a—a commodity owned by them. Not a person.” Softer still. “Not like you do.”

She leaned, scraping her hair away to look into muddy eyes, so filled with concern. “Thank you, Ki. But they’ll just come again. And if they don’t find me, then what? I starve? At least if I cross I have a chance. Maybe not a large one, but—”

“There’s another way,” interrupted Ki.

“Another way out of Marzadian territory?” she asked.

“Uh.” Ki drew out the single syllable. “Not exactly. I guess it depends upon whether you consider my territory to be Marzadian territory.” He looked across the Afraandi and grumbled, “They certainly think that.”

“Aren’t you their guardian?”

His brow knit. “I guard against people crossing into the Violet Mirage for their own safety. And I did tell one of their ancestors that I would guard against any armies attempting to enter into Marzadian land through the Violet Mirage. So, I guess the answer is yes.”

“See—”

“But I’m not theirs, like you seem to think. I’m not some mindless, useless servant.”

“Oh, lord, I’m sorry, Ki. I shouldn’t have said those things about you. That was wrong and cruel—”

“I understand. You were scared.” He laughed a little. “I was scared. I never get scared. But that…you scared me.”

They sat for a moment. Quiet. Neveah staring at the perfect complexion on Ki’s face. At the speckles of mud that dotted his nose like freckles. He squeezed some of the mud out of her hair, turning his hand over so she could watch it sink into his skin to become a part of him.

“What you said back there,” she started. Then she licked her lips before thinking better of it, getting a big taste of dirt that had her spitting, trying to find a single space of clean skin to wipe her mouth on.

Ki chuckled and ran his thumb over her lips, swiping away the mud. His thumb lingered and his breath caught. The penis pressed in the small of her back gave a pulse. And that look in Ki’s eyes…so full of desire, yes, but also filled with something else…something she hadn’t seen in anyone else for years. Not even her own husband.

“You said you love me.”

The thumb stopped. Started up again. Ki’s eyes remained on her lips. “I did.”

“Did you mean it?”

That startled him into looking at her before taking both hands and holding her face as if she were fragile. Priceless. “I’ve been wanting to say that for a long tine, Neveah. I mean it. Mean it with everything I have. And I know that I’m not like you and that your people consider me less, but—”

“I’ve never considered you less,” she interrupted, her voice rising in her distress.

A smile flashed across Ki’s face, his neck rippling for just a moment when he swallowed. “Thank you for that. In all the time I’ve been here, Neveah, not once have I wanted to be able to leave the Afraandi. Not once, until I met you. Now, I’ve wanted to leave every day, to do something about your pain, to help…” He trailed off when she scrambled to put fingers over his lips.

“You did, Ki. I feel like you’re the only reason I’m sane.”

The same smile again, flashing too fast to be truly real. He leaned against her, their foreheads pressed to one another. She could feel the mud sinking into him, just as the mud at her back had done against his chest, just as her fingers had done at his lips.

“Stay with me,” he whispered.

“How? I have to eat, Ki.” She shook her head and unwound his hands from around her middle, refusing to cry, but feeling the smack of emotion like a slap to the face. It felt good to feel loved, but what did it matter when she couldn’t stay?

Ki reached for her, stopping her from moving too far. He seemed almost hesitant now, worried. “You could…” The words faded into unintelligibility as his body broke in on itself, turning almost completely to mud before he got better control over himself. “Stay. I could, make you like me.” He stared at her defiantly.

“Like you?”

He nodded, the curls bouncing. That flicker of a smile again. “Like me. I always could, but there’s never been anyone I’ve wanted to ask before.”

“How?”

Ki lifted a hand and turned it over, watching the mud spill. “I don’t belong to any race, Neveah. I’m an oddity. Created from a concentration of the fourth sun’s light by a man long dead.”

“Created? Wait, are you talking about Marzad Oul, the founder of Marzadia, called Zoh Solaryi, Master of the Fourth Sun, whose picture is hung in the grand hall and whose statue stands in the middle of the square?”

He shrugged. “I’ve never been there. I wouldn’t know.”

“And you don’t…I mean, you say you don’t have loyalty to—”

“I don’t even know those people. If Marzad had truly wanted a mindless guardian, he’d have stuck with the clay golems, but he didn’t, so here I am.” He lifted his hands to indicate himself. “I wasn’t always like this, you know. I was like you once. And when I left I took the concentrated stones he’d used, lined the river with them. They’re what keep it how it is, you know. I could make you like me with them. But I…I can’t unmake you after.”

Neveah stared at him until he dropped his eyes, Ki’s normal countenance still being filtered with an onset of nerves. The open, honest desire practically bled from his expression. And the words he’d spoken earlier kept repeating endlessly within her mind.

“It’s just an option,” said Ki, with a strained laugh. The light in his eyes had dimmed at her stunned silence. “If you really want to go into the Mirage I…” The subtle fidgeting ceased and he met her gaze calmly. “I’ll let you go. But if I hear you scream, I’m coming after you.”

“The Mirage would drain you, far faster than it would, or even could, drain me,” she protested, her insides going cold at the thought of Ki being smothered by those too beautiful butterflies, his body rippling, turning to the mud he was before collapsing, his body spreading so thin it was nonexistent.

The sauciness was back, in the way Ki’s smile turned smug, the way his brows twitched and his fingers flicked at the mud as if the Mirage had suddenly become of no consequence.

“You don’t know that.”

She gave him a disbelieving look.

He shrugged. “I love you, Neveah.”

Tears stung her eyes, forcing her to take a deep, steadying breath to control the upsweep of emotions those simple words stirred within her. Simple words, said so confidently. No hint of annoyance or irritation that she might need to hear them. No eye roll or snicker or shake of the head to indicate the words were meant to placate. No false ring to them.

Neveah let out the breath. With a voice that trembled, she whispered, “Ki. I love you, too.”

Another flicker of a smile, this one real, though tentative, crossed his face. She crawled into his lap, wrapped her arms about his neck and placed her head against his shoulder. Ki sighed against her, a sigh that held all the contentment in the world, then gently began to peel her muddy hair away from her skin and graze his fingers down her naked back.

“Would I have to protect Marzadia?”

Ki’s fingers slid to slow stops against her skin.

Neveah lifted her head to see his expression, surprised when she saw happiness there instead of…she didn’t know what she’d expected, but it hadn’t been happiness.

“Not if you don’t want to,” he said, tossing his curls, his eyes dancing. “Does that mean you’ll stay?”

“Yeah.” Neveah couldn’t control the nervous laugh. “With you.”

He didn’t immediately drag her down into the muddy depths of the Afraandi again. He kept her there, erasing all traces of mud on her body. Kissing her skin, dragging his tongue through her mouth now that he could. Neveah relaxed into him, feeling truly safe for the first time in ages, the pain of the past years being washed away in the hope for their future.

Ki tasted like a perfectly strange mixture of clay and man. Better than she’d imagined. Sweeter than in her dreams. She returned his kiss with all the pent-up desire that had swamped her since they’d met, flashes of all the bright, excited smiles he’d given her every time she’d seen him pull from the Afraandi giving her all the reasons she needed to know she was making the right choice. That no one, no past or no war should keep her from being with the one person who knew the worst in her and loved her.

Deep in the river, Ki left her, his presence disappearing from where he’d been wrapped about her body. She couldn’t take a breath to stall the panic his abandonment gave her. She could only clutch at herself and trust. The air in her lungs grew stale and her head pounded with need, but she kept her mouth and eyes squeezed shut, begging him to hurry.

And then she felt warmth beating against her flesh. Tiny pinpricks of pain radiating from each pore. Then the pinpricks became lances, digging straight through her body, rearranging molecular make-up with power so heated, so strong, she couldn’t imagine how Marzad Oul had captured and concentrated so much from the fourth sun.

She opened her mouth to scream, the last of her breath escaping in lazy pockets of air. The mud poured inside, tapping at the back of her throat, searching for resistance. She held until she could hold no more, the lancing pain burning whatever might have been left of herself even as the Afraandi eagerly sought to claim a victim, rushing into her lungs, filling her with mud. Her heart felt as if it burst, stopping its steady rhythm.

Hanging suspended, no tears capable of leaking from her eyes, Neveah felt her mouth move.

Ki.

He was over her in a second, his eyes bright with concern. His hands stroking over her cheeks, his voice murmuring encouraging, comforting words.

And then her heart beat once more. A flexible, malleable rhythm.

The pain receded as awareness returned. An awareness that stretched far and wide, up and down the Afraandi, linking with the mud, churning in the rapids, pulsing against the banks…and coiling about Ki.

His smile was blinding as he scooped her up and into his arms, kissing her lips. She hesitated, experimenting with a body that behaved so differently, focusing to keep herself together.

She fell apart, just a little, just enough to feel the booted footsteps sloshing through the edges of the river. Hear the watcher cranes’ short honks where they flew above the Afraandi.

Smiling against Ki’s lips, she opened for him, uncaring of the mud that they both were a part of, letting him take her deeply, his tongue betraying his need, his want, his exhilaration. And her own reactions betrayed her own need, her own want and her own exhilaration. She wrapped herself around him, shoving fingers through his curly hair, deliriously happy for the first time in her life.

Let them search. She was finally where she belonged.

the end

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