November 24, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
Contentment filled the empty cavities of his chest, swelling his heart to near bursting and spilling out his throat in the form of cheerful humming. For the first time in years he felt useful and at ease in his surroundings; he had always found ways to occupy his time, but nothing so fulfilling as the work the Hardings gave him. Most of the time he was Reggie’s constant companion, helping to organize the shelves of the library or writing letters to benefactors in the Northern Sector. There had never been anyone to debate or discuss topics of history, literature or engineering with besides his brother, and all they knew had come from the few books they’d acquired over the years. The Hardings had an extensive library and Reggie seemed to have read every book and had more knowledge on the subjects besides. Reggie entrusted him with a lot of sensitive paperwork, either Kai was correct in putting his faith in the family or they were all incredibly naïve. No matter the truth of it, he felt pleased that the Hardings appreciated his work.
This morning however, he was putting his skills to use in the estate gardens and Miranda had offered to help him. Bees buzzed past his head as he bent over the delicate foliage of the herbs in their bed. The heady smell of the spicy leaves and budding medicinals was dizzying from this distance, but even more unsettling was his close proximity to the young brunette quietly weeding the rows just a few feet from him. He caught himself several times that morning staring at her, distracting himself from the task at hand. He couldn’t seem to help himself; there she was, toiling away in the loamy soil of the garden, her hair pulled away from her face, revealing the soft curves of her cheek bones and drawing his attention to those full, pouty lips. He took in a sharp breath as he watched those rouged forms, slightly parted as she exerted her efforts over an unruly chamomile bush. Her brow was lightly beaded in sweat and as she reached up with one delicate gloved hand to wipe some of it away she left behind a streak of dirt. Kai had to muster all of his self-control to keep from moving to wipe it away. For at least the tenth time that morning he forced his gaze back down, reminding himself that there was no way he would ever get the chance at that kind of intimacy with the girl.
He caught sight of Kopi washing the exterior windows of a nearby school building. Lately, he’d been grouchier than normal, barely speaking a word to Kai from the moment they left the estate and on until they went to sleep at night. He knew he’d pushed Kopi hard to take the job the Hardings had offered him, maybe too hard, but after Jaxon fired him from the ranch there wasn’t much else available. His brother was a competent enough fisherman, they could have made a good living on his catch, but the thought of Kopi out at sea alone for hours on end every day was not one that he relished. More than four years had passed since Kopi’s breakdown and he was decidedly improved, but that much solitude and there was no telling where his mind would wander. Kai sighed to himself, hoping that his little brother enjoyed the work more than he let on and that soon enough he would get tired of sulking.
Settling back into the rhythm of trimming and weeding Kai lost himself in his work. The plants had all taken well to the beds they’d sown and were growing exponentially, sprawling wildly over the walkways and towering above the short wire fence they’d built around the garden to keep out rabbits and other small vermin. Kai trimmed back the excess of each plant in turn and removed any offending weeds that threatened to choke out their roots before watering the soil at their base just as he would in his own garden at home. He placed a calloused palm over the earth and water would flow from him down to the roots, the action was so mundane to him that he barely noticed Miranda gawking from the next row over. Feeling the pressure of her gaze on the back of his neck he turned and their eyes met, her pupils wide and black, two voids that held him in their mysterious depths. His hand still hovered over the mound of earth beneath one blossoming mugwort.
“Won’t that hurt if you keep doing it?” Her question snapped him out of his trance, but it took him a minute to understand what it was she was asking. She nodded toward his hand for clarification and her meaning dawned upon him.
“Oh! You mean the-uh, yeah. I don’t know really.” He sounded surprised and bumbling even to his own ears and his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“I thought that using your powers was draining. Doesn’t it make you weak or age faster or something?” She was still watching his hand with fascination, but he wasn’t using his element anymore; one, because the plant was already watered and two, because he felt suddenly shy.
“It can. I mean, for others, but I’ve never noticed feeling weaker. I don’t use my powers for many big things, just little stuff like this.”
“That doesn’t seem so little to me.” Her chocolate eyes gleamed at him with curiosity.
“Well, it’s- I guess not. It seemed easier than going to the well to get water. I can stop if you’d prefer.”
“No!” She almost shouted at him, holding out her hand. Then she blushed, a gorgeous rosy cloud erupting over her skin. “It’s pretty cool that you can do that and I’m sure it’s a lot easier. Maybe you shouldn’t though, you know, because it might work against you later. I can get water from the well for us to use.” Her face reddened further as she averted her eyes and spoke softer, almost a whisper. “I wouldn’t want to see you suffer for the sake of some dried up herbs.” A coy smile blossomed over her face then and his heart sank into his gut. The woman had a more profound effect on his emotions than he cared to admit, but she was a captivating sight. At that moment, he thought of how he might endure any measure of suffering to see her blush like that or to see that smile again.
They went back to work on the garden as though nothing had happened. He finished tending to his row of plants and looking back over his shoulder to check her progress found her nimbly administering her attention over the last few shrubs in her row. Overcome with a sudden foolishness he sprayed her playfully with a cool jet of water, but then recoiled in horror at his actions. Why had he done that and without giving it a single thought first? He waited with baited breath for her to turn on him. A shrill squeal escaped her lips and she knelt with her arms outstretched and her back arched against the shocking cold of her now wet clothing.
“Oh, you think you’re so funny, don’t you?” She mocked him, but instead of anger, he saw a brilliant smile on her face, almost mischievous, and he realized why when she turned and chucked a fistful of dirt in his direction. The soft clod broke against the side of his face, and a healthy smattering of it landed in his mouth, which had been open in shock. He sputtered out the bits of soil and mulch, laughing as he did. He heard her giggling as well, but when their eyes met she stopped suddenly, her face paling. She held up her hands to him defensively.
“Kai, no!” She must have sensed the spirited retaliation he was planning for her, because as he edged closer to her on his hands and knees she backed away a bit, still shielding her face. He stopped a few feet short of her and sprayed her again. The resulting shrieks and giggles just encouraged him further, and soon they were both muddy from their play fight and the garden looked every bit the worse-for-wear.
“Okay, I give up. Have mercy.” Miranda cried at him between fits of laughter. Her lovely face spattered with dirt and her hair and clothes damply clinging to her body. He halted his attacks then and they both sat up fully to catch their breath. “I would have never taken you for a silly type.”
“What do you mean?” He asked, leaning back on his elbows and stretching his legs out over the soft ground.
“You’re always so serious, you and Kopi, although your brother’s a bit of a sourpuss about it. I wouldn’t have thought you could be so childish.” She stopped herself, covering her mouth shamefully and blushing again. “I mean that in the best way possible.”
“I know.” The corner of his mouth quirked up into a half smile at her. “We are pretty serious. We don’t have a lot to laugh about I guess, but I’m not made of stone. I’ve got a joke or two up my sleeve.” She lifted an eyebrow inquisitively at the statement and in a panic he continued. “I mean, none come to mind right this minute, but I have my moments.” She chuckled then. He was beginning to feel the incessant ache returning to his muscles. He’d forgotten the discomfort for a moment during their mud battle, but now he rubbed at the painful throb in his shoulder. Its presence would soon drift to the back of his mind again, as it always did; a constant reminder of his time in Compound 17.
“What’s wrong?” He hadn’t realized Miranda was still watching him and he stopped his ministrations immediately.
“It’s nothing.” He tried to brush away her concern, there was something in those dark and caring eyes that unnerved him and she was moving closer.
“You don’t have to be the tough guy, Kai. Is your shoulder bothering you?” She reached out to him, now at his side. Her fingers wrapped elegantly around his shoulder, kneading into the knotted muscle and he let out a pleasurable moan before he could stop himself. Mortified, he grabbed her hand to stop her.
“It’s nothing, really. I always have some aches and pains, nothing fatal, I promise.” He tried to sit up then, but Miranda swung around to his back, and with both hands now she began to rub at the area where his shoulders met his neck, the place that tended to give him the most trouble. He wanted to melt into her gentle arms, but instead he stiffened instinctively at her touch.
“You’re back is really tight. We should head back to the house, so I can take care of it for you.” Her words left him frozen. She lifted herself gracefully to standing and waited for him to follow. She even bent to pick up his crutches for him.
“What?” He managed to ask her.
“I used to do a lot of massage therapy in my mom’s office when I was in college. It’s very relaxing and it would help you a lot with your pain. But I can’t do anything until we get to the house and out of these dirty clothes.” He was speechless, struck by the sudden fantasy of her administering the same care she had previously to his tender flesh, but this time unburdened by her clothes. He let out a slow, mouthy breath at the image. Certainly, she wasn’t suggesting that they go back to her room to rubdown each other’s naked bodies, though that was both an exciting and horrifying prospect. She interrupted his thoughts, “Earth to Kai. Come on, I’m starting to dry out and it’s getting cake-y and gross.” She made a face at that and he resigned himself to finding out what she intended for him back at the house. He made his way to his knees and took the crutches from her so he could pull himself all the way to standing.
When they got into the house, she took him to the guest room where he’d slept the few nights they’d spent doctoring him through an infection. She instructed him to strip, but only gave him a towel to cover himself with instead of more clothes. He tried to refuse, but she wouldn’t hear any of it. Thus he was left to shimmy out of his muddy clothes and try to wrap the towel around himself so that it covered as much exposed skin as possible, which was an ultimately futile effort. Resigned, he sat down on the edge of the bed with the towel tightly wrapped around his midsection. Miranda returned sometime later, changed and freshened up, but fully dressed. He felt both relieved and slightly disappointed by that, but dismissed it as he noticed his own nakedness again. She set down some bottles and another towel on the stand by the bed; unfolding the towel she draped it over the covers of the bed.
“Lie down on your stomach.” She instructed him.
“Do what now?” Kai stared at the bed and back at her a tremor of fear and mortification running through him. She chuckled at his resistance. “Just lay down on your stomach, that way I can reach your back easier. Don’t worry so much, I’ll cover your backside with the towel you’re wearing.”
“Can’t I put on some clothes first?” He pleaded.
“It’ll be a lot more comfortable without clothes,” she stated matter-of-factly as she adjusted her supplies on the table.
“Speak for yourself.” He muttered the comment under his breath, but rolled over onto his stomach anyways, stretching his legs out over the bed and preparing himself as best he could for whatever was coming next.
As is turned out, Miranda was very adept at easing away his discomfort; with her deft fingers she loosened the knots in his back and legs, not even flinching at the area around his amputation. Though he was lost somewhere between embarrassment and rapture throughout the whole process, he was also uncomfortably aroused by her caring efforts and couldn’t let go completely to the relaxation of the massage as he tried to concentrate on hiding his attraction to her. No matter how hard he tried to not think about her in that way, his efforts only seemed to draw him to her more. The relief she brought him was quickly reversed as he was wound tight with worry over how disappointing her eventual rejection of him would be. For the time though, he could pretend that even if she didn’t return his interest, she didn’t refuse it either.