Breathless Page 1

Author: Sophie Jordan

Series: Firelight #3.5

Genres: Fantasy , Young Adult

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1

I wake slowly, sliding out of a dream where I’m flying one moment and diving into cerulean blue waters the next. I frown, my fingers swiping the tangle of hair back off my face. With a grunt, I lift my head off the pillow and open my eyes, blinking against the pervading wash of gray slipping through the curtains.

Just like that, I remember where I am.

Sighing, I shake off my favorite dream.

I stare at the ceiling, studying the slow churning blades of the fan as reality descends and washes over me. I’m so far from that dream, from being any place that I can fly or swim freely. I could weep from the longing. And that decides it for me. I know what I have to do.

I toss back the covers and slip from bed hurriedly, hoping to be out of the house before Mom is up and moving around. I wince as I glance at the digital clock. It’s already almost too late for that.

But then she won’t exactly stop me from going out. She might want to, but she won’t. That’s what this little vacation is for anyway. Me getting away from the pride and into the outside world so that I will know how to interact among humans. A necessary skill for every draki. We’re here to prepare me.

Still. Mom will bombard me with the usual questions. And warnings. So many warnings.

I change quickly. Stopping in front of the mirror, I swipe a brush through my dark, blue-streaked hair in three hard strokes. Grabbing a band, I gather it into a ponytail.

Rushing from the room, I dash down the stairs, wincing when I hit a creaky step.

“Az?”

I freeze and squeeze my eyes in a long, slow blink, hoping maybe she’ll just dismiss the sound after a stretch of silence.

No such luck.

“Az? Is that you?”

Releasing a breath, I turn in the direction of the kitchen. Mom’s at the stove, stirring an assortment of vegetables in a skillet. An egg mixture sits waiting in a nearby bowl.

“Omelet?” she offers. She surveys me with a sweep of her eyes. A brow arches at the strings of my swimsuit peeking out from the collar of my shirt. Her gaze drops to my feet. She does that thing where she cocks out her hip, and I know the barrage of questions is about to start.

“Going somewhere?”

“Just for a swim.”

Her gaze shoots to Dad sitting at the table. Clearly, she’s hoping he’ll chime in here. He doesn’t look up from his book. She blows out a heavy breath and I fight back a smile. Dad always has his nose in a book. He’s more comfortable with the ancient texts and treatises chronicling our kind than with what’s actually going on around him. Ironic considering he’s a teacher of draki history. You would think he might like to observe life as it’s happening around him.

With a disgusted snort, Mom levels her blue-eyed gaze on me, and I think her pupils narrow and shiver. Just my imagination, of course. Mom keeps herself tightly controlled, her draki always in check. “Do you really think that’s the best idea?”

“Mom. Come on. You can’t expect me to stay in the house every day all day? A vacation is supposed to be fun, remember? That’s why people take a vacation.”

“Right. People.” Her emphasis on the word is deliberate. She holds my gaze until I look away.

I inhale deeply, flexing my hands at my sides. “I know. I get it. I do. But I can’t just stay indoors and stare at these walls for an entire month. That defeats the point in coming here.”

Mom looks to Dad again as if he might weigh in. He turns another page.

I press my advantage. “Mom. I’m not going to do anything dumb.”

She looks back to me. After a long moment, she jabs a finger in my direction. “You can go out, but no swimming. I don’t trust you near water without either me or your father there to supervise.”

Instead of arguing, I nod happily, feeling as though I’ve won this round. “No swimming! I’ll just wade in. Get my feet wet. That’s all.”

Rushing forward, I grab a banana off the table and press a kiss to her cheek, ignoring her sputters of protest.

She snorts with disbelief and calls after me, “Like I believe that!”

Grinning, I shout back, “Shouldn’t have picked a place so close to a lake!”

Before she can respond, I’m jumping down the porch steps, letting my nose guide me to water.

I can feel it. Smell the wetness. Like smoking barbeque pits, I can always tell when water is near. Just before reaching the dock that stretches out onto the lake, I swerve right and cut through the woods.

Amid the foliage, I glimpse flashes of the lake’s deep, murky blue. Yesterday the water was greener, churned up by the weekend traffic of boats. But today only a few boats skip over the surface. Still, I would prefer a little more privacy.

I’ve seen humans before, of course. Talked to them. But it has never felt natural or comfortable. Honestly, I’ve always been a little skittish around them. Whenever I went into town with Jacinda or any other friends, I let them do the talking and interacting, preferring to hang back.

It’s funny how Mom thinks I might get in trouble. Does she think I would deliberately give myself away? That would require a certain boldness I lack when I’m around humans. I’m too afraid they can see right through me. To what lurks just beneath the surface.

I checked out the area yesterday when we arrived. The lake is fine, but I’d found someplace better. I weave through trees like a stream curving through a mountain pass. My bare feet pad silently over dried leaves and twigs. I follow my nose.

At last, I find it. Smiling, I step out onto the bank from the press of foliage. It’s perfect. Smaller, more secluded from the tourists. The inlet is little more than a big pond, a thin ribbon of water the only thing connecting it to the larger lake.

In the middle of the water, a wood dock floats, a beacon for swimmers. I can envision sun worshippers out there, bodies spread out on towels. For now, it’s empty.

Obviously, the place isn’t unknown, but an air of abandonment hangs over the dark waters.

Perfect.

With a glance over my shoulder to reassure myself I’m still alone, I pull my T-shirt over my head and then kick off my shorts. To be safe, I tuck the clothes out of sight in the trees. Just in case. I don’t want to leave my clothes out in the open and alert someone that I’m around. If someone comes along while I’m in the water it’s easy enough for me to do what I do and disappear.

I don’t know why Mom doesn’t realize that. I’m perfectly safe. Especially under cover of water. What could possibly happen to me? Water is my greatest protection. My shield.

I ease a few short steps into the water before diving in. The water isn’t as cold as I’m used to high in the Cascades, but it’s early enough in the day that the sudden plunge sends a rush of goose bumps over my flesh.

I swim out several yards, arms cutting smoothly through the glasslike surface, until I’m halfway between the shores, directly beside the floating dock.

I paddle in place for a few moments, letting the water embrace me. My skin responds, feeds on the silky wetness like it’s starved for it. Shivering and tingling, my flesh snaps to life as it awakens what lies at my core. The draki. Always there. Just below the surface.

A quick glance down reveals the blue shimmer of my skin in the water. The burst of iridescent color flashes first along my fingers, then over the back of my hand, then up my forearm.

I don’t manifest entirely. I don’t need to for the gills to appear. The small slits open just above my rib cage. My body takes in the water like air. Water. Air. Either one can sustain me.

I sink low, letting the water tickle my lips. My gaze sweeps the horizon, scanning, making sure I’m alone. The sun is just starting to break over the treetops. The light hits the water, casting the surface white gold. I ignore the echo of Mom’s voice in my head telling me not to do this. To stop. It’s one thing for me to swim, but for me to surrender to this here … Mom would flip out. I understand her rationale, but I just don’t see the harm. And the temptation is too great.

Dismissing Mom’s warning, I plunge underwater.

Who’s going to notice me down here except for an occasional fish and algae? No one human. Definitely no hunters.

Reveling in my freedom, I let myself go, my limbs gliding through the delicious water. My eyes adjust to the murk and I see everything as though I’m on land. My body arrows to the bottom. My fingers trail through the silt, stirring the sleeping sand.

I’m at least eighteen feet down. Grass and weeds sprout from the inlet bed and brush my body as I drift past. Small fish dart out of my way, giving me a wide berth. To them, I’m a predator in their midst.

The occasional bottle glints up at me from the tangle of floating weeds. This is all new landscape for me. I don’t see too much litter where I swim back home. But then back there, the waters are never this deep. And the riverbeds are jagged and rocky. Even as careful as I am, I frequently scrape and cut myself.

Still, I’m in my element here. I swim, gliding effortlessly, enjoying the vastness. I can almost fool myself into believing that I’ve finally made it and reached my dream of swimming in the ocean. I explore the dips and plateaus of the bottom, turning, flipping, my rippling hair one with the current.

I’m so caught up in this that it takes me a moment to realize something has changed. The skin at the back of my neck prickles with sudden awareness. I slow, grow still in the water, my arms swishing me in a small circle. All at once the water feels different. The current … the vibrations subtly altered. There’s a faint sound.

Something … someone is in the lake with me.

2

I look all around me, arching my neck to glimpse above me as well. And that’s when I see them. Swimmers frolicking. That’s the only word. Their youthful bodies twist and spin in the water.

I count four. Even when one dips beneath the water, they’re not looking at the bottom where I lurk. My panic fading, I dismiss the need to flee. Even if they did look down, they couldn’t see through the murk. Unlike me. My eyesight is just as good in water as it is on land.

My racing heart slows, and I settle in to wait, hoping it’s not too long. I don’t want to have to explain to Mom where I spent so much time. I definitely can’t tell her the truth. I’d just get a lecture that ended in I told you so.

I assess the group. The two bikini-clad girls are magazine-perfect. One girl spends most of her time plastered to one of the boys, her legs entwined with his skinnier ones. He doesn’t seem to mind. His hands roam her curves.

They pull themselves out of the water and onto the dock, and then plunge back into the pond. The process repeats itself several times, their legs kicking widely as they swim back to the dock, their bodies vanishing from water as they heft themselves aboard the platform.

At first it’s mildly interesting. A peek into another world. Humans. One of the boys seems so comfortable in the water. He swims like an otter, his body strong and lean, cutting through the water like a well-oiled machine. I watch the way the hair pulls back from his face as he swims, revealing the strong lines of his features, the deep-set eyes that he doesn’t bother closing against the water. My gaze follows his fluid movements, the work of his muscles … and his sculpted chest that would rival any draki boy. It dawns on me that I’ve been staring at him for several minutes now.

Tamra, Jacinda’s sister, has always been the one fascinated with the world outside the pride. With humans. Not me. I’ve felt little more than indifference, proud to belong to a species that predates man. To live in the pride. To possess the ability to swim beneath the water for any length of time that I want. To fly. To have a best friend who breathes fire. I get that my life, my world, is extraordinary. I’ve never yearned for anything else. Especially not contact with humans. The only thing outside the pride that remotely interests me, that I want, is to swim in the ocean. For one summer. That’s it. That’s my dream.

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