I love you. Those words repeated themselves over and over in my mind—words that were tattooed on my skin and carved into my bones. What I felt for him was far more powerful than words, but words were important. Of all people, I knew the power of speaking up, of being able to do so honestly and openly without hesitation. I knew the importance of not holding back now because when I’d lain there in those ruins, with my blood leaking out of my body, I’d never thought I would have the chance to say those words to him.
My fingers curled around his side as I met his gaze once more. “I love you.”
Casteel’s hand halted its movements under my hair and halfway up my back. “What?” he whispered. His eyes had widened slightly, and his pupils were dilated a little. I could see his surprise and felt it like a rush of cold air against my skin. Why did he seem so astonished? He had to know.
But Casteel couldn’t read emotions like I could. I had told him how he made me feel and showed it when I held the blade to my throat during the battle at Spessa’s End—more than ready to end my life if it meant saving his. But I’d never said the words.
And I needed to. Desperately.
I pressed the tips of my fingers against his cheek as I drew in a shallow breath. “I love you, Casteel,” I said. His chest stilled against mine and then rose sharply. “I love—”
Casteel kissed me, his lips moving over mine so gently, so tenderly. It was a sweet and slow kiss as if it were the very first time our lips had ever come together, as if he were learning the shape and feel of my mouth against his. He shuddered, and a wave of tears reached my eyes.
He drew back enough that his forehead rested against mine. “I didn’t…” He cleared his throat as I ran my fingers along his jaw. “I mean, I…I thought you did. I believed that—or maybe I needed to believe it—but I don’t think I really knew.” His voice roughened again as he reached between us, wiping away a tear that had escaped. A moment passed, and his chest rose with a sharp breath. All the many masks Casteel wore cracked and fell away then, as they had in the ruins when he’d thrown his head back and screamed. “I knew you cared for me. But love? I just didn’t know if you could after…everything. I wouldn’t have blamed you if you were unable to feel that for me. Not after what—”
“It doesn’t matter what was done in the past. I understand why you did those things. I’ve moved past that.” My fingers tangled in the soft strands of his hair at the nape of his neck. “I love you. I would”—I swallowed—“I would do anything for you, Cas. Like you did for me. Anything—”
His mouth found mine again, and this time…oh, gods, the kiss went deeper. I melted into him as his tongue stroked my lips, parting them. Tiny shivers erupted all over my body, and we kissed until we were both breathless.
“Cas,” he echoed against my lips. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to hear you call me that.”
“Why?” I hadn’t even realized I had used the nickname.
“I don’t know. Only those I trust most call me that.” His laugh was soft, and then he drew back farther, clasping my cheeks carefully. “You know, don’t you?” He searched my eyes with his. “What you mean to me? What I feel for you?”
He wiped away another tear with his thumb. “I never knew it could feel like this. That I could feel this for someone. But I do—I love you.”
I trembled as my chest swelled with love, hope, anticipation, and a hundred other wild emotions that felt so strange after everything that had happened. And yet, they felt so right. “I think I might start crying harder.”
He dipped his head, kissing away a tear that had wiggled free. I managed to pull myself together as he pressed a kiss to my temple, to my forehead, and then to the bridge of my nose as he picked up my left hand. His eyes were closed as he dropped tiny kisses along the length of the golden marriage imprint. I watched him in silence for several moments, a little lost in him.
He touched the band around my forefinger. “I…I didn’t want your first glimpse of Atlantia, of your home, to be something horrific. I wanted you to see the beauty of our home, of our people. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.” He swallowed thickly. “Alastir was right when he said that some of our people are superstitious and wary of newcomers, but I wanted you to feel welcomed. Above all, I wanted you to feel safe. I hate that this happened, and I’m sorry. I’m so damn sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. You did everything to make sure I was safe.”
“Did I?” he countered. “I knew there could be resistance. I knew there would be people hungry for revenge. I overestimated their desire to survive. I shouldn’t have let you walk off like that. I should’ve been there. I failed to protect you—”
“Stop.” I tipped forward, cupping his cheek with the hand he didn’t hold. “It wasn’t your fault,” I repeated. “Please, don’t think that. I…” I inhaled sharply. Sharing my feelings had never been easy, not even after speaking those incredibly powerful words. How could it be when I’d been groomed to never do so? But I needed to continue to breathe these words. I had to because I could feel the sour bite of guilt. “I couldn’t bear it if you thought you were responsible. I don’t want that to eat away at you. You haven’t failed me. I don’t know where I would be right now if it weren’t for you. I don’t even know if I would be alive.”
He said nothing as he closed his eyes, turning his head so his cheek pressed into my palm.
I dragged my thumb along his bottom lip. “But I do know that I would be… I would be less. I wouldn’t feel like this—like I’m whole. And that’s because of you.” I took another breath. “When I first saw the Pillars and stood in the Chambers, I did feel like this was home. It was like a sense of rightness—like what I feel for you. It felt right to be here. And maybe that has to do with my ancestry. I…I don’t know what Atlantia is to me now or what it will become, but that doesn’t matter.” I realized how true that statement was in the moment, and the sudden knowledge of that lifted so much weight from me. Having Atlantia’s acceptance and that of Casteel’s parents would be wonderful, but our acceptance of one another was so much more important. That was what mattered when I closed my eyes at night and opened them again in the morning. “You are the foundation that helps me stand. You are my walls and my roof. My shelter. You are my home.”
His lashes swept up, the amber of his eyes churning wildly. “As you are mine, Poppy.”
“Then please don’t blame yourself. Please. If you do, I’ll…I don’t know what I’d do, but I’m sure you wouldn’t like it.”
“Does it involve stabbing?”
I stared at him.
“Because I’d probably like that.”
I sighed. “Cas.”
A faint smile appeared. “I will try not to blame myself. Okay? The guilt that I feel isn’t something that will go away immediately, but I will try. For you.”
“For us,” I corrected.
Exhaling softly, I nodded even though I wanted it to go away immediately. “I knew I would see you again, even as I was held captive.” I slid a hand down the satiny hardness of his chest. “I knew I would either get free, or you would find me. And you did. You found me.”