I tugged on Ash, pulling him behind me as I swam deeper, the pressure on my ears increasing with each stroke of my one arm. Awkward as hell to swim that way, but better than being separated.
At the very bottom, I searched the curve of the cell, finally finding what I was looking for. There was a square grate three feet by three feet wide. I slid my fingers around the edges, looking for a grip. Ash worked beside me doing the same. A tug on the belt strap pulled me toward him and I breathed into his mouth. I had to fight not to close my eyes and lean into it. Breathing, this was about breathing. Not kissing. Not touching. Certainly not tasting.
I looked at the grate so I didn’t have to look him in the face. I went back to checking the edges on my side. Suddenly, Ash jerked on the grate, his muscles bunching and flexing. I swam above him so I was facing down. Getting my fingers into the crevice he’d opened, I put my feet against the wall and used my whole body to push while he pulled on the grate. With a screeching pop, it gave way and we tumbled through the water with our combined momentum. Ash pulled me toward him and I breathed into his mouth, but he held me, taking several breaths as his chest heaved with exertion.
My legs brushed against him and the ensuing shivers were nothing I could control. I found myself staring into his face, because really, where else could I look when I was helping him breathe? I pulled away first, then pointed to the grate and held a hand up to him. I would check it out, and come back. No point in dragging him through the pipes if there was no place for me to give him air.
We took the belt off, I gave him one last breath, and then I moved as if to dive into the opening. Ash grabbed me and tugged me to him. Another breath already?
Breathing, that’s all we were doing. That’s what I told myself as his lips slid over mine leaving behind a rush of shivers that wracked my body. He traced his tongue over mine as he pulled my body tightly to his. I gripped his biceps. The muscles under my hands as hard as I’d imagined they would be. I pulled away again, and pointed to the now open grate. Kissing later . . . if that was what he really wanted, but we had to get out while we could.
I swam hard, counting the seconds as I went. There were no turns, which was a blessing, it was a completely straight pipe. Thirty seconds passed and I popped into the open ocean. A glance up showed just how far down we were, the light of the sun a distant thing, barely giving me anything to head toward. I spun around and swam back into the pipe. A minute of breath-holding for Ash shouldn’t have been too bad as he waited for me; we were trained for that.
Yet, as I swam, my intuition pushed me faster. I knew something had gone wrong before I saw the blood in the water.
I popped out of the pipe and stared, unable to believe what was in front of me. Ash wrestled with a deep gray crocodile, barely holding the beast at bay. His hands were clamped over the reptile’s mouth, holding it shut as the croc swam them around in circles. Blood trickled from several gashes along his arms, staining the water. Movement caught my eye and I looked up as a second crocodile swam above us. The situation was just getting better and better.
Clean up crew, that was all I could think. The Undines wouldn’t want the bodies of those killed rotting and messing up the water.
Swimming hard, I reached Ash and helped him hold the croc at bay while I breathed into his mouth. He gulped several breaths from me and then the crocodile twisted hard, out of our hands. It swam away about fifteen feet, shaking its head. I tugged Ash and he swam with me toward the pipe. I wasn’t sure if it was big enough for the crocodiles to follow, but there was a chance. I went first again, this time Ash was with me, his head at my ankles.
We were halfway through the pipe when he grabbed me and we were both yanked backward. There was no doubt in my mind what had happened. At least one of the crocs had fit into the pipe. There was nothing I could do but keep swimming and hope he could hold on. His fingers dug in hard around my ankle and I pushed off the bottom of the pipe with my other foot, clawing and digging at the sides. The seconds ticked by, and Ash’s grip slipped, sliding down to my foot.
Air, he needed air. There was no way I could breathe for him, there was only one thing I could do. I slipped the earing off my ear, holding my breath. Scrunching my body, I drew him close enough to jab the hooked earring into his wrist, slicing it through the skin.
He jerked and then his grip tightened. His whole body flailed, and then he was shoving me forward through the pipe. His hand was on the back of my thigh, pushing me. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to push me—I was doing fine on holding my breath—until we were out of the pipe and floating in the water. Sure we were still well below the surface, but at least we weren’t stuck in the pipe anymore. Ash grabbed me and breathed into my mouth, then pointed at the pipe where a long snout protruded.
Ash’s leg bled, and we swam at a sluggish pace with having to stop to help each other to breathe. He slipped the earring out of his wrist and slid it back through my ear. A grin slipped over his face and was gone in an instant.
I knew him well enough to know he was going back to buy me time by putting himself in danger. I slipped my fingers through his belt loops and clamped down, stopping him. He spun and I shook my head. “No.”
A flash of frustration slid over him, but I didn’t care. We were going to survive this together or not at all. “With me!” I mouthed.
We pushed hard for the surface, though I was pretty sure that would only solve one of our problems. If we even made it. The crocodiles swam out and around us, their tails flashing as they propelled themselves along in a lazy, looping circle. As if we weren’t even there. A flash of violet eyes pulled me to a stop. More shape shifters working for Requiem, which meant there was no hope their baser instincts would kick in, even if we were able to manage a distraction. I didn’t see any way out of the hot water we had landed in.