hearts of fire Page 18
She laughed, unable to help herself. “What would you have said if I had?”
“No.” But he smiled a little when he said it.
“Exactly,” she said. “You normally act like you hate me. You’re aware of this.”
That didn’t set well. A shadow passed over his face, gone as quickly as it had appeared. She wondered what it meant.
“I don’t hate you.” He blew out a sigh, obviously flustered. “Look, last night was a bad idea, Dru. I’m not fit to do…that.” When his eyes lifted to hers, they were embarrassed and colored with sadness.
“I’m not meant to be with people. In any way. When I was in Hell, there were…” He stopped himself, leaving her to wonder what he might have said. “It doesn’t matter. I was always best suited to solo work. Even when my wings were white, so long ago I barely remember it, I worked alone. It’s no tragedy, just my nature. I was formed to be alone.”
“That’s why you fell,” Dru guessed. “The solitude.”
She’d never seen him so floored before. He stared at her for so long she began to be uncomfortable, but just as she started to squirm, he gave a small nod. “That was part of it. Maybe more than part of it. Yes.”
“And that’s why you hate Uriel. He still doesn’t get it.”
Meresin’s brows creased, and he nodded his head slowly. “How could you see that? Do vampires get some sort of power with age we don’t know about?”
She smiled gently at his confusion. Angels and demons, for all their amazing power and beauty, seemed doomed to eternally underestimate humans and their immortal offshoots. They might want to fight over them, haunt them, or want them, but really, these beings all thought humanity was pretty stupid. She’d be irritated if she hadn’t figured it out ages ago. And in some ways, they had a point.
“You could say it’s a power. I’ve been watching people for many, many lifetimes. You do learn to read them after a while.”
He wrinkled his nose a little, disgruntled. “I don’t want to be readable. I’m a demon, damn it.”
She laughed softly. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not that easy to read. Usually I know what you’re up to just because you’re always pissed off. The nuance is new.”
He actually looked a little forlorn. “And you’re nothing but nuance. I don’t understand humans. Or vampires.” He blew out a breath. “Or anyone. I doubt I ever will.”
Troubled, she said, “Uriel made it sound like there are other effects to forging the blood bond. He said…”
She trailed off when his expression went hard. His dislike of archangels ran deep. She almost wished that Uriel hadn’t said anything when she’d pulled him aside, asking him to deliver a message to her brother, just in case.
“Be prepared, Dru. The bond between you will run deep, but so do his wounds.” She’d never seen the big archangel so troubled. “This is not what I would have wished for you. You may be able to help save his life, but I no longer know what can be salvaged beyond that. I wish you luck.”
No pressure, she’d thought at the time. That feeling hadn’t changed. She didn’t really know what she wanted from Meresin. Real affection was probably a stretch. His heart, if he even had one, was an impossibility.
She was suddenly sick to her stomach.
“Uriel said what?” he asked, a definite edge to his voice.
“Uriel said there was more to it. That’s all. There wasn’t exactly time for a lengthy explanation.” She tried to keep her voice neutral.
“Oh. Well, Uriel says lots of things,” he grumbled, and she didn’t miss the relief in his expression. “You’re better off ignoring him.”
She was incensed. He knew more than he was saying about this. He just didn’t want to deal with it. What was she, a magnet for selfish bastards? This was what she got, she guessed, for trying to save people. It was bound to bite her in the ass good and hard one of these days. Looked like now was it.
“Yes, let’s ignore the guy trying to protect the world from being consumed by evil,” she snapped. “Demons are way more trustworthy.”
Meresin’s eyes glowed. “You’d be surprised. Uriel still has his own agenda. Everyone does. You should never forget that.”
“So I can be like you?” she asked. “Bitter and short-tempered and homicidal?”
“More like realistic.” His voice went cold when he said it. “Funny. I’d have thought a two-thousand-year-old vampire would be a little less naive.”
The barb found its mark. Naive? No. Not in a very long time. Not until now, at least. Despite everything, she’d believed he was more than this. But she’d be damned if she let him be the first man to make her cry in a millennia. Though her eyes stung, she sucked it up and bared her fangs at him instead.
“You have no idea what I am, since you’ve never bothered to find out. But naive is better than dead inside.”
He had the nerve to be affronted. “I’m not dead inside!”
“If you’re not, you do an awfully good impression of someone who is,” she shot back. “You don’t want to get involved with people, so you come up with a million reasons to excuse yourself. Uriel’s just making things up or he’s being self-serving or you’re incapable of understanding relationships because of your unique kind of angst. Anything so you can keep your distance and feel good about it.”
“I’m not keeping my distance!” he snapped. “How can you say that? I’ve brought you to Purgatory, and now we’re holed up in a disgusting little room with one bed. There’s no distance to be had, Dru! This is as close as it gets!”
Her heart sank at his frustrated outburst. Because, though they sat right next to one another, there could have been miles between them. If this was “close” to him, then he was probably unreachable in the ways she wanted him. And she did want him. Way, way too much.
“You know what? Forget it. Just forget it,” she said, deflated, her anger replaced by hollow despair. Every time she and Meresin made a connection, he pulled away. She was suddenly filled with a weariness that had nothing to do with needing sleep.
When he spoke again, his voice sounded almost tentative. It pulled at her, but she refused to let herself feel the things she wanted to.
“Dru,” he said. “There are a lot of things about me you don’t understand.”
“You’re right,” she replied. “There are. Now if you don’t mind, I think I will close my eyes for a little while.”
She slid back onto the other side of the bed, closest to the wall, flopped down with her head on the pillow, and hoped that even feigned sleep would bolster her flagging spirits. It was fitting, she supposed, that she and Meresin were stuck in Purgatory, a place that was neither here nor there. It matched perfectly with their relationship so far. All she could do was hope that making it out physically might change things emotionally.
But until then, they were in limbo. So she might as well try to get used to it.
He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. It was always darkest in his dreams.
Meresin knew the poorly lit path well, winding deep into the wastes beyond the Infernal City. The sky was dark here, a reddish black with no stars to relieve it. For once, there were no sentinels at his sides, no shackles at his wrists or ankles to prevent his escape. There was only him, and the smell of brimstone, and the occasional sound of some massive creature moving somewhere in the distance, somewhere he couldn’t see. And fear.
This was the only place he had ever been afraid, and he hated it with a force that could turn the sun black. He had lived for eons under lock and key. But the times he was kept here went beyond imprisonment. This was a place of punishment. And Hell took great joy in punishment.
The edge of the hellpit arrived suddenly. Even though he expected it, he still nearly tumbled into the yawning chasm in the cracked and parched ground. He sucked in a breath, having to beat his wings to regain his balance when he tried to step where the ground gave way to open air. He looked around and realized that something had changed. There was supposed to be a path that led down into the pit from here, narrow and winding. Instead, there was nothing, no way down but leaping in. And he couldn’t do that, he wouldn’t. The realization that he truly was alone finally dawned on him, and the old, hated fear gave way to terrible joy.
He didn’t have to go back into the dark. There was no one to make him.
“I’m free of you,” he whispered, his throat dry and painful from breathing in the acrid air. “I’m free.”
The laughter came from everywhere—the sky, the ground, the depths of the pit itself. It started low, then increased in volume until Meresin’s ears pulsed with it. A thin rivulet of blood dripped from his nose as a piercing pain shot through his head. He tried to wrap his wings around himself as a shield, but it was no use. Only when he fell to his knees with a moan, hands over his ears, did the laughter stop. Then there was a voice, one he knew well.
“You’ll never be free, Meresin. My subject. My creation. My brother. Come back to us. Come back, and you’ll lead again…as long as you do as you’re told.”
“Never.” He choked it out, knowing the blood now leaked from his lips as well. “I won’t go back in the dark. You won’t have me.”
The voice became a hiss as a clawed hand fell on his shoulder. “Then…no one will.”
He surfaced with a jerk, arching off the bed, his scream caught in his throat. He had the vaguest sense of hands on him, but all he could see was darkness. He was in the cage again. Somehow they’d found him and put him back in the cage.
“Let me out!” he cried, his voice hoarse. “Please…they put their claws in the cage…I can hear them down here, waiting…please, not again!”
The voice sounded again, beautiful, taunting. Female? It had to be a trick.
“No! I’ll kill you before I go back!” He extended his demon’s claws and lashed out, catching nothing but air. He bared his teeth and snarled. Why couldn’t he see? He hooked his claws and tried again, swinging wildly. This time, he caught the edge of some sort of fabric that tore. There was a frightened yelp. He growled in triumph.
“Meresin!” A woman’s voice again, this time panicked. “I’m here. It’s okay! Damn it, stop!” The fear in her voice barely managed to penetrate the inky fog that enveloped his mind. He grasped at it, wondered at the way it nagged at something he could almost remember, and then he lashed out, convinced it was just more trickery. One bolt of lightning, then another. There was the sound of wood breaking, and on the second shot, a sharp, pained scream. The little succubus pet of Lucifer’s, or whoever he’d sent to do his dirty work, was hurt.
“Got you!” he cried. “Try this, you little bitch!” He put all of his wounded fury into the attack, letting it build within before unleashing it to fly wild around him. Everything lit violet, and for just an instant he saw the room—the dented, grubby walls, the bags on the floor, the bed he lay on. A wounded cry rang in his ears, and in the brief flash of light he saw who had made that, too. Dru’s face was contorted in pain as she recoiled from him.
Then the room went dark again. Guilt barreled into him like a runaway train as he finally remembered where he was.
“Dru? Dru, are you—light, I need light,” he said in a rush, fumbling for the wick of the oil lamp on a rickety table beside the bed. With a spark from his fingertip, the room was soon bathed in a warm glow. The tightness in his chest eased just a little as the light beat back the darkness once again. There was a whisper like the brush of a hand across fabric.
But when he rolled over, she’d vanished, leaving nothing behind but rumpled bedding. He blinked, trying to gather his wits about him. He’d screwed up in a big way. The dreams always left him a little groggy, a little off balance. How had he even managed to fall asleep? He’d sworn he was going to stay awake. One minute he’d been sitting on the edge of the bed, annoyed that Dru would rather pretend to sleep than speak to him. The next, he wasn’t sure.
He sat up, trying to focus as he scanned the room. Had she simply vanished? But just as he began to panic about her running loose in Purgatory at night, he saw her. She’d actually crawled the wall, and was now crouched in the far corner of the room, back pressed against the ceiling. Her fangs were bared in a silent hiss. He’d never seen that look in her eyes before. It was the first time he’d ever considered that if he lost himself to the lightning he might not have to wait for Uriel to hunt him down. While killing him wouldn’t exactly be in her best interest, the Dru he was seeing now would almost certainly find a way to neutralize him.
The fact that she had somehow managed to relieve him of his fire sword before vanishing from the bed, and now had it clutched in one hand, drove that revelation all the way home. He’d hurt her once before, on the beach earlier. But he’d been awake then. Reachable, even if it wasn’t easy. But here, in the depths of his dream, there had been no getting through. All she could do was try to defend herself, which she was.
“Dru,” he said, taking care to keep his voice soft and even. “I’m so sorry.” It was the first apology he’d given without coercion since he’d become Fallen all those ages ago, and it was a shock to find how easily it fell from his lips. Still, he found that he meant it. Dru was tensed for battle, her pale hair mussed and her eyes wild. He could hear every rapid breath. And shockingly, he discovered that he could feel her heartbeat, actually feel it within his own chest. It was a butterfly beating its wings against his rib cage, providing a panicky counter rhythm to his own. As he focused on the difference, he could feel her heartbeat begin to slow until it was nearly keeping time with his.