After the stifling blackness of the tunnels, the outside was vast and cool under a star-studded sky. Lara raised a hand to brush at the grime that still coated her face, then checked her watch: four a.m., Just enough hours of darkness left to get to the airport and clean up before her somewhat battered appearance drew the wrong kind of attention.
As she retraced her steps through Damascus' now-silent streets, she felt every one of her cuts and bruises. But she felt something else, too: alive , more so than for years, her stride strong and sure, her chin held high, her eyes bright. Collapsing the vault – and coming out whole - had been an unexpected catharsis, as though something vital within her, dammed for too long, had been unleashed along with the tonnes of Syrian stone.
She would never fear the tombs again.
And now, with the precious Seal stowed safely in her backpack and her deepest fears at last behind her, all her thoughts were for what lay ahead.
"Hurry back," had been Joachim's parting words as he held her shoulders in his hands, eyes dark with promise. At the memory her pace quickened involuntarily, despite her rational mind's protests that it would make little difference to the thousands of miles that still lay between them.
Lara found meaningful sleep impossible during the twelve hour flight to Istanbul. Instead she dozed fitfully , snapping back into alertness at the slightest lurch of turbulence, or each time a stewardess passed her seat. After the usual formalities at passport control, and a few hours spent restlessly pacing the departure lounge, to the evident irritation of her fellow travellers, she was finally on board the connecting flight to Kayseri, Cappadocia.
By the time they landed it was late at night and Erkilet Airport was quiet. As she came through the arrivals gate, Lara's eyes went straight to Joachim, standing tall and still among the few others awaiting passengers, his eyes keen; at the sight of him her heart quickened and her lips parted slightly.
He came forward to meet her. Wordlessly, she held the Seal out to him.
Briefly, he turned his gaze aside to take it from her. "Thank you," he murmured, and laid his hand against her cheek, and at his touch the first tendrils of desire, warm and insistent, began to steal through her body.
x x x
When they reached the hired villa on Kayseri's outskirts, she abandoned her backpack as soon as she got through the door, glancing briefly around her. In the low light she had a vague impression of whitewashed walls, frescoed ceilings and palm fronds lining the sweep of the staircase that lead to the upper floor – and the bedroom.
Karel took off his heavy dark coat and dropped it onto a chair behind him. "Come here," he said.
Lara crossed the room, but as he reached for her something flitted distractingly across her mind - something he needed to know - and she frowned.
"Kurtis…" she said, remembering. "I saw him...he…"
He hushed her with two fingers against her lips. "Later," he said, and slid his arms around her, bending his head to hers; she arched eagerly against him, and their long, unhurried kiss was her reward for her travails.
After several heady minutes she pulled back, reluctant to break off the embrace but conscious of having been on a plane for hours. "I need to freshen up," she told him.
"I'll wait for you on the terrace," he answered.
x x x
Standing before the mirror, barefoot on the cool tiles with beads of warm water lingering on her skin, Lara contemplated her reflection in the mellow glass. Despite the inactivity of the last few years she had hardly lost any form – a little less muscle, perhaps, a little more softness, but that was hardly displeasing to the eye. Her only visible flaws were the collection of scrapes and bruises acquired in Damascus, but these she bore proudly, as she always used to, like trophies.
She chose a glass bottle from the row lining the bathroom shelves and, hands slightly unsteady with anticipation, smoothed scented oil over the contours of her body, then set to work unbinding her hair so that it flowed free over her shoulders and fell down to the small of her back in glossy ripples.
It had been a long time. In her self-imposed seclusion, she had shunned human contact on almost every level, and she could barely remember the last time she'd shared her bed with another person. But now, primed in mind and body by the renewed thrill of cheating death, she was more than ready for her encounter with Joachim.
She stared at herself in the mirror, her cheeks flushed, eyes dark and feverish, her breath coming in short, shallow jolts.
x x x
Joachim Karel waited for his lover, his face lifted to the night sky.
The heavens had lost none of their wonder, not in all the millennia he had been watching them, observing the slow stellar dance, the celestial patterns realigning themselves over the course of many human lifetimes. Sometimes, when he looked out across the glittering sea of stars, he felt something akin to childlike awe. They were, after all, one of the few things that were already ancient in the dawn of the world, when he himself was still young.
He could see so many stars. To immortal eyes, the firmament was not studded but ablaze with them, tributaries of white fire burning in the blackness. And he had known each one since infancy, when the seraph who sired him, the one called Sariel, brought him out into the desert at night under the vault of the sky and taught him the names of all the lights wheeling above them, from the greatest to the least.
Overhead it was still deep black, fading to indigo towards the horizon, and lighter still where the first flush of apricot-gold was stealing over the rim of the world. The stars in that part of the sky were starting to pale, but one shone as brightly as ever, undismayed by the coming dawn, and it was that one which drew his attention. Dayspring, herald of the rising sun, Lucifer. They looked on each other like old friends, and his gaze absorbed the brilliance, star-fire illumining the dark of his eyes like radiant joy.
For thousands of years he had watched the morning star alone.
The sound of her bare feet on the stone behind him was musical. He lifted his wings erect in greeting.
Lara followed his gaze, to where Venus rose before them, resplendent in the eastern sky. "The morning star."
"The light-bearer," he said. "Heylel ben-Shakhar, that's what we used to call it. A long time ago…"
He turned, extending a hand to her in invitation, and she went up the steps to him like a priestess ascending the altar, loosening the ties on her robe as she went, letting it slip from her shoulders, fluttering whitely in the warm breeze before it sank to the ground, so that she came to stand naked before him, her lithe body silvered by starlight.
She gripped his fingers tightly, drawing an almost painfully deep breath. And as she lifted her eyes to his, she found herself suddenly as uncertain as if she had been with her very first lover. She placed her other hand on his bare chest, slowly, splaying her fingers, feeling the powerful beat of a heart that was not quite human in its rhythm. He returned the caress by touching his fingertips to her temple, drawing them lightly down across her cheek.
She closed her eyes and leaned her face into his hand, noting again the strange coolness of his skin. "You must have blood like ice," she whispered, feeling her heart begin to pound.
He enfolded her in arms and wings, the velvet warmth of the feathers sliding deliciously over her bare flesh.
"Not for long," he said.
Yes, it's that rare event, an RiS update. As always, huge thanks to all of you who are still reading and leaving me lovely reviews. I hope you enjoyed this chapter! It was a bit of a biatch to write, especially as I'm preoccupied with a divorce and moving into my new flat...but writing is as much fun as always, so don't think I've abandoned this fic :)