Disclaimer: All of the characters and the world belong to the amazing Karen Chance.
"I survived the explosion once before. My shields will protect me, but I can't protect us both."
Cassie just crossed her arms in front of her and leaned against the wall. She tried to look tough, but he wasn't fooled. Keeping time stopped for both of them was already draining her. They didn't have much time.
"Brimstone is highly flammable. Anything organic it touches catches on fire and burns until it's consumed. There's no way to stop the reaction once it starts."
"And by organic," a little finger motioned back and forth between them, "you mean us? People?"
"Yes. Now you see why you have to get out of here?"
"So I could shift it out to the open desert, drop it off, and shift away." She licked her lips. John saw her hands start to shake, and she tried to casually tuck them behind her. He reached out and grabbed her arm. He felt small tremors moving through her. They had less time than he thought.
"You can't shift that far. Shift yourself away. Now!" He realized he was squeezing her arm again and forced himself to let go. Panic was setting in. She wasn't even listening to him.
"Wait! You said flammable. What if it went off underwater?"
"A sufficiently large body of water might diminish the explosion. It should keep the reaction from continuing. Need I remind you we are in the middle of a desert?"
"We're in the middle of Dante's. How about using a swimming pool?"
It was one of the traits he admired most about Cassie. When faced with a crisis, she was adaptable and used her circumstances to her advantage. Reluctantly, he nodded. "It'll have to work."
He grabbed the present from where it was hanging disturbingly in midair and rushed into the living room.
He didn't stop, but hurried around the frozen bodies of Marco and Cassie's other vampire bodyguards. The penthouse had its own private pool right outside the sliding glass doors.
"Stop!" There was enough command in the small voice to get him to turn around.
"I don't know how far apart we can be and still keep time from flowing." She was staggering towards him, bouncing off the piano and the couch. He suppressed a groan. The last thing he wanted was for her to be anywhere near the box he held. But God knew what he wanted couldn't possibly be taken into account.
He strode forward and threw her over his shoulder. The tremors in her slight body were worse. She was shaking almost continuously now.
He dumped her on a chaise lounge besides the pool and ignored her weak protest at the rough landing. The pool was a lap pool. While it was a decent length, it wasn't very wide or deep. One look at Cassie's pale, sweating face and he knew they were out of time for other options. This had to work.
John set the package on the water and stared in frustration when it didn't sink.
"It will…stay where you put it."
He dove in, pushing the box almost to the bottom where it hung in the water without moving. He gave a kick and surfaced. In one fluid motion he popped out of the pool and scooped Cassie into his arms. Her eyes were closed, and her hands were clenched.
He raced back into the living room of the penthouse. The vampires had started to move in slow motion, still unaware of the danger. She was losing control. Time was flowing again.
John threw his shields up and dropped to the ground, covering her body with his own. A violent shudder racked the small body beneath him.
"Let go! Cassie! You're hurting yourself and there's nothing more you can do."
Panicked blue eyes popped open. And then the world became normal again. Voices and sounds returned. He tensed, waiting.
"Hey! What are you guys doing on the floor?" Marco, the head of Cassie's vampire body guards, had finally noticed them lying on the ground. "Why are you wet?"
A muffled wump came from outside followed by the sound of water splashing. The sharp odor of sulfur reached them. John braced himself for a blast wave and a wall of fire from an explosion that didn't come.
"That's it?" Cassie couldn't keep the hysteria from her voice.
He stared down at her flushed face, his only thought she's alive. By some miracle he didn't deserve, she'd come back. He could still feel the terror and horror and pain of her loss hovering just out of sight, waiting for this all to be another cruel joke at his expense.
"Pritkin? Is it over?" A small hand grabbed his coat sleeve and shook it.
With an effort he forced himself to roll off her and hide the pain in his leg as he stood up. "It would appear so." He reached a hand down to help her up, but she'd already turned the other way and was being sick all over Marco's shoes.
"What the hell?" Marco jumped back. "I just got these!"
John ignored him and sank down by Cassie. He held her hair back until she had nothing left except dry heaves. "Get a healer! Now!" He snarled at the big man who was standing there like an idiot staring at his shoes.
"No." Cassie's voice was hoarse.
"You need a healer. You're vomiting blood."
She didn't look at him, but those blond curls shook in disagreement. "It's not blood," she finally managed to get out. "The dark stuff is chocolate." Her head fell back against his shoulder. "I'm just tired."
John picked her up. He promised himself he'd get her to eat better; she weighed nothing in his arms.
"Where do you think you're going?" Marco blocked his way. "What the hell just happened?"
If John didn't have his arms full of exhausted woman, he would have killed the big man on the spot.
Instead, he stared up at the dark eyes of the vampire who stared back.
"Marco…" Cassie's thin voice got both their attention. "It's okay. I'll explain it all tomorrow. I'm going to sleep now."
"We need to have a little talk, mage," Marco muttered in a tone pitched for John's hearing as he stepped out of the way.
John didn't give the threat another thought. Cassie's face was pressed against his bare chest. He could feel her breath, warm against his wet skin. It was all he could do not to groan when soft little fingers came up and placed a hand over his heart.
"Pritkin, what happened to your shirt?"
"It's not important." He'd almost forgotten he'd used it as a tourniquet for his injured leg.
What was important was her small body in his arms, the steady rhythm of her heart beating so close to his own. He'd told her once that the individual is not important in a war. She hadn't believed him then, and now he knew that at least where she was concerned, he didn't believe it, either. She mattered in a way that left him feeling vulnerable and awed.
"The Allos[sp?]!" A little hand splayed against his chest. "Pritkin! They're coming!"
John carefully laid her on the bed. "You don't need to worry about them."
She struggled to sit up. "You have to get out of here. They always come."
He crouched by the side of the bed. "They're not coming."
She stared at him. He saw when acceptance hit her.
"Good," she nodded and let him tuck her in.
"Yes." He couldn't say anything else. He'd never forget Casanova's description of the time cycles, each one ending with Cassie's death at the hands of the demon high council's elite guards. He would find and kill Imogen, the demon responsible for all of this. It was the first thing he and Rosier had agreed on in a long time.
"Hey..." an exhausted Cassie finally managed to say. "Not dead yet." A faint smile flickered on her lips as she closed her eyes.
His knuckles were white from the death grip he had on the corner of the silk duvet he'd used to cover Cassie. He slowly opened his hand and let it go. And that's when it finally hit him.
He'd been doing his best to ignore any inappropriate feelings, to keep his emotions under tight control concerning his charge. Miss Palmer. Lady Cassandra. His current assignment.
And it was all a lie.
Somehow she'd slipped under his shields, stomped him in the heart, and taken it captive. The worse part was he didn't even mind. Nothing could come of his feelings for her, even if she was interested in him. Which she wasn't. But she was his friend, and as long as she looked at him and saw friend instead of monster, he would be grateful. Happy even. It was more than he deserved and more than he thought he'd ever have.
Marco and the other vamp guards hovered at the door. He didn't give a damn. He let himself stare at her, drinking in the messy curls, the angelic face, pale from exhaustion, until he'd convinced himself she was okay. He stood and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Her voice was barely a whisper. She grabbed his hand. "Don't go." He had to bend down to hear the rest of her words. "Stay for an hour…and seventeen minutes."
John sat on the bed next to her. He would stay for as long as she wanted.
A/N: The time loop was every hour and seventeen minutes. Or something close to that. I don't remember.
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