Long time no, rewrite. Something a little lighter and more fun now... The story starts to take some fairly sharp departures from the original from here on.
Thank you to the lovely people who commented last time around; thank you Zabella, K'Ranna, Irishmoonrose, Adelaide E, Shiegra, Skysha-Tranqui, angel and the ever-fabulous Shang Leopard.
Lyrics come from One Republic's Apologise. (Thank you for the correction oo - is it too late to apologise...?)
Dedication: For Shang Leopard, for nudging me about this one.
Ouroboros Part Five
I take another chance
Take a fall, take a shot for you
And I need you like a heart needs a beat
But it's nothing new
Alisha waited on the mountain-top, staring down at the men who were coming towards her. And as if she didn't have enough problems, the vampire she had hit really rather hard wanted a word.
They eyed each other warily, like a pair of cats with their fur bristling. "What do you want?" she demanded.
Hands hooked in his pockets, he shrugged, and flashed her a sardonic smile. "You're an interesting one."
Interesting. Her former lover was hiring thugs to kill her, she was unmasked as the spy and the traitor she was not, and all this temperamental vampire had to offer was a superb understatement.
"Too interesting for me," she replied sourly.
He ignored her, studying her intently as she did him. Even for a lamia, he stood out; against his pale face, his black hair was stark, and there was an odd sweetness to his mouth that Alisha might have called vulnerability in someone else. Nothing vulnerable in those eyes, though, silky gold and the most striking features in a face that would have made Rodin's fingers itch.
Yet for all nature had given him, it was an arctic beauty, chilly and fierce.
"Very interesting." He tapped the place she had hit him, already healed to a milky colour. "You have faster reflexes than a vampire. You're a Daybreak agent. There's some guy – and I'm not sure what he is, but he makes my fangs tingle, and not in the way Pamela Anderson does – who wants you hurt, but wants to kick anyone who hurts you. You seem like trouble, and trouble's my forte."
She laughed shrilly. "You think? Look – I'm sorry, but I don't really have time to talk."
Down below, the men were too far away for her to make out their faces but she could feel their minds, sleek and sharp as needles, jabbing delicately on her senses but moving closer, slowly, casually.
"There's always time," the vampire admonished, the bite on his voice telling her that not many people tried to dismiss him. "He's sent amateurs after you. If they had any sense, they'd be hurrying, not stopping to smell the daisies."
"Get a lot of people trying to kill you, do you?" she snapped, the last traces of panic draining away and Daybreak's training beginning to kick in. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease out the tension there, preparing herself to try and survive; nothing more.
"You'd be amazed. Please – I need to ask you something. It's been niggling at me all day."
"Unless you want to ask me if you can please help beat up the scary, scary men, I'm probably not interested."
"How do you know Jepar?"
She froze, and knew that hesitation meant she couldn't just lie flat out. But how did he know? What would it mean? "What makes you think I know him?"
"Quite aside from the fact you stare at him like you're drowning and he's air, and you don't like him to touch you? Well...when you smacked me one, I got a full-on blast of your thoughts, and JJ was there. With a very bad haircut."
She put on her best blank look, and hoped it hid the welter of emotions thrashing under her skin.
"Which," he continued, "says to me either Jepar has an evil twin with even worse dress sense than he currently has – or you're both Old Souls, and he's your soulmate."
The truth hung in the air, blunt and brazen. How could she deny it? It would have been denying the scars on her heart, and the longing of her empty nights.
"Yes," she said finally. "He's mine."
Cougar let out his breath in a long whistle. "There's something else too. I…uh…have the feeling you're a little too familiar."
"What do you mean?"
"You aren't the only Old Soul here."
"But…you're a vampire."
"Really?" he said brightly. "Here was me thinking these amazing powers meant Superman finally had an heir. Turns out us bloodsuckers can experience the joys of reincarnation too. And…um…"
She tilted her head, squinting slightly. Yes, the old tingle was in her head, the feeling that somewhere and somewhen, they had met before. If he was a couple of feet shorter, and she imagined him a little scruffier, and erased ten years from that hard face…
"Oh my god."
"I think you were my big sister," he said, unwittingly confirming her flickering memories. "And you went totally bughouse."
Oh my god, she thought. This tetchy, tough vampire was my baby brother. "You were cuter then."
"I'm better-looking now," he flung back with unfailing arrogance. Cougar grinned then, and she saw the same tender charm, still in his face despite his changing lives. "So...big sis...want a hand beating up the scary, scary men?"
Cougar Redfern, Daybreak's file had read. Lamia; currently aged seventeen. One of six children, full-blood and born on the Satiari enclave. First of the family given permission to leave the enclave for education in a human school. At the age of fourteen, Cougar went into exile after illegally changing a human 'friend' into a vampire, and murdering Carinna del Saccio in the process. He is believed also to have murdered his half-brother, Bane Malefici, whose body was never found.
This wasn't the vicious murderer of the file, she knew. Alisha had often been used by Daybreak in their unorthodox court for her ability to sense minds. She'd felt the ashen tang of murderers, their sandpaper brutality: she'd been overwhelmed by the wash of madness and the boundless rage that thirsted after blood. None of it felt like him.
How familiar and earnest were those golden eyes; yes, it was vulnerability quivering in them. She didn't understand it, but gently, she answered, "Please."
His body seemed to relax; he'd been waiting for rejection. Who'd made him so volatile, who'd taken a mind that should have shone out like the midday sun and filled it with smoky shadows and dimness?
"Do you know anything about fighting?" he inquired, cracking his knuckles.
"I know self-defence, and I've got a yellow belt in aikido," she informed him. "And I've done a little bit of judo with Daybreak."
Unflatteringly, he winced. "Wrong question. I meant: do you know how to kick the shit out of people? These guys outnumber us and outweigh us, and the odds are good that they know all that fancy stuff too. Our best bet is the element of surprise and dirty fighting."
"I once kneed a vampire and he cried for an hour," Alisha offered. He'd been foolish enough to comment on a bad hair day, and had consequently had a bad groin day.
Cougar brightened. "That's more like it. Look, I've got into a few scraps with people before, and I've nearly always come out of them better. So let me handle any sharp pointy things they might have, and you concentrate on looking sweet and helpless then proving you're not."
Alisha batted her eyelashes at him, and got a lopsided grin in return. "All right – little bro."
"Does this mean I can steal your CDs, big sis?" he asked with a good attempt at puppy dog eyes.
Funny, she was starting to like him. Under that horrible, barbed exterior was a half-decent sense of humour. "You can even steal my make-up."
He stuck out his tongue, and they waited.
By the time they got into the town, the fire was in full flow, and the house was a charcoal shell with flames licking out of the windows and doors. Horrified, Jepar could only watch as the two fire engines sprayed water on the inferno to no avail.
All his possessions – his clothes, his books, his CDs, his videos, his photos... oh god, his photos! He had albums, huge fat things crammed with pictures of the Circle over the last three years, his pride and joy. The collage on his wall that Toya and Lisa had given him, covered in cinema stubs, restaurant receipts, little sketches of them all Lisa must have spent ages doing, his favourite photos blown up and mounted...he wanted to cry.
"It's just things," consoled Chatoya, but with a tremor in her voice that said she knew it was a lie as much as he did.
"But they were my things," he said bleakly. "They were mine."
"Whoa..." Cern Akafren came over, leading a smoke-dusted Ria. He was half-holding her up, and her breath was rasping in her throat like a file on metal. "Good news, JJ. Lisa and Thom are sorting through what Ria managed to bring out. You're an idiot," he added to Ria, but there was a hint of respect in the comment.
Chatoya crouched down, her face soft with concern, peering into Ria's red-rimmed eyes. "Goddess...did you go in there?"
The half-witch nodded furiously. "Jepar," she croaked, voice desperately hoarse, "I'm sorry – I tried to get some more stuff, but the firemen wouldn't let me go back in."
He stared at her, disbelieving. "You really did that?"
"I figured...your photos..." She gave a little shrug. "Well, you did say they were the first thing you'd grab if your house was on fire."
"That's an incredibly extravagant excuse for getting manhandled by those burly fireman," Cern told her, supporting her weight. Despite his flippancy, he held her carefully, and his eyes were concerned. "We all know that was the real reason."
"You got me," Ria rasped. She seemed a paper doll, if a singed one, willowy and frail, but again, Jepar was reminded that there was a strength to her that was concealed by her timidity.
They always underestimated Ria, didn't they? It was easy to do: as Cougar's other half, she was bound to be cast into the background by his dark, exotic good looks and diabolical temper. She didn't have the power of Chatoya, the quirks of Cern, the vitality of Lisa...she ghosted around the edges of their lives, still vulnerable, still afraid of being alienated again. And yet...
And yet her strongest quality rose to the surface once again: her deep, abiding sweetness. She'd walked into a burning building on the vague recollection of an offhand remark he'd once made.
"Thank you," he said softly. He didn't know what else to say – what was there that could express the momentous meaning of so small an act? All his memories were pressed onto those photographs, frozen colours that moved in his mind when he looked at them.
She opened her mouth and Cern tapped her on the nose. "Be silent, Kermit," he ordered wearily. "Unless you want a career singing the blues, save your voice."
"You've done a lot of damage," put in Chatoya, fingers light on Ria's throat. "I can't heal this in one go. It's going to take a couple of weeks."
"What a damn mess," Ruby said as she approached, barely glancing at Ria. Disdain curled her mouth. "The back half's gutted. It'll bankrupt you."
Not me, Jepar thought, but the trustees who controlled his finances wouldn't be pleased.
"Thanks for lifting the mood," Cern said brightly. "I'm sure Jepar appreciates your optimism and steadfast enthusiasm. Maybe you can sing a dirge and scatter some petals while the rest of us clean up."
Ruby ignored the witch, as she was wont to do and turned a hard stare on him. Jepar wanted to quail beneath it but forced a smile instead. "You can stay at mine while it's being fixed."
He hoped his horror didn't show on his face. "It's okay...Cern and Thom have already offered. I'd quite like having nights in with the boys again. But you could always ask Cougar," he added with a hint of mischief. Cougar would happily pluck out his own eyeballs before he went near Ruby.
She shuddered. "I'll pass." She wandered off again, probably to stare at the remnants of his home.
"So..." Cern said dryly. "Want to stay with me and Thom?"
"Please," he said with heartfelt relief. "Thom still sleepwalk?"
Cern sighed. "He's progressed to sleepmoonwalking now."
"Seriously? Michael Jackson has a lot to answer for."
"Well..." The witch gave them a devilish little smile, his purple eyes bright. "Personally, I blame the boogie."
He groaned, glad for the distraction. Somehow the silly jokes made it easier to bear; reminded him that his friends were once again there to catch him when it seemed everything was falling apart.
Chatoya was staring at the smoking shell of the house. "Why did he do it?" she asked, her voice vague. "Why your house, Jepar?"
"I wasn't exactly polite to him, was I?" he answered grimly. "And he wanted us out of the way."
"But why?" She shook her head. "This...this feels wrong. What does this David person want with her?"
"He said something about betrayal," offered Cern, sounding only half-interested. "Honestly, does it matter? I'm not planning on having anything to do with her."
Sometimes Jepar forgot how painfully practical his friends were. There was another Daybreaker we were friends with once, he wanted to say. We were cruel to him too, but when things were desperate, he put his life on the line to help us. He nearly died for it.
I don't want to make that mistake twice.
He was beaten to it; Chatoya gave Cern a stern glare. "We haven't heard her side of it yet. Matt lied to us about working for Daybreak too, but he had reason. Maybe she does too. And as for taking David's word...so far, he's attacked her in school-"
"He did?" Cern blinked. "You didn't tell us that."
"We were getting round to it," she said, dismissing it with a wave of her hand. "And he's just sent assassins after her."
"There's more to it than that," Cern said thoughtfully. Some of the ire had faded from his face, replaced by concentration. "Didn't you hear what he said when Cougar threatened her?"
"'You lay one hand on her and I'll kill you'," quoted Jepar. Cern had seen to the heart of it; there was more to this situation than an old vendetta. Something concealed. "You're right, that is weird. Why does he care who hurts her?"
Guilt scratched at him. We should have stayed, he thought. Ria had already rung the fire brigade, what could we have done? If that had been one of us...we wouldn't have left them. God, we left her to face assassins on her own.
His confusion and shame must have shown in his expression, because Chatoya laid a hand on his arm and said gently, "Cougar stayed. We all know he won't pass up a fight."
Somehow, that didn't make him feel better; an inexplicable part of him felt that he had failed in a duty he hadn't known he'd had, and however he tried to repress it, the guilt came flooding back like a monsoon tide.
I should have protected her.
The three men came scrambling up the last part of the hill, sending pebbles clattering down the slopes behind them. They were dressed casually, and nothing about them said they made their living from the pain of others.
Cougar cracked his knuckles, and she felt the tempo of his mind surge, as if someone had fed gasoline to a flame. She was surprised to see a faint, malicious smile. "They're about to have such a bad day," he announced. "Now...just remember. Look helpless."
She glanced at him, tall and relaxed. He really was enjoying this. "Is that what you're going to do?"
"Hell, no!" He raised his eyebrows. "Look at me, babe. I am, let's face it, a magnificent specimen in the prime of life. Helpless isn't even an option."
Alisha sincerely hoped he was as fearsome as he seemed to think he was.
"This isn't any of your business, vampire," called one of the men. "Keep out of it, and no one has to get hurt."
"Not even her?" Cougar said, jerking a thumb in her direction.
The man's smile was quick and curt. "Except her. But she's food, and last time I checked, you leeches don't tend to strike up a conversation with your hors d'oeuvres."
"Well, this is a bit different," Cougar explained, his voice just as pleasant as the man's. "She's my sister."
The men were coming closer, flanking them. Fear spiralled up through her stomach, cold and flighty, and despite herself, she edged closer to Cougar.
Their spokesman laughed. "Now I've heard it all. A vampire who thinks he's related to vermin. Hear that, lads? A batty vampire!"
"You know, I was going to let you live. But there's no excuse for that joke."
The next few moments happened so fast she could hardly keep track of them; Cougar sprang into movement, a blur, and at the same time, she felt power explode across the air, his aura bursting like a plethora of fireworks, full of rage and a savage joy.
The leader was suddenly toppling back down the hill, mouth agape.
One of them grabbed her, clapping a meaty hand across her mouth, his other arm a hard band across her stomach. She bit him hard, and rammed her foot down on his instep.
He let go – and then he was hurled back by an exceedingly angry vampire. Her eyes watered from the sheer energy trembling around them, a riot of quivering colours that clouded their bodies. The other assassin was on the ground, groaning softly; blood trickled from his mouth, more pooling around his thigh, where a silver knife was embedded.
Her attacker had slipped into wolf form, a snarling mass that Cougar grappled with. There was nothing she could do to help, and she only stayed back, keeping a careful eye on proceedings. The dull thud of fur on flesh was interspersed with snapping sounds, and grunts from both of them which made her wince, very glad she had Cougar here.
David would have had me at his mercy, she thought, and the idea weighed like lead on her, leaking slow poison. But he was overconfident, and I was incredibly lucky.
The wolf sailed through the air – oh god, it was attacking her, all her calm had scattered, replaced by sudden, gripping terror-
It smashed into the ground a few feet away, sloughing along the rocky surface on its side before it came to rest, sending up a spray of pebbles. Its eyes were blank and staring, nothing more than a low whine escaping it.
"Told you they were amateurs."
Cougar was dusting off his hands, looking exceedingly smug.
She stared at the wolf's prostrate form, all her breath stolen. "They could have killed me," she said faintly, and then she had to sit down before she fell.
Cougar stood over the only conscious one, who had his hands clamped around the blade in his leg. "I think now is the time for a big career rethink," he advised the man, who looked sick with fear. "Are you any good at telling tales?"
The man nodded his head with what sounded like a petrified squeak.
"Good." Cougar's smile was wide and lazy, full of nasty promise. She was glad it wasn't directed at her. "Better make it interesting. Want to tell me just what you were going to do with Alisha?"
The man cleared his throat. "He just said to rough her up a bit. He wanted her frightened, he said, nothing permanent. We were supposed to make it clear that we'd go after the shapeshifter next – the blond one, that guy hates him for some reason."
"And do you know why?" The question was silky, caressing, but the man shuddered as if he'd been struck.
"No, no, I swear it! He said it was personal, that we only needed to know what to do. He said he didn't need to explain to the hired help. Look, I needed the money, all right, I got two kids to bring up, and they laid me off a month ago-"
The vampire sliced one hand across the air, and the man fell silent, as if his words really had been chopped off.
"All right. I believe you. You can keep your life, but I'll have my knife back." Cougar leaned down and yanked it out. The man gasped; a fresh wash of blood spilled across his hands, and the vampire's eyes became a bright, shining gold. For a moment, Alisha thought he might sink his fangs into the man, but Cougar stepped back, the hunger in his expression terrible but controlled.
"How am I supposed to get down?" the man called, a desperate keen.
Cougar glanced at the figure of the wolf, slumped on the ground. "Better hope he wakes up, hadn't you?"
The face he turned to her was far gentler, though his eyes never lost their inhuman sheen. Without a word, he offered her a hand up, and she clung to him, still feeling jarred and queasy.
"You can't leave me!" the man shouted.
Cougar whipped around, and his voice cracked across the air like a rifle. "Are you a complete moron? I'm a Redfern, babe, and you just attacked a member of my family. I can do whatever I want."
As they left, his arm steady support, she could only form one coherent thought: thank god he's on my side.
"Thank you," she said through numb lips. "I owe you."
He gave her a bitter grin. "Yeah? You can pay me back over lunch."
"I want your advice. Soulmate stuff."
She gave a rickety laugh. What supreme irony. "I don't think I'm the kind of person who can tell you what to do."
"Yep. That's why I want you to tell me what not to do." Razors underlined his voice, waiting to slice at her. "I can't lose her."
I thought the same once. But I learned, eventually. I survived; again and again and again, and if seeing him and being unable to have him is just dying a death every time he leaves my sight, then I'll survive that too. Perhaps that's the true strength of a soulmate bond – such love that it can burn strong despite the devastation and pettiness and greed of the heart, blaze side by side with pain and grief...and still be worth each lonely second.
But I don't think that's what you want to hear.
"I'll try," she answered gently. "But I can't promise anything."
Promises are for people who know how to keep them.
In the sky above, he was unnoticed; a speck that on closer examination proved to be a kestrel hovering on the air currents. When he was sure they were gone, David y Pelathas dropped down to the ground with a speed fuelled by anger.
So Talisa was not entirely friendless. That was a surprise and an unpleasant one. Alone she would have been defeated and shown the price of defiance: now she had allies, and this victory would only make her more obstinate. Even eight hundred years ago he had courted her assiduously before she yielded; but the sweetness of the reward had been worth the toil of the pursuit.
He needed her isolated, and biddable. He had waited eight hundred years for her – he had surrendered his lands, his title, his very humanity for hope of her.
He would not give up now. He always got what he wanted, though she had been the first thing he had to fight so hard for.
And even when he thought her won, still she wavered. Towards the end, he had been sure Talisa was regretting their affair. More than once he had felt a distance in her embraces, a reluctance that had become more apparent as time passed.
With that in mind, he had decided to tip the balance a little. So it was that he came to a dusty road on a bright morning, and to Ieran.
Talisa's betrothed had been indentured to David's family as long as Talisa, but where she worked within the grounds, as fixed a point of beauty as the gardens she sometimes tended, Ieran had worked as a messenger. Even as a human he had an uncommon turn of speed, and a reputation for unquestioning deference.
By then, Talisa had vacillated between them for nearly two years, and showed less sign than ever of leaving her soulmate. His pride would not let David release her; his love made him yet more possessive.
He did not have to wait long before Ieran passed by, carrying a message that David had arranged to have sent, knowing it would bring him to this place and this moment.
A swift pull on the reins brought him into the boy's path.
Ieran stopped at once, though his face registered confusion at the sight of David. "My lord?" he said, something like suspicion in his eyes. "Is there some change to the message I was given?"
David circled the horse around him. "Ieran, is it? Talisa's betrothed?"
"Yes." His face was immobile, his blank expression practiced.
"A lovely maid. But not, perhaps, as well treated as she should be."
Something dangerous flared in his eyes but it didn't move into his tone. "It sounds like you're implying I neglect her, my lord."
David chuckled. "For one who claims to be in love with her, you abandon her rather regularly."
Ieran glared, his eyes hard as emeralds. "What business is it of yours? My lord." The title was plainly grudging and David felt a stab of vicious satisfaction at the thought his next words would bring.
"You may neglect her," he said loftily, looking at the boy who stood there, his face guarded and wary. "I do not."
Ieran inhaled sharply. David couldn't hide the sly smile that crawled across his features.
"You lie," Ieran hissed, shaking his head so the blond hair caught bright in the sun. "Talisa would never-"
"Never is a large assumption to make." David's words were snapped out. "Especially considering that she already has for the past two years."
Under the blazing sun, the boy was pallid as a ghost. "Two years?" he said, but doubt had invaded his face. "You think my betrothed could lie to me for two years and I wouldn't know?"
David merely laughed. "Your soulmate is a witch. I'm sure she knows the right spells. And if she doesn't, someone else in the Nightworld will."
Finally he saw belief register in Ieran's eyes. "She told you about the Nightworld," he said in a strange, flat voice.
David pulled the horse round, and added as a parting shot, "Ask yourself this – what reason would I have to lie? And if Talisa loves you so much, then why does she spend every waking hour she can with me?"
It was often said in gossip that Ieran let his mind overrule his heart and that his emotions were second to his logic and intelligence. But his heart had ruled here and been overthrown by the bitter truth.
It was betrayal that David saw in his face, and it felt like victory.
He cast no glance back as he left, but if he had, he would have been gleeful to see Ieran sink to the ground with his head in his hands. There was no denial, because his worst suspicions had been confirmed at last, and he was lost.
"Oh God," he said so softly the words were not touched even by the breeze. "Oh God, it's true."
They filled the walk into town with small talk about things that neither of them particularly cared about; TV and movies, the weather, the news, all safe topics which ignited nothing beyond a brief and tepid debate.
She was surprised when they stopped at a teashop calling itself The Blood Rose Café. Its slightly quaint, cosy atmosphere didn't seem like somewhere that would attract Cougar Redfern.
Nonetheless, the boy behind the counter nodded to him with the familiarity of long acquaintance and they were soon settled at a corner table with coffee and an array of pastries.
"This doesn't seem like your kind of place," she ventured.
An ironic little smile played about his mouth. "Didn't used to be. But I come here to visit a friend."
He looked slightly disgusted. "Please. Rob Slivan may have all the girls drooling in their dinner, but I'm a Redfern and I have better taste. No...I come here for her."
It took her a moment to realise he was gesturing to the picture on the wall beside them. The girl in it was no beauty – there was something a little goofy about her starstruck pose and the tongue stuck out at the camera, and her red hair was lurid as poppies, but there was a softness in Cougar as he looked at her.
Then she saw the plaque beneath the picture. For Sonj, it said. A rose without thorns.
"Who was she?"
"A friend. She died." Those four words in their brevity could have been dozens more. I loved her, he might have said. I miss her. This is a better way to remember her than flowers on a grave. It still hurts.
"You didn't say you understand," he remarked. "But you're one of the few people who could. You lost JJ, didn't you?"
"Is that why you're scared of him?"
She opened her mouth to reply that she wasn't frightened, it wasn't like that, but... "Yes. I'm terrified I'll lose him again. I can't go through that."
He nodded. "Yeah. Me too. That's why I want your help."
"You need to understand something first." She spoke quickly, trying to make it easier on herself. "I did a terrible thing to him in that other life. I hurt him badly. You need to think about that before you decide if you want my advice."
Alisha saw an echo of that coldness that had been there on the mountain. She couldn't blame him. "Do you regret it?"
"Every day," she answered. She roused a bitter smile. "Every life. It was always the same until this life, you see. I was born not knowing, waiting, I guess. And every time on my sixteenth birthday, I would remember what I did. It drove me mad. How could it not, learning everything you thought you were was a lie? I did some...pretty drastic things."
"Define drastic." His tone made no judgement, but nor did it offer any quarter.
"Suicide, mostly." She didn't like to think about it; those memories came back too, lingering like a threat of might be. It was hard to speak of them dispassionately, but she didn't want to bring emotion into this. It would have felt like a cheap gamble for his sympathy. "Hanged myself a few times. Cut my wrists. Drowned – very Ophelia, very disgusting. Set myself alight. Slight overkill, that one. Other times I just left myself in harm's way, you know? I had a couple of lives where I lived longer – the madwoman on the street corner, asking everyone if they'd seen him, part of me always understanding just what I had become but unable to change it."
"You don't look mad now," he offered.
"This life was different. I was born knowing – it was easier to bear. I've always known what I did and what I am."
His gaze was cool. "And what did you do to Jepar?"
"Ieran," she corrected automatically. "He was very different back then. Much more serious. He never liked anyone to know what he felt, and he almost never spoke about it. You know, I think I could count on my fingers the number of times he told me he loved me. We were engaged to be married. He travelled a lot and I started this...affair."
"With your creepy dragon friend?"
"With David," she agreed. "It went on for years but Ieran found out eventually. It devastated him. He confronted me – and he walked off a cliff. I might as well have pushed him."
"That doesn't sound like Jepar," he remarked. "He's much more likely deal with a broken heart by moping in his room and listening to Toni Braxton. At least that was what happened when he and Toya went their separate ways. That only lasted three days, thank god. There's only so many times you can hear him wailing along to 'Unbreak My Heart' before murder seems like the merciful option."
He was being...flippant.
"Don't you understand what I did?"
He stared at her. "Babe, you made a mistake. It was a crappy thing to do, but I believe you when you say you regret it. Not only that, I'd say eight hundred years of nasty ends and raving lunacy is a pretty fair price to have paid."
Such sweeping clemency stunned her. It didn't seem right. "But..."
"And I'll be honest with you," Cougar continued, and his gaze was steady, gentler than she had imagined he knew how to be, "your Ieran doesn't sound much like the guy I know. JJ's repulsively happy and he has been since I met him. Seriously, we have faced down cults, crazy people, Nightworld overlords and assassins, and nothing gets him down for longer then oh, ten minutes. Personally," he added, "it makes me want to kick him, but everyone else seems to find it uplifting."
"And I can't destroy that," she said quietly.
"If you think knowing something like that would destroy Jepar, you're doing him a massive injustice." The vampire snorted. "How many times have you found him since he took the, uh, big drop?"
"This is the first time."
He boggled. "Let me get this straight. This is the first time you've run into your soulmate in eight hundred years and you're just going to sit here and do nothing?"
"Yes." She didn't want to put it into words; it lodged in her throat. It was enough, surely to see him, to watch him live out his life in the happiness he hadn't had – couldn't have – with her. Crueller by far to show him the past he didn't recall and rip out his life from beneath his feet. "David wants him dead."
"Tell him to take a ticket and get in line. You think Jepar needs you to protect him?" He gave her a grim, dazzling smile. "He's got friends, babe. And he's not exactly helpless. If it comes to the worst, his rendition of Unbreak My Heart is as agonising as a knife to the ribs."
"Is this all a joke to you?" she snapped.
His face became guarded, closing down like a fortress. "You're missing my point. He doesn't need your help, and I think you know that. Like I said earlier, you're afraid."
"You're right," she said shortly. Part of her still struggled to understand how little what she had done mattered to him. It had defined her so long that she found it almost impossible to understand that it was mere detail to someone like Cougar. "But don't you understand? I can't take the risk that if I show him what I did, he'll hate me."
He opened his mouth – and then seeing something in her face, changed whatever he'd been about to say. "Let's leave it, okay? Get to know Jepar. Deal with creepy dude. Then let's talk about it again."
Nothing would change, but relieved, she agreed. "How about we talk about you instead?"
He grimaced. "Yeah."
The silence lingered so long she began to wonder if he'd lost the power of speech. Alisha raised her eyebrows pointedly.
"It's difficult, okay," he muttered. "Me and Ria…"
He took a deep breath, and then another.
"We didn't meet under the best circumstances. Her sister was trying to off Jepar, and she knew. Jepar thought she was the sweetest thing since butter icing – all of them did and no one but me suspected anything. They all thought I was being unreasonable."
He rolled his eyes as if to suggest he was a very paragon of reasonableness.
"Then it turned out she was my soulmate. Soon after, it all kicked off – her sister tried to kill JJ, Ria tried to stop her and...and a lot of shit happened. It all ended happily, and I...I realised I liked her." His smile was bittersweet. "And now I love her and I'm screwing it all up and I don't know how to stop."
"How are you screwing it up?" she said.
"She wanted Prince Charming. She got me."
"Ah. The glass slippers are chafing?"
"Something like that," he said glumly. "She believes that love should cure everything. That because we're soulmates – because she can see inside my mind and dig out all my secrets, she should. And I can't...the things I've done..."
He spread his hands, and his eyes were full of absolute misery.
"I'm terrified," he said in a voice so quiet she barely heard him. "And she thinks it means I don't love her."
His words resonated in her bones. God, she knew how that felt, to know that your terrible deeds were waiting to be discovered like a body in a shallow grave.
"I need her not to know," he said. "I want to be the person she loves."
"Are they so terrible?" she asked gently.
The strain was evident in his face, as if he held back a great wash of emotion. "Yeah. I wasn't always the saint you see before you."
She smiled at his feeble joke. "I know that. But do you think your secrets are any worse than mine?"
"Maybe not to you. You've seen a lot. But to Ria..." He struggled for words and she waited, patient as he had been with her. "Her sister damaged her. And some of what I've done – it's not so far from Bliss's nastier works. If I'd wanted I could've been like Bliss. I chose not to, but it was that close, Alisha. Some days it was so damn close I still don't know how I wound up here."
"But you did end up here," she said. "You made the right choice. And now you've got another choice."
"One, you can tell her what you've just told me and hope she trusts you. Two, you can let her in to see all those secrets and hope she still loves you. Three..."
"You can lose her, and hope you forgive yourself." She shrugged. "You'll survive. It'll suck, but you'll survive."
His eyes were steadfast. "I don't want to just survive. I want that stupid fairytale, or the closest thing."
"Then I recommend door number one," she said solemnly.
"I'll try." Some of the tension dissipated from his face and shoulders. "You give some good advice, sis."
She reached over and ruffled his hair, ignoring his indignant squawk. "That's why you're paying, little bro."
And just for a while, as they bantered over coffee and cake, she could relax and forget; she had family again. She was no longer alone. Someone was there beside her to help fight her battles.
It had been so long, she'd almost forgotten what it felt like: wonderful.
I loved you with a fire red
Now it's turning blue, and you say
'Sorry' like the angel heaven let me think was you
But I'm afraid...
It's too late to apologize
It's too late
Thank you for reading! Comments would be loved.