Holy hell, he felt it, too.
“The Nine have no equals,” he said, eyes glittering with crimson fire. “We always hold back. An eternity of being careful. It’s not our nature to be restrained. Especially not when we fuck.”
I’d never thought about it that way. Like me, he could break people without even meaning to. Restrained sex: oxymoron any way you looked at it. To have so much inside you—all coiled up and ready to explode, waiting, always waiting for someone to come along who can see it, who can handle it, and never being able to let it out—I know what it feels like.
A pain that, unlike the others I’ve mastered, I’ve never been able to figure out how to stop feeling. I don’t know that you can. It’s life trying to happen.
“A woman like you is a once-in-an-eternity opportunity. Every bloody one of us was waiting to see what you’d become when you grew up. I told you, you’re a fucking tsunami. I knew it even then. You didn’t smell like other people.”
The Nine had been watching me. Waiting to see what kind of woman I’d become.
“And Christ, you ran on pure adrenaline, unchecked aggression and sky-fucking-high dreams. The most fearless thing I’d ever seen. God damn it, Dani, everything I’ve done since the day I met you has been about keeping you alive. To never cage you or take away your choices, to see you rise, watch you become.”
“What? A bloody Hunter?” I demanded.
“I had no fucking idea that might happen,” he snarled. “If I’d known your hand had turned black, I would have factored that into my linchpin theories about you, and drawn conclusions sooner. It might have affected my actions, changed them. You withheld a critical piece of information.” He was angry about it, and not even trying to hide it, his face no longer cool and composed, but savage, fangs distending.
“As if you don’t all the time,” I flung, on the verge of vibrating, melting into the slipstream without even meaning to. Papers on his desk gusted, his hair ruffled.
“Breathe,” he ordered. “Get control of yourself.”
“Practice the preach. Your fangs are showing.” But I closed my eyes and took a moment to center myself. Then my eyes flew open and I said, “What the hell, Ryodan? What if I actually become a Hunter?” My voice broke on the last word, pain lacing it. Was I just one of those people who never got to belong? In this world but not of it? Never, ever once really of it?
He was silent a long moment, as if trying to decide what to say. A muscle worked in his jaw. Finally, he said carefully, “If you become a Hunter, perhaps you won’t care about this world, or those of us in it anymore. Perhaps it’s what you’re meant to be. Your journey takes you somewhere else.”
“You don’t believe in Fate,” I rejected flatly. “You believe in you.”
“Ah, Stardust, I’ve seen too many patterns unfold during my existence that hold a startling, cohesive symmetry. There’s a plan and it’s way the fuck bigger than you and me. The universe has an agenda. For a long time, everything I did was in defiance of it. Then I began trying to protect that agenda, so I could, at least, have some small say in the details.”
I said irritably, “I’d miss you. And I’d definitely still care about our world.” I love our world. It’s always my second priority. Survival is first.
“I’d like to believe that. But maybe some people are destined for larger things. And, according to you, you didn’t miss me at all for the past two years. I hardly see you missing me now, if you become something even less human.”
“Perhaps it’s not inevitable. Perhaps I can make it go away.” I ignored his other comments. I still didn’t know where he’d gone or why. And I was never telling him a single thing I missed about him until he told me that.
“Perhaps. Time will tell. In the meantime, once again, we’ve got a world to save. Perhaps we’ll need a Hunter to save it.”
“Perhaps,” I countered, “we’ll only need a little bit of a Hunter’s power. And perhaps, I can turn it off once we’ve fixed things, and be normal again.”
“?‘Again’ implies you once were that way. You weren’t. And there’s nothing in this world you’d hate more than being normal.”
He was right about that. “What would you do, if you were me?”
“I’d keep an open mind, consider all possibilities. That’s all any of us can do. Life is a box you don’t get to open all at once. You can touch it, pick it up, shake it even, but you can only guess at the contents. There’s a hole in the top of the box where things come out, on their own timetable, on their own terms. You think you have things figured out,” he said, with a note of bitterness in his voice, “only to find you saw everything completely wrong, didn’t understand a bloody bit of it. So, you wait to see what pops out next. And you go on living in the meantime.”
Sound advice. Pretty much what I’d concluded, without the box metaphor. “What’s on the agenda today, boss?”
“Ryodan. Let’s just be you and me for a while. No role-playing, no superheroes. Just a man and a woman who admire each other and drive each other bugfuck crazy, spending time together. Let’s make that rule number two.”
“What’s rule number one and who gets to make it?” I demanded.
He met my gaze and held it a long moment. Behind those remote silver eyes, storms rushed and swirled. Immense, thunderous storms. He was upset. That worried me. One of my rules goes something like this: if an Unseelie prince says “Run,” run. Another is: if Ryodan looks upset, be afraid. Be very, very afraid.
But me and him, we don’t do fear. We plunge back into our worlds, and wait for the next thing to pop out of the box. Prepared to face it.
“I’ll leave that one up to you,” he said finally. “You get to decide our number one rule.” His gaze added, Make it a good one. I’ll never break it.
We exchanged a smile then unlike any we’d shared before. An unguarded expression of warmth and respect.
Unfortunately, it did nothing at all to chase away the storms.
From either of our eyes.
A momentary lapse of reason that binds a life for life
CHRISTIAN’S CASTLE WAS…atmospheric, to say the least.
It sprawled atop a high cliff, towering over the vales below, affording a clear view of potential invaders. Though it was morning, not one speck of sunlight penetrated the bank of gloomy thunderclouds overhead. That smothering, low-hanging ceiling of slate stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. The only illumination was wan lightning that sizzled and crackled high above, causing the clouds to briefly flicker a slightly paler shade of depression.
The castle was vast, rambling across a mighty bluff, dropping sharply away on three sides. On the fourth, the wild, crashing sea slammed into the base of the towering dark bluff.
The only way in was a winding path gouged into the side of the cliff. Once one topped that path, a long road with stone walls on each side led to a perimeter stone wall that enclosed the entire estate, broken only by a mighty drawbridge that was up and heavily barred. Then the winding streets of the keep proper began. Tall stone towers stretched up into the dense gray ceiling, vanishing within. The castle soared and ducked, towered then slumped to low garrisonlike buildings. A full two-thirds of it was crumbling, yielding to the passage of time. The remaining third had been restored.
The ocean frothed and foamed beyond it, crashing into rocks far below. The entire estate was a study in angry slates, broody grays, and dark, tension-filled shadows, broken only by that wan intermittent lightning flickering high above.
We landed atop a low turret and I moved away from him, hugging myself to stay warm, my hair whipping about my head in the wild salty breeze. “Why is it so cold and gloomy here?” I had to speak loudly to be heard over the wind. “Is it because of you?”
“Sean. We affect the climate with our mood. His mood has been foul for a long time. The sun hasn’t shone on my keep since a few weeks after his arrival. What grass remains for him to test himself on is pale and sparse. He said last week if he runs out of grass within my kingdom, he’s leaving.”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “To go where?”
Christian shrugged. “I’ve no idea, lass, and he wouldn’t say. He’s not speaking to me right now. Perhaps into Faery, or the Unseelie kingdom, perhaps into the Silvers and beyond. We can’t lose him. We have to get him back somehow.” As my teeth began to chatter from the cold, he said, “But let’s get you inside, lass. It’s warm within. I’ll see you fed and set you on the path to Sean.”
* * *