Haunted by Your Soul
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by Marguerite Labbe
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica
Description: Heartbroken by the death of his vampire lover, Jacob Corvin finds himself embroiled in the intricacies of vampire hierarchy. He is consumed with rage after Kristair's torment and death, and when The Syndicate returns he is more than ready to personally destroy every one of the power-hungry vampires. That anger and pain cannot be soothed, because before he disappeared, Kristair transferred all his memories and a piece of his soul to Jacob. So as hard as Jacob tries to move on--he can't. Kristair's heart still beats in his chest, and Kristair's memories whisper to him. As he gets dragged further into a war between the vampires, Jacob starts to believe he's losing his mind. Those whispers and a feeling of Kristair's presence are growing within him, and he starts a desperate struggle to retain his own sense of self and sanity. But Kristair is not so easily silenced when he's determined to return to where he belongs.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: November 2009
15 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [428 KB]
Reading time: 288-404 min.
Haunted by Your Soul is packed with action, suspense, erotic moments, and at least one breathtaking setting. The ending left me salivating for the next book in the series. 4.5/5 Nymphs Scandalous Minx @ Literary Nymphs Reviews
A sensation. A thought. A dawning sense of individuality drew my notice and woke me up. I had been drifting, caught up in the swirl of mass consciousness for how long I didn't know. Time had no meaning here, or the Ascended existed outside of time, or all points of time at once. I knew not which.
Only now, terms such as I and me began to form in my psyche; words altogether foreign to the whole. Though we speak with many voices, the Ascended were of one mind; one being. Independence and individualism held no meaning for us; no importance. Instead of thinking in terms of we and us, this new possibility of existence including things such as I or me seemed new, yet somehow familiar. Words that made me separate from the whole, distinct in my own right.
Why was I different?
The whispering started again, pulled me back under, my brief moment of individuality swept under the weight of the hive mind. Other elements, other psyches left on occasion and came back. We changed in an endless ebb and flow of different minds, a kaleidoscope of personalities and souls, moving in shifting, myriad patterns. I allowed myself to be incorporated back into the whole without a fight. There was still so much left to learn and I wasn't ready to stand on my own.
At least, that was what they kept telling me.
Yet something else continued to tug at my mind, keeping me from sinking back into oblivion. I shifted, flitting over other distinct psyches searching for the tether that insisted on propelling me ever onward. My systematic hunt was interrupted again and again as I lost track of my bearings as other minds came or left, forcing me to start from the beginning.
Then I realized the compelling force wasn't coming from my companions. It was elsewhere; somewhere beyond the boundaries of my new world. Curious, I drifted. Sometimes old memories, strange desires darted through my mind before being forgotten again. I felt along the edges of the mass consciousness and realized there was yet another place that existed beyond my new life.
Somehow, I managed to find my way to the outer limits of the barrier and forced an opening to the other side. I wasn't sure how I accomplished the feat and it was as if my eyes opened again. Or maybe a more apt term might be that I had my mind reawakened. All of existence unfurled before me, other dimensions, universes, galaxies, whole civilizations being born and others dying.
I froze. The vastness of the beyond was frightening, terrifying in its breadth and weight. It was enormous, mind-numbing, unbelievable and unfathomable by any one individual. Out there was to be alone, while here inside my bubble there was constant companionship. No, I would stay here where it was safe. Where I was safe. I was but newly born and needed to be with my family.
Then the call came again. No words, no thought behind it, just pure emotion driving away my fears with an overwhelming sense of loss and despair.
I slipped through the barrier separating me from the rest of existence and stood alone. The call was stronger here, almost agonizing in its intensity. My psyche took shape into a form I recognized and I trembled. My mind whirled, trying to decipher what it all meant. I could hear the Ascended whispering, calling me back home. There was something about them and the unique sound they made that was significant and teased my memory. But the other plea was stronger, almost shrieking, drowning out the Ascended and my nascent understanding. Yet I didn't know how to find it or how to sever the connection.
As I struggled with the dilemma, another presence emerged next to me. Her semblance was as thin as mine. I knew her. Yet in the same moment I didn't. Why couldn't I remember? I had touched upon her once or twice in the mass, of that I was sure. But that wasn't where I knew her from. It was someplace else, long gone and forgotten. Her hair was dark golden, her eyes a serious brown. Somehow, she seemed to be more a part of me than the other Ascended, yet I knew not why.
"You shouldn't be here." Her voice was gentle and coaxing. "You aren't ready yet."
"I know," I replied and studied her face, searching for the elusive trigger that would cause everything to fall into place.
She held out her hand. "Come back with us. Come home."
I started toward her, the sweet song of the other minds swelling, beckoning me into their comfortable anonymity. Then I hesitated, drawing back as my fetter yanked toward the unknown call. Through the connection, I could sense agony, a desperate loneliness and rage. I cried out, my mind spinning from the brief contact.
"It's time to let him go," she said, moving closer. "Your old life is long past. It doesn't concern you now."
Her words made sense, but I found myself moving away from her again, evading her hand. I sensed that, if she touched me, the link between myself and my unknown puppet master would be shattered once the Ascended enveloped me again. Maybe it was foolish, but I didn't want to lose the part of myself that made me distinct from the rest.
"No... not yet."
"If you wish." She drew back, patience in her eyes. "In time it will become less on its own. We thought merely to ease your discomfort."
Two sides pulled at me. One offered solace, new knowledge, and constant companionship, the other confusion and pain. It was a ludicrous decision, yet still I found myself letting the outside one pull me along. It needed me more.
She disappeared in a flash of confused images, too quick for me to make out. A distant world of blue and swirling white appeared before me and I hurtled toward it. Then it changed to a jumbled maze of concrete and glass, scents and sounds that left me aching.
He called again.
I struggled to make sense of it all, but the jigsaw puzzle refused to match up into a complete, sensible picture. He called me.
Too much information bombarded me; a whole world of sensation and memory and words. It was painful and I struggled to pull away again. Afraid, I wanted--no, needed--to go back to where I belonged. But he wouldn't let me.
The world fell still.
* * * *
The sidewalk milled with costumed people in a curious mixture of horror and comic. Jigsaw in his distinctive white and red mask rubbed elbows with Jay and Silent Bob. Carrie's bloodstained prom dress stood out in the throng as she scampered down the street, her date sporting a very realistic-looking proton pack strapped on over his Ghostbuster uniform.
It was unreal. On this night, one year ago, I stood at this very spot when I recognized Kristair.
Lost in memory, indifferent to the people streaming around me, I remained frozen, cradling the rose I'd brought in my hand. Muttered curses followed after me as other students were forced to detour, but for the most part they were too intent on the promise of alcohol and a night of uninhibited celebration to notice. Last year I had been one of them.
It was part of a whole other life. This year, things were different. Different in so many ways it hurt my brain to try to process them all at once.
Tony was gone now. The last words I had said to him were full of hate and fury. It ate at me during the long, dark hours before dawn when I lay awake, my arms empty. I didn't know if my friend had survived his trip to Rome or how the Syndicate had greeted him. I wondered about it whenever I closed my eyes and heard Tony's screams for mercy. Or when his mom would call in the hope that maybe Steve or I had heard from him. Or every time I walked by our old, empty apartment. I would never know what had happened to him. I accepted it as part of the sentence to my own private hell.
Tony, Steve, and I had been the best of friends since the first day we'd been assigned the same dinky-ass dorm room as freshmen. Maybe two and a half years isn't a long time to some, and I know friendships come and go, but not for the three of us, or so I'd thought. We were more than friends; we were brothers. Sure, we'd had our share of blowups in the past, but in the end we were always there for one another. Until I had let Tony down. He'd been trying to protect me. Instead of recognizing that, I had lashed out at him in my own hurt and rage over Kristair's death. It didn't occur to me until much later that he had been acting on what little information I'd allowed him to have. Maybe if I'd been honest with him.... Fuck. It was the same loop: maybes, what-ifs, regrets. It was a wonder I was still sane.
God, please, I have no damned right to ask anything from you, but if you could grant one thing, please let Tony be okay. I don't care if he hates me for the rest of eternity or if I never know what happened to him, but please make it so I didn't send him to his death. That's all I ask.
Of course, maybe death was preferable to whatever life he might be living now. Sometimes I hated the way my brain enjoyed torturing the fuck outta me.
Steve was still around, in a way. He'd distanced himself from me. Not that I could blame him. Kristair had set him on edge from day one and with everything that happened afterward, how it all got so fucked up, it didn't help. I sighed and scrubbed a hand over my face. No, I couldn't blame him one bit.
I had always viewed Steve as the big brother I never had. Steve was the person I went to when I had a problem I couldn't tackle on my own. He'd listen, sometimes cuss me out a bit if I had been an idiot, but then helped me take care of it or offered suggestions in his abrupt kind of way.
Now Steve seemed almost afraid of me at times. I'd catch him looking my way out of the corner of his eye, the expression on his dusky face almost wary. It hurt like hell. Still, Steve stuck by me. If I called, he listened. If I came by his new place, he didn't kick me out, and, on occasion, I even got a visit from him. On a rare occasion.
He understood why I went nuts and thought Tony had fucked up. But despite all that, in his mind, there were still some things you didn't do and I had gone over the line. Big time.
The pedestrian light changed and I crossed the street, my eyes locked on the spot where Kristair had been standing last year. I wasn't even sure why I was doing this, why I was here. For some type of closure, I guess. That was a fucking laugh. Even now, after all of this time, Kristair was with me every damned moment, eternally haunting me. It was a constant torture.
Though our bond had shattered, my mind held all of Kristair's memories; I still carried his heart, which would start beating at odd times with no rhyme or reason. At first, it had given me hope that Kristair still lived and would somehow make his way back to me. Over the long months, hope had died. He had been gone far longer now than we had ever been together.
So yeah, Kristair and I may be as one, our souls bound when he completed the ritual that saved my life and allowed me to walk again, but I knew he was dead. I'd never forget the last expression on his face, the agony and ecstasy twisting his elegant features into an inhuman mask. I may have had his memories, his knowledge, but there was no emotion behind them. And though it rarely showed on his face, Kristair had held more emotion inside of him than most men did.
I'd never gotten used to his lingering presence. At times it had almost made me forget he was gone, most often when drifting off to sleep or upon first waking. I could pretend the feeling was real until I'd find myself reaching for him. Then it would come crashing down all over again and it would be as if I'd lost him all over.
I couldn't go on like this. Somehow, I had to let him go, to regain my sense of self. Kristair's personality was as strong as my own. However, the number of years I'd been alive weren't even measurable against his. I'd find myself saying things I'd never say, doing things in a certain way that had people looking at me sideways and whispering behind my back. My Ma thought I'd joined a cult and Coach Latimer thought I was on drugs. The only ones who took it in stride were Steve and Kayla, but they were also the only ones who knew the whole story. The true story.
Even then, it was hard for them to be around me at times. I'd see Kayla looking at me with her gray-blue eyes wide on the verge of tears and know I had done something that reminded her of her father. There was a certain amount of attraction between us; there always had been. Only now, I didn't know if she was reacting to me or to what she saw in me of the man who she'd always wanted to be more than her protector, and who had known of her feelings, but could never return them. It was more than weird.
God, it hurt.
Nothing in my life had ever prepared me for this constant aching emptiness, the continual depression I couldn't shake off. The worst was the fury. It simmered underneath everything else heaped up on me and the target kept changing--everybody from myself to Kristair to the goddamned geek in my class who thought he knew everything already. I got a perverse amusement out of using Kristair's knowledge and flair for words to knock him down hard during debates.
Yeah, there had been some good things that came from all the shit I'd encountered in the past year, but those times didn't hold a candle to the burning ache the rest had left inside of me.
Someone shoved up against me. "Get outta the way, asshole." I turned my head and gave him a cold glare, irrational rage bubbling up at the interruption. He paled and stumbled back, and then the crowd flowed around me creating a little pocket, leaving me alone once more.
I returned to my brooding.
I glanced back down at the spot I'd been drawn to, my eyes stinging. I hadn't cried since the night Kristair was killed and I wasn't gonna start now. Sometimes I wished I'd never caught his attention, never met him. Those moments didn't last long because at least I knew what it was like to love someone, truly love someone.
I'm sure most wouldn't get how I could have had such a deep connection with him when we'd only had such a short time together. When we were as different as two people could be.
Come off it. Pick up and move on. There were other guys out there, or girls; you liked girls too. At least they'd take your mind off him. Yeah, I'd heard it all. But when you'd held someone in your arms and heard every thought they had, the good and the bad, felt every damned emotion they experienced, that kind of relationship never came again. Nor would I want it to, not unless it was with him.
Kristair loved me, even with all of my pride and need for dominance. I loved him despite his own arrogance and knowing that no matter what I ever accomplished he'd always be stronger, wiser, and smarter than I was. We fought, made up, and fuck I missed him. I wanted to hold him again, make love to him. God, I just wanted to know if he could hear me, could still feel me.
A very wise woman once told me this: one day you'll meet someone who by their presence heals you. When you do, everything you've ever been through in your life, every ordeal, every trial will be worth it because they're there. Only she never told me how to handle it when they left you alone, and I was too chickenshit to ask her.
What screwed with me was the fact that I couldn't be sure I'd ever see Kristair again after I died. My deep-set beliefs in life, death, and the afterlife had been shaken to their core. Who's to say what happened? Maybe there wasn't a heaven. Maybe there was only emptiness, oblivion. Just maybe, except for those few short months, I was alone for the rest of eternity.
There was nowhere else I could go to say goodbye to him, so I returned to our beginning.
I refused to revisit the warehouse. Kristair's office had been gutted and rebuilt and now belonged to Kayla. It somehow seemed fitting to do it here under the streetlamp where I first saw him. I touched the griffin head torc around my throat. It was the only thing I had left of my lover. I brought the Baccara rose to my lips and then let it fall, the light shining down on its dark petals where it lay on the cold, impersonal cement.
My throat swelled shut. What else could I say? Blinking rapidly, I turned and strode into the crowd.
I hadn't pushed my way very far when some deep instinct made me pause. I continued at a slower pace, all the while scanning the streets, the crowds of drunks, until through the costumes I caught a glimpse of a man staring at me with the eyes and bearing of a predator. For a second, I swear my heart froze in my chest. No, not again.
Fury reared. Hell no, not ever again.
I shoved my way toward my watcher, ignoring the curses around me, but when I reached the spot there was no one in sight. Seething, I spun around, examining everyone and everything once again. My fellow students gave me a wide berth. I must've looked crazed.
Then doubt crept in, leeching away some of the anger. I was losing it. That's what I got for inviting old ghosts with my oh-so-emo ritual. I was seeing things, or wanting to see them. Either way, I was done with it.
Disgusted with myself, I turned to head back to the dorm. If I kept clinging to the past I'd never move forward. Lost in my internal lecture, it took me several minutes to realize I was still being watched.
This time my anger was cold. I'd get nothing accomplished by running off half-cocked again, chasing down shadows. With deliberate casualness, I turned up the collar of my jacket and used the red light at a cross-street to study my surroundings, forcing myself to look as unconcerned as possible. And with my mood at the moment, that was no small feat.
Nothing out of the ordinary. More students in costumes, but any one of those masks could hide a predator. Except that I'd learned predators rarely hid, especially when hunting. They were among us all the time. Kristair had introduced me to a whole new side of the world, one with its own strange rules and the constant edge of danger.
To top it off, Pittsburgh reminded me of Gotham, a place not quite sane, where the saviors were as terrifying as the villains. Skyscrapers reared up to claw at the sky, huge monstrosities of stone and steel. Some effort had been made to clean it up, to wipe up the detritus left by decades of steel mills and factories. Renovation had brought glass and chrome, but it just seemed to me it was kind of like a whore attempting to cover up the dirt and hopelessness on her face with an extra layer of makeup. Still, I loved the place. It had such character, and as much as I was a southern boy, this was the home I'd chosen.
The light turned green and as I stepped off the curb to cross, the nape of my neck prickled with predatory awareness. My watcher was still there and I became very aware of the gun I had been carrying next to my skin for months now.
"You're being followed," Kristair's voice whispered in my mind, stirring the old familiar rush of pain. It no longer stabbed, just felt more like a scab picked at one too many times. It still bled.
"No shit, Sherlock," I growled back.
That was how I'd finally figured out it wasn't my lover trying to reach me. Kristair would have answered back, but this voice never did. It was merely his echo, the memories, instincts doling out advice whether I wanted it or not.
Instincts honed over thousands of years led me away from campus toward the maze of small side streets, interlocking alleys, and service doors. A perfect place for an ambush or for springing a trap. It might just be one of Ussier's men wanting to talk with me, but hadn't they heard of a goddamned phone? Or it might be a different kind of monster than a vampire. After all, if one legend existed, couldn't another?
My heart pounded, my senses sharpening. As I moved in deeper, I released the mental restraints I had laid on my body. The hunt was on, but I wasn't any damned unaware prey. At least not anymore. I sharpened my anger and held it close inside, letting it fuel me, giving me strength.
The attack came in a dark alley reeking of rotten garbage and stale piss. Thin light filtered down from a stuttering bulb farther down the alley. It was the kind of place where, if screams managed to escape, no one would bother to investigate. What little light the streetlamps provided barely pierced the gloom. Three of them flowed out of the night, fangs and claws bared, but I was ready.
I exploded into action, ducking under the arm of one and sending another slamming into the wall with a hard shove. They paused, surprised by my strength and speed. I spun and kicked the second one into the third, sending them sprawling. I wanted to follow up my attack, to pound them with my fists and my rage until there was nothing left of them. I wanted it so badly I could taste it, a hot sharp tang in my mouth. Instead, I gritted my teeth and yanked the gun out of my waistband, stepping back to cover all three of them.
"Your weapon can't kill us," one of them said, a woman seemingly in her mid-thirties, her hair a wild brown tangle hanging to her shoulders. Her smile would've chilled me to the bone a year ago, in a whole other life.
"Maybe not," I replied, smiling back just as cold and cocky, my hand steady on the gun. "Unless I hit your heart dead on. These bullets are more than enough to make it explode right in your scrawny fucking chest. Believe me, I've been practicing and I'm fast enough. See, I've learned a few things. There are two ways to kill a vamp: destroy their head or their heart. Even if I don't manage to kill you with one shot, it'll slow you down. You'll need blood to heal. Do you want to take the chance?"
"You're not a killer," another one said, his face a mask of scars, twisting his features into a grisly permanent scowl.
"Damn, you're an ugly one," I taunted. "Now tell me what you want." Goddamned vampires. Would I ever be free of them? It was bad enough knowing I shared a city with them, even worse knowing they weren't all bad despite what some had done to Kristair and me; after all, I'd fallen hard for one. But if I had never seen another one for the rest of my life I would've been cool with that.
"You know who we are, child," the woman said.
"And what we want," Scarface added.
The third remained ominously silent. Then they began moving outward, separating themselves so even if I shot, I'd have a hard time hitting all three before they attacked. Still I hesitated, my finger frozen on the trigger.
"Enlighten me," I snarled, my heart beating faster, adrenaline soaring.
"Don't allow them to distract you. Take them down now and ask questions of the survivor later," Kristair's ghost said.
"Shut up!" For fuck's sake, talk about distracting.
Mocking feminine laughter echoed off the brick walls. "The Ancient One's secrets are locked inside your head." Bitter bile rocketed up into my throat so fast I almost choked on it. "We're here to take you back to Rome, break open your mind like an egg and suck out everything you've been hiding."
Before my anger and fear overran my cursed conscience they attacked again, the silent one rushing at me from the side. I half-turned, firing, and the bullet grazed his temple. Then they were on me. The gun was wrenched out of my hand and skittered down the alley.
I shoved one off with a shoulder block to his ribs and punched another in the face, bone crunching under my fist. Then my feet were swept out from underneath me and I went down in a tangle of furious limbs.
"Yer getting nothing from me!" I snarled, struggling to get to my feet.
The Syndicate. Fuck, oh fuck, they were back, and if they managed to subdue me and take me to Rome, then Kristair would've died in vain. That thought alone was enough to send new strength surging through my veins.
"Kill them. Kill them all." I couldn't be sure if the thought was mine or Kristair's.
These were the ones responsible for Kristair's death. They were all going to pay. My blood seethed as I kicked. One of the vamps flew backward toward a new figure that had appeared in the alleyway. Fuck! I should've thought about the possibility of reinforcements.
The newcomer drew a sword as the female vamp jumped back up, turning her back on the fourth. There was a flash of silver and her head rolled away in another direction as her body crumpled to the ground in a heap.
My stomach heaved, sobering me as the rage and killing instinct fled. Suddenly, this wasn't a game any longer. The silent vampire scrambled off me to face the new threat, leaving me to contend with the scar-faced bastard.
My new ally laughed as he faced off with his opponent. "Going out and not being ready for a fight to the death. How short-sighted."
I shoved Scarface off me and scrambled to my feet as the silent one drew a sword of his own. It was like being in the middle of a damn Highlander episode. A burble of hysterical laughter rose in my throat as I dodged my attacker and dove for the gun. My fingers closed on it just as a foot grabbed my ankle and jerked me back.
"Never hesitate in war."
Instinct took over. I rolled onto my back and unloaded the clip in the vamp's chest. The sound of the gun was amplified, echoing off the close walls. My heart jerked with each report. The vamp fell back, his body pummeled, his chest a grotesque mess, each hollowed-out bullet destroying flesh and leaving gaping holes. My hand--hell, my entire body--shook, as I staggered to my feet and walked over to where Scarface lay. Did I get his heart?
The newcomer still fought with the silent one, dancing in the alley in a flurry of moves, nothing but whirling shadows out of the corner of my eye.
Scarface stared up at me, his gaze still aware, his fingers twitching. The wounds were starting to close, skin creeping over holes. I didn't have to look to know what was happening. I dug into my jacket for a spare clip. Fighting the urge to scream, I clenched my teeth. I'd never really thought I'd actually have to use this fucking thing. This was far different from the practice range.
The vampire's eyes widened as I pointed the muzzle right at his head. He tried to push himself up. I steeled myself.
"Never hesitate," my ever-present guardian goaded once again.
I unloaded the clip into his skull, forcing myself to watch the grisly results so I could be sure. Nausea crawled up the back of my throat. He wouldn't be able to heal from that.
I turned my attention to the two fighting and ran over to help. "Hey, fucknuts!" The silent one paused, jerking his eyes away to glance at me. There was another silver flash and his head went rolling in a spray of cold blood that misted over my face. I gagged. Leaning over and holding my stomach, I scrubbed at my face with shaking fingers. My skin crawled. Oh god, I was never gonna get the taste and scent off of me.
"You pulverized a man's head and now you're getting a tummy ache over some blood," the newcomer murmured. There was something about his voice that was strangely familiar.
"Fuck off! Sorry. I don't have a taste for it like some." I wiped the back of my mouth with my hand and forced myself to straighten. "Who are you? One of Ussier's friends?" I knew I was being rude--the guy had probably saved my ass--but my nerves were jangling. I squinted and tried to get a better look at his features, but the stranger was shrouded in gloom under the shadow of the wall and, quite frankly, I didn't want to get any closer to him or his damn sword unless I had to.
"I think Steve was right. You have the self-preservation instincts of a suicidal squirrel. Not to mention you're an ass on top of it. Didn't he always tell us never to pull a gun unless we were prepared to use it?"
I froze as he took something out of his pocket. A moment later, light flared from a Zippo as he crouched down and set fire to each body, one by one. They erupted into flames, lighting up the alley with flickering tongues. I swear my heart stopped as it fell into my stomach. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the man standing a few feet away from me long enough to blink or pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. Unless I had finally lost my mind. That wasn't a cheery thought either.
"You've got to be sure about them, Jake. I doubt this one has the strength to piece his skull back together, but you can't take the chance."
Holy hell, it was him. Paler, his eyes harder, the goofy look he'd always had about him almost erased under something edgier. I had the completely asinine thought that he'd never again have any problems scoring with chicks.
"The one and only." He grinned, but it didn't touch his eyes.
"What are you doing here?" I flung up my hand, my heart twisting. I hadn't wanted for it to sound so confrontational. "Wait, that's not how I meant it."
"You mean, why am I here, saving your punk ass, after what you did to me in the warehouse?"
Damn if that didn't strike right at the sorest spot. "Tony, I--"
"No, don't say it. I don't want to hear it, Jake. I'm here 'cause I owe you, for the part I played that night."
I shut my mouth. The guilt came crushing back even as I smothered any further apologies.
"Consider yourself duly warned. The Syndicate thinks your friend left you his secrets and they want them. They'll stop at nothing, but I'm sure you know that already." Tony's jaw tightened and his eyes glittered in the light. "You owe me too. We can settle it right here and walk away and never have to deal with each other again."
A heavy weight settled over me, dragging at my shoulders. What had I expected, an "I'm sorry" and a hug and then everything would be smoothed over? Things didn't work that way, not in the real world. I raked a hand through my hair and only managed to keep from fisting it with an effort. My throat was so tight it took several moments before I could speak. "You're right. I owe ya big time. What do you need me to do?"
I couldn't believe this was happening. I couldn't believe I was here, talking to Tony after all of these months, after all of the worry and the heartache. Whatever it took, I'd do it and hope that in some small way it made up for me not helping him when he'd been packed into that coffin and then shipped off to my worst enemies.
"I need you to go to Ussier for me and request an audience on my behalf. He might listen to you because of your connection with Kristair."
How could he sound so damned calm and removed? There was no expression on his face. It was unnerving. Even hate would be better than this horrible blankness. I'd happily give my chance for a shot at the NFL for one of his old, goofy fucking smiles.
"Are you outta yer damn mind?" It suddenly hit me, how much Tony was risking being here in the city right now with a death sentence over his head. If he was spotted by any of the Pittsburgh vampires who answered to Ussier.... "Couldn't you have called instead and warned me? Asked me then?"
"I had to be sure you'd listen."
"It's a very convenient story. You're attacked; he saves you," Kristair whispered, centuries of survival instincts and paranoia kicking in.
My eyes narrowed as I took in the remnants of the bodies littering the ground around us. "You didn't stage this, did you?"
"Jesus Christ, Jake." For a second, Tony's mask slipped and showed a bit of his old exasperation, though he'd never showed it with quite the same flair Steve did. Just as quickly, the irritation was replaced with anger, and relief flowed through me. He wasn't some brainwashed robot. Tony was still there somewhere, dwelling beneath the new facade. He still had some feelings and that was enough to banish Kristair's instincts into silence.
"No, asshole. I did not set this up just to get on your good side. I don't give a damn whether you hate my guts, because you're not on my list of trustworthy people either. You owe me, Jake. Now are you going to set up the meeting or not?"
"Of course I am, and I don't hate your guts either. I'm sorry. I know you don't want to hear it, but I am. If I could go back--"
"You can't," Tony interrupted. "You can never go back."
And there it was, hanging between us. Regret and guilt. I sighed and checked my gun to make sure the safety was on before I stuffed it back in my waistband. "I'll try and talk with Ussier tonight. Kayla will know how to get a hold of him. Speaking of which, how the hell am I supposed to get in touch with you if he agrees?"
Tony dug a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. "That's my cell. Do me another favor. Don't tell Steve. At least not until I know how this is going to play out."
More guilt. Steve was going to be pissed if he knew I'd kept something like this from him. He'd been just as worried about Tony as I'd been, maybe even more. He'd always been the mother hen of the group. But a little hope glimmered too. Maybe this meant Tony was back for good and maybe, somehow, we'd find a way to repair our friendship. Hope springs eternal and all that bullshit. I couldn't help but want it.
"You've got it." I hesitated. "It's good to see ya, man."
Tony broke the awkward moment by walking away, the sword he'd carried tucked away hidden somewhere under his long jacket. I watched him go, my gut churning, hands stuffed in my pockets. I wanted to call him back. I wanted to apologize again, beg his forgiveness, but I remained silent.
At the corner, he paused and glanced back at me. "For the love of god, Jake. In the future, please stop trying to spring traps in alleyways."
Before I could respond, shadows coalesced around him and he was gone.