"You don't feel the same, do you?"
Zeke stepped back, the warmth leaving my hands, his heartbeat vanishing from under my fingers. I felt hollow without it, empty. His voice and expression were flat as he looked away. "Sorry. I shouldn't have expected... I'll leave you alone, now."
"No! I mean-" I grabbed his arm before he could leave, and his gaze rose to mine, desolate and heartbroken. I spoke quickly to reassure him. "It's not that. Zeke, I..." I slumped against the railing, then finally came out with it. "I want this, too," I whispered. "I just can't trust myself."
He blinked, and his eyes were gentle again, hopeful, as he eased closer. "You didn't kill me that time in Jackal's tower. You could have. I basically gave you the chance, and you didn't."
"You don't know how close I was," I answered. His expression didn't change.
"I'm still here."
"I've killed people."
"Do you think my hands are clean?"
"Zeke." I gave him a desperate look, needing him to understand. "I will always be a threat to the people I'm around. I'm not just saying that. Not a day goes by that I don't think about biting you. Yes, I try to control myself, but that doesn't mean I'm always successful. And the last thing I want..." I faltered, not wanting to tell him, knowing I had to. "The last thing I want is to come out of a blood frenzy and find that I've killed someone. Someone I know. Like Caleb. Or Teresa. Or you."
"Allie." Zeke's eyes were intense now; I could see my reflection in those glittering blue orbs as he took my hand. "I've watched you. From the time we met, to the day I discovered what you really were, to now. You have always been the same fierce, stubborn girl who refuses to give in to anything. I've seen you fight so hard not to hurt people, to keep your distance so you're not a danger to anyone." He closed his eyes briefly. "And I'm ashamed that I thought the worst of you when you showed up with Jackal that night, but I know better now. You haven't changed. You're still beautiful and dangerous and incredible, and I'll keep telling you that for as long as it takes you to believe it. But right now, all I want to do is kiss you, except I'm terrified that if I try you might throw me off this balcony."
My laugh had a little sob in it. I remembered the first time Zeke had tried to kiss me, he'd ended up on his back in the dirt, a katana pointed at his heart. "This is not going to work," I warned him, meeting his gaze. "A vampire and a human? This is crazy, Zeke."
He gave me that heartrending smile.
"Well, like you said before. Maybe we're both a little... mmm."
He got no further, because I had pushed myself off the railing, wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him.
His arms slid around my waist, holding me tight, pressing me against his body. His lips moved with mine, soft and warm and just as I remembered. I felt the Hunger rise up, always there, but I tamped it down. I could do this. I could be a vampire and still be with Zeke. He was willing to try, to offer his heart to a demon, and I would not betray that trust. No matter what it took or how hard I had to fight it, I would not become a monster.
The wind picked up, whipping at our hair and clothes, as Zeke pulled back to look at me. Snow eddies swirled around us, clinging to my cold skin, melting away on Zeke's. I blinked at him, meeting those intense sapphire eyes, cocking my head. "What?" I asked, a faint murmur between us, blown away by the wind. Zeke smiled.
"You," he replied just as softly, and held me tighter. "I never really thought I would be here like this. With you. In all the world, in all the places we could end up, we came here at the same time and ran into each other. Like it was meant to be."
"Meant to be?" I couldn't help but scoff, though I scoffed very quietly. "Extremely lucky coincidence is more like it. I don't believe in fate."
"I don't, either." He smoothed a strand of hair from my face. "But someone was listening, I think. Someone wanted us to find each other. How else would you explain it?"
"I was under the impression that God hated vampires," I said, keeping my voice light and my hands locked around the small of his back. "Evil, soulless spawn of the devil, right?"
"You're not evil," Zeke said with absolute conviction. "I might have believed that once, but not now." His hand framed my cheek, brushing my skin. "No one who fights so hard to do the right thing is evil."
Unexpectedly, that simple, sincere statement was enough to unravel me. My throat closed up, and my eyes stung with hot tears. I ducked my head, not wanting him to see me cry, to be revolted by the red tracks oozing down my cheeks. Zeke cupped my chin and gently tilted my face up. I resisted a moment, then gazed at him defiantly, feeling the blood trickle from my eye, expecting him to recoil. But he smiled and lightly touched my face, wiping the tear away.
"Both eyes open," he whispered, and brought his lips down on mine.
I made a tiny sound in the back of my throat and relaxed into him, clutching the back of his shirt. I couldn't think. I could barely move. I just clung to him, reeling with a storm of emotion that buffeted me from the inside, making me want to hide and embrace it all at once. I didn't know how this would work, if it could work. I was just aware of one thing: I could not lose him. Zeke had seen the monster at its worst and was still here. He dared to get close to the demon, knowing it still Hungered for him, craved his blood and his life, and he wasn't afraid. For the rest of my existence, if I lived to see the end of this world, there would never be another Ezekiel Crosse. There would never be another soul as bright as his. And that both terrified me and made me savagely-and maybe selfishly-determined to keep him. Zeke was mine now. Forever.
A pounding came at the front door. We broke apart, Zeke reluctantly letting me go, his warm hand lingering on my skin. My senses buzzed, Hunger and passion like twin hurricanes, fighting each other, but I walked calmly back into the room with Zeke trailing behind me and opened the door.
"Morning, sunshine," Jackal drawled. His gold eyes peered past my shoulder at Zeke, and an eyebrow arched sardonically. "Am I interrupting anything?"
"Always," I muttered, watching him smirk. "What do you want, Jackal?"
"Salazar has called for us," the other vampire said with mock grandeur. "He's waiting for us down in the hospital wing with Kanin. Looks like we've worn out our welcome."
We rode the elevator down together, me in the center, Jackal and Zeke flanking me on either side. There was no vampire Elite to escort us this time; there weren't even any human guards at the doors or in the halls. I did see the female vamp Jackal had been talking to the night before, and she gave him a sultry smile as we passed, her eyes gleaming. Jackal winked at her as we turned the corner.
In the creaking metal box, Zeke stood close beside me while Jackal leaned against the wall, looking bored. I still clenched my teeth every time the lift shook or trembled, and perhaps Zeke picked up on my discomfort, for halfway through the ride, his fingers curled around mine. My body uncoiled, if just slightly, and I squeezed his hand. I thought I heard Jackal snort, but I didn't look at him.
Zeke. I was still getting used to this new, crazy idea: a human and a vampire. Maybe I was being naive. Maybe I was being deliberately blind. Most likely I was being incredibly stupid and endangering his life. What would Kanin say if-when-he found out? Would he scold? Would he shake his head and give me that familiar look of exasperation? Or would he be angry, disgusted, that I was ignoring one of his most primary rules: don't get attached to human beings.
The elevator shuddered, rather violently this time, and gave a rusty screech that made my skin crawl. I closed my eyes, squeezing Zeke's hand in a death grip, before I realized I might be hurting him. Guiltily, I tried pulling back, but he only laced our fingers together and tightened his grip.
You know what? Screw it, I told myself. I'm not Kanin's protege anymore. I've been on my own for a long time. I'm the one who trekked halfway across the country to find him. He has no say in what I do with my life or who I decide to spend it with.
The elevator dinged, and Zeke released my hand as the doors opened. Salazar and several Elites waited for us at the end of the hallway, their cold faces giving nothing away.
"He is awake," the Prince informed me as we walked through the room of moaning, writhing humans, keeping well back from the wall of beds. I saw Zeke's eyes linger on the human "patients," saw his hands clench as he realized what was really happening, but he didn't say anything. Jackal, giving the humans a cursory glance, just wrinkled his nose.
"He is waiting for you," Salazar finished as we came to a room much like the one from last night that held the rotting, dying vampire. Except this one was guarded by a pair of armed vampire Elite. The Prince continued, "You will go to Kanin and inform him of what needs to be done. Afterward, you will all leave my tower, and you will not return unless you have found Sarren or a cure for this madness. Is this clear?"
I nodded, staring at the closed door, feeling my sire's unmistakable presence on the other side. Now that I was moments from seeing him, I was nervous. So much had happened. What would he say to me? What would I say to him? Neither of us was the same as before.
"You go ahead," Jackal told me, giving a dismissive wave. "I have no burning desire to see the old bastard just yet. I'm sure he's much more inclined to talk to you, anyway."
I gave him a sharp look. "For someone who's come all this way to find Kanin, you're certainly keeping your distance." I frowned. "You didn't seem to care about him last night, either. It's almost like you're avoiding him."
"What can I say?" Jackal leaned back against the wall. "I'm not the fair-haired son."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Go," said the Prince again. "I care not who retrieves Kanin and gets him out of this tower, I only want him gone. I want you all gone."
"Prince Salazar." Zeke spoke up quietly, startling us all. I blinked and stared at Zeke as the vampire Prince turned to the human, a bemused look crossing his face, no doubt wondering why the lowly mortal dared to speak to him. "Sir," Zeke went on, his voice calmly polite. "Before we go, I have to inform you that there are still uninfected people out in the Fringe. If..." He paused, taking a breath, as if what he was about to say next was difficult for him to get out. "If you are concerned about your blood supply, maybe you should consider bringing them to the Inner City. Or at least sending them food and supplies. I know where they are, and it seems to me that you need all the healthy humans you can find. Will you consider letting them into the city? They need to get out of the Fringe as soon as they can."
The Prince raised an eyebrow. "I am not unreasonable," he stated, sounding suspiciously amused with this mortal who wasn't afraid to speak to a Prince. "If there are uninfected humans out there, I would ideally rather have them behind the Inner Wall. However, I will not risk my people's safety by sending them into the Fringe. So I am afraid there is nothing I am willing to do for them. I'd rather a few more humans die than bring that sickness into my city." Zeke clenched his fists, and the Prince narrowed his eyes, not missing his anger. "Find Sarren and a cure," he told Zeke. "That is how you can help the rest of the population. I cannot offer more than that, human.