"You brought vampires into the tunnels!" one man hissed, striking the pipe with a rusty iron bar. The hollow clang caused a rat to flee from its hole and dust to fall from the ceiling, but Zeke didn't flinch. "If we don't kill you here, you'll go topside and let them know where we are. We can't risk that. All trespassers have to die, starting with you!"
He hurled his pipe at Zeke. Zeke raised his arm, knocking it aside with his machete, and my vision went red.
I roared, baring fangs, and the men spun around, their eyes widening in terror. They bolted, but the corridor was narrow and I blocked the only way out. I lashed out with my katana and caught one across the throat as he went by, cutting his head from his shoulders. My follow-up blow hammered into the next one's back, slicing through flesh and muscles and severing the spine. He got four steps before his legs gave out and he pitched face-first onto the concrete. The last one, terrified beyond reason, came at me screaming, his knife raised high. I grabbed the wrist that slashed wildly at my face, yanked him forward and plunged my fangs into his throat. Hot, grimy blood filled my mouth, and the Hunger flared. I didn't stop drinking until the mole man shuddered and went limp in my arms, the knife hitting the pavement with a clink.
The Hunger faded to a low, barely noticeable throb, sated for now. Dropping the corpse, I wiped blood from my mouth and looked up at Zeke, watching me from the corner. His face was grim, but not horrified or fearful, making me slump with relief. Even though Zeke knew what I was, I'd never fed in front of him before. Except, of course, that one time where he had been the victim, and I'd barely stopped myself from draining him completely. He hadn't turned away from me then, and I didn't want to see fear, horror and disgust in his eyes now, because I was still a monster.
Wait, I thought that's exactly what you wanted, vampire girl. Zeke should fear you-it's the only thing that will keep him safe, remember?
I sheathed my sword, stepping farther into the narrow corridor. "You okay?"
"Yes." He eased out of the corner, wincing a bit. "They came out of nowhere," he muttered, his eyes dark as they scanned the bodies, scattered over the pavement. "I think someone followed us from the nest, then went back to alert the others. They wanted me to tell them where you and Jackal were sleeping so they could kill you, too. I tried explaining that it wasn't necessary, that we wouldn't reveal to anyone where they were, but they wouldn't listen. They just...kept coming. I didn't want to kill them." His face grew pained, eyes haunted, and he shook his head. "I didn't want this."
"Are you hurt?"
"Nothing serious." He slowly holstered his gun, the movement stiff and painful. "I'll have a couple nice bruises, and one of them snuck up from behind and stabbed me in the back. The vest took most of the damage, but he still got me." The machete followed the gun, with Zeke clenching his jaw as it slid into place. "They didn't really have a chance," he muttered darkly. "I had a gun, and they were coming at me with clubs and knives. They should've known. Why didn't they stop?"
The smell of his blood drifted to me again, and I frowned. "We'll need to clean that," I said, and he eyed me warily. "I can smell the blood on you, Zeke. You're wounded, and the other vampires will be able to smell it, too. We need to cover it. Unless, of course, you want to walk through a vampire city bleeding."
The color drained from his face. "Right," he muttered. "Point taken. Here." He bent to one of the many compartments on his vest and pulled out a roll of tape and a couple small white squares. He hesitated, clearly uncomfortable, then held the bandages out to me. "I don't think I can reach it myself," he said, not meeting my eyes. "Would you be able to..."
I nodded, taking the tape and the odd white squares. One was clearly a bandage of some kind, but the other was wrapped in paper and smelled of chemicals, making my eyes water. Zeke turned and silently shrugged off the vest, dropping it to the pavement. Then slowly, painfully, he reached up and pulled the shirt over his head, revealing his lean, muscular back and the vivid map of scars slashed across his skin.
Even though I'd been expecting it, I bit the inside of my cheek. I had witnessed his adopted father's punishment when Zeke didn't live up to his standards. It still made my throat burn with fury. Zeke had been raised with such a strict concept of obedience, it was a wonder he had defied or questioned Jeb at all.
I stepped up behind him, barely stopping myself from touching his back, tracing the scars on his skin. The knife wound, a small but deep-looking puncture, oozed crimson just below his shoulder blade. I stifled the urge to plunge my fangs into the side of his neck and bent to the task at hand.
"You're not asking the obvious question," Zeke murmured as I tore one of the white packets open, releasing a damp square cloth and the smell of disinfectant. At least, that's what I thought the strange packet was. Having never seen one before, I was just guessing here. "It doesn't bother me if you want to know how I got them. Everyone does."
"I know how you got them," I said quietly, pressing the damp square to Zeke's wound, dabbing gently. He stiffened, a short breath escaping him; whatever was on the strange cloth probably stung. "I was there, outside the church the night before Jackal's men attacked you. When Jeb..."
"You saw that?"
I nodded. Memories flickered; Jeb ordering Zeke to take off his shirt, the flash of metal as the old man whipped him repeatedly with a car antenna, Zeke braced against a gravestone, head bowed, saying nothing. Myself in the bushes several yards away, fighting the urge to leap out and tear Jebbadiah's head from his shoulders.
"I'd caught up from the Archer compound that night," I told him, folding the cloth in half to wipe away the last of the blood. Hunger and something else, that strange twisty feeling whenever Zeke was around, warred through my insides. Touching him like this, feeling his warm skin under my fingers, only made it worse. "I'd been following you for a couple days, after we had our...falling out. I was in the cemetery when you and Jeb came through, and saw the whole thing." My hand hovered over a scar, slashed from his shoulder to nearly the center of his back, and I shivered. "I can't imagine what it was like for you."
"That's it?" Zeke challenged softly, though his voice lacked the bite I had been expecting. "Nothing to say about Jeb?"
"I have plenty to say about Jeb," I replied. "Though none of it is very nice and I figure it would be rude to talk about him right now. Besides, you know what Jeb thought of me." He trained you to think the same.
"I still miss him sometimes," Zeke said in a voice barely above a whisper. "I know you probably think it's crazy, but I respected him. Even though his principles were different than mine, and I never became the leader he wanted me to be, he still did everything he could to protect us."
I dropped the bloody square and unfolded the second one, pressing the dry cloth to the wound. Unwinding the tape he'd given me, I tore a strip off and smoothed it across the bandage, holding it in place. "You don't have to defend him to me, Zeke," I said, and my thoughts went to Kanin. "I know what it's like to miss someone. To feel like you're just...wandering around, lost. And how you wish they were there, if only for a moment, just to point you in the right direction."
Zeke was quiet while I finished bandaging the wound, taping the edges down tightly. "This vampire," he said when I was nearly done. "Kanin. He's...important to you, isn't he? I mean...it sounds like he's more than just the vampire that Turned you."
"Kanin is..." I paused, thinking. It was hard to explain my relationship with the Master vampire. Yeah, he was my sire, but he was also my mentor, my teacher and...my friend. "It's complicated," I said at last, smoothing down the last piece of tape. "I wouldn't go so far as to say he's my adoptive father or anything like that but...I guess he is family."
"I can understand that," Zeke said, and turned so we were face-to-face.
His blue eyes met mine, softer now, conflicted. Like he was trying to see me, really see me, to find that person he knew. To look past the vampire and the monster, and the thing that had just ripped out a man's throat, to the girl beneath.
"Allie." His voice was still very soft, his brow furrowed as if he was in pain. "I will never forgive Jackal for what he did to my family," he said firmly, holding my gaze. "I know I should, that's what I've been taught, but...I can't. I keep seeing Jeb and Darren and Ruth and everyone who didn't make it, and all I want to do is put a stake through his heart and send him to hell where he belongs. Maybe that's messed up, and maybe it makes me just as bad as him, but that's the only way I'm going have any kind of peace with him around.
"But, you and me..." He paused, searching my face. "Maybe we can...start over. Put everything that's happened behind us, and try again. I don't want to fight you-I know you have your reasons for bringing Jackal here, and I will try to respect that. Even if I can't forgive him."
"I don't want to fight you, either," I muttered, looking down so I didn't have to see his shirtless, muscular upper body standing so close. I caught a glimpse of a few pale scars on his chest, not nearly the mess his back was, and it made my stomach squirm. "I'm still a vampire, Zeke. I'm still going to have to feed and drink blood and I might kill more people, you know that."
"I know." Zeke stepped closer, not touching, but I could feel the warmth coming from his skin, sense him trying to catch my gaze. "And I'm still going to hate everything the vampires have done to us. I'm going to do everything I can to help the people here, but...that doesn't mean that I hate you, Allie."
I raised my eyes, meeting his gaze. He gave a faint, rueful smile. "Everything used to be so black-and-white," he admitted with a tiny shrug. "Jeb's teachings didn't allow for much gray area, if any. But I understand vampires a lot more now. And I know that you, at least, still try to be different. To not be one of them. I believe that."
"How do you know?" I challenged. Part of me didn't know what I was doing. Zeke was finally saying the words I'd longed to hear him say-that I wasn't like the other vampires, that I was different. But my rational side knew this was dangerous ground, that Zeke should fear and hate me, that I was still a vampire that could lose control of herself at any moment, and then he would be dead. Jackal's words came back to taunt me: You and me, sister, we're exactly the same. Fight it as long as you want-in the end, the monster always wins.
"Maybe I am just using you," I continued, while my head continued its war with itself. I was torn between irrationally wanting to hug Zeke and wanting to scare him away for good. Away from the monster that still urged me to rip him apart. "Maybe Jeb was right the whole time. How do you know I'm not just like them?"
Zeke's voice didn't change. "Because," he said calmly, "if you were, I'd have been dead on top of Jackal's tower that night."
"Oh, please," came a new, unwelcome voice, breaking into our conversation. "I think I'm going to hurl."
We broke apart as Jackal sauntered into the tunnel, smirking and gazing around at the carnage. "Well, you two certainly left a nice trail," he commented, stepping over one of the men I'd killed earlier. "Made you easy to find, at least, though I feel a bit left out. Next time you two decide to go on a bloody killing spree, at least send me an invitation so I know that you care."