I nodded. "Sure."
"Thanks. Hold on just a second." Zeke turned and shrugged out of his pack, placing it down inside the door. "There's food and supplies in there for anyone who needs it," I heard him say to the people in the room. "Try to make it last as long as you can."
I gave him a chiding look as we stepped into the hall again, shaking my head. "You could've used that, too, Zeke."
"They need it more," he replied without hesitation. "Better that it doesn't go to waste. I'm..." He stopped, dropping his gaze, but we both knew the words he was about to say next. I'm not going to be around much longer.
Fear squeezed my insides again, but I didn't say anything as I led him back down the hall, through a door I'd used thousands of times, and into a familiar room.
It was light outside now; the sun would just be peeking its head above the rooftops, but the black bags over the windows did a good job in darkening the room. I didn't need the artificial light to see most everything was how I'd left it. When I was living with Kanin in the old hospital, I had defied his wishes and returned to my old room one night, only to find that two strangers had moved in. Though they'd been killed by Psycho Vamp before they had the chance to really change anything, they had managed to burn my entire book collection to keep themselves warm. That was the last I'd seen of this place before Kanin and I were forced to flee New Covington and go on the run. I didn't know what had become of the two corpses that had been here the night I first met Sarren, but they weren't here now.
Zeke shone the flashlight around curiously, taking everything in. When the beam swept over the mattress and blanket in the corner, he paused, frowning. Scanning the room once more, glimpsing the subtle signs of inhabitation, understanding suddenly dawned on his face. "This...was your room?"
I nodded wearily. "I lived here with my gang, back when I was still human." Picking up an overturned chair, I set it back beneath the table. "It's not much, but it was better than some people had."
I took a candle off the shelf, burned down to just a stump, and turned it in my fingers. Could it be that I'd been human just a few short months ago? It didn't seem possible. "Anyway," I said, replacing it, "go ahead and take the mattress. You look like you could use the sleep. Just keep to the left side-the right edge is kind of pokey."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry about me." I gave him a half smile and moved toward a far corner, away from the windows. "I can sleep on anything now, as long as it's out of the sun. But, I really do have to get to sleep, Ezekiel. I can barely keep my eyes open as it is."
It felt strange, admitting that. At one point, I would never have let anyone but Stick stay in my room. And now, my vampire instincts warned me never to let anyone see where I slept during the day. I knew the older, stronger vampires like Kanin and Salazar could force themselves awake if they had to, and Jackal claimed he could do it as well, but, while I could force myself to stay awake after the sun rose, I had yet to develop the talent of waking up once I'd already gone to sleep. If it were anyone but Zeke, I would've done what Kanin had this evening and slipped away to find a safe, hidden spot to retire, away from fearful humans.
I was still leery of the refugees. I hoped they would stay down in that basement and not go wandering the halls. But there was nothing I could do about them now, and at least my door was locked from the inside.
"Allison." Zeke's voice stopped me as I began to look around for a spot where I could lie back against the wall. "You don't have to... I mean..." He raked a hand through his hair, suddenly embarrassed. "We could share," he finally admitted, not meeting my eyes. "The mattress is big enough."
I stared at him, my stomach doing a little cartwheel. I'd shared the mattress before with Stick, but only for body heat, so that we wouldn't freeze to death on frigid winter nights. This...would be something completely different.
Zeke peered up at my silence, and spots of color tinted his pale cheeks. "That is...if you wanted to. Just to sleep. I wasn't implying that we..." He colored even more fiercely. "Ah, that came out all wrong. I wouldn't do anything, Allie, you know that, right?"
"I know," I said, easing his humiliation. "And, it's not that, Zeke. It's just..." You would be right there, lying next to me. Can I control myself? Would it be too much of a temptation for the monster? I spoke slowly, needing him to understand. "Sleeping next to a vampire might not be the safest thing for you."
Zeke actually chuckled at that, though it turned to a painful cough that made me wince. "I think it's a little late to worry about what's safe now," he rasped. "But, it's your decision, of course. Whatever you want to do."
I wanted to lie down. Fatigue pulled at me, making my thoughts sluggish, my reactions muted. The sun was fully up, and my vampire instincts, the ones screaming at me to go to sleep, were getting too strong to ignore. The thought of being pressed against Zeke, feeling his warmth and his heartbeat as we lay together, was suddenly very, very tempting.
"All right," I murmured, and Zeke's eyebrows rose. "I still don't know if this is a good idea, but..." I walked forward, pulling my sheath over my head and setting it down beside the mattress. If I didn't lie down soon, I was going to fall over. This was as good a place as any.
I didn't look at him as I sank to my knees on the bed. It was thin and threadbare, but instantly familiar. Behind me, I felt Zeke hesitate, then shrug out of his combat vest, dropping it at the corner along with his weapons. The mattress groaned as he settled atop it, his movements stiff and uncomfortable.
"Are you sure you're all right with this?" he asked.
Without answering, I grabbed the blanket and lay back, tossing it over myself before I could change my mind. Zeke paused, then lay down, too, sliding beneath the cover. Though he kept his body from touching mine, his heat filled the space instantly, a cocoon of warmth spreading between us under the blanket. It felt sick, however. Feverish.
Zeke turned to his side, shifting to face the wall, away from me. I felt the mattress shake as he coughed, trying to muffle it in the blanket, and a stab of fear pierced my exhaustion. What if I woke up tomorrow night and there was a corpse lying beside me? What if Zeke died, slipping away from me during the day? I'd never know until the sun went down and it was too late.
I turned toward him, gazing at his lean shoulders. He lay with his head cradled on one arm, his breaths labored and raspy. The back of his neck was bared to me, and I felt my fangs slide out, the Hunger urging me to ease forward and sink my teeth into his flesh. It cared nothing for the fact that biting Zeke would be fatal to me now; all it saw was a sick, vulnerable, unsuspecting human, and the perfect opportunity to strike.
I forced my fangs to retract, and reached out for him, brushing his arm.
He let out a ragged, shaky breath, and his shoulders hunched at my touch. "Allison...?"
"Turn around," I whispered.
He hesitated then shifted to his other side, facing me in the darkness. For a moment, we gazed at each other, our faces an arm's length apart. Zeke's head lay in the crook of his elbow, solemn blue eyes watching me. I could see my own reflection in them, but also the pain that creased his forehead, the sickly heat pouring off him.
"What's wrong?" he whispered after a moment.
I can't lose you. I'm terrified I'm going to watch you die. "I hate this," I finally muttered, my voice just a whisper between us. "I hate being so helpless. I wish this was something I could fight, something I could face one-on-one. I'd have a chance, then."
Zeke, I noticed, was being careful not to move, careful not to reach out and touch me. I caught hints of the longing on his face; it was clear he wanted to, but restrained himself. "I don't believe in fate," he said carefully, "but...I do believe everything happens for a reason. That there is some plan, some meaning to this darkness we live in." He sighed, wrinkling his forehead, his eyes going distant. "Maybe I'm wrong, but it's gotten me this far. It's the reason I fight, the reason I can keep going, despite everything. And it...it led me to you."
The room was much lighter, now. I knew the sun's rays were sliding across the windows behind me, clawing at the barrier. My eyes were heavy; my body felt like it was made of stone. With the last of my strength, I reached out and hooked Zeke's shirt, tugging him forward. He blinked then scooted close so that we were pressed together beneath the covers, his arms wrapped around me and mine around him. His heart pounded against my chest, my nose and jaw were nestled in the hollow of his throat. Temptation and Hunger tried to flare up, to take advantage of this perfect opportunity, but I was half-asleep now, too tired to listen. Not even the sweet blood coursing right below my lips could tempt me at this moment.
"Stay," I whispered, as my eyes flickered shut. "I'm not... letting you go."
I felt him shift in my arms, holding me tighter, tucking my head under his chin. "Only death will take me away from you, vampire girl," he whispered. "And even then, I'll watch over you from wherever I end up."
That was the last thing I heard before sleep pulled me under.
No nightmares. My sleep was blissfully free of the visions, dreams and emotions of my creator. Whether Kanin had finally found some sort of peace or he could control himself now that he wasn't being tortured, the next time I woke, the room was dark, and my thoughts were my own.
But the space beside me was empty.
Zeke? I stood, gazing quickly around the room. The flashlight was gone, as were his combat vest and weapons, and the room was empty save for me. Alarmed, I opened the door and stepped into the halls, searching for him. He wasn't in the dark corridors, or in the room with the refugees, though the door was still shut and locked from the inside. I didn't think he would risk going into the room with them.
So where was he?
I finally caught sight of a lean, blond figure in the open doors that led outside, gazing at the empty lot. It was snowing again, and thick flakes fell softly around him, landing in his hair and spotting his shoulders. Relieved, I strode forward, joining him at the entrance to the school, though he didn't turn to me immediately.
"Zeke, what are you doing?" I asked, scanning the lot for bleeders. It was empty, and the city beyond seemed still. Too quiet.
"I couldn't sleep," Zeke muttered, his voice low and tense. "It was too hot and..." His hand went to his face. "My head is killing me."
Chilled, I took his arm and turned him to face me. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin gaunt and wasted, and his hair was drenched with sweat. Heat poured off him like an ember, that intense, sickly heat that made my stomach turn. We were almost out of time. We had to find Sarren, now.
"Where's Kanin?" I demanded, releasing him and stepping away. "We're leaving. There's no more time to wait. Where is he?"
"I saw him this evening," Zeke said as we ducked back inside. "On the steps to the second floor." He hesitated, his face grim. "Allie...it's not pretty. Prepare yourself."
My dread grew. We hurried through the building, past the door to my room and the hall to the basement, to a flight of crumbling cement stairs leading to the second floor. I'd been up there before when I'd been human, but the gang didn't use it much. The third floor had collapsed on top of it, and most of the rooms were filled with rubble and stone, making it hazardous to navigate.