Well, now you’re going to have to prove it to yourself. But I’ll be here. I won’t let you fall.”
I finally looked up at him, met those clear blue eyes, saw the raw emotion staring back at me. The doubt and fear still lingered, but for the first time since his death, he looked like Zeke again. I saw the shift from bleak, horror-filled despair to something that, while not completely optimistic, was at least hopeful. I put a hand on his cheek.
“There, preacher boy,” I murmured, and forced a tiny half smirk as he closed his eyes. “I said I love you. Twice. Now, can we please move past this and get on with saving the world?”
He let out a breath that was half laugh, half sob, and yanked me to him, crushing me in his arms. I slid mine around his waist and held him tight, feeling him tremble.
“Don’t let me slip,” he whispered into my neck. “Please.
When I get to Eden, don’t let me give in to the monster.”
“I won’t,” I told him, a promise to Zeke, to myself, to everyone. “You’re going to be fine, Zeke. And after we beat Sarren, we’ll have forever to figure this out.”
Moving to the bed, we sank down together, still holding each other tightly. Eden, a mysterious virus, and Zeke’s terrifying sire waited for us at the end of the road, but right now, all that seemed a little less urgent. I had Zeke back. He was different; he was a vampire, but we’d both taken that first step toward acceptance. It was enough for now. As the sun crept over the buildings outside, tinting the sky red and the roofs orange, I drifted off to sleep with the boy who had died held safely in my arms.
I would never let him go again.
As usual, I woke first, opening my eyes to darkness and taking a moment to remember where I was. The room was small, sparse and empty, a boarded-up window and ancient dresser on the far wall, and a body lying next to me in the tiny bed.
Propping myself on an elbow, I watched him. Zeke lay on his back on the edge of the mattress, unmoving and unbreathing, the sleep of the dead. I put a hand over his heart, missing the warmth, the pulse beneath my fingers, the slight rise and fall of his chest. He didn’t stir, and I resisted the urge to shake him, to prod him awake. Both to see him move, and to see if he was the same Zeke I’d fallen asleep with this morning. Would he remember the convictions of a few short hours ago? I knew there was no reason for him to forget, to relapse, but he had been an emotionless zombie for so long, our last conversation almost felt like a dream. Even though vampires didn’t dream.
I didn’t rouse him. Instead, I reached out with my blood tie and found both Kanin and Jackal nearby, probably waiting for us. Kanin would be impatient to get on the road; I wondered if having to wait for younger, less experienced vampires who couldn’t force themselves awake whenever they wanted annoyed him sometimes. I also wondered how far from Eden we were. We had to be close; it hadn’t taken Zeke and I half as long the first time we’d traveled this road. Of course, we’d had a working car the entire way from Chicago.
Preoccupied, I didn’t see Zeke move until cool fingers curled around mine. I blinked and looked down to see his eyes open, gazing up at me in the darkness. He wasn’t smiling, but his gaze was steady and his expression was calm, not the cold, blank mask he’d worn ever since Old Chicago.
“Hey,” I murmured. Zeke didn’t answer, and I searched his face, hoping his conviction still held, that he wouldn’t start doubting himself now. “You okay?”
His eyes closed. “No,” he whispered, and squeezed my hand before I could worry. “But…I’m getting there. One day at a time, right? I can’t turn back now, not when we’re this close.” Gazing at me again, he forced a faint smile. “We’re almost there,” he mused, and his hand traveled up to my face, brushing my hair back, skimming my cheek. “You’ll be able to see Eden with me after all.”
I ran my fingers down his chest, remembering what Kanin had said the night before. Sarren had likely beaten us to Eden.
Who knew the state of the island now? Maybe everyone was dead, after all. But I wouldn’t think about that. We couldn’t give up. I would choose hope, to believe that they were still all right. It was all I could do now. “I’m just glad I won’t have to explain to Caleb and Bethany where you are,” I said, smiling down at Zeke. “I don’t think they’d ever forgive me for coming back without you.”
A shadow crossed his face, his brow creasing with worry and a little fear. I knew what he was thinking—whether he’d be able to control himself around those kids, both of whom adored him. “What am I going to tell them?” he whispered, his voice catching a little. “How am I going to explain what happened to me? When we were searching for Eden, before you joined us, everyone knew vampires were evil monsters that ate little kids. I told them that myself.” His face tightened, his expression full of regret and pain. “What will they think of me now?”
“You have to tell them the truth,” I said, and he flinched.
“And they’ll either accept it or they won’t. But you’re not the first vampire they’ve seen, Zeke. And I know Caleb, at least, isn’t as terrified of vampires as he should be.”
“Not anymore,” Zeke said in a wry voice. “Not after he met you.”
I smiled, remembering Caleb, a thin, dark-haired kid and the toughest six-year-old I’d ever met. He’d been through so much, seen so much, on his journey to Eden: rabids, wild animals, evil bikers and sadistic raider kings. He’d lost an older sister to rabids and had nearly died himself a few times, but had come out of that whole nightmare ordeal a true survivor. Perhaps a little more hardened than he should have been, but one thing that had disappeared completely was his fear of vampires. Or, at least, of one vampire.
“So, I think they’ll understand,” I finished. “They love you, Zeke. It won’t matter if you’re not human anymore.” I put a hand over his wrist and squeezed gently. “And don’t worry about the monster—I’ll be right there. If you feel yourself slipping, just keep your eyes on me.”
“Allie…” His eyes were suddenly sapphire pools of emotion and longing, peering up at me in the darkness. It sent a ripple of heat through my insides, a stirring of Hunger that was familiar and strange at the same time. Lowering my head, I kissed him, and his arms wrapped around me, pressing me close.