"What I have with my vampire satisfies one half of my soul, but I am a being with two very different souls, Kye." Even if I'd spent most of my life denying that the vampire half of me had needs every bit as strong as the wolf. "I might not be able to deny the pull of the soul mate bond, but that doesn't mean it's all I want in my life."
Even if I'd spent most of my life wanting that very thing.
I slipped through the small gap between the floor and the machine and came out the other side, moving quietly across to another machine.
I still had no sense of him. The air was rich with the scent of machine oil, dust and metal, but remained steadfastly free of the man who prowled above me. Unless he spoke, I had no idea where he was, and that was scary. I relied so heavily on my senses in situations like this that being without them left me feeling almost helpless.
And I hated that sensation. It reminded me too much of my years of growing up and being thrown from pillar to post by Blake, the man who now led the Jenson pack.
I shook the memories of him from my head, even as I wondered why he was in my thoughts so often of late, and scanned the rooms above me again.
It was so frustrating. I knew he was there somewhere, but I just couldn't -
The thought froze as a prickle of warning ran down my spine. I rose and spun in one swift movement, the gun held at arm's length and my finger on the trigger, close, so close to pulling it.
Kye stood near my original machine, his gun raised, his golden eyes so cold they froze my soul.
I couldn't pull the trigger. I just couldn't.
I didn't want to destroy the dream.
"I think what we have here is commonly called a standoff," he said, voice calm, expression so cool.
And yet I could feel the heat of him, taste the desire in him. Heard the answering response from deep inside of me.
"Put the gun down and give it up, Kye." Please put the gun down. "We both get to live that way."
He smiled. Again, it was a sad and wistful thing that tore at my heart. The heart that supposedly didn't belong to Kye. "Run away with me."
I blinked. "What?"
"Run away with me," he repeated softly. "We make a good team, you and I. We could make a fortune together."
"I'm not a killer, Kye. I can't do what you do for a living."
"You already do."
"No. I chase people like you, people who destroy others for the fun of it. Money might change hands in your case, but we both know that is not the motivating factor."
"Then we die - as simple as that." He gave me a smile.
"Pull the trigger, Riley. I dare you."
I stared at him for the longest of moments. I was holding the gun so tightly my hand ached, but no matter what I did, I couldn't force my finger to retract against the trigger.
I just couldn't kill the dream, no matter how much of a nightmare it had turned into.
I lowered the gun. "If you're going to kill me, just pull the damn trigger and get it over with." My voice was weary, yet filled with anger and sorrow.
He smiled. "I never said I wanted to kill you. All I wanted to do was control this situation."
"Some things will never be controlled, Kye, no matter how hard you try." Especially when it came to something as nebulous as love.
"I've never yet hit such a situation. You, on the other hand, have wasted a number of good opportunities. Take, for instance, your much despised pack leader. When you put the fear of god into Blake rather than taking him out like you should have, you placed the control back into his court." His gaze narrowed a little. "That will come back and bite you in the ass, you know. He has a serious yen for revenge, and already his plans have begun to unfold."
"Right now, I don't fucking care. If you don't want to kill me, and you won't be arrested, then what the hell do you want?" I paused, then added heatedly, "And don't fucking say me, because I've answered that."
"What I wanted - " He paused, and his nostrils flared.
I sucked in a deep breath, tasting the air. Kade was near. His rich, summery scent was coming in from behind me.
"Riley," Kye said, his voice flat and yet filled with an odd sense of disappointment. "I told you to come alone."
"And you really thought I would?" I hoped Kade was listening, hoped he was aware that he'd been sensed. "I'm not that stupid, Kye. Nor is the Directorate."
"This was between you and me," he said, and something in his manner hardened. It sent goose bumps skittering across my flesh and had the hairs on the back of my neck rising. "It didn't have to be this way. It didn't have to end this way. "
My gun was up and focused on his head even before he'd finished speaking. "Last warning, Kye. Drop the fucking gun and put your hands up in the hair."
He smiled. There was nothing sad, wistful or beautiful about it now. "I told you once before, bad things happen when you hesitate, Riley."
It was a warning I'd heard from too many people, and suddenly I felt sick.
His weapon fired. I threw myself sideways, but knew I was never going to be fast enough. Even as my body sliced through the air, I waited for the moment of metal on flesh, waited for that moment of death.
But it wasn't my death he wanted.
The bullet ripped past my ear and found its home.
I hit the concrete, rolled to my feet, and spun, a scream of denial tearing past my throat. I saw Kade standing on the walkway behind us, saw the hole in his chest, the dark blood just beginning to ooze from the wound. Saw the mess of blood and flesh on the wall behind him. Knew he was a dead man standing.
His gaze met mine briefly, and he smiled - a warm, wistful sort of smile that spoke of the things we'd done and the things we would now never do, and then the life left his eyes and he fell, his body plummeting over the metal railing.
I didn't see him hit the concrete. I don't even remember turning or firing the gun.
All I saw was the surprise on Kye's face a heartbeat before the bullet exploded into his brain.
Then pain, unlike anything I'd ever felt in my life, pain that was heart and soul and body - hit. I dropped the gun and doubled over, gasping for breath, gasping for life
I couldn't find either, and I hit the concrete hard. Darkness swept in, and then there was nothing.
Nothing except the need to let go.
In the darkness, I existed.
The urge to let go, to just walk away from all the hurt, the pain, and the futile fury over what fate had done might have been strong, but there was one thing was stronger.
The other half of my soul, the one that had struggled to retain sanity under the weight of the werewolf's needs and desires - hungered to survive, and she would not let me give up.
But I didn't have the strength to wake, either.
Waking would mean facing the pain and a world without my wolf soul mate.
Waking would mean facing up to the fact that my inability to kill Kye when I had the chance had led to the death of a good man. A man I'd cared about, a man who had deserved far more than the screwed-up partner he'd been landed with.
I'd been warned so many times, and I just didn't have the strength to face that sort of guilt.
So I existed in the darkness, neither living nor dead, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, doing nothing.
As time drifted on, voices occasionally broke through the nothingness. Voices I cared about, people I loved. Quinn was strongest of them all, and yet neither his lilting voice nor his desperate pleas for me to come back could shatter the shadows that were locked around me.
I continued to exist, to survive, but that was not a state that could be maintained forever. Eventually, the darkness began to grow thicker, deeper, and through it I could feel the presence of another. Not someone I knew, but a stranger. A stranger who waited for the moment of finality.
My guide to wherever it was my shattered soul was destined to move on to.
Part of me screamed for him to back off, that I wasn't ready, that there was still too much that I had to do and had to achieve, but the words swirled into the abyss and the shadows got stronger, and I knew my body was shutting down. That the silly, insistent part of me that was struggling to survive was losing the greater battle.
The stranger moved closer.
Held out a hand.
Then another voice entered the shadows. A tiny, happy little voice that tugged at my heartstrings and made my soul ache.
The shadows around me stirred, becoming fainter, until a sliver of sunshine in the form of a silver-haired, violet-eyed little girl appeared before me.
Riley, she said, her mind voice holding an edge of censure that made her seem far older than her years. You cannot leave with Death.
I sighed. The sound whispered through the shadows, stirring them. The man that was death neither retreated nor moved forward, but simply continued to hold out his hand.
It was tempting.
My gaze went back to the sunshine sliver than was Risa.
Death is the easier choice, little monkey.
Death doesn't love you. I do. You can't go. Tears filled her eyes and her little face crumpled.
My own shattered heart felt like it was splintering into even tinier pieces. Risa -
No. She stamped her foot, her expression filled with stubbornness. She was a child who had no understanding of what she was asking - who just wanted what she wanted, and she wanted it now. You can't leave me, Riley. I won't let you.
It's not that easy, monkey -
It is. We love you. And suddenly she was gone, the darkness was gone, and I was seeing a hospital room. Not through my eyes but through hers, because I was there on the bed, surrounded by the machines that were not only keeping me alive but tracking my progress into death. Rhoan, Liander, and Quinn were there, all looking gaunt and grey and worried. Dia was there, pale and unhappy. Even Jack and Sal were there, sitting in the background, waiting patiently for a decision.
People I cared about, people who cared for me, even if we weren't exactly always friends.
People I didn't want to walk away from forever, even if it meant facing up to all the grief and the pain and the loss.
The image swirled away and the shadows returned. The sunshine beam that was Risa held out her hand.
Please, Riley, she pleaded. Walk back with me.
I hesitated. Turned to look at the shadow that was Death. Studied his outstretched hand.
Please, Riley, that little sunshiny voice said.
I turned and placed my hand in hers. Her little fingers clenched around mine, and suddenly the darkness was gone.
In its place were scents of antiseptic and humanity, wolf and vampire, death and unhappiness. Deep, deep unhappiness.
But the most overwhelming scent of all was the scent of soap and powder and everything that was good in this world.
I opened my eyes. Dia's little girl was sitting on the bed right in front of me and her smile shone out, warming my shattered soul in a way few other things could right now.
"Riley's decided to live," she said happily, and flung herself into my arms, her chubby arms giving me a hug that just about threatened to cut off my air supply.
And I didn't care one little bit - just wrapped my arms around her and held on tight.
The minute I moved, Rhoan gasped and flung himself out of his chair. But it was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the storm of love and relief and pure unadulterated love that Quinn flooded into my mind. I grabbed it, hugged it to me, filling the dark, empty places deep inside. Used it as a shield, a barrier to hold back all that pain and hurt and the need for forgiveness - at least temporarily.
I met his gaze and smiled. A simple smile, and yet it said so much that tears rose his eyes.
Then my gaze went to my brother and in those familiar, haunted depths, I saw the shadow of death. He'd known just how close I'd come.
I smiled and reached out a hand, clasping his. "I had to come back," I said, my voice croaky and stiff with disuse. "Because I hadn't given you and Liander my answer."
"Answer?" he said, confusion flitting briefly across his face.
"Yes," I said, and glanced at Liander. "Let's do it. Let's start a pack of our own."