"No, you two go on. Catch up with the others. I'm just gonna sleep," Stevie Rae said as she curled onto her side, moving gingerly.
There was a grumpy "mee-uf-ow" and a chubby little orange ball of fur padded into the room and jumped up on Stevie Rae's bed.
"Nala!" Stevie Rae scratched the top of my cat's head. "Hey, I've missed you."
Nala sneezed in Stevie Rae's face and then made three rotations on the pillow beside her head, lay down, and started up her purr engine. Stevie Rae and I grinned at each other.
Okay--SPECIAL NOTE: Duchess, Jack's yellow Lab, is an anomaly. Stark brought her with him when he transferred to our school from the Chicago House of Night. Then he died. Jack adopted her. Then he un-died, but was obviously not himself, 'cause the first thing he did was shoot an arrow through Stevie Rae. Hence the fact Duchess is still with Jack. Plus I think the kid's really getting attached to her.
Anyway, when the group of us escaped from the House of Night, our cats, plus Duchess, followed us. So seeing Nala making herself comfortable added a comfy, homelike touch to Stevie Rae's room for Stevie Rae and me.
"You and Erik go on. Get a shower or what ever," Stevie Rae repeated sleepily as she cuddled with Nala. "Nal and I'll take a little nap. Oh, you can catch the rest of them if you go out, turn left, and then keep circling to your right. The entrance to the depot is by the room where we keep the fridges."
"Hey, Darius said I should check your bandages," I reminded her.
"Later," she yawned massively. "They're fine."
"Okay, if you say so." I tried not to show the relief I felt. No way was I ever going to be anything resembling a nurse. "Get some sleep. I'll be back in a little while," I said. I swear she was out before Erik and I ducked through the checkered blanket.
We turned to our left and walked without saying anything for a little way. The tunnels were less creepy than when I'd been down here before, but that didn't make them unclaustrophobic and bright and cheery. Every few yards there were lanterns staked with what looked like railroad spikes into the cement walls at about eye level, but the dampness permeated everything. We hadn't gone far when something caught at the corner of my eyes and I slowed down, peering into the heavy shadows between the lanterns.
"What is it?" Erik asked softly.
My stomach tightened with fear. "I don't know, I--" My words broke off as something exploded out of the darkness at me. I'd opened my mouth to shriek, imagining feral red fledglings or, worse, the horror of the Raven Mockers. But Erik's arm went around me and he pulled me out of the way of half a dozen bats, who fluttered past.
"They're as scared of you as you are of them," he said, taking his arm f? _rom around me as soon as the creatures were past us.
I shuddered, trying to force my heart to beat regularly again. "Okay, no possible way could they be as scared of me as I am of them. Eesh, bats are rats with wings."
He chuckled as we started walking again. "I thought pigeons were rats with wings."
"Bat, pigeons, ravens--I don't care about distinctions right now. Any fluttery, flappy thing is not cool with me."
"I see your point," he said, smiling at me. His smile didn't do much to help my heartbeat slow down, and as we kept walking, I swear I could still feel the warmth of his arm around my shoulders. In a few more feet we came to a section of the tunnel that was as amazing as it was surprising. Erik and I stopped and stared.
"Wow, that is majorly cool," I said.
"Yeah, wow," Erik agreed with me. "This must be the work of that Gerarty girl. Didn't Stevie Rae introduce her as being an artist who's been decorating the tunnels?"
"Yeah, but I didn't expect anything like this." Forgetting about the bats, I traced my hand over the beautifully complex pattern of flowers and hearts and birds and all sorts of swirls, all entwined to make a brightly painted mosaic that seemed to breathe life and magic into this little section of the dreary, claustrophobic walls.
"People, humans and vamps, would pay a fortune for art like this." Erik didn't add, if the world could ever know about the red fledglings and vamps, but the thought hung unspoken in the air between us.
"Hopefully, people will," I said. "It would be nice if the red fledglings could become known to the rest of the world." Plus, I added to myself, if they were out in the open, maybe my lingering questions about their powers and their tendencies could be more easily resolved. "Anyway, I think vampyres and humans should have better relationships," I added.
"Like you and your human boyfriend?" He asked the question quietly, with no hint of sarcasm.
I met his gaze steadily. "I'm not with Heath anymore."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," I said.
"Okay. Good." That was all he said, and we started walking again, silent and lost in our own thoughts.
Not long after that the tunnel curved slightly to the right, which was the direction we were supposed to follow, but on our left there was an arched exit covered with another blanket. This one was black fake velvet decorated with a tacky picture of Elvis in a white jumpsuit.
"Must be Dallas's room," I guessed.
Erik hesitated only a moment, then he brushed aside the blanket and we peeked in. It wasn't very big, and Dallas didn't have a bed, just a couple of mattresses piled on top of each other on the floor, but he did have a bright red comforter and matching red pillowcases (there was a big lump under the comforter, which I assumed was the sleeping Dallas), a table that held a bunch of stuff that the light wasn't good enough for me to see, and a couplet="0%">y: of black beanbag chairs. On the curved wall over the bed was a poster of...I squinted at it, trying to see...
"Jessica Alba in Sin City. The kid has excellent taste. She's one hot vamp actress," Erik said quietly so as not to wake Dallas.
I frowned at him and pulled the Elvis blanket door closed.
"What? It's not in my bedroom," he said.
"Let's just catch up with everyone else," I said, and started walking again.
"Hey," he said after a few minutes of dead air. "I owe you a big thanks."
"Me? For what?" I looked over at him.
He met my eyes. "For saving me from being left up there in the middle of that mess."
"I didn't save you from that. You came along with us of your own free will."
He shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure you saved me because without you I don't think I would have had any free will."
He stopped and touched my arm, gently turning me so that I faced him. I looked up into his brilliant blue eyes, which were framed by his adult vampyre Mark, an intricate pattern that gave the impression of a mask, making his totally gorgeous Clark Kent?Superman look go all Zorro-like and insanely hot. But Erik was more than just supergorgeous. Erik was talented and an honestly nice guy. I hated that we had broken up. I hated that I'd caused us to break up. In spite of everything that had happened, I wanted to be his girlfriend again. I wanted him to trust me again. I missed him so darn much...
"I really miss you!" I realized I'd blurted the words I'd been thinking when his eyes widened and his sexy lips curved up.
"I'm right here."
I could feel my face flush hot all the way from my neck up and I knew I'd turned a bright, unattractive red. "Well, you just being here isn't what I mean," I said lamely. His smile widened. "Don't you want to know how you saved me?"
"Yeah, of course." I wished I could fan my face so that some of the beet color might go away.
"You saved me because, instead of being hypnotized by the power of Kalona, I was thinking about you."
"Do you know how amazing you were when you cast that circle?"
I shook my head, caught by the brightness in his blue eyes. I didn't want to breathe. I didn't want to do anything that might spoil what was happening between us.
"You were incredible--beautiful and powerful and confident. You were all I could think of."
"I cut your hand" was all I could make my mouth say.
"You had to. It was part of the ritual." He lifted his hand and turned it palm up so that I could see the thin ribbon that sliced down the meaty pad up ?nder his thumb.
I trailed a finger lightly along the pink line. "I hated to hurt you."
He took my hand in his and turned it over so that the sapphire-colored tattoos that covered my palms were visible. Then, much as I had just done, he lightly traced his finger across my skin. I shivered, but didn't pull away.
"I didn't feel any pain when you cut me. All I felt was you. The heat of your body. The way you smell. The way you feel in my arms. That's why that creature didn't affect me. That's why I didn't believe Neferet. You saved me, Zoey."
"Even after all that's happened between us, you can say that?" My eyes were filling with tears, and I had to blink fast to keep them from spilling over.
I watched as Erik took a deep breath. He looked like he was a diver getting ready to jump off a high, dangerous cliff. Then, in one rush, he said, "I love you, Z. All that's happened between us hasn't changed that, even when I wanted it to." He cupped my face in his hands. "I couldn't be fooled by Neferet or hypnotized by Kalona because I'm already a fool for you, hypnotized by what I feel for you. I still want to be with you, Zoey, if you'll just say yes."
"Yes," I whispered without one instant of hesitation.
He bent and his lips met mine. I opened my mouth and accepted his familiar kiss. His taste was the same; his touch was the same. I slid my arms up and around his broad shoulders and pressed myself against him, hardly able to believe that he'd forgiven me--that he still wanted me--still loved me.
"Zoey," he murmured against my lips. "I've missed you, too."
Then he kissed me again, and I swear he made me dizzy. It was different than kissing him before--before he'd become a full vampyre--before I'd lost my virginity to another man. Now it was like he knew a secret, but I was in on it. I felt his moan more than I heard it, and then I also felt the hard coolness of the wall of the tunnel against my back as he turned me in his arms and trapped me there. One of his hands, low on my back, was firmly pressing me into him. The other I felt sliding down the side of my body, skimming my ceremonial dress and traveling the back of my thigh until he found the hem, then his fingers were finding their way up and under it, warm against the coolness of my naked flesh.
Backed against the wall of a tunnel?
Being groped in the dark? And the worst thought of all hit me: Did Erik think because I'd had sex (once!) that now it was open season on nailing Zoey? Ah, crap!
I wasn't going to do this. Not here. Not like this. Hell, I didn't even know if I was ready to do it again at all. The one and only time I'd had sex had ended disastrously and had been the biggest mistake of my life. It had definitely not turned me into some kind of nympho ho!
I pushed against Erik's chest and pulled my mouth from his. He didn't seem to mind. Actually, he hardly seemed to notice. He just kept grinding against me and moved his lips to my neck.
&ldqubCeo;Erik, please stop," I said breathlessly.
"Umm, you taste so good."
He sounded so sexy and turned-on that for a moment I was confused about what I really wanted. I mean, I did want to be with him again, and he was totally hot and familiar and...
I had just begun to relax into him when I glimpsed something over his shoulder. Fear stabbed me as I realized the something had eyes glowing red from a deep, wavering sea of blackness that seemed to pool and writhe in the air like a ghost made of nothing but darkness.
"Erik! Stop. Now." I shoved hard against his chest and he stumbled back half a step. My heart beating wildly, I moved quickly so that I could face what ever was there behind him. There were no red eyes glowing at me, but I swear I saw an inky darkness within the black of shadow. As I blinked and focused my eyes, the weirdness disappeared, leaving nothing but Erik and me and a dark, silent tunnel.
Suddenly, from the opposite direction, I heard the click of shoes against concrete and I drew in a deep breath, readying myself to call what ever element I'd need to combat this new faceless threat, when Kramisha stepped calmly out of the shadows. She gave Erik a long, considering look and said, "Boyyyy, you is workin' it here in the tunnel? Damn! You got some game."
Erik turned to her as he tucked me under his arm. I didn't need to look up at him to know that he had an easy smile on his face. Erik was a seriously good actor. The face he was showing Kramisha was under control, with just the right amount of sexy, got-caught-in-the-act to it.
"Hey there, Kramisha," he said smoothly.
On the other hand you have me. I could barely stand, let alone speak. I knew my face was beet red and my lips looked bruised and damp. Hell, I probably looked bruised and damp. "Kramisha, did you see anything over there in the tunnel?" I jerked my chin in the direction of the shadows behind us and managed to sound only semi-porn star and breathless.
"No, girl, I only seen you and your boy here sucking face," Kramisha said quickly.
I wondered if maybe she hadn't answered a little too quickly.
"Aww! Are Erik and Z making out? That's so sweet!" Seemingly from nowhere, Jack suddenly materialized behind Kramisha, Duchess woofing and wagging by his side.
"Z, don't freak. You probably just saw more of those bats," Erik said, squeezing my shoulder reassuringly before he nodded at Jack. "Hey there, Jack. I thought you'd be basking in a hot shower by now."
"He's gonna, but he came to help me get some towels and stuff," Kramisha said. "And, yeah, there is definitely bats down here. They don't mess with us if we don't mess with them." Then she yawned and did a seriously impressive stretch that made her look like a long, lean black cat. "Since you here, how 'bout you two helping Jack carry the stuff back to the showers and I'll just take me a little beauty sleep?"
"No problem. We'd be glad to help," I said, regaining my voice and feeling like a moron for letting bats in a dark tunnel almost scare the poopie out of me. Jeesh, I must really need some sleep. "Erik and I?I were just heading to the bathrooms."
Kramisha gave us a long, slow look that wasn't any less knowing because she was sleepy. "Uh-huh. You looked like you was headin' to the bathrooms."
I felt myself blush again.
She turned, and I thought she was going to (bizarrely) walk right into the tunnel wall behind her, but instead she disappeared into it. Then I heard a match strike and a flickering lantern illuminated a hollowed-out section of the tunnel, just a little bit smaller than Dallas's room. Kramisha hung the lantern on a spike and then looked over her shoulder at us.
"Well? What you waitin' for?"
"Oh, yeah, okay," I said.
Jack, Duchess, Erik, and I moved up beside Kramisha to look into the new room. It actually had shelves built into the squared cement walls and looked just like a tidy closet. I gazed at neat piles of folded towels and, weirdly enough, big puffy bathrobes that Duchess was nosing around.
"Is that dog sanitary?" Kramisha asked.
"Damien says that a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's," Jack said, patting the big yellow Lab on her head.
"We ain't humans," Kramisha said. "So could you please keep her big wet nose off the merchandise?"
"Fine. But try to remember that she's been through a trauma and her feelings are easily hurt."
While Jack pulled Duchess over to him and had a very serious conversation with her about keeping her nose off things, I stared at the piles of stuff. "Huh. Who knew all this was here?"
"Aphrodite," Kramisha said as she filled our arms with terry cloth. "She paid for it. Or her mama's gold card money did. You wouldn't believe all the stuff you can order from Pottery Barn if you got unlimited credit. It's made me decide once and for all on my future career."
"Really? What do you want to do?" Jack asked. Duchess sitting politely beside him, he held his arms out to be filled with towels and robes.
"I'm gonna be an author. One of those rich ones. With an unlimited gold card. Do you know people act different to you when you got you some serious credit?"
"Yeah, I guess. I have seen store people kiss the Twins' butts," Jack said. "Their families have money, too." He whispered the last part like it was a big secret, which it wasn't. Everyone knew the Twins' parents were rich. Okay, not Aphrodite rich, but still. They'd bought me boots for my birthday that cost almost $400. That's definitely rich to me.
"Well. I decided I like me some butt-kissing. So I'm gonna get me some. Okay, that's enough stuff. Come on. I'll walk partway back with you, but when we get to my room, I'm crashing. Jack, you can find the way back to the showers, can't you?"
"Yep," he said.
We walked down the tunnel, following it as it curved to the right. The next blanketed doorway we came to was covered with a shimmering strip of purple silk.
"This here's my room." Kramisha saw me staring at the amazing material masquerading as a door, and she smiled. "It's a curtain from Pier One. They don't deliver, but they do take unlimited gold cards." "It's a great color," I said, thinking how moronic it was for me to be imagining booger monsters in every shadow when the place had been Pier One?decorated.
"Thanks. I like me some color. It's an important part of decoration. Wanna see my room?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Definitely," Jack said.
Kramisha looked from Jack to Duchess. "She potty trained?"
Jack bristled. "Of course. She's a perfect lady."
"She better be," Kramisha grumbled, then she pulled the curtain to the side and made a graceful flourish with her free hand. "You may enter my space."
Kramisha's room was about twice the size of Stevie Rae's. She had two lanterns and a dozen scented candles lit, which gave the fresh paint smell a hint of citrus. She'd obviously recently painted the round cement walls a bright lime color. Her furniture was dark wood--bed, dresser, nightstand, and bookcase. She didn't have any chairs, but piled around the room were huge satin pillows in bold purples and pinks, which matched the linens on her bed. On said bed were half a dozen books, with bookmarks in them or lying open, like she was in the middle of reading all of them at the same time. I noticed that they, along with the books in the bookcase, had Dewey Decimal stickers on their spines. Kramisha noticed me noticing.
"Central Library downtown. They stay open real late on weekends."
"I didn't know the library let you check out this many books at the same time," Jack said.
Kramisha fidgeted. "They don't. Not technically. Not 'less you do a little this and a little that with they minds. I'll give 'em back soon as I can get to Borders and buy my own," she added.
I sighed and added "committing library theft" to the list in my head of things the red fledglings needed to be encouraged to stop doing, and as I made the mental addition I also chastised myself. Kramisha definitely looked guilty about ripping off library books. Would a kid who still had monstrous tendencies be worried about petty theft? No, no, hell no, I told myself, automatically wandering over to the bed to read some of the titles. There was a huge copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, as well as an illustrated hardback of Jane Eyre, which was piled on top of a book called The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee. There was also a hardback edition of Dragon-flight by Anne McCaffrey lying beside Thug-A-Licious, Candy Licker, and G-Spot by an author whose name was blazed as Noire. Those three books were open with their extremely nasty-looking covers spread wide. Totally curious, I put my pile of towels down on the bright pink bedspreaded bed, picked up Thug-A-Licious, and began reading at the open page.
I swear my retinas started to burn with the heat of the scene.
"Book porn. I like it," Erik said from over my shoulder.
"Um, they some of my research." Kramisha quickly plucked the book from my fingers, shooting Erik a smooth look. "And from what I seen out there, you don't need no help."
I felt my face get hot again and sighed.
"Hey, cool poetry," I heard Jack say. Glad for the distraction, I looked up to see Jack pointing at several posters neatly hot-glued to Kramisha's green walls. They were filled with poetry, all written in the same curling script in different colors of fluorescent Magic Markers.
"You like it?" Kramisha said.
"Yeah, it's great. I really like poetry," Jack said.
"They mine. I wrote 'em," Kramisha said. "Are you kidding? Man, I thought they were from a book or something. You're really good," Jack said.
"Thanks, I told you I'm gonna be an author. A famous, rich one with major gold card power."
I vaguely heard Erik join the discussion. All of my attention had become focused on one short poem that was written in black on a blood-red poster. "You wrote that one, too?" I asked, not caring that I was interrupting their discussion of whether they liked Robert Frost better than Emily Dickinson.
"I wrote all a' them," she said. "I always did like writin', but since I was Marked I been doing it more and more. They just come to me. I been hopin' I can write more than poems. I like 'em and all, but poets, they don't make no money. See, I researched careers at Central Library, too, 'cause, you know, it stay open late. Anyhow, them poets don't make--"
"Kramisha"--I cut her off--"when did you write that one?" My stomach felt funny and my mouth had gone dry.
"I wrote all them in the past few days. You know, since Stevie Rae got us our sense back. Before that I didn't think much 'bout anything 'cept eatin' humans." She smiled apologetically and lifted one shoulder.
"So you wrote that one--the one in black--in the past couple of days?" I pointed at the poem.
Shadows in shadows
He watches through
Wings black as Africa
Body strong as stone
The ravens call.
Jack gasped as he read it for the first time.
"Oh, Goddess!" I heard Erik say under his breath as he, too, read the poem.
"That's easy. It's the last one I wrote--just yesterday. I was..." Her words ran out as she understood our reactions. "Shit! It's 'bout him!"