Hope strengthens. Fear kills.
Someone really smart told me that once.
Every time I think I’m getting wiser, more in control of my actions, I go slamming into a situation that makes me excruciatingly aware that all I’ve succeeded in doing is swapping one set of delusions for a more elaborate, attractive set of delusions—that’s me, the Queen of Self-Deception.
I hate myself right now. More than I’d ever have thought pos- sible.
I squat on the cliff’s edge, screaming, cursing the day I was born, wishing my biological mother had drowned me at birth. Life is too hard, too much to handle. Nobody told me there’d be days like these. How could nobody tell me there’d be days like these? How could they let me grow up like that—happy and pink and stupid?
The pain I feel is worse than anything the Sinsar Dubh has ever done to me. At least when the Book is crushing me, I know it’s not my own fault.
Mea culpa. Beginning to end, all the way, I own this one, and there will never be any hiding from that fact.
I thought I’d lost everything.
How ignorant I was. He warned me. I had so much more to lose!
I want to die.
It’s the only way to stop the pain.
Months ago, on a hellishly long night, in a grotto beneath the Burren, I wanted to die, too, but it wasn’t the same. Mallucé was going to torture me to death, and dying was the only chance I had of denying him that twisted pleasure. My death had been inevitable. I saw little point in drawing it out.
I’d been wrong. I’d given up hope and nearly died because of it.
I would have died—if not for Jericho Barrons.
He’s the one who taught me those words.
That simple adage is master of every situation, every choice. Each morning we wake up, we get to choose between hope and fear and apply one of those emotions to everything we do. Do we greet the things that come our way with joy? Or suspicion?
Hope strengthens . . .
Not once did I permit myself to feel any hope about the person lying facedown in a pool of blood. Not once did I use it to strengthen our bond. I let the onus of our relationship rest on broader shoulders. Fear. Suspicion. Mistrust drove my every action.
And now it’s too late to take any of it back.
I stop screaming and begin to laugh. I hear the madness in it.
I don’t care.
My spear sticks up, a cruel javelin, mocking me. I remember stealing it.
For a moment, I’m back in the dark, rain-slicked Dublin streets, descending into the sewer systems with Barrons, breaking into Rocky O’Bannion’s private cache of religious artifacts. Barrons is wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. Muscles ripple in his body as he casts aside the sewer lid with the ease of a man tossing a Frisbee in the park.
He’s disturbingly sexual, to men and women alike, in a way that sets your teeth on edge. With Barrons, you aren’t sure if you’re going to get fucked or turned inside out and left a new, unrecognizable person, adrift with no moorings, on a sea with no bottom and no rules.
I was never immune to him. There were merely degrees of denial.
My respite is too brief. The memory vanishes and I am again con- fronted with the reality that threatens to shatter my hold on sanity.
Fear kills . . .
I can’t say it. I can’t think it. I can’t begin to absorb it.
I hug my knees and rock.
Jericho Barrons is dead.
He lies on his stomach, motionless. He hasn’t moved or breathed in the small eternity that I’ve been screaming. I can’t sense him in his skin. On all other occasions, I’ve been able to feel him in my vicinity: electric, larger than life, vastness crammed into a tiny container. Genie in a bottle. That’s Barrons: deadly power, stopper corking it. Barely.
I rock back and forth.
The million-dollar question: What are you, Barrons? His answer, on those rare occasions he gave one, was always the same.
The one that will never let you die.
I believed him. Damn him.
“Well, you screwed up, Barrons. I’m alone and I’m in serious trouble, so get up!”
He doesn’t move. There’s too much blood. I reach out with my sidhe-seer senses. I sense nothing on the cliff’s edge but me.
No wonder he told me never to call the number on my cell that he had programmed as IYD—If You’re Dying—unless I really was. After a time I begin to laugh again. He’s not the one who screwed up. I am. Was I played or did I orchestrate this fiasco all by myself?
I thought Barrons was invincible.
I keep waiting for him to move. Roll over. Sit up. Magically heal. Cut me one of those hard looks and say, Get a grip, Ms. Lane. I’m the Unseelie King. I can’t die.
That was one of my biggest fears, whenever I was indulging in any of a thousand about him: that he was the one who’d created the Sinsar Dubh to begin with, dumping all his evil into it, and he wanted it back for some reason but couldn’t trap it himself. At one point or another, I’d considered everything: Fae, half Fae, werewolf, vampire, ancient cursed being from the dawn of time, perhaps the very thing he and Christian had tried to summon on Halloween at Castle Keltar—key part there being immortal, as in unkillable.
“Get up, Barrons!” I scream. “Move, damn you!”
I’m afraid to touch him. Afraid if I do, his body will be cooling noticeably. I’ll feel the fragility of his flesh, the mortality of Barrons. “Fragility,” “mortality,” and “Barrons” all packed together in the same thought feels about as blasphemous as stalking through the Vatican hammering upside-down crosses on the walls.
I squat ten paces from his body.
I stay back, because if I get close I’ll have to roll him over and look in his eyes, and what if they’re empty like Alina’s were?
Then I’ll know he’s gone, like I knew she was gone, too far beyond my reach to ever hear my voice again, to hear me say, I’m sorry, Alina, I wish I’d called more often; I wish I’d heard the truth beneath our vapid sister talk; I wish I’d come to Dublin and fought beside you, or raged at you, because you were acting from fear, too, Alina, not hope at all, or you would have trusted me to help you. Or maybe just apologize, Barrons, for being too young to have my priorities refined, like you, because I haven’t suffered whatever the hell it is you suffered, and then shove you up against a wall and kiss you until you can’t breathe, do what I wanted to do the first day I saw you there in your bloody damned bookstore. Disturb you like you disturbed me, make you see me, make you want me—pink me!—shatter your self-control, bring you crashing to your knees in front of me, even though I told myself I’d never want a man like you, that you were too old, too carnal, more animal than man, with one foot in the swamp and no desire to come all the way out, when the truth was that I was terrified by what you made me feel. It wasn’t what guys make girls feel, dreams of a future with babies and picket fences, but frantic, hard, raw loss of self, like you can’t live without that man inside you, around you, with you all the time, and it only matters what he thinks of you, the rest of the world can go to hell, and even then I knew you could change me! Who wants to be around someone that can change them? Too much power to let another person have! It was easier to fight you than admit that I had undiscovered places inside me that hungered for things that weren’t accepted in any kind of world I knew, and the worst of it is that you woke me up from my Barbie-girl world and now I’m here and I’m wide awake, you bastard, I couldn’t be more awake, and you left me—
I think I’ll scream until he gets up.
He was the one who told me not to believe anything was dead until I’d burned it, poked around in its ashes, then waited a day or two to see if anything rose from them.
Surely I’m not supposed to burn him.
I don’t think there are any circumstances under which I could do that.
He’ll get up. He hates it when I’m melodramatic.
While I wait for him to revive, I listen for sounds of scrabbling at the cliff’s edge. I half-expect Ryodan to drag his broken, bloody body up over the edge. Maybe he’s not really dead, either. After all, we’re in Faery, maybe, or at least within the Silvers—who knows what realm this is? Might the water here have rejuvenating powers? Should I try to get Barrons to it? Maybe we’re in the Dreaming and this terrible thing that has happened is a nightmare, and I’ll wake up on a couch in Barrons Books and Baubles and the illustrious, infuriating owner will raise a brow and give me that look; I’ll say something pithy, and life will be lovely, chock-full of monsters and rain again, just the way I like it.
No scrabbling in the stones and shale.
The man with the spear in his back doesn’t move.
My heart is full of holes.
He gave his life for me. Barrons gave his life for me. My self-serving, arrogant, constant jackass was the constant rock beneath my feet, willing to die so I could live.
Why the hell would he do that?
How do I live with that?
A terrible thought occurs to me, so awful that for a few moments it eclipses my grief: I would never have killed him if Ryodan hadn’t appeared. Did Ryodan set me up? Did he come here to kill Barrons, who was never invincible, merely difficult to kill? Maybe Barrons could be killed only in his animal form, and Ryodan knew he’d have to be in it to protect me. Was this an elaborate ruse that had nothing to do with me? Was Ryodan working with the LM, and they wanted Barrons out of the way so I’d be easier to deal with, and the abduction of my parents was mere sleight of hand? Look over there while we kill the man who threatens us all. Or maybe Barrons had been cursed to live out some hellish sentence and could be slain only by someone he trusted, and he’d trusted me. Beneath all the cold arrogance, the mockery, the constant pushing, had he given over that most private part of himself to me—a confidence I’d never earned, as I couldn’t have proven any more surely than if I’d stabbed him in the back?
Oh, gee, wait, I did. On Ryodan’s word alone, I’d turned on him.
The accusation of betrayal in the beast’s gaze hadn’t been an illusion. It had been Jericho Barrons in there, staring at me from behind that prehistoric brow, baring his fangs, reproach and hatred blazing in his feral yellow eyes. I’d broken our unspoken pact. He’d been my guardian demon and I’d killed him.
Had he despised me for not seeing through the hide of the beast he’d worn to the man within?
See me. How many times had he said that to me? See me when you look at me!
When it mattered most, I’d been blind. He’d been dogging my every step, treating me with that characteristic Barrons’ combination of aggression and animal possessiveness, and I’d never once recognized him.
I’d failed him.
He’d come to me in a barbaric, inhuman form, to keep me alive. He’d set himself up as IYD regardless of what it might cost him, knowing he would be turned into a mindless, raging beast capable only of slaughtering everything in his immediate vicinity but for one thing.
God, that look!
I cover my face with my hands, but the image won’t go away: beast and Barrons, his dark skin and exotic face, its slate hide and primal features. Those ancient eyes that saw so much and asked only to be seen in return burn with scorn: Couldn’t you have trusted me just once? Couldn’t you have hoped for the best, just once? Why did you choose Ryodan over me? I was keeping you alive. I had a plan. Did I ever let you down?
“I didn’t know it was you!” I gouge my palms with my nails. They bleed for a brief moment, then heal.
But the beast/Barrons in my mind isn’t done torturing me. You should have. I took your sweater. I smelled you and granted you passage. I killed fresh, tender meat for you. I pissed around you. I showed you in this form, as in any other, that you are mine—and I take care of what is mine.
Tears blind me. I double over. It hurts so bad I can’t breathe, can’t move. I hunch over, curl in on myself, and rock.