Neither (The Noctalis Chronicles #3) by Chelsea M. Cameron
I wake with my face pressed against something smooth and soft. It's not warm, whatever it is, but it feels familiar. Opening my eyes seems like a lot of work, so I don't bother. Instead, I focus on breathing. There is a wonderful scent around me. Something cool and sharp. Wintergreen?
“Ava?” a voice speaks in my ear. The voice is also familiar and conjures memories of a face with dark hair falling in front of it. Two eyes — one green, one blue — and a set of blacker-than-night wings.
I open my eyes and am met by a wall of black feathers. I turn my head, trying to find a way out.
A little light enters the feather cave, and I realize I'm under the shelter of Peter's wings. I am also pressed to his bare chest. It takes me way too long to realize this. It also takes me a little bit longer to realize that I should be dead right now. My hand goes to my neck, where he bit me. My fingers find a piece of gauze.
“What happened?” I ask the stupidest question ever.
Of course, he's going to be Mr. I-don't-want-to-burden-your-weak-human-brain-with-big-important-things-you-can't-understand. Yeah, that's not gonna fly. I may be weak, but I'm not stupid.
“Could you give me a play-by-play and not treat me like I can't handle it? I think I've proved that I can by now.”
I move my face away from his chest, as difficult as that is, to look at my surroundings. Huh. I'm in my bedroom, as if this is a normal night. Peter in my bed isn't anything new, but he usually doesn't have his wings out.
“I did not change you. Or kill you,” he says, adjusting so I can move easier.
Man, those wings are huge, and very pretty.
I fight the urge to smack him. It would hurt me more than it would hurt him. “Yeah, I noticed. So how did you weasel your way out of that one?” My neck is sore as I try to turn it from side to side. There's also a lovely bite mark from Peter on one side. “Viktor. He came with Texas and gave us a chance to escape.”
“How?” I glance up at his eyes, and he blinks. I'm guessing that's a shrug.
“He gave himself up. He made another bind.”
I sit up, hitting one of his wings with my head. “What?” This is not happening. Of all the stupid things...
“That he would avenge Ivan's death, by taking the life of the person who took his.” His calmer-than-calm voice is normally sexy. Not so much right now. I want him to be as freaked out as I am.
“That would be me. So now he wants to kill me, too.” Why don't I just paint a bull’s-eye on my forehead? Come and get me, bloodsuckers.
“He does not want to,” he says, as if that makes it better.
“And she took that?”
“For now.” Great. Just fan-freaking-tastic. My head can't think about that little development right now. Di isn't the only one who wants me gone.
“What about Cal?” Saying his name makes me want to puke. He almost scares me more than Di.
“He left with her. He will be back.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
I look out my window. The sun is still fairly low in the sky, but my parents will be up soon. I don't think I can get myself into a standing position.
“What do we do now?” I've asked him this so many times. Always wanting the answer to be turning me into a noctalis. “Oh my God, I have to call Tex.” I search my nightstand for my phone.
Peter takes my hand to get my attention. “Not right now. Can I get you anything?”
“My head is killing me.”
I don't want him to leave, but I have to take something for my head and the rest of me. He makes sure to cradle my body and let me down easy as he gets up, folding his wings so he can fit through my bathroom doorway. He comes back only a few seconds later with a glass and a couple of pills. I swallow them as he settles back on my bed, pulling me onto his chest again.
“You didn't answer my question. What do we do?” I say.
Oh, that is it. “Wait? Seriously? That's your big plan? Sit around and wait like… sitting ducks?” I wish I didn't feel so crappy, because I want to be more forceful.
His fingers dance up and down my arm. Very distracting. “That has nothing to do with it. There is nothing we can do without gathering more information.”
“Yeah, that worked out real well last time.”
“Viktor knows some noctali that might be able to help. They usually try to stay out of affairs like this one.”
“Wait, isn't him helping against the bind? How can he help us if he's also supposed to kill me?” I say.
“The bind was only that he would take your life. It said nothing about helping.” That crap is way too confusing.
“Why didn't you call on them before?”
“Usually when you ask for something, you must give something in return. I wanted to avoid that as much as I could,” he says. This does not inspire confidence.
“What is it with you guys and promises and an eye for an eye? It's very old-fashioned,” I say.
“We are very old-fashioned.” I almost snort at the understatement.
I move my head so his shoulder blocks the sun that's starting to peer through my curtains. Go away, sun. I just want to lie here forever with Peter, even if I remain human. We can just stay like this.
“Why didn't you change me?” I whisper, almost afraid to ask the question. His lips find my temple, and I let myself sink into the feel of them on my skin. I still want an answer.
“Because I didn't want to. I was going to,” he says, pausing.
I move my head so I can meet his eyes. I hope he tells me the truth, and not what he thinks I should hear.
“You were? What stopped you?”
“It wasn't the right time.” I sit up again in shock.
“What do you mean, right time? Does that mean that you're going to?” This is news to me. Really big news. Colossal news.
“Would you want me to?” He brushes some hair out of my eyes.
I'm speechless for a moment. Way to change your mind, Peter.
“If that's what it takes, yes. I want you to be free.” I put my hand on his perfect face. I'd give anything for him. Even my life. I see that now more than ever. I thought I was going to lose him, and I never want to go through that again.
“You could change me right here, right now,” I say.
“Immortality is not what you think it is, my Ava. I would not choose it for you. But if it is what you want, it is what you want.”
“You're serious?” That is a departure from what he told me earlier. Has the world turned upside down? Did I hit my head when I passed out?
“I would do anything for you. Don't you know that?”
He settles his wings around me once again, and I'm covered in a black-feathered embrace. I've never felt safer in my life.
“I'd do anything for you. Even becoming an angel vampire,” I say to his chest. Even if there are three noctali that either want or have to kill me. Even if my mother dies. Even when my mother dies.
“We don't need to decide anything right now. You should get some more sleep,” he says. I think he's reading my mind, because apparently he can do that now.
I want to protest and fight and let him change me, but he's right. I need some time to process before I make a mortality-altering decision. We also have to talk about Ivan and Viktor's new promise and how the hell we're going to get out of this with both of us intact. My thoughts start to become foggy, and I can't hold onto them long enough to complete them. Something is wrong with my brain.
“I don't want to close my eyes. I'm afraid you're going to leave.” Despite my efforts, my eyes start to close again. I'm trying to come up with something else to say to make him stay, but I can't.
“I am not going anywhere, Ava-Claire. I will be right here when your eyes open. I promise.” His hand makes slow circles on my back.
“Promise?” My word comes out slurred, as if I'm drunk.
I watch her eyes close again, relieved that the sleeping pills I slipped her have worked. Her human body needs sleep to recover from what she's been through. The line that connects us is back in place, and I'm content having her in my arms. My Ava.
When she wakes, she will want the full story of what happened. I will have to decide the best way to tell her without telling her too much. I told her I would not lie to her and I do not intend to start now.
I hear Viktor coming before Di and Cal did. It is part of our bond as brothers. Somehow we are always able to hear each other long before we see one another. I sense Texas with him as well. It is foolish to bring her, but I can tell she has him wrapped around her finger. If he isn’t careful, he will fall for her, and then there will be trouble. I know that first hand.
I pretend that I am going to kill Ava, drink her blood and end her for Di. Her fear is the only thing I feel; it overwhelms everything else, even my own desire for her blood. I see the fear in her eyes, the realization that I am going to kill her. I hate that look, more than anything else I've done. I hate that I have put that fear into her, even if it is justified.
“Adore,” I say to reassure her as she fights me. I want to tell her more, tell her so many things, but I have to make it look real. I sink my teeth into her soft neck and fight for control as her blood fills my mouth. The taste hits me like fire and I try not to gobble it in one gulp.
She whimpers and passes out. I was hoping for that.
I had her blood before, but this is different. My noctalis side fights for dominance over the other part that desires that she stay alive. I continue to drink, if only to show Di that I am serious about killing her. Any moment...
“Stop,” Viktor says, appearing in front of us with Texas in his arms.
He has Claimed her. She is still weak and has a bandage on her arm, but she gazes at him as if he holds the secrets of the world in his eyes. I have seen that look before on Adele.
“Viktor, sweetheart, what are you doing here? I didn't call you,” Di says as if she has all the time in the world. She gestures to me and Ava. “Peter is disposing of this human, but I see you have acquired one. You know that she could hurt you. She has already taken my Ivan from me.” She glances at the place where Ivan once stood, which is littered with ash that swirls in the soft wind.
“I am here to make a bargain,” Viktor says. We agreed on this a long time ago. I hoped it wouldn't come to this, but it seems it has.
“Do not listen to him,” Cal hisses. Di puts her hand up to silence him.
“We are a little busy, sweetheart, as you can see.” She gestures to Ava and me. I am taking more blood from Ava than I have before. If I am not careful, I won’t be able to stop. I have to stop. Di walks over to where Ivan's ashes are, bends down and smears some of them on her fingers.
“I will make a bind with you,” Viktor says.
“You will?” For the first time in a long time, Di looks surprised. “What will you promise?” Her eyes light up at the prospect of another bind.
Viktor grips Texas tighter. Her eyes are bright with fear. “That I will avenge Ivan's death.”
“You would do that for me, my sweet boy?” she says, walking toward him, as if she has forgotten about me. “But you want something in return, don't you?” Her voice turns to steel, and she grabs his arm. Cal wants to say something, but he won’t disobey Di.
“I want you to leave Peter and Ava alone, if only for this one day. Promise me that, and I will do that for you.”
“You will set a time limit on it, sweetheart. If you cannot do this within a year, you will end. I also expect an eye for an eye. Nothing less. Do you understand?” Viktor dwarfs Di in height, but she holds the power. She is the one who made us, and always will hold that over us.
“Yes, I agree,” he says.
“Say it. Say you promise to take the life of the one who took Ivan's.” She clutches his face with both hands, some of Ivan's ash getting on his skin.
Texas watches his face, uncharacteristically silent.
“I promise,” he says, and the air shifts. I release Ava from my mouth and cradle her body to my chest.
I have to get her home. She stirs, just a little. Oh, how I wish I could take her home and for this to be the end. I want so much to be done with Di, done with the bind, done with it all. Even if I end, at least she will be free of me. Of this.
“You may go,” Di says, waving her hand and dismissing us. I share a look with Viktor. He has done what he has to. We will deal with tomorrow, tomorrow. He is still my brother, and he will not take my Ava from me.
“Cal, come,” she says, crooking her finger at him. I don’t look at them as they leave.
“Is she okay?” Texas says as Viktor sets her down. He keeps his hands on her waist, because her legs are still too weak. Another decision he has made. Another existence-changing decision.
“She will be. We need to get her home,” I say, holding her as close as I can without hurting her, I take to the sky, flying as fast as I can and wishing I could fly back in time. I keep one hand pressed to her neck to stop the bleeding. I lick the wound, hoping somehow it will cause her blood to clot.
Ava stirs in her sleep, her brow crinkling, as if she is worried about something. I take my fingers and smooth it. At my touch, it disappears. We will deal with tomorrow when tomorrow comes.