And so, after forty-four chapters, the title finally becomes accurate.
Electric beeps, scratchy sheets, and that singularly sterile smell of hospitals greeted me as I swam up to consciousness. Guess I wasn’t dead, then. Definitely a plus at the moment, but when whatever they’d pumped me full of to dull the pain started to wear off I’d probably reevaluate that. I didn’t know how long I’d been out, but at least a few hours. Light was filtering in through the room’s windows.
Cautiously, I shifted in bed, but no pain struck me from the motion. Apparently they’d given me the good stuff. They’d also stuck me in an assless hospital gown, which I wasn’t thrilled about. No one looks good in those things. Not that looking good was my main concern, and it was a good thing. Besides the gown I could feel a bandage on my forehead—probably from when I’d hit the tree—and hoped they hadn’t had to cut any of my hair. All I needed was to look like a cancer patient on top of everything.
It wasn’t until I started to look around the room that I realized I was on the really good stuff. Ira was beside me and I hadn’t even noticed him. In my defense he was asleep, slumped over in one of those uncomfortable chairs. I couldn’t tell if he’d been hurt in the fight. His vampire healing had probably patched him up hours ago. The only indication I had that I hadn’t dreamed his appearance in the woods was his dirt-stained clothes.
Honestly, a dream seemed more likely. Had Ira really gone up against the man he loved like a father for me? Brought my sword, even. Had he really been prepared to choose my life over Rurik’s? My living, breathing status said he had—he did. Maybe it was the meds, but I didn’t have the tiniest idea how to process that. Twice he had told me it was better if we parted ways. Had he changed his mind? There was only one way to find out.
“Hey,” I said. “Ira.”
The weak, dry sound of my voice surprised me. I must have been unconscious longer than I thought.
Clearing my throat, I tried again, louder. “Ira!”
Body jerking he flinched awake. For a second he blinked blearily. Then he focused on me and came to himself all at once.
“You’re awake,” he said, leaning close to the bed.
I cocked a grin. “More than I can say for some of us.”
Ira put a hand to his chest in mock offense. “Hey, I’ve been watching out for your ungrateful ass every waking second since I brought you here. Give a guy some credit.”
“Consider yourself credited,” I graveled out. “How long was I under?”
He rubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed. “I dunno. The rest of that night, all of yesterday and last night, and it was just getting light when I dozed off which must have been a few hours ago. So, what’s that? Two days? Day and a half?”
“Jesus,” I whispered.
“Yeah,” Ira said. “They said where Rurik gouged you wasn’t even that bad. He clipped an intestine or two, but they got it sewed up, or whatever. They were more worried about the head trauma. I guess you were concussed, and your brain started to swell. There might have been internal bleeding, or something. It sounded like it was pretty touch and go there for awhile. They…they made it sound like they weren’t sure you were gonna wake up.”
Holy shit. I had no idea things had been that bad. And Ira had been here alone by my bedside not knowing if I’d ever wake up again. I owed him a completely killer blow-job.
I stretched out my hand toward him, and he reached up to take it, being careful of my IV.
“Thank you,” I said softly.
“Sure,” he murmured.
The moment was broken when my dry throat finally got the better of me. I started coughing like I was trying to bring up my esophagus.
“Water,” I managed in between hacks.
“I’ll get a nurse.” He headed for the door.
“Wait,” I tried to rasp, but it was too late.
A nurse brought me a tiny cup of water, just barely enough to stop the coughing. Quick glance at my vitals and she was off for the doctor.
“Damn it,” I moaned. I wanted to talk some more first before I was pressed with people.
“Sorry,” Ira said, fidgeting. “Well, I guess I’ll get out of the way while—”
“No.” I flapped my hand at him. “Please. Stay.”
He looked at me for a second, then his eyes dropped to the floor, a small smile on his face.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll stay.”
The doctor, whose name was on a tag around his neck that I couldn’t be bothered to read, asked me all the usual bullshit—my name, my age, the president. I answered them all while he shined that pen-light thing in my eyeballs. He raised a token protest at Ira’s presence, but I put my foot down and he rolled with it.
Turned out I was doing better than he’d expected, though from what Ira had told me that might have been just by being awake. Not a cheery thought. Considering I was alive when I should have been dead, I might have to work on that.
“It looks like you’re coming along,” Doctor Whoever said. “You’re going to have to stick to a liquid diet for awhile, and take it easy. No strenuous activity. Don’t want your head—”
“Hey, doc?” I interrupted. “Can we do this later? I’m not really feeling up to it right now.”
“Oh, sure.” He stood up, and headed out. “I’ll be back to see you in a few hours.”
“Perfect,” I said as he left.
“If you’re not feeling good,” Ira began, “I can—”
I snorted. “That was a total lie to get him out of our hair so we would talk. I’m feeling really good, actually. They must have good drugs.”
Ira laughed in spite of himself, wandering back over from where he’d been standing against the wall and retaking his seat.
“So,” he said slowly. “Let’s talk.”
“Uh yeah.” I cleared my throat. “Okay.”
We sat there in silence.
“Well, I wanted—”
“I just wanna say—”
“Sorry, you can—”
“Oh, go ahead—”
We stopped talking over each other long enough to laugh. It hurt my stomach a little, but I didn’t let on. The last thing I wanted was Ira running for the nurse again. I was gonna get to the bottom of this weird thing between us once and for all, whatever that might mean. But it might be best to ease into it.
“Why don’t you go ahead,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. He leaned forward so his arms were resting on the bed. “I was just gonna ask what happened when you broke that tree. I saw the branch go flying when you jumped off of it. It was crazy.”
I shrugged. “It was part of the set-up for a special move, where I have to be grounded to make it work. Obviously the branch wasn’t strong enough to ground me.”
“It’s called the One-Inch Punch,” I said.
“I’ve heard of it,” Ira said slowly. “You can break brick and wood and bones and stuff with it, right?”
I rolled my eyes. “Any martial artist could do that. The One-Inch Punch is special.”
Flattening my hand, I raised it to his forehead, thumb pointing up, fingertips brushing his skin.
“Most blows like that have to be brought down from above the head or a little bit away. They need depth-perception and the space to punch through their target.” As I explained I curled my fingers so I was pointing a fist at Ira’s head. “But with the One-Inch Punch, I could crack your skull from right here.”
Not sitting down, but I didn’t see any reason to tell him that. Playfully, I tapped his forehead with my fist, and he flinched backward. I grinned.
“I see some things never change,” he groused.
I shrugged, still grinning.
“Anyway,” he went on, “what did you want to ask me about?”
The grin slid slowly away. “Oh. I wanted to ask…”
“Actually, I think I know,” he said.
“I’m not so sure about that,” I muttered.
Without missing a beat, he said, “You want to know why I came back.”
He must have seen my surprise because he said, “Hey, I’m not stupid. Just a little slow, sometimes.”
“No arguments from this corner,” I quipped.
Ira didn’t smile back. “Look, I think I have to explain something about myself. Something kinda personal. It’s about my dad. If you wanna hear it.”
Trying to look more attentive, I struggled to sit up. “Of course, shoot me.”
He nodded, taking a breath he didn’t need. “When my mom and dad got divorced it was because of something Rurik did. As Primus, he claimed the right of first blood—the right to make me a vampire. He was perfectly within his rights, but my dad was a pretty powerful vampire in his own right and got pissed about it. So pissed he decided to leave the House rather than spend a single day more in Rurik’s territory. It was a pretty big scandal at the time.”
“I thought your dad and Rurik were close?” I said slowly, not entirely following.
“They were, once,” he said. “But their relationship deteriorated as Rurik rose through the House. According to Mom, anyway. I don’t actually remember that part of it. Pretty sure they kept me out of it as much as possible. As a child the only thing I picked up that something was wrong was when they stopped sleeping together.”
I tried to be impassive about that, but it still sounded weird. Culturally insensitive—who, me?
Shaking his head, he continued. “So, like I said. A member of the Primus’ council leaving the area over what should have been a big honor was pretty big scandal. When Mom left the House soon after, it didn’t help. I was a pretty confused kid. All the adults in my life were sending different signals, and when my dad left he didn’t so much as look backward. I haven’t heard another thing from him since. Not that I care.”
For a second he was quiet, but I didn’t rush him. There were things about my parents it would take me a lot more than a few seconds to get out. He seemed to shake himself from his memories and returned to his explanation.
“It ended up being Rurik I followed,” he said. “I was already in the House, and it was everything I knew. It wasn’t easy. I’ve spent my whole life trying to live down the gossip from my family’s dissolution of the House structure, and some days I wanted to join Mom at her diner. But ignoring everything wasn’t the solution for me.”
He looked up at me, meeting my eyes. “I just forgot that for awhile. Once I learned your identity, especially. I mean, come on. You’re a hunter. There’s no coming back from that. I knew that if I continued with us it would be the end of my life in the House, the end of everything I’ve worked for, the end of any repairs to my family’s reputation I may have made. The House is everything I have, it’s my life, my world, and I just…I wasn’t sure if losing that was something I was willing to do.”
“I understand,” I said softly. “Believe me, I do. In fact, I’m pretty much banking on the hope that my father never, ever finds out about this. Ever.”
He nodded. “Wish that had been an option on my end.”
I winced, but he spoke again before I could say anything.
“So, anyway, that brings us to the events of the night in question,” he said. “When I brought the car around, the smell of your blood was everywhere. No one knew where Rurik was, and you being a feisty blond it wasn’t hard to figure out what happened.”
Okay, if the huge son of a bitch had so little self-control around blond guys, it would have been really great if someone had thought to tell me about it, but there was no time to grouse.
“I knew that if I didn’t do something, that was it. Skilled as you are, you’re no match for Rurik. And in that moment I realized something.” He reached out to take my hand, twining our fingers together. Softly, he said, “I didn’t want to live without you.”
Heart pounding, I asked, “So what does that mean?”
“It means those two times I told you we shouldn’t be together, I wasn’t as sure as I tried to sound,” he admitted.
“One way or the other, you need to get sure,” I said. “You may have all the time in the world, but I don’t. You’ll stay young and gorgeous forever. I’ve only got ‘til, like, thirty or so.”
That made him smile. “Well, when you put it that way.”
He got out of the chair, shifting over to facing me on the bed. “I don’t know if we’ll work out, but I never will unless we try.”
Taking a deep breath, he looked down into my eyes. “So, how about it? Wanna be boyfriends?”
“That depends.” I tried to sound nonchalant, but my hand clutched his harder. “Promise me we’ll never do that totally lame no-you-hang-up thing on the phone?”
“I promise,” he said solemnly.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s be boyfriends.”