Pushing myself off the floor, I slowly rose. My legs were stiff, and wobbled beneath my weight. I had to move. I had to get dry. Get warm. I effonated to the mall, and emerged gasping inside a stall in the women’s bathroom. The stall door caught my body as I fell forward. My fingers slid down the cold metal. Pushing off the door, I righted myself. When I was ready, I unlatched the door and walked out of the stall. Three mirrors sat behind three sinks, across from three empty stalls. My hands reached out for the counter to support my weight in front of the center sink. Taking a deep breath, I straightened myself and looked in the mirror. Dark brown patches crusted over pink welts on my arms and neck. One of the lashes had ripped up to my neck and onto my cheek. I pressed my fingers to the dried blood. I couldn’t feel my own touch. The sensation registered, but it was only factual. My skin was dirty. My skin was cold.
I looked away, down at the sink and twisted the faucets. The warm water spilled out. I cupped it in my hands and washed away the signs of my torment. After I wiped off my face and arms, I staggered into the mall not caring what I looked like. That was the best I could do. People steered clear of me. My feet scraped the floor with an exhaustion that I couldn’t fight off much longer. Looking for a store, any store, I picked one and walked inside. No one approached me. None of the sales people asked me if I needed help. They seemed grateful that I didn’t want to try stuff on. Instead, I grabbed a pair of dark jeans, a blue pullover, and a black tee shirt and tossed them on the counter.
A perky blonde stifled a shocked expression when she looked up at me. I blinked once. She made no comment, just quickly tapped the keys on the cash register, and told me the price. She moved my purchases into a plastic shopping bag, while keeping her gaze off of my face as much as possible. I reached into my pocket for money I didn’t have. I used my power. Paper bills lined my pockets. I pulled out the correct amount, and slapped it down. Without waiting for change, I grabbed my bag, and walked briskly out the door and into the main corridor of the mall.
The pain hit a moment later. My jaw locked and my body tensed, as the sensation of a hot knife punctured my stomach and slid up my throat. Muscle and flesh tore in a slow line. Heat rose from my navel to my throat. My pace did not falter. The expression on my face didn’t contort with pain. My breath didn’t ring out with cries. No tears streaked my cheeks. Numbness flooded me, until the pain subsided. I could still feel the pain price, but it was like a distant memory devoid of shape, form, or meaning. I knew it was happening to me, I could feel it, but it didn’t matter.
Hastening my walk with the little strength that remained, I rounded the store corner, and walked back into the girl’s bathroom. A fluorescent light flickered to life hesitantly. There was no one in the room. Walking quickly, I shoved my hand against the door of the center stall, and latched it. Turning, I leaned back. The dried blood on my back was pulled taught and then cracked. I’d never wanted a shower so much in my life. I just stood there. Exhausted. A moment passed. Then two. I took a deep breath and reached for the bottom of my shirt. But, before I could slip it over my head, I felt his presence. The sound of metal scraping came from the door, and then his footfalls echoed toward me.
I leaned my head against the metal stall door. Fatigue clawed at me. Soon there would be no option. Soon I wouldn’t be able to maintain two feet on the floor. Locoicia sucked every drop of energy out of me. I could barely stand, never mind attempt to speak rationally enough to keep him away. I pressed my hands to my temples. I couldn’t face him now. Blinking once, I moved my hands away from my face and looked at the tiled floor.
Black boots wet with winter snow appeared at the bottom of the stall door. “I need to see you.” His words were simple and urgent. He stood with his feet apart, waiting.
I tried to mask the exhaustion in my voice. I stood, and stared at his boots. “Collin, no. Not now.” After the words slipped out of my mouth, I leaned against the door of the stall. I stared at the chipped blue paint. The door was the only thing holding me up. I was so tired. Trying to hide these things from him required more strength than I had.
Without a word, without a warning, the door I was leaning against gave way. Collin pulled it off the hinges in one tug, and I fell forward. I never really had cat-like reflexes. I was about to collide with the floor when his other arm shot out and caught me. His hands brushed my shoulders, making me stand on my own two feet again, as he released me.
The room was swaying, tilting slowly to the right. My eyelids felt like sandbags. I smirked, “That was a little bit rash. Destruction of public property and all.”
He gazed at me, but didn’t smile. “Where have you been?” His eyes slid over my body, taking in my tangled hair and the white streaks that lined my skin. I hoped he didn’t see the dried blood that caked under my clothes. “You look like hell.”
I shrugged, “Same difference.” A state of intoxicated weariness was drowning me. My muscles were protesting, threatening to stop working. But I held myself upright. After a moment, I relaxed when I didn’t feel bombarded by sensations to press my body to Collin’s. Whatever Lorren did to me seemed dormant right then. Although, Collin still looked beautiful. My eyes slid over his body, taking him in. His hair hung in soft waves, dark and wet from the snow. A black leather jacket hung opened from broad shoulders. The angle of his jaw was perfect, although it twitched as the little muscle flexed. A smile pulled the corners of my mouth, and I laughed. It was snowing.
Anger flashed in his eyes. “Don’t play with me, Ivy.” He placed the stall door on the floor and leaned it against the wall. When he turned back to me, his dark hair fell into his face. His eyes were on fire. Angry. “You’ve been fighting someone. You’re drained. And I saw you—I felt… ” His hands stretched once, and then fisted tightly. He leaned in closer to me, causing my stomach to stir. His beautiful lips curved as he bit off the words in my face. “Who hurt you?”
I tried to sound nonchalant. I tried to brush off his concerns, “I’m fine, Collin. I really am.” I stared at his jacket, avoiding his gaze. “I’m just tired. And I want to change.” I held up the bag I’d been holding. For a second he stepped back, looked at my tattered clothes and then my shopping bag.
He stepped closer, and I stepped back. His eyes swept over me, making my breath catch in my throat. Collin’s gaze rested on the line that extended from my shredded shirt and up my neck. His fingers touched the place and slid upward, tracing the line that marred my throat. When his fingertip touched my jaw, my head fell back nearly knocking me over. His hands gripped my arms tight. “Who’s done this to you?”
I shook him off. Collin released his grip and my arms slid away. Angling away, I moved back. “No one,” I whispered, finding myself unable to say her name. It wouldn’t form in my mind either, no matter how hard I tried. I felt the vowels of her name tumble around in my mouth, but I couldn’t purse my lips to say it. My voice wouldn’t come. I realized that I couldn’t tell him who did this, even if I wanted to.
Collin stepped closer. My eyes fell from his face to the hollow of his throat. His skin had a sheen from the snow. He took a breath, forcing his chest to rise. I watched as if I’d never seen him breathe before. My eyes suddenly lifted to his face. Collin’s gaze slid over me like a careful caress. Swallowing, I stepped back again, trying to get away from him. Cold tiles pressed to my back as I hit the wall.
“Tell me.” His eyes were cut into narrow slits, as he closed the space between us. His sweet intoxicating breath washed over my face. I breathed it in, and closed my eyes. Collin watched me do it. I was too tired. I couldn’t help it. His body tensed and he stepped away from me. Cold air filled the space where he once stood. “What was that?”
I blinked slowly, feeling more and more relaxed by the second. My mind was weak from battling Locoicia. I needed sleep. I needed Collin. My lips pulled into a smile as I leaned against the cold wall. My voice was sweet, alluring. “What was what?” I slid my foot up the wall and pushed off, moving toward him.
The bond didn’t choose sides, it simply revealed things if we weren’t careful. Things we’d been hiding. In my state, I couldn’t hide much of anything. Instead of asking, I felt Collin press into my mind. His presence was overwhelming. Anger clouded his thoughts as my recent memories flew by. He could see the pain, the practice, the demon blood being brought to life in my veins. His anger twisted into rage, and his eyes pooled bright crimson—like burning blood—as he pushed through my thoughts searching for the face of the one teaching me the things he forbade.
When he saw no face, he withdrew. I blinked slowly as if drunk, and inhaled his scent again. He leaned toward me, and bit into his lower lip. His nostrils flared as every muscle in his neck corded. “Who did this to you? Who’s teaching you these things?”
“Careful, or you’ll start your Akayleah.” My eyes slid over the exposed skin on his neck, and then back to his face. He was perfect. Rage would only ruin him. “That would be a shame.”
Collin’s jaw flopped opened. He quickly snapped it shut. The intensity of his anger would have normally made me back away. But this time, I was content to have him near and I didn’t care if he was yelling. And he was, but his voice washed over me, and I was too weary to hear his words. He demanded a name. His mind searched for a face—a face that didn’t exist because I hadn’t seen it. And the blood bargain kept me from revealing her name. It didn’t matter how much he prodded me, he wouldn’t learn who did this to me. He wouldn’t learn that I volunteered for it, either.
Suddenly, my arms and legs felt like sacks of flour, pulling me hard. My knees bent and I started to slide down the wall. My head tilted to the side as I fought to keep my eyes open. Collin stopped ranting, and put his arms around my waist. His embrace felt so good, and his face was right next to mine. He was so warm and my skin was like ice. Without thinking, I brushed a soft kiss to his cheek. Collin tensed as my lips pressed against his skin. His breath caught in his throat, before he reached around with his other arm and lifted me. My head tilted back, and rested against his chest as my legs dangled over his arm. The grip on my back was perfect. I snuggled into his jacket. Collin watched me lying in his arms, as I started to drift off.
Collin’s voice was soft, he pressed his face to mine and kissed the top of my head. He whispered, “If you only knew… ”
Cracking my eyes open, I glanced around. A soft mattress lay beneath me, surrounded by four thick posters carved from dark wood. Glancing around the room, I saw no one, only bookcases of dark wood that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. The chair and table across from the bed were empty.
I was in Collin’s room. And he was not here.
I slipped out of bed and padded to the door. Pressing my ear to the wood, I listened. Not a sound came through. When I turned, there was a mirror behind me. My tangled hair was crusted to my head. I pressed my hands to my face, and turned looking for the bathroom. Collin’s room was enormous, filled with dark wood, dark carpets, and dark fabrics that all felt wonderful to touch. There was a pocket door at the back of the room. It slid open to reveal a gleaming ivory bathroom with dark fixtures. My bag was on the counter along with some towels. A glass container was next to the washcloth. I pressed down on the top and clear liquid came out. Raising it to my nose, I sniffed and closed my eyes. Body wash. And it smelled like Collin.