Paris, France; July 1st, 2012
Alex was pulled from a deep sleep by the nagging feeling that she was forgetting something very important. She picked up on the sound of deep, even breathing before anything else, but the incessant beep of her heart monitor was quick to follow. She opened her eyes, wincing when she was blinded by the burning light above her. With a groan, she turned over, instantly freezing when she felt something protest.
“You’re awake,” the unmistakable voice of an angel sighed, yawning through the deep sleep in his throat voice.
She forced her eyes open, searching for him through the sleep crusted in them. Finally, his honey-blonde hair shone out of the corner of her eye. Grunting and adjusting herself, she glared distastefully at the IV in her arm before her gaze settled on James, her face turned up in a smile. Despite how glad she was to see him, she couldn’t help but grimace, wondering how she’d ended up in that unfamiliar room, aching in places she’d never felt before. What did she need to remember…?
It all came back in a flood.
“Don’t move, baby,” James advised, pulling himself onto the bed beside her, careful not to disturb the IV protruding from the inside of her elbow. “You won’t be getting anymore morphine for a little while.”
Alex couldn’t help the tears that formed in her eyes, silently spilling over her cheeks. All she could see in her mind’s eye was Claire’s face, twisted with a small, pleasant smile before she disappeared into thin air, banished to a place she wasn’t sure existed. Her head slumped back into the immaculate pillows, her body finally shaking from violent crying. Every bone in her being objected.
James leapt to his feet, leaning over her to fervently press the call button. “I’m sorry!” he pleaded, continuously pressing the button. “I know, it hurts. I’m sorry! I’ll get you a nurse. I’ll get you pain medication, anything you want.”
“It’s—” she sniffled, trying to hold back her need to wail. “It’s not that!”
He hesitantly retracted his hand, taking a seat beside her on the hospital bed. Planting a kiss on her head, he said, “I know, sweetheart.”
“I just,” she wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand, “I can’t believe she’s…gone!”
“Shh, shh,” he murmured, hugging her tightly into his side. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“How can you s…say that?” she blubbered. “We…I killed my best friend!”
“Alex!” James demanded, staring hard into her tear-stricken face. “Claire isn’t dead. And she’s not gone.”
Jerking her head up so fast she had whiplash, her sobs suddenly died away. “What do you mean? I saw her disappear, James, just like him,” she spat venomously.
James rubbed his hand comfortingly up and down her back. “We didn’t kill Mainyu and Claire. We couldn’t do that even if we wanted to.”
She shivered, leaning into him. “Then, where are they?”
“They were only banished. To another plane, one of emptiness,” he explained, gauging her reaction.
“She’s trapped in another world with him?” she exclaimed, trying to sit up again. “What are we waiting for? We have to get her back!”
He, gently, restrained her from getting out of bed. “That would be impossible, right now.”
She laughed, letting herself fall back onto the mattress. “Impossible? I don’t believe in that anymore. We just have to use the page again…right…?” she trailed off when he solemnly shook his head.
“They took the page with them,” he muttered. “The last page.”
“I have everyone…up there,” he gestured sharply toward the ceiling and cleared his throat, “working on it. As soon as we can think of a way to get her back…without bringing Mainyu with her, we will get her back.”
“You mean there is a way to get them back,” she said, gazing hopefully up into his face.
“There is, Alex,” he explained, “but it’s not something we’ll be doing. We can’t risk the world again. Even for Claire.”
“But I thought she was your responsibility to save?” Alex demanded. “Shouldn’t we be doing something…any—?”
“I don’t want to fight with you,” he interjected. “Claire isn’t my responsibility. I had to keep her safe so that Mainyu couldn’t get her and—”
“But he does have her.”
“And take over the world,” he finished as if she hadn’t interrupted.
She bit her lip, feeling tears rise again. “So there’s nothing we can do, then.”
“Not yet,” he confessed. “We just have to wait for my bosses to tell us where we go from here.”
He winced, realizing he hadn’t intended to tell her about them. “The people who assigned me to this case in the first place. The other angels. My bosses.”
“What do they do?”
“They deal with all the guardian angels. They make sure that we’re all following the rules,” he said.
She took a deep breath. “You have rules?”
“Of course. And they’re the ones that punish anyone who breaks the rules,” he continued.
“And I suppose bringing Mainyu and Claire back would be breaking those rules, right?” she demanded bitterly.
Jaw dropped, he retorted, “You shouldn’t even be thinking about doing that, Alexandria.”
“So it’s against the rules?”
“Of course it’s against the rules,” he enthused. “That’s probably the worst thing they could possibly make a rule for.”
“What would they do if you…broke that rule?” she asked, barely able to meet his eyes.
“We’re not talking about this,” he snapped.
“We can’t endanger so many people for our own selfish desires. Getting Claire back isn’t gonna do us any good if we die!” he explained.
“We’ll just send him back, again,” she challenged.
“And what if we can’t?” he spat. “Nothing good can come from resurrecting Mainyu.”
She glared at him incredulously. “Then why did Natalia do it?”
He shook his head, remembering something else he’d have to break to her. “I have no idea.”
“Well, we can ask her. Where is she? I knocked her out in the catacombs, what’d you do with her?” she inquired.
James ground his teeth. “She got away.”
Alex blinked, hoping she just hadn’t heard him correctly. “What?”
James shifted uncomfortably. “When you passed out, I had to get you and Kierlan out of there before he bled out. The place was collapsing. Taran took the car. So, I left her there while I brought you two here, by…otherwordly means, I guess you could say. I went back to find her when you were under, but she was already gone.”
“Where’s Hayden?” Alex gasped, noting his emphasis on you two.
“She’s fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. “I had her checked out and she’s waiting downstairs while your parents come to see you. She’ll be here ‘til you’re better.”
She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, until she returned her thoughts to more pressing matters. “So Natalia’s just walking around out there?! A dangerous criminal! She’ll kill us!”
“I won’t let her, Alex, relax,” he pleaded. “She doesn’t matter.”
“You say that a lot, James!” she accused stubbornly. “Telling me that some things don’t matter! And when it does matter, you won’t tell me anything!”
“I love you, James. That’s why I wish you’d let me in on whatever this…second life is you’re living.”
“There’re just some things I can’t—”
“What do your bosses do when angels break the rules?” she demanded.
“Alex, don’t make me answer! Please,” he said softly. “I need to ask you something—”
“Just answer the question. What would they—?” she halted when a nurse entered the room, a sugary-sweet smile plastered on her face.
“Is everything alright?” she inquired, looking from Alex to James and back again.
“I think we’re ready for some pain medication,” James replied, all evidence of duress gone from his face.
“Alright,” she nodded absently, leaving the room to retrieve the medicine.
“They would clip my wings,” he finally replied. “They’d make me mortal.”
“That doesn’t sound so—” she said.
“Don’t you dare say bad,” he hissed. “I’m an angel, Alex. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve been for thousands of years. And this is what I was always meant to do, help people. Without that, I have nothing, I am nothing! And I won’t do it, Alex, not even for Claire.”
They sat in silence for a moment, not even bothering to thank the nurse when she returned with the morphine. Alone once again, Alex built up all her courage to meet his gaze. “James, you’ll always have me.”
“I know that,” he said.
“I wouldn’t call that nothing.”
He heaved a sigh, rubbing his hands down his face. “You’re right, Alex. As long as I have you, I’ll never have nothing. And that’s why I have to ask you something.” He knelt beside the bed again, pulling the arm that wasn’t attached to machines down with him.
“What—?” she gasped.
“I didn’t really expect that I’d be asking in a hospital room, but, ever since I told you what I really am, I knew I’d have to ask sooner rather than later.”
Alex openly gawked at him. “James—”
“Alexandria Clove, I love you, and I want to marry you. So, before we go running into anymore dangerous situations, I need to know. Do you want to marry me?”
“Of course I want to, James, but there other things here that we have to think about,” she replied, her words slurred by the morphine hitting her system.
“Like what? Getting Claire back? Saving the world? Don’t you think that would just be a better reason to be married now?”
“I—” she began, shaking her head to clear it.
“I’m not asking you to hop on a plane to Vegas with me, Alex. We don’t have to get married this week, or even this year. We could wait until we get Claire back to be your maid of honor if that’ll make you happy. I’m just asking you: will you marry me?”
A fog rolled into her head, exhausting her. “I…” she yawned, closing her eyes. Her body curled into the soft sheets of its own accord, searching for sleep so desperately that she didn’t even feel her fractured rib protest. Before unconsciousness claimed her, she managed to breathe a low, “Yes.”
James wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “Yes? Did you say yes?”
The black crescents her eyelashes made against her cheeks didn’t flutter open for the rest of the night. He stared down at her tranquil face, his fiancée’s face, with a smile, wishing he had a ring to give her. Proposing wasn’t something he’d planned on doing for a long time. It was just something he knew he had to do, knowing that she would accept him, whatever he was, and love him for it. Nearly losing her in the fight with Mainyu had definitely had a hand in it, as well.
Looking down at his right hand, at the white gold ring he wore on his third finger, he pulled it off without missing a beat. It would never fit, but he took her left hand in both of his and pushed it onto her thumb, where it would stay until he could come up with a proper engagement ring.
He sat there into the early hours of the morning, watching the even rise and fall of her chest until he started growing restless. Remembering that there were two other patients in the building recovering from the same fight that had injured his beloved, he determined to go looking for the two of them, to make sure they were alright.
He went looking for Janie’s room first.
It was easy to find it, knowing which was hers by the crowd of armed guards standing outside the door. He didn’t bother trying to get in, but as he passed, he thought he saw the slight glimpse of someone in the room that wasn’t the girl. He barely spared another glance, the familiar t-shirt he wore hinting that it was the same man he’d spent hours sitting in the waiting room with. Taran Banks.
He smiled, ready to go looking for Kierlan next.
In the time since they’d arrived there, he’d begun to feel bad about the way he’d treated the man. Kierlan had proven himself to be nothing if not trustworthy since they’d taken on Mainyu, going so far as to nearly have his heart ripped out, literally and figuratively. Knowing he’d been injured worse than the rest of them, James felt like he owed him an apology. Beside that, he was wondering how the spy was taking Claire’s…disappearance. And, if he was being honest with himself, he was hoping Kierlan’s connections could possibly help them in finding a way to bring her back.
He took his time walking down the hall, careful not to disturb the other sleeping patients. He watched the numbers on the doors descend until, finally, he found the bold six-one-one etched into the only closed door in the corridor. He grabbed the doorknob, frowning when it didn’t turn and he walked into solid wood.
Growling under his breath, he pulled harder on the handle, to no avail. He looked down each end of the hall, waiting until the last of the night nurses disappeared out the door of the ICU. Satisfied that he was alone, he stepped back, giving up on the knob. He shoved his shoulder into the door as hard as he could, watching as it easily folded in on itself and exploded into a shower of wooden shards. Stepping over the splinters and shoving the chair that had been put up against the door to the ground, he searched the room for Kierlan. All he saw past the wreckage of his own making was an empty, unmade bed, the white sheets marred by the few odd droplets of crimson.
The window at the far end of the room was wide open, the gauzy curtains blowing in the night breeze.