The Darkness was slipping away, along with the dull pain that accompanied it. Somehow, someway, she could feel herself being lifted by invisible hands – slowly, carefully, as if she were a precious, destined artifact – towards something – a light, of some kind. It was a muffled glow, like a glow worm caught in the clutches of fabric, and yet it extended warmth with bright, waiting hands. A warmth that heated her soul, like sitting by a warm, cozy hearth with fire that crackled and whispered fiery, loving words. She wanted to reach out, to touch with her fingertips, the light that seemed encompass her with enchantment – and life. And as she began be lifted even more out of the darkness, she realized that this muffled light, this warm glow, was not white, but a pure, luminous, caring turquoise blue.
It was weird, experiencing everything and yet nothing at once. She welcomed the feelings in her body, the wiggle of her toes, the ache in her legs, the suddenly ribcage-feel of her stomach, the weight of her chest, the need in her fingers, and the soft caress of her dark hair against her face and collarbone. She had wanted this so badly, so much it hurt, and here she had it – finally able to feel the sensations of a full body, every pain and every thrill. The longing that had filled her mind, wanting the use of a body to use, to enjoy.
It took a while to open her eyes. They felt heavy, pressed down with heavy weights. She had the feeling that, though she had her body back, she wouldn't be able to use it. Grief began to pour through her like ice-cold water, and she was frightened. But only for a moment. Her lids opened, slowly, mechanically, adjusting to a bright light that marred the left side of her vision. She opened her mouth, breathing in sweet, aching air that she'd always wanted, needed, when she'd been with the darkness. Her eyes registered the ceiling above, completely different – a marble-like quality, smooth and perfect.
A sniffle. She checked herself, but knew it wasn't her that the sound had issued from. She turned her head, her eyes finally adjusting to a pink Hello Kitty lamp beside her on a nightstand. There – sitting in a mahogany chair, was a man. He was particularly built, even though he was bending over in the chair, his face buried in his hands. Dark hair, blacker than night itself, slid between the cracks in his fingers and cascaded in slight curls over his head. His body trembled, shaking with silent sobs, and yet the ache of pain she instantly felt pierced her like a bullet – or what she imagined that would feel like. This man – he seemed familiar and yet so completely different. Almost as if he were a stranger she'd seen before, but only in passing.
“Excuse me?” She was shocked. Whose voice was that? Why did it sound so melodic, so beautiful? Puzzled, she opened her mouth again, saying, “Excuse me? Are you okay?”
The person jerked, then stopped his shaking. Almost like he was unwilling, the person's head slowly removed itself from his hands – which, she had to say, were beautiful, with long, pale, slender fingers that reminded her of a pianist's – and looked up.
For a moment, she forgot to breathe. His face was so beautiful, and she felt a strange clenching in her stomach, like she been hit with a pitched softball. Finely, delicately boned with high cheekbones, a strong jawline, an aristocratic nose – all of it seemed so endearingly familiar. Tear streaks lined the sides of his face, moistening his full, delectable lips. She remembered those lips – but from where? She recalled those lips touching her skin, her mouth, her eyelashes, her forehead, her body. The heat they always left behind before – before? – was still upon her, stoking like fire within her blood.
And then she focused on his eyes.
They were beautiful – more beautiful than the moon and stars. Memories back to her – those eyes, all the emotions they had beheld before – love, care, kindness, regret, pain, hatred, anguish, caution. Where had all those emotions been? All she saw in them now was sadness. A deep, abiding sadness that she felt herself, in her heart, just but looking into those familiar and distant eyes. So radiant, so perfect, were his eyes. The color of turquoise, and yet the sharp color of electric blue, the clearness of a summer sky, as pure as the ocean blue. They weren't supposed to be like this – sad, grievous. It was not right for that to be there. Those eyes were supposed to be happy, laughing, sparkling. They now they were melting, like the heart of a flame, and in despondence, in regret.
The moment he looked up, his eyes were wide, almost disbelieving. His tears began to flow freely again, like a built-up dam, and he made no movement to brush them away, to hide them. He let them go, and he let her see them, like before, when he had told her something important... but she couldn't find it within her mind, this memory – she only recognized the strength within him, to let her see his tears. The strength that made him look so powerful, yet so vulnerable and alone.
He swallowed, his throat moving, and he opened his mouth. His hesitation was adorable and heart-breaking at the same time. He was staring at her with a strange look – as if she were the most beautiful dream he'd ever seen.
She closed her eyes, smiling faintly. Yes, she remembered that voice, too – it had been with her in the darkness, wrapping her in a warm blanket, comforting and wishing she would come back to him, to forgive him, but for what? What had he done to make him plead to her so? All the same, his deep, rich, decadent voice was like honey to her ears. So melodious, so heart-rending.
“Is that my name?” she asked, opening her eyes. They no longer felt heavy anymore, yet she felt natural thickness and length in her dark lashes.
His laugh was mixed between a sob. “Yes. Yes, that's your name.”
“Isn't that a flower?” she wondered aloud. “With purple petals?”
“Yes. It's so beautiful it's painful – just like you. Beautiful.”
“Am I? I don't quite think so.”
His voice was a whisper, yet his kind, sad blue eyes stayed on hers. “You've always been so. More beautiful than anything I've ever seen.”
She stared at him, cocking her head to the side like a bird, and then looked at the bed. “Where am I?”
She heard him swallow again. How strange – there was also a pulsing, a slight thump. Curious, she sat up.
“We're in Los Angeles. We had to move you, away from – ” He choked at the end, as if he couldn't bring himself to finish his sentence.
“All the Protectors and everyone. But you don't remember them yet. You will, though. You will.”
She picked at the blanket covering her legs and looked around. She lay in a four-poster bed, king-sized, with thick velvet-colored blankets and pillows. She definitely couldn't recall ever having been here. It was like a room made for a dark princess, with black curtains pulled over a window to her left, and a tall mahogany bookcase filled with some books that she'd read – or seemed familiar – before the darkness had been shrouding her with long, smoky arms. To her right was a door that probably led to a bathroom, and a desk with a mirror mounted on it, along with small items like paper and notebooks and pens and pencils and makeup. There was a door at the far end of the room.
“Who are you?” she whispered to the stranger. His presence was so strong that it was as if she could feel him, his aura, around her and within her. As if he were a part of her.
“You don't remember who I am?” he laughed huskily, sounding like he was on the brink of tears again. “But now that I think about it, you probably wouldn't remember me either, though you should. I'd hurt you very badly before you fell into the Sleep.” She turned her questioning brown gaze to him, and the small, half-hearted grin on his face faded back into a mask of a burning kind of sadness. “My name,” he whispered, as if his own identity terrified him beyond the depths of his soul, and he was ashamed of it. “Is Christian Burton.”
It was like a bolt of electricity went through her. She jerked forward, clutching her hands to her thick hair as pain, sharp and bitter, assailed her head in pierces and stabs. Christian Burton, voices murmured in her mind, saying his name, fast and in awe, with fear and hatred, with pain and with love.
Vaguely, she heard Christian saying her name, over and over again, in panic and distress. His large hands were on her shoulders, pressing into her, asking her if she was all right, then finally shouting something unintelligible, probably trying to reach someone else, for help. A door burst open and there was gasps of horror and surprise and someone even started crying. But the only thing she felt was the pain and the warmth and strength of his hands.
Memories pounded through her mind relentlessly, like a barrage of bullets – when they first met, back in the Elliott Bay bookstore, when his smile, his voice, and his beautiful eyes had made their first appearance in her life.
“You're sad. Why are you sad?”
The concern in his voice thrilled her and made her hide a smile as she bent her head solemnly. “I'm not sad. Just... I don't know, I'm a little stressed that's all. Family problems, writing problems, the usual. I'm used to it. But anyway, how could you tell? I'm not as easy to read as an open book – not to my friends, even. It's unusual that a stranger could find something so easily.”
“I'm used to sadness.” His deep, rich voice turned sad, heart-breakingly so. Her eyes widening slightly, Iris looked up and saw an expression on his face that reached in and made her heart pause in its rhythm. His fingers were turning the pages of an old book, the one she'd just been trying to mend with whatever she knew about bookbinding, and the care he took to turn them made her smile slightly. But the look on his face, so depressed and raw with sadness and profound grief, made her want to hold him in her arms and tell him it'd be okay. Which shocked her deeply – why would she feel the instant need to hold this person? Maybe it was just how sad he looked, or the cautiousness he had for books, or maybe it was just that need that was pulling in her stomach, telling her to comfort him.
Another memory. When he'd met her on her own steps, when she'd been wallowing in her own problems and drunkenness, and he'd carried her effortlessly like it was the most natural thing in the world into her apartment. When his lips had touched her own, with a tenderness and gentleness she'd never known before.
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