It didn’t seem fair that his parents were taken so young, robbed of watching their boys grow up. And Aiden and Deacon had lost so much.
I ran my thumb over the edge of the frame. Why had Aiden closed off all these memories? Did he ever come in here? Looking around the room, I spied a guitar propped beside a stack of books and comics. This was his room, I realized. A place where he thought it was okay to remember his parents and maybe to just get away.
I turned my attention back to the photo and tried to picture my mother and father. If pures and halfs had been allowed to be together, would we’ve had moments like these? Closing my eyes, I tried to picture the three of us. My mom wasn’t hard to remember now. I could see her before she turned, but my father had the mark of slavery on his forehead and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t go away.
“You shouldn’t be in here.”
Startled, I spun around, clutching the frame to my chest. Aiden stood in the doorway, arms straight at his sides. He stalked across the room and stopped in front of me. Shadows hid his expression. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“I was just curious. The door wasn’t locked.” I swallowed nervously. “I haven’t been in here long at all.”
His gaze dropped and his shoulders stiffened. He pried the picture from my fingers and set it back on the mantel. Without speaking, he bent and placed his hands over the kindling. Fire sparked and grew immediately. He grabbed a poker.
Embarrassed and stung by his sudden coldness, I backed away. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
He prodded at the fire, his spine stiff.
“I’ll leave.” I turned, and suddenly he was in front of me. My heart tumbled over.
He clasped my arm. “Don’t leave.”
I searched his eyes intently, but couldn’t gain anything from them. “Okay.”
Aiden took a deep breath and let go of my arm. “Would you like something to drink?”
Hugging my elbows, I nodded. This room was his sanctuary, a silent memorial to the family he’d lost, and I’d invaded it. I doubted even Deacon dared to tread in here. Leave it to me to just bust on in.
Behind the bar, Aiden pulled two wine flutes out and sat them down. Filling the glasses, he glanced up at me. “Wine okay?”
“Yes.” My throat was dry and tight. “I really am sorry, Aiden. I shouldn’t have come in here.”
“Stop apologizing.” He came around the bar and handed me a glass.
I took the glass, hoping he didn’t notice how my fingers shook. The wine was sugary and smooth, but it didn’t settle in my stomach right.
“I didn’t mean to snap at you like that,” he said, moving toward the fire. “I was just surprised to see you in here.”
“It’s… uh, a nice room.” I felt like an idiot for saying that.
His lips tipped up at the corner.
He stared at me for so long I thought he’d never speak and when he did it was not what I expected. “After what happened to you in Gatlinburg, it reminded me of what it’d been like for me… after what happened to my parents. I had nightmares. Could hear… hear their screams over and over again for what felt like years. I never told you that. Maybe I should have. It could’ve helped you.”
I sat on the edge of the couch, clenching the fragile stem.
Aiden faced the fire, taking a sip of his wine. “Do you remember the day in the gym when you told me about your nightmares? It stuck with me—your fear of Eric and his return,” he continued. “All I kept thinking was, what if one of the daimons had escaped the attack on my parents? How would I’ve gone on?”
Eric was the only daimon to escape from Gatlinburg. I hadn’t stopped thinking about him, but to hear his name knotted up my stomach. Half of the tags on my body were thanks to him.
“I thought getting you out of there, taking you to the zoo would help get your mind off things, but I had… I had to do more. I contacted some of the Sentinels around here. I knew Eric wouldn’t have gone far, not after he knew what you were and had tasted your aether,” he said. “Based on Caleb’s and your description, it wasn’t hard to find him. He was just outside of Raleigh.”
“What?” The knots grew larger. “Raleigh is like, less than a hundred miles from here.”
He nodded. “As soon as it was confirmed that it was him, I left. Leon—Apollo—went with me.”
At first I couldn’t figure out when he could’ve done this, but then I remembered those weeks after I’d told him I loved him and he’d ended our training sessions together. Aiden had had time to do this without me ever knowing. “What happened?”
“We found him.” He smiled humorlessly before turning back to the fire. “I didn’t kill him outright. I don’t know what that says about me. By the end, I think he truly regretted ever learning of your existence.”
I didn’t know what to say. Part of me was awed by the fact he had gone to such great lengths for me. The other part was sort of horrified by it. Underneath the calm and controlled persona that Aiden wore like a second skin was something dark—a side of him I’d only glimpsed. I stared at his profile, suddenly realizing that I hadn’t been fair to Aiden. I’d set him upon this incredibly high pedestal, where he was absolutely flawless in my mind.
Aiden wasn’t flawless.
I swallowed a sip of my wine. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We really weren’t on talking terms then, and how could I’ve told you?” He laughed harshly. “It wasn’t like a normal daimon hunt. It wasn’t a precise and humane kill like we’re taught.”
The Covenant basically taught us not to play with our kills, so to speak. That even though the daimon was beyond saving, he’d once been a pure-blood… or a half-blood. Still, as disturbing as learning that Aiden had most likely tortured Eric, I wasn’t disgusted by it.
Gods know what that said about me.
“Thank you,” I said finally.
His head jerked toward me sharply. “Don’t thank me for something like that. I didn’t do it just—”
“You didn’t do it just for me. You did it because of what happened to your family.” And I knew I was right. It wasn’t so much that he’d done it for me. It was his way of taking revenge. It wasn’t right, but I understood it. And in his shoes I would’ve probably done the same thing and then some.
Aiden went still. The flames sent a warm glow over his profile as he stared down at his glass. “We were visiting friends of my father in Nashville. I didn’t know them very well, but they had a daughter who was about my age. I thought we were just vacationing before the start of school, but as soon as we got there, my mother practically pushed me in her direction. She was a tiny thing, with pale blonde hair and these green eyes.” He took a breath, fingers tightening around the fragile stem of the glass. “Her name was Helen. Looking back, I know why my parents arranged that I spend so much time with her, but for some reason, I just didn’t get it.”
I swallowed. “She was your match?”
A rueful smile appeared. “I really didn’t want to have anything to do with her. I spent most of my time shadowing the half-blood Guards while they trained. My mother was so upset with me, but I remember my father laughing about it. Telling her to just give me some time, and let nature run its course. That I was still very much just a boy and that men fighting would interest me more than pretty girls.”
There was a lump forming in my chest. I sat back, the glass of wine forgotten.
“It was night when they came.” His thick lashes fanned his cheeks as his eyes lowered. “I heard the fighting outside. I got up and looked out the window. I couldn’t see anything, but I just knew. There was a crash downstairs, and I woke up Deacon. He didn’t understand what was happening or why I was making him hide in the closet and cover himself with clothes.
“It all just happened so fast after that.” He took a healthy swallow of the wine and then sat his glass on the ledge. “There were only two daimons, but they had control over fire. They took out three of the Guards, burning them alive.”
I wanted him to stop, because I knew what was coming, but he had to get this off his chest. I doubted he’d ever put that night into words, and I needed to deal with it.
“My dad was turning the element back on them, or at least, trying to. The Guards were dropping left and right. Helen was awakened by the commotion, and I tried to get her to stay upstairs, but she saw one of the daimons attack her father—ripped his throat open right in front of her. She screamed—I’ll never forget that sound.” A distant look crept across his face as he continued, almost like he was there. “My father made sure my mother got up the stairs, but then I couldn’t see him anymore. I heard him scream and I just,” he shook his head, “stood there. Terrified.”
“Aiden, you were just a boy.”
He nodded absently. “My mom yelled at me to get Deacon and get him out of the house with Helen. I didn’t want to leave her, so I started down the stairs. The daimon came out of nowhere, grabbing her by the throat. She was staring at me when he snapped her neck. Her eyes… .just glossed over. And Helen… Helen was screaming and screaming. She wouldn’t stop. I knew he was going to kill her, too. I started running up the stairs, and I grabbed her hand. She was panicking and fighting me. It slowed us down. The daimon reached us and he grabbed for Helen first. She went up in flames. Just like that.”
I gasped. Tears burned my eyes. This… this was more horrific than I’d imagined, and it reminded me of the boy the daimon had burned in Atlanta.
Aiden turned to the fire. “The daimon went after me next. I don’t know why he spared me the fire and knocked me to the ground, but I knew he was going to drain my aether. Then there was this Guard who’d been burned downstairs. Somehow, through what had to have been the worst kind of pain, he made it up the stairs and killed the daimon.”
He faced me and there wasn’t any pain in his expression. Maybe sorrow and regret, but there was also a bit of wonder. “He was a half-blood. One of the ones I’d been following around. He was probably my age now, and you know, in all that horrific pain, he still did his duty. He saved my life and Deacon’s. I found out a few days later that he had succumbed to the burns. I never got a chance to thank him.”
His tolerance of half-bloods made sense. That one Guard’s actions had changed centuries of beliefs in one little boy, turning prejudice into awe. It was no wonder that Aiden never saw the difference between halfs and pures.
Aiden made his way over to me and sat. He met my stare. “That’s why I chose to become a Sentinel. Not so much because of what happened to my parents, but because of that one half-blood who died to save my life and my brother’s.”
I didn’t know what to say or if there was anything I could. So I placed my hand on his arm as I blinked back tears.
He placed his hand over mine as he looked away. A muscle worked in his jaw. “Gods, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about that night.”