Stopping Time, Part 2Melissa Marr
A Short Story in the World of Wicked Lovely
Will Saving Faerie Mean Losing Love?
Love to be mesmerized by Faerie?
About the Publisher
The tangles of panic and fear and guilt hit Irial like an unwelcome banquet. If they were anyone else’s fears, it would be a welcomed treat, but the emotions that assailed him were hers. They’d come flooding toward him over his mostly severed connection with Leslie.
No. He hadn’t figured her pursuer would enter her classroom. Most mortals didn’t escalate from a few calls to a dangerous public scene that quickly.
“Leslie needs help. Get Niall,” Irial snarled. “Now.”
Mortals paused and shuddered, but they didn’t hear. Only faeries heard his order—and he knew that Dark Court faeries would obey as quickly as they had when he was still a king.
He ran to Leslie’s classroom; she wasn’t there.
Leslie, he called, hoping that the thread that bound them was still alive enough to let her hear him. Once in a while a fleeting moment of connection flared in it. He’d felt her panic. Now he needed to feel her, to know where she was. He called louder, LESLIE.
The thread that once bound them lay silent.
Irial felt a surge of terror. In the centuries he’d led the Dark Court, Irial had only felt true terror one other time. Then, it had been Niall in danger; then, he had been useless. Now, he felt much the same: she was in danger, and he hadn’t been there to stop it.
Abject terror filled him as he ran through the streets seeking her, listening for her voice.
Then he heard her: “Ren, this is a mistake.”
Irial moved through the streets toward her voice, and just outside her door, he stopped. Leslie’s brother stood with a gun barrel shoved into her side. Irial could smell it, the bitter tang of cold steel. Steel wouldn’t kill him, nor would the copper and lead of the bullets inside the weapon. They would hurt, but faeries—especially strong ones—healed from such things. Mortals didn’t. Leslie wouldn’t.
If she were fey, he could safely pull her out of reach. If she were fey, she’d likely heal from a gunshot. She wasn’t.
Should’ve killed the boy then. He had watched over her, had guards at the ready, yet Ren had escorted her away. If I’d have killed him then… Irial winced at the thought of Niall’s pain—at our pain—if Leslie was hurt by his prior decision to let Ren live.
“I’ll remedy that mistake,” Irial murmured.
Leslie’s hand shook so much that she dropped the key.
Ren smacked her with one hand while keeping the gun steadily pressed into her side. “Pick it up. Don’t try anything, Les. Really.”
“I don’t know how you think this is going to work.” She snatched up her keys. “You think my ex is going to just show up?”
Ren gave her an unreadable look. “No. I think you’re going to find a way to reach him or one of them—I don’t care which of them—and until one of them comes through your door, we’ll sit in your dive of an apartment and wait.”
She shoved the key in the lock and glared at him. “Then prepare to wait because unlike you I don’t sacrifice other people to protect myself.”
A look of what seemed like regret crossed his face, but it passed in a breath. “We all do what we have to.”
Leslie opened the door, and for a brief moment as she stepped inside the building, the gun wasn’t against her. It didn’t last long enough to be of use.
She jumped as Ren closed the building door.
He gestured with the gun. “Up.”
“If I had said the word, he would’ve killed you,” Leslie said.
Ren followed her up the stairs. “Why didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure, Ren.” She paused on the last stair and glanced back at him. “Because real family protects each other?”
Could I push him down the stairs? Am I fast enough to get away while he falls? Letting him inside her apartment seemed like a sure way to be trapped. He’ll sleep, though. She thought about it, escaping while he slept, but then just as quickly thought about him jacked up and paranoid. He was terrible when he was strung out.
She shoved as hard as she could with both hands and then she ran.
“Bitch!” Ren cursed and stumbled.
“Pleasepleaseplease.” She jammed the key into her apartment door and slammed it behind her. She threw the bolt with a shaking hand, and then retreated farther into the apartment.
She couldn’t leave. She couldn’t be sure whether he’d shoot through the door. She couldn’t think beyond the fear wrapped around her.
Irial. She started to speak as they once had, but their metaphysical bond was gone—burned away by her own choice.
This isn’t a faery matter.
But it was. If Ren was looking for Irial, if he was looking for Niall, for Gabriel, for her Dark Court family, it did concern them. She pulled out her phone and pressed the button she’d programmed but never dialed, closed her eyes, and waited.
“Leslie.” Relief laced Irial’s voice. “Are you…safe?”
“Did you see him?” she started, and then quickly added, “Don’t come here!”
“Where are you?”
“My apartment,” she said.
“I am the only one inside my apartment.” She shivered. His voice made her want to cry, even now. Especially now. He was every monstrous thing she shouldn’t miss, every nightmare she shouldn’t crave.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head, as if he could see. Memories of the way he’d held her when she wept came flooding back. “No,” she whispered.
“Stay inside. I’ll fix this.”
Tears slipped down her cheeks. Hearing his kindness and his darkness made her miss him as intensely as she had those first days after their bond was severed. “Don’t come. He wants to hurt you. Someone told him about you, about faeries. He’s here to…he says he’d let you pay more for his silence, but you can’t trust him. You can’t…and I can’t…if you were hurt, if Niall…”
Irial sighed. “My beautiful Shadow Girl…no mortal will hurt me or our Niall. I promise.”
A sob escaped her lips. “Ren’s in my building. He has a gun. I should call the police. I couldn’t…if you were hurt…I just…I don’t want him to ever hurt you, either of you. Neither of you can come in here. Someone else…I can’t ask anyone else to either. I just—”
“Hush, now,” Irial soothed. “I’ll stay exactly where I am. This will be fixed, and neither I nor Niall will be injured.”
“We will not be injured by Ren, and I won’t move a step. I promise.” Irial’s voice was the same comforting croon that had kept her steady when she felt the horrible emotions that he had once funneled through her body.
She whispered, “I wish I was with you instead of here.”
Irial didn’t hesitate, didn’t make her regret her admission. He said, “Talk to me, love. Just talk to me while we wait.”
Irial wanted to rip the door from its frame, but to do so would mean that the building would be vulnerable. He stepped away from the doorway to her apartment building as Gabriel and Niall approached.
“Push the button to open the door, Leslie,” he said.
“Open the door,” he repeated.
“You said you wouldn’t move.” She pushed the button even as she said it.
“I didn’t. I said I wouldn’t take a step, and I didn’t.” Irial put one hand to the
window in front of him, wishing he could move, wishing he could be the one to enter her building. He’d promised. He’d assured her that he wouldn’t move. He didn’t intend to twist his words with either Leslie or Niall if he could help it. If Niall were going in there alone, Irial wouldn’t be waiting so calmly, but Niall had Gabriel at his side, and the Hound would keep their king safe.
A weak laugh from Leslie made him smile. “You said ‘a step,’ didn’t you? A lot of steps doesn’t break the vow.”
“Indeed,” he murmured. “My clever girl.”
“I couldn’t stand playing word games all the time,” she said, “but I’ll try again. Promise me Ren won’t hurt you. Promise me you are safe right now.”
Irial watched the Dark King in all of his furious majesty drag Ren into the street. Mortal and faery were invisible as long as Niall had his hands on Ren—and he did. One of Niall’s hands was on Ren’s throat.
“I am safe, love,” Irial promised. “So are you now.”
“You always keep me safe, don’t you?” Leslie whispered. “Even when I’m not aware of it, you’re here. I want to tell you that you don’t have to, but—”
“Shush. I needed a hobby now that I have all this free time.” He felt a burst of love in the tattered remains of their connection. “I’m lousy at knitting.”
She sighed. “You need to let go.”
“Never. I’m yours as long as I live. You knew that when you left me.”
In the street between the buildings, Gabriel waited. Oghams appeared on his forearms as the Dark King’s orders became manifest.
For a moment, Leslie was silent. Then, she whispered so low that it was more breath than words, “I’m glad you were here today.”
Gabriel spoke softly enough that Leslie wouldn’t hear him through the phone line: “Is she uninjured?”
“I’ll be here.” Irial walked into the doorway of the building where he had his no-longer-secret apartment and stared up at her window. “But you didn’t need me, did you? You’d already got yourself to safety.”
“If I call the police now…”
Gently, Irial told her, “There’s no one for them to collect, love.”
“Sometimes, I sleep better knowing you…and Niall…” She faltered.
“Love you from a safe distance,” he finished.
“And we always will. Whatever distance—however far or near you want us—that’s where we will both be as long as we live.” Irial paused, knowing the time was wrong, but not knowing if she’d ever call him again. “Niall will be here tonight. Let him comfort you. Let yourself comfort him.”
Gabriel stood scowling.
Irial held up a hand for silence. “I need to go deal with things. Think about seeing Niall?”
He glanced up at the window where Leslie now stood watching him. When her emotions were this raw, she drew upon their residual connection like a starving thing. He shivered at the feelings roiling inside of her. He couldn’t drink them, not now that she’d cut apart their bond, but he could still feel them.
“I…” Leslie started, but she couldn’t say the words. She put her hand on the window as if to touch him through the glass and distance.
“I know.” Irial disconnected and then silently added, I love you too, Shadow Girl.
Then he slid the phone into his pocket and stepped up to Gabriel. “Well?”
Extending his arm so Irial could only see part of the orders, Gabriel gestured to the street in front of them. “Walk.”
Once they reached the sidewalk café, Irial waited until Gabriel left before taking a seat across the table from his king. When it was just the two of them, he asked, “Shall we try to enjoy lunch? Or do you want to try to reprimand me for the error of my ways?”
The look Niall gave him was assessing. “I’m not sure which of those would please you more.”
Irial shrugged. “Both are tempting.”
“I asked you to stay away from her.” Niall’s possessiveness beat against Irial’s skin like moth wings.
“I have trouble with authority,” Irial said. “She’s safe, though, isn’t she?”
Niall smiled, reluctantly. “She is. From him…”
The waitress had already delivered a drink. Niall’s allure to mortals did result in superb service. Irial glanced up and a waitress appeared. “Another of these.” He pointed at Niall’s glass. “Fresh bread. Cheese tray. No menus just now.”
Once she was gone, he sat back and waited.
Niall stared at him for several breaths before getting to the inevitable issue. “You gave me your vow of fealty.”
“True.” Irial reached out and took Niall’s glass.
When Niall didn’t react, Irial drank from it.
The Dark King still didn’t respond. So, Irial leaned forward, flipped open the front of Niall’s jacket, and retrieved the cigarette case from the inside pocket. To his credit, Niall didn’t flinch when Irial’s fingers grazed Niall’s chest.
Silently, Irial extracted a cigarette, packed it, and held it to his lips.
Niall scowled, but he extended a lighter nonetheless.
Irial took a long drag from the now lit cigarette before speaking. “I’m better at this game, Niall. You can be the intimidating, bad-tempered king to everyone but me. We both know that I wouldn’t raise a hand to stop you if you wanted to take all of your tempers out on me. There’s only one person I’d protect at your expense…and her life span is but a blink of ours.”
“You’re addictive to mortals now.”
“I know,” Irial agreed. “That’s why I won’t touch her. Not ever again.”
“You still love her.”
Irial took another drag on his cigarette. “Yet I did the one thing that would assure that I can’t be with her. I am quite capable of continuing to love someone”—he caught Niall’s gaze—“without touching them. You, of everyone in this world, know that.”
As always, Niall was the first to look away. That subject was forbidden. Niall might understand now why Irial had not stepped in when Niall offered himself over to the court’s abuse centuries ago, but he didn’t forgive—not completely.
Maybe in another twelve centuries.
“She is sad,” Irial said, drawing Niall’s gaze back, “as you are.”
“She doesn’t want…” The words died before Niall could complete the lie. “She says she doesn’t want a relationship with either of us.”
Irial flicked his ash onto the sidewalk. “Sometimes you need to accept what a person—or faery—can offer. Do you think I’d come see her if she didn’t want me to?”
“Every week she is at the same place at the same time.” Irial offered back Niall’s half-empty glass.
Once Niall took it and drank, Irial continued, “If she wanted to not see me, she’d have only to change one detail. I didn’t come one week, and a faery—one whose name I will not share—came in my stead to watch her response. She looked for me. She couldn’t focus—and the next week? She was relieved when she saw me. I tasted it.”
Niall startled. “I thought that you were…the ink exchange was severed.”
“It was severed enough that we are unbound,” Irial assured him. “I don’t weaken her.” He didn’t add that Leslie weakened him, that he came to watch her each week so she could do just that. It wasn’t conscious on her part, but she drew strength from him. Irial also suspected that his own longevity decreased as hers increased. That wasn’t something Niall needed to know.
“You are hiding things.” Niall took the cigarette from Irial’s hand and crushed it in the ashtray. He slid forward one of the full glasses that a waitress had wordlessly delivered.
“Nothing that harms Leslie.” Irial accepted the glass. “That’s the only answer you’ll get.”
“Because you don’t want to know how I’ll feel about what you’ve done.” Niall lifted not the untouched glass but the one from which Irial had drunk
. “If your actions harm you, I would be upset. I hate that it’s true, but it is.”
“I’m glad.” Irial reached out so his hand hovered over Niall’s. He avoided touching the Dark King during such conversations if possible. Because I am a coward. “Go see her. I cannot give you what you’d like in this life, but I can promise that I mean her—and you—only happiness.”
“Life was easier before.”
“For you, perhaps. I could taste all of your emotions then,” Irial reminded him. It wasn’t a lie; he had been able to taste them. He just didn’t mention that he still could. “You never hated me.”
“It was easier when I thought you didn’t know that.” Niall watched mortals walking along the street. “I still don’t like that you see her.”
“You are my king. You could command me to stop seeing her.”
Niall turned his gaze to Irial. “What would you do?”
“Blind myself, if you were foolish enough to use those words.” Irial stood, pulled out a few bills, and tucked them under the ashtray. “If not? Break my oath to you.”
“What good is fealty if I can’t command you?”
“I would follow any order you gave me, Niall, as long as it didn’t endanger Leslie…or you.” Irial emptied the glass. “Ask me to carve out my heart. Tell me to betray our court, the court I’ve lived to serve and protect for longer than you’ve existed, and I would obey you. You are my king.”
The intensity of Niall’s earlier anger was equaled now by hope and fear in even measures.
“You both need me, and”—Irial set the glass down, pushed in his chair, and let the moment stretch out just a bit longer as Niall’s hope overwhelmed his fear—“I will not fail either of you ever again.”
The Dark King didn’t speak, but he didn’t have to: Irial could taste the relief, the confusion, and the growing sliver of contentment.
“Go see her. Be her friend if nothing else. You are safe for her to touch now. I made sure of it.” Irial paused. “And Niall? Let her believe it was me who solved her problem.”