Who: Rafael and Kyky
What should have been a victory party had instead essentially turned out to be a massive lay-off. Kyky, along with forty-nine other staffers, volunteers, and interns, were all suddenly out of work. It wasn't a surprise, exactly, but Kyky had prioritized this over her schoolwork and that seemed a massive mistake now.
It was eleven at night. As Kyky distractedly scrolled through social media, she was annoyed to find her candidate had made a concession post, congratulating her opponent…
Kyky felt her jaw tighten as she closed out the app. This wasn't just another race to her; it was a step toward common-sense gun laws, and pretending that was just another campaign issue hurt Kyky's soul.
Maybe that was why she noticed the fairy circle. On another night, maybe she would have walked right by and down into the subway tunnel. But, with a cursory glance over her shoulder, Kyky tucked her phone into her pocket, diverted her steps, and soon felt that familiar sensation of falling…
For the last week Rafael had been staking out the tiny eastern village but it wasn't until just last night that he'd managed to spot the vampire. There was only one of them, which explained why the scent had been so very faint, and tonight he'd learned that the female with fiery red hair had taken up residence in the largest of the small cluster of homes. The adults of the village - all five of them - had been taking turns feeding her, while the children had been keeping the small orchard up and running to avoid suspicion.
He'd go in the morning, after the sun had been up long enough for the children to be busy with their work and the humans to be asleep, and sneak into the home. His target was the vampire, but enthralled humans could be dangerous, as well. He'd do his best to keep them alive but not at the expense of his own life . . .
Rafael had just been about to call it a night, to melt back into the forest and retreat to the small den he'd been calling home, when just in front of him a girl appeared. Blonde and lovely, her pale hair and fine dress stood out like a beacon in the darkness and Rafael was moving before he'd even decided on a course of action, quickly and quietly closing the distance between them to come up behind her and clasp a gloved hand over her mouth and pull her into a crouch. "Shhh," he hissed into her ear. "We're not alone."
Kyky's eyes went wide. Before she could even get a sense of where in Eventyr she'd been dropped, she was being grabbed, and a scream of equal parts surprise and fear was muffled by the hand covering her mouth. She quieted quickly, though, hoping that her chances would be better if she didn't make her attacker angry…
Kyky sucked in a steadying breath through her nose, her hand reached up to tug at the arm holding her face, and she tried to turn her head to see who it was. The crouched position was awkward enough that Kyky had to lean against the form behind her to keep any type of balance. He wasn't hurting her - his grip was firm, but not painfully so. What was he talking about? They weren't alone?
Confused, afraid, but at least compliant, Kyky nodded. She made an effort to quiet her panicked breath, and gave the wrist near her jaw a squeeze, a silent promise that she would not scream if he let her go.
Slowly, Rafael's hand eased, as if he expected her to scream the second he let up. His other hand lifted and he pointed over her shoulder to the small cluster of buildings through the trees ahead of them, pale light shining from a few windows but mostly dark.
"Vampire," was all he said in explanation, the word barely more than a breath against the curve of her ear. He eased back just a bit, giving her room to move and pressing his finger against his lips to reiterate: Don't make a sound. He dug two small bits of cotton from a pouch at his waist and handed them to her, gesturing first to his own ears, where a bit of white fluff could just be seen, and then to her own.
Under normal circumstances it would have been both stupid and dangerous to deny oneself a perfectly functioning sense while in the forest in the middle of the night, but this close to a vampire's lair meant the rules were different. Denying his sense of hearing could be the only thing to save his life should the vampire happen to realize he was there.
Tipping his head, Rafael signaled for the girl to follow him, backing away slowly and quietly and keeping a weather eye for any sign of movement around them.
Vampire? Kyky pulled back enough to see the man's face, and her lips made an "O" of recognition. He wasn't a creeper, he was a hunter. That was why his attack hadn't felt aggressive. She accepted the cotton with a mouthed "thank you" as she pressed the fluff into her ears. She knew very well how enticing a vampire's voice was; too well, in fact. It actually took a measure of willpower to stuff her ears at all - god, a vampire's thrall was good.
Once she was free, Kyky followed the man deeper into the forest. It was disconcerting that she could not hear anything, and she stumbled more than she should have. This dress was excessive - Kyky tried to tuck some of the fabric up into her belt. Why hadn't Eventyrian ladies come around to pants yet?
Kyky stopped only briefly, when her eye caught the shape of a prime piece of wood on the ground. It wasn't straight, exactly, but it was as long as she was tall, and Kyky scooped it up, hefted it over a shoulder, and continued.
Rafael bit back a sigh as he led the way through the trees, glancing over his shoulder the third time the girl tripped over her dress. He had no idea who she was or where the fairy circle had spit her out from but it was obvious by that dress that she hadn't exactly planned on trekking through the forests here at the edge of the Borderlands and the Near-Woods. This also meant that he felt a certain amount of responsibility for her safety - and also if he had her, then it meant the vampire wouldn't grab her and add yet another innocent human to his potential list of kills.
Once they were far enough from the village, Rafael pulled the cotton from his ears and gestured for her to do the same, letting in the faint rush of a waterfall. It was closer than it sounded due to the press of trees around them, and was growing louder with every step they took.
Within minutes, they came upon the river then and, to the right, a waterfall about twelve feet high. Rafael walked toward it, picking his way along the bank with sure steps before disappearing behind the curtain of water.
Behind was a small cave, plenty big enough for one but a bit cramped for two. His things were off to the side - weapons and a pack and a bedroll spread out on the ground - and there was the remnants of a small campfire, the ashes cold but kindling and firewood stacked at the back of the cave.
"It's not safe for you here alone," he said, unbuckling his sword from his waist and setting it aside with the other weapons. "Not with that thing in the area."
Kyky followed along closely, plucking the cotton from her ears when he signaled. This was the East, she guessed first because of the forest, but maybe more like the North-East, given the rocky waterfall. She had never been in this area before, so Kyky wondered: why had the fairy circle brought her here?
Her jacket had transformed into a fur shawl, and Kyky pulled it up over her hair to protect it from the water splashing off the rocks as she followed her companion into the small cave. It was a smart spot - he was a professional.
"Yeah, seriously, thanks," Kyky said with a nod and a childish puff of a sigh. When he removed his sword, Kyky held out a hand and asked, "May I? If I have to run from a vampire, I'm not going to make it in this skirt." She knelt down to make the rough alteration, slicing through the fine fabric to take off six inches or so, just enough to free up her feet. "Does it have a captive, or is it hunting?"
Rafael handed over his sword, not worried about her turning it on him; she'd shown trust by even following him and the least he could do is return that kindness. While she worked to make her dress a bit more wilderness friendly, he grabbed a handful of kindling and began getting a fire going and then raised an impressed eyebrow at her question.
Vampires were hardly unknown across the realm but the average citizen rarely knew more than the basics. Either she'd read some books - possibly even his father's - or she had experience and he wasn't sure which he preferred.
"Five of them," he answered, blowing gently on the spark until the kindling caught. "Every adult who was working the orchard." He placed a log on the fire, then sat down and pulled his bag closer. Just inside was his pelt, folded neatly, and he dug down next to it to find the wrapped loaf of bread and cheese. "How much do you know about vampires?" he asked curiously, using a dagger to carve off a chunk of cheese and then held it out in silent offer.
"More than I should," Kyky answered, as she set the sword neatly with the other weapons and settled down on the other side of the fire. She tipped her chin up and brushed her fingers over the scars on her throat, one side and then the other. She was lucky they weren't worse - Bert had guessed that the vampire who'd held her had been one for at least a decade - because so many people were paranoid about creatures that sometimes just being touched by one was enough to get you ostracized. "Enough to know that five captives means bad news. They're going to fight, and at least four of them will be awake during the day..."
The fire slowly coming to life allowed Kyky to finally get a good look at her companion. He was a little older than she was, strong, handsome, well-prepared. She hadn't ever met someone hunting creatures on their own - it was such a dangerous job that everyone she knew worked in groups. Maybe that's why the fairy circle dropped her here; maybe he needed help. Kyky leaned forward to accept the cheese with a grateful smile. "I'm Kyky."
Rafael's expression didn't change as she pointed out the scars on her throat, easily missed in the dark and with pale locks framing them, but it did leave him with a wary sort of feeling in his gut. Not that he'd hold it against her, having been fed on by a vampire - it wasn't something most people chose, after all - but it did make him wonder if she was enough of a liability that he should be seeking out the nearest fairy circle to send her through rather than hosting her for the night.
"Leonardo," he answered, giving her the alias he'd adopted for the sake of hunting. With the way she was dressed, he wouldn't be surprised if she was a noble of some sort and he didn't want to risk her recognizing his name.
He tore off a chunk of bread and then set the loaf close enough that she could help herself if she wished. "Thank you for the advice, Kyky," he said, amused that she seemed to be just as worried about him as he was about her. "But, I'll be fine."
His head tipped slightly as he regarded her, absently scuffing a foot over the dirt floor of the cave to erase an errant paw print. "So why would a fairy circle bring you this close to a vampire?" he asked, directly.
"No idea!" Kyky declared, with a wide, cheerful smile that befitted a child at a birthday party more than someone facing the possibility of a deadly creature. There was something very empowering about being in Eventyr - perhaps it was the fresh new body, or the smaller population: here, you could feel like what you did mattered. At home, a new gun law may or may not save a handful of kids Kyky would never know. Here, she could see these give farmers' faces. "Maaaaybe because I have an axe to grind with vampires." That was an appropriate turn of phrase, she thought, and was proud of herself.
"I did not set an intention for my travel," Kyky said, using a term she heard from yoga all the time because she didn't hear people discussing fairy circles very much. But it was the same sort of thing, she supposed. You went where you wanted to go. "But -- I usually turn up where someone needs help." She took a bite of the cheese and took a portion of bread as well. She watched her new friend, and detected a bit of… skepticism? Dismissiveness? Which was fair, to be sure, but she tilted her head.
At her words, Rafael's brow did, indeed, furrow with skepticism. Who just hopped into a fairy circle without a destination in mind? It seemed stupid and reckless and more than a little dangerous, especially considering she came without any sort of supplies. What if she'd been dropped into the middle of a sandstorm in the South? Or the tundra in the North? Or in the middle of a battle? A warlord's camp? As it was, she'd been dropped on a vampire's doorstep.
"You take me for a damsel, Leo, don't'cha?" Kyky assessed, with a shake of her head, and going ahead to assume enough familiarity to shorten up the name he'd given her. Only hoity-toity nobles cared about those long names, didn't they? And certainly none of them mutilated their fine dresses, so she was glad to embrace the tossing away of that norm. "I'm not. And I suspect that if you were actually 'going to be fine'.... the fairy circle wouldn't've dropped me here."
"Not a damsel," he answered with a shake of his head. But profoundly stupid, maybe. "But I'm hardly the person here who needs help." She was lucky she'd run into him, otherwise she'd likely have a set of fangs in her neck right this moment. And he still wasn't completely convinced that hadn't been her intention, even subconsciously.
Slicing free another chunk of hard cheese, Rafael popped it into his mouth and then set the wedge aside with the bread. "I mean no offense, Kyky, but you'll be on your way come sunrise." He reached for his sword, intending to sharpen it, but as he did, he felt his sleeve catch on a scab, pulling it free from the underside of his wrist. Fuck. He changed course, instead grabbing his bag and digging a clean cloth out and, as he did, he used his teeth to pull his leather glove off.
"I work better alone," he added, a touch of annoyance in his voice as he stuffed the cloth up his sleeve to soak up the blood.
Kyky wasn't stupid - well, maybe that was up for debate, as many a friend might have called her a ditz - but it wasn't hard to follow the line of his skepticism. He must have assumed she was one of those vampire devotees; Kyky had heard they were popping up now all over the West. And the truth was that she totally understood them; it was like drugs, but for people who believed an overdose was just going to give them eternal life and super strength, which was not exactly a hard sell. Kyky didn't see it that way. She had felt such deep love for a man she had never actually knew, to a man who saw her as nothing more than food, so she knew it was all fake and she had no desire to go back there. Or let anyone else.
Kyky hardly missed a beat, chipper as ever. "Well then, maybe I came to help those five enthralled humans." She clearly hadn't taken offense, but hadn't conceded that she would leave in the morning, either. "Someone rescued me, after all. He's a Sheriff now, in the West..." She trailed off and tilted her head a bit as she caught the sight of blood in the dim light and her face crinkled in concern. "Oh no - did it get you?" Vampires usually went for necks - for blood flow and intimacy - but they would take a wrist in a pinch...
Rafael lifted his eyes, focusing on the woman sitting across the fire from him. There was a lot of information there in her words, so casually thrown out, and while he silently admitted that maybe she had a point about helping the vampire's thralls, he was also curious about this Sheriff from the West who'd saved her. Was it someone he knew?
Either way, her positivity was both annoying and refreshing and Rafael found himself wondering if maybe she could be some sort of help. Bait, maybe? The thought had a breath of amusement sneaking out, even though he'd never actually do that.
"No," he answered, turning his attention back to the wound on his wrist. It was from his own tooth, sharp and canine, and inflicted just this morning when he'd shed his pelt. He'd gotten quite good at locating the seams amongst his fur, but catching those first few threads was challenging and the first couple of days afterwards were always a mess of torn scabs and itchy, healing, wounds.
"If I'd tangled with the vampire, it would be dead and I'd already be on my way." He pushed his sleeve up just enough to wrap the bandage around his wrist and begin clumsily tying it in place one-handed. "Can you even fight?" he asked without looking up.
"Technically, it's already dead, so," Kyky said, and pursed her lips together in an obvious attempt not to laugh at her own joke as she watched to see if a little creature-humor could break through her companion's stony exterior. He looked like he needed a laugh.
Rafael's glance was accompanied by a twist of lips and a hint of mirth in his dark eyes as he rolled them. She wasn't wrong but the joke wasn't that funny either - not enough to warrant that pleased-with-herself expression on her face anyway . . .
"Here, let me help," Kyky said, scooting carefully around the fire and extending her hands in offer. When he seemed reluctant, she gave him the same face a mother might give an obstinate child as she added the most logical argument she could. "Shoddy bandaging means more blood. Blood makes us a beacon for the vampire. Let me help." First aid, Kyky was great at, and it showed in the way she first applied pressure to the wound with both thumbs. It always uncomfortably reminded her of the way her friend had leaned both palms on her gunshot wounds, putting all her weight into it, and how Kyky had tried not to scream at the pain, knowing the shooter could come back any moment... But afterward, she had taken First Aid/CPR classes - it was a way of taking back some control.
"Yes, my sheriff friend taught me," Kyky said, and readily supplied his name. She wondered if he was famous yet. "Bertie… Bertie…. Bertilak." Tying the bandage carefully, she searched for his last name. "Bertilak Weston. You know, I love that about Eventyr. Everything seems to be called what it is. Lake City, it's a city on a lake. The city where the King lives, King's City. He's from the West, he's Weston…" Kyky shrugged and laughed, and realized she'd gotten off topic, and circled back to answer the question. "I can fight. I don't kill, but I'll have your back while you do." There was a certain hopeful expectation in her words, an unasked question, if he would have her…
Rafael watched her with a wary eye as she took over bandaging the wound on his wrist. It wasn't bad, not really, maybe an inch long and two or so inches from the heel of his hand and it could have come from any sort of accident, but it was the possibility of her spotting the other scars that had his heart beating just a hint faster. If she noticed them though, she didn't say a word.
Bertilak Weston? Rafael knew the name and the family, though if he remembered correctly, Bertilak was a bit older than he was, closer to Miguel and Mariana's age, and he'd been a bit . . . awkward the few times the families had interacted - not that Rafael was one to talk now. Still, he'd heard enough about the Sheriff and his combat prowess to be somewhat impressed that Kyky had learned from him and as she prattled on about this and that, he found himself wondering if he'd underestimated her. Maybe there was more to her than pretty blue eyes and cornsilk hair. Maybe she'd even be--
"Don't kill?" he repeated, giving her a dubious look as he took his hand back and pulled his glove on. He knew exactly where this was going. "If you're not willing to kill than you're definitely no use to me," he added, not missing the implication of her words. "Though I appreciate your . . . zeal."
"Oh yeah?" Kyky said, twisting her long hair it into a loose ponytail over her shoulder as she joked in a mocking, almost cartoonish voice, "Nevermind, then! I'm Jane McMurderPants…"
There was a subtle shift in her body language - a slight turn of her torso back toward the fire, the way she drew her knees up closer to her chest, a glance toward the door. It might have been nothing but getting a little more comfortable on the cold floor, but it accompanied discomfort with the idea. She had gone through so much anger, at her shooter who had wounded her and killed her classmates and then gone to Walmart and bought a soda. At fucking Laura Ingraham, at the Florida legislature that voted down a gun safety bill while she and her traumatized senior class waited in the wings…. Kyky had wanted to kill. In the end, she'd understood her shooter's anger better than she expected she would.
"I don't think we need a vampire or a zombie bite to make us monsters," Kyky said, some of the cheer gone from her voice, replaced instead with a sort of practical resignation. "Humans can be just as bad or worse on their own. Everyone's got to find their own paths, and that one is just not one I'm willing to walk."
Even if her words were nonsense to his ears, Rafael understood the sarcasm just fine and his own snarky retort was all ready to be fired back at her, but he hesitated. There was something in her body language that struck a familiar chord within him but it was her words that had understanding dawn.
She'd been victimized and not just by the vampire who'd enthralled her; someone human had hurt her. Immediately, his brain led to the assumption that her trauma was akin to his, though he hadn't even the slightest bit of proof that could be the case. This silent revelation left him conflicted, partly wanting to tell her that he understood while simultaneously wanting to preserve the walls he'd constructed.
I wish I had another patient like you, Rafael, Scholar Abraham had told him. Because I think connecting with someone who had been through something similar would be good for you.
"Creatures are dangerous because it's in their nature," Rafael said, eyes going to the fire to watch the flames dance into the air because it was easier than looking at her. "They don't know any better and they can't control it." He swallowed, "Humans choose to be cruel. They choose to be monsters." But killing to survive didn't make someone a monster any more than hunting to eat did. Sometimes it was necessary. Still, he could understand and respect not wanting to become the thing that had hurt you.
Kyky nodded, her gaze also settling comfortably on the fire. She noticed the softening of his tone, the way his words seemed to meet hers on the same level. He had been keeping her at arm's length until now, and it made conversation easier.
"And it's not fair because they're, like, more effective. Pain, and hatred, and fear spread faster and last longer than a zombie plague. Even if we tried, we couldn't spread joy or love that fast, and even if we could, it would be gone as soon as another threat showed up…" Which was why Kyky preferred to spend her days fighting against suffering instead of for happiness, to make the world a better place. She could have tried to be a musician or comedian or healer, but there was more value, she thought, in preventing or at least mitigating the pain in the first place.
"My therapist calls it negativity bias," Kyky said, complete with air quotes, before she realized that she didn't think therapists were a thing in Eventyr. But she tended to find that Eventyrians ignored references they didn't understand. Just a moment ago, Leonardo had skipped over her McMurderPants joke. So, she just went on, explaining, "It's impossible to feel happy until you feel safe. Which is good to know, and all," therapists could be overeducated sometimes, she thought with a ghost of a smirk, "but isn't exactly all that useful."
For a moment, silence settled between them as Rafael digested her words and realized that they made sense. He hadn't truly felt happiness until he'd stitched the wolf pelt to his human skin and part of that was because of how very safe it made him feel. When he was on four legs, armed with teeth and claws and superior senses, he felt like nothing could - or would dare to - touch him. And he was happy . . .
"I think that's true," he admitted, finally pulling his eyes from the fire to look at her instead. "What your . . . therapist? says, I mean." He paused, as if trying to decide whether or not to continue, then the words were coming anyway. "Someone told me once that not all wounds were to the body, that some affected who you were on the inside and changed the person you were. He told me that healing those inside wounds came from facing what hurt you in the first place. That you had to acknowledge it, otherwise it would just continued to injure you, over and over again." But it was hard to acknowledge something that caused so much pain to begin with and sometimes it was easier to just keep stitching it back up inside you.
Kyky shrugged and nodded, looking at her hands as if in illustration. "You get a splinter in your finger, you can pull it out, wash it, move on. But, you get an arrow, you can't just pull it out and move on. Someone put it there, and that's a thousand percent worse…"
Kyky laughed, a sound that was cathartic more than humorous. "You have a therapist too, huh?" Just friends or family did not give such thoughtful, constructive advice. "Your brain wants to do literally anything else…" Like escape away to another world? Maybe it wasn't exactly another world, though, Kyky thought, raising her eyes up toward her companion. "But even if you face it, then what? And you see clear as day, that you're powerless against cruelty far and beyond what you ever dreamed. And you're not sure how much your life mattered in the long run…" Seventeen kids had died, and she could have been number eighteen, and what difference would that have made?
"I don't know, I think it's always going to hurt you. Maybe less, over time, but... " Kyky said, and for the first time, really let herself wonder what Leo here had gone through. It must have been something like herself, because he didn't sound like the type to try to comfort a random girl, spouting vague nonsense. His thoughts met her own, step by step. She understood every word and every tone, and she wished she had something more hopeful to offer in return, but she wasn't a therapist. She was one of thousands of gutshot victims, actively avoiding the world that had hurt her and then continued to fail her in the most extreme way possible. "So, I figure, we've just gotta figure out how to heal ourselves. Inside out. Over and over. Forever, probably."
Is that what he was doing? Healing himself over and over again by injuring his body? Absently, Rafael's hand went to his chest, where under the layers of fabric and leather lay the physical manifestation of his hurt, even more so than the scars left from his actual assailants. Every stitch brought with it a tiny release, pleasurable in a way that was different, but no less addictive, than sex. But maybe it didn't matter. That was certainly the takeaway he got from Kyky's words, anyway. Do what worked; whatever helped you get through each day.
Chewing his lip in thought, Rafael poked at the fire with the toe of his boot, pushing the unburnt end of a log into the glowing coals, then he asked something that he probably shouldn't have: "What do you do to heal yourself?"
It was a question that he wasn't even sure why he asked. In fact, had it been turned on him, he'd likely have hit the roof, but he'd never met anyone who was so willing to speak candidly about this sort of thing and maybe it was an opportunity that he simply couldn't pass up. And it was this thought that kept him from apologizing, from absolving her of any need to answer before she even decided whether she wanted to or not . . .
Kyky paused before answering. She had tried so many things. Therapy hadn't helped enough, nor medication. A vampire's fangs hadn't helped, either. Pot was nice, but hardly a solution.
"I wish I knew," Kyky said, honestly. A few minutes ago, she had felt like she was holding her ground, selling herself as a competent sidekick. But she did not really have an answer… nor any desire to lie. "All I know is that I want to make the world a little better, every day. It seems that's different, each time...?" Giving a sandwich to a homeless man certainly didn't have the payoff as saving five enthralled humans from becoming vampires. Some days were more satisfying than others.
Kyky laughed, again humorlessly, and shrugged. Her hand ran through her hair, fingernails against her scalp. "Mostly, I wander through fairy circles and hope for the best. I find good people, and I support them. I fight, but I don't kill. I don't know, for sure, what I'm looking for - but I know I'm looking for something." A sad smile tugged at her lips. "I hope I'll know it when I find it."
Rafael stayed quiet as she talked, listening and absorbing, reading between the spoken lines and finding that he related to a lot of what she said. Didn't he spend the majority of his time wandering from place to place, staying just long enough to shift to his fae hound form, find a target and dispatch them? He wasn't sure what - if anything - he was searching for either and, probably, he didn't stay in one place long enough to find it. The good people he met were avoided before any meaningful connections could be made and the bad . . . well, that just depended on the situation.
"You do this," he said, gesturing around the small cave as the dots connected inside his head. "You go through a fairy circle, without any destination in mind, without any thought of what could be waiting for you." His voice grew just a touch louder, something that could almost be described as passion creeping into his tone; they were the same. "That's dangerous but you still do it anyway. Whatever you find brings temporary peace." This was just Kyky's version of stitching a wolf hide to her skin. She got it, even if she didn't realize it.
Biting his lip, it took Rafael approximately four seconds to make what was potentially a stupid decision. He turned to face her and began unlacing the leather bracer from his wrist, pulling it off and pushing his sleeve up to bear the entire underside of his forearm and the scars traveling up the center. Some, like the one she'd bandaged earlier, were raw and fresh but others healed long enough to be white against the copper gold of his skin. And others, still, somewhere in between. "This is how I do it." Then he reached up and pulled the knotted collar away from his throat, "See?" He touched fingertips to the scars that started just below the hollow of his throat, continuing down a few more inches to disappear into his shirt.
Kyky's eyes widened as the reserved man who had brought her into this cave suddenly became lively and animated. She hadn't thought of her reckless behavior quite the way he put it before - she would have just called it escapism, but he was right: she could have read a book or watched Netflix if she just wanted to feel outside her own head for a while. She preferred this because it made her feel - and not just helpful, but exhilarated at the same time. A connection was buzzing between them, and the sudden exposure of skin in addition to that made Kyky's heart skip a beat.
Her hand hesitated a moment as she lifted it, as if asking for permission, then her fingertips trailed gingerly behind his. The scars were smaller than her own, but they had the same familiar texture. She hated when hers were touched - the bullets had torn her apart severely enough that the nerves were damaged, and left the scar tissue on her right side strangely numb. But, if he was doing this to himself, maybe he wouldn't mind the discomfort...
Her eyes darted up, past the scars, to his face. "Healing yourself," Kyky whispered in repetition. And while she had never cut herself, exactly, she had been cut, bruised, or twisted enough times, for a friend in Eventyr, and never lamented the injuries. So she nodded, barely, and added, "I see. I see you."
On the surface it seemed such a strange thing to say. I see you. Obviously she did; she was looking right at him! It was easy enough to put the words into context, though, when her gentle fingertips were tracing so lightly over the scars and he was watching her face oh-so closely, and when he realized what she meant, Rafael found his breath catching.
I see you. I see your pain. I see your trauma. I see your past. And instead of judging, I'm understanding.
It was exactly what he'd been hoping for when he took this risk, but he hadn't realized how little he'd been expecting to receive acceptance until relief hit him hard in the chest. He blinked rapidly, clearing the sudden emotion from his eyes, and found himself at a loss as to what to say in response. Thank you seemed the natural thing to say, but it also inadequate. How could those two little words encompass the sheer magnitude of what he was feeling?
Dark eyes lowered to her lips, suddenly more inviting than any he'd seen in the last few years. Rafael wasn't big on kissing - not anymore. It always seemed too intimate an action to share with the occasional working girl, much like bearing his scars to the eyes of those same women. Yet, in that moment, he very much wanted to kiss Kyky and it was likely obvious in the tongue that slipped out to wet his lower lip, the hand that came up only to hesitate just before touching the soft curve of her jaw . . .
Kyky felt the same hesitation - he was undeniably handsome and the attraction between them was far more than just physical, but she wasn't the promiscuous type and she hadn't ever kissed a boy on the same night she met him. That didn't mean she didn't want to, though, and hadn't he just pointed out that her risk-taking was therapeutic in its own weird way?
She first tilted her cheek toward his hand and then looked up from his arm to his expression. She thought she saw loneliness pinched into his brows, relief in his eyes, and desire on his lips. Her own hand lifted to smooth down his face, as if all she wanted in the world was to wipe them all away. Pain like this couldn't be spilled and wiped away like tears, she knew, but maybe the edge could be taken off with a kiss.
Kyky leaned in, settling her hand on his chest, just over his heart, and found herself enraptured by the impression that it was beating in time with her own. Letting her eyes drift shut, she let her lips brush gently against his in what felt like the most natural extension of the silent intimacy in the air between them.
Rafael was out of practice and that first brush of her lips against his felt nothing but clumsy. When was the last time he'd simply kissed someone? Not since Francesca, he was sure. Still, it didn't take long to shake the rust off, his hand sliding around to cup the back of her neck, fingers buried in the warmth of her hair.
Slowly, cell by cell, Rafael swore his body was waking again. He wanted to be close to her, rather than push her away, and it was a feeling so far removed from his everyday life that he almost didn't trust it. Was his body lying? Was he really as safe as he felt in that moment?
While those questions were still spinning distantly in the back of his head, Rafael's instincts were guiding him and his other hand slipped around her waist, pulling her a bit closer. Her hand on his chest, index finger still pressed against the scars there, was a sort of acceptance that was almost an aphrodisiac all its own. He wanted her, and that sudden lust hit him from out of nowhere, blossoming low in his belly and made clear in the way he deepened their kiss, tongue teasing along her lips in a silent request . . .
Her hand traveled over his arm, then shoulder, feeling the firm indentations and bulges of muscle under the slide of his clothing, and the down his back and around his neck for support as he pulled her closer. Her touch had a gingerness to it; she wanted to feel him in return, but for all she knew, some of those scars were still fresh enough to hurt, like the one on his wrist. Her eyes would flutter open with every gasped breath as he deepened the kiss, at first to watch if she was hurting him, and then just to see the way he was looking back at her.
Their chests pressed flush together, and for a moment Kyky became aware of herself - was she going to do this? Not just kiss a guy she just met, but make out with him? More than that, maybe? At this point in the process, usually, the reality of the ugly scars down her leg pulled her to a halt... but here, in Eventyr, in this dark cave a world away from home, she had as new a lease on passion as her partner was feeling. So when that particularly sensual attention to her lip sent the most wonderful electricity through her body and pulled a soft, needy noise from her, Kyky nodded.
And then she was lost, to the sounds of heavy breath, the feeling of his rough hands, strong arms making sure that she wouldn't be bumped or bruised from the stone floor when she found herself on her back. Her hand ran over his hair as she looked up at him…
But when she met his eyes, she had the strangest urge. Hardly familiar with what she was doing, running mostly on instincts, she couldn't be sure that the impulse was a normal one, but it was powerful enough that she couldn't ignore it… so Kyky plugged his ears.
Distantly, Rafael knew that something wasn't right. He felt like a teenager again, made of nothing more than raging libido and bad decisions, and as soon as she was situated underneath him, he was maneuvering himself between her thighs and trailing those eager kisses from the softness of her lips to the smooth skin of her throat. It wasn't enough though. He wanted to feel her skin against his and he broke the kiss long enough to begin unbuckling the leather jerkin he wore, shrugging out of it and tossing it aside, his shirt following closely after.
It was strange that he didn't even stop to consider his actions - until her hand running through his close cropped hair drew his attention back and he met her eyes . . .
No. This wasn't right. Rafael's eyebrows drew down in confusion and he nearly pulled away as she reached for him, but then she was blocking his ears and that confusion gave way to horrified understanding. His eyes widened and, awkwardly, he braced his weight on one hand above her, eyes darting to the waterfall doorway as he dug through the pouch on his belt and came up with those handy bits of cotton. "Cover your ears," he whispered, stuffing the cotton into his ears the second she moved her hands.
Climbing off of her, Rafael went for his sword, though it was hardly the best weapon in such tight confines, and once it was in his hand, his other dipped back into the pouch. "It's here," he said, though it was obvious Kyky knew. He held out the cotton for her to take, only to have it fall to the ground as the waterfall parted and a figure leapt toward them . . .
Kyky nodded, moving her hands quickly and deliberately from his ear to her own when he inserted the cotton. When her own were plugged and the haze of lust inspired by the vampire's voice faded - and any of her own authentic lust was quelled by fear - Kyky was relieved to see that the vampire was not yet in sight. She knew they could be completely overlooked by those in their thrall, distracted as they were by their own desire, but it became clear that wasn't the case and they might have time to arm themselves. As it was, Leo was going for his sword…
Then, she appeared. Well fed as she was, the vampire was breathtakingly beautiful - flame red hair, flawless skin, an hourglass figure accentuated by a dress as emerald green as the forest beyond the falls. But, her steady diet meant she was also strong, and less inclined than usual to play with her prey. She went for Rafael first, clearly sensing that he was the bigger threat, grabbing him, slamming him into the cave wall, and holding him there by the throat…
Rafael knew full well just how fast vampires were, especially well fed ones, but still she managed to sweep him backwards, his sword flying from his hand and his bare back scraping across the rough stone of the cave walls as her hand locked around his throat. A string of vehement curses paraded through his brain, directly mostly at himself for becoming so thoroughly distracted, but they didn't stay there long before other more pressing thoughts took over - specifically, that he was going to die.
Kyky had fully expected her to just snap his neck, and that knowledge had her quickly rolling toward that cotton drifting to the ground. She wanted to help, but hearing while doing so was impossible. In the moments it took to stuff her ears, luckily, the vampire stopped humming, and Kyky heard her speak…
"Oooohhh," the vampire purred. Her free hand dipped to the scars on Rafael's chest, a lewd sensuality to her touch. "I didn't know there were any of you left…" an excited smile spread across pretty lips. "I should turn you!"
Any of what left? Kyky wondered as she stopped up her ears. Didn't matter - she needed to get that bitch off of Leo... An idea suddenly struck her, and Kyky grabbed the nearest flaming log. Her hand burned, but she ignored the pain, lifting the flame up behind the distracted creature, slamming it against the back of her neck, and lighting her hair on fire. The vain bitch couldn't ignore that, and she hissed, grip loosening on Rafael as she whirled around.
His chest was burning, his eyes too wide, but still Rafael struggled against the hand holding him, even though he knew it was useless. His lips pulled back in a snarl at her words, fingers working furiously at the junction between her pasty-pale skin and his own, managing just enough space to suck in a rasping breath . . .
Of course she'd realize what he was, with his scars so prominently displayed, and again Rafael felt disgust at his carelessness. How could he be so stupid? He knew better than to let his guard down this close to a vampire's territory!
Movement drew his attention to Kyky, just the barest flicker of his eyes away from the vampire, and hope flared as she grabbed one of the burning logs and set the bitch on fire. The hand disappeared from his throat and Rafael's knees nearly buckled at the sudden loss of counterpressure, but the movement made it easier to unsheath the dagger strapped to his calf and leap forward to plunge the short, but vicious, blade into the side of the vampire's neck. With his other hand braced on her shoulder, he hauled back on the hilt, wrenching the razor sharp edge toward him, not only slicing open the skin but also cutting straight through her vocal cords.
The vampire's other weapon was her eyes, which she immediately tried to fix on Kyky. Luckily, the young sidekick knew to avert her gaze. She wanted to search for another weapon, but with a vampire this strong and this dangerous, either herself or Leo could become a danger to the other too easily. Any direct eye contact and they could lose their minds, fighting on the vampire's behalf first, then offering their neck to help her heal. It wasn't a risk they could take. So Kyky did the unpleasant - while her partner held it down, Kyky groped at the vampire's face, from the forehead down to avoid teeth, until her thumbs found eye sockets, and she pushed until she felt a pop, and felt the disgusting sensation of ooze and blood dripping…
With its hypnotic power gone, all the vampire could do was thrash. Her strength made her like a raging bull, and with Kyky's thumbs in her eyes, she was the first to go. Even though Kyky was ready for it - hoped for it, actually, since it would ideally give her partner enough time to slice through the rest of the vampire's neck - the vampire's push felt like getting hit by a car. It slammed her into the opposite wall of the cave - but if it hurt, adrenaline made up for it, because Kyky bounced back, getting to one knee, ready to jump back in.
It was messy work, dispatching a vampire, and when Rafael lost his grip on the vampire's shoulder, he grabbed a handful of it's hair instead. The grip gave him a bit more control as Kyky took away the creature's eyes and it began thrashing wildly in a desperate attempt to gain the upper hand.
Again, Rafael found his back slamming and scraping against the wall as it kicked Kyky away and then threw itself backwards with a vile strangled sound. The impact caused him to lose his grip on the knife, his blood-slick hand slipping off the worn leather of the hilt, and it clattered away from him as the vampire twisted erratically. He still had his hand tangled in its hair, making its movements not only awkward but unnerving, as well, though the thin skin of its scalp was no match for the force being exerted upon it and it pulled free with a bloody chunk of skin attached.
"Sword!" he shouted, breath rushing from his lungs as the creature slammed into him, pinning him between it and the wall. Teeth snapped toward his face, kept at bay only by the arm he managed to brace against its torn throat, but his muscles wouldn't hold out long and if she managed to get fangs into his skin, they were done for . . .
Kyky was so glad she had cut those inches off her skirt because otherwise, the dive she made for the weapons would have tripped her up. But instead, she was able to keep her weight low as she moved back across the small space, grabbing the sword by the blade to offer her partner the hilt. It was her burned hand and the action left a fresh cut across her palm, but she paid it no mind and focused instead on getting her hand out of the blade's way before he snatched it. The result was a beautiful moment of synchronicity where she tossed the sword and he caught it that reminded Kyky, distantly, of how she had thought she felt their hearts beat in sync, not a few minutes ago.
Kyky knew the best way to take the strength out of this vampire was to bleed it, so as soon as her hands were free, she grabbed at the bloody dagger that had been dropped, and then hesitated. Any random stab would cause it to bleed, but it would also tell the vampire where she was and while Leo was holding the beast off pretty damn well, Kyky knew she wouldn't. So she zeroed in before moving within arm's reach, then, fast as she could, Kyky grabbed one of the vampire's hands and sliced at its wrist, knowing exactly where to cut for maximum bleed because of the faint scars on her own wrists…
Despite the adrenaline coursing through his system, Rafael knew he wouldn't be able to keep the vampire off of him forever. But Kyky was there to toss his weapon to him and though he caught it easily, it was enough of a distraction for the vampire's tooth to catch his eyebrow, causing him to jerk his head back in response and crack it against the wall.
Freely bleeding from both neck and wrist, the vampire began losing strength quickly, though it wasn't willing to turn its attention from the potential victim in its hands to the one who'd cut its wrist. With a final burst of strength, Rafael shoved the creature back, creating enough space for him to bring the sword up and, in a move that was likely just as much luck as skill, cleanly remove its head from its body.
Panting, Rafael let the tip of the sword drop and he brought his other hand up to absently wipe blood from his eye with the back of his wrist. "Are you alright?" he asked, his attention going to Kyky. Her hand was freely bleeding and he remembered her hitting the wall when the vampire threw her, but much like himself, she was alive.
Kyky let out a huge sigh of relief when the vampire's - scalped - head finally fell free from its body. It was a disgusting scene; there was a body bleeding sluggishly between them, a severed head without eyes, and they were both covered in gore… but they were in the clear. She sank back from her knees onto her heels, and Kyky closed her eyes, and nodded. There was only a brief moment left of adrenaline where she could enjoy the victory, before the aches of injuries set in. It was an odd euphoria, but a totally authentic one, and she took the moment to look across at her equally blood-soaked partner and smile.
"I'm alive," Kyky answered, before even allowing herself to look at her injured hand or think about the impending pain from when the back of her head had slammed into the stone wall of the cave. As her breath slowed, she looked toward him as well. He had come within an inch of not just death, but being a creature afterward. "Are you alright, Leo?"
Rafael gave a breath of a laugh, the ebbing adrenaline bringing with it the pain from numerous aches, scrapes, and that nasty bump on the head. He was going to be feeling this tomorrow, that was for damn sure. It also brought on the sudden self-consciousness of standing there in front of her without a shirt, painfully aware of the scars marching down the center of his chest and stomach and disappearing into the waist of his pants, Rafael plucked up the shirt he'd discarded earlier. There was blood on it, though not as much as one would expect, considering, but still he pulled it over his head only to have it promptly stick to the abrasions on his back.
He went to the waterfall next, to rinse the blood from his hands in the icy water, then to his pack, where he pulled out the Eventyrian version of a first aid kit, a skin of water, and another of wine. "Let me look at your hand," he said gently, circling the fire and settling down beside her. They'd have to get rid of the body but they could take five minutes to patch her up, he decided. She had saved his life, after all.
Once she held her hand out to him it became quickly apparent that she'd need more than a bandage though. "This is going to hurt," he warned, popping the cork out of the water skin and pouring it over her hand. With the blood rinsed away, Rafael could clearly see that she'd need stitches and he took a second to hand her the wine skin before he began readying a clean needle and catgut. "And, uh," he glanced up, "it's Rafael. Not Leo."
Kyky noticed the immediate self-consciousness that he displayed, going for his shirt before his wounds even though his physique was more than pleasing. She averted her eyes out of respect, and quickly assumed that all the affection he had shown he was a result of the vampire. If his first instinct was to cover up, then the one to disrobe must have been part of the thrall. She was not as sure that her own had been…
She held her hand out when he requested it. It was tempting to push him away and say that she had a healing potion that would take care of it - but she knew that if she could be patched up, the recovery time would be half as much, even if it hurt on the front end. It was her dominant hand, and it had reddened and blackened burns as well as the gash through the middle. "It's okay," Kyky said, voice tight but resolved, and knew that he heard her true meaning: I am no stranger to pain. The stitches, she was ready for, but not the bit about his name.
"Oh," Kyky said, and tried not to sound disappointed that he'd lied. There had been zero reason to trust her, so why was she surprised? No reason. But all the same, she had kissed this guy she had just met, at least thinking she had known his name, when she hadn't. Maybe her feelings hadn't been as real as she thought. When she spoke again, she hoped that her voice sounded grateful, that he had decided to let her in at all.
"Rafael. Like the ninja turtle." Kyky smiled, tightly, knowing he would miss the reference but that she would never forget it. And, dumbly, she added a weak, "Nice to meet you."
Yeah, it was okay. Just as his own wounds were; he'd deal with them eventually. That second of understanding only lasted about that long though, before he was lifting his eyes at the note of disappointment in her voice. His lips parted and he blinked, wondering what he'd done wrong, and as she continued, it didn't become any clearer. What the hell was a ninja turtle, anyway? Either way, he hated the idea of Kyky being upset with him; they'd connected and he wasn't ready to let that go yet.
"I . . . that's, uh, that's the name I give when . . ." he trailed off, unsure of why he should feel bad for having given her his alias when, well, why wouldn't he? They were strangers to each other and he'd thought she was noble . . . was she noble? She had been trained to fight by Bertilak Weston and she was dressed quite well.
"I'm sorry," he sighed, dark eyes going back to her hand as he tied off another neat suture. "It's just . . . I don't always do this," he tipped his head toward the vampire's body, "but when I do, I tend to go by Leonardo Carreras. It keeps things . . . simple." He glanced up again. "Usually."
He swallowed and then found himself continuing, his eyes going back to his work, "Lord Rafael Gonzalo. Royal General Mathias is my father."
Understanding dawned across Kyky's face, and she nodded. She had been so interested when she had arrived to learn how Eventyr's government worked - she had actually put more work into learning their ways than she had into the coursework that her Political Science major asked of her. If she was remembering right, the Royal General sort of shared the role of vice-president with the Royal Scholar. It was one of the only ways to become royal without birth or marriage. It was a big deal. Name recognition was probably through the roof, and that must have made hunting anything tough.
"I bet anonymity is pretty important in this line of work," Kyky said, and winced when the needle pierced her skin again. The pain would be gone by the morning, she told herself, and she appreciated the care he was taking with his work. She remembered distinctly how irrationally angry she had felt, waking up from surgery to find staples on her wounds. Maybe it was some new technology, but it made her feel like someone's fucking homework. She put aside the thought and tried to look away from the wound to Rafael's face. She wondered if she ought to feel differently now, knowing that he was not just a lord but also the son of one of Eventyr's most important men. But she didn't, not really. "I'm nobody; you don't have to worry about me saying anything."
"Important enough," he answered. If everyone knew who he was, it would be impossible for him to move freely around Eventyr. Everyone would be offering to host him, in hopes of getting on his father's good side, or offering up their daughters for marriage . . .
Rafael tied off the last suture and then poured more water over the wound. It was a clean slice but the burns around it needed tending. "I doubt you're nobody," he said, rifling through the medical kit until he came up with a glass vial. Pulling the cork, he dipped his fingers into it and then smoothed the herbal cream over the burn as gently as he could. "You're dressed like a noble and you know Lord Weston," he added as he began wrapping her hand.
"But," he lifted his eyes to meet her gaze, "I trust that you won't say anything. About . . . any of this." He paused, swallowed, and hoped that what had happened tonight meant as much to her as it did to him. "You said the fairy circle brought you here to help me and . . . you did." Here, he looked away from her, suddenly self-conscious again, "And not just with the vampire."
Kyky felt a sardonic little smile pull at her lips at Rafael named literally the only two reasons that she wasn't a nobody in Eventyr, although that was banished by the the water on her wounded hand. It stung the cut and alternately soothed the burns, and Kyky found herself watching the gentle circles of Rafael's rough fingers on her palm. Her muscles and posture relaxed as much because of the relief of pain and the return of that comfortable connection.
"I'm glad. They say fairy circle are unreliable, but it came through after all," Kyky joked lightly, her voice warm and her smile small but genuine. When Rafael looked away, she figured that was normal so she moved a bit closer, enough that the length of her thigh pressed against his on the hard stone floor. It made her feel connected to him, even if eye contact got uncomfortable; she had read a ton about oxytocin and was a big believer in its power.
Rafael's eyes went to where her thigh pressed against his and mind drifted back to their earlier kiss and the groping hands that went along with it. It had been so easy to lose themselves in that moment, fueled as it was by the vampire's close proximity, but now the vampire was dead and he couldn't blame their connection on it. Which meant that they were connecting on their own and that was scary and awkward enough for Rafael to pull away.
He rose to his feet, eyes sweeping over what had been his comfortable den for the last week and was now a blood-soaked horror show. "That fairy circle should still have enough magic left to take you where you need to go," he said, carefully pushing away any hint of regret he felt at the decision. "I'll walk you there and then come back and clean this up." He paused, for a second unsure of what else to say, then decided on a simple, "Thank you for your help, Kyky."