He ran from his memories. Blindly, he turned down one twisting street, seeing her on the corner. His brother joined her and then there was only blood. He chose another street, swiftly turning left to avoid the picture before him. His brother sat on one of the broken steps. She was there, too, draped over his brother's lap like a limp rag doll. Blood flowed like a river around him. Down an alley now. Here she lay in the scarlet mud, blood soaking into the earth around her. His brother smiled. Kian kept running.
He ran from his past. Bodies, bloody and broken, found their way into his path and tripped him. Children cried out his name, grasping at his shirt and bemoaning their fate. Mothers sobbed their grief to the world at random, clutching at their children's graves. Fathers, tears running down their faces like sorrowful, silver trails, screamed out their anger and brandished guns in his direction. They could not hurt him, but still Kian ran.
He ran from his future. Again, Aeshli lay dying on the street before him, like so many times before. Her blood mocked him, whispering how futile it was to fight, murmuring that he would not win this game, and foretelling that Aeshli would always die. His conscience ate at him, laughing through its acid bite. You started this, it whispered. You were the one who condemned her to death… He saw her pleading with him, desperate. Kian, please, if you love me, you will do this for me… Please, Kian. Dying in every lifetime, drowning in the pain that was her life, she begged him to end it. He saw her against stark white sheets where she writhed in agony. Make it stop.
And Kian ran from that, too.
He ran from the present. Kieran stood in front of him, always smiling, always triumphant. I killed her, Kian. She thought it was you. He watched Aeshli die slowly in front of him. He had not seen her death, but he knew Kieran well enough to know that she died in pain. He would have made sure of that. Tears streamed down his face. His life would never change. Always him, killing, maiming, running… Always running.
When he could run no more, he stopped, resting his hands on his knees. His breath came fast and broken and his muscles burned. His eyes slid shut, drawing on his inner strength, then he stood straight and glanced around.
God, I missed this, he thought, staring at the bright lights and colors. People milled aimlessly, completely involved in their own world and ignoring everything on the fringes. Buildings reached gracefully for the sky, stretching in clean lines with mirrored glass. Trees lined the broad streets, straight and proud against the filthy sidewalks.
It was beautiful.
Kian smiled, enchanted with the world he'd long forsaken in order to wallow in self-pity. No more. He wasn't going to go to Jez, hoping he would find her. Hoping he would get lucky. He would find Aeshli in her next life. He would stop Kieran from destroying her. He would find a way. All he had to do was search, following one step behind his brother, while being one step ahead. So what if he'd missed her in this one? He always had the next and the one after that.
Happier after coming to that decision, he ambled lazily down the sidewalk. People passed him by, talking on their cell phones or walking their dogs. One animal smiled wolfishly, as if to say, Hey, I recognize you!
Werewolf, Kian snorted. She was obviously playing some kind of game, one he didn't want to know anything about. Werewolves could be strange. He continued down the street, taking everything in.
Maybe it happened because he wasn't expecting it. Maybe he had just picked the right time or maybe he was paying just enough attention to what was going on around him. Whatever the reason, a glint of fading sunlight suddenly played on dark as midnight hair, catching his eyes.
She moved like one of them. Gracefully, as if she was stalking her prey. She drifted towards him like a dream and brushed past him. He felt the graze of her skirt against his leg. Every hair on his body prickled. Without stopping to think, he turned to follow her.
He reached out, his fingers sliding against slick fabric, and stopped her. "Aeshli?" he asked hopefully, fearing it and wanting it at the same time.
She turned, sighing as though she didn't want to be bothered. "Do I know you?" she asked coolly, then she saw who he was. She had to stop the flare of recognition from jumping to her eyes.
Kian's heart leapt into his throat. It wasn't possible. Kieran said he'd killed her… But why should he believe Kieran anyway? Kieran made lying seem like a contact sport.
She looked just like Giacinta, almost exactly like she'd looked in every lifetime, except for her eyes. He knew her by those eyes. Clear blue, like crystals, with the deepest dark blue ring around them, sucking him in. No one but Aeshli had those eyes.
"Your name," he repeated hesitantly, "is it Aeshli?"
She sighed again. "Look, if this is some kind of new pick-up line, I'm kind of busy. Now if you'll excuse me…"
Leaving that sentence trailing in the air, she turned to go. He jumped forward, reaching out to grab her wrist. "Wait," he pleaded, just before he touched her, and then everything turned vaguely pink.
She wrenched back, gasping, "What did you do? Who are you?"
"My name is Kian," he answered quietly. He gave her all the space she needed. "I've been searching for you forever."
She moved back another step, the vampire she was stalking long gone, and let her eyes sweep over him, just once. He wore his khakis slung low on his hips and a dark green cable-knit sweater from Ralph Lauren.
At first, she thought she was looking at Christian Redfern.
He had the same clear violet eyes lined with the same sky-blue flecks, burning like the core of a flame. Not blue, not violet, but somewhere in between. The same burgundy hair, some strands so dark they were almost black and some so pure a gold they glistened in the almost nonexistent light. The same high cheekbones and the same sensual bottom lip. He even had the same devastating touch, but he wasn't Christian.
She knew that as surely as she knew she would kill him. He may be the walking, breathing image of the Christian she remembered, but it wasn't him. His eyes didn't glint with the cold cruelty she remembered Christian's eyes holding. His hair wasn't neat or perfect; it lay tousled across his forehead like his hands had run through it a million times in agony or thought. His cheeks didn't have the same harshly drawn look and his mouth lacked the mocking twist. But…
How she'd felt when he touched her was the same.
She shook those thoughts away. "My name isn't Aeshli," she said flatly. "I'm not whoever you're searching for. Please leave me alone."
His face fell and his shoulders slumped. She didn't remember him. She didn't want to know him. All this time fighting to find her and now another fight lay before him. "Aeshli, please," he implored.
"Will you stop calling me that?" she snapped. She sighed yet a third time. "If you have to call me something, call me by my name. It's Cameron."
"Is that what you're calling yourself in this life?" he asked absently.
Her pale eyes glinted. "Cameron is my name. It has always been and always will be." With that said, she turned to go.
"For this lifetime," he conceded, following her.
She stopped dead and whirled to face him. "Stop that," she commanded. "And don't follow me. You can go wherever you like -- preferably to hell -- but I'm going home. You're not invited."
The last was said flatly and brooked no argument. He shrugged and continued to trail a few steps behind her. "That's not going to work, you know," he informed her idly, "telling me I'm not invited. I'm coming anyway. I've looked for you for too…"
"Fine, come," she interrupted icily, refusing to look back, "but don't expect to get any farther than the door."
He smiled. The door? Oh, he'd get inside. He had no worries about that. He hummed softly to himself, suddenly without a care in the world.
He insisted on calling her Aeshli.
She wasn't sure why, but it bothered her. Tickling at the back of her brain, calling to her, the name invoked images she knew were not hers. Or were they? She was in them. Laughing, smiling, dying… And always -- always -- this boy with hair the color of blood managed to make an appearance. She didn't understand. She had met this boy only once before, going by a different name.
He had called himself Christian. Not Kian, although the names were similar and the faces identical. But there had been something different about him then. This version lacked the cruelty so sharply etched across his features and the grim resolve. And this one -- this mirror of the boy she loved in spite of herself -- seemed happy to see her in this life. Not sad, not purposeful, but hopeful.
Something was different…
And as she walked, she slipped back into that memory, as clear and sharp as a motion picture.
He sat at the edge of her bed, that gorgeous boy with hair the color of mulberries and eyes like flame. The predatory edge had been there even at the beginning. He leaned languidly against the ugly hospital chair, ignoring the ripped plastic clawing at his thighs and the uneven limp to one side.
She clutched her teddy bear closer to her chest and simply watched him. She was not a timid child, but this boy -- this man sitting so close to her -- would send any human into a faint.
She understood well that he was not human.
"You'll die soon," he was telling her confidently, "and if not, we'll meet again."
"Why?" she whispered. Wasn't it enough that she was scared and alone in this big hospital by herself? Why did he have to make it worse?
He eyed at her thoughtfully. "Because that's simply how it is," he responded with a careless shrug. "You always die."
Then, with all her eleven-year-old wisdom, she'd told him scornfully, "Don't be silly. You can't die more than once."
He laughed then, she remembered. Delight lit up his eyes and brought a pretty flush to his marble-like cheeks.
Handsome, she corrected herself. Boys weren't pretty.
"You can," he insisted. That was when she decided he was crazy. "You've lived a thousand times, over and over. All this," he gestured around the hospital room vaguely, "has happened to you before, in all those thousands of lifetimes." He sat up straight and leaned forward to stare into her eyes. "Except for in the first."
She had the nagging sensation that everything he was saying was true. She didn't like it. Torn between belief and disbelief, she whispered, "What happened in my first lifetime?"
He'd caught her. Satisfied, he slumped back in the chair again. "My brother killed you," he shrugged, his voice still casual. "That's why you have the problems with your heart. It's his fault."
Definitely crazy, she thought, but she wouldn't let him know she thought that. "I don't believe you," she stated clearly and calmly. She set her teddy bear down on the bed and looked at him solemnly out of those clear blue eyes.
He paused, blinking, then he recovered. "You should."
"Well, I don't," she answered defiantly.
A flash of that charming smile, quickly gone. "It doesn't matter. You'll die soon enough. As you're dying you'll know that I was right."
Her eyes flared. "I'm not going to die," she snapped. "I won't."
He leaned in again. "You will," he taunted. "Don't say I didn't warn you." A half-dreamy smile played across his lips. "I can tell you how it happened. He was drinking your blood, playing with you… You thought he would stop, you see -- but he didn't. He drank and drank and drank. All that rich, coppery blood sliding down his throat…" He sighed, his voice trailing off. And then, catching himself, he continued, "And you were a smart little thing. You stabbed him with a branch. I was quite impressed. But, still, you missed his heart. He wasn't very happy about the bleeding -- Kian never has been much for the sight of blood, which is a pity, since he's a vampire." He ignored her gasp and continued talking over her. "So he took that branch and stabbed it into your heart. But he didn't kill you. Not right then. He just scratched or bruised it or something. I'm not really big on technicalities."
"And that's why my heart bleeds in every life," she concluded quietly. She was wise for her eleven years.
"Yes," he nodded. "So you see, you really don't have a chance."
He stood, having finished what he had come for. He reached out and patted her gently on the head. She gasped, but he must not have felt the world quiver, because he turned around to walk out the door. He paused at the entrance, turning back to deliver his parting shot. "Remember, if your heart doesn't fail you for some reason in this lifetime, I'll be back to finish the job." Another flash of that devastating smile and he was gone.
And the worst had been that he was right.
She had died.
Only for a few seconds, but in those seconds she had remembered his words. You will die… As the surgeon had placed her new heart into her chest, somewhere those words had played in the stream of her consciousness. The consciousness she wasn't supposed to have.
She remembered those words, carried them with her through her whole life. Looking around every corner for him, waiting for the moment when she would die. He had promised. She had every confidence that he would keep his word.
She had thought Kian was the boy who had visited her in the hospital, but she knew now he couldn't be. He wouldn't be calling her Aeshli. The other boy -- Christian -- had called her by nothing but her name. Cameron. And again, Kian seemed happy to see her, not resigned or even cruel.
Christian had said something about a brother… This must be him. But that would also make him the one who had killed her.
Fear whispered down her spine.
Ignoring the boy who was following like a faithful puppy, she marched quickly to her apartment. She wondered how she was going to be able to make him leave her alone.
Or if there was any way at all.