Venice during Carnivale was a sight to behold.
Colors splashed across the falling dusk as though by the hand of some manic painter, seeking the right combination of shades with which to depict the heart of a wild celebration. The aged city was draped with bright streamers and brilliant decorations; parade after vibrant parade and eager vendors shouting of their priceless wares filed through narrow streets crammed with bodies. Countless hands reached to grasp at the uninhibited craze that preceded the sacrifice of Lent.
It was the people that made it so spectacular. How free and boisterous they all were, elaborate in their old-world costumes and beaded, feathered masks. How spirited and energetic as they cavorted in the streets, dancing and eating and simply being, playing at mystery and suspense with faces concealed beneath painted porcelain, paper and cloth. As though they could hide themselves away from the pressures of the real world in a veil of old-world make-believe.
The warm spring evening smelled of candied fruit, caramel and the salt of sweat, the tang of excitement and the sweetness of pleasure. It bathed him in the elements of human joy, and he found a surprising contentedness in the rush of fanciful skirts and laughter that passed him by.
Generally, Arawn wasn't the type of demon to gain enjoyment from consorting with humans. They were clumsy, fragile creatures, sticking their noses into business that didn't concern them, waging war with each other over the most trivial matters, and they were, frankly, quite dirty. But they were amusing to observe. And Carnivale was beautiful; a flower which attracted a special kind of butterfly.
He could sense her there, a brilliant, concentrated pulse of energy and vibrancy located somewhere in the Piazza San Marco – his butterfly.
A tiny smile curved his lips. Oh, how she would rip into him if she ever heard him refer to her as such. She would have tied him down and carved another set of scars into his flesh to match the ones he had; and the irony was that he would have enjoyed it. He had before.
Yet on that night he sought her with a silent dedication that would have made sense to no one but himself. He suffered from a need to be near her that had gnawed at him since his last days as an angel; his poor, mad butterfly with a warped, twisted mind that drew an immeasurable amount of delight from events such as these. It was a chronic malady that did him little good; an affection that bordered on obsession, morbid and strange. But it was such a sweet sickness that he cared little for the damage it did him.
His shoulder met that of a young human man racing along the sidewalk, a giggling woman in tow, and he smiled upon seeing the burning glance that had passed between both mortals; so reminiscent of the subject of his thoughts.
Even he wasn't certain how long he had pined for his butterfly. She was evasive and tricky, set against anything remotely resembling a relationship that contained any meaning. He watched her fulfill her demon lusts with humans besotted by her power and persuasion, the compelling draw that always seemed to spark their undying thirst for immortal flesh. Year after year, age after age, from Rome to the last human war and he had naught to show for his effort, his blood and sweat but a raging case of heartache.
During the Ides of March, so many years after the Rebellion that they had seemed to run together, he had pursued her for the first time in the home of a wealthy senator. With the moonlight and her harsh beauty to sway him, he had assaulted her despite her protests. She had bloodied his mouth and thrown him into a wall with a maddened strength. The words she'd hissed into his ear had sparkled with laughter, hissing delightedly that she would be five times damned before allowing the Devil's mercenaries to lay a hand on her.
She ordered him horsewhipped before her poison fire had scorched him to the bone. Yet every strike with the leather thong had inflamed his desire because he had seen the challenge in her eyes.
He tracked her again in the 1800s, ten years after the crowning of Queen Victoria, on the streets of Whitechapel where she walked with idle fancy, luring human men with the sight of her fashionable satin gown and expensive coat. Several times he watched her succumb to the brutish efforts of greedy thugs, kiss the breath and the life from their lips, and leave them gasping in the alleys.
His disguise had been solid enough to trick her into thinking him another of her potential conquests. Yet once she took his proffered bouquet of roses and made to drain him, he let her have only the barest taste of his essence before cutting back her power and shoving her into an empty doorway. He'd whispered to her of worship, of adoration and wanting; could feel her melt into his arms, his name a sigh upon her lips when she turned and surrendered to him.
His mistake was in forgetting the pistol tucked inside her sleeve. Still, he remembered the sharp, clean pain of the bullets in his stomach and the smiling press of her mouth to his when he'd slid to the filthy street.
Letting her avoid him had not been easy; but their paths unavoidably crossed in the 1940s, at a German gentlemen's club where she had taken to entertaining. The temper that had wreaked such havoc when Heaven's host had split was long-since cooled and controlled, and he had settled at a table and ordered liquor whilst filling his eyes with the sight of her dancing in the cabaret.
She had found her most beloved mortal tongue in that place, and her encompassing joy had softened his feeling for her into something far less demanding. He no longer wanted her for the sake of wanting such a deadly, beautiful demon woman, but because something about her menacing sweetness spoke to the yearnings of a heart that had aged since his petulant youth.
He had relented, leaving her to her men and her absinthe until Nazis flooded the streets two days later. She had stumbled nearly right into his lap. Yet, after grazing his cheek with her fingertips with the spiraling burn of defiant insanity in her eyes, she had stolen his rifle and rent him from throat to hip with the bayonet. And despite the glorious agony of it, her rejection had torn through something deeper than his mortal flesh alone.
During the few times they had interacted since then, he had gifted her with every shred of control, pressing nothing, demanding nothing, merely offering. He acknowledged that she thought him at best a passing amusement, at worst the lapdog of the Devil who had used and destroyed her, the subordinate of the prince who had raped and bled her.
This didn't mean she never toyed with him.
She would use him, abuse him, and he let her get away with it. Whether because she still contained some of that long lost delicacy from their angelic days, or whether because he was so utterly consumed with ardor for her that he could do little else, no one knew. Sometimes she fawned over her, flirted with him; and other she was cool and aloof.
Each time he vowed it would be the last, yet she had turned him into a masochist and so he would return. Did he love her, or did he merely want her? Was there even a way to name something so convoluted?
He pondered this as he crossed a bridge bedecked with new flowers and paused to admire the perfect blooms of a gladiola so red that it could have been dyed with flesh blood. He itched to pick one, to carry it to his love and earn a kiss, but knew his own folly before he could succumb. She had no use for flowers, and less use for a man who brought them; much more likely to cackle than swoon. Romance was lost on her.
But no matter.
With the red floral blush in his mind's eye, he descended the stone path into the Piazza, where music swelled to a crescendo of glee and dancers whirled, streaks of color in a mad chaos of whimsy.
It was as if his eyes were dragged to her magnetically. His butterfly, a queen amidst the procession of casual partiers, drinking in the energy of elation with her head tipped back and a cry of pleasure on her tongue.
She wore a raiment that he knew was intended to draw likeness to a crow; tulle and satin and sleek black feathers sparkling with white gems. The bustle skirt offered teasing glimpses of her long porcelain thighs before they vanished into silk stockings held by an arsenal of garters, the corset cinching her waist to a tiny circle and framing her delicate shoulders. Her garnet hair had been loosely braided along the base of her head, leaving soft wisps to frame her snow white face.
He could imagine himself burying his hands in that hair, twisting his fingers through the soft locks. He could imagine her looking up at him to smile that mad, slightly cruel smile she had and taking him into her arms, slipping from her feathered robes to embrace him skin to perfect skin.
He could imagine a great many things.
The people seemed to swarm around him as he walked, brushing and bumping, like he was an invader inside their smooth, seamless rhythm. Perhaps it was the sight of her that cooled his annoyance for the jostling. Or maybe it was her presence there, connected by the spiraling ribbons of energy which kept them all in time to the music.
With her arms twining above her head, her hips and back twisting gracefully with a mindless happiness, she was wild and untamed and frightening. But he hungered to reach her, and pressed more quickly against the current of dancers to hasten his approach.
And then she turned, stepping lightly on high heeled boots to face him, her citrine eyes sharp upon his face. He felt it like a searing ache in his chest, the mixture of undeserved victory, appeasement, and desire as she looked at him – arms still raised like thin white wings to the sky, the curling lines of black paint reaching toward her cheekbones, black feathers knotted in her hair.
He was breathless. He was hopeful. And he was filling his eyes with her, calm and cool and pale, the grey rings in his irises giving way to the cobalt that encircled his pupils, his ashen skin tingling with anticipation and joyous despair.
Her lips curved in a coy, crooked smile. They were painted with scarlet, a variation on her usual war-mask of ink, close enough to the bloodied shade of those gladiolas that it tugged at something low in his abdomen.
When she lowered her arms, it was to twirl gently, slowly, before him, partly for admiration, partly for her own whim; and he was granted a clear view of the puckered slash of scarring that marred the place at her left shoulder where a wing should have been. The mark which scrawled in mirror of it was fine and elegant, simple, blacker than night. A deliberate differentiation between herself and him.
He no longer bore the mark of wings that had once existed. Few demons did; a fact which made her a completely different kind of rarity.
"What do you want of this one-winged crow?" she crooned, the light brush of her voice melding gracefully with the delicate sway of her hips. It wasn't clear whether she was taunting him, or whether she simply didn't care to pause in her revelry for the sake of conversation.
What was clear: she hadn't speared him yet.
He strode forward, bracing his weight within soft leather boots to cross the space that stood between them to grasp her about the waist. The boning of her corset pressed cool lines into his stomach, the skin of her back smooth and soft against the deep azure cloth of his shirt. "You know what I want," he told her, and despite his effort to speak softly, there was the faintest hint of a growling burr beneath the words.
She molded into him, arching her back to press the stiffened layers of tulle bustle into his hips and lifting her fingers to graze the back of the hand splayed across her ribcage. The scent of her hair teased him with roses and absinthe.
Her laughter was like the tinkling sound of breaking china, just slightly wicked and edged with a dark amusement. "If you wanted a dress," she told him sweetly, the fingers of her other hand reaching back to comb through his char-black hair. "All you had to do was ask!"
He couldn't help the chuckle that rolled from his chest. Better a playful Balael than a vengeful one.
"'Tis a lovely dress," he admitted graciously, stroking the feathers at her bodice with a respectful fingertip. "But I much prefer it on you."
She cackled, twisting within his grip to face him. Tilting her head back, she peered up into his sharp, handsome face with a delicately arched burgundy brow. There was an unnerving amount of clarity there, in her eyes and upon her lovely features, and it caused him to wonder whether she might unsheathe her talons to cleave his throat.
But she seemed to be in a tolerant mood, her spirits high from the generous waves of energy swirling about them; food, drink, and entertainment all in one swallow.
"Dance with me," she demanded, holding out her arms in the manner of a small child, and he obliged without hesitation. His arm encircled her tiny waist, his other cupping her small white hand as he allowed her to lead him into the sweeping tumult of dancers.
He knew better than to try and force his lead upon her, least she rear back like a cobra and sink her teeth and poison into him. Instead he let her carry the reins of direction and pace, not caring if she sought to exhaust him, and followed her graciously, a smooth smile upon his wolfish features.
There was a rawness to her movement. Something reckless and impulsive encompassed the absolute devotion she had for her worship of such careless abandon; in her primitively delicate steps, the arch of her white neck, and the tight grip she held upon the fabric at his shoulder. Wild, feral, and maddened, her giggles rose and fell with the thrum of song and the heat of many bodies.
Her rapture was enthralling.
She clung to his hand, her fingers raking down the curve of his shoulder to the swell of his chest and tossing back her jeweled head. She pressed close, near enough to graze his flesh with hers until their legs came close to tangling. Until the memory of her curved figure seemed imprinted upon his own and he had to bite his own tongue to keep from lifting her from the ground and burying his face in her throat.
What he wouldn't give to wind his fingers through the laces at her back, to slide the bustle down her legs and undo the pins in her hair. What he wouldn't give to have her. Not to own her but simply to feel, to answer all the yearning questions in his heart.
The fanciful ideas brought a silvery flush to his skin, warming him right down to the deepest, darkest crevices inside him.
Her momentum swung them in swiftly widening circles, growing more and more erratic as her steps quickened. It drew them ever closer to the Basilica san Marco, all white stone and the fanciful details of an age that had possessed the creativity and time to spare for such things. Between the pillars of the Basilica they wouldn't be easily observed. No one had the mind to occupy the church, not on a day meant to purge oneself of wickedness before Lent.
His back and shoulders struck the space of flat wall, a sharp impact that emphasized the soft collision of her body against his own, where she held him, caged. The pleasure was immediate, inflamed by setting and circumstance, increased by the elated flutter of her unneeded breath wafting against his face. He stiffened automatically.
She was cool and lush, sloped and curved in all the best of places, fresh with the perfume of roses and skin. The willful wildness in her face turned her irises ice pale as though they were dilated with light. She tilted her head back to gaze up at him through long lashes the perfect, glossy black of a crow's wing, identical to the blackness of the feathers she had tied into the hair at her nape to imitate their angel cousins.
"Yes…Ich weißt was du willst."
Her lips parted, red and ripe and beckoning, and though he knew what he'd receive for his folly, he bent to press his mouth to hers. Knowing that he would pay for that folly was well worth the reward.
The flavors of peppermint and liquor bit into his tongue, acrid and wonderful all at once. He had tasted her kisses before, most of them coerced and met with violence. Yet this time she yielded as though she were any common woman submissive to the touch of a handsome suitor who beguiled her with flowers and poetry. She uttered a small sound, as though the slide of his tongue was startling and scandalous, as though she were meek and breakable.
The bite of the stone into his shoulder blades informed him that the delicate female hands laid against his chest were betraying her almost manic strength. She clung as though to keep from sliding to the ground, yet she had no need of such support. Her fingers were curled into his high-collared shirt, wrinkling the silk and straining until the ivory buttons snapped free to clatter at their feet.
His iron butterfly; it was she who would have her way with him, should she choose.
While the fact of it seared him with longing, it was a bittersweet sentiment; for she never took more than what was required to force him away. She could drink him dry and he would never fight her. But she would leave him hungered, craving, raging over what it might take to make her want him.
She had made it plainly, starkly clear that she wanted nothing to do with him – a soldier, a lapdog at the beckon call of the devils she so despised – and her methods of driving back his serious advances grew increasingly more vicious as time passed. He harbored bloodlust enough to appeal to her rebellious nature, but she knew he wanted more than the taste of her flesh and the color of his blood on her skin. He wanted a bond, and frankly her half-shattered mind just couldn't comprehend that.
Arawn enjoyed her flippancy, the fickle, flirty way she toyed with the world until it was wrapped around her fingers. He had always admired her formidable will and her even more formidable power. He even liked the way she sank her talons into him via weaponry or flame, her dance of victory, the way she wiped her face clean to display her war-paint.
A normal woman would have bored him to tears, but Balael was nowhere close to normal; and therefore hypnotizing.
But despite her apparent promiscuity, she consorted with humans alone. Human energy was volatile and free, less constricted and easier to reach. And humans were easily disposed of. Oh, she would flirt with the odd demon, lure them, entice them, only to shove a butcher knife between their shoulders and cackle with glee in the face of their rage.
She did the same to him; teased with brief, temping tastes of skin and touch before she drove her refusal through his chest. Those deaths were his favorites, because he knew his blood had soaked into her skin, bringing him intimately near when she would, inevitably, lift those hands to her mouth and drink him in, unwilling to waste the lingering vitality there.
Even to the mad, blood was sustenance that should never go to waste.
He was certain she delighted in tormenting him, which was why he was never angry with her regardless of how often she denied him. Even interest in playing with him was an interest of some kind. She had even stolen a pack of his tarot cards that last time she'd sent him reeling; so perhaps someday, if he was persistent, she might be convinced to shift in that regard. And he was not so easily gotten rid of.
She traced the blackened line of scarring that arced along his collarbones to drape across his shoulders and back, the jagged pattern like tribal, skeletal teeth against his ash-white skin, and he trembled with the tingle of sparks beneath her touch. If she was merely tormenting him, he didn't care. It was more than he had hoped for; such intimate closeness, and unexpected, considering her half-crazed disdain for him.
Her lips pulled away from his own, just a fraction of a hair's distance from his eager mouth, when she kissed him again.
That was when his vision blurred and his knees began to weaken. The breath rushed between her parted lips, slow and languid, drawing the ecstasy from his bones until she could bathe herself in the heat of his energy. For a moment he seemed to be melting, inside and out, the strength being leeched from his body and mind.
She smiled when she released him, her eyes flashing with a combination of mischief and delight at her conquest. "Mmm," she hummed, her white teeth snapping playfully at his chin. "You taste nice. Spicy…very rich."
The words elicited a quiet shudder. The flavor of his spirit upon her tongue…such a thing he had only dreamed of during sleepless, yearning nights.
For someone unprepared and unequipped to handle her drinking in their spiritual force, the amount she took from him would have rendered them frail and sluggish for the better part of a day. But he was irregularly quick to gain back his power; far more swiftly than even the average immortal. To Arawn it was a delicious fade and flare of vitality inside his skin, tremulous and pleasurable.
He allowed her the moment of celebration, enjoying her laughter and the taunting caress of her fingertips along the swell of his chest where his shirt gaped open. But he was merely catching his breath.
Why she hadn't simply dispatched him and sashayed back to her party, he didn't know, but he was thrilled with her choice. Perhaps he no longer reminded her of Lucifer or his bastard son, Abaddon. Regardless, it offered an opportunity to quench some of that impossible thirst he had been suffering, and an opportunity to display his worth.
His hands tightened about her waist, and before she had realized the gleam in his eyes was more than the clouded haze of the drained, he had lifted her clean off her feet and twisted to one side. He pressed her firmly into the wall, the grain of it scraping harshly enough against her bare back and shoulders that she actually gasped.
Unconsciously her knees parted to ease the tension forced upon them, and he took swift advantage by inserting himself between them. The fine weave of his trousers was rough against the soft skin of her thighs, catching at her skirt and dislodging at least three of her feathers to the cobblestones.
"I'm a fast reviver," he told her softly, the palm of one hand sliding along the silk of her stocking toward the lace hem, balancing her weight between himself and the stone behind her. The other hand spanned her throat, forcibly turning her head so that his lips could explore the supple length of her neck. To his pleasure, her blood-beat spiked under his touch, betraying both relish and excitement.
Gently he kissed the skin at the edge of her jaw, playing with the diamond drop of her earring, ensuring that his tongue brushed her earlobe.
She arched into his touch, pressing herself against him so tightly that the boning of her corset audibly strained beneath the pressure of her soft white breasts. "How interesting…" she murmured, and there was indeed a crafty hint of curiosity and intrigue in her sing-song tone. She had realized, then, that she could drain him countless times and he would never tire. "That could be quite gefährlich—quite dangerous, for such a pretty thing."
He lifted his eyes to hers, the ring of blue around his pupils nearly engulfing the two of gray outside it. "I warm my bed with danger."
"Do you?" She breathed, wisps of her garnet hair streaking across her face in a delightfully disheveled way.
"I do," he confirmed, his lilting accent thickening with a subtle purr. "And wet my tongue with blood," his thumb slipped beneath one of her innermost garters, tracing the satin strap slowly upward, "and sweeter things."
He felt the hitch of pulse in her giggles, a tiny skip in an otherwise cool façade, and rolled in the satisfaction gleaned from it. Never before had he been able to shake her beyond amused disdain and malice, let alone enough to remind her that there were still immortal men with the will and stamina to play her games without abusing her.
It was due to this distraction of incomparable pleasure that he neglected to sense the pair of human males drawing so near to their shadowy niche.
Perhaps they would have interrupted regardless, but upon seeing Balael's slim hands braced against his shoulders as though to ward him away and his posed as such a forceful restraint at her neck, they made a poor assumption.
The older of them was in his thirties, a handsome enough specimen with a Shakespearean doublet and an elaborately feathered mask dangling from a ribbon around his neck. "The lady doesn't want you mauling her," he asserted, propping his fists upon his hips to appear larger and more intimidating.
"Let her alone," his compatriot added with a great deal more vehemence. A fiery youngster with a mind to be a hero; consumed by the ideals of old-world honor and the rewards that came after. It was not, after all, a night where the sins of an idle young mind went ignored. That much was evident.
They would fight him if he refused, regardless of the fact that their business lay elsewhere and far away from that little piece of demon courtship.
Arawn's eyes slid from the face of his quarry, eyeing his competition for any hint of skill or strength that might serve inconvenient. Neither of these human men stood a chance of landing a blow, let alone doing him actual harm, yet quarrels were often messy and it was an ordeal he wished to avoid. The young, lusty idealist proved to have the toning of a fighter, but the other was no more trouble than a rodent.
Amusement brushed his cheek and his awareness shifted back to the female in his grasp. He realized then how fortunate the interruption had become. Slowly he lowered his burden to the ground so the shallow click of her heels met the stone, and withdrew his arms with a placating, widespread gesture of harmlessness.
The stiff layers of her bustle whispered against his thighs as she slid away from him and toward her would-be rescuers, a mask of mingled relief and gratitude pretty and porcelain upon her face.
"Oh—grazie," she cried, tucking herself under the welcoming arm of the elder man. "I don't know what I would have done without you brave lads!"
They soothed her, throwing nasty insults his way and surrounding her with affection and calm, finding ways to touch her and comfort her. All the while she snuggled up to her chosen man, curling her fingers in his clothes and hiding her face in his chest; the innocent victim, the rescued damsel. A charming little viper.
They didn't know such a guise was perfected by hunters of their kind. They didn't see him moving closer, circling around behind them. They didn't see the hungry glint in her wide citrine eyes, too busy were they with her adoring smiles and words of thanks, too busy preening over their victory.
She had already begun to pull the energy from their bodies.
The young one put his arm around her, drawing close so that his chest brushed her shoulders. As she looked up at him, smiling, he leant to brush his fingers along her chin so as not to seem too forward in his message of desire. She yanked at the threads of life she'd stolen from them, shocking them with the drowning sensation of it; drawing from them a generous slice of energy to feed upon with the relish of the starved.
An instant later, Arawn's fingers closed about the boy's arm, stilling his struggles with a shallow twist and lifting the quivering hand to his mouth. Canine teeth that had not been so sharp a mere moment ago sank into the delicate wrist, painting his tongue with the thick liquor of the human's blood.
The soft sound from Balael's throat was heady and low with fascination. He felt her slip from the older man's grasp, heard the step she took to approach him, the flutter of the pulse at her neck and wrists and thighs. With an effort he lifted his head to look and read the half-crazed flush of desire in her eyes.
He reached for her, his empty hand cupping the base of her neck, fingers twining amid her quickly unwinding hair, and pulled her mouth to his. She met the embrace, biting softly and sweetly at his lower lip as though it were sugar, not blood, which stained his skin. Her fingers wound in the parted front of his shirt; an acceptance of this timeless ritual of sharing sustenance that he had never expected to find, but had so long yearned for.
With a shallow, rumbling growl, he shoved the bloodied wrist away from him. "Be gone," he snapped, not bothering to look to see if his command was obeyed.
If they valued life at all, they would flee.
He took her by the elbow, moving from the sheltered niche so abruptly that her feet made a delicate pattering across the ground. Her skin burned like ice, yet he pulled her onward, between columns and archways, the shadows patterned like delicate butterfly wings across his ashen features. The door to the Basilica gave way beneath a burst of his magic, allowing him entry to the wide, immaculate church.
His lengthy stride was accented by the quick-paced click of her heels over the open floor, cleared of seats for the lawless night of Carnivale. The space was great, yet it was swallowed quickly by the speed of immortal limbs.
"I don't care what you think of me," he hissed at her, "I don't care if you bleed me like a slaughtered pig ten hundred times afterward—just let me have this one moment."
He threw her to the floor at the base of the iron-wrought gate barring tourists from the alter, beneath the frescoes of angels and holy men. She tumbled with a grace that was purely inhuman, sprawling beautifully upon the golden tones of polished stonework; her face tipped upward, her eyes bright and knowing and mad.
Somewhere along the way she had shed the tiers of tulle, scattering a trail of black feathers in her wake, leaving her encased in no more than satin, silk and lace which clung to her figure with a sinful indecency.
Sinking to his knees, he trapped her with the weight of his thighs at either side of her hips. His hand flattened against her sternum, large and powerful, riddled with whitened scars, dragging softly downward until his fingers brushed the edge of her corset, silver against her snowy white flesh.
Reflexively she lifted a slender hand to strike him, and he snatched at her wrist before her claws could rake his face.
"Let me have you," he whispered into her palm, tracing the line of her middle finger with his tongue before taking the tip of it into his mouth.
Her body thrashed with a convulsive streak of rebellion, and he was certain his time was up, that he would be torn asunder for his daring. Then, out of nowhere, she shifted; a tiny, sinuous fraction of movement that brushed her smooth abdomen against the juncture of his thighs.
Surprise didn't cause him to release her wrist, but ecstasy did. The jolt of pleasure that sparked through his veins shattered his defensive grip, caused him to brace his palms against the polished golden floor to keep from crushing her. It blinded him, inspiring words of desperate prayer that had long been absent from his lips.
With both hands, she pushed the shirt back from his shoulders, drawing it down to bare his torso and arms until it pooled upon the floor. She traced the black rings of scarring that created tribal bands about his forearms, dragging gently downward with her nails and smiling wickedly when he sucked in a ragged breath.
Her voice was so incredibly soft when she spoke to him, gentle in volume and mischievous in melody. "Have me?" She formed the words with a devastating deliberation, molding the syllables with her scarlet lips until they seemed to dance across his skin in the path of her fingertips, cool and burning up the muscled curves of his biceps and following the arc of his blackened collarbone.
As his focus centered on those touches, the power of them, his voice began to slant with the cadence of his origins. "Aye," he answered, closing his eyes when her fingers slipped into his hair, pulling it from the short half-tail in which he kept it and combing her fingers through its length.
It was not a tender touch. She gripped just a little too tightly for affection. The ever present threat of her poison touch remained there, concealed in a moment of lucidity; a reminder that he must always be on guard if he wanted that one precious moment he'd requested.
In a flash his grip changed to reach the base of her throat, shoving her flat against the floor with a tiny thread of force.
"Even if ye d'nae want it," he purred, delighting in the soft shudder that chased her spine.
For an awful moment, the scene before him changed to one he had worked hard to block from his memory. A day long ago when he had returned from massacre, the blood of angels dappling his skin, to hear screams of such terror and rage and despair the echo of them had chilled his very soul. He had recognized her voice the instant it met his ears, and he had followed it, fighting powerful urges to rend and kill.
It had been the first time he instinctively tried not to attempt aiding her. But just as he could not protect her delicate mind from a vengeful Lucifer, he could not interfere with the demon king's child. Not when that child was sent by His Majesty's leave.
He had known upon reaching the door from behind which her cries had come, that to insert himself was to invite even more harm to a female already cracking from the pain of abuse and self-conflict. But he would not leave her to suffer alone, either. Thus he had stood, rigid, stone like, outside the chamber intended for her isolation, both hearing and trying not to hear the sounds describing the variety of ways Abaddon tormented her.
When the demon prince emerged, licking blood and other paler, sweeter fluids from his fingers, Arawn had met his hellfire eyes for only a moment longer than was deemed proper before lowering his head in submission.
She had been sprawled face down in a pool of her own blood. Blood from the crisscrossed mesh of gouges in her back left by Abaddon's claws, blood from her shredded wrists, blood from between her thighs, swallowing up the cloth she hadn't bothered to cover with. Her hair had been matted with it, her soft skin streaked with gore and the iridescent shimmer of something more gruesome even than that; the promise of unwanted, ill-begotten progeny.
Though he had let her hear his breath before approaching, allowed the weight of his step to fall heavy, differentiating himself from the prince, she had borne only the lightest touch of his hand to her shoulder before whirling to strike him.
He hadn't contained the control yet to keep from blocking her, but his force had been tender, fleeting. Yet as she had stared at him with eyes bleached from the emerald he remembered, her face stricken with something manic and strange, he had realized that the innocent form of madness which had overtaken her after her fall was now something more, and overwhelming.
As he crouched there, in that human-made church, looming above her, he wondered why she didn't compare him to the monster that had left her, knowing she couldn't even die to spare herself the pain. He saw again the broken doll that had shaken with laughter from between the curses she spat; saw her rage and her agony as he lifted her from the mangled sheets of her bed-nest and set to bathing her flayed skin. He saw the tears that had accompanied a simple, girlish song about flowers and remembrance.
That day, her love for demon men had shriveled and died.
Yet now, though he had pinned her, forced her, laid his hands on her; she lay quite docile, almost peaceful beneath him. Arawn was no innocent, and he was hardly a saint; but he wasn't evil. Could she, even in her madness, read that difference inside him?
"And what if I do?"
Her voice stole into his mind, cool and calm, drawing him out from dark memories and the ever present circle of age and time and change. He struggled to comprehend, having half forgotten the words that had come from his own lips.
"Do what, lass?" he asked slowly, lifting his eyes in time to see hers drift open, not having realized they had closed.
They weren't emerald – he had long come to terms with the fact that the depth of that color had been destroyed – but neither were they the pure, icy shade of green pale enough to cut. He had never seen her look so very…sane. Not since before the Rebellion. Yet there it was, a rationality that reached beyond a mere flicker of clear thought, as if her mind had pieced a part of itself back together for a brief, fleeting moment.
She smiled at him, her rouged lips soft and enticing. "Want it," she clarified patiently, simultaneously lifting her hips to show him precisely what she meant.
The rolling shock of pleasure hit him thick and low, yet he managed to reserve enough sense to pause before tearing into her like a hungry wolf. She had always suffered flashes of lucidity, but it was rare that these flashes were not accompanied by the wrath of scorn and pain, so rare that her mild-temperament threw him momentarily off balance.
He could stop…wait for her to regain her normal tilt of insanity so as not to take advantage of her fragility. But he was merely a decent sort for a demon, not a goddamn priest.
His hand slid from her breast bone, gliding downward along smooth black satin and soft silk to where they ended and became lace. Not the lace of her stockings, but the lace settled between them, warm and delicate and soft.
She made a sharp noise at the back of her throat, a shuddering cry that reverberated through the silent church, all longing and wonderment and, yes, pleasure. She smelled like burnt sugar, sharp and sweet and addictive. Yet he touched her gently, careful not to spark any memory of prior experience, loathing that filth such as Abaddon had known the tender give to her flesh before him. Even thus, he could understand why the prince had spent so many hours with her.
The flutter of her fingers at his shoulder somehow matched the way she pressed against his hand, arduous and wanton, arching as though to part her back from the floor. Yet she couldn't quite fight her stays enough to do so.
He inserted his other hand between her back and the stone to find the laces there, twisting them around his fingers and coaxing them into loosening. The metal clasps down her front were more difficult to maneuver one-handed, forcing him to abandon the heat of her for the sake of freedom.
Balael's grip tightened upon his wrist, voicing her displeasure with a soft hiss. "I need ye to undress for me, first," he soothed her, placating the flicker of hysteria with kisses to her neck and shoulder. She relaxed, shifting to let him work.
Once defeated, the corset peeled back to reveal the soft silk slip beneath, that which had served her as defense against some who might have read to intimately into nothing but bustle and underthings. It cupped her breasts and draped her figure to a point just below where thighs met hips, unveiling a cheeky portion of bottom. Like an oil, it slid against her skin, lusciously thin to the point of becoming almost sheer. His growl of appreciation, however, was lost amid her sudden struggle.
The scrap of lace she tossed away streaked the air with the scent of sugar and a perfume all too familiar to the senses of a male. When he felt the pressure of her knees against his calves he lifted his weight, sliding between her thighs with both victory and relief upon his breath. Just then, he didn't care who might have had her first, nor how many human men had touched her.
He cared only about the tumble of garnet hair across the golden floor, the gentle flush at her cheeks, the rise and fall of her porcelain chest within the veil of black silk.
And how long this precious moment would last.
Her fingers knotted in the laces of his trousers, tugging roughly. "Bitte schön," she whispered, her lips grazing his ear and his jaw, her hands parting the front of his clothing, cool against the heat from of his powerful thighs.
Something inside him snapped. He was young again, all fury and fire and need. Somehow he had yanked her hands away, pinning them to the floor and pressing harshly downward, where she met him, the stripes of her garters scraping gently against cloth. "Oh—yes…" Pleasure rippled, liquid, through his bones, the chills of fire so deliciously vivid that they felt like pain.
Yet she had gone absolutely still, rigid beneath him, shocking him with fear that the part of her that detested him had resurfaced. Frantic, he released one of her wrists, stroking his hand down her slender back to angle her spine before sliding, slowly and deliberately against that place he knew still ached, regardless of what her fractured mind might believe.
Her cry shattered the quiet. It was ecstasy and awe, wild and yearning and hers. All hers. Her voice, light and mischievous; her legs wrapped tightly about his waist; her mouth against his own, subject to the sharp points of his teeth, to the tongue that followed the trail of blood back to her lips when it trickled down her chin. Sugar and iron and paper-thin wings. It put a glow in his eyes that had not been there for centuries.
"That," he murmured, part purr, part groan, "is th' touch of a man tha's meant for ye."
There was so much echoed in her face, such a wide range of feeling that it dizzied him to look. Fear tinged with lust, sorrow unhinged by longing, by hatred, by delight by agony. Above all else, a terrible knowing. Her pulse shuddered at her throat, sporadic and strained, her eyes widened, the black lines trailing across her cheeks stark and black in the dim light.
So disastrously lovely.
He didn't see the flash of silver. He didn't register that she had reached for the blade hidden between her breasts until it had slid between his ribs, sharp and hot with the sting of poison. Brutal discipline prevented him from pulling the thin stiletto from his own chest and burying it deep in her belly. The reactive instinct was quelled by his will and by peaceful acceptance. He neither wanted nor needed to hurt her – she had suffered enough. She suffered still.
She looked up at him from between long lashes, a searing, impossible mixture of rage and maniacal whimsy settled in the set of her features. She shoved him backward, away from her, and he let her strength send him to the stone, her momentum carry the blood from where it pooled inside him to his mouth.
"Bal, my darling, still so keen t' have me on my back."
Soft, tinkling laughter rolling from her chest; wild and wicked and stirring regardless of the blade in his torso. "As you are to me have on mine," she agreed, crawling into his lap like a small child. But there was little childish about the way she dragged her fingertip through the blood at his lip and carried it to her tongue, and he had to swallow the sound of pleasure that began in his chest.
"But I'll tell you a secret," she whispered into his ear, brushing that soft silk against the slope of his shoulder. "Bad little demons don't get dessert."
"Ah," he barely winced when she gripped the handle of the knife, "Yet yer mouth isnae tellin' me the truth. If'n it's not a matin' ye're wantin', why're ye still here? I'm truly more than willin' teh oblige—"
She giggled as she wrenched the blade from his chest, choking him with his own blood. "Because you're pretty," she said cheerfully, her eyes trailed down the length of his body, a single garnet eyebrow quirking playfully when she came to his undone trousers. "And I like the way you talk when you want me."
"Oh?" He shot her a roguish grin, reaching stealthily behind her to grasp her firmly by the rear end, pulling her close enough to kiss. "But th' question is, lass, will ye be comin' t' me when ye're hungry fer more than jus' a mouthful?"
The taste of his own skin joined that of her tongue, absinthe, sugar and cream sliding between his lips and delicately extracting a slender thread of life-breath from his rapidly recovering spirit. He hadn't seen Heaven in so long that the memory of it was more a dreamlike blur than anything substantial, but this, he thought, was surely the closest thing there was.
Then she was slipping away from him, from his arms and his lap. He knew little but cool air and hard stone, the soft whisper of her hair to his upturned face and the sudden weight and sound of thin silk dropping onto his stomach.
The last he saw of her, she was walking away, stark naked but for her garter belt and stockings, gifting him with the teasing glimpse of everything between. And she melted into the darkness which had borne her.
Arawn lifted the swath of silk to his nose, breathing in the scent of her, the lingering fragrance of desire and all its more unsavory names until he could almost feel her inside of him.
The ties he had to his butterfly would always be elusive and tangled, twisted by but they were powerful enough to be shaped into something stronger.
And, he noted with a sly smile, she had never once uttered the word "no."