Ebony Fight (The Guard Duet Book 2) (12 page)

BOOK: Ebony Fight (The Guard Duet Book 2)
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The women sat the trays down on the wooden table, and while Linda sat down next to Ed, Abby and Becca joined the gathering around the fire.

Becca put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Thank you, Arthur. That was such a wonderful idea.”

“Pleasure, darling. Especially if it earned me a kiss?”

His wicked grin had her laughing out loud before she complied with a peck on his cheek.

“I said a kiss, not a peck.” Arthur sighed, “But I’ll take what I can get.”

He was right, Becca thought. The night was mild. Fall’s sweetness flavored the air as she breathed in deeply. The stars were an endless glittering blanket above, making her feel safe and sheltered yet utterly free and small at the same time. It was a beautiful night indeed.

Her gaze wandered back to earth. Looking at the people and the life around her, Becca felt at peace. Sam, Abby and Wes had visibly relaxed knowing that their friend would make it, and were now staring into the soothing light of the dancing flames. Linda moved a deck of cards at incredible speed before slowing down so Sli could watch. The girl’s eyes focused on the woman hands while she tried to understand the motions of the trick.

Becca’s smile turned into laughter as she caught sight of Quinn purposefully running at Stone and jabbing the man in the side. She knew her brother was asking for trouble, and wasn’t surprised when Stone responded by going after Quinn. A playful fight began as they danced and circled each other on the lawn, fists raised.

Arthur’s belly laugh joined her own. Taking a seat on the deck across from Ed, he shook his head at the boys. “I’m too old for that shit.”

Ed grunted in agreement. “Tell me about it.”

“It’ll still be fun to watch, though,” Arthur advised with a wicked grin that told of something only he knew.

Change wasn’t in the air, Becca thought as she leaned against the pillar of her porch in nothing more than her fluffy bathrobe and slippers. It was right here in front of her.

 

EIGHTEEN

“Come on. Show me what you’ve got.” Stone bounced lightly on his feet, moving away from their laughing audience. His hands curling into loose fists, he raised an eyebrow in challenge.

Stone couldn’t believe the boy had had the guts to sneak attack him. Indulging Quinn, he took on the silent challenge. The flickering light of the fire created a kaleidoscope of moving shadows as they moved to their chosen battlefield on the lawn.

“You can do it, boy,” Arthur’s deep voice shouted from the patio.

They were like gladiators fighting for a crowd’s amusement. Entertaining them. There was no real purpose to it at all, yet Stone enjoyed it.

Quinn took his time and wasn’t coaxed into a rushed attack. Good. A strange feeling arose, and Stone was stunned to realize that he was proud of the boy, of what he had learnt in such a short amount of time. Not only was he a quick learner, Quinn also trusted to his instinct, and that was often better than anything an instructor could teach.

They circled each other and Stone dared the boy to get close enough to land a good hit, while delighted in feigning attacks of his own. “You can do it. Watch and plan.”

The fight was on. Stone took it easy, let the boy come close but danced away in time. A silent smile broke out on his face, mirroring Quinn’s. He moved forward, coaxing the boy.

Suddenly Stone noticed a flash of color out the corner of his eye. As he moved with Quinn, Stone found the source.

There she was, standing on the patio and watching them with that beautiful smile on her face. She was a burst of color in her pink bathrobe dotted with peace symbols and shooting stars in every color of the rainbow. Her short blonde hair was tousled, probably from rolling in bed, and he wished he could run his hands through it. A sexy pixie.

Their gazes met.

He remembered the feel of her lips beneath his, remembered her taste and craved more of it.

Bam.

His head snapped to the side and his ears rang as Quinn’s fist collided with his face. The world was stunned for a second, and then the crowd roared.

“Told you it was worth your while,” he heard Arthur say between fits of laughter.

When Stone looked up, Quinn was staring wide-eyed at him, unsure of his reaction.

Sorry
, he mouthed.

Stone shook his head, carefully, and actually felt a deep rumble in his chest that quickly turned into a laugh, joining Arthur’s deep roar. “Don’t apologize. That was sneaky, but damn good.”

He hadn’t let a woman distract him in…Stone paused and frowned. He had
never
let a woman distract him before. His eyes went back to the witch. Becca stood staring at them, her mouth open in an amazed ‘o’ that looked cute on her. What was it about her, he wondered, and not for the first time.

Quinn touched his arm.
You okay?

After a nod, Stone slapped the boy on the back. “Good job.”

Quinn’s ears turned pink.
Thanks.

He went off to join the others on the patio with a smile as wide as the bayou on his lips. Stone rubbed his throbbing jaw and watched as the boy collected his due congratulations. It made him want to smile again.

Suddenly the night whispered ominously around him, and a bat flew sharply over his head. On the outside he gave nothing away, but on the inside his assassin radar was on full alert.

Stone slowly turned around, appearing to the others as if he were watching the night sky. His eyes locked on the bat. It landed on the side of a tree, its clawed wings biting into the bark. It was bigger than its natural relatives. The head turned backwards to face him, reaching an abnormal angle. As he had expected, the bat’s eyes flashed red. Not more than a split second, but it pulled him in until he saw Andras in their blood-red depths.

The marquis was in his office, sitting comfortably in his luxurious chair. “A word with you.”

Stone nodded subtly.

As quickly as it had come, the bat released Stone and disappeared into the night with a sinister screech.

He’d been summoned again.

Stone knew it had to happen at some point, and he’d been surprised by the marquis’ restraint so far. His gaze went back to Becca. Would she find it suspicious if he left, now that their relationship had changed?

The little demon girl appeared at her side and Becca leaned down. A few words were exchanged before she went back inside, Sli in tow. The girl could use some more meat on her bones. Shooting up at her age, she was little more than a willowy stick. He bet that Becca was thinking along the same lines and was coming up with a plan to take care of it. He smiled at the thought. It was so typically her.

With ideas of what he could tell her running in his mind, Stone slowly walked back to the patio and followed them inside.

Becca lead the way through the house and to the bathroom, knowing that Sli would feel uncomfortable with someone at her back. “There you go. I’ll be in the kitchen. Okay?”

The girl nodded.

After leaving Sli, Becca was surprised to find Stone in the kitchen. A smile bloomed despite her attempt not to. “How is the head?”

Stone chuckled. “It was a good punch, but it’s fine. Thanks for asking.” With his chin he gestured down the hallway. “How is the girl?”

“To be honest, I’m not quite sure. She’s rather quiet. Though, who can blame her? It will take years for the kid to fully trust anyone.”

Stone nodded. “Going with Abby was a calculated decision, the lesser of two evils. Nothing more, nothing less. Doesn’t mean she trusts them.”

“Yeah. The possibility of dying at an Ivory’s hand was just the better option. Can you imagine that?” Becca shook her head, in anger and sympathy, knowing that they both could relate all too well.

Sli came back into the kitchen, and Becca said, “You must be starving after the day you’ve had. Anything specific you’d like? I’ll make it for you.”

“I don’t know what you have.”

Becca smiled at that. “True.” Opening the fridge, she invited Sli over with a gesture of her head. “Have a look.”

Becca’s gaze met Stone’s over the girls’ head, and it made her stomach tumble and her heart beat faster. It was a marvelous sensation.

Sli nodded, signaling she’d come to a decision. “A sandwich would be nice.”

“Good idea. Is PB&J okay?”

Sli frowned. “What is that?”

“Right. Oh my, you’ve got a lot to learn.” As an Ebony in training she would never have known real food, the kind that made you close your eyes in pleasure. At the academy food was simple sustenance, while in other parts of Hell it was a way of torture for damned souls - it would look scrumptious and smell divine, but taste as dusty as cardboard. “Taste it, but if you don’t like it then just tell me and we’ll fix you something else. Okay?”

Sli nodded.

“Cool. Would you mind asking the others if they’d want one?”

While Sli slipped outside, Becca got busy at the counter. Stone’s presence, being so aware of him and his gaze on her, was exciting and calming at the same time. She was grounded by an inner peace that was utterly foreign to her, yet it felt like she had always yearned for it. Like the last missing piece to a puzzle. It sounded silly to her own ears, but it was the simple truth and so she cherished it, this new-found serenity inside of her.

Sli popped her head back in, hiding behind the sliding door like a mouse peeking out from behind the stove. “Three more.”

“Thanks, Sli.”

Quinn’s head followed, right on top of Sli’s and giving her a bit of a fright. It looked so comical it made Becca laugh.

Sli recovered quickly, stepping stiffly inside the kitchen and then watching with a frown as Quinn’s hands moved elegantly through the air.
How about some more hot chocolate?

“Sure. Come on in, you can help prepare it. I’ve only got so many hands.”

Quinn did as asked, and Becca turned back to Sli, pointing at the bread in front of her. “Wanna help me?”

After a hesitant nod, which was still covered by a frown, Becca handed Sli a knife. “Just put a bit of butter on the slices. I’ll take care of the rest.” Then she went on and explained, “My brother’s deaf.”

The frown grew even more confused. “Then how do you communicate?”

“Sign language. When he was still small, I would bring him books back from the human realm and we learned it together.”

“Sign language? He speaks with his hands?”

“Yes, and he can read lips, too.”

A blush suddenly bloomed on the girl’s cheeks, her eyes flicking to Quinn for a second. “I didn’t know.”

Hmm, interesting, Becca thought. Her gaze met Stone’s, who had been watching Sli with similar curiosity. He raised an eyebrow in amusement. It was the first unguarded reaction they had seen from the girl.

After Becca sent the kids out with a plate filled with sandwiches, they came back right on time to grab their mugs of hot chocolate. Her work done, she leaned against the counter and blew out a deep breath. It had been a long night and slowly her bones started to feel tired.

“I need to talk with you.”

“Okay. Shoot.” She looked up at Stone, a soft smile playing at her lips.

“I have to go.” His voice was soft, as if hesitant to upset her in any way. Her eyes searched his, and he went on, “A guy I know contacted me. I want to see what’s what without endangering anyone.”

“Okay.” She nodded in understanding, but wasn’t sure she could keep the truth that she wasn’t thrilled at the idea out of her eyes. “Now?”

“Yes. The sooner, the better.”

Becca bit her lip, hoping to imprison the one question burning on her tongue. As he moved to walk away, she crossed her arms over her chest. The house suddenly seemed colder.

Stone stopped in his tracks.

Her heart beat faster, her hope a brave bird testing its wings, while her mind fired one question like a true sniper shot. Would he come back?

Turning around, it took him two strides and then he was right in front of her. His dark eyes smiled before his head dropped down to whisper the softest of kisses on her lips. “I’ll be back in three days. Tops.”

Relief flooding her like an immense wave, she hugged him. She had to let him go too soon and walked him to the door. He stepped outside, his eyes not leaving hers when he summoned his wings which were swallowed by the night. A wink that made her smile grow was the last thing she saw before his big, black wings pushed him up into the sky.

 

V

RAISE THE DEVIL

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh!" he whispered.

"Yes, Piglet?"

"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you."

- A. A. Milne

 

NINETEEN

After little more than a day in the witch’s household, Sli knew the kitchen was the heart of home and chose it as her favorite spot to watch and learn. While savoring the first sip of the coffee-chocolate concoction Becca had prepared for her earlier, Sli thought back to her conversation with the Arbitrator. She was sure she had gotten the better part of the deal with him.

At first she had been disappointed to have no recollection at all as to how she’d ended up in the office. Obviously she must have died, but who had bested her? And most importantly: how? However, knowing that answers to these particular questions would never come, Sli quickly grasped at what the Arbitrator offered instead.

Her previous trips to the human realm during her time at the Academy had been quick in-and-out assignments that hadn’t allowed for her to study it closely. Now, back amongst the living, keeping an eye on the witch until it was time to report back gave her an excellent opportunity to find out more about this world.

When the front door opened, Sli knew it would be Quinn coming home from school. A strange, hot feeling rushed through her. Her heart raced and her stomach felt queasy. It was all accompanied by an awkwardness she couldn’t pin point. With a slight frown, she concentrated on her body and tried to find logical reasons for the changes she discovered. Fear could trigger these symptoms, yet she was far from being scared of the deaf Ebony who she could easily beat in a fight given his lack of training. Sli stared at the mug in front of her. Was it possible that the food here, designed for pleasure and not mere sustenance, might not fully agree with her system? Yes, that had to be it. Satisfied with her reasoning, Sli forced herself to calm down.

She looked up when Quinn walked into the kitchen with a smile. It did something to his ordinary face that made it look like it was lit from within. It also made her notice the sprinkle of freckles on his nose.

“Hello,” she greeted.

The smile flashed even wider, and did something funny to her belly.

He dropped his backpack on the floor before slumping down on the chair next to hers. Leaning a bit to the side to rummage in his pocket, he soon extracted a well-worn notebook and pencil. After flipping through a couple of pages, he held it up in front of her face.

Hello
, was all it said.

For some odd reason it made her want to smile.

He flipped to the next page.
Backgammon?

Sli accepted with a nod, already getting up to grab the box off the kitchen counter. This was something she had come to enjoy - no matter what game they taught her, she cherished the simple comfort of logic it brought.

“How was school?” She was curious to know why he went to a place meant for humans. What was there possibly to learn at such a place?

Alright.

“But what do you do there?”

Learn stuff, or sit around and try not to fall asleep. Depends on the subject.

“Subject?”

You’ve got a certain schedule of classes. Math, Literature, Sciences, History…the likes.

After a moment he added,
Sports, too, like football and soccer.

The Academy offered the basics on the first list as well, but the emphasis lay on a different form of physical education entirely. “No fight training?”

Nope.

Sli was stunned, but then decided that it made sense. After all, humans had no idea that they were the territory Hell and Heaven fought over.

Quinn looked at her, waiting for her to say more. His watchfulness made her unusually aware of her face, and heat crept up her neck. She didn’t like the feeling and decided it was safer to concentrate on their game instead. She pointed to the board, signaling him that it was his turn.

While they played, doors leading to the lounge on one side and to the patio on the other were open, allowing the excited chatter from the TV and the softer bits of conversation between Becca and Arthur to drift in.

Sli had never met an oracle before and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the old man. He didn’t look like he had much of a fight left in him, yet something inside her warned her not to underestimate him despite his obvious frailty. She wondered how it worked. Did he see images, snippets of what is or could be? Or were there loud voices in his head that let him in on things that only they could know?

A stronger breeze carried their voices to her, more distinguishable this time, and Sli’s ears perked up.

“What do you make of the girl?” Becca asked. “She’s rather quiet. Makes me wonder what she’s been through.”

Sli realized they were talking about her. She tensed. Could the oracle know? Fear, a sensation she had come to dislike very much, spread its greedy fingers and painfully massaged the back of her head.

Unfortunately his answer was lost to her when Abby’s shout shook the entire house, “Becca!”

When havoc erupted in the living room, Sli guessed that the wounded Ivory had finally woken from his slumber. Soothing whispers followed that were quickly drowned out by increasing shouts of displeasure.

“Coming,” Becca yelled back as she flew past them.

“Don’t touch me!”

Quinn’s gaze met hers for a second, one of his brows lifted in enquiry.

“The Ivory is awake,” she informed him before both of them got up to spy from the open doorway.

Abby was speaking softly, her voice trying to calm as she waved a hand toward Becca who had stepped back from the couch.  “This is Becca. She’s a friend of ours. Remember, Lillian saved her?”

Dave’s face was red as he tried to get up and fight but his friends held him down. “I don’t care.”

From the shocked faces around the room, Sli gathered that this kind of display was very unusual for the Ivory. It fit what she knew of him so far; so far he’d always been calm and quiet.

“Hey!” Sam stepped in and put his face in Dave’s. “Stop being an ignorant ass.”

“I don’t want this demon to touch me.”

“Well, too late for that. You were dying with your guts in your hands. This
demon
saved your sorry ass when no one else could, so show her some freaking respect and gratitude.”

“Sarah trusted…”

Sam interrupted him, “Yes, Sarah trusted a demon and died at his hands, but you can’t keep blaming all of them.”

“That’s rich coming from you. Don’t bullshit me, Sam.” He looked around, his eyes searching, probably for the other Ivory called Wes. “What kept you going the last years? Revenge, nothing else.”

Sam shook his head. “No, Dave. Maybe that was the case for you, and if so, then I’m sorry I didn’t realize it. I…I just wanted to keep us alive. That’s all.”

“Right.”

Sam got up, running a frustrated hand through his hair.

Obviously attempting to offer the group some privacy, Linda and Ed silently got up and joined Quinn and Sli in the kitchen.

Shaking his head, Wes cut in, “I don’t understand this sudden change of yours, man. We talked about this the day Abby knocked on our door. I thought we were on the same page here.” Wes looked at Sam who nodded in support.

Dave slumped back against the couch, utterly exhausted. The little energy he’d recuperated was now drained. The hand with which he rubbed his face shook with fatigue. “I know. We were. It’s been years…” His voice was thick with emotion. “I thought I could do it…but then…when that girl showed up…it all just came back.”

Sam nodded in understanding, but there was something challenging in his eyes. “Sarah died because she wanted to help the kid. She felt that it was possible. So, how about…we do this for Sarah?”

Silence filled the house for seconds that felt like they stretched into eternity. Not a creek, not a whisper, total silence where everyone seemed to hold their breath waiting for the answer.

“Okay.” The voice was soft and sounded worn out after fighting the ghosts of the past.

Relief rushed through the people like a palpable wave as if everyone remembered to breathe at the same time. It seemed odd to her. They weren’t the ones concerned after all.

Dave looked at his leader. “So, how bad is it?” he asked, pointing at his stomach.

Becca stepped forward as if suddenly appearing out of a cloak of shadows. With a soft hint of a smile, she encouraged, “Have a look.”

After carefully undressing the bandage, Dave sucked in breath at the sight and then looked up at the witch. His eyes were wide. “It’s healing.”

Sli had to admit that the cuts that had torn his stomach looked definitely less frightening now that they had scabbed nicely. The witch had done good work.

Becca explained, “I managed stop the bleeding and patched you up as well as I could. Lucky for you, your Ivory healing finally kicked in while you were sleeping. Which reminds me. You must be starving. You’ve slept for almost two days straight. It was difficult to even get enough fluids into you.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll heat up the soup,” Linda suddenly shouted out from behind Sli.

Becca smiled at that. “Linda and I prepared some for you earlier. I’ll get you a bowl.”

“I could eat a cow to be honest.”

“Bet you could, but your stomach wouldn’t appreciate it. Believe me. Let’s take it slow. Soup today, cow tomorrow. Deal?”

The Ivory smiled. “Deal.”

When Becca was about to leave, he called out, “Hey…”

Turning, the witch waited for what he wanted to say.

His eyes held regret, worry and apology at the same time. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Becca went into the kitchen only to find that Linda had everything under control. Be it her weapons or a household, it seemed that nothing slipped past that woman. The pot of soup was on the stove and a tray with a bowl and spoon was set on the table.

“Thanks, Linda.”

The woman shrugged her shoulders. “It’s nothing. We can’t have you catering for us all day, can we?”

Arthur joined them and put his hands on Becca’s shoulders in a fatherly gesture. “Seeing as the boy’s out of the woods and will be mothered by
three
beautiful young ladies,” he winked at Linda, “I think it’s time for me to go home. Besides, even though I love your armchair, I miss my bed.”

Becca smiled, knowing that the last comment was a tease more than anything else. “Let me walk you to the jetty.”

Once outside, she noticed the fresh air. It was alive with the sweet scents of fall, yet still mild, and her dress danced in the slight breeze. With a soft smile on her face, she looked around her backyard and took pride in what she saw. Red azaleas, purple Mexican bush sage and, her favorite, the baby pink camellia. The flowers she’d planted greeted her now with happy faces. It looked like a child had run through the garden with a brush in hand, leaving big, fat dollops and drips of paint here and there. It was beautiful.

As they stepped off the patio, Becca said, “We were interrupted earlier. I’m still curious to hear your thoughts regarding Sli.”

He shrugged before he started in that gravelly voice of his, “To be honest, I can’t tell you much about her. There’s not a lot at the surface, she’s so used to closing herself up. And you know I don’t like to go around and poke deeper. It’s not fair.”

“I know.”

“Besides, being an oracle isn’t exactly a science either. The future isn’t crystal clear, nor set in stone. Our future is determined by choices. Some important, others infinitely small and seemingly unimportant, and yet all of them have an impact. All I can see, if I see anything at all, are snippets of possible outcomes.”

Interesting, Becca thought. They’d never really talked about how his powers worked. “Can you see your future?”

A hint of sadness touched his voice, “No, I cannot.”

Becca could have kicked herself. Of course he couldn’t! Otherwise he would have saved his family before they were slaughtered. Argh, she wanted to slap herself silly for bringing up his past like that.

Swiftly changing the subject, he lifted a finger like a professor would. “However…as for the girl. We both know that life at the Academy is hard. Students are held on a tight leash and slowly turned into weapons. Breaking out of that hold isn’t easy. I think what she needs the most now is kindness. Not pity, but good old-fashioned kindness.” He looked at her as they walked side by side, a big smile on his face. “Difficult rope to balance, but I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Becca snorted at that and made Arthur laugh.

“Now, now, girl. I mean it. Look at Stone. He comes from the same background and look how he has turned out. Just show her…the good things. Show her yourself and maybe it will be enough.” Something odd shadowed his eyes, but was gone before she could even be sure she’d seen it. Arthur nodded, more to himself than anything else. “Sometimes all you can do is give a nudge in the right direction, but in the end everyone has to walk their path on their own.”

Was it the oracle at work?

There was a stretch of silence as they reached the jetty and Becca absorbed his words. Arthur was already climbing into his narrow boat when she suddenly asked, “Am I crazy to trust them?”

His eager grin would have been enough of an answer. “Totally off your rocker, but that’s what makes you so incredible. You don’t judge people by their past and are ready to give them a second chance, no questions ask. That’s why you deserve one too.”

BOOK: Ebony Fight (The Guard Duet Book 2)
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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