Every return is sad in some way. Lara was more than used to it. The only one jumping in excitement was Jean, since for the first time, he had access to Loanna’s underground tomb, now finally unwarded, with nothing blocking his way. Apparently, the function of that sacred sanctuary had definitely ended. No more messages. No more secrets. It was wide and ready for human plunder.
The French Egyptologist made the arrangements at full speed. In just a few hours he contacted the medievalists that would cooperate, gave away the dig’s rights to a specialist in Middle-Ages Egypt, and was reassured in contenting himself with the merits of the discovery. Not for a moment thought about Kurtis' opinion on it, nor did he bother to ask about the message that Loanna had delivered or why Anna and Lara seemed so downcast.
Not because he was a bad person, though. Simply, the man had many things in his head at that time, and he overflowed with enthusiasm.
Yes, the return to Cairo hotel was sad, but Lara was determined not to be mad at her daughter – for Anna refused to speak about what had happened beyond the forbidden threshold, or the delivered message. Apart from the intense pains of her first menstruation, she didn’t look hurt or suffer anything physical.
She’s shocked, thought Lara, looking at the girl lying on her side on the room’s couch, curled up, clutching her lower abdomen with a pained expression, whatever she found out. Well, she wouldn’t achieve anything by forcing her to talk. Lara wasn’t that kind of mother either.
In the end, no action for her that day, although of course, sweat and sand had also stuck to her body - that was Egypt, even in winter. So, without further delay, and without bothering Anna anymore, she began to undress.
“This gonna be always be like this?” The girl complained behind her back, with a trickle of voice.
Lara knew what she meant. “It will get easier.” She replied. “The first years are usually quite painful, but there are treatments. You don’t have to suffer. In time, you'll get used.”
“Bollocks.” Anna growled in response.
Naked, Lara approached the damask bathtub - which, being a luxury hotel, was in the room’s centre of the room - and began to fill it with hot water. Sitting on the edge, she proceeded to undo her braid. “You should bathe yourself too.” She suggested.
“While bleeding? Gross!”
“Hygiene is doubly important in that case.” The British explorer stepped inside the bathtub and, finding it to her liking, she submerged in the water, releasing a sigh of pleasure.
Anna was still curled up on the couch, but her mother noticed she was looking at her through the strands of hair partially covering her face. “Could you help me with my hair?” Lara said, lifting a strand of her long loose hair. She knew well that Anna never resisted it - she adored combing her.
The girl looked at her mother for a moment, then, sighing, got up and went to her. Lara suppressed a smile when seeing her slowly stumbling and with a disgusted look. Who could forget first blood’s discomforts? Truly, it was an annoyance.
Throwing her head back, Lara let Anna slowly untangle her hair while adding salts to the hot water. After a while, she murmured: “We’ve always trusted each other. Why don’t you trust me now?”
Anna took a long time to answer. “You haven’t told me why you fought with Dad, I don’t tell you what Lady Loanna told me.”
Lara raised an eyebrow. “Blackmail? You should know me better, darling. What happens between your father and me are adult issues. On the other hand, what Loanna has told you can affect us all.”
“Well, I'm bleeding like a pig, so I guess I'm already a woman. You can consider me an adult and trust me, then I'll trust you.”
The explorer laughed softly. “It takes more than a little blood to become a woman - but let's leave it. I promise to give you some explanation about your father and me, but I need you to trust me or I won’t be able to help you, Anna.”
“Nobody can help me.” The girl said for an answer.
For a moment, there was only the splash of water and the sounds of the comb scraping Lara's strands. “You sure?”
“Absolutely. Neither you, nor Dad, nor anyone. I'm fucked up, really fucked up.” Lara sat up suddenly and turned to stare at Anna. The girl lowered her lashes. “This, huh, sorry.”
“I'm sick of your soldier's language. With your father, talk like a scoundrel if you feel like it, but in my presence, you keep that mouth clean. This is also part of being considered an adult. Understood?”
“Alright.” Lara turned around and reclined on the edge of the bathtub. Waves of foamy water closed over her breasts.
Anna finished untangling a lock of hair, dropped it delicately over her shoulder, and picked up another. “Actually... I'm afraid you'll be mad.”
“Why would I?” Lara smiled. “I’m a big girl now. Hit me with the bad news.”
“Well they are... very bad.”
Lara sighed. She was a child. Such childish yet... she realized that Anna wouldn’t give in until she did it herself. To win, you must first lose. Fine, she thought. Let’s do this.
“Your father and me had a fight because of you, even though you’re not to blame.” She started. “Have no doubt about it. What happened in Sri Lanka was unexpected for everyone. Before that, we thought you were an ordinary child... well, as much as you can be in our… world.” She laughed again. “But suddenly, you’re a Lux Veritatis.”
If only that, Anna thought desperately. It's worse, much worse.
“It's been harsh for your father.” Lara acknowledged, and suddenly she felt terrible. “And I’ve not been helpful - rather I made it worse.”
“Because... because I don’t understand him, Anna. After so many years, I should understand him better and... in my case, I've always believed that we must adapt to changes. They don’t bother me, Anna. Yes, everything would’ve been easier if you were an ordinary child, but you aren’t and that’s all. I believe we must go on and that you must be trained to control your powers and know how to use them. Something that only he can do, and it’s a privilege that he can. However, he’s blocked, lamenting and insisting in protecting you from your fate.
“That's why you fought?”
“Basically.” Lara murmured in a dull voice.
Anna huffed. “Well, nonsense! Dad already promised to train me, he’s given me some advice, and as soon as we get rid of this murderer who bothers us, and Aunt Selma has presented her thesis, everything will be ready. You only must reconcile and that’s it!”
Wish it was that simple, Lara thought, dejected. “I promise I'll talk to him when we go back to Turkey. Actually, I had already decided so. Are you calmer now? Will you trust me?”
The comb stopped moving over her hair. The girl sighed. “Poor Dad. This is going to destroy him.”
She pressed the comb between her fingers. “No... I don’t know if...”
Lara got up again, looked back at her daughter. Her face was wet, the drops of water forming pearls on her eyelids. Lara’s eyes, of a very common brown compared to the beauty of her father's eyes, and of her own, were nonetheless impressive to look at. They had a force that could move the world.
“Nothing you tell me is going to upset me, Anna Croft.” The tomb raider told her, and then she smiled. “Did you forget who I am? I’ve seen everything. I've heard everything. I’ve raised gods from their tombs and I’ve plunged them back into darkness. I’ve spoken with angels and fought demons - and I did it long before you existed. Try me.”
Anna stood up, the comb still clutched in her wet hands, and began to move around the tub. “Good and Evil are a cycle.” She murmured. Suddenly, she seemed changed. Not a child anymore, but not yet a woman, or at least a girl. “A cycle that turns, turns and repeats itself like a wheel. They are two opposing forces, Mom, and at the side of Good, the angels, the Lux Veritatis, father and grandfather Konstantin, their predecessors, and all those who supported them. On the other side, the Evil, the demons, the Nephili, Karel, Eckhardt, the Cabal and all those who supported them. Always in constant struggle, struggle that mankind has paid with victims.” Lara listened to her in silence, staring at her, although she knew those words well. She’d lived them herself, she’d taught them herself - but now she let her talk. “The problem, Mom, is that we don’t know on which part is... let's call it, God. I don’t understand this God. According to Loanna, He doesn’t care about Good or Evil. She told me that the essential was the balance between both. And from time to time, this balance is broken, and a great sacrifice is required to reset it. Then the cycle goes on, unless someone closes it. Mom, I... she told me I have to be that one!”
“How are you supposed to do it?” Her mother's voice was calm, her expression unalterable.
Anna hesitated, and suddenly, she eluded the question and continued speaking. “It happened once. Lady Loanna had to choose between Good and Evil to restore balance, but she didn’t choose, she took her own life so as not to make that choice, not to give the Nephilim a child.” She kept moving around the tub. She was moving again gracefully, as she used to walk, as if the blood no longer bothered her. “Then you came, Mom. You did choose... you chose Good. You chose Dad.” She stopped and began to wring her hands, comb included. “Problem is you chose wrong, Mom!”
She broke off, panting, but Lara smiled slightly and remained undaunted. “Of course I did not choose wrong.” The explorer said calmly. “There was only one acceptable choice: that of Good. I chose your father because it was the right thing to do.”
“You chose him because you loved him, Mom. Because you were in love.”
Lara smiled again, now slightly uncomfortable. “No. I chose him because it was fair. Because it was justice. Was I going to choose an evil, selfish murderer, and let die who had helped me? Who had fought by my side, who had sacrificed for me? Your father trusted me from the first, even though he didn’t know me at all. He believed in me, he put his life in my hands. Why would I betray him?”
“Because Karel offered you wisdom, immortality.”
The explorer's gaze darkened. “Karel was a liar. He would never have given me anything. He only promised to get me. He was an amoral, intelligent, but incredibly manipulative being. He would’ve used me and get rid of me. Besides, he murdered my mentor – and too many people in Paris and Prague. No, I would never have agreed. I felt tempted, it's true, but I won. I chose well, because it was justice.”
“And because you loved Dad.”
“Here we go again.” Lara sighed, and ran a wet hand across her face. “Fine. That too.”
“But it was a bad choice, Mom.”
The explorer raised her eyebrows, surprised. “Then tell me what the good choice would’ve been - that disgusting Karel killer? A hybrid monster of beautiful appearance and ill intentions, as Bathsheba was? Becoming myself a breeding mare for Evil?”
“Nothing, Mom. Nothing at all. Not Dad, not Karel. Neither Good, nor Evil.”
Lara narrowed her eyes. Anna stood for a while immobile, pressing the comb between her fingers. The spikes stuck in his flesh.
“The right choice was to make no choice, Mom. Dad and Karel must destroy each other. Die in combat, both at the same time. None should survive. This way the cycle would’ve been closed.”
For a few moments, Lara remained thoughtful. Then she reclined again on the edge of the tub. “I would never have chosen such a thing.” She said, still imperturbable. “I'm a woman of action, you know that. I couldn’t sit idly by watching your father die at the hands of that... that being. Even if Karel died too. I made the right choice, Anna, and I don’t regret it. Not for a moment.”
“But it was wrong, Mom.” Anna twisted the comb again between her fingers. “Thus, the cycle remained open. It tried to self-regulate again, when we were sacrificed in the Vortex. But Dad brought us back. He used the Sibilla’s prophecy to make a pact with... with the Devil himself, wow - and he brought us back. The cycle remained open. And now it's my turn.”
“Then what are you supposed to do?” Her mother wasn’t upset at all. How phlegmatic, how serene. How Anna now wanted a portion of that inner peace. She understood why her father collided with that unshakeable faith and, at the same time, seduced him completely. That understanding was totally new to her.
“To die, Mom.” She finally revealed. “I have to die. Basically, what didn’t happen with Dad. I must die in combat against... against a demon.”
Lara raised her eyebrows. “Did she tell you that?”
“Not only her, Mom... I... huh...” She hesitated. “I'm sorry, Mom, I've hidden something from you, but it wasn’t because I wanted to. Dad made me promise I wouldn’t tell you... but I must now.”
“When we were with the Lux Veritatis’ bones... I... I heard Grandpa’s voice. Grandpa Konstantin. He told me to... to beware the long night. To beware the prince of demons.” She straightened up. “And now Loanna has confirmed that I must die in combat against that... that prince, whoever! If not, the cycle will remain open. And my descendants will have to go through the same thing again. If I die, the cycle is closed, and mankind is free of this... this struggle of Good and Evil. If not... I pass the task to my descendants. Do you understand, Mom?” She brandished the comb. “I'm doomed! Not that I blame you for it, because you didn’t know it, but Loanna didn’t choose, you chose wrong, Dad saved us... three mistakes in a row! And now I must pay for it! I must pay for your mistakes, everyone's! What have you done to me!” And she let out a long sob, letting her head fall on her chest.
After a few seconds of silence, she heard her mother murmur: “My poor girl. So that is what torments you.”
She heard Lara coming out of the tub in a splash and wrap her body in a towel. Looking up, her mother was sitting on the edge of the tub, and she held out her wet arms. “Come here.”
Anna moved forward and took refuge in her arms. She smelled like rosehip. The girl buried her face in her mother’s long hair, not caring it was wet.
“Now I want you to listen to me.” Lara put a wet finger on her chin and lifted her face, so that she looked directly into her eyes. “Listen carefully, Anna Croft. You don’t have to pay for anything, or for anyone. You don’t have to repair others’ mistakes, others’ choices. You have been summoned to get a message. Well, message delivered, thank you. Now we’ll go back to Turkey and we’ll go on with our lives.”
The girl straightened up, indignant. “How can you be so calm? Don’t you care if I die?”
“You don’t have to die, Anna. Don’t make the same mistake your father did, confusing his fate with his duty. Nothing forces you to sacrifice yourself for mankind. You’re not a heroine. You’re just a child. Well, a lass already.” She conceded, smiling.
“But Mom, I inherited the Gift!” Anna protested. “Means I'm marked! That I have a fate to fulfil! I can’t run away from it!”
“You can’t, or you just don’t want? Excuse me, Anna, but I've never believed in fate. Everyone makes their own fate.”
“Mom, you've been as driven by fate as anyone else! You chose Dad, when you could’ve chosen Karel...”
“I chose him because it was the right thing to do- and because I loved him.”
“... then you got pregnant. You didn’t want to have children, Mom! Why did you get pregnant?”
“Because I was careless. Something that should not happen to you.”
“No, you got pregnant because I was meant to exist, since the very moment you chose Dad!”
“Then, if you didn’t want to have children, why did you give me birth, huh? Huh?”
A memory, a slight flashback. She’d almost aborted - but she would never tell her. At least, not while she was still a child who was no longer a child, a girl who wasn’t yet a woman.
“Because I loved you, Anna. And because you came from your father, whom I loved too.”
“Well, even in that you fulfilled your fate!”
“Nonsense again, Anna. I wasn’t controlled or led by rare or noble ideals. I did what I wanted. I chose what I wanted. I made my own luck, as always. I was free, honey, and you are too! You don’t have to do anything, even if the spirit of a dead maiden or the speaking skull of your grandfather told you. You’re free, for that I gave you birth, and having the Gift doesn’t change it!”
“Mom, Lady Loanna is the Amazon...”
“... and so am I.” Lara frowned. “Here I am. I regret nothing. Even knowing what you just told me, if I could repeat everything I did, I’d do it the same way again. I would choose your father. I’d give you birth. I would fight to bring you back. I don’t regret anything, Anna, I'm proud of every step I've taken, of every mistake made, of every victory achieved. And you must be too!”
The girl rested her head on her mother’s chest again, her cheek wet with water. Pensive. “What happens, then, if I ignore my fate? If I don’t choose to fight the... that demon, whatever it is?”
“Nothing, Anna. Absolutely nothing will happen, except that you will go on living, free, calm, without burdens, as I’ve always wanted you to live - as I wanted your father to live, although he refuses to give up that burden.”
“But he fought... Grandpa fought... how am I going to shame them?”
“It's not a shame to want to live. I told you: you don’t owe anything to anyone. Your grandfather lived his life, fought his battle, and died. Forget him! And your father, precisely, everything he’s done he did it out of love, not for his bloody Order, nor for a stupid fate.
“She said he fulfilled his destiny.”
Lara shrugged. “She can say what she wants. Your father’s alive, she’s dead. Now what I want is...” She hesitated a moment “I... I don’t want him to suffer. Knowing him, this burden will also be loaded on his back... and the weight might crush him.”
“Poor Dad. Want us not to tell him?”
Lara sighed. “I hate secrets. No, we can’t hide this from him. He wouldn’t forgive us. Also, I need him strong. He must train you, teach you to control your powers, in case that demon shows up. You must know how to defend yourself. The rest doesn’t matter.” She got up, throwing her wet hair to one side. “And now, miss, you take a bath. We’ll take care of everything, step by step.”
Anna, much calmer, began to take off her clothes. “Promise me one thing, Mom.”
“No more fights with Dad. Please.”
“And when we go back to Turkey...”
“… I fix things with him.”
“Thank you.” Then the girl stopped, blushing.
“What’s it?” Lara asked.
“Could you leave... please?”
The British explorer raised her eyebrows for a moment. She’d just bathed in front of her daughter, but she turned around and left, hiding behind the folding screen to comb and get dressed.
Yes, she wasn’t a child anymore - but she wasn’t a woman either.
She noticed delicate but firm fingers gripping her face. She winced and opened her eyes but closed them again tightly. The lamp’s twinkling light blinded her. She moaned.
“Don’t worry.” A kind and warm voice said, a woman's voice. “I'm a doctor. I'm just checking on you.”
Barbara relaxed. So, Kurtis had called a female doctor. Once again, she was amazed at how clever that man of brutal appearance and behaviour could be. She could only tolerate being touched by a woman at that point. A man, not... a man, never.
“It's okay.” The doctor concluded, withdrawing her fingers. “Your fiancé told me you could leave hospital in Istanbul but looks like you suffered a slight relapse.”
The injured woman moved her lips slightly. She caught a faint scent of verbena perfume when the doctor leaned over her: “B... blood...”
“The slight ear bleeding has stopped.” She indicated. “It’s a small unimportant haemorrhage, a microperforation of the eardrum not detected in the hospital, probably they were more concerned about you other ear.” She felt her touching the bandages on the other side of her head. “Doesn’t seem to be a worsening here. If you want my modest opinion, you should enter the hospital again, until your total recovery.”
But Barbara didn’t respond. She was tired, very tired.
After a brief silence, the doctor, whom she’d not seen, got up from the bed and concluded as she walked away: “I’ll recommend to your fiancée the hospital’s admission again... it’s not advisable you remain here... see you soon...”
But she didn’t listen to her anymore. She’d sunk into a light stupor.
“Alors, brace yourself, chérie!” Jean concluded in a festive tone, his voice slightly distorted by the bad coverage. “Soon we’ll be making you competition in doctorate thesis on ancient Lux Veritatis’ strongholds!”
“Yeah, yeah, Jean...” Selma cut off, restless, pressing the phone hard against her ear and constantly moving around, trying to capture better coverage. “What about Lara and Anna? What has Loanna told them? Where are they? Marie wants to talk to Lara, actually...” The Turkish archaeologist glanced sideways at the old Navajo woman, who was gesticulating angrily at her. “Pass me with Lara at once!”
“Mais ce n'est pas possible!” Jean laughed. “Lara has already left! She’s not here!”
“How’s that? What are you talking about?”
“The girl and she are already on the way! They took a flight to Istanbul! Good luck with them, I couldn’t make them tell me a single thing about it!”
And he omitted to say that he’d not even asked in the first place either.
She woke up hours later, cradled by a soft murmur. She took a few moments to identify Kurtis’ voice, who spoke slowly, calmly and in a low voice over the phone, locked in the bathroom. At least, he had a pleasant voice.
She sat up, still slightly dizzy, and looked around. Photophobia had retreated, and she felt much better. A long object reclined on the chair next to the table caught her eye. It looked like a long piece of clothing inside a case.
The male voice died away, and then the door opened and Kurtis went into the room. Barbara got up, barely aware that she was doing it, the sheet almost to her chin, in a protective gesture.
“Gotta go back to the dig right now.” He announced without further ado. “Lara and my daughter are on the way. Can you stay alone?”
The woman blinked slowly and ran a hand over her eyes. “Yes, I'm much better.” She looked around. “And the doctor?”
“I sent her back. I'm sorry, but you can’t go back into a hospital. He’ll find you more easily there.” Without further ado, Kurtis grabbed a leather bag and headed for the door. He came out silently and without saying goodbye.
She waited until his footsteps were lost by the stone staircase. Then, she rose slowly, leaning hesitantly on the excavated walls, and approached the long bundle of cloth leaning on the chair.
It took longer than expected for the zipper to give way - her reflexes were worse than expected - but at last she managed to lower it and remove the fabrics that covered it.
It was a beautiful evening dress.
When he laid eyes on Anna, he felt something strange, a tear, a loss. Something had changed in his daughter, he was sure. What was it? Was she taller? Older? Slenderer? He felt her much more grown. He felt her differently. He felt her... changed.
She returned a calm glance in her blue eyes - how pretty her eyes were, how they adorned a woman's face - and she smiled slightly. “Mom,” she grabbed Lara's hand, “could we be alone? I want to talk to Dad on my own.”
Lara barely crossed a glance with her and nodded slightly. “I'll come when you call me.” And then he fixed his eyes on Kurtis. “I have to talk to you.”
He nodded. I also must talk to you.
When she left the barrack, Anna looked at her father for a moment, and suddenly she walked to the cot and sat on the bed, thinking. Yes, she was definitely changed. What had happened to her?
“Dad, I have many things to tell you and you won’t like most of them.” She started. “But I want you to listen to me until the end and don’t talk until I’m done. Deal?”
Without saying a word, Kurtis nodded again. He’d always been good at listening.
The child - no, a lass already; he realized suddenly - twisted her fingers slightly, took a deep breath, and started talking. She tried to tell him in the same order and with the same words she’d spoken to her mother, but the result was different because her father didn’t interrupt her at any time. He just stood there, sitting in front of her, elbows on knees, chin in hands, listening intently. If something impressed him, hurt him or disgusted him, he barely showed it, except in the casual contraction of his pupils.
Your father controls his emotions very well, Lara had told her once, he knows how to hide his feelings well. It’s what most seduced me about him, she admitted without embarrassment, from the first moment.
“Well, that's it.” Anna sighed, dropping her hands in her lap, when she finished talking.
Kurtis watched her in silence for a moment. Then he whispered softly: “Can I go out for a moment?”
“To smoke.” Kurtis smiled, accentuating the wrinkles of age around his eyes. “You don’t know how I need a cigarette right now.”
Anna frowned. “You gotta stop filling your lungs with shit, Dad.”
He sighed and leaned back in the chair. Then he slowly rubbed his hands over his face.
“You mad at me?” She said with a trickle of voice.
Kurtis laughed again, though it was a bitter laugh. “No, of course not.”
“Then tell me something, please.”
He remained pensive for a few moments, staring at the void, then spoke: “She’s right.” He smiled. “As always.”
“Your mother.” The blue eyes raised towards her. “It’s her whom you must listen to, Anna. You don’t owe shit to anyone. You don’t have to do this.”
She watched him curiously. “I thought... this would sadden you a lot. Shock you.”
“I was expecting it.” Kurtis closed his eyes painfully. “I sensed it, I suspected it. Since Sri Lanka... I knew something like that could happen. But doesn’t matter.” He opened his eyes. “Listen to your mother and don’t let this torment you for a second more. Don’t be like me.”
“What if I wanted to?”
He blinked, surprised. “If you wanted, what?”
“Be like you.” Anna smiled slightly, and suddenly seemed much more adult. “What if I wanted to be like you, Dad? To use that Gift been granted to me? To protect people from demons? Wipe those awful beings out, who are only here to cause damage? Be like you, a heroine... a fighter. The Warrior and the Amazon’s worthy daughter.”
Kurtis laughed quietly, his shoulders barely shuddering. “I was never a hero. It’s time for you to know.” He looked at her frankly. “I hated what it was. I escaped as soon as I could. I've spent my life running away.”
“I know.” She shrugged. “Mom told me. But you are a hero, Dad. You’ve always fought for good. You protected the world from demons.”
Kurtis shook his head gently. If she knew... a soldier, a spy, a mercenary, a murderer. He’d done atrocious things with his powers and with his bare hands; and he’d never lost a single night's sleep for them. But I he couldn’t tell her that. No, to her, never. If there was any pool of purity, of innocence in his world, he would keep it there, in the same ethereal mesh that bound him to his daughter. The last haven of peace.
She was watching him curiously. Then, she added with conviction: “Make me what you were, Dad. Turn me into a powerful Lux Veritatis. Please.”
What I was... Kurtis snorted and laughed again.
“What are you laughing at?” She punched his knee. “I'm not a kid anymore, y’know? Now I’m a woman. I’ve matured. I’ve changed. Damn, I've even gotten my period.”
“A woman now, huh?” Kurtis reached out and gently brushed a strand of hair from his daughter's face. “Then that's what you’ll be. But in no way will I do with you what they did to me. A Fighter’s training is an abomination, a torture. I’d never do that to you.
“Okay, so let's go smooth.” Anna opened her hands. “Will I be equally powerful that way?”
“You already carry with you such power. It's just about channelling it. But if we must believe that delusional Marcus and all who were like him, you’ll be much stronger than I ever was.” Kurtis shook his head. “So, stop taking me as an example. You sure you want to do this?”
Anna shook her head furiously. “Yes. Yes. Yes! How many times should I say it? I do! Before that prince of demons comes and crushes me. By the way, who is it?”
Kurtis blinked slowly. “No idea.” Anna seemed disappointed. “Maybe just a figure of speech. You know what grandiloquent trash the prophecies are.”
“What if it's... it's... well... the Devil? The real shit. The boss.”
Kurtis raised his eyebrows. “I doubt it.” He made a gesture with his hand. “I knew him as the archangel Samael, how he really calls himself. And believe me, neither you nor I can anything against an archangel. Even Karel could have done anything. They are not human. Above them there’s only He whom they call the Authority.
“I was never told I had to beat him.” Anna clarified. “Only die in combat.”
The ex-Legionnaire sighed and stroked his hair again. “You're not gonna die like that, Anna. I won’t have it.”
“Maybe it's not up to you, Dad. Maybe you can’t do anything about it.” Seeing Kurtis’ look, Anna grabbed his wrists. “Oh Dad, I’m sorry, sorry. I'm not helping.”
He sighed deeply: “If I got it right, your opponent must also die. If he remains alive there’s no balance, because Evil would have overcome. Archangels are immortal. They can be created, they can be transformed, but they can’t be annihilated. No, Anna, it's not Samael. It’s someone you can fight as an equal. But,” He remarked again, “you don’t have to do this. Fuck the cycle and the damn prophecy. Fuck Loanna and all the demons in the world. I’ll train you, so you know how to fight, to defend yourself, but I haven’t raised you so that now you can serve as a bait as I served, as your grandfather served. No way.
Anna leaned toward him and insisted again: “What if I want?”
“You're still treating me like a baby.”
“Not at all. I'm talking to you as from adult to adult.” He leaned forward and stared at her. “Pay attention to me. Listen to your mother. Don’t screw up your life. I had no choice, Anna. I was born fucked. But you are not me. You have a choice, Anna. Choose wisely. And now,” he said, letting out a deep sigh and leaning back, “call your mother. Gotta talk to her.”
She closed the door gently behind her and leaned against it. He still sat in the chair with a pensive expression, after Anna had left. Lara looked at him for a moment and finally said: “How are you?”
He looked up and stared at her intensely. It’s said blue eyes are cold, but, God, those were burning. They had always burned her. “First time you ask me that in months.” He murmured. “How do you think I am?”
Lara smiled slightly. “Knowing you... torn to pieces inside, barely whole on the outside.”
“You know me well.”
For a moment, silence thickened around them. Finally, Lara let out a sigh and began: “Kurtis...”
She didn’t have time to go on – and she didn’t see it coming at all. In just a moment, Kurtis got up from the chair and rushed at her – or so it seemed to her. Part of her reflexes, no matter how fast they were, simply didn’t activate when it was him. Love. Force of habit. Hard to explain. She, who could dodge everything, barely managed to flinch and stick the door before having him on her, breathing her breath, so close to her that the strands of his bangs caressed her forehead and his body scent - leather, sweat, metal, motor oil - flooded her again.
“What are you doing?” She gasped, throwing her head back, until hitting the wood of the door. She held up her arms and noticed that he was grabbing her by the wrists. “Let me go right now!” She struggled slightly, more as a warning than as a real opposition, but he merely buried his face in her neck. His beard of a few days pierced his cheek and neck.
“In pieces...” She heard him mutter on her shoulder. “Nothing breaks me apart, but you. Did you come to apologize at last? Why did you take so long?”
“Shut up and get off.” Lara hissed between teeth. “I don’t allow you to pin me against the wall.” Then he turned his face and looked for her mouth. “No!” She shouted, turning her face away from the lips that were already kissing her. “Not this way!”
“Enough of this torture, Lara.” His mouth stroked her neck. “I can’t take it anymore. Let's get rid of this madness.”
“Stop it.” Lara clenched her teeth and turned her face when he tried to kiss her again. “I don’t want it. Not this way. Get off! Get off or this time I'll be the one to push you!”
The hands on her wrists loosened and he slipped to his knees in front of her, hugging her waist, his forehead resting on her flat, hard belly. She breathed heavily and put her hand to her chest, surprised to notice the heart runaway. Her other hand sank into his hair. It was grayer than before. “Stand up.” She ordered him. He didn’t move. She stirred, but with him grabbing her around the waist, she could barely move. “Stand up, dammit! You know what I think of this kind of reconciliation...”
She heard him laugh quietly, his face resting on her belly. How many times had they already fought? How many times had they reconciled between the sheets, making love furiously, letting hormones solve what words could not? Lara already knew that it didn’t work. It didn’t work for her... as for him, well. He was still a man.
“I'm still a man, right?” She heard him murmur. Lara flinched. Looked like he’d read her mind. “But I’m not like others, Lara. With me it’s different.”
Lara dug her fingers into his scalp. “Stand up. I hate to see people on their knees. Get up!”
Finally, he got up and stood in front of her. He was noticeably taller, enough for Lara to raise her eyes, and she was already very tall. “Tell me this nightmare is over.” He said then, crossing her with that look again. “I need you to be the person you used to be. You trusted me when I was a stranger who’d robbed and then locked you up. Trust me for what I am now. I need you by my side and I’m tired of repeating it. You’re my partner. You're more than that.”
She blinked, looked away, and murmured: “It's over, yes. For Anna's sake, this madness is over.
“Just for Anna's sake?”
Lara closed her eyes painfully. She’d always been bad at apologizing. “No, silly. Of course not.”
She winced again when his hands caught her face and his lips brushed her mouth again. She pushed it away gently. “No, Kurtis. I already told you, not this way.”
“Alright.” He sighed and pulled away. “Come to me when you're ready. I’ll wait.”
I'm not going to blush, she thought, determined, and turned her back. “I promised Anna that there would be no more fights or arguments, and I’ll keep my word. As for the rest... give me time. I can’t turn everything around in a single moment.”
A single moment? She’d spent months to reach that point. But she knew her well - it was impossible to go against her. Not if he really wanted to recover her. “Anything else?” He whispered.
“I had a great speech prepared... but I forgot.” She confessed, shrugging.
“Cool. Time test you, m’lady.”
M’lady. Lara shuddered. She didn’t correct him, forbidding him to call her that. The loving nickname slid back on her like a fallen leaf, and she didn’t push it away. “Test me?”
“Yes.” He’d returned to sit quietly in his chair. Lara didn’t come closer. She stepped back and leaned back against the door. "As I told you, I need you to trust me again. I have a plan to hunt down Schäffer and... get him out of the way.”
“Didn’t expect less from you.” She tilted her head to the side. “You left for Istanbul before we could talk. What have you found?”
“The victim of the Grand Bazaar’s shooting, whom that fucker has been hunting down. It's Bathsheba.”
Lara's pupils dilated. “Bathsheba’s alive?” She asked, stupefied.
“Correct. Now she calls herself Barbara Standford and pretends to be an art dealer interested in antique objects.”
“Her old cover.” Lara murmured. “She was posing as such the first time I met her. But Schäffer was under her command. What happened?”
“Looks like this asshole fell for his mother, that batshit crazy Giselle. Schäffer blames Barbara for her death, and that's why he’s chasing her.”
“Foolish.” Lara narrowed her eyes. “Bathsheba can set fire to a human being like a living torch, with a single gesture of her fingers.”
“The Bathsheba you remember could.” Kurtis opened his palms. “Now, she’s just a mortal woman. Lilith punished her by sending her back, stripped of her Nephilim nature. She came out vulnerable and helpless where Schäffer was waiting for her. Upon learning of Giselle's fate, he beat and raped her. Finally, she managed to escape and has been fleeing from him since then.”
Lara listened to him holding her breath. Suddenly, she let out the air abruptly and folded her arms. “All that she told you?”
“So, you contacted her.”
“Of course. I'm posing as her fiancé.” Lara raised significantly an eyebrow. “I accompanied her until she left the hospital, I kept her in a motel in Istanbul for a while, and I brought her here, to Göreme, not even two days ago. She’s in one of the cave hotels, although not feeling quite well. Schäffer managed to shoot her on the skull’s side. She lost an ear and her face is partially paralyzed, as well as feeling constant dizziness.”
“So, she's your hostage.”
“Rather, our collaborator.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She agreed to be Schäffer’s bait. I'll take her to the presentation gala of Selma's thesis. He’ll come and, finally, I’ll catch that bastard.”
He heard Lara breathe deeply. She kept staring at him. “You're gonna put that... woman, in the same place where we’ll all be; your mother and daughter included, to attract that murderer in the middle of the crowd.”
“And she accepted out of the kindness of her heart. I don’t believe it. What does she gain with that?”
“Life. Believe me, more than enough for someone so helpless and desperate. The woman she’s now has little to do with the creature you and I met once.”
“She hurt... me… us…” Lara put her hands on her belly.
“I know what she did. But we need her, Lara.”
“And when this is over? What do we do with her?”
Kurtis inclined his head. “I don’t want to kill her. I don’t want you to kill her.”
“Now you’re merciful?”
He let out a big sigh and ran a hand over his face. “It's the least I owe her. If not for her, I wouldn’t have been able to hold Lilith until Samael arrived. She fought that thing as much as I did.”
“I imagine she's still as beautiful as ever. Or has mortality ruined that?”
“She still makes people stop and stare when going by.” Kurtis smiled slightly. “Even with a scarred face.”
“What about you? Do you stop and stare, too?
The ex-Legionnaire raised his eyes and looked at her with an infinite tenderness. Lara felt a shudder rise her back. “You jealous, m’lady?” He cocked his head. “I told you. Only you break me into pieces. If I have you I don’t want anyone else.”
He got up and went to her. Lara feared he’d try to kiss her again, for she didn’t think she could resist again - she just didn’t want to resist anymore. But he just took her gloved hands and kissed them delicately. Lara felt the blush rise her neck. You... scoundrel...
“I need your help.” He continued. “I can’t do this alone. The others have agreed to cooperate, and I also need Anna for this. But without you I won’t succeed. Tell me you’ll be with me. Tell me you’ll trust me, no matter what needs to be done.”
Lara watched him for a moment and, in the end, nodded. “I'll be with you.”
She closed her eyes when noticing his mouth again on her lips. Well, she could allow a kiss. She just hoped he wouldn’t keep going... because she knew well how they were going to end.
“Kurtis.” She whispered, their lips still in contact.
He pulled away. “True. A little more and I won’t able to stop myself.” He looked at her with a mocking smile. “Gotta go pick up Barbara and bring her here. A doctor has been seeing her, so hotel is no longer safe. She’ll have to stay here.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“We work together, remember?” She shrugged. “Don’t worry, I'll treat the heavenly lady well. Now, get that shiny bike of yours ready.”
He nodded and left quickly.
For a moment, alone in the barrack, Lara licked her lips slowly and then touched them. They burned so much that they almost hurt. She felt a fire bursting down her womb.
Dammit, why did she refuse? Bloody pride of hers.
No, sex as a reconciliation was a bad idea. She knew that well. She didn’t want this fracture to close like the others, among sweat, saliva and semen. This time, it had to mean something. This time, it had to be a definite change, for the better.
And she still had one last thing to ask him - but that should be left for later, when they had solved all that mess.
Her brain, always cold and calculating, was certain about that decision. Then, why was her body screaming like that?
Come to me when you're ready. I’ll wait.
How different he was from other men. He was right about that. There was no one like him - not that she’d ever known. All the men she’d been with before had been brutal, dominant or possessive, making her feel used or disgusted; or either too soft and romantic, boring her. Only he’d had that combination, that inner struggle between the lowest instincts, the most primal desire present in any man; and the love he felt for her, the need to cherish her, to take care of her, to protect her.
Love and lust, always at war with himself, always in battle inside of him.
She adored that contradiction.