"We do," Dante and Tess answered in unison. "He is our son, Xander Raphael." At Lucan's nod, Gabrielle carried the naked baby over to his parents and placed him in his mother's arms. With Dante holding one end of the woven cradle and Gideon and Savannah holding the other, Tess lifted Xander up to the gathered assembly.
Beside Chase on the pew, he could feel Tavia holding her breath, watching in awestruck silence as the ceremony unfolded.
"This babe is ours," Tess and Dante recited together. "With our love we have brought him into this world. With our blood and lives we sustain him, and keep him safe from all harm. He is our joy and promise, the perfect expression of our eternal bond, and we are honored to present him to you, our kin."
"You honor us well" came the singular reply from everyone gathered in the room.
Even Chase found himself murmuring the traditional reply, anticipating the ritual still to come. He'd witnessed countless such rites in the Darkhavens, for births and deaths and marriages, but ceremony among his warrior brethren was a rare thing. And this - a baby presented before the compound - was a first.
Which made it even more powerful as Tess returned her child to Lucan's arms and took her place once more beside Dante. Lucan's deep voice boomed heavy and unrushed as he pivoted toward Gideon and Savannah. "Who pledges to protect this child with blood and bone and final breath should duty call upon it?"
"We do," the pair replied together, words that tasted bitter on Chase's tongue as he pushed them back down his throat unspoken. He saw Dante's gaze search him out through the gathering, and he forced himself to offer a nod of acceptance, of sincere approval, for the decision his friend had made in the best interests of his son.
The soundness of that decision hit Chase even more pointedly in that next instant, when Lucan placed Xander in the center of the woven cradle and Gideon proceeded with the final step of the ritual. Bringing his wrist to his mouth, Gideon sank his fangs into his flesh, then turned and did the same to Savannah's wrist.
Chase knew it was coming, but as soon as the scent of fresh blood permeated the room, his body seized in a violent tremor. He struggled to get it under control, but the hunger was fierce. His fangs punched out of his gums to fill his mouth.
"Chase?" Tavia whispered softly beside him. "Are you okay?" She reached up to touch his cheek, her pretty face twisted in concern and bathed in the glow of his transformed irises. At the front of the room, Gideon and Savannah were now holding their wrists above Xander, blood droplets raining down on his naked skin to signify their vow to surrender their lives for the protection of his.
Chase couldn't remain there. Not without losing his head and ruining the entire ceremony. Miserable with himself, Chase pivoted off the pew and slipped out of the sanctuary as quietly as he could manage. He stumbled up the corridor to the great room and through the French doors leading to the deck outside. Leaping off it, he ran for the deep gloom of the surrounding trees. By the time he took his first gasp of crisp night air, he was sick with hunger, lungs sawing, stomach feeling shredded to pieces inside him. He dropped to his hands and knees in the snow, dragging in one wheezing breath after another.
"Chase?" Ah, Christ. Tavia. She'd followed him outside. It killed him to let her see him like this, weak and heaving like the junkie he was. He'd never forgive himself if he did anything to hurt her. "Get away from me, Tavia. Just - go back inside."
"What's happening to you? Talk to me, Chase."
"Leave, Tavia. Now." He flinched when she bent down to touch his hunched back. "For fuck's sake, stay away from me!"
She drew up short at his violent snarl, but there was no fear in her eyes, no pity or revulsion. Only concern. "You need help. I'm going inside to get someone - "
"Don't. Please. Not them." The words rasped out of him, raw and desperate. He shook his head, miserable as he looked up at her, knowing how he must appear to her now. So weak. So diminished. Pathetic. No shadows to conceal him, no bravado or fury to mask the truth of what he'd become. He groaned, whether from the anguish of his thirst or the depth of his humiliation, he wasn't sure. "I don't want anyone to see me like this."
Not even her.
Especially not her, but Tavia wasn't leaving. No, she knelt down next to him in the snow. Stroked her hand gently over his back, through his short, sweat-dampened hair. "I can feel your hunger ... and your pain. You're shaking with it, Chase. My God, you're starving. If you need blood, take it."
"No." He choked the denial, even as his fangs tore farther out of his gums. His throat was ash, blood thirst raking him like nails over scorched earth. His fevered eyes lit on the pulse point ticking at the base of her neck. Hunger spiked, hard and demanding. "Please, Tavia. Go back inside. Before I ..."
"Before you drink from me?" Her gaze was steady on him, unafraid. "It's okay, Chase. I'm here for you. I would let you - "
"No." He hissed a sharp curse and swung his head away from the temptation of her vulnerable throat. "No. Never with you."
"Because you don't want to bind yourself to me."
That quiet guess was so far removed from the truth, it brought his wild amber gaze right back to her. "Because once I have a taste of you, I don't trust myself to stop. You shouldn't trust me either." His voice was little more than a growl, animal and raw. "I'm sick, Tavia. This thing's had its talons in me for a long time. I'm not sure how much longer I can fight it."
She stared at him, studying the misery that had to be written all over his face and in the churning fury of his dermaglyphs. Some of the color drained out of her as comprehension dawned, cold and certain. "You're talking about Bloodlust. That's what this raw, shredding ache is that I feel in your veins all the time. It's your addiction."
No sense in denying it. She was the only person he couldn't hide from, the one person whose rejection would cut him the deepest.
He groaned, weathering another savage convulsion of his insides. Sweat popped all over his skin and across his brow, chill and damp in the cold winter air. When the worst of it gripped him, it was Tavia's tender hands that drew him back from his pain. She sat down on the frozen ground beside him and stroked his face with gentle care, courageous despite his feral condition. "When did this start, Chase? How long have you been fighting it?"
Her touch gave him strength, brought the words up from his scorched throat like a balm drawing poison from a wound. "Six years," he admitted hoarsely. It all came up at once now, acrid and raw. "I've been hiding it from everyone since the night of my brother's death." She ran her soothing fingers along the tense line of his clenched jaw. "What happened that night? I know you held something back when you first told me about Quentin's death. You said you didn't remember, but you do ... you remember it all, don't you?"
He nodded, sick with the truth of his actions yet unable to deny them to her. He recalled every second of those blood-soaked hours surrounding Quent's death. Every one of the Rogues he'd slaughtered in his thirst to avenge his fallen kin.
And he remembered the shame of his actions afterward too, when his guilt had driven him to an even further low.
"I was the one who brought in the Rogue who killed my brother. Son of a bitch had drained two humans outside a Goth bar in Cambridge. I should've ashed him on the spot, but that was against Agency policy." He scoffed, still feeling the bite of fury like acid on his tongue. "So I hauled him in, and Quent put him on ice for questioning and processing. He was only in the room alone with the blood-crazed bastard for a few minutes. By the time Quent hit the alarm, he was already bleeding out from the gaping shank wound in his throat."
"Oh, Chase." Tavia's voice was a whisper on the chill night breeze, full of the same shock and anguish that he felt coursing through him now as he relived the awful moments. "I'd done a weapons search on the Rogue when I brought him in, but somehow he got the makeshift blade past me. I failed my brother." He blew out a raw curse. "I might as well have stabbed him with my own hand."
"No," Tavia said, shaking her head as she caressed him. "God, no. You can't blame yourself."
"Really?" His voice was airless, as cold as the night around him. "Do you know how many times I wondered what it would've been like to live without the weight of Quent's shadow hanging over me? There were times I fucking wished for it, Tavia."
She stared at him, no doubt appalled now. Her fingers fell away from him, her exhaled breath clouding in the chill before being swept away into the dark. "You didn't kill him, Chase. Everyone makes mistakes."
"Not one of August Chase's sons," he replied, bitter with self-loathing.
He recalled the whispers that followed in the immediate aftermath of Quentin's death. Elise's horror had been the worst to bear. Her questions and confusion when she'd arrived at the Agency headquarters to see her dead mate still rang in his head: How could this have happened, Sterling? Who brought the Rogue in? Who was responsible for searching him for weapons? Sterling, please tell me Quentin's not really gone!
"I wanted to make it right somehow, but there was nothing I could do. Not even killing the Rogue who killed my brother made my guilt any lighter." He swore roughly and raked a hand over the aching bones of his face. His hunger still rode him, but as he sucked the wintry cold into his lungs, some of the burn had begun to ebb. "I went back to the Goth club where I'd picked up the Rogue earlier that night. There was another lurking outside, waiting for his prey. I took out some of my rage on him, then forced him to tell me where his nest was. A group of Rogues had squatted in a warehouse at the ass end of the Charles River. I killed them all, brutally, practically bathed in their blood. And I didn't stop there. I couldn't. The violence had me by then. By the time dawn started to break, I'd killed my first human and was teetering on the edge of a thirst I could barely contain. I've been fighting it ever since."
He nodded. "Near enough to taste it. There's a tipping point in the disease that I haven't reached yet. If I cross that line and turn Rogue, I'm lost."
"Like Quentin and Elise's son?" she asked, her brow furrowing now. "You told me that's what happened to him, before you ..."
"Before I shot him," he said, the admission bitter even now. "Yeah. But with Camden it was different. He'd gotten mixed up with a new club drug that had been making the rounds last year in Boston. It was called Crimson. The shit was potent, a speedball designed especially for the Breed. One whiff or taste of that red powder and it was all you could do not to fuck, fight, or fang everything in your reach."
Chase grunted. "Not if you're a young male bored out of his skull in the Darkhavens. They ate it like candy, and some of them learned that it was the fast lane to Bloodlust. Cam was one of them."
He shrugged. "Me too. The Order and I took out the Crimson dealer's lab, destroyed all of the product. Well ... almost all of it. I kept a vial of it for myself. One last dose, enough to be lethal."
"The silver container I found in your desk in Boston," Tavia murmured. "Why would you want to keep something like that?"
He didn't have to answer. She would read his logic plainly enough. The dose of Crimson was his escape plan, his silver bullet, should Bloodlust finally pull him under all the way. Which more and more didn't seem so much a question of if but when.
Walk away. That's what he should do - what he'd done every other time shit got too real for him, too heavy to deal with. And there was a part of him now that wanted nothing more than to vanish into the night and never look back. Just run ... until he met daylight and all his problems - all his damnable failures, past, present, and future - were eaten by the sun.
That would have been the easy thing for him to do. Hard was making himself sit there and sweat through the shudders that were wrenching his body from the inside out. Hard was laying his weaknesses and his ugliest sins bare as he looked into Tavia's tender gaze and waited for the moment her concern mutated into justifiable contempt. Or worse, pity.
But Tavia's eyes wouldn't release him. Those clear, calm, spring-green eyes held him in the darkness like a caress. As he looked at her now, he realized the feral glow of his own gaze had banked. His irises no longer washed her in amber fire. Even the hungered throb of his fangs had eased in the time he'd been out there alone with her.
"You haven't lost the fight yet, Chase," she told him. "Isn't there anything you can do to help yourself get better? Maybe I can help you over time. I'd like to try, if you'd let me." He stared at her, leveled by the genuine compassion - by the depth of feeling he could hardly fathom - that shone from her beautiful face. He couldn't resist reaching out to stroke her cheek. "How can you be so caring after everything you've just heard? When I've done nothing but make your life hell since the moment I first saw you?"
"You haven't made my life hell. Dragos did that." Her hands were warm and soothing against his face as she drew him close and pressed a brief kiss to his lips. "You gave me truth, Chase. You have from the very beginning. You've opened my eyes. I may not like everything I see, but it's real and it's honest and I feel like I'm finally alive. You've given me all of that." He swore under his breath, wondering how it was possible that he'd allowed this female to get under his skin the way she had. Even worse, she had somehow gotten inside his heart, into his very blood.