When the light returned, he saw himself as a kid near a Christmas tree. He was eleven and at his uncle’s house. Aidan frowned as he tried to remember the exact event, but he couldn’t. He only remembered the setting.
"What did you get?" Donnie asked as he came over to where Aidan was playing.
Aidan held up his action figure. "G.I. Joe and some candy."
Donnie curled his lip. "That’s not fair. I wanted a G.I. Joe."
Aidan was baffled by his anger. "No you didn’t. You said you wanted Optimus Prime and Grimlock, which you got."
Donnie reached for the toy in Aidan’s hand and snatched it away.
"Give that back!"
Donnie refused, and when Aidan tried even harder, he punched him with everything he had. Aidan shouted in fury which woke his uncle up from the nap he was taking on the plaid couch a few feet away from them.
Two seconds later, with insults ringing in their ears, all the toys were in the garbage and both of them were grounded. Not to mention bruised from their uncle’s anger.
"It’s all your fault," Donnie snarled, shoving Aidan up the stairs as they headed to the room the two of them shared.
"I didn’t take your toys, you took mine."
Donnie curled his lip. "That’s because you need to learn to share. You’re such a selfish scumbag. I hate you. I wish you’d died with Mom and Dad."
Aidan froze at the hostility on his brother’s face as Donnie trudged past him. His heart heavy, he reversed course and returned to the living room. He sneaked around the corner, afraid of being caught. Luckily his uncle was back on the couch again, passed out from his Christmas drinking binge.
As quietly as he could, Aidan crept to the garbage can and pulled the toys out. Then just as silently, he made his way back upstairs where he handed the toys to Donnie.
"You can have them," he said, not wanting his brother to hate him anymore.
But even though Aidan had won his brother back, there was no satisfaction in it. He merely felt relieved that Donnie didn’t hate him…
The adult Aidan watched the scene as he finally remembered every buried emotion of that Christmas Day. He’d forgotten it all. Now every bit of it was clear to him. And he remembered other times when Donnie had acted that way. All the times he’d tried to placate him because Donnie didn’t want him to have anything.
The entire world was supposed to be Donnie’s.
Then the scene shifted and he saw his agent Mori at home with his latest wife. Tall, dark-haired, young, and beautiful, Shirley sat on the couch while Mori sat across from her in a brown leather chair.
"Why are you so unhappy?" she asked quietly.
Mori offered her an apologetic smile. "I’m sorry. I was just thinking about Aidan again."
She rolled her eyes. "I can’t believe he’d walk away from that kind of money."
Mori’s gaze turned introspective as he cupped his glass of brandy. His expression said that he found it more than plausible. "Money doesn’t buy happiness."
She scoffed. "Anyone who says that isn’t shopping in the right stores."
Mori didn’t comment on that. "I hate what’s become of him. He is without a doubt one of the finest actors of his generation. I just wish there was something I could do for him."
"You sent him a ham."
Mori cut her a bored look. "Not for a present. When I first met him, he was so full of life and laughter. When other actors got jaded by their fame, he didn’t. He always enjoyed it. Even the parts of it that made lesser actors crumble and fall. Now… now he’s a soured recluse. If I had one single wish for Christmas, it would be to see him happy again."
Aidan wasamazed by the fact that Mori wasn’t as cold-blooded as he pretended. Wow. His agent had been keeping quite a secret from him. There really was a heart buried under all that swagger.
But that didn’t change anything. He looked up at the darkness. "Is this supposed to mean something to me?"
His answer came as the scene blanked out again and reemerged, not in his future as he expected, but rather in a place he’d never seen before.
It appeared to be a dark cavern with walls that were bleeding…
Faint screams and moans echoed as he walked toward a large opening, and when he reached it, he froze. There was Leta in a long, flowing white gown, standing before two angry men who glared at her while a third man in white stood to her left.
"You would ask me for mercy for her?" the tall blond man sneered at the man in white. "Do you understand what she has done?"
"Yes, Zeus. I do. But what she did, she did to protect an innocent human."
Zeus sneered at the answer. "None of them are innocent. What’s the death of one more human in this world?"
Leta started to answer, but the man beside her stopped her by putting his hand on her arm.
When he spoke, his voice was devoid of all emotion. "She was assigned the human by me and she carried out her assignment to the end. It was Dolor who-"
"Don’t you dare defend her," Zeus snarled. "Because of his death, we have a rupture in the universe. Have you any idea what could have happened? The world could have ended."
"But it didn’t."
Zeus blasted him.
"M’Adoc!" Leta said, rushing to where he lay on the ground.
Zeus cocked his head at that. "Are those emotions I hear from you?"
Aidan saw the panic in Leta’s eyes but since her back was to Zeus, he was sure the god hadn’t noticed it.
Instead a strange look passed between M’Adoc and the dark-haired god standing beside Zeus.
"They have no emotions, brother," the dark-haired man said. "She spent time with the humans and these are the residual effects."
Zeus’s gaze narrowed dangerously as M’Adoc pushed himself back to his feet. "Are you defending them, Hades?"
Hades shrugged. "Not really. If you want me to punish her I will. It’s what I live for."
Aidan frowned at the underlying sarcastic tone of the god’s voice.
Zeus nodded. "Very well. Kill her."
"No!" Aidan lunged forward only to run into an invisible wall.
The gods turned as if they could hear him.
Aidan slammed his hand against the wall. "Don’t you dare touch her!"
He realized that they could in fact hear him as Zeus came forward to stare at him as if he were an insect in a jar. "Have you any idea who I am?"
"I don’t care. Leta did nothing wrong and I won’t see her hurt for me."
"Nothing wrong?" Zeus asked, his nostrils flaring. "You stupid human. She could have destroyed the entire universe with her actions. The only thing that saved us was the fact that Dolor was in stasis and his powers restricted. Had he not been… We’ll take a moment and be damn grateful for small favors."
Even though a small voice in Aidan’s head told him not to argue with an ancient god, he couldn’t stop himself. "She’s not the one who killed Dolor. I did it."
Leta gasped at his words. "Aidan-"
"It’s true," he said, cutting her off before she contradicted him. "I killed him. So if you’re going to punish anyone, it should be me."
Zeus considered it.
"Ignore him, my lord," Leta said quickly. "He’s noble but foolish. I was the one who ignored your mandate to leave Dolor alone. I killed him here while he slept in stasis-against your will. Because of that I’m the one who should be punished."
Zeus stiffened as if something offended him. "Are those emotions I hear in your voice? Have you feelings for this human?"
Leta shook her head. "No, my lord. It’s only cold, hard logic."
Her words tore through Aidan, who couldn’t bear the thought of her being false with him. "Leta?"
Her gaze was empty as she met his. "How could I ever have feelings for a human when I’m incapable of them?"
Zeus turned speculative. "So if I killed the human, you wouldn’t care?"
Aidan wouldn’t have thought her face could get colder, but he was wrong.
Even so, she didn’t answer.
"She wouldn’t care," M’Adoc answered for her. "She’s not capable of it."
"Very well. Since the human was supposed to die anyway…" Zeus shot a lightning bolt out of his hand, straight at Aidan’s heart.
Aidan staggered yet remained standing even as his entire body was shoved backward. He looked down, expecting to see blood from Zeus’s attack. But there was no wound. In fact, there was no pain.
Confused, he glanced around until he saw Leta lying on the floor a few feet from him. "Oh, my God," he breathed, scrambling to reach her. She must have thrown herself in front of him to protect him.
He knelt on the floor and rolled her over, to see her struggling to breathe as blood coated her entire body.
She coughed up blood before she spoke in a raspy tone. "I couldn’t let you die, Aidan. I’m sorry."
Sorry? Why was she apologizing to him for saving his life? It didn’t even make sense.
Zeus turned on M’Adoc. "I thought you said she was incapable of caring?"
M’Adoc maintained his stoicism. "She must have gone Skoti without our knowing."
Fury darkened Zeus’s brow. He held his hand up and M’Adoc was instantly drawn forward into his grasp. "You don’t make those kinds of mistakes."
Hades made a sound of extreme boredom. "You’re wasting your time, Zeus. You stripped their emotions so if you’re trying to make him afraid now-"
"Shut up," Zeus snapped at Hades before he shoved M’Adoc away from him. He stiffened before he gave M’Adoc a dire warning. "You better keep a wary eye on your brethren. I’m holding you personally responsible. You fail to corral them and it’ll be your blood I bathe in."
Aidan saw the fury and fear flash in M’Adoc’s eyes before he straightened and faced Zeus. Then his face was as blank as it’d been before Zeus attacked him. "I understand, my lord. Your will be done."
"You’re damn right my will be done." Zeus glared at all of them. "Now get that human out of here and clean up this mess." With those words spoken, he dissolved into a light bronze dust and evaporated.
Still on the floor, Aidan held Leta close to him as she struggled to breathe. "You’re going to heal again, right?"
"No," Hades said as he stepped forward. "She was hit with a god bolt from Zeus himself. There’s no coming back from that."
Aidan frowned. "I don’t understand."
"She’s dying," Hades said in a tone that was devoid of all feeling.
It took several seconds for those words to permeate the fog in Aidan’s head. "She can’t die. She’s an immortal goddess."
"Who was just assaulted by the king of the gods." Hades said in the tone of a teacher talking to a dense student. "Yes, she can die."
Aidan couldn’t breathe as he looked down at her. "Why? Why would you have done this?"
"I love you, Aidan," she said as her eyes teared up. "I couldn’t let Zeus kill you. I could never watch someone else I love die in front of me." She lifted her hand to lay it gently to his cheek. "It was why I had to kill Dolor. I knew Donnie would only summon him again and I didn’t want him to hurt you anymore. I couldn’t chance it."
His own tears swelled at her words. He crushed her against him before he looked up at Hades and M’Adoc. "We have to save her. Tell me what to do."
Hades let out a tired breath. "Thunder-Bluster wants her dead. There’s nothing we can do. We heal her and he will rain down on her all kinds of pain. The kindest thing you can do is let her go."
"No! Save her!"
But the god wasn’t listening. Hades stepped back and looked at M’Adoc. "Let’s give them privacy to say goodbye."
Aidan saw the sympathy in M’Adoc’s eyes before he faded away. Hades followed suit.
Alone now, he breathed in the scent of Leta’s hair.
"I wish I’d been born human," she breathed against his neck.
"I would have changed nothing about you."
He felt her smiling as she tightened her grip in his hair. An instant later, she expelled her last breath and fell limp in his arms.
For three full heartbeats, Aidan didn’t move. He couldn’t. It took that long for reality to set in.
Leta was dead. She’d given her life to save his.
He refused to believe it. Pulling back, he looked at her. Her eyes were partially open, her face grayish. There was no life in her eyes. Blood coated both of them.
"Wake up," he breathed, knowing it was an impossible request. "Don’t leave me, Leta. Please."
But all the begging in the world changed nothing. She was gone and he was alone.
His heart shattering, he pulled her against him and did the one thing he hadn’t done since the night his parents had died. He sobbed.
Rocking her in his arms, he held her for what seemed to be forever as he cried. All he wanted was to go back in time and change all of this. To start fresh and new.
To tell her he loved her too.
"I love you, Leta," he whispered into her ear, knowing she couldn’t hear him.
Why hadn’t he said it earlier?
But then he knew. He’d been afraid to voice it. Afraid she would somehow use that to hurt him. Now she would never know just how much she’d meant to him. It was so unfair.