Hearts of Warriors Ch. 14byJazCullen©
Many thanks to mikothebaby for editing for me once again.
Pietro lay awake on the bed staring up at the ceiling. He was waiting for Demetri to let him know it was time to leave. He'd heard his friend talking with Mara somewhere downstairs but no one came to break his solitude so he remained alone in the room Mara had shown him to when they'd arrived from the airport a few hours ago.
Lying alone gave him a lot of time to think and a part of him envied his friend. To know what it felt like to find ones true mate was something most vampires could only ever aspire to. There was a certain irony in how quickly it was seeping into the vampire nation that finding a mate was something they craved. Prior to Caleb finding Rhianna, it had never been a consideration for most of them. They'd been happy living their hedonistic lifestyles.
Now everyone looked to what Caleb and Demetri had and they felt envy for what they lacked. To a lesser extent, that same envy was directed at the Romanovs and the Erikssons, but there was still a certain level of distaste about mating with Weres even if it was abating more as the years passed.
Pietro had once looked to the future, dreaming there was a mate out there waiting for him. He'd even entertained the idea that his mate would be a Were, that there was the added possibility of there being a child in his future. Now that was nothing but a pipedream.
What woman would look at him with his scarred face and body? Come to think of it, what woman would be able to deal with the emotional scars now embedded on his soul?
All of his life, he'd felt invincible, untouchable. He'd always been a strong vampire but he'd had the added weight of the friends he'd associated with, the Romanovs in particular, and more recently Demetri and Caleb, to back him up.
Those associations alone had been enough to give most vampires a reason to pause before trying any aggression towards him. The few idiots who had ignored the prominence of his inner circle were soon disabused of any grandiose ideas that they could take on Pietro de la Rios.
Despite his lazy humour and irreverent attitude, Pietro was just as much a feral animal as most of his kind. He swung to the same excesses of ferociousness and was quick to take down any enemies who crossed his path. And that had been his undoing.
His successes had led to his overconfidence and ultimately his abduction and torture. He was the architect of his own downfall and that was hard to live with.
With a sigh, he rose from the bed and walked naked across the room to stand before the long mirror standing in the corner. He'd done this countless times since he'd been left alone, viewing the healing of wounds on his body with a dispassionate eye. Most of the lesser wounds had healed completely now and his skin didn't look as raw as it once had.
But the once flawless lines of his body were forever marred. Looking in the mirror there was no escaping that fact and it was hard for him to examine each of the jagged scars he encountered.
Tentatively, Pietro raised his hand and brushed the three ragged marks across his chest, feeling the imperfection that he now carried for life. The image of a vampire came easily to mind, Bruce, with his eyes full of hate and his talons extended.
There was insanity in the other vampire's eyes as he'd dug his talons deep into Pietro's body and ripped through the resisting flesh and muscle, chipping at bone as he went. The memory of the searing pain crashed through Pietro's mind and a low groan escaped him as he relived the moment.
It had been Bruce who'd destroyed his eye too, gouging deep as Pietro had screamed like a child, fire and agony exploding in his head as the torture had gone on and on. Another groan escaped him as he raised his eyes from his chest and looked at his now black iris and the scar running from his right eye over the curve of his cheek and down to his jaw.
Another scar covered his neck down to his collar bone and he knew if he turned around he'd see the scars on his lower back and down his shoulder blade. It didn't matter which direction he turned in, the evidence of his torture was visible. There was nowhere to hide.
And there would never be anywhere to hide again. Every single second of every day, his failure would be there for all to see. Everyone would know that his arrogance had led to him being bested by mere Younglings and in his world, that loss of reputation was everything. He would be deemed weak and a target open to all manner of slights and maybe even outright attacks despite who his friends were.
He could live with that, could work to show everyone that he was still a force to be reckoned with. What he couldn't live with was his own feelings of failure. The memories of his screams were still too raw, reliving the blinding pain, another form of never-ending torture.
Breaking down in front of Demetri...he shuddered at the thought and wrapped his arms tightly around his body even as he felt moisture in his eyes and knew he was going to cry again. He never cried and yet now, he found tears only a moment away far too often and it was a struggle to keep them at bay.
He was an Elder, a formidable vampire and now he wept like a baby reliving the experiences of the last few days over and over as if watching a movie looping endlessly.
Pain engulfed him and Pietro sank to his knees before the mirror with his head bowed, ashamed to look at his damaged body and see the weakness that now lived in his soul. He had failed and he knew he'd never be the same again. He was damaged beyond repair and his dream of having what Caleb and Demetri had, well that was gone forever now.
If he ever had the misfortune to meet the woman that was his mate, he'd turn around and walk away so fast she wouldn't even know that she'd been in the company of hers. He was broken and he'd never burden his mate with his weakness.
The sound of Demetri approaching broke him out of his reverie and he quickly rose and dressed. By the time his friend knocked on the door, his expression was neutral, giving no hint of his inner emotions.
"It's time," Demetri said, as he hovered in the open doorway, his gaze shrewd as he ran his eyes over Pietro's face. He wasn't the least fooled by the blank expression. Pietro didn't want to hide out with the pack even though he was smart enough to know he was too vulnerable to avoid it. He watched silently as, without a word, his friend gathered his packed belongings and shouldered the travel bag.
Demetri allowed Pietro to precede him out of the room. Giving Pietro the lead gave him the illusion that he had some say in what was happening. They both knew that was false. Caleb had agreed with Demetri's assessment and made it abundantly clear there was no debate on the matter. Even over the telephone, the vampire king was formidable and not one to argue with. Pietro had been given no option.
As Demetri closed the door behind him, Mara hurried down stairs and smiled at Pietro before engulfing him in a tight embrace. "If you need anything call me, doesn't matter if I'm in a Council meeting. I'll leave instructions you're to be put through to me no matter what."
Pietro felt moisture start to gather in his eyes again and took a deep breath to centre himself as he returned her hug. Mara Bozic was a good woman. She was not only Demetri's wife but also a member of the vampire Council. She brought him comfort on many different levels and he was grateful for it.
"Thank you, Mara, for your hospitality and your support. It means a lot."
Soft lips brushed his cheek as she pulled back and he heard an irritated snort from Demetri, followed by a resigned sigh.
"Wife, we've discussed this kissing business before."
Mara laughed softly as she gave Pietro one final squeeze and let go. She turned to her husband and raised an eyebrow. "And when you stop driving Caleb nuts by hugging and kissing Annie at every opportunity then, just maybe, I will listen to what you have to say on the subject, husband," she countered, amusement lacing her tone.
Demetri laughed and gathered her into his arms, kissing her soundly to erase Pietro's scent. He wasn't really bothered about the kiss, seeing how his wife's easy touch and acceptance of his friend had settled him slightly.
But he liked to tease Mara when he could and she would expect him to grumble at her display of affection with another male. It was normal and Pietro would expect it of him too, so normal he gave them. With a reluctant sigh, he pulled back and looked at his friend.
Pietro squared his shoulders and turned and headed down to the ground floor with Mara and Demetri behind him. He waited patiently while Demetri kissed Mara once last time and then the two men headed outside.
"This sucks, Demetri."
"I know but it's necessary." Demetri unlocked his car remotely and Pietro scowled as he got in.
"No comment?" Demetri sighed as he started the engine.
"Is there any point? I'm as weak as a newborn baby right now and you and Caleb have made it plain this is happening. Arguing about it isn't going to get me anywhere." Pietro couldn't contain the anger in his voice.
Demetri sighed again and rolled his eyes before he shifted into gear. "I meant about my new car. Cost me a fortune and you didn't even comment on it."
The change of topic threw Pietro for a moment and then he looked around him. His eyes widened and he let out a low whistle. "A McLaren F1? You have way too much money, Demetri."
His friend beamed with pride, lovingly stroking the steering wheel as he gunned the engine and took off. "No point in having money if you don't get to treat yourself every now and then," he laughed.
Pietro shook his head and rested back, closing his eyes and trying to psyche himself up for reaching the pack compound. He hoped there wouldn't be a lot of people around, that Rafe would realise he needed space and would keep the wolves away from him.
He could cope with the Andrei and Loretta where he'd been informed he was staying. He could even bear Alexei and Cedar around him but everyone else...he just wanted them to stay away and leave him in peace.
He kept his eyes closed the entire journey, grunting one syllable answers to Demetri until his friend finally fell silent and gave him some space. His trepidation grew as they pulled into the compound and stopped in front of Andrei's house. A quick scan of the area showed it was deserted and he sighed with relief. Rafe was obviously smart enough to tell everyone to stay indoors when he arrived.
Andrei appeared at the side of the car, opening the door and peering inside with a neutral expression. "Don't think this means you're getting out of your bar duties. We'll reassess how you're doing in a few weeks' time and if I feel you're up to it, then it's back to work for you."
Pietro's lips twitched in a small smile. He was relieved to feel a bit more settled being in a familiar situation. He hadn't seen his friend for 25 years but Andrei was always going to be Andrei. If you were in his inner circle you could always count on him to never change.
"Now seems like a good time to instigate labour laws for vampires," he grumbled as he climbed out of the car.
"Don't you listen to him, Pietro," Loretta said in a prim tone, coming to stand beside her mate. She gave him a warm smile. "Is it okay to hug?"
He stared at the pretty brunette, remembering the first time he'd seen her walking into The Dive with her head held high; a Were in the heart of a vampire den. He'd been both disgusted and also impressed with the feisty she-wolf who had sat down and all but demanded to see Andrei.
She'd met his eyes then with no fear and now she held his gaze once more. There was no sign of any loathing or disgust on her face. Instead there was warmth in her deep brown eyes, concern etching her features. Again, he was amazed at the strength of the females his friends had chosen for their mates. Loretta would always be special to him because of who she was as well as because she was Andrei's mate.
"For you, always, Loretta," he finally answered, moving forward to embrace her tightly and accept her welcome into her home.
"Make it quick," Andrei growled, grabbing Pietro's travel bag and motioning Demetri inside. As soon as they were alone, he gave the other man a questioning look.
"It's hard to tell," Demetri said quietly, nodding his head towards Andrei's study. It was safe to leave Pietro with Loretta. He'd scented Nors and Alexei close by as well as some of the pack betas. They'd kept out of the way of their arrival but the pack boundaries were effectively being patrolled to ensure no harm came to anyone, including Pietro.
"Mallen can take a look at the scarring but it's highly unlikely anything can be done about it," Andrei sighed, closing the study door behind them. He moved to one of the armchairs beside the fire and sat down, Demetri taking a seat across from him.
"The physical scarring is bad enough," Demetri concurred. "It's the emotional scarring I'm more concerned about. Annie's going to head down in a few days. She wanted to give him time to settle into pack life but she wants you to let her know if you think she needs to come sooner."
Andrei nodded. "I think that's a good idea. Let him feel a bit more comfortable before someone starts poking about inside his head. If it becomes apparent he needs more, we can deal with it as and when it crops up."
His eyes suddenly began to bleed to black and fury began to build inside him. "What the fuck is going on in Europe, Demetri? It's bad enough they attacked Pietro but if those fuckers think they're coming anywhere near my family, I'll rip them apart limb from limb."
Demetri could understand the other man's fury because he shared it. He'd also seen first-hand what the poison could do. But they had to try and keep a level head. Going off half-cocked was not going to do them any good.
"Be calm, Andrei. We all share your fury and are equally as concerned for our families. At the moment, there's only one European vampire on the loose and we're more than capable of taking care of her when she arrives. The rest of them seem to be waiting for something before they act. God only knows what that is but we have allies over there who will give us a heads up should they move."
It felt odd being the one advising caution but then Andrei was as volatile as him, sometimes even more so. Now he was back on home soil, Demetri could afford to engage his brain before acting.
"Anyway, the people in most danger are full vampires," he added, as he watched Andrei start to calm down. "The poison is designed to target us. There's no telling how dangerous it will be to hybrids or any of us mated to Weres."
"Even if what you say is true...even if it didn't kill Loretta and the children, it could still hurt them." Andrei fought with his feral side, tried to stifle it down. He couldn't countenance any harm coming to his family. The vampire nation had hurt Loretta enough in the past, almost killing her twice. He'd wreak havoc before he allowed them a third chance.
"And Mara is a full vampire. As is Annie," Demetri growled. "You think it's any easier for me to sit here and urge calm? Your family has a chance, Andrei. Mine doesn't. Possibly Annie could survive a poison attack, who knows? But what I do know is that Mara wouldn't and she'd be a prime target because she's a member of the Council. So, if I can keep myself in check, then you sure as hell can too."
Demetri's words were sobering. Andrei sat back and closed his eyes, trying to imagine how hard it was for his friend to appear so calm in the face of the potential threat to not only his wife but their queen, a woman Demetri classed as his sister. If he could control himself then so could Andrei.
"This is just so outrageous," he finally sighed, opening his eyes which had reverted back to normal. "How the hell did this happen? How did we become so complacent that we let the Europeans get so out of hand without doing something about it?"
Demetri arched an eyebrow at him. "Isn't that a question the Council should be answering?" He watched his friend frown. "Caleb was talking about a meeting of some sort. I'm not sure what he has in mind yet but we'll find out soon enough. The Council need to be appraised of the situation. Pietro and I will provide as much information as we can."
Demetri stood up and flexed his shoulders. "I need to go. Cristoph and Stefan are watching my house and Jared sent a few Weres to patrol as backup but I don't like being this far from Mara when this unknown vampire is on her way. For now, get Pietro settled. I don't think anything's going to happen today. One of us will be in touch with Rafe and also the Council officially tomorrow."
Andrei nodded and rose too, feeling only a little less angry. He buried his fury deep and forced himself to think like a Council member. Officially, the ruling vampire body didn't know of the current events. Unofficially, with himself, Alexei and Mara being Council members some of them were aware and would need to address it before too much time passed.
He walked Demetri out, quickly determining his mate had taken Pietro upstairs to settle him in Lily's old room. Loretta had spent most of the day neutralising the room to be less feminine.
It made sense to use his daughter's room as she was now mated and living permanently at the Praetorian compound. Logically, the idea had been sound when they'd discussed it, but it hadn't made it any easier for him to accept that his little girl no longer lived at home. Letting go was a lot more difficult than he'd imagined it would be. Still it had to be done and he had to accept it or risk losing Lily completely.
With an inward sigh, he said goodbye to his friend and then went back inside just as Loretta was coming downstairs. There was a frown marring her pretty features and he couldn't stop himself from pulling her into a tight embrace and kissing the expression away. He didn't like to see his mate so worried.
"He's so sad, Andrei," Loretta whispered, as she rested her head on his shoulder. "No one has the right to do that to someone, to take the spark from them. I don't know if Pietro will ever recover from what was done to him."
Andrei knew his mate was thinking of her own experiences, that she could relate to the pain his friend was in. "You did, Loretta. You not only recovered you became stronger for it. Pietro will too. Just give him some time."
She sighed and tightened her hold. "I hope so, Andrei."
Demetri woke to an empty bed and frowned in irritation until he heard the subtle sounds of water splashing in the adjoining bathroom. His long body relaxed and he stretched, a satisfied smile crossing his face.
Mara had been very solicitous towards Pietro when they'd arrived back from Europe, tucking him safely into a room when it had become apparent he wanted to be left alone for a while. As soon as the other vampire had locked himself away, she'd turned her critical eye on her husband, and smiled.
That smile had been enough to tell him that she was more than pleased with his efforts in Europe and also that he was about to get some serious loving from his woman, something he was particularly addicted to. He hadn't realised how draining the last few days had been until he woke up to an empty bed and the sounds of his wife luxuriating in the bath next door.
The struggle to hold onto his human side in Europe had been more challenging than he'd expected. Maybe it was because it had been so long since he'd been on a true hunt? He'd become used to having Mara around to counter his feral side. Suddenly being alone with no support network had thrown him off balance.
He made a mental note to never become that complacent again. To remember that at all times the urge to cross over would be lurking in the wings. It was safer for everyone concerned that he never forgot what he was capable of when pushed to his limits. The carnage which could ensue if he ever did was unthinkable.