Epilogue

The Rose Garden

A pair of slender, pale hands dipped into the dark earth, pulling at her enemy's roots. After a few moments of struggle, the weed finally surrendered and allowed the princess to pull it from the earth. With a disdainful shake, she tossed it to the side and clapped her hands free of at least a bit of the dirt that still cling to her fingers and under her fingernails.

"Princess," a warm, soft voice suddenly called, and she stood. A slow smile spread across her face when she saw that it was Nicholas standing at the edge of her rose garden. He returned her smile with a sharper grin, but the princess felt no fear, though his fangs flashed in the torchlight. After a moment, he turned to the princess's personal guard and spoke, "You may leave, Joanne. I can take care of my mate." The vampiress nodded, flashing the princess a mischievous smile, and slipped through the trees on silent feet.

As soon as she was gone, Nicholas stepped forward, and Rosaline felt his cool hands encircle her waist. She leaned into him, resting against his much stronger body. For a moment, they simply remained that way; the vampire stroked his mate's long hair, and the human pressed one hand to his chest, listening to his surprisingly human heartbeat. "This is really amazing, Rosaline," he suddenly said, breaking the silence of their embrace.

Surprised, the girl pulled away. "What do you mean?" He swept one arm from her waist and indicated the rose garden they stood in the middle of.

"This," he said, a touch of wonder shimmering in his eyes, "It's just...this place was only a barren clearing a few months ago...and now...." He shook his head and kissed her very lightly on the cheek. "I'm just trying to say that you have done a wonderful job. I'm impressed."

Surprised at the compliment, Rosaline turned to examine her garden. A few months ago, she had discovered the barren clearing--just a short walk from the Nest. With Nicholas's help, she had started her project, beginning with a few winter roses. Every few nights, Nicholas would venture into the forest--when he was done with his other duties, of course--and return with a few plants for her fledgling garden. Unfortunately, not all of the plants had survived--she was not a gardener, after all-, but she had learned quickly and now the garden was full of wild roses.

It was not nearly as ordered or as organized as the garden of High Castle. Rather, it had a slightly wild look to it--almost as if the plants had, for no apparent reason, decided to root themselves in this one clearing, living in a harmonious ray of varied colors and sizes. Rosaline took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet scent that seemed always to hang upon the air. The only things to indicate that the arrangement might not be natural were the torch stands set up around the garden, casting warm firelight--in addition to the cool starlight--over the garden.

"Thank you," she said softly as she snuggled into his embrace, turning so that her back was pressing against his solid chest, "but it wasn't too difficult--I enjoyed doing it." Though she could not see his face, she knew he was smiling as he pressed his cheek to hers, arms wrapped once more around her waist.

"Well, I'm still impressed," he stubbornly replied, and she had to laugh lightly at his response. For a few minutes, they stood like that, gazing up at the stars and at the beautiful and varied array of roses. Their breathing harmonized; their heartbeats synchronized.

After a short time, though, Rosaline felt herself begin to grow restless, and she shifted in his grasp. There was something she had been meaning to ask him for a very long time now...but she had not yet gathered enough courage to satisfy her curiosity. She continued to squirm uncomfortably, wondering if she dared to ask...wondering what his answer would be...wondering....

"Rosaline," he said suddenly, shaking her from her thoughts as two steadying hands took tight hold of her hips, "Stop that. It's...distracting." She knew, without looking, that his eyes had probably adopted a reddish hue, and she felt herself blush. She was no longer the naïve princess that had come to his castle almost a year ago; she knew now what effect her movements were possibly having on him.

"Sorry," she mumbled.

She felt him relax his grip as he replied easily, "It's fine. No need to be sorry."

For another few moments, Rosaline was able to keep herself still. Then, however, she again felt the urge to move; her curiosity was becoming unbearable. Steeling herself, Rosaline finally posed tentatively, "Nicholas? C-can I ask you a question?"

She felt him laugh, his chest vibrating in time with his light chuckling. "Since when do you ask permission?" he joked lightly, planting a sweet kiss on her right temple.

Nervously, she licked her lips. "Um...since the question involves...." She mumbled the last part, feeling her face heat.

Apparently, she had spoken too softly even for Nicholas's superior vampire ears to understand because he laughed again and spun her around. "What?"

Taking a deep breath, she looked up into the vampire's brown eyes. "Feeding," she finally managed, blurting out the word as if it were somehow indecent, "Since the question involves...feeding."

He gave her a curious look, but his laughter had faded. Gently, he pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "What do you want to know?" he asked softly.

Swallowing tightly, she told herself, This is it. Ask him now. She allowed a soft breath to slip from between her slightly parted lips. "Wh-what does it feel like?" Again, she felt her cheeks color at the question. She knew from her conversations with Kit that between a vampire and a random donor, the sensation was usually mildly pleasant. However, she also knew that, between mates, the experience could be very...intimate.

And, of course, she could not forget Nicholas's own words, spoken the second night of the Invasion when she had offered herself to him--or at least, her blood.

He furrowed his brows. "It depends. If I want the experience to be painful...then it is. If I want it to be pleasant..." As she watched, the ruby flecks in his dark irises started to glow. "...then it is pleasant." Slowly, the red glow faded, but it looked as if it took some visible effort. "Why do you ask?" His voice was husky, almost as if he hadn't used it for a while. She swallowed tightly; she knew him well enough to recognize that look of restrained need. It was different than his normal thirst, though. Very different. He did not simply want her blood.

He wanted her.

Her mouth was suddenly dry, and she had to swallow past a lump in her throat before she managed, "I'm just...curious." He stared at her for a moment, then nodded curtly.

"Alright," he said as he cleared his throat, pushing her away from him slightly, "I-I'll let you get back to your gardening. I'll see you at the celebration then."

Right. The celebration. Sunrise would mark the beginning of the Day of Spirits--the one day every three years when the vampires were allowed to bask in the light of day. Unsurprisingly, it was a rather big deal at Dragon's Nest.

Rosaline felt something tug at her heart briefly. Before the Invasion, before Nicholas had given her the opportunity to choose her own future, it had also been the day they were scheduled to perform the bonding ceremony. Now, though, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do or when. Carefully, she had gone over all of the options with her mate, and he had told her it was up to her, that he didn't expect an answer immediately. The only restriction on time, apparently, was that she could not be turned into a vampire after age twenty five. For whatever reason, those who tried to make the transformation after that threshold became half-bloods, not full-blooded vampires...if they survived at all, that is. Most, unfortunately, did not.

Rosaline swallowed tightly as he took a step away from her. Giving her another curt nod, he turned, ready to depart. "Wait," a soft voice interrupted, and the vampire turned around, staring at her expectantly, questioningly. It took Rosaline a moment to realize that the soft voice had been her own.

He quirked an eyebrow. "Princess?" he asked, voice still slightly husky, though there was an obvious element of restraint touching it.

Voice soft and slightly hoarse, she barely managed to say, "Show me."

For a long moment, he stared at her, red-brown eyes widening. "What?" he whispered; Rosaline had to strain to hear him.

Swallowing despite the dryness of her throat, Rosaline repeated, a bit louder, a bit more confident, "Show me."

He seemed frozen in place, so Rosaline took it upon herself to take the first step forward. Almost automatically, he stepped toward her as well, though the action seemed to surprise him. They met in the middle. Rosaline put her hands on his shoulders; Nicholas took light hold of her elbows. "Are you certain?" he asked softly, keeping the reddish glow of his eyes purposely dim.

Rosaline felt herself swallow. "Yes."

Still, he hesitated, though Rosaline could see him starting to tremble with the force of his restraint. Red pigment was starting to bleed into his eyes. "I could hurt you," he whispered.

"But you won't," was Rosaline's easy response. Then, taking a deep breath, she whispered the magic words: "I trust you."

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, he pulled her closer, so that her smaller body was pressed flush against his own. One hand came up to hold her cheek, while the other pressed into her lower back, holding her in place. Dimly, Rosaline noticed that his hands were clawed. His eyes, too, were now completely red and glowing brightly. His ears had sharpened into points. A slight smile tugged at his lips, and Rosaline could see the inner predator lurking just behind his human mask. Once, she had been terrified of that predator. Now, though, she only felt a shiver of excitement roll down her spine.

Nicholas, it would seem, had decided to take a brief holiday; the Dragon was out and ready to play.

He leaned forward slightly, clawed thumb following the line of her scar. Rosaline closed her eyes, feeling his cool, sweet breath fall against her lips, which parted expectantly. Lightly, his lips passed over her own, the gesture teasing, playful. She tried to meet him, but he pulled away slightly. Opening her eyes, she glared at him, but he only smiled, mischief reflected in his ruby eyes. Then, before she could say a word, could ask what he was doing, he captured her mouth in a cool, bruising kiss.

Somehow, though, despite the chill of his lips, the princess felt suddenly very warm.

He deepened the kiss briefly, the hand on her lower back tracing wide circles. Suddenly, though, he pulled away from her, and she groaned at the loss. He did not abandon her entirely, though; starting at the corner of her mouth, he trailed kissed down to the pulse point on her throat. He used the hand on her cheek to guide her head back, and with infuriating surety, he licked lightly at the patch of skin. In response, an involuntary shudder passed through her, and she felt him smile against her throat.

But then he seemed to still, and she recognized that he was restraining himself, holding himself back. After a moment, he managed, voice hoarse, to say, "Do you really want this, Rosaline?"

After a moment, she nodded and swallowed tightly. To her satisfaction, she felt a brief tremor pass through his body. "Yes," she replied, voice faint and wispy.

Still he hesitated. "If I...if you get scared at any time, princess, tell me to stop. Okay?"

"Okay," she whispered in reply.

Another moment of agonizing anticipation passed, but then he muttered three more magic words: "I love you." His voice was soft, sweet--human, and yet there was an unashamed surety in his words that she knew was wholly vampire.

And, with that, he gave her the vampire's version of a kiss.

Lips closed gently over her throat, and a jolt passed through her body when she actually felt his fangs lengthen to meet the warm flesh of her neck. Her skin prickled into gooseflesh, and she shivered in anticipation and excitement. Then, without any warning at all, two sharp tips pierced the skin of her throat.

There was a sharp, sudden sting, but then a wave of pure ecstasy flooded her mind, making her gasp and washing away all traces, all memory of brief pain that had touched her. Closer than ever before, she felt his mind directly beside hers--inside hers. It was strange and beautiful at the same time; there were no walls between them, no barriers, no distance. No mask. Freely, they allowed themselves to walk down the mental paths of their mingled consciousness, exploring without fear.

Dreams, memories, thoughts, uncertainties--nothing was hidden, nothing concealed behind any masks or walls. Faults were not kept hidden either. Each knew the other's faults--but they accepted their mate, loved them regardless. It was an intimacy like none either had ever known, or would ever experience with another person again. They knew, in that moment, with a certainty that neither had been privy to before, that the other was their mate. Forever. For always.

Slowly, reluctantly, they separated. For a moment, they simply stared at each other. Then, they kissed again, feeling the first rays of warm sunlight spill over their bodies. Rosaline thought that she was able--possibly--to taste blood on his lips, but it didn't bother her. Rather, she felt somehow satisfied that it was her blood decorating his lips, and not another's. That's how it should be... some part of her whispered, reveling in the sensation.

In need of air, they broke away. Rosaline could feel her heart racing, and standing as close to him as she was, she could feel Nicholas's heart pounding out an identical tattoo. His breath, too, came in short gasps, though he did not need to breathe. A slow smile spread over his face as he looked up at the sky, eyes closed as he reveled in the sun's half-forgotten touch.

However, though he was handsome in sunlight, Rosaline could not help but reflect that the moonlight suited him better. Other vampires might call him 'tame', but Rosaline knew that that was not entirely true. A part of him was still wild, still feral, still wholly vampire. And she loved him for it, though that side of him had once frightened her.

Smiling too, Rosaline looked up at the sunlit sky and closed her eyes. After a moment, though, she reminded him, "We should get back to the Nest; the celebration is probably starting." He nodded but made no move to go; he wasn't even looking at her. Swallowing, Rosaline added with sudden certainty, "Besides, we have an announcement to make." She was no longer unsure; she knew what she wanted.

That got his attention. "We do?" he asked, surprised.

Feeling an impish smile tug at her lips, Rosaline said, "Yes. We need to tell them that we're going to be bonded." She saw his eyes widen in surprise and happiness. A joyful smile spread across his face, and he hugged her to his larger body and spun her around. She giggled, allowing the happy sound to slip from her lips unashamedly.

When he finally stopped spinning, he set her on her feet again and asked, "Have I told you that I love you?"

She laughed and gave him a light kiss. "Only every day." After a few more exclamations of happiness and several celebratory kisses, the two departed, hands clasped.

Behind them, the roses finally lifted their heavy heads and spread their petals to accept the warm daylight spilling from the sky above. It looked as if it was going to be a beautiful day.


AN: Alright, announcement time:

As I said, I did send my manuscript of this piece in to a publishing house. They weren't interested, and I'm going to try no further. I realize that often the process is to send to multiple publishing houses, but to be honest, it has been a few years since I first started this piece, and to be honest, the premise embarrasses me. No one can deny that the beginning, at least, is very cliche. Aside from that, my abilities as a writer have grown since, so I'm going to move on to other projects. I still intend, one day, to become a published author--I just don't think I'll be publishing Bonded. I might return to this story a few years from now, and rewrite everything as opposed to just editing a bit.

In any case, I greatly appreciate my readers' encouragement and the many reviews I've gotten. Happy reading or writing to all of you!

-Anne