He'd been holding his own, gradually learning to anticipate and counter the enemy's moves, when a sudden burning sensation shot through his left wing and Jalus dropped out of the sky to land hard on the rooftop below. He barely managed to counter the first strike; the second connected, adding pain in his ribs to the throbbing of his wing. Too slow; he couldn't move with his usual speed and the villain calling himself the Decimator was taking blatant advantage.
Jalus' heel hit stone and he faltered. In that moment of distraction the Decimator launched a rocket at him. He dodged but, unable to utilize his wings for balance, he found himself falling, desperately scrabbling for anything to keep him from freefalling to the earth below. His hands found rough concrete and he clung to the edge with all his strength, his left wing hanging in dead weight at his side.
"Well, how the mighty Empyrean has fallen," sneered a voice from above.
Jalus looked up at the Decimator who was standing directly above him with a laser pointed at his head.
"Any last words, oh great hero?" The Decimator asked, grinning in a fashion Jalus could only describe as demented.
"How about goodbye?" a new voice suggested, the words icy and clipped and oh so familiar. This was it then. The end.
In the next moment there came the thunk of flesh hitting flesh and the Decimator screamed as he was propelled past Jalus and down to the hard ground so very far below where his scream cut off with sickening finality.
Jalus stared down at the unmoving body below until something grabbed his wrists and he jerked his head up to stare at the absolute last person he ever would have expected to see trying to pull him up.
"A little help here," the Shadow Princess grunted. "You weigh a ton."
Jalus bristled. "I'll have you know my bone structure makes me light as a fea-"
"Save it, flyboy." She pulled harder on his wrists and he decided the argument could wait until after he was not in imminent danger of plunging to his death.
Between the two of them they managed to get him up over the edge in a manner so undignified that Jalus hoped with all his might that no one had gotten it on film. He'd never live down the humiliation. Bad enough to be rescued by his arch-enemy, but tumbling to the rooftop like a sack of flour was just about the most undignified thing he'd ever done.
Getting to his feet, favoring his injured wing, Jalus warily eyed his unlikely rescuer.
"You saved my life."
The Shadow Princess snorted. "Don't get used to it. It won't happen again."
He shook his head slowly, overflowing with confusion. "Why?"
She laughed softly and he had the impression she was smirking at him from beneath the shroud of her veil. "Nobody gets to throw you off a roof but me."
He thought about protesting that he didn't want to be thrown off a roof by anyone but thought better of it. Whatever her real motivation had been, she had saved his life. In all the times they'd fought, she'd never actively tried to kill him like many other villains had. She had thrown (or kicked, or tripped) him off plenty of rooftops, but always when he'd had full use of his wings. Apparently she didn't want him dead.
Drawing in a breath, Jalus swallowed his pride as best he was able. "Thank-"
"Don't," she interrupted, holding up a slender gloved hand. "Save it for next time I blow something up."
His brows furrowed but she didn't give him any time to formulate a response before she had stepped into a nearby shadow and vanished. He remained standing there long after she'd left, enveloped in confusion, before finally the ache in his wing motivated him to make his way painfully down to ground level to seek medical assistance.
Morgan looked at her watch again, frowning. It was well past the time that Empyrean should have appeared. It was also past the time she'd allotted for Empyrean taking extra long to primp, not that he'd bothered much in the last eight or nine months. She'd been certain he was completely healed from the wound the Decimator (what a stupid name) had inflicted, but maybe he'd just been very good at hiding his weakness. Then again, she had seen him flying two days ago, so it couldn't still be hurting him that much.
She gave him five more minutes to get his act together and show up before canceling the countdown. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe he had been more badly injured than she'd thought. There had been no major incidents in the city that required Empyrean's presence in the last month so there was no way of judging how badly he was impaired.
Biting her lower lip, Morgan debated with herself for a few more minutes before sliding into a shadow and invoking what she called her "all shadows are one" rule to step out in the foyer of Jalus Eremas' penthouse suite. She was only going to check to make sure he was alive, that's all. She wasn't worried, just a little bit concerned. It was only fun to be a villain if she had a good hero to spar with. Her motivations were entirely self-centered, like a good villain. She wasn't at all upset by the notion that her arch-enemy might be in pain.
Her footsteps made no sound as she slid across the expensive carpeting, making her way down a darkened hall to the master bedroom. There was not a single light on in the entire suite, and while she had no difficulty seeing in the shadows it left her feeling more than a little uneasy. Why didn't he have any lights on? Had someone else taken it upon themselves to invade his privacy while he was still weakened?
The bedroom doorway was partially ajar. She crept up to it and looked inside, seeing nothing but a small corner of the oversized bed and a bookcase along the wall. Carefully, so as not to make a sound, she pushed the door open enough to let her slide fully into the room.
The bed was empty.
"I thought so."
Morgan whirled, cursing herself as she lashed out with one foot. Empyrean blocked it, ducking low and sweeping her feet out from under her with one wing - clearly his injury no longer pained him if he was able to do that. Before she could roll enough to regain her footing he rolled right on top of her, using his greater weight to pin her down, his hands snapping out to trap her wrists away from her body.
Not caring that he couldn't see her through her veil, she glared at him.
"I've been thinking," he began conversationally, as though it was an everyday thing and he had not just gotten the drop on her for the first time since their little feud had begun. "For weeks, trying to figure it out. Why would you bother to save my life? Why were you even there? You never come out in the daytime and yet here I am, alive, because of you. Why is that?"
Rather than play whatever game it was that he was playing, Morgan subtly tested his hold on her. His grip was like iron, but he wasn't holding her hard enough to hurt. It seemed he was only interested in preventing her from getting away. She could shadow-walk, of course, and she was tempted to do so regardless of the fact that she'd never tried it with someone holding her before and for all she knew she might accidentally take him with her.
"Then I thought about the way you operate," Empyrean continued, unaware of her internal debate. "In all the times you've held the city hostage, no one has ever been killed, or seriously hurt, and there really hasn't been all that much in the way of property damage, once I actually started tallying it up. You're never stolen a single thing, and I am now quite certain that you've been holding back when we fight."
All very true, although she wasn't quite certain where this was going other than she didn't like that he was no longer blinded by the shiny title of Villain and was reading her so clearly. She held perfectly still, waiting.
"So, then I wondered why you even bothered to do anything at all, considering that blowing up landmarks is clearly well beneath the real scope of your abilities, and I finally figured out what was motivating you."
Morgan remained silent, even as she gathered her power. The fights had been fun, but she wasn't about to let him capture her. If she had to give up their weekly tussles, well, it was better than going to jail.
Above her, Jalus shifted, and she tensed. "Let me know if I've got this wrong," he said quietly, letting go of one of her wrists so he could brush her veil out of the way just enough to lean down and
A thousand naughty fantasies sprang to mind, riding the wings of a desperate longing she thought she'd managed to well and truly bury. Her carefully crafted facade crumbled beneath the heady rush of desire spiked by the simple melding of his lips with hers.
For one glorious moment it was absolutely perfect, before she remembered who and where she was. Jalus Eremas. Empyrean. And she was the woman the entire world recognized as his eternal arch-enemy. She was Despair.
With surprise on her side, Morgan managed to kick him off and roll into a crouch, coming up with her knives in her hands. She might not be willing to hurt him, but they should at least make him back off.
Or at least, that was the idea. Empyrean apparently had a different idea, for he launched himself at her as he had so many times in the past. She blocked, he countered, they scuffled for a moment before breaking away to wind up on opposite sides of the room. She with her veil askew, he in sore need of a new bathrobe. Any other time she would have been admiring her handiwork. Today, she was too overwhelmed to properly appreciate the view.
"What the hell are you playing at?" she demanded, keeping her tiny blades between herself and the threat of him.
Jalus watched her for a moment, then slowly relaxed his guard. He pulled off what remained of his bathrobe and tossed it aside, leaving him clad in nothing but a pair of snug boxer-briefs that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. He was, she was stunned to see, more than a little hard.
"I want to make a deal," Jalus said calmly. "You stop trying to blow up parts of the city and I'll give you my undivided attention."
Morgan couldn't help but laugh, a quick, short bark of a sound. "No one person can have Empyrean's undivided attention." He was too important, too instrumental to so many things, be it his company, his city, or his role on the Council of the League of Heroes. It just wasn't possible, and they both knew it.
Jalus smiled wryly and held out his hands. "Will you settle for more than anyone else gets, then?"
She looked at him, a furrow creasing her brow. It didn't make any sense. He was a hero, one of the greatest. What reason could he possibly have for taking an interest in her?
"Why?" she asked warily. "How do I know this isn't some trick?"
Although his smile faltered, it didn't entirely fade. If anything, it seemed softer. More personal.
"Because I'm tired of fighting you," he admitted. "I know now that you could have killed me many times over and you didn't. I admire your skill, your restraint, and I'd much rather have you for an ally than an enemy."
Morgan laughed curtly and shook her head. "I'm no hero, flyboy. I like to play dirty too much."
Jalus' mouth quirked. "Actually, that's kind of a turn-on." He wasn't lying; he was still hard.
She had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to say to that. Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought to find herself being offered the only thing she'd ever wanted. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.
Slowly, as though facing a wild creature, Jalus moved closer, one step at a time. When he was within arm's reach and she still hadn't made a move he smiled self-deprecatingly and murmured, "Please don't kick me in the balls," before gathering her into his arms and kissing her again.
She could have easily pushed him away; he'd left himself wide open. But if she pushed him away now then what did she have left? He'd already unraveled her plot, seen down to the very core of what drove her. Their rivalry was over for good, so she may as well get what she'd always wanted for as long as she was allowed to keep it.
It was the hardest decision she'd ever made, but it made what came after practically effortless. Instead of being kissed, she kissed back, almost fighting him for domination in an echo of their prior battles. This time, however, she not only had permission to look, but to touch as well. For the first time she could openly run her hands along the sculpted muscles she'd admired for so long, trail her fingers through the endless softness of his feathers, and stroke the hardness of him through his briefs until he all but shuddered in her grasp and had to pull away.
"I have an extremely comfortable bed not ten feet from here," Jalus pointed out, his voice ragged and breathy. "Unless your dire plot is to drive me to the brink and leave me hanging, in which case I would be very-"
She cut him off the expedient way, surging up to capture his mouth with her own. Caught off-guard, he took a step back. She didn't let him regain his balance, pressing forward so that he had to take another step, then another, until the back of his legs hit the foot of his bed and he caught on to her plan at last.
He went over without protest, pulling her after him to land in a tangle of arms and legs atop the sinful luxury of his entirely too opulent bed. Another time she might have made a crack about compensating, but with the whole of his body pressed closely against hers she had intimate knowledge that Jalus Eremas had absolutely no need to compensate for anything.
Jalus winced as someone attempted to slap him on the back and hit part of his wing instead. He shifted a bit, mantling his wings briefly to clear a little space around him. The well-wishers retreated a few steps to a more comfortable distance and the party continued on around them in full swing.
Looking out over the crowd to pick out a tiny, dark-haired woman surrounded by well-wishers of her own, Jalus could hardly believe they'd gotten this far. From the greatest of enemies to promising their lives to one another, it hardly seemed possible. Yet here they were, and she was his at last. He'd fought for her, with her, and none but they two knew how impassible the obstacles between them really were. Had life taken another route, they might still be enemies.
"I, am a lucky man," he said aloud, much to the amusement of his companions.
"We've been saying that for years," Rinzen commented, grinning.
"Hell, you're practically charmed," Devi added. "The rest of us have to put up with an endless string of lunatics marching through our territories, and you don't even have an arch-enemy anymore!"
"Hey, that's right," Motan said thoughtfully. "Not since the Shadow Princess just up and vanished a couple of years ago."
"What ever happened to her, Empyrean?" Devi asked, curious. "How did you finally defeat her?"
Jalus smiled slowly. "Who ever said I defeated her?" He laughed. "I just made her an offer she couldn't refuse."
There was a murmur from the circle of heroes around him, then someone asked curiously, "What will you do if she ever comes back?"
"Mm. For that to happen, I'd have to do something exceptionally stupid," Jalus said quietly. "I'd deserve whatever I got, in that case."
There were a few chuckles, although they were weak, as no one really understood what he meant. It didn't matter, because he knew, and he had no intention of ever seeing the Shadow Princess again.
"Hey flyboy," came a voice at his elbow, and he looked down to see the very object of his thoughts smiling up at him, her eyes full of laughter. "Care to dance?"
Jalus held out his arm and Morgan slipped her own through it, graciously allowing him to lead her out to the dance floor. The other dancers parted to give them space, which was only fitting as it was their party in the first place. He took her into his arms, both of them swaying to the music and enjoying simply being together.
"You know," Morgan said after a moment, her words pitched only for him, "I think that's the most romantic thing you've ever said."
Jalus gave a quiet laugh. "I mean it. I'd have to be a complete idiot to let you go."
Morgan's lips quirked in a manner that he knew full well meant that she completely agreed but was going to be nice to him and not actually say it aloud. He loved that he could read her to easily now when once she'd been a complete mystery to him. It was his proof that she belonged with him, and he with her.
"Besides," he murmured impudently, "I like having a secret weapon."
In his arms, Morgan snorted inelegantly. "I'm still no hero, flyboy." She hesitated a moment then added, softer, "Though, I'm pretty sure Fate knows. She congratulated me and told me she wished she'd thought of it."
Jalus chuckled. "Fate probably knew way back when Despair was still active." He rolled his eyes. "Precogs."
The moment was cut short when the building suddenly shook from the force of what Jalus recognized as a not-inconsiderable explosion. A moment later the lights flickered and went out, leading several people to utter sounds of surprise or distress. The slim figure in his arms stilled, her body tensing in a manner that promised no end of violence and usually made him hard in anticipation.
"Seriously?" Morgan growled. "Today? Someone is going to hurt for this."
Between one breath and the next she was gone, melted into the shadows, and Jalus was left holding nothing at all. He smiled as he made his way over to the closet where he'd stashed his uniform, entertaining the whimsical thought that a little bit of villainy must have rubbed off on him because he was in no particular hurry to go save the would-be bomber from Morgan's wrath.
Still, he slipped into his costume and became Empyrean with no lack of efficiency and made his way to a window where he could slip out into the night and go find his wife. After all, she was never more beautiful than when she was kicking someone's ass.