Unforgiven – Lauren Kate

Cam’s boots touched down on the eaves of the old church beneath a cold and starry sky. He drew his wings close and gazed out at the landscape. Spanish moss, white in the moonlight, hung like icicles from antebellum trees. Cinder-block buildings framed a weedy field and a pair of splintery bleachers. Wind rustled in from the sea. Winter break at Sword & Cross Reform School. Not a soul on campus. What was he doing here? It was minutes after midnight, and he’d just flown in from Troy. He’d made the journey in a haze, an unknown force guiding his wings. He found himself humming a tune he hadn’t let himself remember for several thousand years. Maybe he’d come back here because this was where the fallen angels had met Luce in her last, cursed life. It had been her three hundred and twenty-fourth incarnation—and the three hundred and twenty-fourth time the fallen angels had flocked together to see how the curse would play out. The curse was broken now. Luce and Daniel were free. And dammit if Cam wasn’t jealous.

His gaze swept across the cemetery. He would never have guessed he’d feel nostalgic for this junkyard, but there had been something thrilling about those early days at Sword & Cross. Lucinda’s spark had been brighter, keeping the angels guessing when they’d once believed they knew what to expect. For six millennia, each time she turned seventeen, they’d staged a variation of the same performance: the demons—Cam, Roland, and Molly—tried everything to sway Luce’s alliances to Lucifer, while the angels—Arriane and Gabbe and sometimes Annabelle—worked to usher Luce back into Heaven’s fold. Neither side had ever come close to winning her over. For every time Luce met Daniel—and she always met Daniel—nothing mattered as much as their love. Time and again, they fell for each other, and time and again, Luce died in a blaze of fire. Then, one night at Sword & Cross, everything changed. Daniel kissed Lucinda, and she lived. They all knew it then.

Luce was finally going to be allowed to choose. A few weeks later they all flew to the site of their original fall, to Troy, where Lucinda chose her destiny. She and Daniel again refused to side with Heaven or with Hell. Instead, they chose each other. They gave up their immortality to spend one mortal lifetime together. Luce and Daniel were gone now, but they were still on Cam’s mind. Their triumphant love made him yearn for something he dared not put into words. He was humming again. That song. Even after all this time, he remembered it….

He closed his eyes and saw its singer: the back of her red hair woven loosely in a braid, her long fingers caressing the strings of a lyre as she leaned against a tree. He hadn’t let himself think of her in thousands of years. Why now? “This can’s busted,” a familiar voice said. “Toss me another?” Cam spun around. No one was there. He noticed a flicker of movement through the shattered stained-glass window on the roof. He edged forward and peered down through it, into the chapel Sophia Bliss had used as her office when she was the Sword & Cross librarian. Inside the chapel, Arriane’s iridescent wings flexed as she shook a can of spray paint and rose off the ground, aiming the nozzle at the wall. Her mural featured a girl in a glowing blue forest. She wore a tiered black dress and looked up at a blond boy who held out a white peony.

Luce and Daniel 4ever Arriane sprayed in gothic silver letters over the bell of the girl’s skirt. Behind Arriane, a dark-skinned demon with dreadlocks was lighting a tall glass candle showing Santa Muerte, the goddess of death. Roland was making a shrine at the site where Sophia had murdered Luce’s friend Penn. Fallen angels couldn’t enter sanctuaries of God. As soon as they crossed the threshold, the whole place would go up in flames, incinerating every mortal inside. But this chapel had been desanctified when Miss Sophia had moved in. Cam spread his wings and dropped through the broken window, landing behind Arriane. “Cam.” Roland embraced his friend. “Take it easy,” Cam said, but he didn’t pull away.

Roland tilted his head. “Quite a coincidence, finding you here.” “Is it?” Cam asked. “Not if you like carnitas,” Arriane said, tossing Cam a small foil-wrapped package. “Remember the taco truck on Lovington? I’ve been craving these ever since we fled this swamp.” She opened her own foil package and devoured her taco in two bites. “Delish.” “What are you doing here?” Roland asked Cam. Cam leaned against a cold marble pillar and shrugged. “I left my Les Paul in the dorm.

” “All this way for a guitar?” Roland nodded. “I suppose we’ve all got to find new ways to fill our endless days, now that Luce and Daniel are gone.” Cam had always hated the force that pulled the fallen angels to the cursed lovers every seventeen years. He’d left battlefields and coronations. He’d left the arms of exquisite girls. Once he’d walked off a movie set. He’d dropped everything for Luce and Daniel. But now that the irresistible pull was gone, he missed it. His eternity was open wide. What was he going to do with it? “Did what happened in Troy give you, I don’t know…” Roland trailed off.

“Hope?” Arriane grabbed Cam’s uneaten taco and downed it. “If, after all these thousands of years, Luce and Daniel can stand up to the Throne and seize a happy ending, why can’t anyone? Why can’t we?” Cam gazed through the shattered window. “Maybe I’m not that kind of guy.” “We all carry pieces of our journeys within us,” Roland said. “We all learn from our mistakes. Who’s to say we don’t deserve happiness?” “Listen to us.” Arriane touched the scars on her neck. “What do we three jaded birds of prey know about love?” She looked from Cam to Roland. “Right?” “Love’s not the exclusive property of Luce and Daniel,” Roland said. “We’ve all tasted it.

Maybe we will again.” Roland’s optimism struck a dissonant chord with Cam. “Not me,” he said. Arriane sighed, arching her back to spread her wings and rise a few feet off the ground. A fluttering sound filled the empty church. With deft slashes of her can of white spray paint, she added the subtlest hint of wings above Lucinda’s shoulders. Before the Fall, angels’ wings were made of empyreal light, all of them perfect, one pair indistinguishable from the next. In the era since, their wings had become expressive of their personalities, their mistakes and impulses. The fallen angels who had given their allegiance to Lucifer bore golden wings. Those who had returned to the fold of Heaven bore the Throne’s hint of silver throughout their fibers.

Lucinda’s wings had been special. They had been purely, stunningly white. Unspoiled. Innocent of the choices the rest of them had made. The only other fallen angel who had preserved his white wings was Daniel. Arriane crumpled the second taco wrapper. “Sometimes I wonder…” “What?” Roland asked. “If you guys could go back and not screw up so epically in the love department, would you?” “What’s the point of wondering?” Cam asked. “Rosaline is dead.” He saw Roland wince at the mention of his lost beloved.

“Tess will never forgive you,” he added, looking at Arriane. “And Lilith—” There. He’d said her name. Lilith was the only girl Cam had ever loved. He’d asked her to marry him. It hadn’t worked out. He heard her song again, throbbing in his soul, blinding him with regret. “Are you humming?” Arriane narrowed her eyes at Cam. “Since when do you hum?” “What about Lilith?” Roland said. Lilith was dead, too.

Though Cam had never known how she had lived out her days on earth after they parted, he knew she would have left this world and ascended to Heaven long ago. If Cam were a different kind of guy, it might have brought him peace to imagine her enfolded in joy and light. But Heaven was so painfully distant, he found it best not to think of her at all. Roland seemed to be reading his mind. “You could do it your own way.” “I do everything my own way,” Cam said. His wings pulsed silently behind him. “It’s one of your best traits,” Roland said, looking up at the stars through the ruined ceiling, then back at Cam again. “What?” Cam asked. Roland laughed softly.

“I didn’t say anything.” “Allow me,” Arriane said. “Cam, this is totally when everyone expects you to make one of your dramatic exits into that pocket in the clouds.” She pointed to a rope of fog dangling from Orion’s Belt. “Cam.” Roland stared at Cam, alarmed. “Your wings.” Near the tip of Cam’s left wing was a single, tiny white filament. Arriane gaped. “What does it mean?” It was one white fleck amid a field of gold, but it forced Cam to remember the moment his wings had changed from white to gold.

He had long ago accepted his destiny, but now, for the first time in millennia, he imagined something else. Thanks to Luce and Daniel, Cam had a fresh start. And only one regret. “I have to go.” He fully extended his wings, and brilliant golden light flooded the chapel as Roland and Arriane leaped out of the way. The candle tipped and shattered, its flame dwindling on the cold stone floor. Cam shot into the sky, piercing the night, and headed toward the darkness that had been awaiting him since the moment he’d flown away from Lilith’s love. Lilith woke up coughing. It was wildfire season—it was always wildfire season—and her lungs were thick with smoke and ash from the red blaze in the hills. Her bedside clock flashed midnight, but her thin white curtains glowed gray with dawn.

The power must be out again. She thought of the biology test awaiting her in fourth period, followed immediately by the sucky fact that last night she’d brought home her American history book by mistake. Whose idea of a cruel joke was it to assign her two textbooks with precisely the same color spine? She was going to have to wing the test and pray for a C. She slid out of bed and stepped in something warm and soft. She drew her foot up, and the smell assaulted her. “Alastor!” The little blond mutt trotted into her bedroom, thinking Lilith wanted to play. Her mom called the dog a genius because of the tricks Lilith’s brother, Bruce, had taught him, but Alastor was four years old and refused to learn the only trick that mattered: being housebroken. “This is seriously uncivilized,” she scolded the dog, and hopped on one foot into the bathroom. She turned on the shower. Nothing.

Water off till 3 p.m. her mom’s note proclaimed on a sheet of loose-leaf taped to the bathroom mirror. The tree roots outside were curling through their pipes, and her mom was supposed to have money to pay the plumber this afternoon, after she got a paycheck from one of her many part-time jobs. Lilith groped for toilet paper, hoping at least to wipe her foot clean. She found only a brown cardboard tube. Just another Tuesday. The details varied, but every day of Lilith’s life was more or less the same degree of awful. She tore her mom’s note from the mirror and used it to wipe her foot, then dressed in black jeans and a thin black T-shirt, not looking at her reflection. She tried to remember a single shred of what her biology teacher had said might be on the test.

By the time she got downstairs, Bruce was tilting the remains of the cereal box into his mouth. Lilith knew those stale flakes were the last morsels of food in the house. “We’re out of milk,” Bruce said. “And cereal?” Lilith said. “And cereal. And everything.” Bruce was eleven and nearly as tall as Lilith, but much slighter. He was sick. He had always been sick. He was born too soon, with a heart that couldn’t keep up with his soul, Lilith’s mother liked to say.

Bruce’s eyes were sunken and his skin had a bluish tint because his lungs could never get enough air. When the hills were on fire, like they were every day, he wheezed at the smallest exertion. He stayed home in bed more often than he went to school. Lilith knew Bruce needed breakfast more than she did, but her stomach still growled in protest. Food, water, basic hygiene products—everything was scarce in the dilapidated dump they called home. She glanced through the grimy kitchen window and saw her bus pulling away from the stop. She groaned, grabbing her guitar case and her backpack, making sure her black journal was inside. “Later, Bruce,” she called, and took off. Horns blared and tires squealed as Lilith sprinted across the street without looking, like she always told Bruce not to do. Despite her terrible luck, she never worried about dying.

Death would mean freedom from the panicked hamster wheel of her life, and Lilith knew she wasn’t that lucky. The universe or God or something wanted to keep her miserable. She watched the bus rumble off, and then started walking the three miles to school with her guitar case bouncing against her back. She hurried across her street, past the strip mall with the dollar store and the drive-through Chinese place that was always going in and out of business. Once she got a few blocks beyond her own gritty neighborhood, known around town as the Slump, the sidewalks smoothed out and the roads had fewer potholes. The people who stepped outside to get their papers were wearing business suits, not the ratty bathrobes Lilith’s neighbors often wore. A well-coiffed woman walking her Great Dane waved good morning, but Lilith didn’t have time for pleasantries. She ducked through the concrete pedestrian tunnel that ran beneath the highway. Trumbull Preparatory School sat at the corner of High Meadow Road and Highway 2 —which Lilith mostly associated with stressful trips to the emergency room when Bruce got really sick. Speeding down the pavement in her mother’s purple minivan, her brother wheezing faintly against her shoulder, Lilith always gazed out the window at the green signs on the side of the highway, marking the miles to other cities.

Even though she hadn’t seen much—anything—outside of Crossroads, Lilith liked to imagine the great, wide world beyond it. She liked to think that someday, if she ever graduated, she’d escape to a better place. The late bell was ringing when she emerged from the tunnel near the edge of campus. She was coughing, her eyes burning. The smoldering wildfires in the hills that encircled her town wreathed the school in smoke. The brown stucco building was ugly, and made even uglier by its papering of student-made banners. One advertised tomorrow’s basketball game, another spelled out the details for the after-school science fair meeting, but most of them featured blown-up yearbook photos of some jock named Dean who was trying to win votes for prom king. At Trumbull’s main entrance stood Principal Tarkenton. He was barely over five feet tall and wore a burgundy polyester suit. “Late again, Ms.

Foscor,” he said, studying her with distaste. “Didn’t I see your name on yesterday’s detention list for tardiness?” “Funny thing about detention,” Lilith said. “I seem to learn more there staring at the wall than I ever have in class.” “Get to first period,” Tarkenton said, taking a step toward Lilith, “and if you give your mother one second of trouble in class today—” Lilith swallowed. “My mom’s here?” Her mom substituted a few days a month at Trumbull, earning a tuition waiver that was the only reason she could afford to send Lilith to the school. Lilith never knew when she might find her mom waiting ahead of her in the cafeteria line or blotting her lipstick in the ladies’ room. She never told Lilith when she would be gracing Trumbull’s campus, and she never offered her daughter a ride to school. It was always a horrible surprise, but at least Lilith had never walked in on her mother substituting in one of her own classes. Until today, it seemed. She groaned and headed inside, wondering which of her classes her mom would turn up in.

She was spared in homeroom, where Mrs. Richards had already finished the roll and was furiously writing on the board about ways students could help with her hopeless campaign to bring recycling to campus. When Lilith walked in, the teacher shook her head wordlessly, as if she were simply bored by Lilith’s habitual lateness. She slid into her seat, dropped her guitar case at her feet, and took out the biology book she’d just grabbed from her locker. There were ten precious minutes left in homeroom, and Lilith needed them all to cram for her test. “Mrs. Richards,” the girl next to Lilith said, glaring in her direction. “Something suddenly smells awful in here.” Lilith rolled her eyes. She and Chloe King had been enemies since day one of elementary school, though she couldn’t remember why.

It wasn’t like Lilith was any kind of threat to the rich, gorgeous senior. Chloe modeled for Crossroads Apparel and was the lead singer of a pop band called the Perceived Slights, not to mention the president of at least half of Trumbull’s extracurricular clubs. After more than a decade of Chloe’s nastiness, Lilith was used to the constant rain of attacks. On a good day, she ignored them. Today she focused on the genomes and phonemes in her bio book and tried to tune Chloe out. But now the other kids around Lilith were pinching their noses. The kid in front of her mimed a retching motion. Chloe swiveled in her seat. “Is that your cheap idea of perfume, Lilith, or did you just crap your pants?” Lilith remembered the mess Alastor had left by her bedside and the shower she hadn’t been able to take, and felt her cheeks burn. She grabbed her things and bolted from the classroom, ignoring Mrs.

Richards’s ravings about a hall pass, and ducked into the closest bathroom. Inside, alone, she leaned against the red door and closed her eyes. She wished she could hide in here all day, but she knew once the bell rang, this place would be flooded with students. She forced herself to the sink. She turned on the hot water, kicked off her shoe, raised her offending foot into the basin, and pumped the cheap pink soap dispenser. She glanced up, expecting to see her sad reflection, and instead she found a glittery poster taped over the mirror. Vote King for Queen, it read below a professional head shot of a beaming Chloe King. Prom was later this month, and the anticipation seemed to consume every other kid at school. Lilith had seen a hundred of these kinds of posters in the halls. She’d walked behind girls showing each other pictures of their dream corsages on their phones on their way to class.

She’d heard the boys joke about what happened after prom. All of it made Lilith gag. Even if she had money for a dress, and even if there were a guy she actually wanted to go with, there was no way she would ever set foot in her high school when she wasn’t legally required to be there. She tore Chloe’s poster from the mirror and used it to clean the inside of her shoe, then tossed it into the sink, letting the water run over it until Chloe’s face was nothing but wet pulp. In poetry, Mr. Davidson was so engrossed in writing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 on the board that he didn’t even notice Lilith come in late. She sat down cautiously, watching the other kids, waiting for someone to hold their nose or gag, but luckily they only seemed to notice Lilith as a means for passing notes. Paige, the sporty blond girl to Lilith’s left, would nudge her, then slide a folded note onto her desk. It wasn’t labeled, but Lilith knew, of course, that it wasn’t meant for her. It was for Kimi Grace, the cool half Korean, half Mexican girl sitting to her right.

Lilith had passed enough notes between these two to glimpse snatches of their plans for prom—the epic after-party and the sick stretch limo they were pooling their allowances to hire. Lilith had never been given an allowance. If her mom had any cash to spare, it went straight to Bruce’s medical bills. “Right, Lilith?” Mr. Davidson asked, making Lilith flinch. She shoved the note under her desk so she wouldn’t get caught. “Could you say that again?” Lilith asked. She really did not want to piss off Mr. Davidson. Poetry was the only class she liked, mostly because she wasn’t failing it, and Mr.

Davidson was the only teacher she’d ever met who seemed to enjoy his job. He’d even liked some of the song lyrics Lilith had turned in as poetry assignments. She still had the loose-leaf paper on which Mr. Davidson had written simply Wow! beneath the lyrics for a song she called “Exile.” “I said you’ve signed up for the open mic, I hope?” Davidson asked. “Yeah, sure,” she mumbled, but she hadn’t and hoped not to. She didn’t even know when it was. Davidson smiled, pleased and surprised. He turned to the rest of the class. “Then we all have something to look forward to!” As soon as Davidson turned back to his board, Kimi Grace nudged Lilith.

When Lilith met Kimi’s dark, pretty eyes, she wondered for a moment if Kimi wanted to talk about the open mic, if the idea of reading in front of an audience made her nervous, too. But all Kimi wanted from Lilith was the folded note in her hand. Lilith sighed and passed it to her.

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