by Valerie Kessler
1: Freshman Year
The plaintive voice outside Beguiling's front door interruped Henry in midsentence, and he peered around the display rack loaded with his new release to see its source.
"Any plans yet for what?" Jessica prompted, bobbing up from behind the cash register with her handbag. She must not have heard. "Henry?"
"I thought I heard someone outside," he explained. "Looks like we have a latecomer."
"Are they kidding? You should have been out of here at least an hour ago!" Pulling on her jacket, she moved around to where she could see the girl on the sidewalk. "Oh. Hang on a minute, I'll handle it."
Without waiting for an answer, she went over and turned the lock, opening the door partway. "Hey, Coreen. You know it's after eleven, right?"
"I know, I know. Maggie called in sick, and of course we got slammed because it's midterms and everybody wants -- " She heaved a slightly melodramatic sigh. "Never mind. It was worth a shot, huh? I'll just... catch him next time."
"You caught him this time." Henry belatedly set a hand on Jessica's back when she jumped; he should have made sure she knew he was there before speaking over her shoulder. "It's all right," he told her. "You go ahead and finish locking up."
The girl's face lit up, clear blue eyes going wide inside rings of smoky makeup. Seventeen, maybe eighteen, not a day more, buttoned into a sweeping velvet opera coat that flapped in the fall breeze to reveal coltish legs in striped stockings. "Ohmigosh, thank you so much! I know it's really late -- "
"It's all right," Henry repeated with a smile.
"Okay, then. Have a good one." Jessica shrugged, pulling the door the rest of the way open and stepping back for him to pass. Yawning, she added in a mutter, "Crazy night people."
"Thank you," the girl mouthed at her as she locked the door behind Henry. Jessica waved and shook her head.
Henry turned back to his public of one, drawing a pen from his jacket pocket. "So... Coreen, did she say?"
"Oh! Yes. I'm Coreen. Hi." She bounced on the balls of her feet, heart racing, a human-shaped bundle of nervous energy. If she were any cuter, she would have to be animated. "It's really great to meet you."
"You too," he chuckled. He gestured to the trade paperback clutched to her chest. "White Poppies? You haven't had a chance to pick up the new one? Jessica probably isn't out the back door yet."
"No! I mean no, don't bother her. I feel bad enough as it is... but yes, I got it. Read it. Loved it, really, it's just..." She held the earlier volume out to him, her smile turning wistful. "This one is special."
Henry accepted it, taking note of where the telltale lines of multiple readings scored the spine. "Estelle?"
She nodded, duly impressed. It was hardly a difficult guess, of course, though he didn't tell her that. All the little goth girls loved Estelle and her tragic fairy tale. Born into mourning, bound to her fate as guardian of the terrible secret at the heart of her family's château, the princess in the tower who died before she truly lived. They haunted his infrequent signings and penned naïvely poetic fan letters, in the adolescent throes of emotions too big and too wild for their safe suburban lives.
He hadn't set out with the intent of giving them a channel for that passion, but couldn't help being touched by the way they had claimed Estelle as their own. Ninety years had passed since he had failed to save her. Now a thousand young hearts would carry her spirit into a thousand unknown destinies.
"C-O-R...?" He opened the cover and looked up at her expectantly.
"Oh! Yes. One R, two Es, one N." She did her best to stand still as she waited, and managed to keep it down to shifting her weight from one foot to the other and back again. But she didn't try to see what he was writing. Maybe she liked surprises.
For Coreen --
"Live to dare
and dare to live"
He glanced up at the open young face before him, vibrant life glowing through a veil of rice powder. Impulsively, he added the line of a profile beneath the words. Almost of their own accord, Estelle's features took shape in a few spare strokes, glancing sidelong out of the page with the hint of an impish smile. Under this, he finished the inscription:
...as she could not.
All the best,
He held it in one hand to dry, carefully angling the freshly signed page out of its owner's line of sight, while he put away his pen. Coreen held onto her patience by a thread, grinning nervously at him but not moving to take the book until he closed the cover and held it out to her.
Taking it back with something resembling restraint -- it was clearly a prized possession -- she flipped it open, her jaw dropping at the unexpected little gift. "Oh, this is..." she breathed. "Oh, thank you!"
He saw the hug coming, of course, but didn't decide whether to stop her before she was on tiptoe, flinging her arms around his neck. Her heart pounded inches from his own for a handful of beats before she pulled back, blushing furiously.
"I'm sorry. That was... Um. Sorry."
"Don't be," he replied, smoothing down a strand of hair that had gone askew in her enthusiasm. "I didn't need to remind you of her motto, did I?"
"I keep talking to people who don't get what it means." Did she know she had stopped fidgeting? "They think it's like 'the point of living is to dare,' but she means it like 'live so you get a chance to dare.' Because she didn't. Right?"
"Exactly right." The smile he gave her was genuine, not calculated to draw her in, but the effect was the same. Her balance shifted forward slightly, a headier note creeping into her clean scent.
If he chose, it would take no effort at all to lead her into the shadows a few steps away. He had heard Jessica's car pull away from the back of the store minutes before, and while there was still some light foot traffic on this part of Queen West at this hour, any passerby who might chance to spot a young couple stealing a moment's passion would think nothing of it.
Probably too young, certainly too innocent, for the standards to which he held himself in this complicated age. He had fed before arriving here, of course. It had been perfunctory, but sufficient to ensure a clear head as he signed and smiled his way through a long line of variously keyed-up people. The idea of tasting this one was no less appealing for that, but he would choose his actions rationally.
Coreen might not -- could hardly be expected to, over the demands of her teenaged body and romantic nature. She swayed further toward him, a hair's breadth from committing to either meeting his lips or losing her balance. One hand drifted up to touch his face and draw it closer.
As soon as her palm settled against his cheek, she pulled it back hurriedly, saucer-eyed and fidgety all over again. "Ohmigosh, you're freezing! I have kept you standing out here way too long, I am so sorry -- "
"You didn't do anything wrong," he assured her, watching her reaction to gauge whether she would need more than words to persuade her of that. It was no more than the truth, but that was no guarantee, and the last thing he wanted was for her memory of their brief connection to be eclipsed by embarrassment.
"Okay." She took half a step back, gracefully enough, and sighed in genuine relief. Good. "But I should really let you go. Thank you again, so much."
"You're very welcome. I'm glad you caught me before I left." That, too, was no more than the truth. "Good night."
She took her leave with a cheery wave, striding briskly to the bus stop half a block away. Henry kept an ear on her as he headed the other direction, toward his car, and waited an extra minute after sliding behind the wheel, until the bus arrived and she stepped safely aboard.
2: All Hallows Eve
Henry answered Coreen's knock at his door with a pencil tucked behind his ear and an amused smirk. "Well, if it isn't the fairest of them all."
She picked up a fold of her costume's full skirt and attempted a curtsey. It came out a little awkward, but not too bad for someone with a satchel full of books in her other hand and a good eight years since her last ballet recital.
"Snow White was legitimate," he pointed out with a chuckle. "You should have waited for me to defer to you." There couldn't be much occasion to bow these days, but he sure didn't look out of practice.
Okay, so maybe she had been more than a little awkward. "I can't imagine keeping track of that stuff all the time."
"Do you remember learning to say 'please' and 'thank you,' or to look both ways before crossing the street? It really wasn't much different." He crossed his arms and leaned on the doorframe. "I'm afraid I don't have any treats. So what's the trick?"
Coreen winced. "I know, you're supposed to be working. I heard Vicki promise not to pull you into this case so you could make your deadline."
"And Vicki is...?"
"Right this minute? Probably rifling Gilbert Darby's file cabinets."
"I see. And you are...?"
"The messenger who doesn't want to be shot?" she answered with what she hoped was a disarming smile. Henry's courtesy toward her was generally tinged with either amusement or annoyance. If those were her choices, she would much rather have the amusement. She wasn't sure which one it was right now, but at least he stepped back from the door to let her in.
"I spent half the day online, and the other half in the U library, and I'm coming up empty. Very frustrating. I really didn't want to bother you, but Vicki's right, you might at least know something that'll give me a starting point. They sort of look like one of the Linear scripts, but they're not. I don't think they're anything occult, but they're definitely old, and -- "
"Coreen." That was unmistakably on the annoyed side.
"And you have no idea what I'm talking about. Sorry." She leaned over the back of his couch to plunk her satchel on it and pulled out the file folder. Flipping it open, she spread the photos across it on top of the couch. "Vicki told you about the shipment that went missing, and then un-missing, except for the one crate, right?" When he nodded, she went on, "Well, it turned up this morning, on a supermarket loading dock out in Etobicoke. Don't ask, I have no idea. But it is the right crate, with the manifest still sealed in the pocket on the outside and everything. Except all the lab equipment that's supposed to be in it is missing, and instead there are these little rocks with symbols carved on them, spread all through the packing material."
Henry frowned at the photos. "Some sort of practical joke?"
With a shrug, Coreen admitted, "Makes as much sense as anything we've come up with. I mean, if the point was to get the stuff that's supposed to be in the crate, why go to that trouble?"
"Unless the stones mean something."
"Right. But I have no idea what. I'm pretty sure it's just coincidence that they look like Linear A or B, just because there are only so many different marks you can make with a sharp point scratching on stone."
He looked up at her about halfway through the last sentence. "That sounds familiar."
She followed him over to a bookcase, watching him run a finger along the spines. "Really? Because I'm totally guessing."
"A news article I read not too long ago," he said. "About small stones like that found at a number of Neolithic sites in Europe, and a theory that they represent a sort of proto-writing, native to the area long before writing is known to have spread from Mesopotamia. But I believe the prevailing theory is still that they have ritual significance -- "
"When in doubt, huh?"
" -- and I recognized them from some much older references." Stepping back, he muttered, "No, that's not it. Where was it...?"
Coreen looked around the room. Was that more bookcases, behind that partition? "Hey, what about over here?" she asked, already on her way to check them out.
The single word seemed to take hold of her with physical force, rooting her to the spot. It wasn't loud, but it resonated far deeper than his normal voice, with an edge of... not anger. Fear?
Then he was in front of her, fathomless black eyes locked on hers, pushing everything else to the edges of her perception. "There is nothing of interest on those shelves." She felt more than heard the whisper threading through her mind, until it blended into the fabric of her thoughts and there was no telling the difference. "You will not ask me about them again."
Coreen caught herself staring at the edge of a partition and shook her head, turning back to face Henry, who stood behind the couch, leafing through one of her library books. "And now I'm just wandering aimlessly around the room. That's constructive."
"I assumed it was to help you think," he noted mildly, not looking up from the book.
"Well, in that case it's not working," she sighed, walking back over to him, "because I've completely lost my train of thought."
"Speaking of which, I do need to get back to work." He closed the book he was holding and put it on the coffee table. "I don't think your answer is here. There's someone I can call, but not until at least four o'clock our time." The interest that piqued must have been obvious on her face, because he added, "It would be inconsiderate."
"Oh." She tried not to sound too disappointed.
"In the meantime, I assume you have plans?"
"Of course. Halloween is huge at the Underground." Grinning proudly, she explained, "Lots of mundanes buy tickets to go slumming. Lexia lets me in free for doing a little ambassador duty."
And there was that amusement again. "I'm almost sorry to be missing the show."
"I know, I know, it must seem kind of silly to you that I still go there, after all the real stuff I've seen you guys deal with. And you being, y'know..." She waved a hand in his direction. "You. But there's more to it, really, and... well, they're my friends."
"Then you have nothing to explain." He nodded toward her satchel still on the couch. "Leave those here. I'll take a look if I have time, see if I recognize anything you missed. Once I've talked to my contact, I'll call Vicki and let her know if I have anything."
"Are you sure? Maybe I should -- "
"Coreen, you've been working on this all day. Taking a break to clear your head can only help. Even Vicki can't argue with that."
"You're kidding, right? There is nothing Vicki can't argue with." Henry acknowledged this with a rueful smile, and Coreen added, "In this case, though, she probably won't, since she said the same thing first."
"Good. Then you can go enjoy your evening." He didn't actually say and please leave me alone, but it came across clearly anyway. Including the please, somehow, which was pretty impressive.
It was almost enough to make her rethink the next thing that came out of her mouth. Almost. She clasped her hands behind her back, twisting a little as she stepped forward so her skirt swished around her ankles. Smiling up at him, she noted, "You do realize you're the only prince I know."
"You look pretty awake to me," he countered without missing a beat.
Damn. She'd thought that one was pretty inspired. At least he'd answered; usually he just pretended she hadn't said anything at all. "Okay. Well, then..." She paused a second on her way to the door, glancing over at the partition where she had been pacing before. Wasn't there something she was going to ask him? It couldn't be very important; she'd think of it later. "Thanks for taking a look at that. I hope I didn't throw you off too much by interrupting."
"I'll live." For a second, she thought she caught a flash of that worried look he gave her whenever she got excited about a new supernatural topic. He opened the door to show her out, adding just before he closed it behind her, "Don't take any apples from strangers."
3: Office Hours
There were two voices in Betty's office, and as he reached the front steps of the building, Henry identified the visitor as Coreen. It had been only three days since they had defeated the Swartelfen, and he had spoken with Vicki shortly before dawn. Had something come up since then that called for consulting the professor's expertise?
"No problem," Coreen was saying as he approached the open door marked Elizabeth Sagara, Ph.D. "Lance records all the lectures. I can get him to email me the mp3 of Friday's."
"The days of meeting a boy to copy his notes are gone, aren't they?" Betty shook her head with a smile. "Well. That might have been more fun, but I suspect your way is more useful. Hello, Henry."
Coreen's head swiveled to look at him, at the starlit sky outside the window, and back again. "Hi! Wow, is it really that late already?"
"I assume that's a rhetorical question. Good evening, ladies." He took Betty's outstretched hands as she came around the desk, leaning in to kiss her lightly with the ease of long habit. When he turned to Coreen, she answered his greeting smile with a bright one of her own, but not before he saw the envy in her eyes. "I didn't know you were taking classes again."
"Not exactly," she admitted, squirming slightly.
"Coreen is auditing my Central European folklore overview," Betty explained.
Henry raised his eyebrows, sincerely impressed. "Isn't that a graduate seminar?"
"For which I have four chapters to read before Wednesday. I should really get some dinner and get going on that." Coreen got up from her chair, zipping up the red hoodie she wore over a lace-embellished tank top.
The thin jacket was cropped above her waist and couldn't be much use against the evening chill, but she apparently considered it sufficient, and had kept it in regular rotation in her wardrobe despite its association with the first time Norman Bridewell had kidnapped her. The first time Henry had watched her go from dazed shock to high-speed chatter in one short car trip, cracking Little Red Riding Hood jokes at her own expense by the time they had reached Vicki's office. The girl's resiliency continued to amaze, though it had to have a limit, one he prayed they would never see.
"Thanks again, Dr. Sagara," she said, hefting the strap of her loaded satchel over her shoulder. "I'll be totally caught up next time you see me, I promise."
"I don't doubt it, dear." Betty pressed one of Coreen's hands between both of her own. "But if you need help again, don't wait to ask for it."
"Absolutely." A blush rose in her cheeks as she darted a glance over at Henry. "Hey, you two have a great time at the symphony. I'll see you later."
"Good night, Coreen." He watched her scurry out, then turned to Betty curiously. "Auditing? You can approve an undergraduate to take the course for credit, can't you?"
She sighed. "Of course. If she hadn't been on academic probation for two semesters before not enrolling for this one."
"I don't understand." Henry took Betty's coat from the rack and held it for her to slip into. "She can invent an incubus trap from scratch, produce a flamethrower and silver bullets on two hours' notice, and keep Vicki's files in order and meals on schedule. How did she let a sophomore's course load get away from her?"
She turned the lights out and preceded him into the corridor, where he pulled the door closed and locked behind them. "She hasn't volunteered any details, and I haven't made it my business to pry. But when the brightest ones fall through the cracks, it almost always comes back to boredom and impatience." Slipping her arm through his, she elaborated, "They mark time in high school, thinking it will all be so much less tedious and more significant here. Then they find out that there's a great deal more tedium and insignificant detail to get through before they get their chance to save the world." With a meaningful look up at him, she added, "Unless, of course, someone gives them a shortcut."
"But you said she was struggling long before she met Vicki."
"And then she found what she was looking for." Outside, she followed Henry's lead toward the nearby visitor's parking lot. "The same kind of work becomes anything but tedious when it opens up whole new realms of reality. And when it saves lives." She placed a hand flat against his chest, over his heart. "If you could have seen her face when we found the answer that saved yours... Nothing she finds in any classroom can compete with that."
"I suppose not." They had reached his car, and he pulled the passenger door open for her. "Still, now that you've brought her back into the classroom, it seems a shame she can't earn credit for it."
"She came on her own," Betty corrected, to his surprise. When he had walked around and climbed in the driver's side, she went on, "In any case, even if I could override the administration, the tuition is beyond her means, unless she re-enrolls and reapplies for financial aid. She finally admitted this afternoon that she sold back the most expensive textbook last week. Apparently she had thought her budget was under control until her renter's insurance premium took an unexpected jump. I'm just glad I had a copy I could lend her."
"Insurance," Henry repeated, several unexplained pieces of Coreen's recent behavior falling into place. "And we treated her like an irresponsible child."
"What do you mean?"
"The other day, she asked Vicki for a raise or an advance on her salary. She had new clothes, and of course Vicki assumed..." He hesitated, but there was no reason not to tell her the rest. Coreen certainly wasn't shy about it. "When that didn't work, she actually tried to sell me her blood. Which she's implied more than once she would give freely."
Betty 's laughter shouldn't have surprised him. "Well! That's an enterprising approach. I take it you refused?"
"Of course I did. I should have realized it signaled a problem," he admitted, "but I was so taken aback by the suggestion. There's no predicting what she might say at any given time. I thought it was just her latest angle, until Vicki mentioned their conversation." He shook his head. "Why couldn't she just ask for a loan? She must know it wouldn't even matter to me if she repaid it."
"It matters to her," Betty chided. "She already feels she owes you and Vicki her life. Would you want to owe even more, in her place? Can you blame her for wanting to prove to you both she can stand on her own?"
"No." And now he had to wonder what else he had missed while ignoring Coreen's persistent flirtation. "No, I can't."
"She's not a little girl, Henry."
"I'm aware of that. Acutely so, on occasion."
This earned another soft laugh. "I told you she was a bright one. She's figured out it costs her nothing to try."
"Are you saying you think I'm wrong to discourage her?"
"Oh, that's not for me to say," she demurred, perhaps a little too quickly. "But I remember when I was nearly that young. And probably more foolish."
So did he. "And I broke your heart."
"You did. And here we are."
"Here we are." He acknowledged her meaning, but they were also pulling up to the valet parking stand at the symphony hall. It gave him a moment to wonder what she was getting at, and if perhaps Coreen hadn't put her up to it.
No. She might see a bit of herself in the girl -- and she wasn't the only one, was she? -- but she wouldn't play games with him. She was simply stating her honest observations in her own graceful way, as she always had.
He relinquished his keys and stepped around to the passenger side, offering Betty his arm. She took it with a smile, taking a few steps from the busy valet area before reaching up to touch his cheek. "You can only break a heart you've been given, you know. I thought all I wanted was a bit of adventure. But still... I wouldn't trade that time for anything."
All this had been said years ago, all the hurts long since forgiven and healed on both sides. Occasionally she spoke of it again anyway -- just to reaffirm it, he supposed -- but tonight it had another point.
Henry pulled the tickets from his inside jacket pocket, turning them over to the usher with a polite nod. No one ever seemed to acknowledge such people anymore. The house had been open only a few minutes, and they paused in the lobby to let the rush clear a bit.
"Coreen might think she wants the adventure, but it's not what she needs from me. It's just a game. The moment it stops being one, she stops being sure of her safe harbor." He put his hand over the one Betty had set on his arm. "That's not my lesson to teach. Not this time."
"All right, then." She smiled up at him, shaking her head. "Listen to me, going on as if you need my advice."
"Betty. There will never be a day I don't welcome your advice." He gestured to the dwindling line at the entrance to their aisle. "Shall we?"
4: Too Late
Henry's condo really did have a spectacular view.
She couldn't tell exactly when the sun set. There was no way to distinguish it from the uniform dull glow of dozens of fires reflected in a sky full of smoke. The city was in chaos, the first of many. It was weirdly, unexpectedly beautiful. But then, from way up here, that might be true of hell itself.
She didn't turn around at the soft click of the bedroom door behind her. "Coreen?"
She had expected him to be annoyed by the intrusion, at least until he saw what was going on outside, but he just sounded uncertain.
"Hey, Henry." She was surprised at how normal she sounded.
"What are you doing here? What's wrong?"
She nodded toward the window in front of her. "See for yourself."
His footsteps stopped halfway across the room. He was barefoot, of course; twenty-four hours earlier she probably wouldn't have heard him at all.
"Something smell different?" she guessed.
"Turn around," he repeated, with no change in his quiet, hollow tone.
Coreen obliged, watching disgust and anger dance subtle tells across his poker face as he took in the eyes, the lethal talons, the sheer indefinable wrongness in the shape of the girl he knew.
He crossed the space between them in a heartbeat, but she could see every step he took, spot the instant when his eyes went black and his fangs emerged in a snarl. She could even put up a hand to block his from grasping her throat, if she wanted to.
"Where is she?" he demanded, pressing her back against the window.
"Oh, wouldn't that be nice? If it were that simple?"
Wow, he was hot like this. Not exactly how it had played out in her daydreams, but...
The fresh brand over her heart burned a reminder. Focus.
"You know better, don't you?" He was looking through the window behind her, only now comprehending what was happening to his city. His territory. "You can't race off to save me. I'm right here."
"No." There was a world of horror and grief in the half-voiced word. He released her, backing a couple steps away. "No, this can't be."
Coreen laughed bitterly. "How would you know? You've been mostly dead all day."
Even with the vampire's features in full view, he looked impossibly young and lost. Her heart would have gone out to him if she had still been capable of it. Instead there was only a vague ache where compassion had been burned away.
Finally he brought himself to look at her face again. "I'm sorry," he said simply. "I hoped you were stronger."
"You self-righteous son of a bitch." It came out in a vicious hiss, rage stabbing through her, taking her by surprise and all but taking her breath away. "You weren't there! You didn't get turned into Norman's life-size Living Dead Doll!" She was right in his face now, taking grim satisfaction in his involuntary jerk back. Just his upper body, though; he stood his ground, until she fired her next round. "You didn't watch Vicki die!"
He staggered back as if struck, his face fading back to human.
"Come on, Henry, get with the program! You knew. You had to know."
"Yes," he managed. "She would never let any of this happen while there was breath in her."
"Breath?" Coreen repeated incredulously. "She would need lungs for that. She was -- " For a moment, she stared into space over his shoulder, reaching for words that could begin to touch what had happened to Vicki.
"Don't try to describe it." Why wasn't he angry? He should be trying to tear her apart by now. What the hell was she supposed to do with pity? "No mind is meant to deal with what you saw. You can't even grasp it now, can you? Not while there's anything left in you that's human."
"What makes you think there is?"
"You wouldn't be in pain if there weren't. A soul like yours..." He raised a hand, fingertips not quite touching her face. "Astaroth wouldn't consume that all at once. You'll go on hurting, beyond any time even I can comprehend, with no escape."
She swatted his hand down. "Do you think I don't know that? He made me a demon. He didn't make me stupid. You probably can't even kill me."
"If I could, it wouldn't free you."
"I know. And you really do wish you could free me, don't you?" Another bitter laugh. "Now you care."
"I always cared!"
"Sure you did. In between dodging me and blowing me off. Silly little girl with a silly little crush." Mirroring his gesture of a moment before, she reached up to his cheek with her untransformed hand. He didn't stop her. "Don't you get it?" The rage was boiling over in her again. She couldn't even guess why, could only ride it. "I'm not Snow White. I never was. I'm not Little Red fucking Riding Hood. I'm not even Estelle."
By the time she knew she wanted to slash him to the bone, she had. He gasped in agony as she withdrew her nails from the wound across his abdomen, instinct bringing out the vampire's eyes and teeth again. She moved her other hand to grasp the hair at the nape of his neck, effortlessly holding him up before he could collapse.
"You're so smart," she murmured next to his ear. "Can you guess what did it? Out of all the lying promises, which one broke me? It wasn't that I would stop being afraid. It wasn't even getting Norman off me -- that was a freebie. Go on, guess. Bet you get it in one."
"Oh, no." With obvious effort, Henry got his feet back under him, taking her by the shoulders and looking earnestly into her face. His voice shook, with pain or despair or both, she couldn't tell. "You thought... You think if you have me, Astaroth can't."
"I couldn't save Vicki. I couldn't save myself. But I had a chance to protect you."
"Like Bridewell wanted to protect you?"
"No!" Even as she denied it, she knew he was right. "Not then. Not before -- "
"Look at me, Coreen." He stepped back to arm's length, still steadying himself with one hand on her shoulder, pressing the other to the slowly healing slashes and holding it up for her to see the blood. "This isn't what you wanted."
"No," she admitted in a whisper. Looking up at him with a bright, brittle smile, she went on, "But it's what I've got." She lifted his hand from her shoulder and slid under his arm until she was inches away from him. "What do you say we make the best of it?"
Still acting at least half out of instinct, he answered her with a low growl.
"I won't take that personally," she lied. "Demon in your personal space, after all. Not that I was ever welcome in it."
"I had good reason for that."
"Oh, I know you did. But it doesn't matter now, does it?" She ran her hands up the front of his ruined silk robe. "I could kill you, y'know. And you would be free." She looked up at him. "But then I'd be left all alone."
To her surprise, he didn't pull away when she stretched up toward him. Maybe she shouldn't be so surprised. After all, poor broken Norman had been right about one thing: She made a wicked hot demon.
What would those teeth feel like against her lips?
Coreen woke with a gasp. She was safe in bed, in her own tiny apartment. Both hands clutching the covers had short, neat, human fingernails, and she couldn't see in the dark.
This was the most vivid one yet. This time she would tell Vicki, and maybe Dr. Sagara. Not Henry; her cheeks burned at the thought. But first thing in the morning she would tell Vicki.
Absently she rubbed at the itchy spot on her chest. Winter dry skin cropped up in the weirdest places sometimes.
Like Vicki needed to hear about her nightmares. The details were spinning out of reach already; how could she have thought it was so clear and made so much frightening sense? It was just a nightmare.
"Go back to sleep, silly girl," she muttered to herself. By the time she rolled over, she had followed her own instructions.
It was one of those evenings when the only sounds in Vicki's building, apart from the ever-present hum of utilities, came from her suite. As Henry climbed the stairs, those sounds consisted of two heartbeats and a ferocious string of muttered imprecations against Microsoft. If anyone with the wrong kind of knowledge were to put power and intent behind half of what was coming out of Coreen's mouth, the global economy would be a smoldering ruin by noon the next day.
"What the -- ? Oh, no no no no no. Give me back my taskbar, you worthless piece of -- Henry!" Her voice jumped a startled octave in pitch, but stayed at the same low volume. Putting a finger to her lips, she pointed at the closed door to the inner office and confirmed what the placid heartbeat beyond it had already told him. "Vicki's conked out on the couch. She didn't even tell me to wake her up at a certain time." She looked entirely too pleased with herself as she finished, "So I'm not waking her up at all. Let her yell at me."
"Brave words." At least one of them appeared to be fully recovered from the last few eventful days, though a faint trace of demon venom and Benadryl lingered in her scent. "How long has she been asleep?"
"Four and a half hours." Anticipating his next question, she added, "I could tell she had a headache all day, but the bump has gone way down and she didn't seem out of it or anything. Just tired."
Half a smile pulled at Henry's mouth. "Why do I suddenly feel like I should be paying you a retainer?"
"I snitch because I care." Definitely fully recovered. "But as long as you're offering..."
"I didn't say that." He held up the tacky shopping bag from Beguiling. "I did, however, pick up your pulls. Jessica said you hadn't been in yet; I thought this might be the reason."
"You didn't have to do that! What do I owe you?"
"You don't." With three weeks of new titles languishing under the counter, he had guessed there were budgetary concerns as well, but there was no need to mention that. "Consider it a belated get-well gift."
That seemed enough to satisfy her pride and head off any further protest. She took the bag with a sincere "Thank you," her smile turning puzzled as she registered its weight. Reaching in among the eclectic selection, she pulled out the new edition that reprinted Black Roses and White Poppies in one generations-spanning hardcover epic. "I didn't order this."
"Really?" He met her questioning look with his best mask of bland innocence. "It was in the bin behind your name, so someone must have."
"You are so sneaky," Coreen admonished him mock-seriously, paging through the book with the smile of someone revisiting dear old friends. Henry would have been content to create in a vacuum if he had to, but the ability to give that pleasure to others brought a satisfaction like no other. "There's a new epilogue, right? That connects it to the series you're working on now?"
"There is. You might find it interesting."
"Mike getting eaten by were-thingies?" That was quite the wicked grin for a girl who wouldn't hurt a mouse in reality. "I have got to be there when he sees that. Preferably with a camera."
Chuckling at the image, he agreed, "I'm looking forward to that myself. But no, we still have a few months to wait."
"Oh." When it was clear he wasn't going to say any more, she resumed skimming through the pages. There was no mistaking when she found the new material. Still mindful of Vicki sleeping in the next room, she clapped a hand over her mouth to contain her squeal of delight and shot to her feet into a slightly off-kilter pirouette. Somehow she managed to bounce and read at the same time, at least through the first few pages introducing his heroine's soon-to-be-protegée.
The kid looks like she should blow away on the next stiff breeze, the narrative boxes read, and only sheer force of will is keeping her feet on my doorstep.
It's going to have to do a lot more than that before she's done.
"Really, really sneaky," Coreen bubbled. "This is so cool!"
Vicki had said more than once that was going to be the girl's epitaph. At least this instance held no threat of her prematurely needing one.
Stifling another squeal, she twirled out from behind the desk, hugging the book to her chest. She took a step toward him, then back, hesitant for once to test his patience. Covering the awkward little dance with a chuckle, she quipped, "Hey. Déjà vu."
"Minus the cold sidewalk," Henry agreed, having had much the same thought.
"But apparently I'm still a hopeless fangirl dork." She contained her enthusiasm with no small effort, setting the book down and leaning against the desk in a reasonably convincing attempt at casual nonchalance. It cracked a bit as she processed what he had said and looked up at him with some surprise. "You do remember!"
"Of course I do."
"Well, it's just -- I mean, you must meet hundreds of people at one of those things. I'm sure they're all a big blur after a while."
"True enough," he admitted. "But a more-than-fashionably-late small blur tends to stand out."
"I don't know what I was thinking. I still can't believe you were still there. Of course, now I know it wasn't even lunchtime for you." A blush belied her sly smile. "So... If I hadn't chickened out, would you have...?" She set the fingertips of one hand against the side of her neck, as if there were any doubt what she was asking.
"We'll never know." A simple no might have been wiser, but the honest answer was already spoken.
Coreen's smile widened. "Would I remember if you had?"
"No." That one was simple. "But I didn't."
"Missed my one chance, huh?" Her light tone failed to mask disappointment and a contradictory hint of relief, reinforcing his conviction that she didn't really know what she wanted. She reached a tentative hand toward his arm, then thought better of it. "You said I didn't do anything wrong."
"You didn't." He knew what she was saying; the innocent overture she had made that night would be promptly shut down now. As open a book as she was, he still couldn't tell whether she understood why. "Circumstances change, Coreen."
"Yeah." She cast a glance at the frosted glass window of Vicki's office on her way to sit back down behind her desk.
Not for the first time, he considered saying more, but every time he rehearsed the words in his mind, it seemed they would only complicate without illuminating. Maybe he underestimated her. Maybe she would have no difficulty at all grasping why he might share a fleeting experience with a sparkling little stranger and never look back, but had a more serious obligation to the friend she had become. Why he would not allow her to be prey, to him or to anything else.
But she might just as easily misunderstand. Let her think it was simply because Vicki held his heart, that he saw her as an irritating little sister of sorts and nothing more. As long as she was safe.
"This thing is evil," Coreen grumbled, resetting the laptop. "Hey, maybe it is! Can computers get possessed?"
"Probably." Apparently tonight's quota of more sensitive questions had been met. "Though I doubt that's your problem."
"Too bad. How cool would that be?" Now she was just baiting him. "Well, you took care of one of my errands for me. Now I just have to go see if Lexia is speaking to me yet. Or at least if anyone picked up my cloak."
Out of her earshot, Vicki had made some indignant comments about the club owner's proprietary attitude toward Coreen, and if they were true, Henry had to wonder why the girl was speaking to her. "Do you want her to be speaking to you?"
"I don't know," Coreen admitted. "I got so mad at Vicki because she was right. I really don't think Lexia knew Winter was dealing, let alone that it was weirder than that. I just wish I was sure she cared about more than how it looked." Wrinkling her nose, she added, "I still can't believe people actually paid money to feel like that."
"Some people are desperate to feel anything different."
"Yeah, I guess." She shook her head, clearly unable to imagine it.
He could be thankful for that, at least. He had come too close to failing her, failing Vicki, so intent on keeping them from the invading vampire's notice that he had all but forgotten other forces were still at work. It made little difference that Vicki too had underestimated the danger into which Coreen had been walking; she had asked him to be there for her and he had refused. It would not happen again.
And as such, there was no need to speak of it now. "Are you going to give the fire extinguisher back?" he asked instead.
"I kinda want to keep it. Like a trophy, y'know?" She grinned. "I think I earned it."
Vicki emerged from her office then, raking her fingers back through sleep-mussed hair and snorting at that statement. "Oh, is that why we almost had to surgically remove it from your hands?" She sounded a little groggy, but otherwise very much like herself. "Hey, Henry."
"Vicki!" Coreen was out of her chair like a shot, earning a halfhearted glare in about two seconds of hovering. "Sorry, I tried to keep my voice down. Did we wake you up?"
"No," Vicki answered pointedly. "And why is that, exactly? It's almost eight-thirty!"
"You didn't ask me to." It was almost all innocence; the rest was pure smugness.
Vicki threw up her hands, then turned to Henry with a slightly-more-than-halfhearted glare. "You put her up to this, didn't you?"
"I've been here less than half an hour," he answered truthfully, not bothering to suppress a smirk. "Someone's influence might be at work, but it isn't mine."
Rolling her eyes and slanting a grudging smile at Coreen, she said, "Nah. She was stubborn and devious fresh out of the box."
"Hey! I'm standing right here, y'know!"
"Good. Then you can make some coffee." Vicki gestured at the empty pot. "Why is there no coffee?"
"Because it's eight-thirty."
"Didn't I just say that?"
"You did," Henry confirmed. "And Coreen said she has plans."
"I did?" Already occupied with the coffeemaker, Coreen took a moment to catch the hint. "Oh, those plans."
Scowling, Vicki declared, "Okay, you two, enough with the weird and conspiratorial. At least until I have coffee. Jeez, who's going to gang up on me next?"
It was said in his calmest tone, which didn't stop her from whirling impatiently to find him standing inches away. "What?"
Her expression softened as he ran his fingers the length of her hair, carefully avoiding the angry bruise on her forehead, and settled his hand lightly on her shoulder. "We've all earned a quiet evening, don't you think?"
"Quiet is overrated." The retort was neither quick nor sharp enough to be taken seriously. It sounded far more like assent.
She allowed herself to be distracted by his nearness a trifle longer than average, just a few precious heartbeats, before shrugging away his hand and walking over to her assistant. "He's right, Coreen, it's been a crazy few days, even for us. You don't need to be here this late. I'm fine." This last was directed at both of them.
"You sure? Because I can -- "
"Go," Vicki interrupted. "I can only take one mother hen at a time."
Coreen exchanged smiles with Henry over Vicki's shoulder. "Okay, then." Gathering her handbag and velvet coat from behind her desk, she added, "Don't mess with the computer, okay? I'll finish beating it into submission in the morning."
"Absolutely." Vicki sounded only too happy with that plan. "All yours."
"Great." She headed for the door, then did an about-face to pick up her comics. "Thanks again, Henry!"
With her hand on the doorknob, Coreen turned back to them for a second. "You know what's not fair? Everybody got to meet Christina but me." She was baiting him again. He hoped. "Good night!"
Vicki blinked at the closed door. "We were never that young."
Shamed by his honesty, she agreed, "Yeah, you're right. I just don't like to think about how dumb I was."
"I find that hard to picture."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "What, Mike didn't tell you any tales out of school while you guys were being all buddy-buddy?"
"Hardly," Henry assured her.
"There is a God." She sank onto the reception area couch, taking off her glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose. She needed more rest; now came the challenge of convincing her to get it. "So what was Coreen thanking you for?"
"Rowan." It was sufficient explanation; he had shown her the pages before turning them in.
"Ah! That explains the squeaking."
"You told her we didn't wake you."
"You didn't. I was already awake. I was just trying to decide what to do if there was a were-dolphin out here." Vicki put her glasses back on and gave a dubious look to the mug of water he held out to her. "That's not coffee."
Henry sat next to her with a smile, extending his arm across the back of the couch behind her. "Very observant. You should be a detective."
"You're not funny."
"You're not fine."
"Henry..." She held up her hands in... not surrender. Never surrender. Truce, perhaps. "Okay, whatever. We'll try this 'quiet evening'... thing."
"Who knows? You might even enjoy it."
She finished the water in several long gulps and set the empty mug on the coffee table with her glasses beside it, then turned to him with eyebrows raised. "I didn't hear a hint of double-entendre in that. Must be the concussion."
"Must be." Henry relished the warmth of her head against his arm as she leaned back in her seat. "May I get you anything else? Other than coffee. Aspirin?"
"And take away my headrest? I don't think so." Vicki sighed and closed her eyes, relaxing several notches. "That was a really nice thing to do."
"Coreen. I think she worries you don't like her, and you only put up with her for me." She lifted her head to look over at him. "You don't, do you?"
"No." He was reasonably certain he was answering the right question.
"Good." The answer seemed to satisfy Vicki, who leaned back against his arm again, her eyes on the ceiling. "So. How does this 'quiet' thing work again?"
6: Eye of the Storm
Coreen had been standing at Henry's door for at least five minutes, trying to muster her courage, when it swung open. "It's generally considered more efficient to knock." His tone was completely neutral, giving nothing away.
She couldn't meet his eyes, her focus bouncing between his shoulder and his bare feet as he stepped back from the threshold for her to enter. She walked several paces past him, turning around when she heard the door click shut. Taking a deep breath, she addressed a tumble of words to his shins. "Henry, I know you probably don't want to hear it, and it's not going to fix anything, but I still have to tell you I am really, really sorry. I know you hate me, and I don't blame you, I'd hate me too, but -- "
"Coreen, stop. I don't hate you."
"You wouldn't even look at me!" This was all coming out way more pathetic and melodramatic than she had hoped, but she couldn't help it.
"Will you look at me?" She dragged her eyes up to his face; it held none of the disappointment or condemnation she had expected, only sadness and worry. "I was betrayed and hurt and, yes, angry." He spoke slowly and clearly, as if he wanted to make sure she absorbed every word. "I was and am afraid, for Vicki and for you. I could not hate you. All right?"
Not trusting her voice to make it past the lump in her throat, she nodded.
"All right, then." He took a closer look at her. "Have you slept at all?"
She must look worse than she thought. But then, there was no fooling his senses, was there? "Sort of. Some." She shrugged, thankful that any sound came out. "I just keep trying to figure out what I could have done, what I could have said different to make her listen."
Now he looked as close to crying as she felt; she wondered if he could. Before she could think about what she was doing and how crazy it was, she darted forward and kissed him, one hand raking her hair back from her neck.
For a second, just one dizzy tingling second, she could have sworn he kissed back. Then he took hold of her shoulders and pushed her to arm's length, using precisely as much force as the task required. Determinedly blinking back tears, she couldn't quite tell if that disappointment was there in his face now.
Still measuring his strength to the fraction, he turned her and steered her to the couch, shifting his hands to keep them on her shoulders from behind. "Sit."
Coreen obediently plopped down, staring at the floor until he knelt in front of her, in her line of sight. He didn't look angry, at least. "Can we pretend I didn't just do that?"
"I sincerely hope so." He didn't sound angry either. Maybe a little frustrated. "Now. It's obvious you're not thinking clearly, but you're thinking something. What is it?"
"Look, I'm really sorry -- "
"Yes, I got that part."
"It's just... I couldn't stop Vicki from taking your blood and -- " She gulped, unable to finish the sentence. "Giving you mine was all I could think of to fix anything. And you wouldn't take it, even though I don't even know how you made it out the door." She shook her head. "It's still all I have, Henry. I don't know what else to do."
She had no idea what he had expected her to say, but apparently that wasn't it, because he just stared at her. Not surprised, exactly, just... processing.
Finally he stood up and spun on his heel, taking a couple steps away from her before stopping. "Of course you don't understand. How could you?"
He sighed. "Part of me knew only that I was in pain, and saw you as part of the cause. And saw you, effectively, offering me your life." Turning back to face her, he finished, "I couldn't afford the risk that I might take it."
"Oh." She couldn't think of anything else to say. She certainly didn't dare ask about the risk to whomever he had fed on instead.
"As for what you have to give... Don't undervalue your trust. I don't." He sat down next to her, continuing, "I'm fasting tonight. I haven't been out, and hadn't seen anyone until you arrived. So, will it satisfy your need to help if I tell you it means more to abstain when the temptation is right here?"
It wasn't really funny, but the laugh bubbled up on its own anyway. Everything was just so absurd all of a sudden. After a few seconds, she realized it wasn't laughter anymore.
"This is ridiculous!" she protested through hitching sobs, two days of unshed tears escaping through her relief when misery had held them at bay. "God, I'm sorry, you must think I'm crazy!"
"Occasionally. But not at the moment."
She was too busy trying to catch a decent breath to be suitably surprised when he put his arm around her shoulders and gathered her close, inside the boundary he had so carefully maintained as long as she had known him. He didn't shush her or tell her it would be okay, just let her bury her face in his shoulder and hang on for dear life.
There was no telling how long she kept on crying, so violently that it seemed like Henry's steady arms were all that kept her from shaking apart. Finally, though, it passed, and she took a deep breath and pulled reluctantly back to her side of the couch. Back outside the boundary.
"Thank you." It sounded surreally inadequate.
"You're welcome," he answered simply. "Feel better?"
"Yeah," she managed around residual sniffles. In spite of aching stomach muscles and hyperventilation lightheadedness, it was true.
"Good. Here." He stood and reached into his pocket. "For all the archaic affectations of the culture, I have yet to meet a goth who carries a handkerchief."
This was what a real laugh felt like. She had all but forgotten.
"I'm going to go change my shirt -- no, you've apologized enough for one night," he headed her off as she registered the huge smear of saltwater and eyeshadow on white linen. "If you would hold this for me?"
Coreen held out the hand that wasn't busy making a similar mess of his handkerchief, and he handed her the plain black rosary he customarily wore wrapped around his wrist. She hadn't seen him take it off; had he been holding it loose the whole time? That, and what he'd said about fasting, and the calm patience he had shown from the moment he opened the door... "Did I interrupt something?"
"Nothing I can't easily resume. I'll be right back."
Alone in the room, she tried to just sit quietly and wait, but she had never been very good at it. She looked around at the paintings on the walls, the sketches tacked up around his workspace, the city lights outside the windows. From the portrait of his father, her eye tracked down to the sword on its display stand below, spotless and shining. Leaving the handkerchief on the coffee table, she walked over toward it, trying to wrap her mind around the realization that Henry must have had to wipe his own blood off the blade.
"It looks clean, doesn't it?" he asked at her shoulder. "You would never know."
"But you would."
"Yes. I can still smell the blood, feel the taint. On the sword. On the floor beneath our feet."
She hadn't paid attention to exactly where she was standing, and shivered with a sudden chill, though she was still wearing her coat. "On me?"
He hesitated just a beat before answering. "Yes."
"Not as strongly as the other night." That was reassuring, until he added, "It's less obvious as it becomes more a part of you."
She nodded, wondering why she wasn't terrified by that. His calm seemed to be contagious, or maybe she was just too wrung out by the crying jag. "What about Vicki?"
"That's more complicated." Neither his voice nor his expression gave anything away as he moved in front of her and gave her a glass of water. "Why do you ask?"
"She said you came by, but she wouldn't tell me what you said. She's..." She swallowed. "She's acting like everything's the same. But it's not. Not anything she's doing, exactly, but every time she comes in the room, it's like..." The penny dropped. "Like standing here."
He didn't say anything, just looked sad while she took a sip of water.
"I'm not just imagining that, am I?"
"It could be cause for concern," he answered cautiously.
Coreen didn't feel concerned. She didn't feel much of anything, except that strange faint buzzing of nerves and a sneaking suspicion that she wasn't standing quite straight. "I should probably sit back down now, huh?"
"That would be a good idea."
The buzzing faded as she walked back to the couch, acutely aware of Henry close behind her. Was he worried she wouldn't make it? She wasn't that loopy, was she? Tired, sure. Everything just a little bit farther away than it should be. But she wasn't going to keel over on him. See, here was the couch.
"Why don't you give me your coat?"
"I just need to sit for a minute. I should go home."
"I'm not going to send you out to fall asleep on the streetcar." He watched her consider the logistics of removing her coat with a glass of water in one hand and a rosary in the other. "Or possibly in the elevator. Let me."
He took the glass and set it on the coffee table -- she would have thought of that if he'd given her a second -- and helped her off with her coat. "I'll drive you home later," he said, laying it neatly across a chair while she sank gratefully onto the couch. "You need a little more than a minute."
"But you were..." She held up the rosary. "Won't it... I don't know, interfere?"
"For one of the people I'm praying for to be present?" he asked, taking it back. "Why do you think it would?"
"I don't know. I never really -- I mean, I'm not, um..." She frowned at his soft chuckle. "What's funny?"
"You've grown up in what is probably the most inclusive society in human history, and you're uncomfortable saying you don't share my religion?"
"It's not that, exactly. You said I'm..." The word he had used dangled out of reach, and she waved vaguely toward the sword and the creepy spot on the floor.
Henry's face fell. "Tainted." Crouching and leaning on the arm of the couch beside her, he went on, "Maybe I shouldn't have. You're in no frame of mind to understand."
Shrugging, she reminded him, "I asked."
"Yes, you did. We can always count on that." He gave her that patient, sad smile again. "I didn't turn you away tonight. Surely you don't expect less of God."
She didn't quite get that, but nodded anyway.
"Good." He stood and handed her the glass of water again.
After taking a few swallows, she asked, "You're keeping a vigil, right? Like knights did?"
"And your idiosyncratic self-education comes through again." Settling on his knees near the other end of the coffee table, he explained, "I expect your literary image is more than a little romanticized, but essentially the right idea. Now get some rest. I don't mind your being here, but I will ask you to be quiet."
Coreen nodded, taking a last sip of water and setting it on the table. The idea of just curling up for a nap was more appealing by the second, and even seemed possible now that her mind had given up running around in anxious circles. But it didn't seem appropriate, even though it seemed to be what he expected. Instead, she sat back, folding her hands in her lap, watching him curiously while trying not to stare.
It didn't seem to matter if she did. Henry bowed his head over the beads in his hands, eyes closed, heedless of the stray curls falling into his face. Definitely not appropriate to think about how beautiful he was.
At first she tried to pay attention to the words; the Latin was fairly basic, and not difficult to link to her nodding familiarity with the prayers as she had encountered them in movies and books. But sustained focus eluded her, and she found herself instead drawn into the repetitive cadence.
Maybe that made more sense. These prayers had been second nature to him for nearly five hundred years; not even he could possibly concentrate on the words the third or fourth or tenth time through, could he? There was something more in it for him, unlocked by the language but not really about it. Even as she thought that, she wasn't quite sure what she meant. But it was comforting to be near it anyway, to wrap herself in the steady murmur and just be still.
"...Sancta Maria mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. Coreen, lie down before you fall."
"Mm?" She wasn't sure when she had closed her eyes, but they didn't want to open, and she was pitching forward and couldn't tell where upright was. Before she could register any alarm at that, though, the forward motion stopped. Cool hands supported her shoulders, guiding her to lean sideways instead. "Whuzzuh?"
"Shh, never mind. Go back to sleep." Henry's soft voice was far away, though he had to be right there to be setting her head down. She didn't know whether she pulled her feet up or he did it for her.
"Lord, grant Your daughter strength." Something warm and soft settled over her, satin-smooth on her arm, velvet-fuzzy under her chin. With a last sliver of conscious logic, she identified it as her coat. "Guide her steps on the perilous road we walk."
His words were just sound now, beyond the heavy curtain of overdue sleep, resuming the rhythm of the age-old formula. And for a little while, two wounded souls knew peace.
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