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heart's a mess

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In the crawling, thick heat of Louisiana, nearly everything went bump in the night. In the backwater town of Mystic, there were stories of terrible, terrible things lurking in the dark, waiting to snatch up the innocent and unaware. The bayou called out to those with hearts to be swayed, singing its syrupy song through the twisted bodies of cypress trees and shifting curtains of hanging moss.

Mystic sat deep in the lush hands of Louisiana’s wetlands. It was a small town—the kind where everyone knew each other like a relative and tradition was taken a little too seriously. Superstition was king in Mystic and it bled forth into the stories people told their children at night. Be careful of the dark, they said, the Devil’s out there.

The blue and red neon sign of Blue Moody’s burned through the dark. The bar was about hundred yards off the main road, surrounded by a stretch of dirt moonlighting as a parking lot. It was a large wooden building with a wide back porch that hung over one of the bayou’s small waterways, providing an expansive view of marsh rushes and murky water. Forest encroached around the parking lot, but the trees had seemingly made a truce with the circle of dirt and allowed it to look up at the deep blue of the southern sky unimpeded.

On a warm night like this, trucks and cars were piled up almost to the road. People spilled from the interior onto the porch and music battled with the din of voices as the regulars of Blue Moody’s gathered at their favorite watering hole.

Penelope Park leaned against the wall in the very back corner, noticed by few and given wide berth by most. The back of the bar was far quieter than the front or the porch, but the wall of noise over the whole place pressed up against her. It wasn’t just voices; it was a thrum of heartbeats and hushed breaths, the simple music of human beings being alive. Penelope felt the pull in her throat and took a sip of her bourbon instead. She focused on the sound of Kaleb holding court behind the bar with his easy-going charm and quick hands slinging drinks. Or, she would have, had the sound of the front door opening not caught her attention. No, not the door, a sound underneath that. Heartbeats.

Penelope leaned forward unconsciously, her lips parting as the sound drew closer. The first person to walk through the door was a young man with curly dark hair. The next was a similarly young, tall blonde woman, who’s lip curled the second she crossed the threshold. She turned back to the door and said something, but whatever it was was lost to Penelope as her eyes fell on the woman trailing behind the blonde. She was long-legged and dark-haired, with the kind of full lips that starlets sold their souls for. She walked into the bar with a slightly nervous set to her shoulders and wary expression on her face.

The three milled in front of the door for a second before sliding into the nearest booth. Penelope felt herself leaning closer towards them. The dark-haired woman’s heartbeat thumped in her ears, drowning out everything else in Blue Moody’s. For a second, she thought she could smell her—like old paper and lit matches.

“Hey,” said a voice, startling Penelope out of her stupor. Hope ducked out from behind the bar, wiping her hands on a rag. “Are you—”

Hope froze mid-step. Penelope watched her nose twitch and head whip directly to the newcomers. Shock flitted across her face as her fingers bunched into a fist around the rag.

Penelope jerked her head towards the table, “Do you know them?”

“Uh, yeah,” Hope said. She shook her head, blinking furiously. “I know them.”

“Care to do some introductions?”

Hope followed the line of Penelope’s gaze to the dark-haired woman. “Nope,” she said. “Nuh-uh. Do not go over there.”

“Why not?” Penelope asked, swirling her bourbon. She grinned at Hope over the rim of the glass, “Worried I’ll bite her?”

“Yes, actually,” Hope snorted, but it lacked the usually punch their barbs did. She was still staring at the newcomers and for a second Penelope felt unreasonably jealous that someone else was looking at the dark-haired one. It was pointless, however— there was no use in feeling territorial over a random stranger. Still, the dark-haired woman’s heartbeat thumped like a song in Penelope’s ears.

“Are you gonna explain why you’ve gone all pointer dog on me or do I have to decipher that for myself?”

“I’m not—shut up!” Hope stuttered, though she relaxed her posture a little bit. She bit her lip, deliberating, then hucked her rag into a nearby bin. “Stay here,” Hope said, her finger an inch from Penelope’s chest. “I’ll handle this.”

Penelope held up her hands and stepped back. Hope gave her one more glare before turning and taking a deep breath. If the tense stomp she started walking over with was any indication, these weren’t any old visitors to Blue Moody’s. And that sort of information made a curious mind wonder.

Penelope let Hope ‘handle it’ for half a second before pushing off the wall and following at a meandering pace. She didn’t put herself in Hope’s back pocket, but she made a very good show of staying a few steps behind, acting like she was simply another patron at the bar. Hope could definitely smell her, but she seemed too focused on her guests to deal with Penelope’s personal brand of frustrating.

All three people looked up when Hope made it to their booth. The man’s expression lit up happily, his eyes widing and his palms flattening on the table. Penelope could hear the way his pulse picked up under his skin. The dark-haired woman smiled and shot up out of her seat with her arms open as Hope arrived, her face as bright as the sun. The blonde woman stayed seated, but she watched Hope intently with a smaller, calmer smile pulling on her lips.

“Hope!” The dark-haired woman gushed. “This place looks amazing!”

“Thanks, Josie,” Hope said, letting herself be pulled into the hug. “I honestly can’t believe you guys are here.”

Josie. Well, it definitely fit. You couldn’t have that kind of All-American sweetheart look with a name like Edith.

“We’re back, baby,” the man said, in perhaps the most awkward way possible. He stood to hug Hope too, faltered midway, and ended up half-hugging her and half-patting her on the back. “It’s, uh, it’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Landon,” Hope said and, damn! Penelope had never experienced such a skin-scraping level of awkward energy. Who were these people?

The blonde woman slid out from the booth to hug Hope. There was an uneasiness in Hope that there hadn’t been with the other two, but Penelope caught the way Hope breathed “Hey, Lizzie” into the woman’s hair. Then the two broke apart like in-laws at a wedding, quick and professional, leaving room for Landon and Josie’s grinning faces.

“We came back for Dad’s Hall of Fame induction at the high school. Figures they wait until he goes back to teaching at Tulane to give him any credit,” Josie said.

Lizzie inclined her head, “To be fair, he did spend a few years totally not doing his job.”

“Well…” Josie began, and Penelope got the sense that this was a frequently debated  subject. “We didn’t come here to talk about Dad. I mean, you probably talk to him even more than we do, Hope.”

“Just business stuff, sometimes,” Hope shrugged. “He does own a stake in the bar.”

Well, that explained who ‘Dad’ was. The only other person that Penelope knew who own stake in the bar besides Hope was Alaric Saltzman, who came in on occasion to discuss the bar and…other business with Hope. If these were his children, then that made them Lizzie and Josie Saltzman, high school friends of Hope and nearly everyone she employed. Glancing over her shoulder, Penelope caught Kaleb waving at Landon over the heads of his customers.

“Landon,” Hope said, pulling his attention back, “you came all this way for the induction?”

“Oh, yeah!” Landon nodded. “Also, I haven’t seen Raph in a while, so when Josie asked me—”

“What he’s trying to say is that Josie couldn’t resist inviting her favorite little hobbit,” Lizzie said, sinking back down into the booth with the air of a queen making a grand declaration. That got Hope’s eyes jumping between Landon and Josie, both of whom flushed deep red under the scrutiny. Penelope hunched over one of the high top tables, desperately trying to hold in a laugh at the scene playing out in front of her.

“Oh,” Hope coughed. “So, are you guys still…?”

“Sort of,” Landon said, at the same time that Josie said, “No.”

Oh, God. It was like a soap opera.

“As the only one not involved in this tragic love triangle,” Lizzie continued, waving her hand at the three of them and looking immensely bored. “I suggest we get some drinks.”

Rather than stew in their uncomfortable little three-way, Hope was quick to agree and urge everyone to the bar. Penelope turned as they passed, propping her chin on her hand and catching Josie’s eye as she brushed by. She smiled at her, delighted by the way Josie gave her a genuine, if confused, smile back. That scent, old books and matches, followed behind her as Hope ushered them forward. Hope shot a threating glance Penelope’s way, who simply shrugged and pushed off the table. Who was she to deny herself the pleasures of a front row seat to Hope’s high school drama?

Unfortunately, she didn’t get much more free entertainment, as a tide of old friends came to sweep the Saltzmans and Landon up in a wave of free drinks and laughter. Kaleb served on the house as Raph came thundering in from outside to crush Landon in a loving chokehold. MG appeared from the back room with a grin so wide it nearly split his face in two. A few others gave passing hellos and it seemed like the very heart of the bar had been picked up and dropped in center of their little group. Even Hope seemed to relax once she got on the other side of the bar with Kaleb. Penelope watched the group turn inward as they tossed around old memories and suddenly found it a lot less fun to be the objective observer. It felt like a cold reminder that despite nearly two years in Mystic, she was still very much the outsider.

Penelope finished her bourbon and slunk back into her corner. She’d stashed a bottle behind a bin earlier in the night and took no time in pouring herself another glass. It wouldn’t get her drunk, but it gave her enough of a buzz to be worth it. She studied Hope’s friends—at least, she called it ‘studying’ in her head. Really, it was brief seconds of looking at someone else before her eyes drifted back to Josie and the wonderful sculpture of the curve of her neck. Again, hunger beat in her throat. It was intense, but Penelope swallowed it down. This was no place to lose control of herself.

Four bourbons later and just past buzzed, Penelope watched Josie break away from the group. The woman waved off Landon’s concerned hand, saying, “I just need some air.”

One less bourbon and Penelope probably would have stayed in her corner. Two less and she would have cared how bad of an idea it was to given in to her temptations. Too bad Hope let her drink for free. Between one breath and the next, Penelope was at the door, following Josie Saltzman into the humid night.

Moths flitted around the lamps hanging off the side of the bar. Penelope could smell the peaty earth and the rotting wet of the trees mingled with the warm air. It would probably rain later that night and the whole world was fat with the potential of it, teetering on the heady brink like big storms did. Josie’s scent flitted around the dense smells of nature, but Penelope would have found her anyways. She was standing in the parking lot with her arms crossed, looking up at the moon where it pushed through the gathering clouds.

“So, you’re the Josie Saltzman everyone has been telling me about.”

Josie jumped at Penelope’s voice. She turned with a hand over her heart, the quick beat of it jumping in her chest.

“That’s me,” Josie said. She gave Penelope a long look—likely to decide whether or not she was a creep come to bother her. “Nice to meet you.”

Penelope kept her hands in her jacket pockets as she sauntered closer. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. I haven’t lived here in a few years. I forgot how quiet it can be.”

“It’s a loud quiet,” Penelope said, looking skyward and listening to the constant drone of cicadas, crickets, and frogs. Their combined sounds filled the night like white noise, so familiar it made a shiver run down her neck. “I like this sort of noise, though. It keeps things private, I think.”

“About as private as a dirt parking lot can be.”

“Maybe not right here,” Penelope said, nodding towards the darkened treeline. “But out there, it’s intimate. You don’t get that in a city or in town.”

A grin pulled at Josie’s lips, “Why not?”

“People are loud for no reason. At least the bugs are talking to each other.”

“You don’t seem like somebody who’d be interested in bugs.”

Penelope had to give her that. Her leather jacket and black boot combo didn’t exactly scream ‘bug enthusiast’, which was probably a good thing seeing as she wasn’t one. It was Mystic that she liked; it’s swamps and woods and insufferable resistance to leaving 1986. The bugs were part of it all, so she was willing to put up with them during her temporary layover in town. Eventually, she’d move on to someplace else. But, for now, she could enjoy Mystic’s personal brand of eerie.

“Are you?” Penelope asked, unable to keep the amusement out of her voice. “Someone interested in bugs, I mean.”

“No,” Josie laughed, a beautiful sound that made her eyes crinkle up at the corners. “Do you pull out the bug talk to charm every stranger you meet?”

Penelope grinned, “Only the pretty ones.”

“I hate to say it, but you might need some new material.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to take that into account next time I meet somebody pretty.”

Josie laughed again and Penelope’s chest constricted at the sight of her neck when she pushed her hair back. She almost said something—almost moved closer, almost lost her mind—when a thump from the direction of the bar startled them both. It was Landon, halfway out the door, who caught himself on one of the wooden poles with an embarrassed look on his face. “I’m fine,” he called to no one in particular. “I just tripped!”

Josie’s attention abandoned Penelope, turning instead to her clumsy…friend. Man boy. Pet, maybe. She shifted away, giving Penelope one last smile that distinctly lacked the same bright edge as before. She walked over to Landon, who brightened up instantly when he noticed her.

“Hey, I was just looking for you!” he said. “Lizzie is getting tired, so I was thinking we might head back to your mom’s house.”

“That’s fine,” Josie said, placing an easy hand on his shoulder. “Just let me go say goodbye to everyone.”

Penelope stared at the way Josie’s fingers brushed Landon’s neck a little, like a habit. Hm. Maybe ‘boyfriend’ was a better word.

A hot lick of jealousy rolled through her stomach and it made Penelope take a few confused steps away from the light, closer to the edge of the woods. It really wasn’t like her to get jealous over a total stranger, no matter how pretty they might be. Sure, objectively, she was a little sore having to watch such a beautiful woman walk away from her, but you couldn’t win them all. Landon and Josie didn’t seem like an item, but she could see how they might work. Stunning, smart Josie with clumsy, nice Landon looked great on paper even though the thought rolled like a ball of nails through Penelope’s head.

I’m just hungry, she thought to herself. I haven’t fed in a week.

As Josie moved to head back inside the bar, Penelope melted into the shadows of the treeline. The press of the woods around her made her feel better, or at the very least less exposed. She started running, intent on finding a deer or a hog, drinking her fill, and forgetting about whatever weird hangriness was making her feel so off-balance. The trees swallowed her up, leaving behind Blue Moody’s and everyone in it.

She was already a mile away when Josie Saltzman paused in the bar’s doorway and looked over her shoulder, disappointed to see nothing but the parking lot and the trails of fireflies.

 

****

           

Hope Mikaelson, Alpha of the Crescent Moon Pack, loved her bar during the day. She loved the way light streamed through the windows and lit up the dust motes floating in the rafters. She loved the wood-y smell of it, and the way she could walk out onto the porch and stare out over the water. The terrible, southern décor of mounted deer heads and neon signs had come with the place, but they’d become a part of everything she loved too. The bar in daylight was her place to think, to plan, to center herself.

Centering herself was going to be a very difficult task today.

Hope sat at one of the high tables by the back window, the open porch door letting in a warm breeze off the water. Paperwork was spread out before her and she stared sightlessly down at the same four lines. The night before played out in her mind, specifically the moment she had seen the three of them—Josie, Landon, and Lizzie—in her bar. Not one of them had been home in the three years since she opened the bar. She and Landon texted sometimes, and Josie was religious about checking in over video call, but it was still strange to see them in a space that was so completely hers. And, Lizzie…

Hope blinked and tried to refocus on her paperwork. She hadn’t spoken to Lizzie in three years, maybe longer. After graduation, Lizzie had kicked off in search of new horizons, and after college…well, Hope only had the offhand information Josie mentioned in their occasional calls. A stranger might as well have walked in the bar wearing Lizzie’s face.

 But she hadn’t been a stranger, had she? It was the same old Lizzie last night, shining bright as the sun. Maturity had smoothed some of her harsher edges, but that sharp intelligence was still there and Hope had found herself smiling at Lizzie’s barbs like not a day had gone by. Hindsight only made it hurt more, because the warmth in Lizzie’s eyes that had once accompanied those barbs was there, but it wasn’t there for Hope. Lizzie had barely looked at her, not said more than a few words to her, over the course of the evening. She had talked about her job consulting for a law firm in Atlanta, how much she enjoyed the freedom of it, but hadn’t once looked Hope’s way in memory of the times they’d stayed up late wondering what they might do when high school ended. Hope was just another person in a crowd of old friends.

Whenever Hope had moved away from the bar, away from Lizzie, Landon had tried to corner her and exercise his bad habit of getting into other peoples’ business. Hope dodged him with practiced grace, but she could feel his concerned eyes on her all night. He felt guilty, and a guilty Landon became a compulsive Landon trying to fix things that weren’t broken.

He had nothing to apologize for in Hope’s eyes. Things had happened the way they happened and that was how life went, for better or worse. No story to tell, no grief or regret. The End.

Hope scratched her signature on one of the papers. Obsessing over Landon, Josie, and Lizzie was a waste of time. They would be in and out of town soon enough and then she could go back to her peaceful existence in Mystic, without all the high school love triangle bullshit. Dealing with the pack and running the bar was more than enough work to keep her busy.

As if summoned by her stormy thoughts, Jed came stomping through the screen door. He was pulling a cut-off over his bare chest, complimented by jorts and bare feet—perhaps the most classic form of rushed werewolf fashion. Hope could smell the excitement rolling off of him as he crossed the bar.

“Have you been out since yesterday?” he asked, his hands coming to rest flat on her table.

“Nope,” Hope said. “What, did you catch a hog?”

“No, no hog. A scent,” Jed said. “Something else. Near the border line.”

“Which section? Penelope went out last night to feed.”

“It wasn’t Penelope. I know what she smells like,” Jed insisted. “This was toward the northern border, almost on top of it. I could only track it through that one area before I lost on the water.”

This got Hope’s attention. She leaned forward, paperwork and high school drama both forgotten. “Do you think it hit the water intentionally?” she asked. Crossing water was a good way to avoid being tracked by a werewolf. Even the best of trackers struggled to pick up a trail over water.

“I don’t know,” Jed shrugged.

“Vampire?”

“Smelled like it.”

“Where are Kaleb and Raph?”

“Raph’s down on the dock and Kaleb’s in town. He took my truck.”

“Okay, go get Raph and then go grab MG from the back room,” Hope said, nodding across the bar. “MG’s nose isn’t as good as ours, but I don’t want you guys going out there with less than three people.”

Jed’s brow furrowed, “You think it’s bad?”

“I think two vampires and a pack of werewolves are enough to deter any sane creature from entering this town. But, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

“Okay,” Jed said, pushing off the table. “What are you gonna do?”

“Call Ethan and Maya and have them come in,” Hope said. “They weren’t here last night, so maybe they caught something. Then, I’m going to talk to Penelope.”

“You rang?”

Sometime during their conversation, Penelope had materialized in the bar. Her skin glowed with the vitality of a fresh feed and she’d apparently used her blood-bolstered sun resistance to go into town and get a smoothie. She took a loud rattling sip through her straw and pulled her sunglass down her nose, “What’s up, alpha?”

“Possible visitor,” Hope said. Hungry for action, Jed excused himself to gather up the boys.

“More than we’ve already had?” Penelope asked. “Don’t tell me you have another high school flame coming to visit?”

“No,” Hope growled, her jaw tightening. Leave it to Penelope to poke a bruise. “A vampire, Jed thinks.”

“They didn’t declare themselves?”

“No, but we don’t have as strict rules about that down here. The bayou and the woods are big enough that somebody could cross through without necessarily encroaching on our territory.”

“But you wouldn’t be sending the boys out if you thought it was just somebody passing through.”

“It’s just a precaution,” Hope said, not liking how unsure she sounded to herself. “Jed lost the scent on the water and couldn’t pick it up, so we just need to check it out.”

Penelope’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s interesting,” she said. “Do you think they went into the water to feed on a hog or something?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s Mikaelson for ‘definitely not’.”

Hope snorted, “I’m not jumping to any conclusions. We would have torn you to shreds when you showed up if I was all about jumping to conclusions.”

“Hm, fair enough. I guess I owe you a thank you.”

“Save it,” Hope said. “I have no problem housing you, MG, or any other vampire who doesn’t feed on people.”

“You grew up with MG, so he doesn’t count. You just like the way I brighten up the bar.”

Hope snorted, “Sure.”

Penelope pulled herself into the chair opposite Hope and dragged her finger through the condensation on the outside of her smoothie. “Something is bothering you, though,” she said. “Has been since those three showed up last night—Ah, ah, ah, no,” Penelope held up a hand before Hope could protest. “You might be the alpha, but I’m not one of your wolves. You might as well be honest with me.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Just like how the unknown vampire in your territory is ‘nothing’?”

“I could kill you on the spot, you know that right?”

Penelope laughed and Hope found herself appreciating what it felt like to talk to somebody who didn’t have memories of why Mikaelson was such an infamous name in the South. True, sometimes Penelope’s utter lack of respect drove her up a wall, but other times, especially when the pack looked to her to lead them, it was nice to be able to threaten to kill somebody and have them know it was a joke.

“You could try,” Penelope chuckled. “And you’d probably win. But then I wouldn’t be able to get with that beautiful little brunette who ganked your boyfriend.”

At this, Hope stiffened. “Penelope, I meant what I said. Don’t go after Josie.”

“Oh,” Penelope’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that what’s got you so riled up? I thought you were pining over the Cabbage Patch Kid, but really this about Josie?”

I almost wish it was, Hope thought.

“No,” she said. “I love Josie, but not like that.”

“So why can’t I have a little fun?”

“Because I know you, and you’ll break her heart,” Hope sighed. Penelope’s expression flickered for a second and then settled into a smug smirk. For a small town, Penelope had already done some damage to the young women and men of Mystic. “I’m serious. Josie’s been through a lot with me and Landon, she doesn’t need you…doing what you do. Landon cares about her and…”

“…barely paid attention to her last night.” Penelope finished.

Helplessly, Hope threw up her hands and bit her lip. She loved Landon and she loved Josie, and when they’d gotten together after high school, things had seemed…good. But only good. As much as she knew they cared for each other, Hope had always wondered if they used each other a bit like a safety blanket away from Mystic. “They aren’t exactly together anymore, no,” Hope said finally, because she wasn’t about to give Penelope any more ammunition. “But that doesn’t mean you should butt your head in.”

“Fine,” Penelope said. “I’ll keep my devious intentions to myself.”

“Thank you.”

Outside, a warm breeze rustled the trees. The rising heat of the day was starting to creep into the bar and Hope had to unstick a few pieces of paperwork from her damp hand as she leaned back in her chair. Penelope did the same, the mischievous smirk planted on her face making her look like a cat about to knock something off a shelf.

“So, is Cabbage Patch Kid your one true love or—"

“Oh my God, Penelope!”

“What? Come on, I’m dying to know what’s got Hope Mikaelson’s tail between her legs! It’s fascinating.”

“Nope, no, we’re not doing this,” Hope said, quickly gathering up her papers and shuffling them into a rough pile. With a small burst of strength, she kicked Penelope’s chair out from underneath her and laughed out loud when Penelope’s vampire reflexes barely saved her from falling on her ass. “Come on, I need you to come into town with me.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Penelope snorted, picking herself up from her defensive crouch. “Anybody ever tell you you’re an ass?”

“Not before they’ve told you.”