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A Touch of Warmth

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In the seconds before she hit the water, Jenny realised that she was an idiot. She couldn't even manage to die right. She should have climbed the tower; just jumping from mid span wasn't going to do the job. Then her world turned dark and cold and full of pain, and relief crept in. She'd done it. It was finally over, and now Abbie would be safe.

Then she opened her eyes.

It was light out. She seemed to be lying flat on her back looking up at a forest. And something was wrong.

Not just the switch from plunging into the lights of the Tappan Zee as reflected on the Hudson one second, and finding herself here the next. Here itself was wrong. It wasn't the darkness she'd fallen into, but it wasn't daylight either. The strange light seemed familiar, but reaching for the memory felt like putting weight on a sprained ankle, and Jenny retreated from the pain.

The trees looked like the woods around Tarrytown, and not, both at the same time. If she glanced out of the corner of her eye, looking but not looking, she thought she could see through the trunks to the not-dark sky beyond, or possibly they moved out of the way.

Fragments of voices, never whole words, just sounds human yet distorted, sounded from somewhere to her right. Jenny tried calling out to them, but her voice stuck in her throat.

When she sat up, she realised she was wearing the same black jeans and grey sweatshirt she'd had on when she'd jumped. They were dry, and no leaves stuck to them as she stood.

It was only then that it occurred to her that she might be dead after all, and this clearly wasn't heaven.

"It was worth it," she said, her voice coming back to her. She hadn't been more than two steps from hell in the world of the living anyway, not since the day they saw the four trees.

"Was it?"

Jenny turned. At first, she didn't find anything. Contorted figures flickered in the distance, and Jenny squinted, trying to see which had spoken, if any of them. She could still hear twisted voices in the distance, like squeaking doors or bird calls that sound so human for a moment that you struggle to make words out of the noise.

A woman appeared, not three feet away. She didn't flicker or fade in, but simply arrived, as though turned on with a switch. She was beautiful. That was the first thing Jenny noticed, followed by her white skin and tangled red hair, and the oddness of her dress: sort of old-fashioned but showing more skin than the pictures in most of Jenny's school books, and belted tight to her waist.

"Who are you?" The demand was more reflexive than anything.

The woman studied Jenny intently, not answering the question, but saying instead, "You shouldn't be here, Jennifer Mills. Now is not your time."

"How do you know my name?" Jenny persisted, holding her arms stiff at her sides and balling her hands into fists. "Is this hell? Mom always said the Devil was a looker."

In Jenny's mind, the woman would either laugh at that, or tell her she was right. Instead her full lips pressed into a frown, and she said, "Hell? Of a kind, perhaps, but you are not dead, merely brushing the margins for an instant."

Jenny bit her lip, wishing she could curse, or weep, but not wanting to show this stranger what she felt. She had failed, and the monster would return. Maybe this time it would kill the only person she loved in the world. She stepped forward, snarling, "Who the hell are you?"

The woman didn't flinch, and didn't answer that question either. "An ally against the darkness, one who knows that you have a greater purpose than sacrificing yourself for nought."

She didn't duck or dodge when Jenny tried to hit her, but her haymaker missed anyway. Something flickered around Jenny's hand as it moved, and around the woman as it should have hit her, and her arm just sort of slid by. Jenny stumbled and had to brace herself on a tree to keep her feet. She was glad that her hair fell forward then, as it gave her a moment to blink back tears. It hadn't been for nothing; it had been for Abbie. But she'd screwed that up too.

"The demon will come again," the woman said, not bothered by the violence. "Whether you're there or not."

"Then how can I save her?" Jenny knew her voice sounded more resigned than fierce. How could a sixteen-year-old girl with little family and no friends rescue her sister from all the demons of hell?

"I will help you. If I can."

"How–" Jenny started to ask, but the world started to go dim, then cold and wet.

When she opened her eyes, she was lying on her back on the bank of the Hudson, and everything hurt.

Jenny shivered and tried to roll more tightly into her blanket.

Last winter, she and Tanika had double stacked their mattresses and bedding, lying inches apart when they drifted off, and finding themselves curled together come morning. Now, Jenny was on her own; Tanika had aged out and taken off west to look for her dad, and there'd been no girl to replace her. November was rolling in, and Old Mrs. Harley had yet to issue the winter blankets.

Jenny wasn't sure how she'd fallen asleep, even curled on her side, arms wrapped around her knees, but she knew that she was dreaming. She was still in the house, but that woman was there again, the pale woman in black from a year ago at the river. She knelt next to Jenny's bed saying not a word. When Jenny opened her mouth, the woman put a finger to her lips. As she leaned in, her hair fell forward – the electric lights making it more brassy than red, and stark against the bare skin of her shoulders – and Jenny stared.

When the woman laid her hand on Jenny's forehead, her skin felt warm and real. It was rougher than Jenny would have thought, with a line of callouses along the top of her palm, just where her fingers joined her hand. The warmth spread out, filling Jenny's chest with a glow of contentment, and a heat she hadn't felt since summer.

The woman rocked back on her heels, and the scrap of satisfaction turning up the edges of her mouth was the first smile of hers that Jenny had seen.

Just as Jenny was about to say something, to thank her, the woman looked sharply over her shoulder and vanished as abruptly as she'd appeared. Perhaps it ought to have startled Jenny awake, but instead she slept as deeply as she had since living in that house.

When she woke the next day, she vowed to move out to the lake on cold nights. Corbin wouldn't mind.

A year later, Jenny had fled Mrs Harley's and moved into Corbin's cabin more or less permanently. It seemed like the easiest way to avoid his newly minted golden girl, otherwise known as her sister. It also had as much wood as she could chop and a quiet place to read up on demonology.

For the first time in half a decade, she had a room she could even begin to call private, and the freedom to do what she liked in it. To a certain extent, anyway. Corbin hadn't said, but Jenny was pretty sure that having girls over wasn't on the table. She didn't even know if he'd figured out that she was gay, or if he'd care. Still, the privacy had some uses.

She'd learned to get herself off in shared quarters, and the habits remained. Now she lay on her side, legs curled up tight together, arms wrapped around a pillow, and fantasising with perfect clarity and increasing intensity, until a quick slide of fingers between her legs would be all she needed.

Her favourite subject these last few years had been of the woman in the black dress, the one Jenny was almost sure she'd made up in the first place, and was certainly imagining now. Jenny pictured them both in a lavish bedroom with a king-sized bed and silk sheets.

The woman – Jenny had tried naming her, but had nothing stuck – was standing at the foot of the bed, fussing with the low bodice of her dress. When Jenny crossed the room towards her, already just in her bra and panties – a pretty, matched set, like she'd never owned – and kissed the woman, the shoulder straps slipped down, and the bodice followed with it. Underneath, a black corset pressed the woman's breasts up so that they swelled and shivered as she breathed, the left jumping a little with each beat of her heart. Her skin felt warm against Jenny's, and they kissed again.

The kiss started safely, the gentle play of lips against lips, and the sure knowledge that nothing that happened here would lead to harm, but the woman's hands running up her back and then entangling in her hair and the hard edges of her corset against Jenny's breasts added intensity. Jenny was the first to use her teeth, starting gently then sharply biting at the woman's lower lip. She had her hands on the woman's shoulders, holding them together, and bit and licked her way along the edge of her jaw and down her throat. Her pale skin showed every mark, little pink footprints trailing behind Jenny's kisses. They led a path down to the edge of the corset, then across the tops of both breasts.

The woman tugged at the laces behind her, loosening them somehow, then moaned as Jenny took a nipple between her teeth. Jenny sucked at it, and the woman writhed against her, pressing her breast into her mouth. She grabbed Jenny's ass, pulling their bodies together, and twisting sideways so that Jenny could grind against her hip. Her impatient hands first skimmed Jenny's panties off her hips, then tugged at the fastening of her bra until it popped free. Jenny shrugged it off, forcing herself to let go of the woman's shoulders. When the break formed between them, the woman did something to her dress causing it to fall way leaving her just in her corset.

Her long limbs were smooth, and gorgeous, and the curve of her hips made Jenny's breath catch. The woman let her look, her own eyes not travelling down Jenny's body but looking steadily at her. Jenny took it as permission, and let herself memorise everything she saw before pushing the woman onto the bed.

They fell together, Jenny on top, and the woman let her arms stretch out above her. It pulled her breasts taut, and Jenny's mouth returned to them. The woman bucked up, and Jenny had to take her shoulders to hold her in place.

Then she took her time about it. Each lick up the side of her breasts, each scrape of teeth on nipples, drew another moan from the woman. Still she didn't speak, but Jenny heard, "Please," and, "Jennifer," in each sound. She could have listened forever, but she knew the woman wanted more.

Pressing her forearm across the top of the woman's chest, Jenny let her other hand slide down, pausing at the curve of her hip, then circling to fit between the woman's spread legs. Her patch was already slippery, and two fingers slid easily inside her. Jenny's thumb found the woman's clit, and she screamed. Jenny kissed away the sound, and circled gently. She might have been riding a whirlwind, for how much the woman twisted and cried under her touch.

She could feel her own body responding to the woman's, the heat between her own legs, and knew that she was close.

In her bed in Corbin's cabin, Jenny finally pinched her own nipple between two fingers and slid her other hand down to her cunt. It took only seconds to bring herself off. A spike of pleasure shot through her, and she had to bite her lip to stay silent.

As she snuggled on her side, listening to the quieting thump of her heart, Jenny imagined the woman cuddling next to her, warming them both.

Small rocks and dirt skidded under Jenny's boots as she scrambled up the ridge, keeping her body low and using her left hand for balance. When she got to the top, she lay flat, wincing at the pressure on her bad arm, but not wanting to give away her position.

A half a dozen barren stream beds spread out below her, the north and east reaching ones now deeply shadowed. Approaching from the west, four pick-ups with mounted machine guns in the beds were coming up fast, the cloud of their dust rising as a dark smear against the sinking sun.

There was no truck of her own in any of the dry creeks, nor any tire marks. Something must have happened to Wahida, or she'd lied to Jenny. There didn't seem to be any point to that as far as Jenny could see, but maybe she didn't get the dynamics within the IDP camp as well as she'd thought.

Either way, she had about a minute to think of a new plan. If she was still here when the Warlord's trucks showed up, Wahida would be the least of her worries. Jenny checked the bandage around her right biceps: not bleeding through, not cutting off circulation, still hurting like fuck. She was good to go.

Hiding seemed like the best option, but where? Her drab clothes would blend in with the Sudanese dust, but well enough to hide from these men? Jenny surveyed the rocks again, this time with a different eye.

A red-tailed hawk landed on the ridge about forty feet south. Jenny raised an eyebrow at it. She always kept an eye on birds – they could lead to water and food – but she had yet to see a red-tailed hawk, or anything like one in the Sudan. The bird seemed to be watching her, cocking its head one way then the other to meet her eyes. It felt so damned uncanny that Jenny found herself creeping towards it.

As she approached, the hawk flapped and hopped a few feet down the ridge. Jenny continued to follow, hurrying now, rocks scattering down the slope below her. The bird stayed always just out of reach, but didn't try to fly away and kept a steady course southeast and down the slope.

At last it stopped, perching on a rock above a bramble patch, turning its head this way and that, but always watching her with those strange golden eyes. It felt intelligent. Jenny took another step toward it, and it flew up again, this time flapping vigorously and too fast to follow until it disappeared back over the ridge.

Behind the thorn bushes, under the rock, opened the mouth of a cave just big enough for Jenny to hide.

"You must take the locket to Katrina," Crane had said, and Abbie had nodded, so here Jenny was, sneaking into the Horseman's house while Crane led him on a merry chase half way to the Bronx. That was the plan anyway. Jenny assumed that it would all go to shit in the next half hour, at most, but hadn't had a better suggestion.

Despite any grumbling Jenny had done on the way out the door, she was curious. Crane talked about his wife like she was the Second Coming, and in all her travels, Jenny had yet to meet a truly powerful witch. Abbie hadn't said much on the topic, and Jenny wished they were as close as they had been as children, when Jenny had been able to read every shade of her sister's silences. Now it seemed like every time tried to reach out to Abbie, she'd either miss or she'd come up against the same armour of anger and guilt that she herself wore. That Abbie did the same with Jenny only made it worse. It should be the Mills Sisters against the world, but even when it literally was, it often felt like Abbie and Crane united by the Word of God, and Jenny sort of tagging along.

Trying to get it out of her head, Jenny decided that when she got back she would ask Abbie what was up with her and Katrina. For now, she had some breaking and entering to do.

Or just entering, as it turned out. The Horseman either hadn't locked his windows, or he had, and Katrina had unlocked them. It felt like a trap, even knowing there was a supposed ally inside, and Jenny circled the house again, peering inside. She saw nothing but shadows and the occasional glint of china or glass as the moon broke through the clouds, no sign of lamplight or even candles. Was Katrina even here? Knowing there was nothing for it, she returned to the original window and did her best to look through without revealing herself by using a light; again she saw nothing.

Jenny swung her legs over the sill and ducked inside. Then she ducked again as something sliced the air above her head. Jenny backed away, gun levelled, then relaxed when she saw the figure of a woman. She stood in the darkest shadows of the corner beside the fireplace, poker raised for another swing.

Sighing, Jenny lowered the gun and flicked on her electric lamp. "Thought you were the Horseman," she said. "What'd you think I was?"

"I was unsure." The woman set the poker down and stepped into the light, but Jenny's world was already reeling. She had expected a stranger, the powerful and beautiful witch of Crane's stories, but instead she knew that voice. And that face, the one that had filled a thousand fantasies, the one she'd caught out of the corner of her eyes in so many mirrors that sometimes she thought she really was losing it.

Jenny said the first thing that came to her lips, which turned out to be idiotic: "Holy shit. You're real."

The woman smiled, a faint turn of her lips, and suddenly Jenny's heart was in her mouth. How many times had she imagined that smile? She'd hoarded the memory of it for a decade, holding it close to her heart on some of her darkest days, and now here it was again, real and exactly as she remembered it.

"But..." Jenny started to protest, then gave up. She didn't know what to say. The literal woman of her dreams was standing embodied in front of her, and she was married to Ichabod Fucking Crane. Never mind. Jenny had spent her life not getting what she wanted, so what was one more time? Corbin had given her a way to deal: focus on the mission.

Jenny shook her head, then dug through her pocket for the chain and pendant. It was an awkward, bulky thing, apparently meant to enclose more than just a picture or lock of hair, but Jenny hadn't had a chance to ask what it was for. She held it out, explaining, "Your... Crane said to give you this."

As Katrina took the locket, their fingers touched. It couldn't have been anything but a deliberate movement, and Jenny's eyes widened. Seeing her surprise, Katrina's smile deepened until it crinkled the corners of her eyes. "'My Crane,'" she said, voice deepening to a purr. "Yes. I believe a misunderstanding may lie between us, you and I."

Jenny swallowed. She had the option of issuing a blanket apology for everything she'd ever thought about this woman – the woman, who had been her woman. But she'd suffered enough indignities in her life, and decided to double down, "Like not knowing you were real until a minute and a half ago?"

She moved to fold her arms, but Katrina caught her wrist and held it. She was surprisingly strong, and a little flash of warmth flowed up through Jenny's arm to glow through her body, just as it had all those years ago. "Such as the terms of my marriage."

"Oh," Jenny said, and it came out as a sigh. She didn't know exactly what those terms were, but the calloused fingers circling her wrist gave her some idea of what they allowed. "You..." She struggled for a historical term – had they had "lesbians" in Revolutionary America? Jenny had no idea, and the only other person she could think to ask was Crane – and had to settle on, "You like girls?"

"I like you," Katrina said, tone only slightly mocking Jenny's lack of poetry, "And Ichabod would not object to this 'like.'"

"Huh." Jenny's mind whirled with possibilities, but this wasn't the time. She'd talk to Abbie when she got to the cabin, and some day she'd be back here again, or Katrina would be free to come to her. For now, she had a mission. Somewhere out in the night, Crane was running for his life, and her sister was waiting. Pulling her hand free, she said, "I have to go."

"You will return," Katrina replied, an assurance, not a question.

She probably would too, being errand girl in chief right now. Jenny nodded and said, "I've already brought you jewellery, do you want flowers next time?"

Katrina laughed, another first, and kissed Jenny's cheek. It felt good, another glowing moment to hold close, but after all the upheavals of the past few minutes, Jenny felt like she could do better. She twisted to catch the edge of Katrina's kiss with her lips – once, lightly, still not enough – and turned back to the window and the war outside. There was a war in here too, she remembered, and Katrina was far from safe.

"Next time," she said, trying to hide a smile and not managing it.

Katrina smiled back, and still the look lit Jenny's heart. "I'll be here."