As far as way stations go, the Dal Riata is one of the more lively ones. The moment I entered I could feel the atmosphere of merriment. As I made my way to the bar from the front door, I passed a pool table of rowdy young Fae, drinking and jeering raucously. They were so sociable that it took me a moment to recognize the mixture of both Light and Dark. I couldn't keep the unrestrained smile off my face, the corners of my mouth tugging their way up before my brain had even registered the muscular mutiny. I wiggled my lips from side to side to remove it and continued on my way, but not before colliding into a young dark skinned woman with long, crinkly-permed hair.
Our shoulders crashed, effectively knocking one another off stride. I reached out, gripping her upper arm gently by way of apology. I allowed the smile to return and hoped that it conveyed my condolences at my complete lack of spatial-awareness. "I'm so sorry," I said, just in case she didn't get it. But she returned my smile graciously, said nothing, and moved on. By the way she put her head down as she passed other patrons, shoulders hunched forward, I would guess she was upset and distracted by something. I watched her for a moment longer before turning to resume fighting my way to the bar. But I was forced to halt again. Directly behind me stood a beautiful blonde woman who also appeared to be watching the young woman retreat. As the other woman disappeared outside, the blonde frowned intensely prior to shifting her attention to me.
"Are you all right?" she asked, replacing the frown with a ghost of a smile that was obviously forced with practiced politeness.
"I'm fine, thank you."
It's not often that I am guilty of being unobservant, but having been knocked off balance by the sad young woman had apparently put me off my game. The woman before me was human, I realized, as evidenced by the necklace which bore, of all things, an amulet depicting the Ash's mark. That explained her indirect subservience. Most would not have noticed the way she took the tiniest step back and bowed her head only slightly in deference to my presence.
She clasped her hands together, offered another half-hearted smile and said, "I'm glad. Would you excuse me?"
"Of course," I replied, moving to the side so that she could go around me. I watched her gather a black leather coat off the chair next to her, fold it over her arm before tracing the same route her friend had taken.
This way-station is definitely unique, I thought as I continued to jostle my way between patrons. It was not often that one would find humans in a Fae establishment. Given the non-reaction of those who apparently frequented the Dal, the presence of humans was grudgingly tolerated. It was refreshing and I found myself relaxing slightly as I climbed onto a barstool and squirmed into a comfortable position. I intended on spending some time here, observing.
The bartender slash way-station attendant was at the opposite end of the bar, serving two dark haired women. On the bar was a very large lineup of shot glasses. The taller of the two women was fiddling with one of the full shots. Her shoulders were hunched forward and she wore a look of barely restrained agony. The smaller brunette was smiling awkwardly and making animated jokes while the bartender looked on worriedly. Finally the woman stopped toying with her drink and brought it to her lips. She tossed her head back, expertly downing the shot. She swiped the back of her hand across her mouth as she slammed the glass down. She picked up the next, shooting it too. Her companion affectionately rubbed her back before taking her own shot.
The bartender refilled their glasses but he must have noticed me because he said something to the women and made his way over.
"What can I get for you this evening?" he asked. I examined him for a moment. I knew he had made his own observations a little less obviously as he made his way over to me. He had come to his snap-conclusions before he reached my side, but I was more of lingering study. I wanted him to know I was trying to get the lay of the land. I absorbed the crisp white button-down shirt that hung just a little loosely from his torso. His pants were also a touch too big, needing a rather snug belt to keep them up. Despite his minute wardrobe issues, he walked with the confidence and poise of the countless ageless, wizened Fae I had encountered in my travels. I would put his birth at no less than two-thousand years ago, but a more accurate age could not be gleaned from a mere once-over.
"I would like to sign in," I said.
"Certainly. One moment." He stooped beneath the bar, an easy feat given his very short stature. When he popped back up, he held an ominously large ledger. He dropped it with a flourish in front of me and opened it so wide it cracked in protest. I winced at the sound of the spine breaking, but he didn't seem to notice as he handed me a quill and an ink well.
I beamed at him as I signed my name. He watched me curiously. No sooner than I had written my Fae species than his eyes narrowed. He cocked his head to the side slightly and studied me for a lingering moment before speaking. "An Erised?"
"You sound surprised."
"Your kind is very rare indeed."
I nodded. I was used to similar reactions. I travelled a lot so it happened more frequently than I preferred. Thankfully it was also easy for me to brush off. So, I proffered my hand. "My name is Cleo Silsbury."
"Fitzpatrick MacCorrigan," he replied. If he felt any hesitation at shaking my hand, it was not apparent to me which was a welcome surprise. He grasped it between the two of his. His hands were warm, but his gaze held an unspoken warning. "I am pleased to meet you."
"The pleasure is mine, Mr. MacCorrigan."
"Call me Trick.
"Trick it is, then." My smile remained, turning into a full-fledged grin of pleasure. This time I didn't fight it. I liked that it was so easy to smile here. It wasn't very often that I was able to lower my guard, but I felt safe here. Something about the atmosphere was reassuring and I would bet that it had everything to do with the lovely, unassuming little man in front of me. Trick was a good man; I could feel it in my very bones.
"Can I get you anything else?" he asked. He sounded a little distracted as he looked to the other end of the bar where the two women were just finishing the last of their enormous row of drinks. He shook his head very slightly before turning back to me.
"I'd like a pint of the finest ale you have on tap," I said. He poured absently, leaving a little bit more head to the golden ale than I preferred, but I did not complain as he set the frosty mug in front of me. I nodded my thanks and turned away, releasing him to care for his other customers.
I sat with my elbow propped on the bar, absorbing the delightful atmosphere. I noticed at once that the blond woman had returned, her upset friend in tow. I watched with interest— sipping delicately at my beer trying to avoid acquiring a frothy white mustache—as they interacted. It was evident that the dark-haired woman had been crying. And the blonde felt terrible which was also quite obvious by the stricken look on her face. Now they sat at a table, leaning close to one another, locked in an intense discussion. I was beginning to put together a picture of their relationship based on the subtle touches they shared and the obvious affection that was underlying their current anxiety. The fair haired woman kept trying to comfort her lover—if my guess was correct—but whatever had upset the woman was not so easily rectified.
"They make a startling couple, don't they?"
I jumped, spilling beer all over my hand. I was so absorbed with my curiosity that I didn't notice that someone was beside me until they spoke. I looked up as I put the beer down on the bar and flapped my hand to get most of the moisture off. The taller brunette from the other end of the bar had somehow found her way over to me and was now leaning against the bar watching the two women as well. She had an unreadable expression on her face.
"Beautiful," I said, but I didn't comment on how unhappy they currently seemed.
She turned her attention to me, holding a cocktail napkin between her fingers. I hadn't seen her pick it up, but I was grateful for it as I wiped my hand. She smiled and it was beautiful, so full that it spoke volumes while seeming to offer me the world. "Sorry about that," she purred. "My name's Bo."
"Don't be sorry. You can't help my nerves," I managed. Normally women weren't my thing, but this one was exuding sexual energy to spare and I couldn't help being enthralled.
I looked into her eyes, twin pools of dark chocolate that were gazing at me with rapt attention. Around the edges was a faint blue glow that seemed to pulse the longer she held my attention. Her tongue parted her lips slightly, precipitating her next movement. She reached out to touch a strand of auburn that had somehow escaped my ponytail. She tucked it gently behind my ear, trailing her fingers down my jawline. I shivered uncontrollably.
Several things happened then, so rapidly that I could barely keep track of them. I realized too late what sort of creature was before me—just as Trick shouted her name in warning—and she released her power into me. I jolted under the caving force of the latter, clutching at the chair to keep myself upright. I couldn't breathe. My eyes widened at what I had absorbed.
"Oh no," Trick groaned as he rushed to our side.
I ground the heels of my hands into my eyes, knowing what was coming next. A barrage of unwanted images flashed in my skull. Blonde hair spilling over my breasts—trailing kisses across my abdomen—fingers tracing patterns on the inside of my thigh—a lab coat and stethoscope—the Ash's mark hanging inches from my face—
"Ugh!" I spat. I opened my eyes. "Damn! Why can't you succubae ever just ask?"
Bo stared at me open-mouthed, clearly at a loss for words. I doubt the woman had been shut down quite like that before. At that moment I couldn't discern if she had figured out just what had happened, but I had suspicions she would know soon enough.
"Hey, Succubum, aren't your eyes supposed to be glowing?" The succubus' friend came skidding to a halt in front of me, also staring with wide-eyed attention. "She a succubus, too?" the girl asked, hiking a thumb in my direction. The question had been posed to Trick since her friend seemed to be in shock.
"Shh, Kenzi," Trick hissed. He was shaking his head, probably wishing he had made a verbal warning instead of just giving me a pointed look earlier.
"Just for the record," I started with a hard edge to my voice, "I didn't initiate that." To say that I was angry was a little bit of an understatement. I could feel the blood coursing through my veins as my blood pressure rose.
The succubus was now looking at her fingers. It was dawning on her that something wasn't quite right. I knew she'd be feeling an immense vacancy depending on how in tune with her energies she was. Given how little time it took her to notice something was missing, I had to be impressed. She narrowed her eyes menacingly at me. She took a step forward, but Trick launched himself up onto the bar and restrained her.
"Don't, Bo. She's an Erised," he said. My species title as an explanation was clearly lost on the succubus.
"Erised. Uhm, she can determine our deepest desires, even those that may be hidden from our consciousness."
"That's not all she did, Trick!"
I gave her a little bit of a lopsided grin. Something spoke to her innocence in all things Fae and I had the sense that she could use a little bit of patience. My anger faded away as quickly as it had flared. "I also have the ability to absorb your gifts."
The first one to manage to articulate anything was the succubus' little friend, Kenzi, who summed it up with an eloquent, "Holy shit!"
Now everyone was staring at me. I found that I didn't much like being the object of scrutiny, but I guess that would make any natural observer uncomfortable. While Erised were rare, even more unusual was an Erised who did not delight in the use of their powers. And I was clearly uncomfortable at being in possession of the succubus' gift. I wondered if they could see the beads of sweat that had sprung on my forehead.
It was bad enough to absorb a succubus, made worse by absorbing a hungry succubus. I lifted my gaze heavenward, wishing for once that the humans had been right about a higher power watching over us. I could really use a divine intervention right about now.
"Bo—hey, Bo!" Kenzi was poking her friend in the shoulder, but the succubus was stupefied. Her eyes were narrowed and she was staring off into space. I imagined smoke coming out of her ears as she processed everything that had happened in the space of a few minutes.
Finally Bo blinked a few times and caught Kenzi's hand as she made to poke her one more time. "What, Kenz?" Kenzi leaned closer to the taller woman, who, out of habit, bent down so that the younger woman could whisper in her ear.
As they impolitely conferred with one another, I glanced at Trick. He was watching me with extreme curiosity and I recognized a kindred observer. I offered him a lightly shrugged shoulder as an apology and he afforded me an understanding nod of the head. I was under the impression he was accustomed to the succubus finding trouble. That revelation made me feel slightly better about my unwanted predicament.
"Excuse me, Bo." I touched her forearm and she flinched. I felt like reminding her it was a little late to be worried about physical contact, but I pursed my lips as her eyes met mine. "We should probably find somewhere more private to chat."
She had enough sense to look slightly disturbed by the notion of going anywhere private with me. If I had been any other Erised, she might have been in for a world of trouble and her instincts would have been correct. Luckily I am a pariah. I abhor chaos and the needless ruin of countless lives. I am the antithesis of what it means to be Erised, which likely explained why I survived and innumerable others of my kind did not.
I had cause to be impressed yet again when she straightened her spine, sucked in a subtle breath and reined in her fears. She turned to Trick and asked if we could borrow his study. They shared a wordless conversation in which he used body language to ask her if she was confident of her safety and she answered by conveying multitudes of bravery yet again.
Her little friend had more to say about it. "Bo, you're crazy! She could kill you!"
The succubus smiled, and put an arm around Kenzi hugging her affectionately. "I'll be fine," she said reassuringly. It seemed to placate her fiery sidekick enough, but the young woman still managed to rake her murderous gaze over me. I got the message loud and clear: hurt my friend and I will hunt you to the ends of the earth. I didn't doubt her for a minute, pint sized human or not.
To my surprise, the succubus decided to test her mettle by grasping my hand as she lead me through the crowded bar and down a rustic set of stairs into an underground chamber filled with beautiful antiques and baubles. She let go of my hand and dropped into a soft plush couch, leaning her head back to rest against the couch. She closed her eyes.
I took a moment to unbutton my jacket and shrug out of it. Beneath it my blouse was sweat soaked. I hated integrating different powers into my system, it always caused an overload. Damn. My favorite shamrock silk blouse was ruined, but at least my lucky jeans hadn't suffered this time. There was always a silver lining if you knew where to look for it.
"I wanted to apologize." The succubus' soft voice surprised me and I looked up from my ruined shirt, my fingers holding it away from my body. My expression must have been amusing because she allowed herself a little nervous laugh. "I shouldn't have tried to seduce you."
"Uh, well, I suppose we can't help what's in our nature," I said. "Actually, I have to admit to being flattered." Her smile softened a little as residual tension ebbed away. I made my way over and sat down on the couch next to her, angling my body to face her and crossing my legs at the knee. I put my hands in my lap. "I never actually made a proper introduction. My name is Cleo."
She acknowledged that with a nod of her head. "So, Cleo, explain this to me." She waved her hand between the two of us.
I took a deep breath. Most Fae had heard of the Erised, so it was unusual that I needed to expound upon the finer details. Thankfully what happened was not a complicated process. I shrugged and said, "Well, I—for lack of a better term—ate your powers for a short duration. For all intents and purposes you're essentially human right now."
I watched her carefully. There were so many things that could happen as comprehension set in. I was expecting outrage, disgust, an attack even. But as I watched her eyes grow distant in thought, I could see the corners of her mouth turn up just slightly. The more she thought, the larger her grin became. Finally she laughed again and it was a jubilant, triumphant sound. "For real?" She seemed exhilarated. I, on the other hand, was thoroughly confused. Any other Fae would have tried to tear out my throat—which of course wouldn't succeed while I housed their abilities.
I was even more confounded when she practically squealed and threw her arms around me. I lamely hugged her in return, awkwardly patting her back. "You're excited about that?" I asked when I couldn't contain my incredulity any longer.
She drew back, holding my shoulders. "I am thrilled! I have spent every waking minute since I came of age—since I gained my powers— trying to find some way to go back to being… well, normal."
I felt my heart sink, knowing what it was like trying to achieve the impossible. "There's a downside, Bo," I said carefully. I felt bad for bursting her bubble, but there were unfortunate side effects to our predicament. Not the first of which would be the hunger I was suffering from, which was making it increasingly more difficult to focus. As I looked away, I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I couldn't help the gasp that escaped my lips.
It took her only a moment to figure out what was wrong. The glow haloing my eyes was radiating ever brighter. "You're hungry," she said. I don't think she even comprehended the danger that could pose for her in her newly weakened 'human' state.
"Like I said: downside. It's easier for me to control because it's secondary to my own needs, but at some point I'm going to need to deal with it."
She pondered for a moment. "Your own needs?"
"Here's the thing, Bo, when you touched me I was given insight into your desires. It's in my Fae nature to meddle, unfortunately. Normally I try to find people whose lives won't be completely ruined when I take what I need from them, but now everything has become a royal mess." Her hand flew to her mouth in realization. She began to shake her head. "No, don't freak out. I've been in awkward situations before. I can find a way out of this for us, but I'm going to need your help."
"Oh God, I'm sorry. Whatever you need me to do. Anything."
I took a deep breath. This situation had me squirming because I was accustomed to flying solo when making decisions, except Bo had forced our lives to recklessly entwine. I didn't hold it against her; sometimes our abilities were a burden. Of all people, I possibly understood this fact better than most. So, I sucked it up and asked the pertinent question: "Who is the blonde, and what is she to you?"
Her reluctance to tell me spoke volumes. She shifted uncomfortably on the couch, assuming a defensive posture. She wasn't aware of her actions; it was just as natural as breathing to protect those she cared for. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to play around. The uncontrollable urge to help Bo realize her desires was beginning to overwhelm my better judgement. If I didn't sort out what to do soon, my gifts were going to force me to act and I could end up leaving a colossal nightmare in my wake.
"Fine," I began, forcing her attention back to me instead of focusing on whatever internal dialogue she had going on, "This is what I know: the woman belongs to the Ash. She bears his mark." I thought about the lab coat and stethoscope I'd seen and said, "I'm going to guess that she's a medical professional. Also, the stunning brunette is her girlfriend. You and she have had relations before, which I suspect is the reason she and her lover are fighting. Am I off my mark?"
Bo's expression was one of barely restrained defeat. I realized how very hard she must have been struggling with her current predicament and how disastrously awful any action that we took might be. The web the succubus had been entangled in was far more complicated than I could have imagined and, to be honest, it made my heart ache for her. She was doing her best to respect the blonde in detriment to her own feelings. It was incredibly selfless behavior—a trait that I have never known amongst the Fae.
Two things struck me as I watched her struggle with her feelings. The first was that the succubus was in love with a human. It amazed me that such a simple thing might escape my attention, but the reality was that the laws of the Fae were so deeply ingrained in me that I simply disregarded it as impossible.
The second was that the succubus was in love at all. I had seen a great many things, but I had never once seen a succubus attempt to form monogamous attachments. If I thought I had it bad trying to fight my nature, I knew now that my struggles were nothing in comparison to what she was going through.
That explained the lineup of drinks. It made me wish I'd snagged my beer, and maybe six more, before coming down here. I raised my hands to my cheeks and squished them in frustration. My body was humming with all the powers swirling within it. The succubus in me was kneading my intestines with hunger. Bo's desires were rattling my ribcage demanding to be released. With one touch this woman had made catastrophe of me and not even in the good way that succubae were so experienced with.
My head snapped up. I realized I probably wore a distant glazed look. "Sorry," I muttered.
"I think I can help," she said, quietly and I heard a faint tremor of fear in her voice.
I nodded, waiting for her to continue. She shifted closer to me, took hold of my chin with one hand, carefully placing her other on my upper arm. She held my gaze as she brought her lips to mine. At first I felt ill at ease, but even without her powers the woman was immensely seductive. I closed my eyes, forcing the fact that she was softness and curves—not the hard lines and dense muscles I preferred—from my mind. The further she pulled me into her embrace, the easier it became.
When the energy flow began I felt something within me sigh contentedly and I realized what she was doing. The hand on my upper arm tapped a steady rhythm, counting. She was keeping track of how much of her essence I was taking. It was a massive risk. If she couldn't force me to stop in time, she knew that I would kill her.
It took every ounce of my considerable willpower. I physically jerked sideways, throwing myself bodily from the couch to land on my ass on the floor. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. I looked up to see her watching me, a look of relief mixed with amusement twisting her lips. "Where did you learn to do that?" I asked quietly, feeling heat rise to my cheeks. I stayed on the floor, not ready to trust my legs just yet despite the exhilaration coursing my veins. Her chi, now swirling within me, was formidable, invoking a feeling of invincibility. I gulped a huge, jagged breath.
"I had to adapt," she shrugged, "I needed a way to be able to feed without completely draining Lau—um, my human victims. I taught myself to count the seconds and to stop after about thirty or forty." She had leaned back in the couch again and was wearing a dreamy, self-satisfied smile that likely had more to do with being on the receiving end of a succubus' kiss than a grand sense of accomplishment.
I couldn't help myself; as I rose, I fixed her with an admiring gaze. "You amaze me, Bo. Your courage is absolutely boundless."
She waved a hand in a self-deprecating dismissal. "You managed to stop. It took me ten years and some tailored injections to be able to control myself like you just did." She sounded disappointed with herself, as though what I had just accomplished somehow undermined her achievement.
I went over to her and crouched down so that I was eye level with her. "Bo, that you learned that skill in ten years is astonishing. If you don't mind my asking, how old are you?"
"Twenty-seven," she answered.
"No, I mean your real age."
She narrowed her eyes at me. "I'm twenty-seven." I nearly choked. "What?" she demanded.
"That really is incredible. I've heard that many succubae are closely monitored by their parents for hundreds of years before they learn the temperament necessary to avoid killing their prey."
She scoffed, shaking her head violently. "Well, I suppose it would have helped to have Fae parents, then wouldn't it? I was adopted by humans. I didn't even know what the hell I was until about a year ago when the Ash's people discovered an ill-disposed kill."
Realization slammed into me and I teetered a little, forcing me to rise from my crouch. I had heard whispered rumors of this woman. I had no idea why it had taken me so long to put the pieces together. Bo was the only Fae in all our history to have survived the test, administered in the traditional fashion, that didn't choose a side. The woman was legendary. Some considered her a herald of the changes that were believed to be coming. She was said to house unknown powers. I had even heard tales that she had killed a powerful Lich, which was no trivial feat.
My hands trembled as I pressed them to the sides of my legs. I know my mouth was hanging open and that I was staring at her with a stunned look on my face, but I was powerless in the grip of complete and utter awe. The sheer magnitude of the potency of what I had inside me was crushing. I had the ability, for a few more precious hours, to absolutely change the world. I could mold it to my will, if the darkest rumours were to be believed. My breathing became shallow and I felt black spots creeping sideways into my field of vision.
Bo was suddenly on her feet, an arm around my shoulders supporting me. "Hey, Cleo, hey… come on, what's wrong?" She directed me to the couch just as my legs threatened to give out. "It didn't help?" she asked, obviously thinking that the chi she had offered hadn't been strong enough.
I shook my head. "No, it's fine, Bo." I needed something else to focus my mind on because the pressure of responsibility was mashing me. I could only assume she had no idea what she was, or she wouldn't be able to face the world and still be an honest, caring person. What was the adage? Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Yeah. That was definitely it. I was in such huge trouble. I focused hard on her face which was awash with genuine concern. "Why did you do it?" I finally managed.
I swallowed hard. "Try to seduce me. You must have known I wouldn't be interested."
She looked ashamed. "Oh," she said, in a barely audible whisper, "atonement."
I didn't speak, hoping she would elaborate. She merely continued to stare at her knuckles, pointedly avoiding my gaze. Her cheeks held a high blush that crept all the way around to her ears. Her lips were moving ever so slightly as though she wanted to talk but hadn't quite figured out what to say. Finally she nodded to herself and expressive brown eyes lifted to meet mine.
"I've done some very bad things in my life," she began carefully. I tilted my head to the side with encouraging interest. It felt like a full minute before she continued. "I've killed a lot of humans. I didn't know what I was or how to stop it. I managed to convince myself that I was possessed by a demon, or some other nefarious creature. I even tried to have myself exorcised." She let out a duplicitous laugh at that, rolling her eyes. "I ended up killing the priest. It turned out he was very interested in the 'vulnerable' young women of his congregation."
"So, you restricted yourself to the dregs of humanity?"
"I did after the priest. He was my fourth casualty. I knew after him that my problem was more involved than mere demon possession and not so easily resolved. I decided if I had to kill it had better be people that society wouldn't miss. Even then I fought the urges—the hunger—until I could no longer abstain."
"That sounds reasonable, Bo."
She held up a hand. A look of disgust settled upon her features and her eyes burned in anger. "It is not reasonable to me to kill someone, Cleo."
I bowed my head, regretting the implied callousness of my words and the slight sting of her rebuke. "Of course, I didn't mean it like that."
"I know," she said. She bit her lip in thought, eyes focusing on something across the room. "But I don't think I'll ever get used to the fae's flagrant disregard for human life. I suppose I might have a different opinion if I had grown up believing humans existed simply for my own nourishment."
"We're not all like that, Bo. Some of us try to have as little impact as possible."
She shrugged. I could tell she didn't believe me. I didn't blame her, really. The Fae were an arrogant species, believing in their entitlement to human 'nutrition'. Having grown up amongst humans had given her compassion and a reason to champion them. Her determination to do so despite her nature endeared her to me.
And that alone brought me pause. It was never good to find myself endeared to anyone. Interesting, I thought. I had known Bo no more than an hour and already she was working her way through my defenses. Granted they hadn't been on high alert.
I forced my back to straighten and hardened my resolve further. After all, this woman had disrupted my existence, never mind how charming I might find her. I flattened my lips into a hard line momentarily before speaking. "You didn't exactly answer my question though."
Her gaze sharpened, clearly noticing the shift in my demeanor; however slight. She tilted her head questioningly, a confused mask fitted over her features although I was astute enough to catch the fleeting look of guilt that preceded it.
"You're torturing yourself, aren't you?" I asked as understanding dawned on me. It wasn't enough that she carried the guilt of her slayings around, she now sought to punish herself for them as well.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said through clenched teeth.
I pinched my earlobe between my thumb and my forefinger, lost in thought. "The blonde—you feel guilty for wanting her. Is that why you seek those who would otherwise have no interest in you before you use your gifts on them?" Did she think that if they weren't attracted to her then there would be no lingering feelings to affect their lives after she was gone?
She cleared her throat, glaring at me. She sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't see what any of this has to do with the issues we are facing now."
"It has everything to do with it, Bo. You have a deep seated desire that you shared with me, however unwittingly. It's moving that you could feel so deeply for a human." It was dangerous, too, but I suspected she had already weighed that notion. "The fact of the matter is that the intensity of your longing is making things difficult for me to contain."
Bringing up my ability seemed to soften her again. She sympathized because of her own struggles. "What happens if you don't, uh, take care of it?" she asked.
I blew out a breath. "I used the analogy of eating before, so let us continue with that. It's like having hypoglycemia. I'd be able to function fairly normally for a while, but eventually I'd get irritable, start suffering from anxiety. My brain gets all fuzzy and I can't think. I start making sloppy decisions. Eventually I'd probably end up comatose. But I'd be more concerned about the havoc I could cause before that happens."
She thought deeply about this for a moment, her brows furrowing together. "How can you create havoc?"
I snorted derisively. I couldn't help it. "Any change I make now could magnify consequences later on, Bo. Are you familiar with the butterfly effect?"
Her eyes went wide and she bit her lower lip while she nodded. "Butterfly flaps its wings in Toronto causing a tornado to alter its course in Oklahoma. I understand. Cleo, I don't think I want you to do this. There's nothing we can do?" She reached for my hands, gripping them with clammy, shaking fingers.
"It'll be okay. Right now I can control the variables. It just gets harder the longer I wait."
"I don't want to hurt Lauren."
I smiled the most reassuring smile I could muster. I didn't particularly want to hurt the human either.
· x ·
"Trick, I'm going to need three beers, please," I said as I emerged from the stairway behind the bar. I tossed a couple of bills on the counter. "I'll take two now, but I'm going to send someone over to pick up the third."
"Is Bo okay?" he asked, while he filled the frosty mugs for me. A couple of seats down from us, Kenzi was eyeing me miserably, as though she felt she were missing out on some wonderful adventure. I waved and she cocked her head to hear me better.
"I convinced her to stay downstairs. She's kind of vulnerable right now, so I thought it might be safer. If it's okay with Trick, she'd probably like the company." I explained to both of them as I grabbed hold of two of the mugs of ale. One sloshed over my hand, reminding me of the beginnings of my evening. I ignored it, feeling a pang of guilt as it ran down my hand and over my wrist, waiting patiently to make a sticky mess.
Kenzi needed no further prodding. She shot off the barstool and bee-lined for the stairs behind the bar. Trick, however, held me with his intense gaze, a frown covering his entire face all the way to his furrowed eyebrows. "What are you up to?" he enquired.
"I can't explain, Trick," I muttered absently. I had been searching the bar for my target and he followed my gaze as it settled on the couple. I didn't think it was possible but the frown intensified. I did my best to ignore him and pushed away from the bar. I heard him call my name. I allowed the rest of his unspoken plea to follow me into the crowd.
When I reached the table, both women looked up at me with curious expressions. There was still tension crackling between them. Supressing my guilt further, I grinned holding up the mugs of beer and nodding toward the bar where Trick was still watching intently. "Hi. My name's Cleo."
The blonde was not pleased to be interrupted but she had manners and years of servitude to the fae forcing a false pleasantness over her features. She was practiced and it was very hard to see, but it was there and I knew it. I think she knew that I was aware of her frustration, too.
"I wanted to ask for forgiveness for nearly barrelling into the both of you earlier. I brought an apology beverage," I said. "I'm, uh, kind of new in town. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions over a beer and then I'll let you be?"
The brunette smiled genuinely and gestured to an empty seat. "We would be delighted," she said. I think she wanted to use my presence as an excuse to take a break from the anxiety, possibly to regroup and gather her thoughts. Or maybe she just didn't want to be alone with her girlfriend at that moment.
"Thank you, that's very kind. I paid for three; unfortunately I could only carry two. "
"Babe, would you…?" the brunette asked, but the blonde was already in motion. She pushed her chair back, offered her partner a strained smile and departed. I slid the brews onto the table and dropped into a chair. The brunette offered her hand. "I'm Nadia," she said.
I hesitated for a split second before shaking her hand. If I touched her, I would be setting a hastily laid plan into motion. There were no last minute epiphanies lurking in my subconscious. I loosed an internal curse, braced myself and took hold of her warm fingers. I was forced to close my eyes against the torrent of images for the second time that evening.
An elderly African-American woman—wonderful smells of fresh baked cookies—white picket fences—evergreens surrounding—
"And that's Lauren," Nadia continued indicating the retreating form of her partner. Nadia was pleasantly oblivious to the fact that I was currently unable to process a damn thing she was saying.
When my head stopped spinning, I took a huge, relieved breath and fought to keep a potentially disrupting burble of laughter contained. My God, sometimes I loved humans. Their desires were so often rooted in the simplest of things. I felt giddy with excitement at the realization that Nadia wanted nothing more than to go home to her mother.
I had managed to pry a few details about these women from Bo, although she had been hesitant to offer much. She explained that Nadia had been in a coma—induced by an African shaman's curse—for the past five years and that she was instrumental in freeing her, but that Lauren must never be allowed to find out. It sounded like a complete and utter mess to me, but I was not in a position to be judgemental given the random chaos that happened to follow me around.
I sensed that Nadia felt off balance here and I couldn't say I blamed her. I doubted that Lauren had filled her in on anything to do with the fae. From what I gathered from Bo, Lauren took her work—and the secrets she knew as a result—far too seriously to jeopardize everything by telling her lover. Especially considering Nadia had unintentionally forced her into a form of servitude.
Nadia must be having difficulties reconciling the Lauren that she thought she knew with the Lauren that had lived five years without her. Complicating things was the fact that Lauren and Bo had a brief, albeit tragic, relationship. Bo didn't know how much Lauren had told Nadia about them, was uncomfortable about even speculating and had clammed up on the subject shortly after I had asked.
I jerked out of my reverie at the feeling of a hand squeezing my shoulder. I looked up to see that Lauren had returned. She put the mug she had been sent to fetch on the table at her spot, but remained standing. She gestured for me to get up. "Nadia, I just want to talk to our new friend alone for a minute, okay?"
Nadia looked vaguely puzzled, but shrugged. "Sure," she said. She didn't look to have much fight left in her. What harm was further acquiescence to Lauren when it had already been the theme of the evening?
Lauren gripped my upper arm painfully. She dragged me a good distance out of Nadia's earshot. I noticed that she was careful not to touch my bare skin. "I know what you are," she hissed, large splotches of angry red perched high on her cheekbones.
"And what am I, exactly?" I asked. I was impressed that this woman could so effectively manhandle me. I had to admit that Lauren had stones. Despite every ounce of forced respect she had for the fae, she was potentially endangering herself to shield Nadia.
"How could you leave Bo defenseless?" she demanded through her teeth, a nearly failed struggle to keep her voice from rising. Correction, she was attempting to protect Bo. I wondered if Lauren could protect Bo from herself. I dumped that thought in a hurry because it only complicated things.
I had every intention of replying, but Lauren was moving and I felt an alarming reaction to her proximity as she got right up in my face. Stones? I meant huge fucking balls. Unfortunately, the succubus in me reared her ugly little head. My eyes flashed full, vibrant blue. A colour Lauren was well acquainted with. I could tell by the way Lauren's mouth opened slightly in surprise that whatever further acerbic tongue lashing she had intended was momentarily forgotten.
But Lauren Lewis was dynamite—clever and not easily put off. She recovered far faster than I would have expected. Although, wisely she backed off. I guess she figured being that close to an unknown fae with borrowed succubus powers was not in her best interest. Her indignation remained, settling over her features as though chiseled in stone. Was it possible that a human could be even more beautiful when thoroughly pissed off?
I wanted to shake my head to clear it, but resisted. Having a succubus' gifts housed in my body was a pain in my butt. I hated having feelings that I knew would not necessarily jive with my own in my primary state. It stood to reason that succubae would be bisexual; therefore not limiting their choices at a buffet, but still it was frustrating to me.
Shoving as much of the succubus away as I could—stuffing her in a box in my subconscious and jumping up and down on the lid a few times—I managed to steady my breathing which had gotten slightly heavier with Lauren's immediacy. I cleared my throat before challenging: "Do you trust Bo?"
"I trust Bo implicitly. It's you I don't trust."
I brought a hand to my chest, pressing it as though staunching blood flow. "You wound me," I said. She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms as her back straightened further. Apparently she didn't find me amusing. Her posture informed me that she meant business. The corner of my mouth lifted as I struggled to fight back a full-fledged grin. I lifted my hands, palms out in surrender. "Can you at least trust that Bo trusts me?"
She regarded me for a long time before blowing out a breath and running a frustrated hand through her long blonde locks. "You still left her powerless," she muttered, expelling the remainder of her infuriation with one last half-hearted shot.
"You said you know what I am so you also know that Bo's condition is only temporary."
She acquiesced with a small shrug. "How much longer?"
"I can't say for sure. It's different depending on the fae. And she's—uh, she's unique." Given the knowing look on Lauren's face, I gathered she had firsthand experience of how unique Bo really was. I wondered at that, but didn't ask.
"Okay, let's go back. Nadia's—" I began reaching for Lauren, but she flinched violently away.
"Don't," she said stiffly.
I raised an eyebrow and slowly lowered my hand. Finally, someone who exercises caution, I thought. My respect for Lauren elevated another notch, despite the fact that she was making my goal here more difficult. Regardless, I could understand why Bo liked her. "My apologies," I said.
"Your power only works on the fae if they try to use theirs on you, right? But if you touch a human it's different—immediate?" she asked, stuffing her hands into the back pockets of her jeans in order to minimize her exposed flesh. All that was left open now was her slender neck and her face.
"That's right. Most fae are so ridiculously uneducated when it comes to Erised that they fear us nevertheless. We have nearly been hunted to extinction."
She glanced at Nadia, who was fiddling with her beer mug, sliding it back and forth between her hands in the condensation on the table. Nadia stared at a spot in the middle of the table while she did it, completely lost in her own thoughts and oblivious to the unusual length of our side-bar conversation.
"So you use fae more than humans?" Lauren inquired. There was a subtle shift in her posture. Her curiosity was getting the best of her and I could tell she was bursting with questions. Inquisitiveness defined this woman, an integral part of her makeup.
I shook my head. "Don't misunderstand. The fae have far more to offer an Erised than humans, but humans are easier to manipulate and create less of a mess. Other Erised have been corrupted by excessive use of fae powers. Also, we are less capable at handling fae gifts than the original host because each power we absorb is different. Sometimes the abilities are so strong that an Erised can't control them. The smart ones stick to humans."
She eyed me suspiciously, as though she didn't quite believe what I was saying. "You're not one of the smart ones, I suppose?" she accused.
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from voicing a scathing retort. Lauren had hit a nerve. I stared at her and I could see she was waiting expectantly for some form of reaction. I clenched my jaw, feeling my teeth grinding as I worked quickly past all the nasty things I could say to her to come up with something diplomatic. It wasn't often that a human could rattle me. Under the circumstances, the best I could come up with was: "It was an accident."
She was cunningly keeping me off balance on purpose. She had spent enough time around the fae to figure out how to handle us expertly. I got the sense that the hard-ass routine was just a facade, something that didn't pierce the surface. It would be enough to fool most fae, but not me.
Her behavior differed significantly from earlier when she had stopped to make sure I was okay after her girlfriend had bumped into me. I pondered why she had decided on this tactic to try to manage me. It took a long moment before I realized the answer: she was jealous. And she was having major issues with it. Her vacillation in behavior toward me had more to do with her own emotions than what I was doing and saying.
She percieved the threat to Bo to be very real, wanted to protect the succubus, but was feeling guilty about having lingering feelings for her. She also had no idea how to explain any of this to Nadia.
"I'm sorry. I never meant for this to happen," I said as delicately as I could.
"And yet it has," she said, her brown eyes meeting mine with a steely glare. "What I'd like to know is why you are here instead of with Bo, sorting out your mess."
I levelled her with a patient expression, waiting for her brain to engage. It had to be a rarity that she was not connecting the dots faster. I blamed her emotional confusion. I saw when she finally began to understand. Her lower lip trembled ever so slightly and she shook her head from side to side in denial. "No... no!" If she dared to remove her hands from her pockets, I am sure she would have covered her face.
"Just—Lauren, please just trust Bo." I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. She never expected the consequences of her actions to be quite so severe. "You know she would never do anything—would never allow anyone to hurt you."
"What do you want from me?" Lauren's eyes were wide.
"Babe? Is everything all right?"
I had been so focused on Lauren that I had failed to notice when Nadia had gotten up and made her way over to us. She slid her arm around Lauren's shoulder, a puzzled look on her face at Lauren's obvious distress. Lauren dropped her chin to her chest. Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears and her face was screwed up as she worked up every ounce of courage she possessed. Lauren finally dragged her eyes away from the floor and fixed me with a hateful stare before holding up her index finger to me, suggesting that I should give her a moment.
I took a couple of steps away as Lauren began to whisper in Nadia's ear, giving them as much privacy as possible. It didn't take long before they came toward me. Their hands were clasped firmly together, finger entwined, as though they intended on presenting a united front. Nadia's face carried a blank expression. Lauren's was altogether different. Her lips were pressed into a hard line, her eyebrows drawn down and her cheeks flaming red. This woman, so used to being manipulated and loathing every second of it, had finally mustered the need to stand up for herself.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. If only I could touch her, I'd be able to figure out what her true desires were. "Lauren, I…"
"You got everyone into this," she grated, "you will get us out of it."
Well, I thought, at least half of the plan is going as devised. I looked at Nadia, who was trying not to appear utterly confused. She shrugged the tiniest bit. I smiled, wishing there was some way to keep her innocent of everything fae and knowing how utterly impossible that would be.
· x ·
I found Bo on the couch, Kenzi sitting amicably beside her. They weren't speaking, but it was my understanding that very good friends could sit in silence without the need for conversation. I didn't have experience with that, being that I lacked any form of friendship. It was difficult to cultivate relationships when one travelled as extensively as I did.
Both looked up when I approached. Kenzi wore an expression and demeanor that was instinctively protective. Bo simply looked hopeful, a vague smile ghosting her lips. It was ripped off her face when she saw who entered the room behind me. I guess the ladies had decided that Nadia should go first because she strode into the room with a stiff back accentuating her purposeful steps. In her dark jeans and light button-down shirt covered by a snappy suit jacket, she cut a formidable figure. She exuded a confidence that I knew for a fact she didn't actually feel. That Lauren had made her go first spoke volumes of the lengths she would go to in order to avoid Bo.
Although, really, Lauren didn't seem like the type to throw anyone under the bus, so maybe it was safer to assume that Nadia was somehow trying to assert her claim on the blonde. I saw the fleeting look of longing on Lauren's face at the sight of Bo before it disappeared beneath her carefully constructed mask and knew that Nadia didn't stand a chance. My heart began to beat faster with giddy excitement. Maybe this could work after all.
"Dr. Hotpants!" Kenzi said, enthusiastically jumping to her feet in a disturbingly transparent effort to break the tension that was thick enough to cut with a scalpel. I noticed Nadia's cool slip a little at Kenzi's not-quite-affectionate nickname for Lauren. She was seeing the tip of the iceberg of all the things she had missed and she didn't like it one bit.
Bo reached out and tugged the hem of Kenzi's shirt, shaking her head. She looked pointedly at the door and Kenzi grudgingly got the point. Whatever was about to happen here, Bo did not want her involved. With an almost childlike pout and one last glance at Bo, which awarded her with an encouraging nod of the head, Kenzi flitted her way to the exit and waved with a bratty flourish before disappearing.
When she had gone, everyone stood in awkward silence, except Bo who fidgeted where she sat. Finally, Nadia cleared her throat. "Will someone tell me what the hell is going on, please?"
"Baby, you remember Bo, right?" I wasn't sure Nadia would ever forget Bo, causing me to question why Lauren would choose to introduce her again. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that Lauren was nervous and probably had no idea what the hell she was doing.
Nadia smiled—not without a barest smidgen of malice—at Lauren, who flinched. "Sweetie, I get what's going on there." Her attention rested on me. "So, what kind of fae are you?"
Our jaws collectively dropped. Lauren struggled through her shock first. After opening and closing her mouth a couple of times like a fish deprived of water, she managed, "Nadia, what are you talking about?"
"I read your journals while you were at work, out of sheer boredom."
"No, don't. You were doing so well with being upfront. I can handle just about anything as long as you don't try to coddle me, Lauren. You told me about her—" she stabbed a finger in Bo's direction, "—and I respected you for that, no matter how much it killed me… it is killing me… I will not suffer you to start lying now."
"Why didn't you talk to me?"
"I wanted you to tell me when you were ready. But I think circumstances have changed."
Wow, talk about a poker face. And I had pegged Nadia as a clueless victim of the fae world. She remained a victim, but 'clueless' was definitely not an accurate descriptor. Whew, I was learning a boatload of lessons here. Why, I wondered, did so many fae take humans to be oblivious, unintelligent creatures? More the fools are we, I guess. As ashamed as I was to admit it, I couldn't exclude myself from this folly, either. I had been taken in by her blank looks along with everyone else.
Lauren looked absolutely stricken, forcing me to take pity on her. "Erised," I replied to Nadia's earlier question. "I'm an Erised."
Attention shifted to me, allowing Lauren to collect herself. She fidgeted with the hem of her blouse, tugging it sharply before using her palms to smooth it. I glanced at Bo, who had been sitting on the couch wringing her hands together. She appeared to concentrate on her fingernails, but she was watching out of the corner of her eye. She was afraid to look at anyone in particular and I could understand her discomfort.
Nadia mechanically reached for Lauren's hand. After five years in a coma her first thought was to grasp at Lauren in unpleasant situations, even if Lauren happened to be responsible for some of the unpleasantness. "Was that type in your journal, babe?" she asked, frowning at the disadvantage created by her lack of knowledge.
Lauren thought about it. She must keep extensive notes because it took her a while to shake her head. I wanted to groan. Here we go again with the explanations. But before I could open my mouth to clarify, Bo exploded off the couch, a huge ball of nervous energy. "You kept journals, Lauren? Isn't that dangerous?" She was pacing now, back and forth behind the furniture.
"Well, I suppose it would be if they weren't secured in my quarters—in the middle of the Ash's compound," Lauren admitted sarcastically. "No one was meant to read them but me. They are how I keep track of all the research I do."
Bo rocked to a halt. "Wait—did the Ash claim Nadia, Lauren?"
Nadia bristled at that, going rigid. "Hold on, now. No one claims me."
"That is not what I meant—never mind." I was pretty sure Bo hadn't meant it as a harsh dismissal, but I could tell from the look on Nadia's face she did not like being sloughed off. "How are you going to protect her?" Bo asked, her gaze resting on Lauren for the first time since we had arrived. She drank in the blonde before realizing she was staring and dropped her eyes to the floor.
"I can protect myself!" Nadia took a menacing step forward. Lauren gripped her arm, gently drawing her lover back, whispering a hurried explanation. Nadia didn't relax, probably couldn't under the circumstances. Seeing Bo likely brought everything to the surface, making Lauren's betrayal hit home. It would be easy to convince herself of understanding until the indiscretion was there, flying in her face.
I had to take control of this situation. Nadia's surprise insight had thrown me for a loop, but it ultimately didn't change what had to happen here. I somehow needed to find out what Lauren desired. What she really wanted. I thought I knew, but humans were astonishingly complex and one could never be too certain—as I had already been reminded this evening.
"Ladies," I said, perhaps a little too quietly. They ignored me. Suddenly, it was as though Bo and I no longer existed.
Nadia had rounded on Lauren, grasping both of the blonde's hands in her own. She held her at arm's length, studying Lauren's troubled expression. "Don't worry about me, baby. I can protect myself, I promise."
Lauren looked away, shaking her head. "Nadia, you don't understand."
That seemed to inflame Nadia. "How could I? I had to read about your life, your work, in a damned research journal, Lauren. You used to talk to me."
"If you knew what some of them were capable of, Nadia, you would run screaming. Nightmares would haunt you." Lauren's voice had become a hoarse whisper.
"Do not dare to patronize me, Lauren. You seem to manage. You sleep well at night."
"I had no choice!" Lauren shouted, exasperation getting the best of her. Then she took a shuddering breath, her face crumpling in anguish. "You don't know what I've been through."
Now that Nadia's ire had finally worked its way to consciousness, she couldn't avoid riding the wave. She threw up her hands. She found Bo and her lips curled into a malicious snarl. "Yes, I can see how rough it was on you."
"Please, stop this!" I begged, no longer able to stand it.
I touched one of Nadia's hands just as Lauren clasped her other. The effect was instantaneous. Brightly colored sparks snapped into existence, hissing and spitting like fireworks at their fizzling point. An unknown force lifted me off my feet and I sailed backwards before my back slammed into one of Trick's precious antique cabinets, knocking the wind out of me. I landed on the floor, a pile of barely assembled blood and bones, amidst a rampant tinkling of glass. I blinked a few times, gasping. White comets blazed through my vision.
The Ash's mark grasped in her fist momentarily before she whips it across the room— an elderly African-American woman— freedom— fresh baked cookies— a passionate moan as she takes my chi— white picket fences— a feeling of power knowing that I am needed for sustenance— evergreens surrounding the little house— strength and vitality to balance my frailty—
Blackness chased all desires away.
· x ·
I roused a little, the pounding in my head excruciating. I wanted to open my eyes except that I couldn't make myself do it. Any time I cracked them the light was too much to handle. I groaned. I was a huge baby, this only proved it. How embarrassing.
I heard a voice I thought I recognized. Huh. Where the hell was I again? At least I knew my name. Wonder of wonders.
I groaned again. Baby or not, I was going to have to open my eyes. I forced one partway open, cringed against the light while my pupil attempted to adjust. When it settled into a smaller circle, I found the light almost tolerable and decided to try opening the second. That one was determined to prove its twin a wussy and sprang right open.
A brunette woman crouched in front of me, her hair cascading forward over her shoulders as she inspected my face. "Hey," she said quietly. She gestured someone else over. "Can you check her out, please, Lauren?"
I started as everything rushed back. I remembered where I was and what had happened. I remembered who these people were. I scrambled away from Bo as best I could—by planting my palms on the floor, lifting my butt and pushing with my legs. I felt a distant pain as the broken glass bit into my hands. "Don't touch me!" I shouted. My brain knocked against my skull, reminding me that hollering probably wasn't a great idea given the pain I was in. I noticed the mortified looks on their faces and amended the statement with a more quietly spoken, polite, "please."
"Cleo, it's okay… we won't touch you, I promise," Bo said reassuringly.
"I, uhm, I'll be okay…" I muttered, clutching my skull and clamping my eyes closed again. "I just need a minute."
"What the hell was that?" Nadia asked. She sounded partly frightened and partly in awe.
I opened my eyes again and struggled to stand. "I think that was a protective instinct," I said once I gained my feet. I leaned against the wall to keep myself upright until the pounding in my head subsided a bit.
Lauren narrowed her eyes, assessing me with clinical curiosity. She noted my bleeding hands and I think her disgruntled disposition melted a little as her gentler nature took over. "You'll have to explain that," she said, "after I take a look at your wounds."
I wanted to protest, but realistically I wasn't a big fan of having glass embedded in my palms. As she moved toward me, I caught a whiff of her scent and my head began to swim. Bo's succubus powers chose that moment to explode out of the box I'd stuffed them in. Lauren stopped dead, absolutely within arm's reach, her eyes transfixed on the blue glow of mine. Behind her, Bo unleashed a colorful expletive.
"Back away," I whispered to Lauren, wrestling with the intensity of the hunger. For now I was winning and Lauren was safe. When she stood transfixed I snarled at her, "Go!"
She came to her senses and scrambled back, finding Nadia and clutching at her. She moved both of them to a safer distance, but Bo approached. "Your injuries," Bo said. "You can use the powers to heal yourself."
The brunette moved closer, slowly as though trying not to startle a timid, cornered animal. She kept her eyes locked on mine. "It's the way she smells, isn't it?" she whispered. I shifted my gaze to Lauren and Nadia to confirm that they hadn't heard. Settling back on Bo, I nodded. "I knew it! She drives me crazy. I totally get how Edward felt about Bella," she said and laughed a little self-consciously, whether because she was referencing Twilight or because she was vulnerable to Lauren, I didn't know.
When she was close, she smiled and touched my hair. She leaned her body in, breath hot on my ear, as she said, "You remember how I count it out? Can you do that for me?" I felt a shiver travel from the start of my spine to the base of my skull. I was powerless to prevent my reaction to her. I nodded, speechless. She smiled again before capturing my lips with her own.
I heard Nadia grunt in disgust, followed by, "What?" I assumed Lauren had probably given her a withering look.
After that, I tried not to pay attention to what was going on. It took immense concentration, but I managed to tap out the seconds on Bo's shoulder, leaving a bloody handprint. I took from Bo for a full fifty seconds before I forced myself to stop. She was strong and barely staggered when I prized myself from her. She had a satisfied, almost dreamy look on her face. An unbidden smile trampled my expression as well. It was quite something to put a look like that on someone's face.
Nadia cleared her throat. "You two about done?" she asked haughtily. I saw Lauren jab her in the ribs with her elbow, eliciting a glare from Nadia.
"Hell of a kisser," Bo muttered, touching her lips.
"Okay, enough! Really, what is going on?" Nadia demanded refusing to look at Bo's flushed face. No doubt all she could imagine was Bo looking that way after Lauren had kissed her.
I held up my hands, palms out. They looked less like ground beef. I saw her process, watched her eyes widen and her mouth snap closed. Nadia was perplexed. She looked to Lauren for further explanation, but Lauren merely shook her head. She had more important questions. "So, what happened earlier? You said it was a 'protective instinct'?"
I looked from Lauren to Bo and then finally at Nadia. I wasn't sure how I could answer without inciting more arguing. I suppose I had to answer regardless. I drew a deep breath, silently apologized to everyone then said, "When I touched Nadia, and thereby touched you, Bo's more, uh, latent powers surged. It overloaded my system."
"But what would cause—oh." Lauren's face fell. Nadia was staring at her with open-mouthed revulsion, having drawn the conclusion much faster than Lauren herself apparently had.
Bo didn't catch on at all, apparently caught in a stupor resulting from loss of chi. She stared at me questioningly. Oh Bo, why do you have to be thick right now? I lowered my voice a little and said, "Your gifts are tuned to Lauren, Bo. It's unlike anything I have ever seen before. I doubt you would even know you were doing it, but I suspect you protect her at all costs. You've probably done it before." She was still looking slightly confused, so I continued, "when I touched her, through Nadia, your gifts—even housed within me as they are—recognized danger to Lauren and reacted."
Bo looked at the blonde, eyes wide. "Oh my God," she whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Lauren appeared trapped between being honored at Bo's dedication to her and mortification that Nadia now knew the extent of their feelings for one another. Nadia would not be able to appreciate how hard both Lauren and Bo were fighting their own feelings in order to do right by her. Even in this the succubus and the doctor were united in effort.
Tears filled Nadia's eyes and sluggishly oozed down her face. "I can't listen to this," she hissed. She glowered at Lauren for a moment longer, before stiffening her back and heading for the door.
Alarms went off in my brain. If Nadia left, my job became harder. I suppose with the plan shot to hell I would have to improvise anyway, but I needed to act now. I hated rushing. Mistakes could be made. Although, how this could get any worse was beyond me. I gathered a breath, extended my hands to the sides of my body then brought them forcefully together to produce a concussive clap. Invisible ripples expanded out from me, engulfing the women present. Everyone stopped, frozen in place.
I walked over to Lauren and touched her shoulder, trickling restorative power into her. She unfroze with a gasp and I had to grab her arm to keep her from falling forward. She violently twisted out of my grip, staggered and fell back onto the couch. "What have you done?" she demanded.
"It's easier to work with unwilling participants this way," I said. My heart ached. I didn't want this. I never wanted this.
"Why did you let me go?"
"I thought you might wish to bear witness. No one has ever been able to document how an Erised works." To be honest, I felt I owed her something. This might not have been the wisest course of action, but I thought appealing to her scientific nature, and to some lesser degree her ego, might go a little ways to earning some form of forgiveness. I didn't like being in the business of meddling in other people's lives, but since it was my nature the best I could do was try to make it up to the occasional victim.
She didn't want to acknowledge it, but I knew she was having a huge fight within herself. Indignation at the destruction of her life as she knew it and immense curiosity were duking out as I watched. I could see it in the hard stare gave me. Her scientific inquisitiveness won and she clenched her teeth, offering me a stiff nod of consent.
"It won't be pleasant for you, Lauren. I'll need to work with you while you're conscious," I warned.
"Just another price I'll have to pay," she muttered with a dejected slump of her shoulders.
If there was some way I could have comforted her, I would have. It was doubtful that she would accept any reassurance from me anyway. Distrust and general loathing emanated from the doctor. It made me sorrowful because I wanted to think that if we had met under other circumstances, she and I might have liked one another. As things were, I knew my list of adversaries had just grown bigger. And as timid as Lauren seemed at times, she would be a formidable enemy—as a human, most fae wrote her off, but I recognized the danger in that. If I were ever to meet the Ash's human doctor again, I would need to watch my back.
"Do you really have to do this?" she asked, her expression betrayed apprehension.
I nodded. There was no sense wasting the time to explain again why things would only get worse if I didn't do this. I'd been through it with Bo and I was frankly tired of explaining myself. It was perhaps unfair of me, but I was exhausted and I hadn't fully healed from Bo's chi. I was also starting to feel irritable—which was never a good sign.
I turned my back to Lauren, working my way over to Nadia. I would start there. Lauren was at my side instantly, eyes coldly following my every move. I started by running my hands through the air around Nadia's body, a few inches away from actual physical contact. I was feeling the intensity of her energies, making sure they were healthy and well-aligned. I closed my eyes as I did this, feeling every nuance and shift within her life forces.
I opened my eyes, tried on a heartening smile. "She's very healthy," I offered. Lauren glared at me. I don't know what else I was expecting. But for some reason it made me a little angry. "Stop acting as if this isn't what you want," I snapped.
She stiffened momentarily, although before I knew it she was inches away from me, her face right in mine. I experienced another brief shiver of appreciation at the depth of her courage. "What I want is to control my own life. I want the chance to atone for my mistakes," she snapped. "I haven't even existed for myself for the last five years, but I suffered because I—" her voice cracked "—love Nadia."
"Don't try to hide from me, Lauren. I only see your most base desires. I can't be fooled."
"No one is trying to fool anyone, Cleo. I know what I want. I think I've always known, but I can't hurt Nadia like that. She needs me. I betrayed her because I was losing myself. I wasn't living anymore. It was like Bo showed me how to breathe again," she paused, sucked in a shuddering breath and continued, "What you're doing… it feels like you're removing my only chance to correct the mistakes I've made."
"You of all people know there is no going back. Denying it—all of this—is only going to make things worse. You must see that. If you try to be with Nadia you will only end up resentful. This is a beautiful opportunity. You need to see it for what it is." I moved back from her, gripping her trembling shoulders. "Have you thought to ask what Nadia wants?"
She stared at me, seething. After a few intense moments she shook her head.
"She wants to go home, Lauren. She feels the difference in you. She doesn't really blame you for living your life, but it's really hard for her to witness. She's struggling with understanding and losing horribly. I can make the struggle go away. I can make everyone... content."
"Maybe I don't deserve to be content," Lauren whispered miserably, tears welling in her eyes. The walls she had built were slowly crumbling. She sniffled and my heart broke a little more.
"Oh, Lauren, of course you do! You can't carry this guilt for forever. Nadia wants you to be happy. Let me help her let you go."
She nodded her assent and turned her face away to ashamedly swipe at the tears that had fallen.
I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Having Lauren's blessing meant more to me than it should have, but I was glad for it. I gave her shoulder a tender squeeze before turning my attention back to Nadia. I reached out and used two fingers to gently tap Nadia's chest twice between her breasts to unlock her heart chakra and open it to manipulation.
Lauren momentarily forgot any misgivings she might have had and was observing now with clinical detachment, taking mental notes of everything I did. When she saw me looking at her she smiled awkwardly and bobbed her head, having resigned herself to things, urging me to continue.
I reached into a secret pocket of my pants where I had sown a small pouch full of mystical powder, pinched a bit out and dumped it unceremoniously into my palm. Lauren lifted a curious eyebrow as I held my palm in front of Nadia and gently blew the dusty stuff everywhere. It hung in the air around the immobile woman, shimmering prettily.
"What is that?" Lauren asked.
I shrugged. "While I can see what I am doing, it often helps to add dimension. Watch, you will soon understand."
I reached through the sparkling aura I had created around Nadia and using my thumb and forefinger I drew what, for all intents and purposes, looked like gossamer threads from her chest. As I pulled they vibrated and swayed as though fighting against removal from Nadia's being, but I was gentle and deftly kept the fine filaments from disintegrating. Each string was a different iridescent colour, which was brought sharply into focus with the presence of the glitter.
I heard Lauren gasp and knew that she was reacting to the sheer beauty of what she was seeing. Mine was a fine art and I had spent centuries perfecting it. I remember being a young Erised and feeling probably very similar to what she was now. I would often go hungry because I would become so distracted by playing with my food that my parents could find no other way to punish me. But eventually I learned to ignore the beauty and embrace practicality.
"It's breathtaking," Lauren said, a smile bursting over her features.
I continued to work with the tiny threads until I found the one I was looking for. I gestured to Lauren, who moved closer. "Are you ready?" She inclined her head. "Okay, the sensation will be a little disconcerting, but don't panic it won't last long."
After opening her chakra as well, I pinched out more dust and blew it in Lauren's direction. She wrinkled her nose, twitching it back and forth as she fought the urge to sneeze.
"Sorry," I murmured. Because I wanted to help her combat panic, I began to hum quietly while I worked. Her eyelids drooped and the only indication she gave of any sort of distress came as I tugged on her own threads, given that they were much more reluctant than Nadia's. Her eyebrows bunched and she screwed her eyes shut tighter and grunted almost inaudibly. Despite the beads of sweat that sprang to her forehead, I was thoroughly impressed. Not even so much as a girly scream.
"There. The worst part is over." I rubbed her arm and she gingerly opened her eyes as though she didn't believe me. I smiled and indicated that she should look down. "Do you see how your threads are intertwined with Nadia's? All I need to do is disentangle them and she will be free."
The doctor's mouth opened in awe as she looked at the shimmering threads shifting between the two of them. Her elation was momentary, however, and her expression became slightly crestfallen. "She won't forget anything, will she?"
"No, Lauren, I don't have the ability to remove memories. She will feel differently towards you, but she will always remember how much you two meant to one another."
She must have felt some small amount of relief at that, but the guilt remained and she speculated, "Among other things."
"Of course, there will always be that, Lauren. I wish I could help alleviate those feelings, but at least this way the consequences are less dire."
"It's more than I deserve," she said, shaking her head sadly.
I smiled sympathetically, returning to my task. It was not safe to leave the chakra open for extended periods of time because there was never any telling what sort of nasty things could work their way in. She watched as I swiftly disentangled their lines, leaving two separate threads floating idly between them. Taking both in my hands, I held them up slightly, looking into Lauren's eyes for one last confirmation.
She couldn't bring herself to make the decision, but I could see it in the depth of her shining eyes. So I snapped the threads at each woman's chest and coiled them gently in my hand. Lauren let out a sob and stumbled into me, the loss having greater effect than either of us could have conceived.
With my free arm, I carefully encircled her shoulders, pulling her into my embrace. If she hadn't been so stricken with grief, I imagine she might have pushed me away. Yet, there was something to be said for a warm squeeze when at ones lowest, maybe even from a possible nemesis. I had no doubt that she would never again be as vulnerable as she was at that moment, standing there with her heart chakra splayed open for all and sundry.
As she rested her head on my shoulder, soaking my blouse with her tears, I had an idea. I gently coaxed her back and she seemed to come to her senses, frantically wiping tears with jerky motions for the second time in as many minutes. "I'm—I'm sorry," she stammered, "it just feels so—empty."
"This may help." I took Nadia's thread from my palm and broke it in two. I tied it gently into a bow and placed it carefully back inside Lauren's chakra, before sealing it with two more light taps to her chest.
She sucked in a sharp, relieved breath. "That is better."
"Good," I said and repeated the process with Lauren's thread for Nadia.
When I had finished with the other woman, I looked into my palm at the remaining halves of the threads. It appeared to be a meager meal, but I thought it worth the sacrifice. With a tiny shrug, I picked one up by the end and tilted my head back, dangling it over my open mouth before dropping it. I grinned like a fool while I chewed, despite the look of mild astonishment on Lauren's face. I cocked my head. "Well, what did you think I was going to do with it?" When she shrugged, I held out the other piece for her. "Want some?"
She wrinkled her nose, letting out a small chuckle accompanied by a shake of her head. "No, thank you. It's all yours."
I unceremoniously shoved the piece in my mouth. She had no other reaction to the fact that I had just eaten what had essentially once been a part of her. Resilience was an admirable quality and I was finding that Lauren had it in spades. I was proud of her, this human doctor who showed more courage than almost any given fae. I recognized why Bo would move heaven and earth to protect her.
"So, what do we do now?"
I stopped chewing and cocked my head to the side. "About?" I managed around my mouthful of food. She pointed to where the succubus stood, motionless, her face molded into a mask of anguish. "Oh." I struggled to swallow.
"Is it safe to, uh, open me back up again? Er, wait let me back up. What did you do to me anyway?"
I waved my hand in dismissal of her concerns. "I manipulated your heart chakra. It's dangerous to leave it open, but perfectly safe to manipulate it as often as necessary. As long as you know what you're doing. If you were dealing with an amateur it could be disastrous and very unhealthy to screw around." I went to Bo and began to survey her energies. "She's a mess." I wasn't surprised that Bo was bordering on unhealthy, having been subject to a number of life-changing events recently—the least of which being Nadia's awakening.
"How do you mean?" Lauren asked, the frown deepening already existing lines of concern on her face.
"I'm not—I don't—let's just say that Bo is possibly part of something that is bigger than any of us know. I wouldn't be at liberty to discuss specifics even if I were to know them." Lauren frowned at that, but I was willing to bet she'd heard more similar statements as a human in the service of the Ash than she could count. And I was sure that Lauren could count pretty high.
"I understand," she said.
"Good, good. Okay, as for what happens now: that's the easier part, surprisingly. I was worried, but you and Bo are almost perfectly aligned, meaning that her desires match your own." I paused, studied Bo intently before continuing. "Well, I would like to take a look at her chakra just to make sure everything is in good order."
"Hmm. Bo could use some help after all she's been through," Lauren admitted, not without a little bit of guilt.
I nodded. I think I understood. It couldn't be easy being unaligned. Given the very nature of the fae, I knew that she was subject to every kind of trick and scam going in order to be forced into picking a side. More than that, I knew that a lot of fae would try to play her against other fae. To top it off, expressing love for a human, even one highly regarded by the Ash, put her in a tenuous position.
So, I tapped Bo's chest opening up her chakra. Once I had blown the dust around Bo and heard Lauren's sharp breath again as she beheld the wonder for the third time—it was still just as shockingly beautiful, so I couldn't blame her—I had no trouble coaxing Bo's filaments out into the open. In fact, I had to catch them in both open palms. "Oh my God," I muttered.
"Wow," Lauren agreed.
"I—this is crazy." I held up a jumble of strings. "Who the hell does this belong to? It's tightly woven between the two of you."
Lauren visibly blanched. Her mouth formed a tiny little 'o', but nothing came out. She hung her head. "It's likely Dyson," she managed eventually.
"Uh—" I allowed the strings to slither into my other palm. "She made no mention of another."
"It's complicated. And it's been on the back burner for a little while now, which I suspect is why this is the first you've heard of it."
"You knew about this?"
Lauren looked a little uncomfortable. She shrugged. "Bo's a succubus," Lauren said by way of an explanation, which to me explained pretty much everything.
I looked down at the jumble of threads again and shrugged. "I suppose I should leave them alone then?"
Lauren's head snapped up. She had the look of one on the verge of a precipice. There seemed to be a miniscule argument going on in her head. I could see when she drew her conclusion because her facial muscles relaxed from an agitated frown to a satisfied wisp of a smile. I admired Lauren's restraint. She could easily have been misleading as to the significance of the third thread and directed me to disentangle the three of them then to sever this Dyson's, but she did not.
"I would. Bo would never forgive you." Or me, she didn't have to add.
"Right, well, let me just settle them all down and organize them a bit."
"I think she would appreciate it," the doctor said.
I worked diligently, my fingers separating and untwisting filaments and smoothing out knotted bunches. By the time I was finished and had tucked the softly coiled strands back inside Bo, Lauren's eyes shone in awe. I sealed Bo's chakra. I was all set to flash a winning smile when I noticed how her expression had changed. Instead I tilted my head to the side and eyed her questioningly.
"You're the last Erised, aren't you?" she asked.
I felt a stab of pain flash deep in my heart and I had to look down in order to school my expression before she could read anything from it. But I wasn't quick enough and she was swift. When I looked up she wore her compassion plainly.
"I don't suppose I have any right to ask you not to do that," I mumbled, scrubbing my face with my hands. "There is one other," I admitted, knowing it would be an intense struggle for her to curb her curiosity. And because I still felt like I owed her. "I have been searching for her."
"You could say that." I didn't want to talk about it. Would she respect my unspoken wishes?
Lauren acknowledged the plea in my tone and merely gave me one last long searching look before shifting her attention away. I breathed a silent thanks to this woman who owed me nothing and had the right to begrudge me everything.
I drew in a cleansing breath through my nose and let it escape slowly from my mouth. "I'm going to release them."
Lauren moved to stand between Nadia and the door. I sent restorative energy through the room and Nadia stumbled into Lauren's arms. "What the—?" Nadia exclaimed, caught in Lauren's tight embrace. She didn't struggle, only pulled back slightly to stare at Lauren.
Lauren's hands found Nadia's face and gently caressed her cheeks as tears streamed down her own. Her nimble fingers traced down Nadia's neck and around to the nape where she lost them in the thick locks of hair. Lauren leaned toward her former girlfriend and gave her a soft kiss. Nadia's eyes widened as she realized the action for what it was. Instead of allowing Lauren to graciously depart, Nadia crushed her lips to the blonde's to deepen their farewell.
I blushed and turned away. I caught sight of Bo. She was silently watching the two women, mouth open slightly. Her tongue traversed back and forth slowly over her lips and her eyes glowed predatorily blue. I nearly yelped in surprise. I swiftly made my way to her, hoping like hell she wouldn't try to make me a snack again. I couldn't tell from the intensity of her expression if she was fully in control of herself or not.
When my face appeared in her line of sight, Bo made a noise deep in the back of her throat that sounded almost like a growl. I shivered slightly to hear it, but didn't back down. "Bo," I whispered. She focused on me, blinking profusely as though trying to clear her vision. A slow grin spread across her face as the blue began to fade from her eyes. I chanced a glance at Lauren and Nadia. They were standing with their foreheads pressed together, discussing quietly.
Bo cleared her throat. "Well, that was fun while it lasted," she said, sounding only vaguely disappointed at having her abilities back. She lowered her voice and whispered, "I didn't even get to spend time with Lauren in my 'human' state. That's a shame." She followed the statement with a wink and I couldn't help but blush again.
"Don't be. You have given me an even greater gift—another chance with Lauren. I swear to you I will not squander it."
I opened my mouth to reply, but I was interrupted when the door behind me closed with a bang. I looked over my shoulder to find both Lauren and Nadia had left. Bo took a concerned step around me, towards the door. I put a hand on her shoulder, careful to avoid contacting any of her exposed skin. I was not interested in a repeat of this evening's adventures.
"Wait for it," I whispered. As predicted, the door opened again and Lauren appeared. She closed it carefully behind her and leaned against it. Tilting her head back, she closed her eyes not bothering to conceal the look of anguish that caused vertical ridges to form between her eyebrows.
"I thought you were going to make this easier for her," Bo whispered, obviously aching in sympathy for Lauren's pain.
"She still has her feelings, Bo. She's going to miss her. You," I squeezed her shoulder, "are the only one who can help her at this point."
She took her cue and went to Lauren. At Bo's tender touch, Lauren sobbed and stepped into the succubus' embrace. They stood like that: Bo's arms circling Lauren in a protective, loving embrace, Lauren's face buried in Bo's hair between her shoulder and her neck.
With a sigh, I walked over to the couch and sprawled out. I wanted to give them privacy, but they were blocking the only exit. I simply threw my arm over my eyes and closed them. A sort of exhausted giddiness washed over me. I had accomplished what I had set out to, with minimal damage, and I couldn't help feeling a relieved sense of achievement. While listening Bo and Lauren's murmured whispers I fell asleep, a large satisfied smile on my lips.
· x ·
I was beginning to understand why the Dal was always so busy. Toronto, being the enormous city that it is, was teeming with cultural diversity. That fact alone would attract the fae, but it offered so much more. From the lowest vestiges of society, to the tallest skyscrapers of luxury, Toronto could easily sustain a single fae for a lifetime, be it for nourishment or simple entertainment. As the way-station, the Dal catered to them all and Trick had the knack for keeping the peace. He managed to make both the light and the dark appreciate one another and, astonishingly, humans as well—at least while they coexisted within the Dal, at any rate.
I had spent a week in the city, exploring, trying to pick up the trail of my missing kin. I had hit a dead end and as much as I had enjoyed my time here, I was planning to pack up and head out the next morning. But that did not prevent me from enjoying one last beer, soaking in the welcoming atmosphere of Trick's establishment. It would be a long time before I found myself in such a comfortable place again, I was sure.
I sat tucked into the furthest, darkest corner I could find, dressed in a black turtle neck and soft trousers. I allowed my hair to cascade over my shoulders. After the debacle the previous week, I tried to cover as much exposed skin as possible. All that was visible now were my hands, greedily grasping a pint of the Dal's best ale, and my face, which was shadowed partly by a used fedora I had picked up at the local Good Will.
As I took another swig of my slightly warm beer, I noticed a familiar face working her way through the crowded bar. Brown eyes locked on mine and a tentative smile worked at the corners of her mouth, probably despite her best efforts otherwise. By the time Lauren Lewis managed to make it to my table, she'd been jostled—and likely propositioned—multiple times.
"Hi," she said, a little shyly. "Do you mind if I join you?"
I shook my head and half stood to pull out a chair for her. She smiled in gratitude and glanced around the bar as she sat and made herself comfortable. "This place has really been hopping lately," she said.
"It feels like something big is brewing. Maybe that's drawing the fae together."
"And here I thought it was because of the mechanical bull Trick installed," she said, eyes twinkling with amusement.
I chuckled. "Oh, it definitely could be that. It sounds a lot more fun than my ominous prediction."
Lauren shifted her attention to me and dropped her smile, seriousness enveloping her features as she thought further about the heaviness of my statement. I had intended it as a light joke, but as a medical practitioner for the Light, she had a tendency to take all things fae related seriously.
"Do you really think Bo is the fulcrum?" she asked.
I wrinkled my nose while pursing my lips in thought. "You've heard the same rumours I have, Lauren. I don't know anything more than you do."
She stared at me as though trying to break through my defenses and pick what she sought out of my brain. "You know something, Cleo. I need to know what it is. I want—" she took a deep breath and brushed her blonde hair from her face in an attempt to settle herself, "I need to protect Bo."
If I could have touched her, I would have reassuringly patted her hand. Instead I offered a smile and sipped more beer. "She doesn't need your protection, trust me."
Lauren didn't like that one bit and she sat back, her back snapping straight in defense. I hadn't meant to call into question her ability to protect Bo, but apparently I inadvertently had. "That's not what I meant," I blurted hurriedly. Unfortunately the truth hurts and I could see it written on Lauren's face, her inadequacies were likely always at the back of her mind. She and Bo were in for a tumultuous relationship given Lauren's humanity and it stuck in the Doctor's craw even more with every tiny reminder. "I'm sorry," I said.
She waved off anything else I would say, realizing that she was overreacting slightly, but I could tell she was struggling to come to terms with her shortcomings. I wondered if Bo knew the kind of tussle she was in for with regards to Lauren's fierce protectiveness. I thought it was touching and quite understandable, if a little ill-advised.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" she demanded.
"I haven't got anything to tell, Lauren." A sudden fit of guilt washed over me as I saw the fire of a fighter ignite in her eyes. She would get to the bottom of this conundrum with tenacity, if it killed her in the process. I relented a little. "Look, honestly," I made sure she was looking at me and listening carefully before continuing, "honestly, I don't know anything more about what's coming than you do. But I can tell you that Bo is more than capable of handling it. Between you and me, she's sitting on the mother lode of all fae powers."
She opened her mouth to speak and immediately snapped it closed again. I imagined I could see the cogs of her brain turning, crunching through the calculations to spit out data she could turn into comprehensible thoughts.
"I think I knew that," she said quietly. And then she seemed to relax, her body becoming less rigid. "I saw something a while ago when we confronted the Lich. He was going to kill me… and Bo stopped him. It was astonishing. No, actually that's putting it mildly." She sighed. "I think I need a beer."
I put my hand up and flagged down a harried waitress who was collecting empties and ordered another round for me and a fresh lager for Lauren. When the waitress disappeared, Lauren turned to me once more and reached into her coat. She withdrew two items. "I brought these for you, they were Nadia's," she said, not without the tiniest falter in her voice. She handed me a pair of thin, black leather driving gloves. "I thought they might help you a little. And I think she might want you to have them, despite everything."
I accepted them appreciatively, my eyes misting a little at her thoughtfulness. I had expected Lauren to come out of our adventure with more of a grudge, but she was showing me kindness and I discovered it was intrinsic to her character. I blinked a few times and smiled my thanks.
"And this," she handed me a small, yet thick, brown envelope, "pertains to your search. I made some discrete inquiries," she said. "It might not be much assistance, but it's all that I could find within the Light libraries. I put my card in there, too. It has my cell phone number on the back. If you need anything, anything at all, I want you to call me."
"I don't know what to say," I muttered, utterly at a loss for words.
"Don't worry about it. I will never be able to thank you properly for everything you have done for Bo. And for me. Consider this a start," she said.
The waitress dropped off our beer and I held up my mug. She touched her glass to mine and we smiled at one another, cementing the beginnings of an unlikely friendship. Gladness welled up inside me. I'd never had a real friend before, having been the subject of abject fear in almost every encounter I'd ever had with the fae. The last place I expected to find friendship was in the form of a courageous human.
I grinned like a mad fool as I drank my beer. As far as way stations go, the Dal Riata was definitely unique.
· x ·