1. She wonders who else she might have been.
When Justine first met Thomas at Club Zero, she was sixteen and desperate. She'd been in and out of institutions since she was ten, usually after suicide attempts. Looking back on herself now, she remembers that wild, heady, out-of-control feeling -- like riding a runaway semi, constantly accelerating, able to see the brick wall racing toward her but unable to take her foot off the gas. Drugs damped down her wild mood swings, but came with brutal side effects, the worst of which was an overall emotional flattening that made the world a gray blur and herself a zombie in a girl's body.
She went to the club because there, she could stop trying to control her pinwheeling emotions and just let them seep out of her, like ribbons of blood into warm bathwater. And when she left Club Zero, sometimes she felt like herself for a little while, or like what she imagined herself to be, anyway -- it was hard to know; she'd been on a brutal emotional roller coaster for as long as she could remember.
Looking back now, she thinks that on some level she was aware she'd done little but wrench the steering wheel, changing the semi's course to an end no less deadly. No one at Zero did what they did for her out of kindness. They used her because her strong emotions fed them, and they would have sipped her down to the last drop if not for Thomas.
She doesn't remember the first time she saw Thomas. She'd like to. Sometimes, in her tidy, sterile office outside Lara Raith's, she imagines herself looking across the crowded dance floor and meeting his silver demon's eyes, shivering her down to the very core of her soul.
But she remembers little of those nights at Zero -- nothing but a hot, frantic blur of pounding music and dancing and sex. Sometimes she wonders if she had more clear, lucid memories before Thomas fed so deeply on her, because it took a long time before she could even string coherent thoughts together, and she's pretty sure there's still a lot missing. But she thinks it's possible there's always been a lot missing; she just never realized it wasn't normal. She's had to reconstruct the early days of their relationship from logical deduction and the fragments of memory that she still has -- Thomas's growing interest in her, his power grab when Bianca tried to claim her for the Velvet Room, all the nights that he took her home to Chateau Raith until finally she didn't go back to the club anymore.
Thinking about it keeps her mind busy as she updates Lara's spreadsheets and types business correspondence. She's smart. She never knew that. She dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and she's never been to college, except for a few courses that she took online, for fun, during the years she lived with Thomas. But she's picked up everything that Lara has shown her, usually much quicker than she's let on; it's still in her best interests to play the slow-witted doe, even though she suspects that Lara's long since caught on. She has a good head for numbers, and she's always been good with computers. She's organized. She can keep her head in a crisis, whether it's a business-related crisis or the sort where screaming ghouls are trying to rip her arms off.
Since the White Court can no longer feed on her, Lara has had her examined by several psychiatrists, and has seen to it that she has a regimen of drugs to keep her mood disorders in check. On her own time, she's made sure to look up exhaustive information on every new medication, to reassure herself that the long Latin names don't conceal a hidden agenda. She still can't be entirely sure that Lara isn't lying to her about what's in those bottles, but living in a house of vampires means that paranoia is a constant and familiar friend.
To her surprise, she hasn't descended back into the gray haze that she remembers vaguely from her teenage years. She isn't sure if it's because of different drugs, or different dosages, or just because highly paid, privately hired psychotherapists are more interested in helping their patients than overworked clinicians at a state-run hospital dealing with a suicidal teenage girl. Perhaps they never need to trank her into a near-comatose state at all. Or perhaps her illness is less severe now that she's older; her copious reading on the Internet and in Lara's extensive library has indicated that a person's diagnosis can change drastically over their lifetime.
Maybe if she'd waited it out for another year or two, managed to survive the wild mood swings and the depression, maybe she would have -- what?
She can see herself studying accounting or business management. Maybe she would be working in a Chicago high-rise for some accounting firm. Maybe she would own her own business.
Maybe she would be married. Have children. Go out for a drink with girlfriends after work and then go home to a comfortable suburban house.
Maybe she would have family albums, a diploma, a mortgage and some nice family memories to mark the last ten years of her life, rather than vague recollections of a hormonally addled haze.
She could never mention any of this to Thomas, because he feels guilty enough as it is. A small voice in her head sometimes says, He should feel guilty. You were a vulnerable, fucked-in-the-head sixteen-year-old, and he took advantage of that. She can't quite bring herself to use the word rape, even to herself, but on some level, she knows that's what it was.
She wonders if what she feels for Thomas even now is really love, or just a residual effect of a long-term chemical addiction. Had they met on the street, without the Hunger drawing her to him, would she even have liked him at all?
In the end, Justine tells herself that this is her life now, and there's no point in pondering hypothetical what-ifs. She is who she is, and her life is what it is. She's useful, content, and, with the help of medication, saner than she's ever been. All love is a form of chemical addiction, anyway. It doesn't really matter where it comes from.
She almost believes herself.
2. She had an abortion in Aruba.
Pregnancy was never a big concern of Justine's. With 20/20 hindsight, she supposes that it's a combination of simply being sixteen, and running around with her head in a White Court pheromone haze all the time. Maybe a year or two after she became Thomas's full-time companion, the question did come up once or twice, and Thomas reassured her that White Court vampires are fairly infertile with humans -- "Not completely, of course, but if we knocked girls up the way humans do, we'd have hundreds of children, and who wants that?"
He wasn't able to explain exactly how it worked -- something to do with the demon interfering with proper gamete production; she didn't really understand it and suspected he didn't, either. In any case, they'd never bothered with protection beyond birth control pills which, half the time, she forgot to take.
And then, in Aruba, she'd come down with a mild case of the flu -- nausea, tiredness, not much else other than that, but it didn't go away. And she'd missed a period, which also wasn't unusual -- White Court feedings played merry hell with her monthly cycle anyway -- but when she missed another one, she started getting worried.
At that point, Thomas had been called back to Chicago for some kind of White Court business. He'd left her a credit card, access to his well-stocked bank account, and instructions to have fun.
Immediately she'd gone and found a private doctor who took cash, and had a simple test done. It came back positive. She didn't even have to think about it; she'd asked for a referral, discreetly of course. There had been some side effects, bleeding and so on, but she'd been back to normal by the time Thomas returned -- or, at least, close enough that she could fake it. She was good at faking everything by that time; living among vampires cultivated a certain separation between a person's inner and outer selves.
The decision had been so easy that it had been hardly a decision at all. She'd known down to her toes that it was what Thomas would have wanted, and there was also a deep terror that if he found out about the pregnancy, he'd cast her off for someone younger, someone more beautiful, someone who was not so prone to getting themselves into embarrassing medical situations.
The thought didn't even occur to her until months later that she'd never even thought about what she wanted in all of that.
And the regrets don't come until after her final night with Thomas. Now forever barred from his touch, not by anything so simple as parental decree but by his own biology, she thinks about having a child of Thomas's to hold in her arms. She wonders if it would have been a boy or a girl. She thinks of a child with Thomas's deep gray eyes, with his silky black curls. She thinks of being loved, being held, having a child's small chubby arms wrapped around her neck. None of the Raith can touch her; none of their human servants dare to. She's been so alone for so long.
Then she thinks of her child growing up to feel the first bite of the Hunger, its wide gray eyes turning silver with need; and she shudders, and goes back to doing Lara Raith's accounts.
3. She thinks Harry Dresden's sexy.
Not that she expects Thomas would mind if she did say something. If anything, he'd probably find it hilarious. White Court vampires, as a general rule, don't go in for jealousy much. Poaching someone else's dinner is a strict violation of etiquette (the sort of violation that's countered with extreme prejudice) but as far as what their prey get up to on their own time, they really don't seem to care. Thomas had even gone so far as to send her to Harry, naked but for a red bow, as a present for rescuing her that one time.
Thinking back on it, she's not sure whether to remember it with mild shame, or an equally mild sense of regret that Harry had been too much of a gentleman to do anything. He'd turned as red as her bow, and stammered and blushed while hustling her into a sweatshirt so huge that it fit her like a tent. Then he'd given her a cup of hot coffee -- it was a rather cold night -- before escorting her back to the limo outside his apartment.
He did, however, keep the bow. Sometimes she wonders what he did with it.
It's not the same kind of powerful, visceral attraction that she feels for Thomas. Still, there's no denying it: there is just something irrationally appealing about Harry. Maybe it's nothing more complicated the fact that he came to her in her darkest hour and saved her from being tortured to death by Red Court vampires. Maybe it's his whole knight-errant, one-man-against-the-world thing. Maybe she's just tired of looking at neatly groomed and clean-shaven faces all day long, and the scruffy, unshaven look is a nice change.
But she thinks it's not any of that. Well, okay, maybe a little of that, especially the rescue-from-the-Red-Court thing. Mostly, though, it's how tired he looks all the time, and how much pain he's obviously in. She doesn't even know what hurt him so badly, only that something did, or maybe a lot of somethings. One wounded soul knows another.
And it's also that he's a good man. She knew that even before he came for her in the darkness.
And that's sexy as hell on him.
But she'll never say so.
4. She enjoys the Twilight books.
Fictional vampires of all kinds, actually. It's a weirdly addictive guilty pleasure. Partly, it's just the train-wreck fascination of seeing how many things the authors got wrong. But she also finds them entertaining on their own merits. After all, considering what her life is like, she can't begrudge herself a couple of hours curled up with a fun book, transcending her problems and escaping into another reality for a while (albeit a reality that's disturbingly similar to her own in some ways).
She's not allowed to leave Chateau Raith except on business, but she orders boxes of books from Amazon.com, and, after reading them, boxes them up again and has one of the limo drivers deliver them to a library book drive or literacy fundraiser. Lara gets a tax write-off, and everyone's happy.
She's not sure if Lara is aware of her guilty little hobby, but if so, Lara doesn't seem to mind. Since Lara replaced the White King's thralls with intelligent and well-trained servants of her own, she hasn't begrudged them their entertainments -- books, DVDs, porn, video games all find their way to the Raith residence, unremarked upon as long as they're restricted to personal time.
So, after another long tense day of maintaining her public poise, Justine looks forward to retiring to her room and stretching out on top of her white silken coverlet. She'll have the kitchen send up something sweet -- a box of chocolate, a dish of ice cream -- and read about the doomed love of Edward and Bella, or maybe crack open a Buffy tie-in novel and read about Buffy and Spike's doomed love instead.
There's an awful lot of doomed love in these books. Cheerful, happy, mutually satisfying romances between a vampire and a human seem to be few and far between.
Well. Sometimes art imitates life. And the books are still fun.
The day that she realizes that Thomas actually does, in some sense, sparkle when his Hunger comes out to play -- well, it's more of an opalescent glow, really, but not too different -- she laughs until the tears come.
5. She prefers Thomas the way he used to be.
When sixteen-year-old Justine met Thomas, it was his predator's grace that drew her, the power and danger inherent in him. She knows that now, even though she doesn't remember their first meeting, because she remembers enough to know what drew her to Club Zero in the first place. She was a suicidal, self-destructive teenager, riding that runaway semi, and Zero was what lay at the end of that road. She may not have realized it at the time, but she'd gone there expected nothing more or less than to immolate herself in its seductive, deadly fire.
Thomas was dangerous and lethal and a little bit cruel, and she'd wanted that -- she'd drawn comfort from the cold joy of cutting herself to ribbons on his sharp edges.
But now that he's back, now that he's here, slinking around Chateau Raith with his soft panther's stride, that's not what she remembers about him. And it's not what she thinks of when she misses him most.
She thinks of the time in Hawaii when she got food poisoning and he spent two days holding her hair back and bringing her soup and crackers.
She thinks of the dark, ugly days after Harry brought her out of Bianca's basement, when Thomas had locked the door and never left the room. He'd curled around her on the bed where she now lies alone, holding her as she cried, and gently siphoning off the despair and horror and self-loathing that threatened to swallow her whole.
She thinks of the time when she told him about her mother's suicide when she was eight, and her father's dark depression that had resulted in his burning all the family keepsakes, including the treasured doll that her mother had given her the previous Christmas. He'd said little about it, and she'd forgotten until Christmas of that year -- a human holiday that the Raith family normally ignored. That morning, though, Justine had awoken to find a doll identical to the one she'd described sitting on her bedside table, surrounded with holly, candles, and other Christmasy items as collected by a vampire who had no particular idea of what celebrating Christmas actually entailed beyond what he'd seen on TV.
She thinks of those things, and she remembers the way that he went to Harry and Michael when she was in Bianca's grasp, seeking help from two men who would just as soon kill him, and turning over a priceless bargaining chip in order to secure her freedom.
The vampire can be suave and charming, but it's the man inside him that she loves -- who can also be a silly, affectionate dork, who throws himself into danger for her, who worries that his brother won't like him and never bothers to pick up his towels off the floor and can't cook anything more complicated than TV dinners.
She hasn't seen enough of the new Thomas to know if he does any of those things now. All she knows is that when she looks up and sees him watching her with those lazy predator's eyes, the attraction and love that she feels is tempered by regret, despair, and even dislike.
She wants to believe that what they have, no matter how admittedly dysfunctional, is solid enough to survive anything. She wants to believe that she would love him no matter what.
But sometimes she wonders if there is anything left to love.
She still can't touch him, but that's a purely mechanical thing, a memento of his love but not an assurance of love eternal. If he no longer loves her, then he could easily take her to his bed again -- all that he would have to do is erase her protection by ordering her into bed with another human. And she'd do it. The compulsion would leave her no choice.
But he hasn't. She isn't sure if it means that he still loves her, or that he simply no longer cares enough to bother.
She bows her head to Lara's accounts so that she doesn't have to meet his leonine stare, and remembers. Not the vampire. The man. Thomas, lying on a picnic blanket and laughing in the sun. Thomas, downloading silly vampire jokes off the Internet to annoy Lara. Thomas, holding a pentacle necklace in the palm of his hand and telling her a secret he'd never told anyone before.
When she looks up again, he's gone.