It's late in the evening. Darkness has fallen on us; although the nights are slowly getting longer, we've got Christmas to get through first, and that always seems to bring out Mab's mean streak. The weather's been rainy for the last few days, and it's cold drizzle today; Warren's hair is gently glittering in the streetlights as we walk down towards my house after dinner out in Swindon. He's been in America for the past few weeks and our first attempt at meeting was cancelled unexpectedly, so it's nice to see him; I'm almost bubbling with happiness, and he's laughing down at me as we walk back from the restaurant that I picked to introduce him to another weird food - Japanese, in this case. We're discussing one of Davido's latest adventures, apparently involving chickens and a very irate troll, as we arrive at my house. I find my key, unlock the door, and murmur, "Please come in, Warren."
He smiles at me and steps over the threshold. I've shrugged my coat off and hang it on a hook as the coatless Summer Knight shuts the door behind me. I still find it odd that he can control the weather around himself; he doesn't need a coat even in the harshest cold, and rain only lightly touches him. And then Warren's warm lips are on the bare skin of my neck, and I turn in his arms with a smile to kiss him.
Half an hour later, I'm mostly naked and he's bare-chested on the bed, and he's just kissed me when he suddenly stiffens. I pull back, and find him looking towards the window with a frown. "There is something-" he says, and then shakes his head. "I thought I felt...but it seems that it has gone."
I hastily shrug his shirt on and fasten two of the buttons to at least try to look presentable as I head down the stairs. Nothing shows through the spyhole, and so I open the front door.
There's a rose on the doorstep; blue-petalled, ice-covered, shining in the streetlights. Nothing else.
The night air is chill on my bare legs, and I kneel slowly as light spills out from behind me into the darkened street. The stem of the rose is cold to my touch, but it doesn't seem to be melting; it stays hard under the warmth of my fingers as I pick it up. There's the faintest of scents from it; a pure frost on an early morning, a clear blue sky and the diamond glimmer of the first rays of sunlight-
I look up, and around; the street's empty. But if he's glamoured, I wouldn't be able to see him...or maybe he's already gone. And then I hesitate. Why am I assuming it's him?
But who else would it be?
"Thank you." I whisper into the night air, and take the rose back inside.
Warren's standing at the bottom of the stairs, bare-chested, watching me with a puzzled expression as I shut the front door and come back down the hall. "What-" he says, and almost recoils as I hold the rose out to him. "Someone left it for you?"
"I...think it was Kindred."
Something - some strong emotion - crosses his face, but then it's smoothed away again. "The Winter Emissary? You know him?"
"He's a friend." I step past the Summer Knight, into the warmth and light of the kitchen, and lay the rose down on the worktop. The intricate tracery of ice on the petals is refracting rainbow shimmers around the room, and it's beautiful. I wonder if he created it himself.
The look is back on Warren's face as he follows me in; it's a mix of fear, jealousy, concern - and anger. "You are friends with him. Why does he give you a rose?"
"I don't know." I feel bewildered. The last interaction I had with Kindred didn't end well; he got what he wanted, but told me he'd never forgive me for tricking him. [This is the other story that might go up....or not.] Is this thanks? Is he trying to charm me? Bribe me?
And why did he leave it on my doorstep? Why didn't he-
I turn and raise my eyes to my lover, and a faint tendril of suspicion blossoms. Warren's staring at the rose with a look that's almost pain. "You have consorted with him? You have invited him into your home?"
"I offered him protection once, and he accompanied me on a delivery on Cornetti's behalf." My voice is clipped and irritated. "He has helped us with information and assistance on some of our cases. He owes me two favours."
"He is your lover-" the man starts angrily.
"No! He's someone I count as a friend, but nothing more." I glance down at the rose, and add, "I've never given him this sort of encouragement."
"He is dangerous-"
"I know." My chin is up. "I can take care of myself!"
"He is a Winter creature." Warren says in the fiercest tone I've heard him use yet. "He cannot be trusted. You should not be associating with him!"
"Your prejudices are showing. I'm not Summer Court!"
"You do not understand!" And for the first time I can see the Summer Mantle in him. It's the same fire and passion that lights him up when we're having sex, but it's hotter - it's anger, frustration, and a burning desire to own - control - take. It hasn't got the bitter and cruel side that Winter has, but that doesn't mean that it's any less fierce. "He cannot control what is inside him."
He's standing over me, fists clenched, and the look in his eyes is one that I've seen before. My back's against the counter, and I've got nowhere to run.
"Are you any different to him?" I can't keep the faint shake out of my voice.
He blinks. Blinks again. And the look that crosses his face is one of pain. "I am sorry-" he whispers, opening his hands and taking a step back. "I-"
"What did you want to do?" My voice is still shaking.
He meets my eyes, flinches, and breaks down in tears.
"Why would he have left it for me?" I ask a little later. Warren's lying on the kitchen floor with his head on my bare legs, and I've got my back against the cabinets with my fingers in his hair. His eyes are still red, but he's more composed than a few minutes ago; the Mantle's back under control.
"It could be an agenda from the Courts..." Warren says with a sigh. "Whoever left it must have known that the Mantle exaggerates emotion. I do not like feeling jealousy or anger, but I admit that the rose brought out both...and it was from a member of the Winter Court!" I see his hands tense, and then he meets my eyes and forces himself to relax.
"Why would Winter want to split me from you?" I ask, twining my hand softly through his hair again.
"Or the Summer Court." Warren says. "They do not like mortals interfering in their affairs."
"I thought the Lady Rowan likes me..."
"She does." Warren smiles up at me, but then his smile fades. "But it could be any of my kin. It does not take much to bribe a member of the Winter Court." He sighs again. "I do not know, Dini. Court politics are complex, and it could be that Kindred was instructed to leave it for you as a means to hurt me. You are a target, now."
"I've been one before." I whisper. "But this is a bit of a different game."
He sits up and sweeps me into his arms. I wrap mine around his waist, and put my head on his bare shoulder. "I will protect you as much as I am able," the Summer Knight says gently. "The Summer Court knows that you are under my protection. But I cannot guess at the people who are willing to attack you so that they can get to me. I do not know what else to do."
I shrug. "I'll just take things as they come. But," and I shake myself free of his arms, "I am not Summer Court. You cannot dictate my actions or my friendships, Knight of Summer. You have to understand that."
"You are connected to my Court, Dini! You cannot be friends with someone from Winter."
"I am not a member of your Court." I can hear my own voice settling into what I think of as the 'Tony-voice' - flat, hard and implacable. "I am neutral, I am independent, and I choose my own contacts and friends."
"You should not associate with-" The Mantle is returning, a burning flame of pride and anger.
"No." My voice stops him dead. "I will choose on my own behalf. You may advise, if you wish, and give me reasons. But I will not bow to your word and your command simply because you are the Summer Knight. I am not a mortal toy for you to use as you will." I watch the range of emotions flash across his face and then add, as gently as I can, "If I am nothing more than an accessory to you, then I do not wish to be associating with you."
I watch the struggle on the face of the man in front of me. He had forgotten that with a mortal woman comes free will, and with this woman comes a stubbornness and a fierce soul that will not bow to anyone...and now he's learning exactly what he took on when he decided to ask me on a date.
And then he leans in, and touches his forehead to mine. "I forget...I am so used to the Court, so used to obedience. I forget the rest of the world does not revolve around us." The tears are close to the surface of his voice again. "Dini...never stop arguing with me. Never stop fighting me. Never stop being your own self. Please."
I can't help smiling. "I can do that."
Warren leaves as midnight comes closer, taking his shirt back - which I replace with a baggy jumper of Tony's - and wrapping me in the brief warmth of his arms. I smell the honeysuckle and rainfall of his skin, and it takes all my willpower to let him leave. I know that his first loyalty is to another mistress; he is here because he chooses to be, and I can't ever presume on that. And so I give him one last kiss, and watch as the door shuts.
But as I walk back into the emptiness of my home, feeling the familiar void settle in my chest, the rose glints on the worksurface. I sit down on the kitchen stool and gently touch the frozen blue petals. They still aren't melting; they're frozen in delicate tracery, fracturing out from the heart to fold gently back on themselves. The ice isn't clear, either - it's reflecting the colours of the petals through the distorted curves, mixing with the subtle shading of the frost on the edges.
Why did you leave it for me, Winter Boy?
And when I go up to bed I lay the rose onto my dressing table, next to my mother's comb and the bullet that nearly ended Tony's life. I have few keepsakes, but it seems somehow right that the rose should sit with them. As I curl into my sheets in the darkness, I watch shimmers dancing in the blue petals as the streetlights set the edges on fire with orange and gold.
Is the rose just a pawn in the game of seduction? Are you trying to drive Warren away so that I will be free for you to play with, just another pretty thing to break and discard once you've had your fill?
Is it just another game within a game, a strand within the political web of the supernatural world? Is there an agenda behind the gift, and my heart is just a toy to be used to control me?
Or are you starting to care, Kindred? Is there still some humanity left in you that could escape Winter's cold?