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Paul very nearly misses her. He’s on his way to a club--one slightly out of his way, but not too far--when he catches sight of her from the corner of his eye. Lenore. Lenore Lenore Lenore, just sitting there in an all-night breakfast place, alone in a booth. She isn’t looking out the window. Instead she’s staring down at her coffee likes it contains the answers to all life’s great questions.

It doesn’t, unless all of life’s great questions are what should I be taking a drink of?

She looks different, and Paul takes a moment to digest as he turns on his heel, heading to the front of the restaurant to head inside. She’s less thin, for one. She looks like she’s actually been eating, and not at all like she’s been perpetually bleeding out. There’s color in her skin, which isn’t something that Paul finds terribly familiar. The Lenore he knew was almost always pale, her skin ashy and unhealthy looking.

This Lenore is different. This Lenore looks like she just ate a big breakfast and went out for a jog, and the change is so significant that Paul wonders for a moment how he even recognized her.

The eyes, he decides after a moment. She still has Lenore’s eyes.

He stops by the booth, staring down at her, and when she glances up he cracks a grin.

“This seat taken?”

To his surprise, she doesn’t seem all that alarmed by his presence there, and when she shakes her head he slides into the booth opposite her and takes a moment to consider it.

It’s not a coincidence is the conclusion he comes to very quickly. There are forty-nine other states she could have run off too and a countless number of countries, and instead she’s there, sitting opposite him, less than two miles from the very building she burned to the ground. There’s no way she made it out and lived for so long and somehow accidentally wandered back into his territory, which means she’s there intentionally.

“Long time no see,” she says, and it’s like they’re back at home again. The same old Lenore.

Paul makes a pointed look to her arm and cracks another smile.

“Somehow I don’t think I’ll be getting a drink of my own.”

Lenore smiles back, and it occurs to Paul that while he’s seen her smile before, there’s something different in this smile. Calm? Probably calm. She seems more relaxed than she ever did before, which he suppose makes sense, considering she’s there on her terms rather than his own.

Which also seems kind of stupid to him. Why the hell is she there? Maybe things aren’t going well. Maybe she wants to take him up on his offer. That wouldn’t be too bad. Good familiars are hard to find, and Lenore would do just fine, he’s sure of it.

But there’s business to get to first, only he doesn’t get to before the waitress slides over, taking Lenore’s order like she’s an old friend and then turning her attention to Paul.

“Nothing for me, thanks,” he says politely, and she gives him a look that he’s confident means you better tip me well for taking up my time before she vanishes into the back.

“So,” he says, looking Lenore over again. “It has been a while.”

“Seven years,” she says. She’s older. She looks older. Maybe not even years older, but she’s definitely not quite the same Lenore she was when she was living with them. She’s not quite showing any gray, but sort of on the edges of it, like at any moment a grey hair is going to appear if she gets too annoyed.

And he looks exactly the same.

“You can just ask,” she continues, giving him a pointed look. He always liked that about Lenore. She’s always to the point, but she’s also sassy. She knows what the game is. She knows what he’s after.

“What about Sam?” He says. He suspects he knows the answer, but he wants to hear it anyway.

“Dead,” she confirms. “There was no way I could have gotten him enough blood. It was awful.”

She looks sad as she says it, regretting what might have been, maybe. Sam. Fuck Sam. Paul never liked him nearly as much as Lenore obviously did, but the fact that she’s still pining over him rubs him the wrong way. He sweeps his eyes around the restaurant--more busy than he’d like, but still only half full--but no one’s paying them any attention.

“Unfortunate,” he says, making no effort to sound sorry at all.

“I put him out of his misery,” Lenore says, with a tone of confession in her voice. “It got too bad. I couldn’t take it anymore, and he wasn’t going to make it, and I felt... guilty. Like I was being selfish just letting him suffer.”

Paul makes a noncommittal noise as the waitress returns, setting down some breakfast for Lenore and a glass of water for Paul.

She gives him a pointed look before leaving, and Paul squints at the glass before sliding it back over to Lenore.

You can never be too careful.

It’s then that he realizes something he probably should have several minutes ago: Lenore isn’t afraid. He’d gotten used to her being less afraid than she should have been, but the smell of Xanax is gone, even if her heart rate is still steady.

“You’re clean,” he observes cautiously.

“Seven years,” she says. “Not a coincidence.”

Paul’s eyes drop down to her stomach, which is very clearly not pregnant.

“And?”

She fixes him with a pointed look. She’s going to make him work for it.

“And what?”

“What about the baby. The bump. The bun in the oven.”

He knew Sam was a goner--no two ways about that--but he’d always wondered what had happened to the kid.

“My bet is it didn’t make it,” he says. “Am I right?”

“You’re wrong,” Lenore says, looking unfazed. “Six pounds, ten ounces. On the lighter side, but not even considered properly underweight.”

Lenore pops a piece of bacon into her mouth, chewing it thoughtfully, and waits.

Paul abruptly realizes that she’s finished. He’d thought she was going to say more, only she’s stopped, and that means he has to prompt her if he wants more.

“And?” He says, literally unable to keep himself from asking. What the hell happened to the kid?

“Adopted,” Lenore says. “They have a nice family, well away from all this. They have no idea who I am, but they have a nice medical history so they don’t get caught off guard.”

She pops another piece of bacon in her mouth, chewing methodically.

Paul can’t help but feel a little let down. So much for all his mental images of Lenore playing with a baby. She got rid of it the moment it was out of her, and he lets out a little huff.

“So,” she says. “Rich?”

He shrugs.

“No idea,” he says. “He might be dead at the bottom of the building, or he might be out, but either way he’s not around. I paid a lot of money to have the entire site sealed in to make sure no one went digging around, and part of that meant making sure that no one went checking to see if Rich was down there with the others.”

He expects Lenore to shudder, but she doesn’t. Apparently she’s made her peace with what happened, and what was at the bottom of the building, because her heart rate doesn’t pick up at all. It’s been steady the entire conversation, and something about that strikes him as odd.

Paul mulls it over before pointing out the obvious.

“You aren’t afraid of me,” he says. 

Lenore smiles at him and nods.

“Nope,” she says, turning her attention to her pancakes. “I made my peace.”

Apparently she made her peace really well, because even Charles generally had more of a reaction than Lenore was having right now.

“You aren’t on something, are you?” he asks, taking another sniff of the air. She smells clean--like she showered not too long ago, with an undercurrent of sweat--but there’s no medicinal tang in the air.

“Nope,” she says again. “I’m just not afraid of you.”

Paul isn’t quite sure what to make of that. He liked Lenore--she was a good friend--but some of the best memories he had were of when she was afraid, when her heart was pounding away like a jackrabbits, showing just how afraid she really was.

Well, that was over with apparently.

“Mhm,” Paul says, feeling a bit put out. How had she even managed that?

Lenore sips her coffee, staring at him over the top of the mug, and the little gears in Paul’s brain catch for just a moment.

Why wasn’t she afraid?

He lets his senses reach out, paying attention to the myriad of conversations. Someone was arguing about how they were going to afford braces for their kid. No less than three groups were talking about a baseball game. A couple in the corner were having a terse argument about college choices.

Nothing was unusual. The entire place was business as usual. No one was staring. No one was even glancing their way. The most attention they’d gotten was from three tables down, who’d craned his neck to see what food Lenore had picked out before turning his attention to the menu.

Paul pushes his paranoia aside. He’d spent too long with Richard, obviously.

 “So,” he says. “No kid. No Sam. I can only assume you didn’t go back to your old job, because if you did the lawyer would have given me a call. So what have you been doing?”

Lenore smiles at him, but it’s not the same smile he’s used to. It’s thinner, tighter. The kind of smile that Richard used to make all the fucking time, only it’s not Richard making it, it’s Lenore, and she’s looking at him with it.

A warning siren goes off in his brain, but even when he looks around, there’s nothing. Lenore’s still human. He can still her heart beating steadily away, unafraid and unconcerned by the situation. Everyone else in the room is human as well. Even if she has a silver knife, she’ll just be a lunatic with a weird knife if she comes at him. He’s still faster than her. He could be out the window before she had the damn thing out of her ridiculous oversize purse.

He pauses, giving the purse another firm look, but Lenore hasn’t moved at all.

“I don’t like this,” Paul says after several long moments of tense silence. “What is this, exactly? You’re not here by chance. You were waiting for me.”

Lenore is still smiling at him, and he doesn’t like that at all.

Fuck this.

“As much as I loved catching up, give me one reason why I shouldn’t get the fuck out of here right now,” Paul says.

His heart is beating in his chest. Not fast enough that it would raise even a single eyebrow among the living, but fast enough that for him it feels like a goddamn jackhammer. He didn’t even know it could still do that.

He’s afraid, and the realization feels like a kick to the chest.

“Fuck me,” he hisses. “What is this?”

Lenore still hasn’t spoken, not since he asked what she was doing with her newfound freedom. For that matter, he doesn’t think she’s spoken at all since she said she wasn’t afraid.

“I’m here to make you an offer,” Lenore says, leaning forward slightly.

Paul instinctively reels back, and then catches himself and leans back in.

This is Lenore. He has nothing to be afraid of. Lenore is just a human, and the fact that she’s learned to keep her heart rate down is something that should be celebrated. It means he’s less likely to bite her. It means there’s less likely to be an accident.

And she wouldn’t hurt him anyway. This is the same woman who’d curled against him after taking Rich’s eye out, who’d cried herself to sleep on more than one occasion. She was harmless. And she was his friend.

“An offer,” he repeats, trying to turn the idea over in his mind. It feels fake, unreal. An offer? What does she have to offer him?

Oh.

He realizes now. She does want to come back, and his face lights up at the realization. She’s coming back, but she wants it to be on her own terms. Probably no hunting--she always hated hunting--but maybe some feeding, just a bit. Enough to minimize how much he has to do for himself.

“This’ll be great,” he says. “You’ll love the new place. I’ve got a blu-ray player, and the TV is massive, and -”

“Paul,” she says, interrupting. “I”m not coming back to be your pet.”

Paul’s heart sinks, and the sudden surge of frustration no doubt shows on his face. His hand shoots forward, grabbing her left wrist and jerking it forward, giving it a hard squeeze. Not enough to break, but definitely enough to hurt.

Her heart skips a beat, but she’s still not scared.

The animal part of Paul’s brain--the part that takes over when he’s really hungry--is screaming again. It’s an air raid siren in his head, screaming at him to get the fuck out because something is terribly, horribly wrong about the situation. Nothing is obvious--one couple gave a concerned look when he snatched her wrist--but no one has any silver drawn. The police aren’t rolling up. None of them are turned like he is. He’s faster and stronger than every single person in the room put together and his brain is still screaming at him to get the fuck out.

“Paul,” Lenore says, dragging his attention back to her. “Listen to my offer.”

He’s still holding onto her wrist, but he feels even more alarmed when she reaches up with her right hand, grabbing hold of his wrist, like they’re some kind of very confused couple that hasn’t quite figured out how to hold hands properly just yet.

“You don’t have any room to negotiate here,” Paul says under his breath so that no one else can hear. “Nothing changed. You’re still you. You’re healthier than you were, and you’re not an addict anymore, but you’re still you, and I’m still me, and if I wanted I could just pick you up and take you the fuck back home.”

Lenore levels him with a hard stare.

“Are you sure?”

Paul isn’t sure. He isn’t sure at all. Everything about the situation seems to be spiraling wildly out of control, like a train with fucking rockets strapped on the back. He’s supposed to be in control. He’s supposed to be in charge. He’s the one in the booth who could snap her neck before anyone even saw he’d moved, but he’s scared.

Why the fuck is he scared of her?

What does he have to be afraid of.

“Here’s my offer,” Lenore says before he can steel his nerve any further. “The writing is on the wall, Paul,” she says. “You can’t stay hidden forever. Not in this day and age. People are starting to put the pieces together, and there’s only so much that people like your lawyer can do to stop it. In a few years--maybe a decade at most--something’s going to happen, and then it’s all coming out.”

Paul looks at her skeptically.

“Kiddo,” he starts, “we’ve been doing this for a long time. A long time. There’s people up near the top that are going to keep this sort of thing really, really quiet, just like they always have. Nothing’s going to change. And if you think that... what, that this is going to happen? That you’re going to get me to go public? Then you’re deluding yourself.”

Not going to happen.

“I’m not asking you to go public,” Lenore says. “It wouldn’t work, anyway. They’d just kill you, just like the last one.”

In Paul’s mind, the record screech is audible.

“Hold on,” he says very firmly, his fingers still wrapped around Lenore’s wrist. “The last one?”

“It isn’t important.”

“Like fuck it isn’t,” Paul hisses. “What last one? What the fuck have you gotten into?”

But she’s still not afraid. He could break her wrist by fucking accident, but she’s still not afraid of him. Her heart rate's still down. She’s still just watching him, and as he stares at her the pad of her thumb runs over the back of his wrist, feather-light and soft to the touch.

Fuuuuuck.

“There’s a disagreement,” she continues, as if he hadn’t asked anything at all. “Some people don’t think the turned can be helped. The general opinion from them is that the most merciful thing we can do is to put you out of your misery.”

She stares at him for a moment to punctuate the point, but he doesn’t rise to the bait.

“The other opinion is--for the record, this is also my opinion--that it’s possible to bring your instincts down to manageable level that could eventually be worked with.”

“Nope,” Paul says firmly. “Nope. Fuck this. I don’t like where any of this is going. I don’t know who people are, but they can go fuck themselves.”

He’s not staying for this conversation. He doesn’t know what this is, but he knows he doesn’t like it. 

“Paul,” she says, giving his wrist a squeeze. “I don’t want to have to kill you one day.”

Paul’s done. He leans over the table, getting right into her face and not giving a single fuck who sees.

“Kill me? Are you fucking insane? You can’t kill me. You can’t kill any of us. You couldn’t even kill Charlie, and you sure as fuck didn’t kill Rich.”

Lenore doesn’t move. Her heart pounds only slightly faster, and then, like clockwork, she slides back into perfect control.

What the fuck is wrong with her? What the fuck is she doing that she’s not even scared, even with his teeth maybe an inch from her face? How is she not terrified? He could lean forward and take her throat out with his fangs and drink her right goddamn there and no one could stop him.

“Do you not think I’d do it? Because I fucking would,” he hisses. “Whatever this is? Fuck this. You’re coming home with me, and I’ll do whatever I damn well please-”

“Paul,” she says, cutting him off. People have started to stare, but he doesn’t really care. Not really. “I know you would. I know you’d kill me without even hesitating. But that doesn’t change that you’re my friend, and I know you didn’t choose to be this way.”

She softens, and for a moment, it’s the old Lenore. The Lenore who stayed in his apartment, and fell asleep watching zombie movies. The Lenore who tossed popcorn at him and who laughed and who joked and who was his friend.

“I want to help,” she says, her voice very quiet, and Paul sits back down, releasing her wrist.

It’s going to bruise. He can tell just from the way she moves it, and he cringes.

“Sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have... done that. Just... fuck. This isn’t easy. There isn’t a magic wand you can wave. No matter how much you want to help me, it isn’t going to change anything. You’re still you, and I’m still me, and if you were really, really smart, you’d have stayed the fuck away.”

That was what was best. Not for him, but for her. To be far, far away from him, never to cross paths again.

“That isn’t going to happen,” Lenore says. “You left the door open for me when I left, and you don’t get to slam it in my face when I come back. I want to help. I can help. But you need to work with me.”

She’s deluding herself. She’s back to being old-Lenore again, which is nice, but she’s still deluding herself.

“Let me guess,” he says, his tone grim. “You’ve found a miracle cure. A synthetic blood replacement? Something like that. I’ve heard it all before. None of it’s going to make a difference.”

He’s gone down that path before. But it won’t change things. He’s still him, and whether or not he’s willing to admit it to Lenore, he likes it. There’s fucking nothing like the feeling of chasing someone, of hearing their heart beat, and even if feeding is ridiculously inconvenient at times, he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The waitress returns to the table with another glass of water, which she sets down between them.

She doesn’t leave right away. She gives Lenore a smile, and then deposits a small orange pill bottle between them before going on her way.

There’s two pills inside, and Paul stares at them.

The warning siren in his head has started going off again.

“I’m sorry,” Paul says. “Hold on. Is the waitress in on it?” He asks, craning in his seat. The waitress is already gone, vanished into the back, and Paul feels the distinct desire to go after her and demand to know what the fuck she thinks she’s doing.

“Focus on me,” Lenore says, and when he looks back old-Lenore is gone, replaced by new-Lenore.

There’s anger burning in his throat. This is a setup. This is some kind of bullshit setup, and he hates it.

“Paul,” she says, sliding the pill bottle across the table at him. “I think these will help. In addition to blood, but-”

“No,” he snaps. “I’m sorry, what the fuck is this? Did you really think this was going to work? That you’d come in here and slide me pills and tell me how you think you can make me normal? It’s not going to happen, Lenore. We’re past that point. I was past that point eighty fucking years ago.”

A thought occurs to him, and his head snaps around, staring out at the restaurant.

The restaurant where no one is looking at him. He raised his voice in what must absolutely look like an argument to anyone else, and yet no one is looking at him. Not even any furtive glances away, trying to hide that they were looking in the first place.

Paul stands up.

“How many people here aren’t here to spy on me and fucking Lenore?” He says, practically yelling it to the room.

Every single pair of eyes slides over to him.

There has to be thirty fucking people in the room, but almost every single one of them is calm. A few are nervous, but none of them are scared. They’re all ready. Holy fuck. How did she even set this all up?

There is a sudden sickening realization.

He’s the prey there. He’s a lion that’s chased it’s prey for miles, and then found that oops, the tribes come together and the monkeys all have spears.

“Paul,” Lenore says. “Sit down.”

Every single fucking person in the restaurant is watching him. Every single person. He considers going out the window, only Lenore is there. Lenore’s with them. She knows about the lawyer. She knows about the other building. She knows what this is. She knows who he is. If she doesn’t know where he lives, she could find out too fucking fast.

Paul feels sick. He feels like he’s going to throw up. He doesn’t know if he fucking can throw up, but he feels like he should. He’s... what the fuck is this even?

Fear. This isn’t even the nerves from before. This is real fear. He’s going to fucking die. He has no question he could kill Lenore before they could even move, but then what?

Fuck, he doesn’t even want to kill Lenore, even if she did sell him the fuck out.

Paul sits back down.

“So what is this?” He says, his mouth feeling oddly dry. “Is this a hostage negotiation?”

“We’re just talking,” Lenore says, giving him a smile. “You want some water?”

He stares at her like she just grew a second head.

“If you think I’m drinking anything you gave me, you’re nuts.”

Maybe the window would be the best option after all.

“I’m trying to help you out here,” Lenore says. “I know this isn’t the option you want. But the writing is on the wall. Eventually it’s going to come out, and we want to be prepared. Everyone here’s on the same side. We want to know how we can deal with things. Just killing every person who was turned is... not a good option.”

They’re all still fucking staring at him. Fuck.

“Can we do this somewhere private?”

Lenore frowns, clenching her jaw. Nerves. The first sign of any this entire fucking conversation.

“I’m afraid not,” she says. “They’re doing me a favor letting me try this at all--they wanted someone who was more freshly changed--but I said I could convince you.”

Fuck. There are politics to this? How far up does this even go?

Probably all the way. That’s what this is, he realizes. He’s never paid any attention to the politics. He left those to the lawyer. If he really had to, he left them to Rich. They weren’t his sort of thing. But this is something else. This isn’t vampire politics. This is...

“Hold on,” Paul says, finally coming to the conclusion he should have realized almost an hour earlier. “Are you a fucking hunter?”

The word sounds like a betrayal. A hunter. Lenore’s a hunter. “That’s how you got away. That’s why we couldn't find you. That’s why you have connections. That’s why you closed down an entire fucking restaurant and loaded it with people to make sure i couldn’t escape. You’re a fucking hunter?”

That was what she meant when she said I don’t want to kill you.

She meant it literally.

Fuck.

Paul surprises himself by vomiting, a vile black looking substance that’s mostly blood. He has the good sense to just get it on the floor rather than all over himself, but that doesn’t stop him from trembling.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

“Paul,” she says, and Lenore--a fucking hunter--suddenly has her hand on his shoulder, like she’s trying to comfort him.

“This is it,” he says. Is this what Lenore felt like? Is this how she felt all the time, terrified for her life and convinced the world was crashing down around her?

valuable lesson in empathy his fucking ass.

Paul buries his face in his hands, forcing himself to take several deep breaths he doesn’t really need.

“What happens now?” He says, refusing to look up. He can’t do this. He can’t fucking look at her. Not while she’s new-Lenore, her heart a fucking clock in her chest, ticking away without any variance.

“You take the pills. We know they’ll work at least short term. We move you to the facility-”

“The facility,” he spits.

“We move you to the facility,” Lenore continues, ignoring his interruption. “We’ll try a few things. We’ve got real blood--we aren’t going to let you starve--but we want to try a few things-”

“I’m going to starve,” he snaps. “You aren’t going to feed anyone to me, and it’s not like you can just shove a blood bag at us. They make us sick. I can’t keep it-”

“We know Paul,” she says, with a reassuring tone. “I’ll go with you, alright? I’ll sit in the room wtih you, and talk with you, and we’ll figure this out.”

“Lenore,” says one of the men in the room. Paul doesn’t even look at him, but he knows it has to be one of the older men who was discussing sports when he first came in. “That isn’t in the deal.”

“If it’s what he needs to come in, then I’m going to do it,” Lenore says firmly. “I’m not going to leave him alone in a room to go fucking crazy.”

There is an unspoken like he did, and Paul feels a stab of guilt for all those days he didn’t come hang out with Lenore.

“It’s off the table,” the man says.

“It’s on the table,” Lenore says right back.

“Hold on,” Paul interrupts. “Don’t I get a fucking say?”

The man says No right as Lenore says Yes, and then they’re glaring at each other across the room.

“I’ll go,” he says, “but only with Lenore. I don’t know any of you fucks, and I don’t trust any of you fucks, and if I’m going to be someone’s pet vampire, then I’m going to be Lenore’s.”

God. It’s so fucked up that he’s even saying it, but he is, and he hates it.

Fuck, Richard would take his head off just for saying it out loud.

Lenore puts her hand over his for a moment in what he assumes is supposed to be a comforting gesture, but he’s not terribly comforted. He feels like he’s going to his grave. He’s putting himself not just in Lenore’s hands, but in the hands of her friends, and he has a very solid guess that at least half of them want him dead already.

“Deal,” Lenore says, and the man she was arguing with makes a very unhappy noise. “We’re going to do this. We know what we’re doing, he’s willing, and we’re going to manage.”

No one sounds as confident as Lenore as Paul finally pushes himself up from the booth. There’s a crowd around him, and Lenore ushers him towards the back of the restaurant, cutting through the kitchen.

“There’s going to be a black van, isn’t there?” He says under his breath.

Lenore snorts.

“Yep,” she says. “Sorry. Not much I can do about this part.”

“You’re going to stay?” Paul says, his eyes flicking down to where Lenore walks. She’s different, but she’s still the same Lenore. His Lenore, only hardened by the things he put her through.

“I’ll stay, Paul.”

He isn’t sure if he believes her, but it’s the best chance he’s got, so he holds on tight to her hand as he climbs into the back of the van.

He wonders, for a moment, if he could have gotten away.

Maybe.

But he wouldn’t have been able to get away with Lenore.