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no shade in the shadow of the cross

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John awoke slowly, languidly—taking a deep breath as he uncurled himself, stretching as he lingered in the warm haze of half-sleep. He felt light, his limbs loose and faintly tingling—as if some long-tangled knot had been unraveled. What had happened? He furrowed his brow, murmuring a soft prayer of thanks to the Lord for the sense of peace that had settled over him in his sleep—he did not know why such a mercy had been granted, but he was grateful.

He rolled over, stretching again—and when his feet hit the bars of the kennel, reality came flooding back. Doctor Sinclair’s fingers on him, stroking, demanding, and oh, how his sinful flesh had answered her. How this youthful body’s desires, long neglected, had overtaken him—how he’d moaned, how he’d leaned into her for more

“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,” he choked out, his face hot at the memory of her fingers inside him. But he had never known pleasure like that—he’d had no idea anything could feel that good, other than the blood. Not even in the highest throes of religious ecstasy, not even those moments where he felt the spirit of the Lord quickening in him had he felt anything like it. Those memories that he’d cherished for decades felt hollow compared to the searing, palpable pleasure that had coursed through his body at her command.

Guilt flooded him for even thinking such a thing—but he knew deep in his gut that it was true. And when she brought him to his peak, when his body was shaking and trembling beneath her, she’d told him he was good—and for a long moment, while her fingers continued to move on him, in him, he’d believed her. John shivered, trying to ignore his half-hard cock as he rose to his knees, throwing himself into his morning prayers to distract from his sinful, blasphemous thoughts.

He made the sign of the cross, then reached for his rosary.

“It’s good to hear your voice, son,” Father Stevens wheezed, sounding even frailer than the last time they spoke. “I’ve been praying for you every day.”

“Thank you, Father,” John said, bowing his head as he glanced up at Tig, who leaned against the wall, watching him. “That—that, uh, means a lot to me.”

“How are you?” Stevens asked, “how are you feeling?”

“Better,” John said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. “Better, thank you, but I still have some ways to go. I—I make a little bit of progress every day.” It was not entirely untrue, but lying to a priest in any capacity felt like a mortal sin.

“The Lord is merciful to us, especially in times of trouble,” Stevens said gently. “I do miss seeing you in mass, though. I look forward to having you back.”

“I—I look forward to that too, Father. I confess, I—I have missed worship especially. The music always lifted my spirits—always made me feel closer to God,” John said, relieved to have something honest to say.

“Do not let yourself fall into despair,” Stevens said. “Continue to read, to study, to pray—apply yourself as you recover. The body can be weak—and no one knows that better than an old man, I can tell you that,” he laughed. “But in our weakness, we must trust in God—draw strength from him, from your faith, and he will lead you on your path to healing."

“Yes, Father,” John said, flushing—Father Stevens had no idea just how weak his flesh was. He looked away from Tig, unable to meet her eyes. “You’re right, of course. Your advice and prayers are—are a blessing to me. Thank you.”

“Walk in the Lord, Father Paul,” Stevens said. “Will you call me and check in next week?”

“Of course,” John said, “thank you.”

“No,” Dr. Sinclair snapped, “down,” pulling her hand out of his reach. John lunged after her, desperate for the blood dripping from her fingertips—but with a wrenching shudder, he controlled himself, settling back down onto his knees. John sat obediently, trying not to look as anguished as he felt—but his eyes never left her hand, where her fingers cupped the precious liquid as it gathered. He cursed himself for grazing her with his teeth again—he tried not to, he tried, but it was so hard—the need burned in him, from the hollow pain in his belly to his hungry, oversensitive mouth.

But he remained still, aware of her merciless scrutiny—silently praying for the strength to endure.

“Good boy,” she said, “good.” She brought her hand back down to him, slowly—and he held perfectly still as she touched her cupped fingers to his lips. John made a soft sound of relief as she allowed him to drink—and when her palm was emptied, he chased an errant droplet with his tongue as blood slowly continued to trickle down her arm. He brushed his lips across her fingertips, and she did not flinch, nor did she scold him. Instead, she pushed two fingers further between his lips—God, the same fingers that had defiled him, had made his body betray him. God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, John told himself as the taste of her blood filled him.

John pulled her fingers into his mouth, eagerly sucking on the blood that dripped down her arm—he closed his eyes as he laved the pads of her fingertips with his tongue. He made a soft, low noise as pleasure suffused him, warm and tingling—the taste of her blood, the way it felt to have his mouth full. His cock moved, slowly swelling against the constriction of his jeans, and he swallowed the blood that had pooled in his mouth.

He looked up at Dr. Sinclair—her eyes were narrowed, her expression hard. But there was a hint of color on her round cheeks, and across her neck, where her labcoat exposed just a small sliver of pale, freckled skin. John inhaled, taking in the scent of her blood, of her—and his brow furrowed when he detected something else. It was faint, but when he took another breath, he paid more attention to that warm, tantalizing scent—and his mouth watered, his cock twitching. Was she aroused?

Heat coiled low in his belly, and John couldn’t help running his tongue up the seam where her fingers touched. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea—but his flesh was weak, so weak, and he was afraid. His mind turned, unbidden, to Millie—to the last time he’d been intimate enough with a woman to breathe in her scent. The little sounds she’d made as he knelt between her legs, the giggles as she teased him for being so bold to use his mouth—what sort of priest are you, John, to do such a thing? The way Millie’s laughter had given way to soft gasps as he figured out what worked, and then moans as she found her pleasure, her thighs quivering on his shoulders.

But Dr. Sinclair was not Millie—she was nothing like the woman he’d loved. Yet as he stared up at her, pressing her fingers to the roof of his mouth with his tongue, he could not help but wonder if she would make sounds like that. Those harsh, controlled hands would seize his hair as she took her pleasure from him, grinding herself against his mouth—and oh, it felt so right to think of kneeling for her like that. She’d tell him what to do, and if he did it well, maybe she would tell him he was good again. Maybe she would touch him again, like she had before—maybe she would push him into that ecstatic state where he felt utterly weightless, like he was able to escape his cursed flesh for a few brief moments. John moaned around her fingers, his cheeks growing hot with shame as the muscles in his belly tightened, his arousal aching between his legs. What was he thinking—he fled from the fantasy, plunging himself back into the Psalms.

I will not fear, though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, he thought as she shifted her legs, inhaling sharply when he moved his mouth halfway up her fingers and then sucked them in again. Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof

She pulled her hand away, out of his mouth, and John sagged back down into sitting on his feet, his head spinning with the weight of what he wanted. Dr. Sinclair capped the IV in her arm, then offered her hand to him once more. John cleaned off her fingers—when she turned her hand over, he licked up her palm, collecting the last of the blood. She withdrew, wiping up her arm in a brusque motion and tossing aside the cloth.

“Up,” she said, unhooking his chain from the wall and gesturing for him to stand. John flushed, awkwardly rising to his feet and hoping she didn’t notice the bulge in his jeans. If she did, she made no sign—she merely tugged on the leash as she walked towards the basement door.

John’s eyes widened when he approached the kennel—his belongings were still tucked neatly into the corner, but there was a stack of blankets in the center. There was even a pillow leaned up against the bars. He turned to Dr. Sinclair, opening his mouth, but she merely gestured towards the open door.

“Go on,” she said gruffly, and he ducked inside the kennel, settling down with his legs crossed as he pawed through the stack of fleece and flannel blankets. There were enough to make something of a bed—the thick, old-fashioned quilt at the bottom would be far softer than the newspaper he had been sleeping on.

“Thank you, Dr. Sinclair,” he said, wondering what had prompted her to show any care for his comfort—she never had before. He rubbed the fleece between his fingers, looking up at her—gratitude spreading warmly through his chest.

“You don’t need to call me doctor,” Tig said flatly.

John straightened, eyebrows raising slightly as he blinked at her. He had assumed she preferred the formality—the clinical distance. But he supposed that line may have already been crossed—whatever this was, whatever they were to each other.

“Antigone, then?” he asked.

“No,” she said with a grimace, shaking her head. “Only my mother calls me that. Tig will do.”

“Alright,” John said, a small smile touching his lips—he didn’t know why, but it pleased him. “Thanks, Tig.”

She turned away without a word, her long red braid swinging behind her, and John picked up his book, curling up into the blankets.

Tig raked her fingers along her scalp, letting out a huff of breath through her nose as she rinsed out the last of the conditioner. She shut off the water and stepped out of the shower, wringing out her hair—she toweled off and threw herself into the chair in front of the vanity, seething. Lucy sat up from where she slept on the bed and yawned, stretching dramatically, one leg at a time.

Tig dragged the comb through her hair, gritting her teeth when she hit a snag—with some effort, she slowed down and gently untangled it. It had taken her years to grow out her hair this long, she needed to be patient with it. But patience had never come easy to her, especially when she was in a mood like this.

She took a deep breath and picked at the tangle, a few strands at a time—and her thoughts returned to John, safely shut away in his kennel in the basement. She couldn’t shake the sight of him on his knees, sucking on her fingers, drinking her blood—his eyes, dark and hollow and wanting. He’d made contact with her during feedings before, but not like this—there was something different about the way he’d taken her fingers into his mouth. Something wanton about the way his tongue had moved against her skin. There was a faint pull low in her belly, and she stamped it out like a stray ember that spilled from a fire.

Tig winced as she yanked at the tangle, then forced her hands to be still—made her fingers free the last twisted strands without snapping them. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted when it came to the creature she was keeping—by anything, let alone her body’s response to hearing, feeling him moan around her fingers. It was bad enough that when she’d stripped to get into the shower, she’d found herself wet—

“Fucking priest,” she hissed, and Lucy headbutted her leg, rubbing the length of her body against Tig’s bare skin. Tig reached down, absently stroking the cat, and then began to braid her hair, the comfort of the routine easing a little of her tension. When she’d finished and pulled her pajamas on, she sat down at her computer to transcribe her most recent notes.

She pressed play on the tape recorder and began to type.

“The unidentified compound appears to only be present in the subject’s blood. As with previous body fluid analysis, the sample of semen collected from the subject was negative for the compound. Sample volume was more than adequate for testing,” her voice said, and Tig clenched her teeth as she typed. “There were several abnormalities noted for the subject’s apparent age—sperm morphology was nearly uniform, with a less than 0.5% rate of defective cells. Motility and sperm count were both higher than average for a middle-aged male.”

She sat back in her chair with a frown. She’d been able to put together a partial dataset, at least, but she needed to get more information from him. She needed to put the information in context—he had told her so few things, and she could only hope he was telling the truth when he said he was the last.

She needed to hear more of his confession, if he was willing to voice it.

John knelt in the middle of the floor, his dark clothes giving him a somber air. His black dress shirt was neatly buttoned under his clerical collar, his manacled hands resting in his lap. He looked up at her with those soft, sad eyes, and Tig clenched her jaw as she gestured for him to start.

He made the sign of the cross and lowered his head. “It has been ten days since my last confession.” There was a long, quiet moment where he took a few even breaths, and then he met her eyes.

“After—after Millie and I—after Millie broke things off, I continued to sin. I committed adultery in my heart, I coveted another man’s wife. And—and Sarah, my daughter—the blameless, beautiful little girl that came from our love.” John choked, his voice trembling as his face went soft and slack with grief, “I envied George, George and Millie, that they got to see her more than once a week. Across the pews, I—I might as well have been half the world away. I coveted her first smile, her first words, her first steps—I coveted each and every moment that I missed. My own daughter, my own child, and I didn’t—I didn’t know her. I couldn’t know her, I had—I had to lie, to act like she was any other child in the parish.”

Tig’s brow furrowed—she didn’t know he had a child. But she could surmise by the guilt and sorrow etched into his face that Sarah was gone—there was no need to ask.

“I—I allowed bitterness, I allowed resentment to take hold of me. That—that she’d already learned to call George her father—” his fists clenched, rattling the chains, and his hair fell into his eyes.

She watched him dispassionately—while his personal tragedies shed some light on the wreck of a man he was, she failed to see how this was relevant to what she wanted to know. When had he become something other than human? But she suspected she’d learn more if she just let him talk, rather than ask pointed questions. If there was one thing John could do, it was talk.

“I allowed my longing for them to come between me and my duty to God, to the parish—and Beverly Keane noticed the slack and eagerly stepped up to take a few duties off my shoulders. Maybe—maybe if I’d been more attentive, spent less time daydreaming—maybe I could have seen what was happening,” he said. “I—I’d, uh, fantasize for hours about exactly what I would say if Millie came to me and asked me to be with her, to be with our child—how I would, without hesitation, pull off this collar and go wherever she led me.” John shuddered, reaching up to run his hand over his face as he drew in a few labored breaths. “But she never came. She—she’d made her choice, and she never looked back. So I poured what was left of my heart into the congregation—and Bev was there to help.”

“She wasn’t always as cruel and petty as she became,” John said softly, looking down. And then a rueful smile crossed his face and he shook his head. “No, no, I—I have to be honest. I knew what Beverly Keane was—I knew the sins she confessed. And more importantly, the ones that she didn’t recognize as sin. But—but she was there, to help me when I needed it—and I began to lean on her more and more.”

“There—there was some solidarity there,” he admitted, a flash of embarrassment twisting his features. “We—we were both, uh, married to the church, in a way. She—she was company, and not always bad. I pitied her, I suppose. For someone whose influence and presence were notoriously large on Crockett Island, she—she was a small person. Hard-hearted—faster to cast a stone than to forgive, and merciless to anyone who she thought beneath her. She—she took advantage of her position for her own purposes, certainly—but I, uh, I had no one else.”

John blinked several times, swallowing thickly and looking away.

“George Gunning got Millie, and I—I got Beverly Keane.”

There was bitterness on the edge of his voice, but his bowed shoulders and slow cadence spoke of defeat more than anything else.

"As—as the years went by, and I grew older—more frail, and eventually—eventually helpless,” John said, furrowing his brow. “She cared for me. She cared for me when I needed help. As I sank further and further away, into that consuming darkness.”

“I—I was losing little pieces of myself every day,” he said softly, his voice thick with emotion. “And eventually, even my awareness of what was happening was gone—I was—I was frightened and confused all the time. There are—there are entire years that I don’t remember. And I kept—I kept wondering why the woman’s face who kept appearing to me, pushing food into my hands or, uh, guiding me back into the rectory when I wandered out into the cold—why it wasn’t the face of the woman I loved.”

John let out a slow, uneven breath. “Little did I know, Millie—Millie was succumbing to the same oblivion I was slipping into.”

Tig’s chest felt oddly tight, and the sensation unsettled her. She had watched Alzheimer’s take away her grandmother, and she wouldn’t wish it on anyone—not even this infuriating priest. But her mind was working quickly, connecting pieces of his story. He’d said he didn’t age, but he hadn’t said that he’d grown younger. She clenched her jaw—as with every bit of information she’d sifted thus far from his meandering speech, it raised more questions than it answered.

“My daughter Sarah took care of Millie, and Bev took care of me.” He shook his head and gave her a pained smile. “No more than I deserved, I suppose. I—I can still remember the smell of her, after—after the change. Lavender and powder and incense, overwhelming, cloying—all trying and failing to cover the smell of the poison she was so fond of,” he said softly, distantly. “Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.

“I was too absent, and then too ill to protect my congregation from her—from the seeds of cruelty and judgment she sowed in the name of the Lord. And that sin—that sin was compounded when I returned from my trip to the Holy Land. And there is no one to blame but myself for that,” John said. “I knew who she was, what she would do with the slightest bit of power—but once again, I needed her. And I knew she would do whatever I asked—no matter how—how hideous the request.”

He blinked several times as his gaze came back into focus and found Tig—shining trails running down each cheek. His eyes flashed gold, catching and reflecting the low light—a palpable reminder of whatever inhuman thing he had become. “But I’ve kept you long enough today. Thank you.” John gave her a weak smile and looked away, running his hand down his face. He stood slowly and walked over to the kennel, stooping to climb inside. Tig shut it behind him, testing the chains and padlock.

He made the sign of the cross again and bowed his head, murmuring prayers of contrition, and Tig lingered for a moment, watching. He did not ask her for penance—and at least with the kennel moved and the window blocked, he could not burn himself. When she’d passed him his meal for the evening, she turned and walked up the stairs, ignoring the soft huffs of breath from his suppressed tears.

She didn’t see him reach out of the kennel and pour the contents of the bowl down the grate.

“Tig,” John said as she led him to the bathroom, nervously running his fingers through his hair, “I—I wanted to ask a favor.”

She frowned at him, but said nothing as she removed the rest of his restraints.

“I—I’d like a razor,” he said, scratching at the unkempt beard that had grown since she captured him. “Or—or at least the opportunity to use one. The beard, uh, it—”

“No,” she said curtly. “I can’t trust you with anything sharp.”

John blinked at her, crestfallen, but made no further protest as she pushed him into the bathroom, her hand on the small of his back. The hot water of the shower was pleasant as he scrubbed himself—if he was forced to keep the beard, he’d keep it clean, at least. But he hated it—he had always been clean-shaven, until he’d grown too old and frail to groom himself. Finally, after he’d cut himself one too many times, Bev had primly suggested he simply accept it. And he’d acquiesced to her, as he had in so many other matters once the dementia began to set in. It was hard to remember whether he’d lost the will to argue or the capacity to do so first. The darkness—and the fear it brought—had not come all at once, after all. It had crept in slowly, inch by inch, like a ship taking on water—until everything that made him who he was had drowned.

And now every time he touched his face and felt the beard, he was transported back into his old, helpless, dying body. It was just another thing he needed to accept, he supposed—and it was insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Tig was his captor, his keeper—and it was her decision to make, not his. But surrendering his freedom was a small price to pay for what she offered him—safety, security, and most importantly, a steady supply of food that he did not need to kill for. He’d had his autonomy for decades after he left the ruin of Crockett Island, and what good had it done him? He’d become a liar, a murderer, a creature that skulked in the darkness—too cowardly to feed himself until he was starving and the hunger took over.

He never wanted to go back to that, and he was learning control under Tig’s watchful eye.

His stomach growled, a pinch of pain beginning low in his belly from his missed meal. He embraced it, he deserved it.

When he opened the bathroom door, Tig was waiting. He held out his hands and she cuffed them together, then buckled the collar back around his neck. She gave the chain a tug and he followed, frowning in confusion when she led him into the kitchen instead of back downstairs. There was a chair in the middle of the room, and when he sat in it, she secured him.

“What, uh,” he asked, craning his neck to see what she was picking up from the counter.

“Be quiet and hold still,” she said, spreading shaving cream over his face. Relief flooded him, and he stared up at her, grateful that she’d taken pity on him and his obvious disappointment with her earlier refusal. His eyebrows shot upward when she reached into her pocket and removed a straight razor—an antique, judging by the worn elegance of it—and flicked it open.

“I haven’t seen one of those since I was a boy,” John said, immediately forgetting her directive to be silent. “Where did you get it?”

Tig said nothing as she twisted her fingers into his hair and craned his head backward—he obeyed, resting the back of his neck on the smooth wood of the chair. She brought the razor to his cheek—anxiety fluttered in his chest, but the scrape of the blade was pleasant as it moved from his cheekbone down to his jaw. He realized two things as she worked—the razor was perfectly maintained, as sharp and fine as it could be, and it was not the first time she had used one.

“It was my father’s,” she finally said, an uncharacteristic roughness to her voice—the way she slurred her sibilant consonants was especially noticeable. “He used it every day—even let me help him, sometimes. I still remember the smell of his aftershave—menthol and citrus.”

John wanted to ask questions, curiosity burning through him, but she had never shared anything about her personal life, and he dared not interrupt, lest she change her mind.

“When he died,” Tig said, her voice low, “when he died, my mother got rid of everything that was his—anything at all that reminded her of him or my brother. Said it was too morbid, too painful to keep their things around. But I took the razor from his drawer before she could get to it—hid it for years, until I moved out. Kept it sharp.”

Tig wiped the shaving cream from the razor and made another pass—carefully angling and turning the edge over the curves of his chin, then pulling the skin of his cheek taut to shave his upper lip. He held perfectly still as she worked—hyper-aware of the sharpness of the blade and how painful a cut would be. When she’d finished with his face, she tugged on his hair and he obliged, leaning further back to bare his neck to her.

“I’m—I’m sorry about your father, and your brother,” John said softly, glancing up at her inscrutable expression. “I, uh, I know what it’s like—to lose people you love.”

Tig didn’t reply.

He inhaled deeply as the razor scraped over his throat—she couldn’t kill him, if she decided to suddenly drag the cutting edge across his neck and open his jugular vein. But it would certainly hurt. Her bare fingers pulled and pushed his skin, deftly bringing the blade over his Adam’s apple—over the hollow just under his jaw. John shivered, his brow furrowing as he realized just how much control she had over him—and even more alarming, how willing he was to surrender it. But he supposed he had always given himself over to something—first God, then his love for Millie. He was not to be trusted under his own watch, and Tig—she wasn’t kind, she wasn’t forgiving, but she was safe. He was safe with her—safe from himself, safe from hurting others.

She wiped his face off with a towel as he sat back up—and his eyebrows drew together when her hands returned to his face, rubbing something cool and soothing over the freshly shaved skin. It was almost gentle—her thumb trailed down his cheek, and he couldn’t stop himself from leaning into the touch—it had been so long, so long since anyone—

Tig let go, turning away abruptly—her shoulders stiff, movements businesslike as she washed her hands.

“Get up,” she said, unhooking the chain on his collar and giving him a tug.

“Thank you,” John said as he rose to his feet, “I—uh, I—I can’t even tell you how much better I feel. I’ve—I’ve always hated having a beard.”

She didn’t respond, but he hardly expected her to. Tig never acknowledged his gratitude—probably because it would mean admitting that she’d done him a kindness, he thought with a smile. Another pang of hunger seized him and he winced, resisting the urge to clutch his stomach. When he was settled inside the kennel, Tig pressed a bowl of blood into his hands—and it took every ounce of restraint for him not to bring it to his lips. His fingers began to shake, and when he heard the door close, he slowly forced himself to push the bowl back through the bars.

John hissed as his guts twisted, pain flaring into his entire body—his arm was trembling as he held the bowl above the grate. His confession had unearthed things he had avoided thinking about for years—and worse, he couldn’t bring himself to confess his growing desire for her to touch him again. He deserved this pain, he could resist this sinful urge, if not the other. And this was the only safe place for him to repent—the only place he could punish himself.

He turned his wrist, watching in despair as the dark, precious blood drained away into the grate.

Tig frowned at John as he stood in front of the bookshelf, browsing. She was already regretting bringing him into the living room, but he had already finished all the books Father Stevens loaned to him. And he had been cooperative, obedient—so when he’d asked politely to borrow books from her, it had seemed unreasonable to say no. But his posture was slightly hunched—he looked uncomfortable, and she didn’t know whether something was wrong, or whether he was just nervous.

He pulled out a few more books, stacking his choices on a middle shelf—The Magician’s Nephew, The Odyssey, Medea. A low hiss announced Lucy’s entry into the room—the cat hated John, and never missed an opportunity to remind him of it. John glanced over, wide-eyed, but then turned back to the books. Tig kept half an eye on John, but walked over to the couch and picked up her knitting. Lucy jumped up into her lap, fur still bristling, and marched in an uneasy circle before climbing up onto her shoulder. She wasn’t purring—her ears were pointing in the direction of the bookshelf.

“I think this will be good for now,” John said, turning to her with a small stack of books. “So, uh, thanks again.”

He took a few steps in her direction, turning towards the hallway that led downstairs—and there was an explosion of movement as Lucy let out a growl and sprang away from Tig’s shoulder in a careless scramble of white fur and claws.

“Damnit,” Tig hissed, gritting her teeth against the stinging pain across her chest—Lucy had raked her in her desperation to get away from John. Tig glanced down at herself and frowned as lines of blood beaded up over the gouged skin. She turned to John and a chill ran through her limbs, her skin prickling into gooseflesh—he was standing oddly, there was something unrecognizable in his face. Tig slowly reached for her pocket.

John leapt at her, sweeping her from the couch to the floor. Her breath left her in a huff as she landed on the hardwood, stunned—and then he was on top of her.

Tig hissed as she struggled against him—god, he was so much stronger than he looked—she tried to go for her pocket, but one of his large hands seized her arm as he forced her against the floor. He lunged for her throat, teeth bared, and Tig writhed, grunting with effort as she twisted away—unable to reach her neck, he bit into her chest just below her collarbone. Tig gasped as the pain made her muscles seize, her legs fruitlessly kicking beneath his weight.

John moaned against the open wound where her chest met her throat, his hips pinning her down as she tried to roll him off. He closed his mouth on her and Tig cried out in pain as he sucked on the broken flesh—fear animated her, overwhelming the shock enough to wrench her arm out from under him and grope for the syringe in her pocket. Fresh adrenaline shot through her and she fumbled with the syringe cap for what felt like an eternity—the creature atop her still feeding—before she finally dislodged it with her thumb. She sank the needle into his bicep and pressed the plunger halfway, maneuvering her other hand flat against his chest as he gnawed at her. She tried to count to five—to give the sedative time to kick in before she gave more—but she had barely reached three when he made a low sound, biting deeper. “Fuck,” Tig choked out, emptying the syringe into him.

His grip loosened and Tig pushed against him, rolling him off her—he was heavy, his long limbs still entangled around her. John hit the floor with a thud, bloody mouth slack, his dark curls wildly disheveled. She crawled to her feet, her head swimming from shock and fear and adrenaline, and staggered over to the cabinet to dig out the bandages. When she’d flushed the wound and covered it with a large bandage—one glance in the mirror told her she’d need stitches, but she didn’t have the time right now—she stalked back over to where John lay.

He hadn’t moved at all, and she frowned, snatching her stethoscope from the table and dropping to her knees at his side. Tig unbuttoned his cardigan, which was stained and sticky with her blood, and listened to his heart through his thin white undershirt.

She heard nothing.

She frowned, moving the stethoscope around, unease swelling in her chest—no, he couldn’t be, he wasn’t —she couldn’t have killed him. But his body was limp, unmoving—his dark eyes wide, empty, and unseeing.

“Fuck,” Tig said, letting the stethoscope hang and burying her face in her hand. This was her fault, and that knowledge settled in her breast like a millstone, pulling her down with it.

He had just begun to tell her his story. To confess just what he had done decades ago that was more monstrous than what he was—that he was still running from. She would never know what he was, or how he had become like this. The worst part—the part that made bile rise in her throat—was that she knew better than this, she knew better. She should never have let him have his hands free. It was those damned eyes of his—so soft, so full of grief and sorrow. It had been too easy to start thinking of him as a person.

Tig recoiled when his body suddenly lurched—a low, rattling gasp filled the air and John writhed, his back arching as his limbs beat clumsily against the floor. “Jesus Christ,” she hissed, crawling backwards on her hands, desperate to put distance between them as shock raced through her. John’s chest heaved as he began to move—small, choking sounds breaking from him. His feet kicked and jerked, his eyes tracking back and forth wildly as he convulsed—bloodied mouth opening and closing. Tig moved, instincts finally overriding her alarm—she turned him onto his side, tilting his chin up to clear his airway. She could feel his heart hammering wildly beneath her palm, and one of his hands clamped on her forearm, his grip so tight it was nearly painful. Adrenaline filled her again and she tried to extricate herself—the bite on her chest still ached, and she clenched her teeth against the fear—but then his grip loosened, his trembling fingers wrapping around hers.

“I—I don’t know—I didn’t,” John gasped, “what—what happened?”

Tig frowned, her own heart still racing—she didn’t know how to answer, other than to say that he had died. He had been dead, and he came back. But before she could speak, a sob wracked him, followed by a soft, keening wail.

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, “I’m so sorry. Tig, God—please, I didn’t want to, I didn’t—I hurt you, I hurt you, I’m so sorry—”

Tig kept one arm pressed across his chest to keep him restrained, but her other hand moved of its own accord, brushing his damp curls out of his face.

“It’s alright,” Tig said, grimacing as she pulled him halfway into her lap—the dull, throbbing pain of the wound sharpening with the movement. But she was so relieved that he was alive, that she hadn’t killed him—the last of his kind, whatever he was—that she ran her fingers through his hair as he shivered and cried. “It’s alright.”