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Find the Girl

Chapter Text

It turned out Peaches had a real name. Lily-Rose. Not Lily. Not Rose. Lily-Rose. She made sure Seth knew that the moment he had asked her.

“I think I'll stick with Peaches,” he said as they stood in the middle of broken glass and toppled tables inside Jacknife Jed's. Richie was on the other side of the room with his cell phone stuck to his ear, already barking orders down the food chain.

“It's Lily-Rose,” the girl said again, this time more defiantly. Her eyes didn't flash yellow like Seth expected when culebras got pissed; no, this anger came from some human memory.

He held up his hands. “Fine. So, Lily-Rose, do you mind picking up a broom or something? Help out a little.”

“What makes you think I'm staying?” She crossed her arms over her flowy dress, the stance triggering something inside him from his own human memory.

“Oh, you're staying,” Seth said. “Trust me, it's much safer here.”

“Really?” She narrowed her eyes. “Tell me then. Who's Eddie and Kate?”

His hands balled into fists, knuckles still sore and red from hitting Richie earlier. He stalked over to Lily-Rose, and he was glad to see her drop her arms and her feet step back. Her eyes widened with fear. He liked that reaction. He liked knowing she didn't know; that the only thing she did know was that he was some son of a bitch in a suit that had hacked her maker into pieces.

He glared at her. “As of today, I'm your boss, and as your boss, I want you to pick up a fucking broom and sweep this goddamn floor, you got that?”

Frowning, she moved to the wall and picked up the broom as instructed.

Seth shook his head and headed to the bar to pour himself something, anything. Before he could, the front doors swung open as Scott ran inside. He removed his hoodie and scarf that protected him from the sunlight and said, “She's gone.”

Seth glanced at Richie, who had ended his call. Both of them walked over to Scott.

“What happened?” Richie asked.

“Kate,” Scott said, a vacant look on his face. “I went back to the blood well, and her body—she's gone.”

There were those words again: She's gone.

Seth stared at the kid. “What do you mean? She didn't just get up and walk away, did she?” For a second, he thought Kate might still be alive. Maybe Richie had been wrong.

But his brother's stoic expression told him not to get his hopes up.

“I don't know.” Scott rubbed his head. “She was there, and now, she's gone...” His eyes welled up with tears.

Seth sighed and put his hands on his hips. Fuck, not the kind of reaction he wanted to see.

On the other hand, Richie calmly clasped Scott's shoulder. “Hey, it's okay. We'll find her.”

Scott nodded, straightening his back. He sniffed and blinked several times to stop the flow of tears. Back to being the tough guy, not a kid who just lost the last member of his family.

At that moment, it occurred to Seth that he was on the outside looking in. After all, he hadn't been there in Kate's final moments like Scott and Richie had, hadn't been there to watch her draw last breath, hadn't been there to stop her from getting in that car with his brother. She wasn't even supposed to be there.

And why is that? It's because you did this, you bastard. You walked away from her, remember? Told her to go play in the darkness when she wasn't ready.

Seth stormed behind the bar and grabbed the nearest bottle of liquor. Tequila. Good enough. He headed toward the door. His gaze met Lily-Rose's, who was watching everything quietly.

“Where are you going?” Richie asked him.

“Out,” Seth said without looking back.

He stepped into the hot afternoon sun, knowing no one in that fucking bar could follow him.

**

An hour later, Seth was getting a blow job from some blonde in the bathroom of a gas station. With the tequila flowing through his body and a mouth around his cock, he almost felt euphoric. He closed his eyes and tried to shut out the rest of the world, but it was useless.

Uncle Eddie was dead. Richie was a culebra lord. Sonja turned out to be a backstabber. He let 33 mill slip through his fingers by helping the unholy snake queen kill Malvado. And now, Kate's body was missing.

He still hadn't talked to Richie about Kate. How did his brother know about Mexico? How did he know about the drugs?

And just like that, Seth's head was filled with images of Kate's hands stroking his face, his neck. That small smile on her face. Bright, so bright. Her soft voice: “I could never leave you.”

Shuddering, Seth's eyes flew open and he came hard into the blonde's mouth. She moaned and swallowed him up.

“That's a good boy.” Her bleary blue eyes looked up at him from the floor.

“Yeah, thanks.” He tucked himself back into his pants and zipped up.

The blonde rose from her knees and wiped her mouth. She held out her hand, and with an annoyed sigh, said, “That'll be twenty bucks, sweetie.”

“You told me ten in the parking lot.”

“Well, that was before you pushed me into this filthy bathroom and forced me to ruin my stockings.” She gestured to the run in her black leggings.

“Isn't that you want to call an occupational hazard?” Seth said, rolling his eyes.

She frowned. “Just give me my goddamn money, okay?”

As he reached into his pockets for the cash, he noticed the track marks on her skinny arms. It would be so easy to ask her where he could score some smack. Then, with a needle sliding into his skin, he really could shut out the world.

“Look at you. You're a mess.”/Ain't that the truth, princess.

He didn't need to be high to see Kate nodding in agreement at him.

Seth shoved a twenty into the blonde's palm and slipped out of the bathroom.

**

When Seth returned to Jacknife Jed's, the sun was setting. A long ass day finally coming to an end. He expected the bar to be filled truckers standing among the broken tables and bloody floors. Instead, he only found Cristobal wiping down the bar counter top and Lily-Rose sitting at a table with her hands on her lap. At least the place was cleaned-up now.

Seth approached the bar. “Where is everybody?”

“After last night, I don't think we're ready to open yet.”

“Oh, yeah? Who put you in charge?” He glared at Cristobal and smirked when the culebra didn't talk back. “Where's my brother?”

“Taking care of some business.”

Fuck, what was Richard doing behind his back?

“And Scott?” Seth asked.

“Kid passed out on the couch in the office about an hour ago.”

Good. Let him sleep for the next hundred years. He needed it.

Seth turned to Lily-Rose. “What's wrong with her?”

“I'm hungry,” she said, lifting her gaze to him. Her face was pale and her green eyes glassy.

And he knew she wasn't craving a Big Kahuna Burger and milkshake.

Seth turned back to Cristobal and raised his brows.

The culebra shrugged. “Don't look at me. I already ate.”

Seth curled his lips and walked over to Lily-Rose. The girl kept her hands on her lap, but if she was hungry enough, who knew what might happen next?

“So, you probably have a lot of questions—”

“I know,” she cut in. “I'm a vampire now.”

He blinked. “This isn't like that Twilight crap, okay? You see, there are these things called culebras. They're like vampires, but they're snakes, and Carlos—he's the one who bit you—gave you some of his venom.”

Lily-Rose nodded. “Okay, but I still need to feed, don't I?”

Seth sighed and looked back at the bar. Cristobal was gone. Just great. He pulled up a chair next to her. “If you want my honest opinion, I don't think that's a good idea. Once you get a taste of blood, you're going to want more and more until it's all you can think about. You're young and hungry. You don't know how to control yourself yet, so I wouldn't get all excited about feeding.”

She narrowed her eyes. “And what makes you an expert?”

“Ever heard of the Titty Twister?”

She shook her head.

“Case closed.” He rose from his chair.

She jumped up with him. “I'm not an idiot. I know you don't like us.”

“Us?” He cocked his head and put his hands on his hips.

“Us. Vampires. Culebras. Whatever.”

“Listen, Peaches...”

She recoiled at the name. “It's Lily-Rose.”

“Listen, Peaches, this is your new life now. I don't know who you were before last night, but this is who you are now: a bloodsucking snake vampire. And I'm sorry this happened to you. You were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Lily-Rose sank back to her seat. Somehow, she seemed to lose more color in her face.

“Fuck,” Seth muttered under his breath. He returned to his chair too. “That was harsh, I know. I didn't mean—”

“My name is Lily-Rose Chambers. I'm nineteen years old. I was on my way to Austin for a rally. A couple of hundred of us had signed a petition to save the killer whale. We were going to march to the capital.”

Well, that explained the hyphened flower name, and the ridiculous head piece and hippie clothes.

She continued, “I had stayed up all night making my signs and I overslept. I was running late, so I didn't have time to eat. I decided to stop at the first place I saw.” She waved her hand. “This shithole. I stopped here for a quick bite to eat, then you guys showed up. Well, you know what happens next.” Her eyes glistened with tears. “This morning, I was supposed to be at a rally to save the whales. Instead, I was sweeping up glass and mopping up blood. But, I guess I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, right?”

For once, Seth kept his mouth shut.

A pair of headlights washed over them. He watched through the window as Richie turned off the engine to a red corvette and entered the bar.

“Where is everybody?” Richie asked.

“I was wondering the same thing.” Seth walked over to his brother. “Looks like we need a new marketing campaign. Something like 'If you don't die, your next meal is on us.'”

“You're hilarious,” Richie said.

“Where were you anyway?”

“Busy setting up our empire, brother.”

“Our empire, huh? You see, I wasn't sure if you had forgotten that Jacknife Jed's was a two-person deal.”

Richie gave him a slow smile. “Of course not.”

But Seth knew his brother wasn't telling him everything. Sooner or later, he'd get it out of him. He slapped Richie on the back. “Did you eat dinner yet?”

“No, why?”

He pointed to Lily-Rose. “She needs to feed.”

Richie's eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “You sure about that?”

Hell, he wasn't sure about anything anymore.

Seth whistled. “Hey, Peaches.”

With a scowl, Lily-Rose approached them.

“Richie here is gonna take you out to dinner,” Seth said.

She looked at both of them skeptically. “Really?”

Richie opened his mouth, his fangs jutting out from underneath his lips. Lily-Rose smiled at him before doing the same.

Chapter Text

Richie remembered what it was like hunting in the woods. The anticipation. The patience. Knowing he was going to be rewarded with a meal.

He was hunting again, but this time, he wasn't holed up in a shack in the middle of some forest. Under the moonlight, he and Lily-Rose walked through the desert in search of a small animal. A rabbit or a coyote. Anything that was warm-blooded.

“This wasn't what I had in mind for dinner,” Lily-Rose said, stuffing her hands inside the black Jacknife Jed's hoodie she wore over her dress. “I thought you were going to show me how to feed.”

Richie clenched his jaw. “I am.”

“Then, why are we acting like Elmer Fudd looking for Bugs Bunny?”

He found himself smiling. Cute.

He stopped and turned to her. “Look, you've been a culebra for what? Twenty-four hours? You have to work up to feeding on humans. There are certain things you need to know before you sink your fangs into someone's neck.”

“Like?” She batted her eyelashes at him.

“Like when you drain someone, you can assume their physical appearance.”

Her eyes widened. “I can shapeshift?”

“It's more like a glamour.”

“So, if I, like, fed on Drew Barrymore, I could make others think I was her?”

“Yeah, but you would have to meet Drew Barrymore first and—wait, why Drew Barrymore?” Why not someone around her age like Jennifer Lawrence or Taylor Swift?

Lily-Rose stared at him like he had suddenly sprouted a second head. “Ever After is like my favorite movie of all time.”

Richie frowned. This poor girl's taste in movies was dreadful.

“How can you not like her?” Lily-Rose said.

“Well, I do admit she was my favorite Amy Fisher.”

Lily-Rose stared at him blankly. Sure, she could reference a cartoon from the 1950s, but when it came to one of the greatest tabloid stories this century, it went right over her head.

They started walking again in the dark.

“So, who made you?” Lily-Rose asked.

“That depends,” he said, keeping his gaze ahead of him. “If you're talking about my parents, well, my mom took off when I was a kid, and my dad was an abusive SOB who burned alive in a house fire. If you're talking about who turned me, well, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. She was worshiped and adored by many, but she only had eyes for me. She helped me reach my full potential, helped me see my destiny, and made me who I am today.”

“Where is she now?”

“I'm right here, Richard.” For a moment, he thought it was Santanico whispering in his ear, but then the voice changed into someone else from his past. “There's no more love left, Richard.”

“Richie?”

He blinked and realized he had stopped walking.

Lily-Rose looked him over. “Are you all right?”

He rubbed the back of his head and waited, but the voices had subsided. “Yeah, I'm fine.”

“The woman who made you,” Lily-Rose said. “Where is she?”

He glanced up to the moon with a pang in his undead heart. “She's free.” He returned his gaze to Lily-Rose. There was something about her wavy hair, green eyes, and pale skin. Something familiar, but also something waiting to be discovered. The girl studied him with the same interest. It was time to show her that was much more out there in the world than Ever After.

“Come on.” He turned around, heading back to the car.

She followed. “Where are we going?”

“Your first meal shouldn't be some fast food bullshit,” he said. “You're a culebra now. You deserve to eat like one.”

Grinning, Lily-Rose hurried to catch up with him. Her fingers brushed against his hand and he flinched.

“Sorry,” she mumbled.

He touched the spot where she had made contact. It felt like sunlight had hit him.

**

The trucker tasted like a jelly doughnut, full of sugar and corn syrup, something sweet and artificial.

Richie's arm was wrapped around the man's waist from behind as he drank from the neck. The heavy-set trucker groaned in Richie's hold. It only made him sink his fangs deeper into the warm flesh.

Licking her lips, Lily-Rose watched him feed. Her bright yellow eyes flashed. She stepped forward, but Richie held up his free hand and she halted. Not yet, she had to learn patience.

Besides, he was famished. He hadn't fed since Balthazar, and he had worked up an appetite rebuilding an empire. At this point, drinking from this low-life trucker was like eating the finest bloody porterhouse steak in Texas.

He lifted his gaze to Lily-Rose, who continued to watch with hunger on her face. She probably could taste the blood on her tongue already, so why delay it any longer?

Richie extracted his fangs from the man and shoved him to his knees in front of her. Immediately, she dropped to the cement in the parking lot behind the motel. Richie pushed the man's neck to the other side. Bare and smooth, waiting for her bite.

“Drink,” he said. “But don't give him any of your venom.”

“How do I do that?” she asked.

“Pretend he's like a straw. You can drink up as much as you want, but don't let anything go down.”

She nodded and placed her small hands on the man's chest. His eyes rolled to the back of his head as he swayed on his knees from the blood loss. Richie had to keep him steady.

Lily-Rose wrapped her mouth around the man's pulse. He hissed as her fangs pierced his skin, but he was too weak to struggle. Her eyes narrowed as though she was getting used to the taste, but seconds later, she moaned and her eyelids fluttered shut.

Richie wanted to join her in this ecstasy.

Quickly, he fell to his knees and sank his fangs into the man's neck again. Strawberry jelly exploded on his taste buds. Judging by how greedily Lily-Rose drank, she probably tasted the same decadent flavor. Her hand traveled up to meet Richie's, which was resting on the man's shoulder. This time, when her fingers touched his, he latched on.

**

When Richie and Lily-Rose returned to Jacknife Jed's, it was almost midnight. Seth was still up, sitting alone at the bar with a half-empty bottle of tequila and a shot glass.

“How was dinner?” he asked, slurring his words.

Richie and Lily-Rose shared a look, and it was enough to make Seth explode.

“Goddamnit, Richard! I knew it! Who was it? A salesman? A cop? Who?”

Lily-Rose tried to step in, but Richie held her back. “A trucker,” he told Seth.

“Great.” Seth gestured to the empty bar. “It's bad enough that we don't see them coming in here anymore, but do you have to go around eating them too?”

“It was my idea, Seth,” Lily-Rose said.

“That's sweet of you to try and defend him, Peaches, but I seriously doubt that.”

“Hey, I had to.” Richie moved in front of her. “If she's going to stay with us, she has to learn the rules.”

“Okay, how about this? Rule number one.” Seth pointed to him. “Don't trust this asshole.”

Richie jabbed his finger right back at his brother. “Rule number two. Don't lose sight of our agenda.”

“Our agenda? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means we keep our eyes on the prize,” Richie said. “Let the past stay in the past. I mean, look at you, Seth, how much have you had to drink tonight? You gonna start using smack again?”

“You son of bitch.” Seth grabbed Richie and shoved him against a wall. “The only reason I even shot up that shit was because you left me for some creature of the night. Now tell me, who lost sight of the agenda?”

Richie looked Seth right in the eye. “You're just jealous.”

“Fuck, not this bullshit again.” Seth let him go and turned to the bar.

Lily-Rose stood silently on the sidelines. Richie didn't care if she heard everything. This was just the Geckos doing what they did best.

“You're jealous I made something of myself while you were wasted and getting high in Mexico,” he said to Seth's back. “You're jealous I was able to move on without you, but I think the real issue is that you're jealous because I had a real connection with her.”

Seth's shoulders went rigid.

“That's right,” Richie kept going, knowing each word sliced into him. “I saw into Kate's soul, and I saw things. I felt things, things you had no idea she felt. She wanted to help you, but she couldn't save you, Seth. How could she when you didn't even want to be saved? That's why you pushed her away, isn't it? That's why you gave her the car and money and left her behind.”

Seth finally spun back around, his face darkened. “I didn't leave her behind. I did what was best for her by getting the hell out of her life.”

“And look where it led her.”

Richie knew he had struck a nerve when instead of throwing a punch, his brother picked up the tequila bottle and headed out of the room without saying another word. It was all right. In the morning, the only thing Seth would have to remember about tonight would be a bad hangover.

“Richie?” Lily-Rose's small voice echoed in the silence.

He turned to her. There was still some of the trucker's blood on the front of her hoodie.

“Is Kate the one who made you?” she asked.

He opened his mouth, but two answers rested on the tip of his tongue. Yes because she led me to the blood well. No because she led me to the blood well.

“Rule number three, Lily-Rose. Don't ask the boss too many questions.”

Chapter Text

The next day, Lily-Rose woke up with morning breath and the taste of leftover strawberry jelly inside her mouth. She stretched her arms over her head as she lay in the cot in one of the downstairs offices in Jacknife Jed's. Richie had led her into one of the rooms last night. When she said good night to him, he barely nodded at her as he left. So much for bonding.

Now, she wondered how long she had been sleeping and why no one had come to check on her. She frowned, touching the dress she had been wearing for two days now. She needed a long, hot shower and a change of clothes, but those were luxuries she wasn't sure she had access to anymore. She didn't even have her purse or cell phone, those belongings lost in the bloody chaos.

Before she stepped into Jacknife Jed's, her morning routine consisted of waking up at six in the morning in order to get in an hour of yoga and meditation, then she made herself a fruit smoothie to go before heading to the community college, where she was halfway through her sophomore year. Hadn't declared a major yet because what was the rush, right? She thought she had time.

It hit her that she was no longer Lily-Rose Chambers, college student and activist. She was now a vampire—a snake vampire to be more precise.

Seth's words echoed inside her head: “Once you get a taste of blood, you're going to want more and more until it's all you can think about.”

She wasn't hungry now, but she knew in a few more hours, the stomach pains would start. Then, what? Would Richie help her scope out truckers again or was she on her own?

As she looked around the quiet office, she got her answer.

Lily-Rose walked out of the room and into a long, empty hallway. Richie hadn't told anything about what was underneath Jacknife Jed's, but she sensed there was much more to the bar than drinks and barbeque. As she wandered the hall, the air smelled like wet wood chips and her skin buzzed with electricity. There was definitely an energy in this underground lair—a living, breathing energy. During her yoga and meditation exercises, she always felt connected to the earth, felt the pull of nature's energy there, but this was different. It was beyond Mother Nature. Maybe it was her new culebra senses coming into play.

Toward the end of the hall, she heard Richie's voice in one of the rooms. She made sure she was still out of sight as she peeked her head around the corner. Richie sat in a chair behind a large desk while Cristobal listened with his hands behind his back.

“I don't care how you do it,” Richie said. “I want a meeting set-up right away.”

Cristobal dropped his hands.“It's not that simple.”

“Oh, trust me, when she hears my business proposition, she's going to want to jump at the opportunity.” Richie held up a glass flask filled something red. Lily-Rose didn't need to taste it to know it was blood. “Once I start dealing this shit, culebras everywhere will be paying hundreds, maybe even thousands for one drop.”

Lily-Rose narrowed her eyes. What made this blood so special?

“Sir, may I...” Cristobal stepped forward, but Richie held up his hand.

“You don't get anything until you get me this meeting,” Richie told him. He slipped the flask into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “You can go now.”

As Cristobal exited the room, Lily-Rose pressed herself against the wall. He turned in the other direction and ascended up a flight of stairs. She didn't move for moment, not until Richie spoke again.

“I know you're there.”

Damn it. She revealed herself, stepping into the room.

“You know, it's not nice to spy,” he said from behind his desk. Standing in front of him now, the chair seemed to resemble a throne, and with the smug expression on his face, Richie was certainly treating it like one.

“I wasn't—”

He cut her off. “It's not nice to lie either.”

“Fine.” She lowered her gaze. “I'm sorry.”

“Apology accepted. So, how did you sleep?”

She looked back up at him, caught off guard with his question. One moment it sounded like he was going to lecture her, the next he sounded like he cared. “Like a rock. What time is it anyway?”

“After seven.”

“As in PM?”

“It's not surprising,” he said. “You did fall asleep with a full stomach.”

As she thought about strawberries, a faint throbbing started deep in her belly.

“What's in that bottle you were holding?” she asked Richie.

“I thought you weren't spying,” he said with a smirk.

She crossed her arms. “What's in it?”

He rose from his chair and moved to her in two long strides. Towering over her smaller frame, he said, “What did I say about rule number three?”

She caught her reflection in his horn-rimmed glasses. To him, she was just a newborn culebra. A poor girl who had been collateral damage in this vampire war. Like Cristobal, she dropped her arms and shed her defiance. What was the point?

“Right, too many questions,” she said.

Richie looked her over, and there was another energy shift in the room. The throbbing inside her body intensified—but it was from a desire to sink her fangs into Richie's neck and see what he tasted like. The same thought had passed through her mind last night in the desert.

She dug her nails into her palms. “So, am I dismissed?”

He nodded, turning back to his throne. If he had felt the same, he showed no indication.

Lily-Rose hurried out of the room before he could see her flushed face. She climbed up the stairs and entered the main bar. Richie was right about the time; it was after dark outside.

Jacknife Jed's was still in a sad, empty state. Forty-eight hours ago, it was booming with loud music, flowing alcohol, and a packed house. Forty-eight hours ago, she was still human.

She looked down at her dingy dress again. The last reminder of Lily-Rose Chambers, college student and activist.

Through the window, she spotted Seth heading toward a car. She raced out the front door, calling his name.

Still dressed in a black suit, he turned to her, eyes alert and with a bandage over the cut on his forehead. She didn't smell any alcohol on him, which was a good sign.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“For a drive.” He jiggled the car keys in his hands. “I need to clear my head.”

“Can I come?”

In their short time together, she could tell Seth wasn't like his brother. Richie made her feel like she was sitting under a microscope while Seth made her feel—well, she wasn't quite sure yet, but she was comfortable enough to want to tag along with him.

Seth was quiet as he thought about taking her or not. And he gave her a look, similar to the one Richie had just given her, scanning her with his dark eyes, studying her with an intensity she couldn't explain.

She wondered if it had anything to do with this Kate she kept hearing about.

“Well?” she said, lifting her brows.

He answered with a shrug.

Lily-Rose followed him to a black Camaro and got into the passenger's seat. As Seth put the car into drive, she turned to him. “Actually, I have a favor.”

“What kind of favor?” he said with a scowl.

“Do you mind taking me home?”

**

Two hours later, Lily-Rose and Seth stood outside her aunt Barbara's house. A one-story blue building with white shutters and pinwheels planted in the bushes. On the ride here, she had told Seth she lived with her aunt. He listened silently as she ended up telling him about her divorced parents: a father who had pulled a disappearing act when she was eleven and an alcoholic mother who spent the majority of her time in and out of rehab. For someone who believed in peace, love, and harmony, her life was anything but.

“Richie and I had an Uncle Eddie who took care of us,” Seth said to her during the drive. “So, you ain't the only one who had shitty parents.”

“I know. Richie told me.”

Seth's face darkened. “Oh, yeah? Did he tell you about how our old man died?”

“In a house fire.”

His hands tightened around the steering wheel. “Right. The house fire.”

They didn't say anymore the rest of the way.

It was a full moon outside, so Lily-Rose knew Aunt Barbara would be with her women's circle tonight, giving thanks to the goddesses. By the time Lily-Rose and Seth showed up, the lights were out inside the house and her aunt's Volvo was missing from the driveway.

Lily-Rose picked up the WIPE YOUR PAWS welcome mat on the front porch and found the extra house key.

“Don't worry,” she told Seth. “We don't have a dog. It just makes thieves think twice in case they want to break-in.”

Seth scoffed. “That's a new one.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” He gestured to the door. “You going in or what?”

She unlocked the door and entered without turning on the lights. Didn't want to alert the neighbors. They were greeted with the smells of her aunt's vanilla incense sticks. Dreamcatchers and oil paintings covered the living room walls. Her aunt didn't own a television; she didn't believe in filling her mind with that garbage. Instead, her shelves exploded with books by Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. For more than fifteen years, her aunt had worked as a receptionist for a lawyer, but quit two years ago because she wanted a change in her life. It was her aunt who had also introduced her to yoga and meditation, to the concept of mind over matter.

“I'm going to take a shower,” she told Seth, and left him standing in the middle of the dark living room.

In the bathroom, Lily-Rose stripped out of her dress, the one she wore when Carlos bit her, the one she wore when she bit the trucker. Under the stream of hot water, her muscles relaxed. She rubbed her aching shoulders and let out the sob that she had been holding in for two days. She covered her mouth with her hands and leaned against the tiled wall for support, her tears mixing with the water.

This wasn't fair. None of this was fair. Her stomach knotted with anger, then with sadness, then the cycle started all over again.

When her tears stopped and she was hollowed out, she got of the shower, her skin red and raw. She put on a pair of clean jeans and a purple flannel shirt, and returned to the living room, drying her hair with a towel.

Seth was still there, sitting on the couch. He had removed his blazer and laid it on the coffee table next to his revolver. He didn't look up at her.

“I thought you would have left as soon as you heard the shower turn on,” she said.

“I thought about it.” He still wouldn't look at her. Instead, he picked up his gun and flipped open the chamber. He took out one of the wooden bullets, rolling the ammunition in between his fingers.

She swallowed hard. “Is that why you stayed? To take care of some unfinished business?”

He placed the bullet back into its slot. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he closed the chamber and stood, still holding the gun in his left hand. When he finally lifted his blank gaze to her, his tired, dark eyes matched the same dead expression he had right before he hacked a knife into Carlos.

“You ain't unfinished business, Peaches,” Seth said.

“Then, why do you have that gun out?”

“This?” He raised the weapon. “Oh, just a safety precaution in case you got hungry. Are you hungry?” He was prodding her.

Lily-Rose couldn't help but look at the tattoo peeking out from underneath his shirt, licking at the pulse in his neck. And like with Richie, she wondered what Seth tasted like—probably a hell of a lot better than strawberry jelly.

Seth kept the revolver on her. “Hey, eyes up here, sweetheart.” He snapped his fingers and pointed to his face.

She met his hardened gaze. “You're not going to shoot me, Seth.”

“Oh, yeah? How do you know that?”

“Because I'm not going to bite you.” She went back to drying her hair. “Let me grab some things and then we can go.”

After a moment, Seth lowered the gun. She wouldn't let him see it, but she was relieved he hadn't pulled the trigger.

Back in her bedroom, she threw some clothes in a duffel bag and traded her sandals for a pair of black combat boots. She thought about taking the only photo she had of her parents before they got a divorce. She traced her mother's bright green eyes and her father's bearded cheek. Both of them smiled for the camera, evidence that they used to be happy.

Before everything fell apart.

Lily-Rose tossed the photo back into her drawer and picked up her bag. She looked around her room one more time and said good-bye to the girl who used to sleep here.

In the kitchen, she scribbled a note for Aunt Barbara and stuck it on the fridge over the one she left two days ago. Gonna go save the whales. See you in a few days.

Her new note read: I was here. Now, I'm gone. Needed a change in my life. Hope you will understand. Thanks for everything. Love, LR

She added one more thing: Mind over matter, then underlined it three times.

Seth waited for her in the living room, his blazer back on and his gun probably stuck in some hidden holster. He had taken it out for a reason earlier, for her to see it, for her to know that he had it on him.

In case she got hungry.

But this was the second time Seth chose to let her live. That meant something.

“You ready?” Seth asked.

She gave him a small smile. “Are we ever ready for anything?”

“Fair enough.” He opened the front door and waved her through.

Outside, Lily-Rose locked up and slipped the house key back under the rug. As she and Seth drove away, she looked over at him and studied his shadowy outline. She still didn't know how she felt about him, but right now, she was grateful.

“Thanks,” she said.

He flinched at the word before swinging this gaze to her, then back to the road.

She rolled down her window and leaned back in her seat. She was okay with his silence. In fact, she was okay with everything.

Chapter Text

When Lily-Rose and Seth returned to Jacknife Jed's, Richie and Scott were in the middle of a shouting match. She stopped at the door, dropping her bag. Were more tables and chairs going to be thrown? On the other hand, Seth immediately moved in between his brother and Scott. He pushed Richie away from the teen.

“What the hell is going on?” Seth asked them.

“It's been two days,” Scott said, pointing at Richie. “You can't keep me in here forever.”

“Watch me,” he said, fixing an angry glare on Scott.

Seth let out an exasperated sigh. “What's he talking about, Richard?”

“Bruce Lee wants to go and find out what happened to Kate. I told him I already have people working on it.”

Lily-Rose tensed at that name again. The mysterious Kate.

“I'm her brother,” Scott said. “I should be the one out there looking for her. If she's in any kind of trouble...” He let the sentence trail off. Then, his gaze moved to Lily-Rose; a momentary flash of confusion filled his face. “What are you doing back here?”

Good question.

“Because she knows it's a hell of a lot safer in here than out there,” Richie answered for her.

It wasn't exactly true, she thought, remembering how a few hours ago, Seth held up a gun filled with wooden bullets at her. But where else could she go as a two-day-old culebra? The honest truth was her options were limited. She had nowhere else to go

“Richard, can we have a quick business meeting in private, please?” Seth said.

“Actually—”

“Great.” Seth shoved his brother to the other side of the bar, out of earshot.

Lily-Rose picked up her bag and moved to the bar, taking a seat on one of the stools. She could still feel Scott's heavy gaze on her back.

“What?” she said, turning around to him.

“It's just that—when you walked in—I thought—” He tilted his head. “You looked like my sister.”

She lifted her brows.

Then, he added: “I'm adopted.”

Lily-Rose pressed her lips together. She didn't have a response for Scott, and maybe he wasn't even looking for one, but it made her wonder if that's why Richie and Seth tip-toed around her. She reminded them of Kate, this girl they couldn't save. Now, they were trying to redeem themselves by saving her. She almost wanted to laugh. If they thought they were saving her by keeping her as a bloodsucking snake vampire, then that was a funny way to clear their conscience.

Her attention shifted to Seth as he charged toward the door. “You're taking me there!” Richie followed silently, with a frustrated glare. The older Gecko pointed to Lily-Rose and Scott. “You two, stay put until we get back.”

“Where are you going?” Scott asked.

“To the blood well,” Seth said, gesturing to Richie. “Let's go.”

Scott jumped forward. “I'm coming too.”

Seth held him back. “No way, kid. Richie's right. It's better if you stay here.” His gaze moved to Lily-Rose. “Both of you.”

Oh, so now he cared? She crossed her arms in defiance while Scott listened with a scowl.

Once Seth and Richie were gone, Lily-Rose walked around the bar. “I think we both need a drink, don't you?”

“I'm sixteen,” Scott said.

“So what? I'm nineteen.” She poured whiskey in two shot glasses and slid one over to him. “Bottoms up.”

But Scott didn't accept the drink.

With a shrug, she tossed back her shot and stuck out her tongue as the liquor burned her insides. She loved the sensation.

“So, Scott, tell me.” She refilled her glass. “How did you and your sister get mixed up with guys like Seth and Richie?”

He was quiet for a moment. “You really want to know?”

She leaned over the counter. “I really want to know.”

He moved closer to her, picking up his full shot glass. “Okay, but we're going to need more booze.” He slammed back his drink without making an expression and began his story. “It all started when our dad decided to take us to Mexico...”

**

It was cold at the blood well.

Seth surveyed the area, teeth chattering in the frigid Texas night. There was nothing but darkness surrounding him and Richie—in more ways than one. He kicked the dirt making his way up to the wooden platform. He didn't have to ask Richie if this is where it happened; the large dark stain was enough evidence. His stomach twisted as he started to gag. Covering his mouth, he turned away from the stain.

That was all that was left of Kate.

Richie watched him, his face revealing nothing.

Seth curled his hands into fists. “How could you just watch her die?”

“We tried to save her, but she wouldn't let us turn her,” Richie said.

Right, of course. Kate had chosen to stay human until her last breath.

“Did—did she—” Seth covered his mouth again, his voice threatening to crack.

“No,” Richie said. “It was quick.”

“Bullshit.”

Finally, Richie's face flickered with some emotion. His brows knitted and his eyes darkened behind his glasses.

“What do you want me to say, Seth? That she bled out, angry and in pain?”

He glared at his brother. “If that's what happened, then, yeah.”

“Fine, you want all the gory details?” Richie gestured wildly to the dark stain. “After Carlos shot her in the stomach, after the bullets ripped through her body, she collapsed right there, right where you're standing. She didn't die right away, no, not until she had a chance to tell Scott and me how much she hated us, how she had no more love inside her, and get this, do you know what her last words were? 'I hope you burn in hell.' That's right. Katie-cakes was no angel, so why don't you stop treating her like one?”

Rage erupted inside Seth. He responded by punching Richie in the jaw. Richie's head snapped back. Rubbing his cheek, his eyes flashed yellow and his fangs emerged. Growling, he tossed Seth from the platform in one swift motion.

He landed on his back on the hard ground below. He turned to his side, the dirt and gravel digging into the palms of his hands as he picked himself back up.

Then, from the corner of his eye, something white fluttered in the wind..

You don't believe in ghosts, do you?

The white sheet beckoned to him. All of the hot anger boiling inside him dropped to a low simmer. He staggered to the sheet that was caught between a tree and rock and with a hard tug, he pulled it loose. He found another bloody stain.

That was all that was left of Kate.

He threaded the sheet through his fingers as memories of Mexico flooded his mind. That first night after he and Kate drove away from the Twister. How he listened to hear cry from the other side of the locked bathroom door as she let the shower run. That first time she took the syringe from his trembling grip and placed her warm, small hands on his neck to help find a vein. That first smile she gave him after she dared him to eat an entire jalapeno pepper—and that first laugh when he broke out into a sweat and had to down three beers before he could feel his tongue again. That first fight after he knocked over a gas station and nearly got shot. Then, that first apology he muttered as he promised her he'd be more careful. That first job they pulled together as partners—before it all went to shit.

He and Kate experienced many firsts during those three months, but they only shared one last.

That last time they saw each other. In the dark on the side of the road.

Seth tightened his hold on the sheet before it could slip through his fingers. He should have done the same with Kate.

Richie's distant, muffled voice broke through his thoughts. “Kate showed me the blood well's location, and because of her, Malvado's empire is ours. Her death wasn't in vain.”

Seth looked up at his brother, unable to process what Richie was saying. Kate was dead, and all Richie seemed to focus on was that her death had served a purpose—his purpose. Seth remembered what Richie had done to that bank teller, how he had carved her up and removed her eyes.

“This isn't who you are,” he had told Richie.

He wanted to say it again, but as he held the sheet covered in Kate's blood, he wasn't so sure anymore.

“Did you do something to her, Richard?” Seth asked. “After you got rid of Carlos, did you come back here?”

Richie's eyes narrowed. “No, I didn't come back here. I—” His posture suddenly changed as he straightened his back and moved his gaze behind Seth.

Seth turned to find a black SUV driving up to them. He dropped the sheet to grab his gun under his blazer.

Once the SUV parked, a dark-haired man stepped out from the driver's seat. His leather attire and black goatee told Seth he was just muscle. It wasn't until the passenger's door opened Seth raised his weapon. The driver didn't waste anytime flashing his culebra eyes and fangs.

“It's all right, Manuel.” A young woman stepped out and moved to the front of the vehicle. Her black hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail showing off her dark eyes and long lashes. Her cool gaze scanned both Seth and Richie. With a smirk, she crossed her arms over her leather jacket. “It's a pleasure to finally meet the infamous Gecko brothers.”

“Who the hell are you?” Seth asked, his gun still drawn.

She chuckled. “You must be Seth.” She nodded at Richie. “Hello, Richard. My name is Lorena. My lord sends her regards.”

“Your what?” Seth dropped the gun to his side and turned back to Richie. What happened to Jacknife Jed's being a Gecko brothers operation? “Care to explain what's going on?”

“I'm setting up our future,” Richie said.

“Yes, our future.” Lorena moved to stand in between Seth and Richie. “You see, Malvado was about the old ways, following the flesh. He was wrong. The real power lies inside the flesh; it's the blood that will bring us to victory.” She gestured to the platform Richie stood on. “When we heard the news from Cristobal, we had to come and see the well for ourselves. Is it true you have the last of the blood?”

“It is.” Richie kept his voice flat.

It was all business for him—business that Seth had no idea he was conducting, but Seth was quick to catch on. They planned on selling the blood, turn Jacknife Jed's into a front for a new business, from a flesh trade to a drug trade. Fuck all of this. Seth was two seconds away from pumping his wooden bullets into Lorena and and her driver when five more culebra bodyguards appeared. Two of them grabbed Richie on the platform. The other three joined Manuel on the ground and circled Seth. He raised his gun at them, but lowered it again when he saw the pointy end of a wooden stake hovering over Richie's chest.

“Terrific,” he muttered.

“We had an arrangement,” Richie said to Lorena, even though her thugs had both of his arms wrapped around his back and a stake on him.

“I understand, and my lord does what to hear more about your proposition, but it has to be on her terms,” she said.

“And what are those terms exactly?” Richie asked.

Seth stared at him. “Seriously?” The Geckos never negotiated.

Richie glanced at the stake inches away from his heart. It didn't look like he had a choice, did he?

“She wants her cut to be eighty percent,” Lorena said.

Richie scoffed. “Try twenty.”

Lorena nodded at the thug holding the stake.

“Hold on!” Seth raised his hands. “You kill Richie, you don't get your precious blood.”

“You mean this?” The other thug on the platform reached inside Richie's blazer and pulled out a glass flask tinted red from the swirling blood.

Seth shook his head. Damn it, Richie. He couldn't trust the merchandise to be anywhere but on him.

“You can thank Cristobal for that too,” Lorena said.

Richie dropped his chin, his jaw clenching and his lips forming a tight line. Seth knew his brother was about to lose his calm, professional composure any moment now.

“The blood is yours, Richard,” Lorena continued. “My lord understands this is your operation, and she will provide the resources you need in order to carry it out; the only thing she requests is that eighty percent.”

Yeah, right, Seth thought. Once they agreed, another request would be made, then another, and another until he and Richie were left doing all the dirty work again, just like with those damn bonds.

Seth raised his gun at her. “Twenty percent, and that's our final offer.”

Her guards stepped forward, ready for his next move.

But it was Richie who sprang into action as he freed himself from his captors. He grabbed the flask from the thug, then placed his left palm on the forehead of the one holding the stake.

Manuel and his other culebra buddies advanced toward Seth. He fired his gun, turning two to dust right away. Before he could shoot again, Manuel's boot kicked him right in the gut. As he hunched over in pain, Manuel slammed a fist to his face, filling his mouth with blood. Spitting it out, he saw the white sheet again.

“I didn't leave her behind. I did what was best for her by getting the hell out of her life.”

“And look where it led her.”

Look where it led all of them.

Seth mustered all the energy he had left and stood back up, ignoring the throbbing in his face. He shot at Manuel's other colleague. More dust. As Manuel charged at him, the thug with the stake appeared. Instead of ganging up on Seth, he thrust the piece of wood into Manuel's chest. Manuel's disintegrating, shocked expression matched how Seth felt.

What the hell was happening?

He got his answer when Richie jumped down from the platform and sauntered over to the guard still holding the stake.

“Richie— ”

“It's fine.” Richie lifted his left palm again, this time, revealing a protruding eyeball right in the center of his hand. He placed it on the thug's forehead. “Why don't you go do the same thing to Miss Lorena over there?” As soon as he removed his hand, the thug turned to her. She stood, frozen in place.

Seth watched in amazement as the guard, with his glazed-over snake eyes, moved to Lorena like some kind of programmed robot.

As the guard prepared to plunge the stake into her, she let out a protest. “Wait.”

Richie grabbed the guard's arm, holding him back like he was on a leash. The guard tried to wrestle free in order to finish his task.

“I'm sure my lord would be willing to sit down with you,” Lorena said.

“With us,” Richie corrected her.

Seth met his steady gaze. Jacknife Jed's was still a Geckos operation after all.

“Of course.” Lorena licked her lips. “And I'm sure twenty percent won't be an issue.”

“You positive about that?” Seth asked, brows lifted.

Lorena nodded. “After I report to her what I witnessed tonight, she will be impressed. She's going to take your dedication more seriously, and that will mean more to her than eighty percent when she finds out you're willing to put one hundred percent of yourself into building your empire.”

Seth waited for Richie; even he didn't know how her brother would respond. But Richie seemed pleased with her answer, pleased enough to place his left hand, eyeball first, on the guard's forehead again.

“Forget what I said,” Richie told him. “Take Lorena to meet with her lord and make sure she keeps her word.” He released the guard, who blinked several times before lowering the stake. The guard looked around the group with a dazed expression.

“We'll be in touch,” Lorena said as she and the remaining guard headed to the SUV.

Seth and Richie watched them drive away. Once they were gone, it was quiet again. Too quiet.

“You're pissed,” Richie said, breaking the silence.

Seth rubbed his aching jaw and placed his gun back in its holster. “Let's just get the hell out of here.”

But Richie wouldn't drop it. “I was going to tell you everything.”

“You mean your crazy scheme about selling blood to other culebras? Or how you arranged a deal behind my back with another dark underworld lord? What about that fucking eye in your hand, Richard, huh?”

Richie's face softened. “I can explain...”

Seth waved him off. “You know what? Save it. I've had enough for tonight.”

Richie returned to the Camaro, frowning and with his shoulders slumped.

Seth didn't follow right away. He put his hands on his waist and took in a breath. Despite Uncle Eddie's dying wish, it was always going to be like this with Richie. One step forward, two steps back. But he had to try to fix things, right?

And he knew exactly where to start. He picked up the white sheet before getting back inside the car.

“What are you going to do with that?” Richie asked from the passenger's seat.

Seth tossed the last thing that had touched Kate into the backseat. “Burn it.” As he revved up the engine, he turned to Richie and asked, “What about you? You got everything you need?”

He patted the inside pocket over his heart. “Right here.”

“Good.” Seth put the car into reverse, pulling away from the blood well. “By the way, first order of business when we get back, we fire Cristobal, and by fire, I mean, fire.”

“I agree.” A small smile crept on Richie's lips. “Does that mean we're okay, brother?”

Seth sighed. “We're okay.”

For now.

He pushed down on the gas pedal, leaving the blood well behind in the rearview mirror.

Chapter Text

It took a month for Jacknife Jed's to come back from the dead.

There was hardly a smudge on the new windows or a speck of dirt on the floor when the doors officially reopened as a Gecko brothers operation. Their customers included a steady flow of truckers, tired and hungry from the road, and every now and then, a culebra arrived for a business appointment.

That's when Lily-Rose would lead the culebra to a vacant back booth, let him know Richie and Seth would be right with him, and take his drink order—she did all of this with the sweetest smile on her face, even when the culebra's gaze moved over her chest and dropped to her bare legs. One wrong move from the creep and she knew Richie and Seth would come storming in.

She felt like she was working for some kind of culebra mafia: a secret society, where keeping your mouth shut meant keeping your life. She didn't ask Richie and Seth where the sudden influx of cash had come from. When she noticed Cristobal suddenly went missing, she didn't ask what had happened either.

The only thing Richie and Seth requested from her every night was to put on a jean skirt and get food and drink orders from customers. She didn't mind; they gave her a roof over her head, money, protection, and most importantly, they let her feed.

Underneath the loud rockabilly music and stomping from the dance floor, Lily-Rose sank to her knees in Richie's office, her mouth on a man's pale neck. She didn't know his name or why he was with Richie; again, the fewer questions, the better. The man wore an off-the-rack brown suit with mustard stains on his white shirt collar. His dark bead scratched against her cheek as she drank from him, each drop making her toes curl inside her cowboy boots.

“Hey, slow down.” Richie sat behind his desk, filling out paper work. His eyes peered over at her through his glasses. “You don't want to get a stomach ache.”

Lily-Rose pulled away from the man's neck. He moaned, swaying on his knees. Even though he weighed twice her size, she used her newfound culebra strength to stop him from falling over.

“Aren't you going to have any?” she asked Richie.

“Already ate.” He returned to the papers, moving his pen from left to right as he signed invoices or whatever the crap he was doing.

She shrugged and sank her fangs into the man's flesh again. He hissed as she continued her meal. After that first trucker a month ago, it had taken her three more times before she learned to control herself. She could always rely on Richie's hand gently touching her arm to tell her she had enough. Tonight, she fed alone without his aid, her hand moving up the man's shirt with nothing to grasp.

Once Lily-Rose was done, she released the man, this time, letting him fall over like a crumbling sand castle tower.

“Is he still alive?” Richie asked without looking up.

The man's eyes were closed, but she could hear his raspy breathing as his chest fell and rose erratically.

“I think so.” She stood, adjusting the front of her jean skirt. “What do you mean you already ate?”

“I had a meeting with an associate. I grabbed a bite to eat on the way here.” He put down his pen and leaned back in his chair, his gaze fixed on her. “Anything else you'd like to know?”

Sometimes Richie stared at her like he could see right into her. It wasn't the first time she felt this way. Scott had filled her in on the stories about Richie's visions, and once she overheard Richie and Seth arguing about his culebra powers.

“Eyes find eyes, Seth.”

And right now, those eyes were focused on her.

“We used to feed together,” she said without looking away. “Now I hardly see you unless I'm fetching you drinks upstairs.”

“Lily-Rose, you know I can't eat every meal with you. As you can see, I've been very busy. Running this business—”

“—is a 24/7 job, I know,” she finished for him.

She'd heard all the excuses, ever since he and Seth returned from the blood well. After that night, she moved into a big house with Richie, Seth, and Scott, but half of the time, she was there alone. Nothing but her thoughts to keep her company. She missed her aunt Barbara's voice; she missed her friends from yoga; and most of all, she missed taking long walks under the warm sun. She lowered her head and noticed the man's blood on the knuckles of her right hand.

“Hey.” Richie softened his voice. “Do you want to know what my meeting was about?” He reached into a manila envelope and pulled out a laminated card. “Here.”

She took the card from him. It was a new Texas driver's license—for her. The only thing true on the identification was the image of her face (a Photoshopped version from the original), her gender, her height, and her eye color. Everything else was a lie, including her address, her age, and her name.

“Rose Barrymore from San Antonio,” she read. “According to my new birthday, I'm 22 years old.” She studied the license again. Was this really her? Was this someone she even wanted to be?

Richie moved from behind the desk until he loomed over her, but she kept her attention on the license. “Why Rose?” she asked.

He took her right hand, his cold touch sending a welcome shiver through her body. “Roses are red, violets are blue...”

When she looked up at him, he was staring into her again.

Eyes find eyes.

“Sugar is sweet, and so are you.” Then, he lifted her knuckles to his open mouth. He pressed his tongue there on the man's blood, licking the red from her skin until there was nothing left but a wet trail. His eyes lit up in yellow sparks. “Is that Tabasco I taste?” He licked his lips again.

Another kind of hunger gnawed inside her stomach. “Yeah, I tasted it too.”

With a small smile, Richie glanced at the fallen man. “Do you want some more?”

“I thought you already ate.”

“Not with you.” His small smile turned into a mouthful of fangs.

Lily-Rose smiled back. When she was alone in that house, she found herself missing moments like this the most. She may never hear her aunt's voice again or feel the sun on her face, but as she pocketed her new identity—the one Richie created for her—the same feelings of being safe, accepted, and wanted washed over her.

As they made their way toward their second helping, she kept her hand inside Richie's.

Chapter Text

At the end of the night, Richie told Seth to take Lily-Rose home. He always made sure he was the last one out the door. He walked around the silent bar, making sure everything was spotless and in order. Floors were swept, dishes washed, glasses cleaned, alcohol stored behind the bar for the next day. He even checked the cleaning list in both the woman's and man's bathroom to make sure the employees were leaving their initials at every hour as instructed.

He circled the quiet dance floor and paused at the spot where the Kansas City way had been performed on Carlos.

Getting rid of Carlos and Malvado had just been the beginning. Patience was still key. It might take years, decades—and for the remaining nine lords, he knew it had taken them centuries to create their empires. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Richie understood that, but Seth was still a thief looking for his next fast cash grab. Richie's plans required more thought; every move hung on a delicate piece of string. And he wanted to be the one pulling them.

The front doors opened, and Scott entered with dirt and dust covering his black attire. His swords strapped to his back.

“Any problems?” Richie asked.

“Nope.”

“Good.” Richie reached for this wallet and took out a hundred, handing it to Scott.

The kid frowned. “I don't want your money.”

“Suit yourself.” He stuffed the bill back into its place and walked past him toward the door.

Although Scott was technically Cristobal's replacement, the younger culebra was nothing like his predecessor. Instead of looking for handouts, all he seemed to care about was just doing his job.

“I knew that guy,” Scott said.

Richie turned around “What?”

“The guy we just buried in the desert. The guy you and Lily-Rose ate. He used to come by the Titty Twister to meet Narciso.”

“Well, Scott,” Richie folded his hands in front of himself, “when you become a new owner of an establishment like Jacknife Jed's, you tend to take on some debt, and Malvado had some that needed to be repaid. So that guy who you just buried, that guy Lily-Rose and I ate, well, that's just me getting rid of some debt. Do you have any problems with that?”

Scott didn't blink. “Nope.”

“Good.” Instead of reaching for his wallet this time, Richie tuned back to the front door, ready to turn off the lights and end a long day.

“What about the debt you owe Kate?”

He froze at Scott's question.

“What about the fact that a month has passed and we still don't know where she is?” Scott continued.

Richie turned back to him, hands clenched at this sides. “I told you, I have people working on it.”

“Yeah? Well, they suck.”

Normally, a response like that would result in a fist flying into someone's face. But Richie had to remind himself Scott was still a kid; a hurt, angry kid who could also turn into a culebra and stab you with his sword, but still a kid. He recalled the flashes from Kate's memories, shared during the blood bond. The same pain and confusion she felt toward her brother washed over him.

He stepped toward Scott. “Don't you think I want to know what happened to Kate? I'm trying my best here.”

“Then, let me try too,” Scott said, his dark eyes pleading.

“True love is loving the unlovable.”

Kate's voice appeared in Richie's mind as another shared memory resurrected itself. Kate had risked her life to save her brother; Scott might not understand it, but keeping him alive and safe was also a part of repaying that debt Richie owed Kate. Even if that meant not letting Scott out of his sight.

Richie shook his head. “Sorry, kid, can't do that. You have to stay put.”

“But—”

Richie's phone buzzed in his pocket. He held up a finger to silence Scott and took out his phone to find a text from Lorena: Meet me at the warehouse NOW.

“I have to go.” He continued to the door.

“I'm not done.” Scott stormed after him, grabbing his shoulder.

Richie spun around, knocking Scott's hand off him. “Understand this.” He jabbed a finger at Scott's chest. “You work for me. When I say I have people looking for Kate, it means I have people looking for Kate. And when I say stay put, it means you're going to fucking stay put.” He adjusted the cuff of his shirt. “Now, the only place you're going tonight is straight home, you got that?”

Scott didn't lower his angry gaze, but he moved to the door without anymore protest.

“And if you see Seth,” Richie said, “tell him I'm working some overtime.”

**

As Seth and Lily-Rose returned home, he recalled how she and Scott had sulked that first night, upset at the fact they were being forced to live with him and Richie. The only good thing about a big house was everyone had their own space. Scott kept to himself behind his locked bedroom door, and when it came to Lily-Rose, well, Seth made sure to stay on his side of the house.

The big house sat on top of a hill like some kind of Dracula's castle shit. There was a ten-foot tall gate at the entrance and a long driveway led to the mansion. The place had six bedrooms, each with its own private bathroom. There was a kitchen made for a master chef, but for them, it was only used to heat up leftovers from Jed's and to stock beer. A living room with empty bookshelves and a cold fireplace. Large windows with heavy curtains to block out the sun. And at least a dozen culebra bodyguards on patrol outside.

“Our home,” Richie said the day they all moved in together.

After years of moving from town to town, hotel to motel, and then the five locked up in a prison cell, Seth didn't mind going along with his brother's fantasy.

“Do you want a beer?” Lily-Rose asked as they stood at the bottom of the staircase.

He tilted his head. Usually after coming home from work, she would say a quick “Good night,” then disappear up the stairs into her room.

“You're in a good mood,” he said, taking off his black blazer and placing it on the banister.

She smiled and handed him a small card. A new driver's license. Rose Barrymore from San Antonio, age 22. Nice work. It looked like the real thing. He gave the license back to her.

“Richie got it for me.” She made it sound like he had given her a diamond ring.

“Listen, Peaches,” he sighed, “I don't know what's going on between you and my brother, but be careful.”

Her smile faded. “That's funny coming from you.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” she muttered, heading up the stairs.

He grabbed her arm, digging his fingers into her skin.

She glared at him, and for a second, he thought she might fang out. He could still make it to the wooden stake he had hidden inside his blazer, but her eyes didn't turn yellow and her lips stayed closed. Slowly, he released his grip on her.

Then, in a soft voice, Lily-Rose said, “It's not Richie I'm worried about, Seth.”

“That may be true,” he said. “But there are things about me and Richie you don't know about.”

“Abilene? Kidnapping the Fullers? Malvado? The blood well? This new empire you guys are building at Jed's?” Lily-Rose crossed her arms. “Am I missing anything?”

He narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, what about that time we hacked up Carlos into pieces? You remember Carlos, don't you?”

She didn't miss a beat. “Of course, and I know it probably makes you sick that he still lives on inside me.” She dropped her arms, exposing her open chest for him. “Well, go ahead. Stake me if it's going to make you feel better.”

With her dare lingering in between them, they didn't break eye contact. Not until Seth realized Lily-Rose didn't just remind him of Carlos; she also reminded him of Kate. Every fucking day he thought about her (Where was she? Who was she with? Why had he walked away from her?) and every fucking day he saw Lily-Rose, he wished it was Kate he had saved.

“It won't,” he said, picking up his blazer with the unused stake inside. “Killing you won't make me feel better.”

Picking up his heavy feet, Seth started to climb up the stairs when Scott entered the house, alone.

Where the hell was Richie?

**

There was blood everywhere.

Through the glass window, Richie observed the four figures in yellow hazmat suits inside the room removing what remained of the dead culebras: decapitated heads, severed limps, broken bones.

And blood. Lots of blood.

“What happened?” he asked Lorena.

Standing to next to him, she kept a stoic face. “The same thing that happened last time.”

Richie's jaw clenched. Two weeks ago, they tried this same little experiment. Put six culebras high on Santa Sangre into a room and see what happened—and apparently, the result was to always tear each other apart. How was he ever going sell the drug if this kept happening?

“Where's Galloway?” Richie said.

“Trying to solve this mess.”

“Well, tell him I want to see him.”

Lorena let out an exasperated sigh, but left to find the doctor.

Richie kept his gaze on the chaos in the room. Again, he reminded himself: patience was key. So what if their first two experiments had failed? They would keep on working until a formula was perfected.

“It can never be perfect, Richie, because the blood's not pure.”

Kate.

Not only could he hear her voice, but he could see her too. She stood on the other side of the window, in the middle of torn limbs and pools of splattered blood, dressed in the same black clothes she wore the night she died. She even wore bullet holes in her stomach.

His left hand touched the cool glass, but the mirage didn't vanish.

“This is what happens when you put out a shitty product. What makes you think you can build an empire of blood, huh? I mean, look at this." Kate gestured to the piles of culebra body parts. “You're a mess.”

Richie lowered his head, shaking it in denial. No, he wasn't. He had everything under control. Look at how far he'd come in just a month. When he looked up, Kate was standing right in front of him through the glass. She was so close, so real, so alive.

But, it was impossible, wasn't it?

With a small smile, Kate lifted her right hand and placed it palm to palm against his on the glass. She still had the cut there, the one that had allowed him to see into her soul.

“What do you see, Richie?” she asked.

Last time, he had seen plenty. This time, he wasn't sure if he was ready to see inside this Kate. The only thing he could do was whisper her name as a dull ache bloomed inside his chest.

“What do you see?” Kate asked again.

He lifted his palm from the window to find a green eye staring at him, inside of him. Quickly, he hid the hand behind his back.

“Richie.” Lorena approached him with the silver-haired doctor.

His gaze returned to Kate, but she was gone. For now. He checked his left palm. No green eye.

“Are you all right?” Lorena asked.

She and Galloway looked at him like he was having a breakdown. Kate was wrong; he wasn't a mess. He was the boss.

“No, I'm not!” He pointed an angry finger at the doctor. “How the hell did this happen again?”

“We're trying as best as we can, Mr. Gecko,” Galloway said. “We didn't have much of the original blood to work with, so if you want to create mass quantities of a limited source, there are going to be some hiccups.”

“You call this a hiccup?” Richie said, moving toward the man. “Culebras killing each other with their bare hands?”

Galloway stepped back, his voice trembling. “Perhaps if we tried another way. Instead of injecting them with the blood through a needle, we can try a pill formula. Fill in some of the missing ingredients with ecstasy or cocaine.”

The Santa Sangre would no longer be pure. That's what Kate was trying to tell him. That's what he was doing wrong.

“No.” Richie glared at Galloway. “You keep doing it the same way, but next time, I want different results, the correct results.”

“But, Mr. Gecko—”

He growled and flashed his yellow eyes. “You heard me.”

“Of course, whatever you say.” With that, the doctor turned and hurried down the corridor.

Lorena stared at Richie, wide-eyed.

He ignored her expression and gestured in annoyance at Galloway's retreating back. “How much are we paying this guy again? This is ridiculous.”

“What's ridiculous is how you're running this business. Are you forgetting the money and resources my lord has given you free of charge? You promised her a new empire, Richie. So far, you and your brother haven't delivered anything.”

Richie clenched his jaw. He was going to make this work. No matter what, he was going to make all of this work.

“Now, if you excuse me, I have to meet with my lord and give her an update on how little progress you're making.” As Lorena walked away, each click of her heels jabbed the middle of his pounding forehead.

When his cell phone rang from inside his pocket, he thought it was Seth calling to check on his whereabouts, and he was not in the mood to argue with him. But then he saw the number on the screen.

“Santanico,” he greeted the caller.

“Hello, Richard.” Her soft, velvety voice melted away all his anxieties. “Is this a good time?”

“Actually, you picked the best time to call.” He headed toward the warehouse's exit. “How's Sin City treating you?”

“Have you heard of a singer named Celine Dion?”

“Have I? Titanic? 'My Heart Will Go On?' That's some good stuff. Why? Did you go see her show?”

“I did, and if I believed in angels, she would have the voice of one,” Santanico said. “What about Britney Spears? Have you heard of her?”

Richie frowned. “Skip it. You're much better off checking out a Cirque du Soleil show.” He walked through the parking lot, rummaging through his pockets for his car keys. “I'm glad you called and that you're doing well, but I hope you have some good news for me.”

“I do.”

Finally, after a month of following dead end leads, some answers on Kate's location. See? He was making progress on something after all. He settled inside the Corvette, waiting for the voice at his ear to continue.

“There's a man named Ariza, a follower of Oculto, who knew about the blood well,” Santanico said. “He may have more information.”

But all Richie heard was, “He may have Kate.”

“Where can I find him?” he asked Santanico.

Chapter Text

Seth's favorite room in the house wasn't even a room: it was the outdoor patio that faced the backyard. This was where he spent his time when he couldn't sleep—and over this past month, between losing Uncle Eddie and Kate and becoming a business partner with a culebra lord, he spent many hours staring up into the black sky with a six-pack of beer at his feet.

Tonight wasn't any different. After his little spat with Lily-Rose, he had to find out from Scott that Richie was working “overtime,” which meant his brother was doing something behind his back. Whatever it was, Seth knew it was no good.

Twenty minutes before sunrise and as Seth finished his last can of beer, Richie strolled through the french doors to join him on the patio.

“Where the hell have you been?” Seth didn't care if his words slurred or that he had to lean back against the stone railing to keep his balance.

“Watch it, Seth. I think I see a little beer belly growing here.” Richie poked a finger into Seth's stomach.

He swatted Richie's hand away. “Go fuck yourself.” Then, he burped and the entire threat lost all meaning. He groaned and leaned over the railing. If he had to puke into the bushes down below, it wouldn't be the first time.

Richie moved next to him. “So, I got a call from Santanico—”

“Oh, your ex-snake lover?” A bitter taste formed in his mouth and he knew it wasn't from the beer. “So, was it like an actual phone call? Or like a stabbing in your forehead kind of call?”

Richie's face darkened. “You know, you shouldn't about her like that. Do I have to remind you that she helped us kill Malvado and Carlos? She's not the enemy, Seth.”

“Yeah, yeah, you set her free, and now she's probably out there taking advantage of some other dumbass. Let me tell you something, Richie. If it wasn’t for her, we'd be in El Rey right now with our money. People like Uncle Eddie and Kate...” He paused as a sob tickled the back of his throat. “...they'd be alive.” He pointed a rigid finger at his brother. “Whatever your snake bitch has to say, she can—”

“She found Kate.”

Richie's words punched Seth in the gut. Now he really did want to throw up.

She. Found. Kate.

“Yeah, that's right. While you're out here getting shitfaced night after night, Santanico has been looking for Kate. That is what she's been doing for the past month,” Richie continued calmly. “I told you, Seth, she's not the enemy.”

Seth swallowed something sour. “Where is she? Kate? Where is she?” Even though everything inside him was screaming, his voice was barely above a whisper.

Meanwhile, Richie's face remained cool and collected. “I think she's with a man named Ariza. Santanico says he's a follower of Oculto.”

The lord of stories and Malvado's brother. Scott had filled them in on the lord responsible for the blood well. Seth figured with the lord's demise and the empty well, that would be the end of Oculto, but if Santanico had people who still worshiped her, then why wouldn’t there be followers of Oculto still hanging around? The question now was what did they want with Kate?

“Are you positive she's with him?” Seth asked.

He didn't want to hope for something hopeless. Not after El Rey. Not after the Twister. Not after those three months with Kate and without his brother. And especially not after this last botched job they were supposed to do in Uncle Eddie's memory.

Richie shrugged. “Only way to find out is to go to New Mexico.”

Seth wanted to laugh. Mexico. Didn't matter if it was new or old. He couldn't leave that damn place behind him.

Soft pink streams appeared near the dark horizon.

“You should probably get inside,” Seth told Richie.

“What about Scott?” his brother asked.

“What about him?”

“He got in my face earlier, saying we weren't doing enough to find Kate. If we tell him—”

“No.” Seth shook his head. “We don't tell him anything. Not yet. The last thing we need is that kid running to New Mexico on a suicide mission.”

Richie cracked a smile. “But isn't that what you're already planning to do yourself?”

Was this his brother's creepy eye power looking inside his soul or something?

“Whatever.” He shoved Richie toward the door. “Get inside before you turn into a pile of ash.”

“Fine, fine.” Richie adjusted his glasses and headed into the house.

“Hey, Richie,” Seth said.

He turned back. “Yeah?”

“Is that all you were doing tonight?” Seth asked. “Catching up with Santanico?”

Richie's blank expression didn't change. “Yeah, that's all.” With that, he disappeared into the dark house.

Seth knew his brother was lying, but he'd get to that later. Right now, he had to figure out how to find this Ariza.

One of the perks of living in a house full of culebras was getting to watch the sunrise in peace and quiet. He flashed to the moment in the motel, the day after he left Kate with the car and money, the day he shot up with so much heroin just so he could go numb.

“I could never leave you.”

It had been a hallucination, but Kate's hands on his face felt as warm as the sunlight touching his cheek now. He straightened his back, kept his gaze on the horizon, and waited for light to fill the sky.

Maybe there was some hope after all.

**

“Hiya, sweetie.”

Lily-Rose forced a smile at the trucker. He was at least twenty years older than her with greasy black hair and a matching mustache. A blanket of dark chest hair peeked out from underneath his red flannel shirt.

“What's your name?” He reached under the booth and rubbed his package through his jeans. Then, he winked at her and said, “I'm Hank as in hanky panky.”

She wanted to hurl. Instead, she kept the smile on her face and focused on her notepad and pen. “What can I get you, Hank?”

He scanned the menu and said, “How about a bacon cheeseburger, fries, Coke...and you in the back of my truck in ten minutes?”

Like she didn't hear this kind of stuff at least once a night at Jed's.

She jotted down his food order. “Bacon cheeseburger, fries, Coke. Coming right up.”

“And don't forget you, sweetie,” Hank added, looking her up and down. “You can be my dessert.”

“I'm sorry, but I'm not on the menu.” She walked away, rolling her eyes.

Saturday nights always brought out the worst kind of scum. But as long as the seats were filled, that's all that mattered to Richie and Seth. Lily-Rose maneuvered through the crowded dance floor, the band's loud rock music pounding at the base of her skull. She put in Hanky Panky's order and noticed Seth standing at the bar going through some paperwork. He had been avoiding her all day, and after what happened last night, she didn't blame him.

But she hadn't seen much of Richie today either. That only meant something was going on between the brothers. She wondered if Seth had talked to Richie about her new driver's license. Maybe he told Richie to back off her. Well, she'd see about that.

“Miss, can I get a refill?” A guy held up an empty drink.

Lily-Rose returned to waiting her tables. When Hank's order was ready, she dropped off the meal quickly, but the creep grabbed her wrist.

“Sit down,” he said. “Take a break.”

She wrestled herself free. “No, thanks. I have other tables to check on.” As she turned away, Hank slapped her ass. Anger swept through her as her fangs emerged, seconds away from tearing into the jerk's neck.

As she turned to lunge at him, a pair of arms wrapped around her upper body from behind.

“Whoa!” Richie held her back, keeping her pressed against his chest.

“Don't you fucking touch me again, asshole!” Lily-Rose screamed at the trucker.

Hank held up his hands. “I was just trying to be friendly, that's all.”

Seth pushed through the crowd that was growing from the commotion. “Okay, buddy, I think it's time for you to go.” He grabbed Hank's arm.

Hank stood, pulling himself away. “I'm not your buddy.”

“Then, get the hell out of my bar!” Seth grabbed the back of Hank's shirt, hauling him toward the exit. The crowd moved with them.

Meanwhile, Richie dragged Lily-Rose downstairs to his office, his arms still wrapped around her body.

“You can let me go now,” she said.

Slowly, Richie released her.

She rubbed her sore arms. “You know, I'm getting sick of having other people's hands all over me.”

“Are you okay?” Richie asked.

“Yeah, sure, I just got sexually harassed, but it's no big deal.” She pushed her hair back. “I can't do this anymore, Richie. I can't work like this—”

“You're right,” he said.

She blinked. Richie was actually agreeing with her?

“You were ten seconds away from eating that guy, and yeah, he deserved it, but we can't fang out in public like that. It's too dangerous.” He brushed his knuckles against her cheek. “I need you to be safe.”

His gentle touch erased the anger and confusion swirling inside her.

“I don't know what's going on between you and my brother, but be careful.”

Forget Seth's unwarranted advice. Richie cared for her and that's all that mattered.

Lily-Rose stood on her tip-toes and pressed a soft kiss on Richie's lips. When she pulled away, he was studying her quietly. She caught her reflection in his glasses and blue eyes, and she wondered what he saw when he looked at her.

“What?” she said. “Is there a rule against kissing the boss too?”

His eyes lit up at her question. “No.”

“Good.” She smiled and kissed him again.

This time, he returned it. She could taste Richie, and Richie tasted like peppermint. She moaned into his mouth. When his arms wrapped around her again, she fell into his embrace.

**

“And don't come back!” Seth shook a fist at the trucker's retreating headlights. He turned and ushered the crowd that had followed him back inside Jed's. “Sorry about that, folks. Next round is on the house.”

The crowd cheered and headed toward the bar.

He scanned the place for Richie and Lily-Rose and came up empty. Fuck. But before he could go find them, the front doors opened again and Scott raced up to him, holding a large box.

“This just arrived to us,” he said.

They moved to the back office. Scott placed the package on the desk. There was no postage or return address. Nothing was ticking inside at least.

“You don't know who dropped it off?” he asked Scott.

The kid shook his head. “The guy just said he was instructed to give it to the Geckos.”

Seth didn't like surprises that came hand-delivered anonymously at night. But he reached for a letter opener and sliced through the tape and cardboard. When he pulled back the flaps, he covered his mouth and gagged.

Inside the box was the severed head of Professor Aiden Tanner.

Chapter Text

Seth waited until Jed's was closed to show Richie their special delivery. He paced the office as Richie picked up Tanner's head. His brother examined the body part, slowly turning it over in his bare hands. There didn't seem to be any trauma to it. Tanner's blond hair was matted to his skull. His eyes were shut. Who knew what the last thing he saw was?

“Huh,” Richie said after a moment.

Seth stopped moving. “What do you mean? Huh?”

“Looks like someone drained Tanner of his blood first before he got decapitated,” Richie said, placing the head back in the box and closing the flaps. “And they did a pretty good job of preserving it.”

“You think another culebra did this?”

Richie crossed his arms. “Nothing bit him. Looks like he was sucked dry some other way, maybe through an IV.”

“That doesn't mean it wasn't culebras,” Seth said. “Maybe it was another lord who didn't like the fact that we took Malvado's seat at the table.”

“There's no need to jump to conclusions, all right?”

Seth raised his brows. “You've got to be fucking kidding me. I know you're doing some wheeling and dealing behind my back, and I'm not talking about your snake queen looking into leads on Kate. I'm talking about this entire Santa Sangre, holy blood, culebra crack bullshit.” He gestured to Tanner's head sitting on his desk. “Someone's trying to send us a message, Richie. And, guess what? We got it loud and clear.”

He rubbed his forehead, taking in deep breaths as his anger and frustration grew. He didn't like being in the dark. The whole point of sticking with Richie this time around was to make sure his brother didn't end up getting himself (or anyone else around him) killed. The fact there was decapitated head sitting on his desk right now didn't bode too well.

“Um, guys?” Lily-Rose stood at the door with her coat on. “I couldn't find Scott. So, I kind of need a ride home.”

Seth pointed back out to the bar. “Wait outside.”

She hesitated, her gaze connecting with Richie's briefly. Seth narrowed his eyes as he felt the energy shift in the room. Great. More secrets.

“I heard you guys talking about the holy blood,” she said.

“No, you didn't,” Seth said, shaking his head. “You heard nothing, you got that?”

But Lily-Rose kept going. “It has something to do with that blood well, and with Scott's sister, Kate, right?”

Hearing Kate's name was the last straw. He pointed a rigid finger at her. “Why don't you stick your nose out of other people's business?”

Richie positioned himself in between Seth and Lily-Rose, moving her behind him. “That's enough, Seth.”

He held up his hands, palms open. “I'm not the one playing Louis and Claudia here.” He locked eyes with his brother, silently daring Richie to tell him otherwise.

Instead, Richie's cell phone rang. After an unflinching moment, he grabbed the phone from his pocket. “It's Santanico.” He stepped out into the hallway to take the call.

Seth relaxed, hoping she had more information on Kate's whereabouts. Then, his focus returned to Lily-Rose, who was inching closer to the door to listen to Richie's conversation.

“You do know about Santanico, don't you?” Seth said to her. “She's the 5,000-year-old culebra goddess that turned Richie. She turned Carlos too, so I guess that makes Richie sort of like your uncle.”

Lily-Rose kept a neutral expression on her face, but Seth wanted to dig in little bit deeper.

“When it comes to Santanico, she always comes first to Richie,” he said. “I learned that the hard way.”

Lily-Rose rolled her eyes. “What exactly is your point?

Without Richie standing in the way, he moved to her and leaned in, close enough to smell the citrus scent on her skin. She remained in place, keeping her gaze locked with his.

“You think you got everything figured out, don't you?” he said. “There's still so much you don't know about, Peaches.”

He stepped back, and when her steely gaze fell to the floor, he smiled. Someone had to put her in her place.

“Las Cruces,” Richie said, returning to the room. “Santanico said at least six people have disappeared from there this month, and two mutilated bodies were found with strange markings.”

Lily-Rose rushed past him. “I'll be in the other room.”

Richie reached out for her, but grasped nothing but air. He glared at Seth. “What happened?”

Seth shrugged in response. He could keep secrets too.

Shaking his head, Richie continued. “Those strange markings are consistent with the human sacrifices Oculto used to perform.” He grinned. “Las Cruces, Seth. This is our best lead so far.”

The knot in Seth's stomach unraveled. Not only was Kate alive, but he knew where to find her. He slapped a hand on Richie's back. “I'll leave in the morning then.”

Richie's eyes narrowed. “In the morning? That means—”

“You can't go with me, I know.”

His brother shoved his hand off him. “This is Kate, Seth. I have to go with you.”

Seth grabbed Richie's arm and hauled him back to Tanner's head. “No, you're going to stay the fuck right here and take care of this shit. Find out who's messing with us. Isn't that what a lord would do? Protect his empire?”

Richie's face darkened. “Don't forget how you got this information, brother.”

Yeah, so he chose to throw himself a pity party while Richie and Santanico worked on finding Kate, but it was his turn now.

“I'm leaving first thing in the morning, Richie, and that's that,” Seth said. “And I'm not coming back without her.”

He took Richie's silence as his acceptance. Without saying anymore, he walked out of the office and found Lily-Rose standing in the hall. Judging by the way she wouldn't look him in the eye, she probably had heard the entire exchange. But it didn't matter. His mind was made up.

“Come on,” he said, motioning to her. “We're going home.”

She glanced at the office. “I'm going to wait for Richie.”

“Suit yourself.” He headed toward the exit when Lily-Rose spoke again.

“Seth?”

He turned back to her. Dressed in her jean skirt and cowboy boots and with her coat falling down to her knees, she looked so damn small and vulnerable standing in the dim hallway. For a second, he felt guilty for digging into her earlier.

“Good luck,” she said.

He wanted to tell her thanks and that he was going to need it, but instead he nodded and walked out of Jed's. The chilly evening breeze sent a shock through him. But that wasn't it. It was the fact that in just a couple of hours, he would be heading to New Mexico on his way to Kate.

**

As soon as the sun rose, Seth packed up his Camaro. Wooden stakes. Bullets. Guns. The essentials. He didn't say good-bye to Richie or Lily-Rose, already saying everything he needed to say to them at Jed's. He didn't mention anything to Scott because the kid needed to stay behind where he was safe. So, Seth left quietly in the morning alone.

Or so he thought.

When he stopped to fill up the gas tank, he noticed the dark figure in the backseat. With a sigh, he turned around in the driver's seat and nudged the body.

“Hey.” Scott popped out from underneath the blanket.

“What are you doing?” Seth asked.

“What are you doing?” Scott threw back at him. “You expect me to just let you go off by yourself to find my sister? I don't think so.”

“Who told you where I was going?”

“Lily-Rose.”

Of course.

“She was trying to help,” Scott said. “At least she understands I need to be there for Kate too.”

“Won't do her any good if you're dead.” He turned back and started the car's engine. “I'm taking you home.”

“No!” Scott grabbed Seth's shoulder, but the sunlight beaming through the open window singed his hand. He recoiled into the seat and behind the tinted windows. “You can't take me back.”

Seth looked at the kid through the rearview mirror. Scott held his wounded hand to his chest, trembling, almost on the verge of tears. Damn it. This was as much Scott's mission as it was his.

“Fine.” He turned off the engine. “But when you're riding with me, there's one thing you need to know. No eating in the car. That goes for eating people too.”

“Got it,” Scott said.

“Good.”

Seth wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing or making the biggest mistake of his life.

He got out of the car to pay for the gas. It wasn't that long ago when he would have raced into the station with his gun drawn, demanding the cashier to give him all the money. He'd be lying if he said he didn't miss it. And it wasn't like he needed the money; he just needed to steal.

But this Ariza guy had taken Kate from him. Now it was his job to take her back.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Lily-Rose found Richie standing next to the open patio doors in the living room. Sunlight threatened to spill in. She wrapped her sweater coat around her thin tank top and cotton shorts. It was still early enough that there was a chill in the air.

“Richie?”

He didn't turn to her, but his body tensed at her voice. He still wore his suit from last night. How long had been standing in that spot?

She stopped at where the shadows did, her bare feet standing on the border of darkness and light. “You should come in,” she said, raising her hand for him.

“I messed up, Lily-Rose.”

She didn't need to see his face to understand him. The ride home from Jacknife Jed's had been filled with a heavy silence. She had wanted to press him for answers about Seth's trip, but she remembered his rule about not asking too many questions. Now Richie was talking, so she dropped her hand and listened.

“I thought I had everything under control,” he continued. “I thought I could be the boss, but you know what I learned?” He turned to her, eyes and face soft. “I'm just a big time fraud.”

His timid confession scared her more than his angry shouts. “What are you saying, Richie?”

“This entire operation I'm trying to put together is falling apart before it can even happen. I worked my ass off to get this far.” He jabbed a finger at his own chest. “All of this was my idea, you understand? I created all of this.”

“I know you did.” She lifted her hand again, the sun's warmth at her fingertips. “But, can you just come inside, please?”

Richie didn't move. Instead, he looked back to the ball of fire in the sky. “Then, why does it feel like nothing belongs to me?”

Lily-Rose's hands turned into fists. She blamed Seth's tirade last night for Richie's foul mood. This depressed, pathetic version who saw himself as a fraud wasn't really him. The only way to snap him out of it was to go to him.

As soon as she stepped into the light, he grabbed her arms and moved them both into the living room. “What the hell are you doing?”

She shoved him away and pointed at her right temple. “Reality check, genius. If you didn't want me to burst into flames, what makes you think I want you to?” The familiar glare returned to his stern face. “Listen, I know everything may seem hard now, and with Seth gone, you have a big mess to clean up on your own, but I know you can do it.”

“How?” he asked in a hollow whisper.

“Mind over matter.” The same advice she had repeated to herself over this past month, the only thing she had kept from her former self. “Focus on what's important to you. Your business. Your brother.” She paused. “Me.” She hated how hopeful she sounded, that maybe she did matter to him, as much as Santanico or Kate or even Seth.

Richie was frozen in place, like he was processing what she was telling him. Had she said too much? Then, he walked back to the patio doors. She held out her hand again to stop him, but he brushed past her. He shut the doors and closed the curtains, immersing them in the shadows. When he returned to her, he grabbed her outstretched hand and pulled her to him. She kept her gaze at eye-level with his chest, afraid that he could see inside her. His fingers stroked her cheek and lifted her chin until she became lost in an icy blue sea.

“You are important to me,” he said.

That was all she wanted to hear. She grabbed the lapels of his blazer and lowered his mouth to hers. There was no hesitation from either of them as they deepened the kiss. The taste of candy canes coated her tongue. Richie wrapped his arms around her, pressing their bodies together. She could feel how hard he was, and she wanted to feel more. Her hand dropped to his belt buckle.

Richie broke the kiss. “Lily-Rose, wait.”

“It's okay,” she said, their foreheads still touching. “It's just us.”

“You told Scott about New Mexico.” There was no anger in his voice, just resignation.

“I had to. Seth shouldn't be alone and Scott needs to find his sister.” She fumbled with the buttons on his white shirt. “You understand, right?”

He watched her unbutton his shirt. “What do you think is going to happen? That they'll bring Kate back safe and sound?”

“What if I do?” Her fingernails skimmed over Richie's pale chest and stomach and she smiled when he trembled from her touch.

He grabbed her wrists, keeping them bound in his grasp. “It's because you still believe in happy endings. That's why your favorite movie is a fairy tale. You're still waiting for your prince to come.”

Maybe. Once upon a time, when she was nine years old, after watching Drew Barrymore enter the ball dressed in a beautiful gown. All eyes, including the prince's, focused only on her. Lily-Rose used to wonder what it was like to capture someone's attention like that, and now Richie was looking at her in the exact same way.

His eyes found her eyes.

He brought their entwined hands in between their bodies and she kissed his knuckles. Her new life wasn't a fairy tale, and she wasn't even sure if she believed in happily ever after anymore, but she did believe in happy for now.

She lifted her gaze to Richie's stoic face. “Why settle for a prince when I can have the king?”

And just like that the Richie she knew returned—the Richie who was in control picked her up and moved them to the couch. He sat them down so that she straddled him. She couldn't stop touching him, running her hands across his bare chest, her fingers tracing his jawline. Her entire body buzzed with desire and aching. She planted a soft kiss on his lips and whispered his name like it was a secret.

“Richie.”

Richie. It echoed deep inside her core.

When she reached up to remove his glasses, he let her. There were no more barriers; he could see her completely now. She turned around to place his glasses on the coffee table behind her, and when she looked back at Richie, she saw him completely as well. His yellow eyes flashed and his smile was full of teeth and fangs. She didn't need to be a mind reader to know what he wanted.

Lily-Rose slipped out of her sweater coat, and pushed her hair and the strap of her tank top out of the way, baring her naked shoulder for him. This wasn't going to be anything like with Carlos. This was about trust and intimacy. This was about Richie taking her under his wing, teaching her how to feed and giving her a new identity and life.

He placed his hands flat against her back and pulled her close until their chests connected. His mouth found skin and he bit down. She hissed, a mixture of pleasure and pain coursing through her entire system. He bit down harder and she moaned, digging her nails into his arms.

His name escaped her lips again, but instead of a whisper, it was a loud gasp.

“Richie!”

Richie. It rolled off her like waves crashing on to a shore.

He extracted his fangs from her shoulder and took his time to lift his head. She felt dizzy, intoxicated. He probably felt the same too. When his eyes found hers again, they were as clear as a summer sky.

She teased him with a smile. “Do I still taste as sweet as sugar?”

He grinned. “Sweeter.” He tugged her shirt over her head and rolled her over to her back on the couch. He draped his body over hers like a blanket she wanted to hide under forever.

But even as Richie dragged his mouth down her body, even as she shivered with each kiss, inside her head, Seth's voice mocked this moment.

“You think you got everything figured out, don't you? There's still so much you don't know about, Peaches.”

She really did believe Seth and Scott would return with Kate, and when that happened, her happy for now would come to an end.

Chapter Text

Seth was back in the labyrinth. Only this time there were no tunnels, no culebras. Big Jim wasn't there and neither was his asshole father. There was none of the darkness the labyrinth at the Twister wanted to show him. This labyrinth was bathed in light.

A bright, white, holy light that warmed him from the inside out.

He lay in a soft bed, his hands caressing the body cradled beside him. There were no walls here. Just an open space filled with the light.

The light radiating from the person in bed with him.

Kate turned around, smiling. His hands became still, but he didn't remove them from her hips. She wore black like him. He didn't smile like her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

It wasn't the first time he had asked Kate that question when he was high on heroin. But he was clean.

Wasn't he?

She touched his cheek, sending tiny electric jolts through his body. One time in Mexico when they were low on cash, they had checked into a seedy motel that only had one bed available. He had offered to take the floor, but after looking at the questionable stains on the dirty carpet, Kate made room for him on the tiny bed. She fell asleep with her fingers curled around his wrist. He studied her hands the rest of the night.

It wasn't the first time he had thought about Kate's hands touching him when he was high on heroin. But he was clean.

Wasn't he?

“Stay here,” Kate said, her eyes pleading along with her words. “You can stay here with me.”

And Seth wanted to. He needed to.

But

“It's not real,” he told her. “You're not real.” When he pulled away, a chill enveloped him. “I'm sorry.”

Kate sat up, her smile gone. “Are you?” Her torso was covered in blood.

This time, when her red hands touched his cheek, they lit his body on fire.

**

“I'm sorry.”

Seth blurted out the apology again as his eyes flew open. He found himself sitting in the driver's seat of the parked Camaro, his arms crossed and head resting against the window. He touched his left cheek. It was cold.

The dream was gone. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed.

With a yawn, he turned around to find the backseat empty. His watch said it was almost nine p.m. After driving for nearly eleven hours from Texas to New Mexico, Seth had pulled off into the parking lot of a truck stop to get some rest. Scott had been sleeping in the back when he decided to doze off too. Now the kid was missing. What if he went looking for a nighttime snack?

Seth got out of the car, slamming the door shut. This was why he should have left the kid back home. He didn't have time to play babysitter. Not when—

“You can stay here with me.”

—not when they were so close to finding Kate.

It turned out Scott hadn't gone too far. A single street lamp shone on the teen sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the parking lot, eating a bag of Doritos.

“Is that the appetizer or the dessert?” Seth asked, pointing to the chips.

“Ha-ha.” Scott shoved a handful of orange triangles into his mouth.

Seth's stomach growled reminding him he hadn't eaten anything all day either. He scratched his belly. “I'm gonna grab something inside. Want anything else?”

“Yeah, how about a hot blonde? I'm kinda thirsty.”

Seth didn't know how to respond, but he did think about the wooden stake tucked underneath his jacket.

“Ha-ha,” Scott said again.

Seth lifted his brows. “You're hilarious.”

Scott crumbled the empty Doritos bag and tossed it at a nearby wastebasket. He missed, but neither of them moved to pick it up.

“What are you going to do when you see her again?” Scott asked.

Seth shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pant pockets. Honestly, he hadn't even thought of that yet. Maybe he was too scared of the truth of what he would do when the time came.

“That's what I've been thinking about,” Scott continued, turning his gaze to the darkness ahead of them. “Do I hug her? Say sorry? Then, I started to think about what she's going to do when she sees me again.”

Kate's bloody hands reaching for his face flashed in Seth's mind.

Scott's dark eyes returned to him. “I saw her die, Seth. What if—what if the Kate we find isn't the same person anymore? What if she's like...” He let his sentence trail off, but it wasn't that hard for Seth to fill in the blank.

Us. What if she's like us?

Lost. Broken. Faithless.

“She tried to save me,” Scott said. “She tried to save me and I got her killed.”

With a sigh, Seth thought about his own situation and silently agreed with him. He thought about the last time he saw Kate. How he had pushed her away to save her; instead, it had led to her death.

“Hey.” He clamped a hand on Scott's shoulder. “She's going to be okay, you hear me? We'll find her and bring her home.”

Scott nodded, and Seth nodded back, almost believing his own words.

“I'm gonna get food,” he said. “When I get back, be in the car.”

“Then, what?”

“We'll figure it out.” It wasn't the greatest answer, but it was the truth.

**

Kate was back in the labyrinth. Only this time there were no tunnels, no culebras. She wasn't watching her mother swallow the bottle of pills. There was none of the darkness the labyrinth at the Twister wanted to show her. This labyrinth was bathed in light.

A bright, white, holy light that warmed her from the inside out.

She rolled over in a large bed and found the spot next to her empty. The wrinkled sheets indicated to her someone had been there with her. Confused, she sat up and looked around the open space.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed in the chamber.

She climbed out of bed, and as soon as her feet touched the ground, her black clothing transformed into a long white dress. Her toes sank into cold dirt. An icy breeze slapped her face. She was back at the blood well. A million stars lit up the black sky, and they shined a spotlight on one thing: the body hidden underneath the white sheet.

She walked in slow-motion up the wooden platform. It was like she was reliving a nightmare. No, she was reliving her death.

She knelt down beside the body, her hands moving to the sheet, but she hesitated as her stomach lurched. She covered her mouth and closed her eyes.

“Kate, don't!” Richie's raised voice pushed itself forward in her memories.

Then, the fiery pain of getting shot. The first bullet had stunned her, but it was the second bullet...the second bullet ended all hope she had left.

Kate opened her eyes. The body was still under the sheet, waiting for her to reveal itself. But when she pulled back the sheet, she wasn't looking at her corpse.

It was Scott. With his eyes closed, her brother’s serene expression made it look like he was only sleeping, but she looked down at the knife handle she was holding, the blade embedded deep inside Scott's gut.

“No.” She rose, trembling “No, this can't be real.” She wiped her bloody hands on her white dress, but she couldn't become clean.

She turned to leave the platform when she collided with another figure. She recognized the black suit, the dark hair, the silver glint in the even darker eyes.

“Seth?” She was relieved to see him; she was scared to see him.

His face was alert, his eyes sober. Nothing like the version who had walked away from her in Mexico.

He drew her close to him, running his fingers through her hair. “How did you like playing in the darkness, little miss sunshine?” His words bit into her.

When she pulled away, she was holding the knife again. The pristine blade glittered in the moonlight.

Seth showed no reaction to the weapon. He only asked, “Do you want to play some more?”

Gasping, she awoke in her another bed. Candles illuminated the small room. She smelled sandalwood incense. Sweat dripped down her forehead and her heart pounded beneath her chest.

“Kate, what's wrong?” Immediately, Ariza was at her bedside. Ariza, the man who had been taking care of her since that night he found her at the blood well.

She opened her mouth to speak, but her dry throat prevented her from forming any words. Ariza quickly moved to the sink on the other side of the room and returned with a glass of water. She finished the drink in one long gulp, but it didn't quench her thirst or cool the fever burning inside her.

She handed the glass back to Ariza and looked him straight in the eye. “They found me.”

Chapter Text

When Kate was ten, she stole five dollars from the church offering plate. She only lasted an hour before the guilt started to eat at her. She found her father sitting in his office, and with her head bowed, she confessed to him what she had done. She had broken a commandment. Thou shall not steal. She placed the bill on her father's desk, exposing her sin.

An eternity of silence seemed to pass before her father said, “Thank you for telling me, Katie-cakes.” Then, he winked. “We'll just keep it between us, all right?”

She didn't know how to respond. Her father hadn't raised his voice; he hadn't expressed his disappointment or punished her. She walked out of the room, thinking, “I should have kept the money.”

Maybe her father had chosen to forgive her because he refused to believe his little girl could do such a thing. He wanted to keep on believing she had a light inside her. An innocence. That's what attracted boys like Kyle to her; that's why Tanner tied her up on that altar; that's why Seth walked away from her in Mexico; that's what pushed her to save to Scott; that's what got her killed.

It was her light that had been responsible for her death, but it was her darkness that resurrected her. Her darkness mixed with the Santa Sangre.

All of the love inside her replaced by a storm of blood.

Kate sat in her bed in the basement of the safehouse she and Ariza had been staying in for the past few weeks since arriving in Las Cruces. Oculto's network of followers spread beyond the Texas border, providing them with a haven every step of the way, but it had been Ariza who had received the vision that night she died, to go to the blood well and retrieve the Santa Sangre.

After explaining her dream to him, Ariza was now pacing the concrete floor. He ran a hand through his dark hair, his brown eyes moving left to right. Kate knew and understood that Ariza only saw her as the Santa Sangre, not as a girl named Kate Fuller. And that was fine with her because sometimes that was what she also thought.

“Ariza, please sit,” Kate said.

He stopped immediately, pulling up a stool beside her.

She gave him a small smile. “Did you forget the plan?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.

“Then, there's no need to be so anxious.” She took his hand into hers. She could feel every skin cell, each hair follicle, like her fingers were brushing against a live wire. “I'm not any danger. You did your job. You kept me safe. You helped me get stronger. Now, it's time for the next step. Do you understand?”

Tears filled his eyes. “Yes, I understand.”

She brushed away a falling tear, the single drop stirring a tsunami inside her belly. The old Kate would have been filled with sympathy, instead she was pleased with his obedience.

Ariza's tears turned into sobs. He rested his head on her lap and she cradled him.

“Thank you,” he said in Spanish. “Thank for choosing me.”

**

In the morning, Seth left Scott sleeping in the motel room and went to the front lobby to try and get some information about the missing people in the area. There had to some clues that could help lead them to Kate and her captor. What a joke. Here he was, stuck with another Fuller as a roommate and trying to create a plan to save Kate from a man who kidnapped her.

He hoped it was still the pretty redhead who had checked them in last night behind the counter. All he had to do was flash a smile and she would be putty in his hands. Instead, he found a chubby, bald man munching on some nachos. It was 9:30, but hey, he used to do shots of tequila before noon, so who was he to judge?

“How's it going?” Seth said.

“Can I help you with something?” The man stuffed another chip drenched in yellow cheese into his mouth. His name tag read ARNOLD.

“So, Arnie, can I call you Arnie?” Seth leaned over the counter. “I'm here on vacation, and while I was out at dinner last night, there was some talk about some missing people and dead bodies turning up around town. I mean, that's pretty scary news. I come out here to relax, get some R and R, and then I found out there might be a serial killer on the loose. That's some shitty luck, you know?”

“Yeah, shitty.” A glob of nacho cheese dripped down Arnie's chin.

Seth resisted the urge to hand him a napkin. “Since I'm very concerned about my safety, I was just wondering if you've heard any updates? Are there any places or areas I need to stay away from?”

“I've lived here my whole life,” Arnie said. “There's nothing to worry about.”

“You just ain't saying that, are you? Because you seem like a fellow who knows the ins and outs of this wonderful city. I'm sure you hear all sorts of stories working behind this counter.”

Arnie finally wiped his chin—using the back of his right hand. “Maybe I do.”

“And maybe,” Seth pulled out a fifty from his wallet, “instead of nachos, you could be eating a nice steak for lunch.”

Arnie dropped his gaze to the cash, then scanned the empty lobby before pocketing the money. “One of the people who was killed—”

“That had all the strange markings on their bodies?”

“Yeah, he worked with my cousin, and according to my cousin, he hung out with some strange people.”

“How strange?”

“Like they worshiped the devil or some shit like that.”

More like a snake vampire.

“Where did they hang out?” Seth asked.

“At this club downtown called Arson,” Arnie said. “Apparently, that's where the guy was last seen alive.”

“Good to know.” Seth saluted him. “Thanks a lot, Arnie. I'll make sure to leave a positive review about my stay when I check-out.”

As he walked out of the lobby, his cell phone rang. Even though the screen told him it was a restricted number, he answered the call.

“Hello, Seth.”

As soon as he heard the voice, he regretted taking it. “Santanico.”

“I hope you don't mind that Richard gave me your number.” He heard the smile in her words.

“No, not all,” he said. “It beats having you violate my mind.”

“Haven't you learned that we're no longer enemies, Seth? I'm trying to help you and Richard find Kate.”

He fixed his gaze on the mountain range in the horizon. “Yeah, and why is that?”

“She's filled with the Santra Sangre,” Santanico said. “We need to make sure we find her first.”

“We?”

“You're forgetting there are seven more lords out there,” she said. “Each one just as worst as Malvado. If they knew the Santa Sangre rested in one girl, they would stop at nothing to gain control of that power.”

And he and Richie were business partners with one of them. It made him wonder if his brother was also keeping Santanico in the dark on some things.

“Well, I did some digging on my own. One of the victims was last seen at a club called Arson,” Seth said. “You might want to tag along. I'm sure you'll feel right at home.”

Santanico chuckled.

“What's so funny?” he asked.

“When Richard and I were together, he told me whenever you felt fear, you hid behind a mask, a tough guy.” She paused. “You don't need to be tough, Seth.”

He clenched his open fist, digging his nails into his palm. She had a lot of nerve to try and pull a Dr. Phil on him.

“Meet me at Arson at nine tonight.” He ended the call and let out a long sigh. As he pocketed his phone, he realized his hands were shaking.

Chapter Text

“So, this is why Seth called us Louis and Claudia.” Lily-Rose sat crossed-legged next to Richie on his bed, her attention glued to the movie playing on his flatscreen TV.

Richie, on the other hand, kept checking his phone. No missed calls. No texts. No news from Seth or Santanico on Kate. Twenty-four hours had passed and he had no idea what was going on in New Mexico.

“Hey.” Lily-Rose placed a hand on his knee. “I'm only watching this movie because you told me it was one of your favorites. If I had a choice, I'd be watching something else.”

He smiled. “And which classic Drew Barrymore film would you be watching?”

“I don't know. The Wedding Singer? Charlie's Angels?” She moved her hand closer to his groin. “Bad Girls?”

As much as he wanted to take Lily-Rose's hint, he didn't. Instead, he took her hand and interlaced her fingers. He was grateful for her faith, for believing in him, even when he was at his lowest. Here he was yelling at Seth for losing sight of their game plan, and he was the one who was going to lose it all, just because he had a few setbacks with the Santa Sangre drug. Whoever had sent them Tanner's head was trying to send them a message, and it was this: Don't fuck up. That went with getting Kate back too.

He glanced at his phone again.

Lily-Rose grabbed it from him. “Checking it every two minutes isn't going to make Seth call you any sooner.”

“Why hasn't he called, huh?” Richie said. “If there was any news—”

“Maybe that's it,” she said. “Maybe there's no news yet.”

Or any news he wanted to hear.

He grabbed his phone back from her and got out of bed, moving to his closet for his shoes and jacket.

“Where are you going?” Lily-Rose asked.

“To Jed's.”

“I thought you were taking tonight off.”

“There's too much work to do.” He finished dressing and headed to the door, but before he stepped into the hallway, he turned back to Lily-Rose. She hugged her knees to her chest, her green eyes focused on his bed sheets. He could spend the rest of the night in bed with her watching movies or he could go to Jed's and take care of business. He already knew his answer. If he wanted to be king, he had to make some sacrifices. It was a lesson he had to keep on learning.

Richie left Lily-Rose behind and headed down the stairs just as his phone buzzed with a text message. Finally. But it wasn't from Seth or Santanico. It was Lorena.

Warehouse ASAP.

**

Seth curled his lip as he watched Scott feed on the man. His stomach soured at the noises both of them were making. He turned his head away, only to be greeted at the sight of Santanico, who watched with no reaction to the smörgåsbord going on in the alleyway.

When the noises finally stopped, Seth turned back to Scott. Instead of a Asian kid, he stood face to face with a Hispanic man in his forties with black hair, a mustache, and wearing a leather jacket.

They couldn't have gotten him a fake ID or sneaked him into the club, could they? Better yet, why hadn't Seth left the kid back at the motel? It wasn't like he didn't try. As soon as he told Scott about Arson, the kid wanted in, no matter what. When they found out it was a 21 and over venue, this had been Scott's solution. Santanico agreed, and it was two culebras against one human.

The three of them approached the club, flashing the bouncer their IDs. When the bouncer patted down Seth, he found a wooden stake. The bouncer raised his brows.

“Keep it,” Seth said.

“Was that really necessary?” Santanico asked when they made it past security.

“I have to watch my ass too,” he said.

“I won't let anything happen to you,” she said.

“What makes you think that stake wasn't meant for you?”

She narrowed her eyes, but didn't say anymore.

Inside Arson, they were greeted with loud rock music and a sea of bodies. Seth glanced at the two culebras, wondering if they saw a buffet instead. Neither Santanico or Scott in his adult form seemed to be salivating over the club patrons—for now.

Two hours and three gin and tonics later, Seth was getting nowhere with Ariza or Oculto or Kate. No one was talking, and Seth wasn't in the mood to give away fifty bucks to every person in here. Maybe Arson had been a dead end.

Alone at the bar with his fourth gin and tonic in his hand, Seth was ready to call it a night when the band on stage stopped playing and lights went down. A sense of deja vu came over him. But he spotted Santanico on the other side of the club.

When the lights came back on, a Hispanic man in his thirties appeared on the stage. His dark eyes shone bright, and his euphoric face made Seth wonder if the man was high on something. The man grabbed the microphone and it squealed with his movement.

“My brothers and sisters,” the man said. “Thank you for coming tonight. It has been a long journey, a hard journey. We may have lost our lord, but the blood lives on. The Santa Sangre is alive and well.”

Fuck, it was Ariza on stage. Seth jumped out of his seat.

Ariza continued his speech. “Tonight is a joyous occasion because it marks the start of another journey. The old ways are no more; we must make way to the new lords. Only they can help the Santa Sangre now. Our victory will be claimed. Our sacrifices will not be in vain. Let us show her our gratitude for choosing us.”

Seth pushed his way through the crowd to get to the stage. Glass shattered next to him. He stopped as a woman broke the glass she was holding and without any hesitation, she stabbed the shard into the side of her neck. Blood gushed out, spraying the people around her. Screams filled the club. More glass broke. Another woman sliced her neck open. A man jabbed his jagged beer bottle into his heart. Then, another one, and another one, and another one. People raced toward the exit, horrified at what they were witnessing.

On stage, Ariza smiled at the carnage. His smile grew as he brandished a switchblade and slit his own throat. He collapsed just as Seth made it on stage next to his twitching body. Ariza was still smiling as he choked on his own blood.

Seth didn't give a fuck. “Where is she?” If it was Ariza's dying breath, Seth would get his answer.

Ariza's gaze slid behind him, then stopped along with his breathing. Slowly, Seth turned to the side of the stage. Everything around him slowed, including his own breathing.

Kate stood behind a curtain halfway in the dark. Only a month had passed, but it felt like years since he left her on the side of the road in Mexico. Her crimson red hair fell over her pale face. She wore jeans, black boots, and a black blouse. There was a strange aura surrounding her; it made Seth feel like he was back on trial.

Despite all that—the screaming and the bloody deaths happening behind him, this uneasiness he felt in Kate's presence—Seth moved toward her. Behind the curtain, it was easy to block out the chaos. Behind the curtain, it was only him and Kate. With a little bit of hesitation, he reached out to her.

She nodded, telling him it was okay. When his fingertips touched her smooth cheek, an electric shock traveled up his arm. She leaned into his palm, taking a hold of his wrist and keeping his hand there.

I could never leave you.

“You're alive.” He whispered the words like they sharing a secret.

She lifted her gaze to his face. “More than alive.” Her green eyes flashed a bright red.

Seth recoiled, dropping his hand from her.

“Don't be afraid,” she said in a calm voice.

He had read enough Sunday School stories to know this was how angels always greeted terrified human beings, right before they dropped some big news that was going to change the poor mortal's life.

“You're going to help me, Seth,” Kate said. “You and Richie.”

Before he could ask how, Santanico and Scott found them. Scott looked like himself again.

Kate ran into her brother's arms. “Scott.”

For a moment, Seth wondered if he had imagined the red flash in her eyes and her cryptic assignment, but there was no time for explanations.

“We have to go,” Santanico said as police sirens wailed outside.

They rushed out the back door and into the night.

**

When Richie made it to the warehouse, Lorena and Galloway were already waiting for him inside. He expected another shouting match with Lorena about how the latest experiment was once again a failure, but when she saw him, her face broke out into a smile.

“It worked,” she said.

The tension in Richie's body melted away. He followed the two of them down the corridor and into the same room where not too long ago, workers were cleaning up culebra body parts.

Three new culebras—two men and one women—sat in folding chairs. Their alert eyes looked up at them when they entered. The woman was running her hands up and down her pant legs. She tried to keep a serious look on her face, but then, she erupted into a fit of giggles. The two men joined her.

“What's wrong with them?” Richie asked.

“Nothing,” Lorena said. “That's just the drug.”

Richie walked around the culebras high on Santa Sangre as they continued laughing. He was amazed there were no signs of aggression as previously seen in the other test subjects.

“How do they feel?” Richie asked Galloway.

The doctor gestured to the giggling culebras. “Ask them yourself.”

Richie clasped a hand on one of the men. “What's your name?

“My name?” The man blinked several times as though he hadn't heard Richie's question right.

“His name is Tony,” the woman said.

“And what's your name?” Richie asked, moving to her. She looked like she was in her early forties. Dark curly hair and brown eyes. As soon as Richie fixed his attention on her, she stopped laughing.

“Sarah,” she said.

Richie knelt to her level. “Do you know who I am, Sarah?”

She nodded.

“Good.” Power rushed through his body, creating his own natural high. “It's been a tough road to get where we are today. Now, I want your honesty. Tell me what you're feeling.”

She grinned. She was missing some teeth. “I feel alive.” She ran her hands over her face. “Like I'm walking on the sun.”

The two men murmured in agreement.

“Like I am the fucking sun!” The woman raised her arms to the sky.

Richie stood, satisfied with her answer. Culebras near and far would pay top money to feel like the fucking sun.

He exited the room with Lorena and Galloway. Outside, they observed the culebras through the glass window.

“How did you do it?” Richie asked the doctor.

“I figured out the perfect dosage. It wasn't through needles or pills.” Galloway revealed a plastic baggie filled with a handful of red blotters. “Just put one of these under the tongue and you get the ultimate experience.”

Richie took the bag from him, examining the drug. This was going to be better than any acid trip.

“How soon before the next batch?” he asked.

“We should do a few more tests before it goes on the street,” Galloway said.

Richie clenched his jaw. “How soon before the next batch?”

Galloway cleared his throat. “Uh, I could—before next week.”

“Then, do it.”

“But—”

Richie glared at him.

“But,” Galloway began again, this time more slowly, “I'm going to need more of the Santa Sangre.”

This time it was Lorena whose expression hardened as she turned to Richie. He knew she was expecting a solution from him.

Richie looked back to the culebras on the other side of the glass. They were laughing again, twirling around the room, dancing to a song only they could hear. He was getting so close to his empire. The only thing missing was the blood.

He remembered the last time he stood here.

“What do you see, Richie?” Kate had asked.

He didn't know then, but he knew now.

“What do you see?”

He saw Kate. Alive, real, radiating like the sun.

He turned back to Lorena and Galloway. “You'll get more blood.”

Chapter Text

They took Kate back to the motel, and Seth still couldn't believe that after living with only hallucinations and dreams, she was actually there in the flesh. The four of them—Seth, Kate, Scott, and Santantico—were confined in the small room. Seth was suffocating among the two culebras and the resurrected preacher's daughter. Letting out a heavy sigh, he loosened the knot in his tie and took a seat on his bed. Kate sat at the foot of Scott's bed, her gaze fixed on him like he was under a hot spotlight.

“Where's Richie?” she asked.

Seth scoffed at her question. “Busy taking care of his empire, but you probably already knew that.”

“What does that mean?” Scott said.

“We didn't come here to save her,” Seth said. “Isn't it obvious? She planned this whole thing.”

Scott narrowed his eyes at his sister. “Kate?”

She stood and crossed her arms. “The man on stage was named Ariza. He found me at the blood well the night Carlos shot me. When I woke up, I was so confused and so angry. He took me away to keep me safe, until I was strong enough, and now I am.” Her steely gaze moved from Scott to Santantico to Seth. “So, it's true. I wanted you all here, but that's because the Santa Sangre has to be in the care of you and Richie.”

“Hold on there.” Seth raised his hand. “Says who?”

“Says me,” Kate said with a shrug. “Oculto's followers sacrificed themselves tonight because they understood the plan, they obeyed.” The last word sent a chill down Seth's back.

“You mean what happened tonight was because you told them to off themselves?” he asked, even though he didn't want to know the truth.

“Yes,” Kate said. “And as their reward, they get to be reunited with their lord in an afterlife where the sun shines down on them.”

“This is bullshit.” He shook his head, unable to process all the information.

“Why?” Santanico said from her corner of the room.

Kate dropped her arms to her side. “Why what?”

“Why do Richard and Seth have to be the ones to protect the Santa Sangre?”

“You should understand,” Kate said. “They were chosen, just like how chose Richie to set you free. It's destiny.”

Santanico frowned. “Be careful with that word. You might find out it's more trouble that what it's worth.”

“I'm supposed to be here. We'll all supposed to be here.” Kate sat back on the bed. “Ariza told me the lords have been searching for the blood for centuries. Oculto was hiding it from them. He and his followers were charged with guarding the blood well. They think the Santa Sangre is gone, but it won't be long before they find out.” She looked back at Seth. “That's why I need you and Richie. I trust you.”

Seth wanted to tell her she was wrong. For fuck's sake, Richie got her killed and now here she was, filled with some crazy holy blood, telling him that they were the only ones who could keep her safe.

“She's right,” Santanico said, turning to Seth. “You and Richard are the only ones who can protect her because you won't let anything happen to her...again.”

Again.

The word stabbed him in the heart, and that's when he realized Kate's plan was going to work. It had to work. How many times did he imagine “What if?” or “If only” after he found out Kate was dead? Hell, every time he looked at Lily-Rose, he thought about how it should have been Kate living in that house with them. The last month had been filled with self-hatred as numbed himself with alcohol because he had fucked up. He wasn't going to do it again.

Again.

Santanico headed to the door. “Make sure she gets back to Jed's safely.”

“And where are you going?” Seth asked.

“Finding Kate was just the first step,” she said. “There's more work to do. Tell Richard I'll be in touch.”

After she was gone, Seth looked back at the Fuller siblings. It wasn't that long ago he was holding them hostage in another motel room; now it felt like he was their prisoner. He grabbed his car keys.

“I'll be back,” he said. “I've got to clear my head and...and get something to eat.”

“Seth?”

Kate's voice stopped him in his tracks. Like a master speaking to her dog.

“...they obeyed."

“Don't be long,” she said, offering him that sweet smile he used to fantasize about when he was high.

When he got into the Camaro, he slid his keys into the ignition, but instead of turning the car on, he slammed the palm of his hand into the steering wheel. The pain ran up his arm. He leaned his head back in the seat, a weary sigh escaping from his lips.

If Kate was truly back, then why did he still feel so empty?

**

Kate decided to take a shower after Seth left. Under the slow stream of hot water, she closed her eyes, a pulsating throb forming at the base of her skull. Sometimes the Santa Sangre made her feel like she was floating on a bed of clouds. Other times, it made her feel like someone was hitting her over the head with a hammer. She gasped for air, bracing her hands on the tiled wall. Ariza explained to her that the sensations would pass, she just had to hold on.

“You're the one in the control,” he reminded her.

So, she counted to ten and soon, the pain subsided.

She shut off the water and dried herself off, running the towel over her body. It didn't feel like her body anymore, not since the Santa Sangre decided to make its home in her. Her stomach was pale and smooth; no reminders of the bullets piercing through her skin. Her right palm where Malvado had cut her, where Richie had looked inside her soul, was also unblemished. Only her mind retained those scars.

She changed into one of Seth's white button down shirts. He wouldn't mind. When she stepped back out into the bedroom, Scott was sitting on his bed and watching an martial arts movie on the TV.

He looked up at her. “Why are you wearing his shirt?”

Because she could feel him on each fiber, his sweat and woodsy aftershave lingering on the garment.

Instead of answering Scott's question, she sat across from him on Seth's bed and said, “Tell me what I've missed.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, how are you doing?”

Scott turned off the TV with the remote. The silence and space in between them now heavy and saturated. “I want you to know that I went back for you...I went back and you were gone.” His voice started to shake. “I freaked out, Kate. I thought—I thought I wasn't ever going to see you again.”

She moved to sit next to her brother. “I'm here now.”

“Don't you hate me?” he said.

She thought about the dream that had showed her stabbing Scott. Her original mission—the one that had set her on this course—was to save him. She may had died angry and filled with spite at both Scott and Richie, but they were a part of the plan. The Santa Sangre needed new protectors now.

She took his hand into hers. It was as cold as the blood running through her veins. “No, I don't. You're my brother, Scott. We're family.”

“Then, do you forgive me?”

She smiled. “I don't need to forgive you. God has already forgiven you.” It was a lie though. Just like religion she had turned her back on, her naked neck evidence of the faith she had abandoned. But they were the right words to tell Scott; they were the words he wanted to hear.

“So, tell me what else I've missed,” she said again.

“Carlos is dead. We killed him that night, chopped him into pieces and buried the body parts in different locations so no one can ever find him.”

Kate tensed at the mention of her killer. “I see.”

“I work for Seth and Richie now at Jed's.”

She chuckled. “I hope they pay you well.”

“I don't need their money,” he said. “I just didn't have any other place to go.”

She remembered feeling the same way outside the Titty Twister...then, Seth appeared.

“There's this girl named Lily-Rose,” Scott continued. “Carlos turned her and Richie and Seth kind of took her in. I don't think she had any other place to go either.”

Now that was interesting. Kate put a smile on her face. “So, you got a new sister?”

“It's not like that—”

“I'm just joking.” She leaned her shoulder against Scott's; the culebra blood flowing through him sounded like a thunderstorm in her head. “But tell me more about Lily-Rose.”

**

It was almost three in the morning when Seth finally made it back to the motel. He thought Kate and Scott would be asleep by now; it was his way of avoiding them until morning, but when he walked up to the door, Kate was sitting outside on a fold-out chair at the small patio table.

“You're wearing my shirt,” he said.

She rubbed her hands up the long sleeves. “I am.”

He took a seat at the other patio chair. “What are you doing up?”

“Waiting for you, of course.”

He glanced at the window. “Scott?”

“Sleeping like a culebra baby.”

“Uh-huh.” He studied her serene face. It didn't look real. The more he thought about it, the more her green eyes and red hair turned into a mask. He wasn't sure if he wanted to find out what was lurking underneath it though.

“So, I assume he filled you in on what you've missed,” Seth said.

“Carlos is dead. You and Richie took over Malvado's empire.” She leaned over the table. “And I can't wait to meet this Lily-Rose.”

Seth cleared his throat. “Oh, that.”

“I mean, it's kind of predictable,” Kate said, leaning back in her chair and smiling. “Another poor girl caught up in a mess you and Richie made. Keeping her around is sort of like your way of redeeming yourself, right?”

“She chose to stay with us,” Seth said.

“Like me?” Her eyes narrowed.

He sighed. “Kate...”

“Scott asked me to forgive me,” she cut in. “Are you going to ask me to forgive you too?”

There was nothing sincere about her request. She was only testing him.

“I don't want your forgiveness, Kate.” His gaze rested on how his shirt was draped over her body.

“Then, what do you want?” Her voice soft like the breeze blowing in his ear.

Seth knew she had already made up her mind on what he wanted; it was why she was wearing his fucking shirt.

So, he gestured to his open lap and said, “Come here.”

She moved in slow motion, but in just two quick strides, she was straddling him in his chair. She hooked up his shirt to her waist, revealing her smooth legs. He pressed his hands on the small of her back and looked up at her face. The way the moonlight illuminated her broke his heart, but he wouldn't let her see that. Instead, he grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pushed her closer to him.

She wet her red lips with her tongue before lowering her mouth to his chin. “Seth...” Her breath smelled like mint, her hair like apples.

He lifted his hands up her back. Their breathing hitched as they became synchronized. It was embarrassing how painfully hard he became in that moment.

“Seth,” she whispered again, her mouth inches away from his own. Her eyes fluttered close.

Then—

They flew open as Seth grabbed her neck with his left hand, and he found himself staring into an emerald storm.

“Seth.” This time, his name dripped like poison from her mouth.

He didn't let go. He needed to see it again. He needed to know.

Kate managed to put her hands on his chest, and with one exhale, her green eyes flashed red. Seth went flying back in his chair. It felt like getting punched with a giant medicine ball. He landed a few feet away on his side. Kate stood, rubbing her neck.

Slowly, he got to his feet, trying to catch his breath. He didn't have a gun or a stake, then again, he wasn't sure what could protect him from a girl possessed with the souls of pissed off culebras.

But she didn't attack him. Instead, she silently wrapped one arm around her waist while her left hand lingered around her neck. He immediately regretted his decision for giving her his own test.

“You're wrong." He tried to stop his voice from shaking. “That—” he gestured to what happened at the table— “that was not what I wanted. I'm not like one of Oculto's followers looking for a reward. I'm not here to protect the Santa Sangre. I'm here for you, Kate. I'm here to protect you.”

She dropped her arms to her sides, and with a small shake of her head, said, “You haven't changed at all, Seth Gecko, but I have.” She placed her hand on his cheek and he hated how quickly he leaned into her palm. “I am the Santa Sangre.” Then, she stood on her tip toes and pressed her soft lips against his closed mouth. He didn't dare close his eyes or move. “And that was what you wanted.”

Kate stepped back, and he couldn't tell if her eyes were filled with sadness or pity. Either way, they both knew he had failed her test. She slipped through the motel door, quietly shutting it behind her.

Seth didn't follow. He was going to sleep in the car tonight.

Chapter Text

When Richie did sleep, he dreamed about her. It used to be Santanico. Her long dark hair. Her midnight eyes. Blood red lips. The smell of her skin reminded him of faded flowers.

Now, he smelled chlorine and sunshine.

He sat poolside at the Dew Drop Inn, dressed in his Bible salesman suit and smoking a Red Apple cigarette. His attention was on the floating figure in the pool. Kate in her bikini. Her eyes closed, shutting out the world around her.

This was where it all began.

“Nice, huh?”

Another Kate appeared, sitting in the pool chair next to him. This Kate wore all black. Her torso covered in blood.

This was where it all ended.

“May I?” She held out her hand and he slipped his cigarette in between her fingers. As took a long puff, she leaned back in her chair and let out a loud sigh along with a cloud of smoke. “That feels so good.” She smiled at him. “How often do you think about this moment, Richie?”

He turned his head back to the Kate in the pool. She still looked peaceful, serene. The water hadn't turned red yet. She hadn't met him yet.

“Do you think about how you could turn back time and change things?” the Kate next to him continued. “Maybe wish you and Seth had found another way to Mexico?”

He stared at the Kate speaking to him, the cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. He reached over and grabbed it from her. Her smile widened. He took a drag and said, “I wouldn't change anything.”

Then, he got up and walked over to the side of the pool. But instead of finding the floating Kate in her bikini, he was looking at the dying Kate with two bullet holes in her stomach. He was back at the blood well. He spun around to find the pool chairs empty.

“How often do you think about this moment, Richie?” Kate's cold voice spoke in his ear. “Do you wish you could change things now?”

And he did. He fucking did.

Richie picked up the bleeding Kate and held her close. Her raspy breathing hot against his cheek. He opened his mouth, and without any hesitation, he sank his fangs into the side of her neck, pumping her full of his venom. She tasted like vanilla ice cream on a hot summer day. Slowly, he lowered her body back to the platform, but her eyes didn't open.

“Well, that didn't work.” The Kate who he had shared a cigarette with returned to stand beside him.

“Shut up.” He stared at the body on the ground and silently willed Kate to come back to life like he had in the temple.

“Richard.” Santanico's voice blared inside his head like an alarm. He squeezed his eyes shut to silence her.

But it was Kate's voice he heard next. “I don't need you or your brother to save me. Something else did. Something more powerful.”

When he opened his eyes again, the Kate who had died at the blood well was now floating inside the pool, in a sea of blood. His vision had come true, and there was nothing he could have done to change it.

Eyes find eyes.

And what he saw was the truth.

Images flashed before him. Kate with bright red hair, standing underneath a thunderous storm of blood. Culebras dancing around her. Then, everything became still. The clouds broke; sunlight peeked through. The culebras opened their mouths and drank.

**

“Wake up, Richie.”

He was in his bed, not standing with Kate in the middle of a Santa Sangre storm. Lily-Rose stood over him with his cell phone, an annoyed expression on her face. “It's Seth.”

He sat up quickly. Finally, an update. He put on his glasses and took the call. “Give me some good news, brother.”

“We found her,” Seth said. “Well, more like she found us. I'll explain later.”

Richie tilted his head back, giving the ceiling thanks. “How is she?”

“She's fine,” Seth said.

Even over the phone, he knew Seth was lying.

“Listen, Richie, we're coming home, but we gotta make a pit stop.”

“A pit stop? Where?”

“Remember our buddy Ranger Gonzalez?”

Richie rubbed his head. Why in the hell would they be going there?

“Kate says he has something we need,” Seth said.

“And how does she know what we need?”

Seth let out an exasperated sigh. “I'm wondering that myself. Any leads on who sent us Tanner's head?”

“A couple.”

“Uh-huh.”

And Richie knew Seth could tell he was lying over the phone too.

But his brother's next words were, “I gotta go. I'll give you another call when we're on our way.”

“Take care of her, man.”

“I told you, she's fine.”

Richie recalled his latest dream. “I don't need you or your brother to save me. Something else did. Something more powerful.” This time, he believed Seth.

After he hung up, he looked over at Lily-Rose, who had been listening to the entire discussion a few feet away from him. Her arms were crossed and her blank face told him nothing.

“They found Kate,” he said to her.

“That's good.” Nothing in her voice either.

“Hey.” He moved to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “You don't have to worry about anything. Nothing's going to change around here, okay?”

She lifted her gaze to him; her green eyes looking right through him. “You're a horrible liar, Richie.” With that, she walked out of his room, and a moment later, he heard her slam her bedroom door close.

He didn't go after her. Instead, he sat back on his bed and made a phone call.

When the other line answered, he said, “Yeah, it's me. They're heading to Gonzalez. When you get there, report back to me everything you see and hear, you got that? And make sure you stay out of sight.”

The last thing Richie needed was Seth finding out he was being tailed.

Chapter Text

It was quiet in the Camaro when Kate left Las Cruces with Scott and Seth. They were bound for Texas, heading to Ranger Gonzalez. Seth had put up a small protest back at the motel when she told him her request.

“What's wrong, Seth?” she had asked him. “In a hurry to get home?”

She knew who was waiting for him—Richie and Lily-Rose—and maybe he wasn't quite ready to bring her back to them, so he didn't argue with her anymore after that.

As they crossed over the border into Texas, Seth pulled over to a gas station to take a piss. He turned to Scott in the backseat. “You need anything back there?”

Covered in layers and with a scarf wrapped around his neck and lower face, Scott gave him a thumbs up.

“Okay.” Seth left the car and headed inside the store without asking if she needed anything. So, that's the game he was playing?

“I'll be right back,” she told her brother before going after Seth. She caught up with him in the potato chips aisle. “Just like old times, right?”

“Yeah, it's exactly like Mexico,” he said, scanning the bags of chips.

“You know what I mean. You in the driver's seat, me sitting next to you. Nothing but the open road ahead of us.” She smiled. “It wasn't all bad, was it?”

He glared at her. “Did the Santa Sangre mess up your head? Make you lose some memories?”

“Actually, quite the opposite,” she said. “It revealed things to me.”

He turned his attention back to the chips as though he was afraid to hear what kind of things were revealed to her. After what happened last night, he should be fearful.

She softened her voice. “For instance, I know you dream about me.”

An empty bed.

His jaw clenched at her words.

She brushed her fingers against his hand. “Because I dream about you too.”

A sharp knife.

Seth recoiled at her touch. Shaking his head, he grabbed a red bag from the shelf. Barbeque. He remembered her favorite brand. He took a ten out of his wallet and handed it to her along with the chips. “Go wait for me in the car.”

“Now that is exactly like Mexico,” she said with a smirk.

Kate watched him retreat to the bathroom. The truth always seemed to scare Seth more, unlike Richie who was always searching for it. That's why she needed both of them. Seth would die to protect her; Richie would die to protect the Santa Sangre. It was perfect.

As she headed to the cash register, she picked up a bag of gummy worms for Scott.

**

Freddie's house looked like all the other homes on the block except for the bars on the windows, and who could blame him for wanting to protect his family?

It was almost dark as Seth parked the car across the street. Kate chewed on her bottom lip, eying the front door. A single light shone through the living room window.

“Well?” Seth said when she didn't move. “What are you waiting for?”

The last time she saw Freddie, she had a gun pointed at him, and as far as he knew, she was dead. What if he opened his door and decided she was a ghost? That was probably a better explanation compared to the real reason of how she ended up on his front porch.

She looked at Scott and Seth. “Come with me.”

“You still haven't told us what we're doing here,” Scott said.

Her gaze swept over Seth's blank face before returning to her brother's concerned one. “We're here to get the key.”

Scott lifted his brows. “The thing that unlocked the blood well? Why?”

“It still holds a lot of answers,” Kate said. “Answers to questions we haven't even asked yet.”

“That doesn't sound ominous at all,” Seth said with a sigh.

She narrowed her eyes. “You guys have no idea what's coming if the lords get what they want. Malvado's empire of flesh is gone. It's all about the blood now. Isn't that right, Seth?”

He responded by wrapping his hands around the steering wheel. She wondered whose neck he was envisioning.

“I'm going with or without you.” She pushed open the passenger's side door and got out.

“Wait,” Scott called out.

Her brother fell in step with her as they approached Freddie's house. By the time they made it to the front door, Seth had joined them. Kate smiled to herself. Maybe he was coming around after all.

Taking in a deep breath, she raised her hand to knock on the door, but before she could, she heard Seth mutter “Shit” behind her. She turned to find Freddie with his pistol pointed to the back of Seth's head. The ranger's eyes darkened.

“Take it easy, compadre,” Seth said with his hands raised.

Freddie didn't lower the gun. “What are you doing here?”

With a heavy sigh, Seth gestured to Kate.

Freddie seemed to notice her for the first time. “Kate?” His arm relaxed, but he kept the weapon trained on Seth. “I thought—”

“I died?” She shrugged. “Yeah, I kind of did, but then, I came back.”

“How?”

“I can explain everything,” she said. “Just drop your gun.”

Freddie's gaze turned to Scott. Their last encounter hadn't been so pleasant either.

“He's fine,” Kate assured the ranger.

Frowning, Freddie lowered the gun and tucked it in the back of his waistband.

Seth let out a sigh of relief and smoothed down his hair. “Well, I'm glad that's over. How did you know we were out here anyway?”

Freddie looked up at the security camera mounted over the front door.

“Of course,” Seth said. “That's smart. Very smart.”

“If you were smart, you would have stayed away from me and my family,” Freddie said. “Are you going to tell me what you're all doing here or what?”

“Me.” Kate moved to the front of Scott and Seth. “They're here because of me.” She met the ranger's dark eyes, and she remembered how they were partners for a short time. Even though it was her choice to leave him, she hoped he was still willing to work with her again. “I need the key, Ranger Gonzalez.”

He tilted his head as though he hadn't heard her correctly.

“I need the key to the blood well,” she repeated.

“That thing is dangerous,” he said.

“And that's why we need it back,” she said. “Away from your family.”

He put his hands on his hips and turned, chuckling.

She narrowed her eyes. “Ranger Gonzalez—”

“I'd expect that kind of speech from a Gecko,” he said, turning back to her. “But from you, Kate, really? Don't you ever bring up my family to get something you want for one of your vendettas, you hear me?”

Scott stepped forward. “Don't talk to her like that.”

Kate put her arm in front of him. “It's okay, Scott. He has every right to be upset.” She stared at Freddie's scowl. “But this isn't about a vendetta. It's about justice, and I know you understand what that means. I was killed because of that blood well, but I'm also alive because of that blood well. Without that key, we might never know how to stop others from getting the Santa Sangre.”

“I thought there was no more left,” Freddie said.

“Well, you also thought I was dead too.” As she moved toward him, he cautiously watched her. “Will you help me?” She hoped he gave her the same answer she had given him.

Freddie scanned the three of them, and after a silent moment, said, “Yeah.”

“Thank you,” Kate said with a smile.

He glanced at the light inside his home. “But I'm going to have to take you there. It's in storage.”

Fifteen minutes later, Seth was following Freddie's pick-up down a dirt road.

“How do we know he isn't leading us into a trap?” Seth asked.

Kate kept her attention on Freddie's truck. “He isn't.”

They turned into a long driveway that led to a dozen storage units and parked near one in the back. Flood lights over the garage door illuminated the area.

“Okay, where is it?” Seth asked when they exited their vehicles.

“I'll tell you,” Freddie said. “But first we need to get rid of your tail.”

They all turned to see the van parked a few units down with its headlights off.

“It followed us as soon as we left my place,” Freddie said, his lips forming a straight line.

“Who would be following us?” Scott asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Seth pulled out his revolver from under his coat and approached the van.

“Seth, don't.” Kate reached out her hand, but it was already too late.

He slid open the side door and pointed his gun inside. “All right, come out, come out wherever you are.”

The van was empty.

Seth turned back. “What the—”

A black blur appeared from the corner of Kate's eye. The figure tackled Seth to the ground, knocking the weapon from his hand.

Four more figures emerged from the shadows. The men all wore black underneath their leather vests covered with patches. A bloody skull. Snakes. The words CULEBROS and MC. And they didn't waste anytime showing them their true forms. Their fangs gnashed at them. One of them charged at Kate. Scott, already in culebra mode, met him halfway with his fists.

“Get down!” Freddie fired his gun at another culebra. As the bullet struck the culebra's chest, he disintegrated into a cloud of ash. Wooden bullets, wonderful.

Kate ducked behind a storage unit as Freddie continue to fire his rounds. Meanwhile, Seth was still wrestling on the ground with a culebra. Scott tossed another one in the air. She had to stay hidden. These Culebros had worked with Carlos. What if they knew she was the Santa Sangre? What if that was why they were there?

“Gotcha.” A pair of hands grabbed her arms from behind, pinning them together. The culebra's blood roared in her ears, but the blood inside her was louder. She closed her eyes and a river of red came rushing forward.

**

Seth slammed the culebra against the van. The snake vamp bared his fangs at Seth, goading him with a wide grin. Seth had already forgotten about his gun. Instead, he found one of the wooden stakes under his jacket, and with all his might, he plunged it into the culebra's chest. The grin vanished into dust. He searched for Kate in the middle of the culebra attack, but there was no sign of her.

Shit.

“Seth!” Scott was pinned to the ground, holding up a heavyset culebra.

Seth raced to him, ramming his stake into the culebra's back. More dust. He helped Scott up and asked, “Have you seen Kate?”

“No.” His culebra face faded into a worried brother's.

Both of them turned to find Freddie safe, but Kate wasn't with him either. Seth's stomach twisted. It had barely been forty-eight hours and he had already failed in protecting her.

Then, a loud wail filled the air. They ran to the sound and found Kate behind a storage unit. At least, Seth thought it was Kate.

Her feet was planted to the dirt and her right hand was raised, keeping a culebra at least ten feet off the ground. And her eyes—her eyes were the color of rubies.

“Help me!” The culebra waved his useless arms in circles. “Get me down from here!”

Seth slowly approached Kate, whispering her name, but she didn't pay any attention to him. She was in her own world.

“Kate!”

She turned her head at Scott's voice.

“What are you doing?” her brother asked with a pained expression.

Her red eyes blinked as though she was trying to wake up from a dream. Then, she turned back to the culebra dangling in thin air. With her right arm still extended, she closed her fist, and the culebra exploded into a bloody mess, raining down bits of skin and bone on them.

Kate's knees gave out and she started to crumble. Seth caught her in his arms, cradling her head next to his heart. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was shallow.

Scott ran to his side to check on her. “Is she okay?”

Seth didn't know. He could only wait. “Hey.” He pressed his lips against her warm temple, not caring that Scott and Freddie were watching. “Don't do this, Kate. I—we just got you back.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “Open your eyes.” He didn't care if they were green, red, or purple.

Just open your damn eyes.

And she did.

**

Richie sat behind his desk at Jed's, rubbing the inside of his left palm. Five minutes ago, it had started to ache, a soft throbbing right beneath his skin. Something was happening, something he couldn't see, at least not yet, but he had a feeling he would soon. He folded his fingers in, and the throbbing intensified.

His cell phone buzzed in his pocket and he answered it when he recognized the number. “Marco, where are you?”

“I followed them to Gonzalez just like you said,” the culebra said on the other line.

“And did you stay out of sight?”

“I did.” Then, Marco paused. “But, boss, you won't believe what I just saw.”

Richie opened back up his hand.

Chapter Text

It was almost morning and Richie still wasn't home. Lily-Rose stood outside on the patio, the early chill sending a shiver down her back. She wrapped her thin cotton robe tighter around her body. If Richie was here, he'd tell her to get inside before she caught a cold, which was probably impossible now that she was a culebra, but still, it was nice to know he cared at least.

Eight guards paced the backyard; this was in addition to the ones who were watching the house in front. “Extra security,” Richie had called it, but for Lily-Rose, her home was beginning to feel like a prison. When Seth and Scott had left for their trip to New Mexico, she had expected some quiet time for herself and Richie. Time to talk, to refocus, to open up to each other. Instead, it was work, work, work for Richie.

And that was why she was waiting up for him. The sun was going to be up any moment now, and she didn't want to see Richie work himself to death (literally) again. She didn't want to call him back from the ledge again or remind him about mind over matter. But would it even make a difference? Ever since they found out Seth and Scott was bringing Kate back, Richie seemed distracted. He assured things weren't going to change, but everything about Kate made her nervous. This girl who died and was brought back to life with the anger of a thousand souls. This girl who meant so much to Richie.

“You are important to me.”

She hugged herself with Richie's words. She could take some comfort in that distant memory for now.

“You are important to me, mi hijo.”

That voice didn't belong to Richie. The comfort vanished, turning to a snake slithering in the grass. She rubbed her temples and squeezed her eyes shut. No, no, no, no...it can't be...

“I'm coming for you... I'm coming for all of you.”

Lily-Rose gasped as she opened her eyes to find Carlos standing next to her. He wore the same black attire the night he was killed, but he was whole, intact. Her eyes welled with tears as she recalled how he beckoned her from under that table, how he held her gently before sinking his fangs into her neck. She had felt so powerless in that moment. She didn't want to feel that way ever again.

Carlos offered her a small smile. “There's no need for tears. Soon, you will be reunited with your maker, as it should be.”

“You're not real,” she said as her voice trembled. “You're not here.”

“Not yet.” His smile grew, spreading into a mouthful of sharp teeth.

She turned away just as Richie's voice came from the other room. “Lily-Rose?”

She ran from Carlos to Richie, throwing her arms around his solid frame and burying her face into his chest. He was real. He was here.

“What is it?” Richie asked. “What's wrong?”

Lily-Rose looked back at the dark patio. There was no sign of Carlos. She wiped her eyes, still clinging to Richie. “I—I thought—” She paused when she saw Marco standing behind him. He had brought work home. She pulled away. “I'm okay.”

Richie narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” She had to face it. His work was more important than her.

He opened his mouth as if to say more, but before he could, the front door opened.

“Anyone home?” Seth asked.

She and Richie moved to the hallway to find Seth and Scott carrying some duffel bags inside. Lily-Rose was relieved to see they were fine. Then, the two of them stepped aside and a new person appeared.

Kate.

The girl wore a black leather jacket, dark jeans, and boots. Her crimson red hair fell over her shoulders. Her skin was pale and smooth. Her green eyes scanned the room. When their gazes met, Lily-Rose felt a strong current course through her. The Santa Sangre. The holy blood was like a stream of water in a dry desert. She licked her lips at the thought.

“Richie.” Kate said his name like it was a magical word.

His face immediately softened. “It's good to see you, Kate.”

Lily-Rose's stomach knotted. She couldn't tell if it was jealously or hunger or both.

“You must be Lily-Rose,” Kate said to her.

She nodded. “It's nice to finally meet you.”

“Same here,” Kate said.

Lily-Rose glanced at Seth and Scott, wondering how much they had told Kate about her, but neither of them looked back at her. All eyes were on the other girl.

“I should get some rest,” Kate said.

Scott rushed to his sister's side. “Let me take you upstairs.” He took her hand and led her away.

At the bottom of the staircase, Lily-Rose stood in between Richie and Seth. The air was thick with unanswered questions.

Richie put a hand on her back. “I need to talk to my brother alone.”

She stiffened at his touch. Without saying anything, she walked upstairs, but she didn't go to her room. She had a few questions of her own that needed answers.

**

Now that Richie knew Kate was alive and well, he could attend to other matters. Like getting more Santa Sangre for Galloway. The only thing he needed to do was convince Seth to do the same. They moved to the living room, where Marco was still waiting.

Seth frowned at the sight of the other culebra. “What's going on?”

“You tell me,” Richie said. “Care to fill me in on what happened in New Mexico or how about on your little detour to Ranger Gonzalez?”

Seth looked from Marco to Richie. “Something tells me you already know all that.”

Richie nodded at Marco. “You can leave.”

As soon as they were alone, Seth shoved Richie. “You fucking had me followed?”

Richie balled his fists at his sides and kept them there. “I had to make sure.”

“Of what?” Seth snarled.

He dug his nails into his palms. “That you would bring her back here.”

“And why is that, Richie?” Seth lifted his brows. “Does it have something to do with your late night secret meetings? Huh? What's that all about?”

“It's business, brother,” Richie said. “Our business.”

“Not mine,” Seth said, shaking his head. “Whatever you're working on with this culebra lord, I don't want anything to do with it.”

“It can help Kate.”

Seth put his hands on his hips. “I can't believe you. Do you even hear yourself, Richie? We just got Kate back. You honestly think working with a lord is going to help her.”

“Marco told me what happened at the club,” Richie said. “Then, how you guys got ambushed by the Culebros, what Kate did to that biker—” He clapped his hands together—“splat!”

Seth became quiet, dropping his hands to his sides.

“I think what you witnessed was just the tip of the iceberg.” Richie rubbed his left palm. “That's why the Santa Sangre needs to be regulated.”

“And who's gonna do that? You?”

“Us,” Richie corrected him. “I've seen this stuff in action too, in a way that can make us a lot of money. Once we get this stuff on the streets, we have the opportunity to create a supply and demand with the blood. That's how we'll create our empire.”

“There's just one thing, Richard. So far everything I've heard is going to help you, not Kate.”

Richie sighed as he figured out his next choice of words. He had to make sure he pushed the right buttons. One wrong word and Seth would put an end to everything he had worked so hard for. “Right now, Kate—the Santa Sangre—is upstairs taking a nap. She's safe. With us, Seth. That's how we help her; we protect her.”

He had watched Seth waste away after Kate disappeared. Now that she was back, Seth could go back to having a purpose again: protecting Kate and doing a job that would make them a lot of money. If those weren't the right buttons to push, Richie didn't know what else would work.

Seth crossed his arms and nodded. “Okay, tell me more.”

**

Lily-Rose watched as Scott shut the door to Kate's room before heading to his own. She approached the door, quietly opening it. The curtains were shut, blocking out the morning sun. She closed the door behind her as she entered. A figure was hidden under some blankets on the bed. Lily-Rose didn't move. Still, the Santa Sangre called to her from the bed. The desert stream now sounded like a mighty river. She wiped her dry mouth.

Kate moved around under the blankets. Lily-Rose held in her breath. When Kate stopped, she walked toward the bed. She expected to find Kate already fast asleep, but the girl was wide awake. In fact, Kate didn't seem surprised at all to find her sneaking into her room.

Lily-Rose turned to leave. “Sorry, I—”

Kate cut off her explanation. “Don't go.”

Lily-Rose turned back around. Kate sat up, the blankets falling off her body to reveal her red hair over her white T-shirt. All she could think about was how red the blood would look splattered on that clean top.

Kate studied her with the same intensity. “Scott told me about what happened to you. About Carlos. How you live here now.”

Lily-Rose lowered her gaze. She had come in here to ask Kate questions; instead, she was the one under the spotlight.

“You don't have to be afraid of me,” Kate said.

Lily-Rose raised her eyes defiantly. “I'm not.”

“But you are afraid of something, right?”

Where would she even start?

“It's okay. You might not see it now, but we all have an important role in all of this,” Kate said. “Even you, Lily-Rose.” She tilted her head. “I can see why they like you.”

“They?”

“Seth and Richie.”

“They felt sorry for me,” Lily-Rose said. “That's all.”

“No, that's not it.” She pushed the blanket off her and moved to kneel at the foot of her bed. “Seth wants the Lily, the white, the purity, the innocence. Richie wants the Rose, the red, the blood, the danger.”

Roses are red, violets are blue...

“I'm not Lily. I'm not Rose,” she said. “I'm Lily-Rose.”

“That's right, you're both.” A sad smile touched her lips. “I used to be both.”

“What are you now?” Lily-Rose carefully asked.

Kate's eyes flashed red, and Lily-Rose jumped back. Shit. She hurried to the door, but stopped herself. The last month had been hell for her too, and she was still here. She wasn't going to let Kate scare her off that easily.

When she looked back at Kate, her eyes had returned to green. Her face was soft and her legs were tucked under her lap. She looked almost human, vulnerable. It occurred to her how much they had in common, not only in looks and age, but they had been both killed and resurrected on the same night. They were both living dead girls.

Kate crawled back under the blankets, and Lily-Rose moved to the bed again. She slipped in beside her without asking. She figured neither one of them wanted to alone right now.

Facing each other, Lily-Rose said to her, “What about you? What are you afraid of?”

“I'm not afraid of anything,” she said. “That's what scares me.”

Chapter Text

It was almost noon when Seth decided to check on Kate. After Richie had filled him in on his scheme to get rich off the Santa Sangre, he went to bed to sleep the sunlight away. And Seth needed that time alone to go over what Richie was proposing. Not only did his brother want to create an empire of blood, he wanted the source of it to come directly from Kate.

“Better us than someone else,” Richie had said.

But when Seth really thought about it, how were they any different than Malvado or the other culebra lords?

He hadn't seen where Scott had taken Kate, but if he had to guess, Scott probably picked the closest guest room to his own room. When he opened the door, he heard Kate's steady breathing coming from the bed. As he approached her, he realized he was holding in his own, but what he saw knocked the air right out of him.

Lily-Rose was sleeping next to Kate.

Anger and fear flashed through him. He wanted to yank Lily-Rose out of the bed, but he wasn't sure if it was to protect Kate from the hungry culebra or to save Lily-Rose from the dangerous Santa Sangre inside Kate.

Then, he noticed Kate's hand on Lily-Rose's wrist. He narrowed his eyes as he tried to process what he was looking at. It was so intimate. Had they fallen asleep like that? His gaze traveled up Kate's body, the blankets pushed halfway down her body. Her T-shirt had ridden up, exposing a patch of her smooth, unblemished stomach. Where were the bullet holes? Lily-Rose's robe had fallen from her shoulder, revealing bare skin. Her wavy hair spread out on the pillow like one of those fairy tale princesses she idolized.

But it was Kate's hand on Lily-Rose he focused on.

He hated it.

And he hated how seeing the two of them in bed together made his cock twitch.

On cue, Kate stirred in bed and opened her eyes. He wanted to turn away and put his hands over his dick like some kid caught jerking off to a pile of dirty magazines. But he just awkwardly ran his hand through his hair and said, “Oh, hey.”

“Hi.” She glanced at Lily-Rose and gently removed her hand from the other girl before sitting up. “What time is it?”

“Almost noon.” He cleared his throat and gestured to Lily-Rose, still sleeping beside her. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. We just wanted to get to know each other.”

He lifted his brows.

“Believe it or not, Lily-Rose and I have a lot of in common,” Kate said.

“Yeah, I bet.”

Kate frowned. “Well, for one thing, we didn't ask for what happened to us. It just did.”

Seth lowered his gaze to the carpet. She got him there.

“But what's done is done,” Kate continued. “Carlos killed us both that night, but now...” She let the sentence trail off.

He looked up at her again, realizing he never thought about it that way. Lily-Rose had been turned by Carlos the same night he had shot Kate. Now, here they both were, alive in their own way.

Kate's sad eyes lingered on Lily-Rose. “We're a lot alike, me and her.” She turned her gaze to him. “Don't tell me you never noticed that?”

Seth knew what she meant. Had he ever noticed the color of Lily-Rose's hair, her eyes, her build, her voice? Did they remind him of Kate? Of course they did, but he would never admit that to her.

“Do you want something to eat?” he asked her instead.

She nodded and got out of bed. He led her downstairs to the kitchen, where she sat on a stool at the island counter.

“This place is a little excessive for four people, isn't it?” she said.

“Blame Richie's decadent taste.” He rummaged through the fridge. “We got beer, leftover nachos, an open can of baked beans—”

“Seth?”

He looked over the fridge door at Kate, still mesmerized by her red hair and soft eyes. How could this girl be the same person who killed a culebra with her mind twenty-four hours ago?

“What does Richie have planned?” she asked.

Of course Kate knew this wasn't a regular homecoming. Everyone had their motivations on finding her and bringing her back. He shut the door to the fridge and let out a heavy sigh. “You really want to know?”

“I really want to know.” She folded her arms across the counter top.

He took a seat at the stool across from her, clasping his hands together. “He thinks he can make a fortune selling the Santa Sangre blood to culebras.”

“Does he?”

“Listen, Kate, this is just another bullshit scheme my brother cooked up. He thinks we're in the goddamn Godfather movie. It's nothing—”

“You're wrong,” she said in an even tone.

Seth leaned back. “What?”

“His plan actually might work.”

He couldn't believe Kate was thinking about going along with Richie. The blood well was the reason she had died. Now, she wanted to work alongside Richie and put herself in danger so he could profit from the Santa Sangre.

“It's not just his plan, Kate,” he said, hoping to change her mind. “There's a culebra lord that's been helping us fund this entire operation. She'll probably want a big cut out of all this.”

“She?”

“Her name is Lord Venganza. Richie and I have never met her, but we've met her lieutenant Lorena plenty of times.”

“I want to meet this lord.”

Well, that didn't work.

Seth sharply inhaled. “Kate...”

“Listen to your brother, Seth. The Santa Sangre will bring the culebras to you. You get them hooked on it, you control them. They belong to you, understand?” She took his left hand into hers, opening his palm. Her touch was cool, but something inside him lit up. “Now listen to me.” She traced the lines inside his palm like a fortune teller. “You will bring me to the lord because it's my destiny.”

“Shit, no.” He tried to pull his hand away, but she held on tight, interlacing their fingers. Even though her hand was much smaller than his, they seemed to fit perfectly. He thought about her hand on Lily-Rose's wrist. She had claimed her, just like she had claimed him long ago. He gave up and kept his hand bound to hers.

“Why do you want to meet her?” Seth asked.

A small smile spread of Kate's face. “Richie's not the only one with a plan.”