Kind of short this month. Jay got fired from Burger King but he gave a bit. I covered the rest so I own his ass now, lol. Hope you’re well.
Merri read the letter once more, then tucked it back in the envelope. Stowing the cash in her back pocket temporarily, Merri stood and slipped Lexie’s letter with the stack of others she kept in a kitchen cupboard drawer. They rarely said anything different—little updates about her, Jay, and sometimes Danni. Always mentioning how they miss her. Never asking if she’d ever be home, though.
They knew better.
With a sigh, Meredith curled up on the couch and flipped on the old seventeen-inch TV that sat on the floor, staring at it without really watching.
Miss you too, Lex.
A cool autumn wind stirred her hair and nipped at her skin, but Genevieve failed to notice. Dark-rimmed eyes stared blankly at the open textbook in front of her, skimming the same sentence again and again without reading it.
She sat on a bench outside the school alone, having decided that, after sleeping in and missing her first few classes, she didn’t much care about attending the rest of them.
She looked up slowly, the familiar voice taking a few seconds to reach her mind.
Meredith stood just a few feet away holding her jacket in her arms and with a knapsack slung over one shoulder. She offered a half smile, then stepped forward with care. "I was on my way to Bio and saw you through the window. Missed you in class today."
Gen’s eyes dropped to the book once more. She snapped the cover closed and sighed. "Slept in."
"Have a spare right now?"
Gen knew full well Merri had seen her schedule and was aware she didn’t have any spare periods, but couldn’t find it in her to be annoyed at the pointed question.
"Got here, but...I don’t know; I just didn’t feel like going."
Meredith sat down beside her, slipping on her thin fall coat and shivering as the wind blew. "You remember we’ve got Peyton’s ‘Welcome to Newhaven’ party tonight, right?"
"Shit," Gen muttered, momentarily forgetting her troubles to recall it was in fact Friday, and they had all planned to go out that night. Unless one was willing to trek to Toronto, there wasn’t anywhere to go but a club outside of town called On The Map. Peyton immediately agreed to go when they had proposed the idea, and the upcoming group "date" had been about the only thing Gen had looked forward to in weeks. "Everything still on?"
"Yeah…more or less."
"Great—what’s the problem?"
"Well, Peyton asked like a dozen times today if you would still be there tonight." Meredith gave her a little grin.
"Yeah. So you’d better be there. And it’s still me, and Levi said Stephie would probably go. But now there are a couple of guys from the Phoenixes who wanted to come, and then someone in class overheard, and these two girls were all over Levi, insisting they wanted to go too."
Gen rolled her eyes at the thought. As terrible as the Newhaven Phoenixes were, they still had a following, as did each of the players. And since Hayden’s death...well, it was clear there were plenty of girls ready to give Levi a shoulder to cry on—or anything else, if need be.
"So there’ll be a few more people there than we thought. Sound okay?"
"Sure." It didn’t seem to matter much if it didn’t seem okay since plans had already been set, but she wasn’t about to complain. The night out would be good...
"Now are you going to tell me what’s wrong?"
Gen looked up to catch Merri’s steady gaze, then shifted nervously and shrugged. She didn’t even see the point in the conversation—the damn woman was basically psychic anyway. She probably already knew the answer.
"Just don’t sleep much. I’m sure Michael told you."
Merri sighed heavily. "He doesn’t tell me everything, Gen."
"He tells you more than he tells us."
"Which I might point out still isn’t much. The guy is..." She shook her head. "He’s just impossible to read. Every time he speaks, I don’t know if it’s the truth or complete bullshit. He’ll tell me enough to keep me thinking he’s being honest, but that’s as far as it goes. I swear."
Genevieve met her friend’s eyes then, and was pretty sure she was telling the truth. Of course, one could never tell with Merri, and she found it particularly ironic on this occasion when she was lamenting the dishonestly of Michael. But she had to trust someone, and that person might as well be Meredith.
At least Merri didn’t almost leave me to die...
"Mer...I wanna tell you something."
Merri offered another smile. "Anything."
"Do you...I don’t know, ever have weird dreams?"
"Ones that..." God, she was going to sound insane if she ever actually forced the words out. "Ones that are different, though? Dreams that aren’t normal...kind of like visions?"
Merri grinned at that, as if relaxed, but Gen didn’t find it comforting. "I’m a Seer—I have dreams that are visions of the future all the time—"
"No...not the future. Visions of the past."
A slight frown crossed Merri’s face, but she didn’t comment. "Like memories?"
"If they’re memories, they’re not recent ones. I..." Deep breath, Gen... Even if Merri couldn’t help her, maybe she’d feel better just saying it out loud... "I had a dream last night. I’ve had it before—once Monday night too." She tried not to let the memories come back to her in full, but terror rushed over her once more. Shivering, Gen cast a quick glance over her shoulder, certain someone would be standing there behind her, ready to stab her again. Though her rational mind found it unsurprising that they remained alone, the rest of her couldn’t shake the feelings from her dream.
"Gen, you don’t need to tell me if—" Merri started, but Genevieve shook her head.
"It’s okay. In the dream...I’m standing on a hill. It’s really snowy and I can see this tiny town in the distance. But everything else is snow. I’m just standing there...and I’m not alone. Someone is there behind me...a man...
"And I know him. That’s the thing that gets me—somehow, I know who he is, and though I don’t remember now, in the dream I know why he’s there."
She swallowed hard as a lump formed in her throat and stared at the empty space in front of her. "And then he kills me. Just like that. Stabs me in the side, and when I fall down, he slashes my throat."
"That’s...creepy," Merri said, her frown deepening.
"Michael gave us those books on Monday, and I got thinking... Now that I know I’ve lived other lives, I think maybe it really happened. And if it did...Mer, what if he’s still out there? Somehow...I mean, it’s possible. And I’m scared he’s going to try to kill me...again. I looked through that book and these girls...these girls were all so young—there aren’t any stories of them when they’re older. I think they all...I mean I died. Really young."
"So did some of the girls in my book," Meredith said quickly. "But people were afraid of others that could do what we can, especially women—"
"Except no one’s been burned at the stake or whatever terribly lately. There was a photograph in my book, under a hundred years old. Why didn’t she live to be really old? What if the guy from my dream killed her?"
Silence grew between them. Merri’s gaze drifted off, as she seemed to be concentrating on something, meanwhile Gen didn’t feel the slightest bit better after finally speaking her thoughts aloud.
"Is there anything else in the dream?" Merri asked suddenly.
"Well...the three times I remember having it, there’s this other girl there. She looks like me, but she’s not. She’s...stronger, I guess. Confident. I think she’s me in one of my other lives. She says I have to remember who I am."
"Have you had any problems with spells?"
"If by ‘problems’ you mean ‘not tried any’..."
"You don’t understand!" Genevieve interrupted, her voice breaking. "And neither does Michael. I don’t even know what I did to those guys that day—and I know they were going to kill us and all, but... What if I do something and I can’t control it? Fuck—three weeks ago I was scared this stuff wasn’t even gonna work, and now—"
"You just need to practice," Merri said, her calm voice smoothing some of Gen’s rising nerves. "Keep working with the small stuff, let Michael guide you—"
"Yeah, ‘cause Michael’s been a really great mentor thus far. He’s totally my Yoda." She rolled her eyes for effect, and Merri chuckled.
"Okay, forget Michael then. I’ll help you—I’ll be your old, wrinkly green guy. While Sage and Michael work together, you and me can meditate and work on some simple spells. I can’t do any of them, obviously, but I can help you with focusing."
"Of course. No more mysterious spells that Michael hasn’t explained to you ahead of time, nothing dangerous. Just simple stuff. I’m sure he won’t mind."
Gen gave her a look.
"Much," Merri added with a grin. "Wanna hit your last class or head over to Michael’s now?"
"Sit out here then?"
"No...Michael’s, I guess." The two stood and began the familiar walk away from the school property towards Michael’s.
"Mer...can I ask you something else?"
"Have..." Gen thought about her dream for a moment. "Have you ever heard of ‘The Brethren?’ Like has Michael ever said anything about them?"
"No, what is it?"
"I don’t know...but the girl that looked like me in the dream mentioned them. She said they weren’t the only ones I should worry about."
"Maybe they were the guys who came after us before?"
"Maybe... Do you think you can find out? From Michael, I mean?"
Meredith didn’t say anything for several long moments. "I don’t know, Gen. He isn’t always very...forthcoming. Maybe we can look into it ourselves first?"
"Like Nancy Drew?"
"I was thinking a little more attitude."
"Veronica Mars it is, then. Should we make some calls to people while using fake accents and start bugging phones?"
"Would you even know who to call?"
This sneaking around idea was going to be difficult if Meredith couldn’t get in the spirit of things. "Well, no," Gen admitted. "So why don’t we skip Michael’s and head to my place? Check the internet? I’m sure there’s something on there…"
Apparently, merely Googling "brethren" wasn’t as helpful as Genevieve thought it might be.
She hadn’t completely eliminated the possibility that the name referred to one of the thousands of church groups that came up, but she and Merri couldn’t be certain. And since the thought of visiting those thousands of pages destroyed any desire she had to know who exactly the Brethren were, the girls decided that perhaps they could first think of some better ways to investigate before actually investigating. Of course, three hours of going through different search engines could wipe out anyone’s enthusiasm.
Adding to their difficulty in getting anything accomplished was Genevieve running to the phone every time it rang—in case it was the school informing her mother of her absence—and then keeping her father from randomly walking into her bedroom to check up on them and tell Meredith lame jokes, as he was fond of doing when she had friends over. If they did any more snooping into the Brethren, they’d have to go to Merri’s for some peace and quiet.
"Levi’s still going to pick us up in an hour, right?" Gen asked, glancing at the clock on the bottom of her computer screen’s desktop.
"Far as I know," Merri replied as she closed the notebook she’d been writing their search results in. "Know what you’re wearing?"
Gen sighed as her gaze trailed to the closet. "No. I figured I’d just blindly reach towards the back where my cuter outfits rest—still with the tags, in most instances—and hope I come up with something. How about you?" Only then did it occur to her that she’d never seen Merri in anything but jeans and faded T-shirts, always in muted tones. She frowned at the thought. "Will you have time to go to your place and change? You can borrow something of mine, but I’m like a foot taller than you…"
Meredith held up her backpack, which in retrospect, Gen mused, seemed quite a bit more full than usual. "I figured we’d head to Michael’s after school or something, so I came prepared. Mind if I get changed in the bathroom?"
"Be my guest."
While Merri went to change, Genevieve herself did exactly as she said she would: she reached into the back of the closet and fished out a few articles of clothing that still had their tags. Changed and just pinning her long blonde hair into a rough ponytail, she heard a knock at her bedroom door.
The door creaked open and she took a moment to finally get the last bobby pin in her hair before turning around.
"Holy Christ, you look hot!" she managed to sputter under the shock of seeing Merri. Twenty minutes in the bathroom had let her replace her jeans with a short skirt, T-shirt with a form-hugging lace top, and legs clad in black stockings and a pair of bulky black boots. Dark, dramatic make-up, hair piled on her head in a messy-but-stylish ‘do…the woman was all curves and sin incarnate as far as Genevieve was concerned.
"So this is okay?" Merri asked with a half smile.
"Okay? If you ever decide you go for chicks, I’d better be the first to know."
Merri stood back away from the dance floor, sipping her beer and watching the crowd. Gen and Peyton seemed to be getting along; neither girl had left the other for most of the night. They spent a lot of time talking and dancing—always at least a foot apart—but Gen was absolutely glowing and there was little doubt in Merri’s mind that her friend felt things were progressing well. Whether or not Peyton felt the same way, however, was definitely up for debate. She appeared to be having fun, but something seemed a little off about her—a nervousness, perhaps? Was she just cautious, or particularly on guard? There were moments when Merri caught a certain look in Peyton’s eyes—something she couldn’t quite place—but seconds later it was gone and she seemed back to her normal self. Maybe she had a genuine interest in Gen being more than a friend. Maybe not. But as long as Gen didn’t get hurt, Merri was happy to watch it play out.
Gen’s friend Stephie had taken off at some point early on, and Merri hadn’t seen her since. The rest of the group—whose names Merri had already forgotten—were split between dancing and sitting at a round table chatting.
She glanced up to the surrounding gallery again, but didn’t see Michael anywhere. Krysta must have indeed called him, just as Meredith thought she would, and he no doubt went to meet her. Though she hadn’t actually even seen the woman before, intuition told her to be wary. Michael had it in his head he was smarter than everyone else and if he didn’t see cause for alarm, then everything must be fine…and normally, Merri could accept that. But he seemed far too nonchalant about Krysta. Either he knew more about her than he said he did, or something had completely blinded him to the caution he should be taking.
"We should totally go out more often," Gen said as she suddenly popped up at Merri’s side, eyes wide and a huge grin splitting her face.
Meredith glanced around. "Where’s Peyton?"
"Washroom," Gen said with the nod of her head. She took a long drink of her beer. "Seriously, isn’t this awesome?"
It could be better, Merri thought. "Levi looks like he’s doing well," she said instead, gaze shifting to where Levi sat with an unfamiliar strawberry blonde.
Genevieve rolled her eyes. "With the skank of the century. That’s Kourtnee—with two E’s, by the way. Talk about parents setting their kids up to do porno or something, eh?"
Meredith took a closer look at the girl. She didn’t appear to be particularly skanky, but she did seem very interested in whatever Levi was saying. Leaning across the table, eyes locked with his, laughing as if on cue… And Levi looked relaxed with her, which seemed a good thing.
"She doesn’t seem that bad," Merri said.
"Yeah, ‘skank’ is probably overdoing it. She’s in the drama club—always the lead in school plays—and she just always seems really fake to me. He doesn’t seem to notice, though. He’s been talking to her all night."
"So should we rescue him?"
Gen shrugged. "I think I liked him better when he was pining after Sage, but maybe the attention will be good for him. Now…" Her eyes traveled over the faces of the room. "…we just need to find you a hot boy."
Thankfully, Merri caught sight of Peyton returning. "Peyton’s back," she said quickly, relieved as Gen’s attention was easily diverted.
"Ooh! Well, maybe she can help us look for a guy…"
Merri quelled that suggestion by grabbing Gen by the shoulders and thrusting her toward Peyton. "Go, have fun, and don’t worry about me."
"If you want to do something for me, lend me your cell for a few minutes."
Gen gladly handed over her phone before heading off to meet Peyton.
Before even thinking of calling anyone, Meredith polished off her beer. A shot of something stronger might have made her feel a bit more relaxed, but a cold draught was better than nothing. At last she powered on the cell phone and punched in the number Michael gave her.
Four rings in and knots formed in her stomach—what if Michael was being a prick and had given her the wrong number? She wouldn’t put it past him, and he made it pretty clear he didn’t want the guy around…
Startled at the sudden answer, she paused for a moment. "Um…hi." Oh, smooth, she thought with a wince.
"Hi," a male voice said again. "So…what are you up to tonight?"
Nervousness dissipated and she grinned. There was no mistaking that tone—it was definitely him. "You have no idea who this is and you’re ready to carry on a conversation with me?"
"Well…yeah. So what are you up to?"
"I’m at a club with some friends and I’m having a very dull time."
"Ah," he said. "And you decided I could liven things up?"
"Or revel in the dullness along with me."
"Hmm. Tempting. And where is this dullness occurring?"
"It’s this place called On the Map. It’s just off—"
"The 401—I know it. I guess I can come by."
"You’re not even going to ask who this is?"
"No," Thad replied nonchalantly.
"But I could be an axe-wielding maniac."
"Naw—if you were an axe-wielding maniac in a dance club, you probably wouldn’t tell me you were having a dull time. You’d be killing people."
"And killing people is fun?"
"It is if you’re an axe-wielding maniac, or so I’m told."
"Know a lot of them, do you?"
"Just one... Maybe two."
"Alotta people are here—how are you going to know which one is me?"
"Well, what are you wearing?"
Merri glanced down. "Purple shirt with a bit of black lace. Black skirt. Black boots."
"Wow, you sound hot."
Merri stifled a laugh. "If I was hot, I wouldn’t have to call strange guys when already standing in a room full of them, would I?"
"Maybe. So do I actually know who you are?"
"I’ve seen you before?"
"Uh…" She looked down at her outfit again and sighed. "Not looking like this."
"And the plot thickens. Okay, don’t go anywhere—I’ll see you in a bit."
Merri hung up the phone, her brain still not accepting what she had just done. It was stupid. Pure idiocy. She didn’t know him, couldn’t trust him…
But she was restless. Bored. Fucking sick of hiding all the time. Against her better judgment, she decided to return to a more comfortable skin that night; to be a little bit more like herself. And along with that self came a desire for fun and to take a few risks.
And phoning a complete stranger she’d spoken to for just a few minutes several days ago definitely qualified as a risk.
Over forty minutes later and no sign of Thad, however, had left Meredith feeling relieved, if not slightly disappointed. Perhaps the fates had overlooked her momentary lapse in judgment and any potential disasters would be averted…or perhaps her brain was just way too sober and at last thinking clearly again. Whatever the reason, he didn’t show and she might as well be glad of it.
From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a person and glanced to her right to see one of Levi’s friends watching her. She couldn’t remember his name, and didn’t recall having spoken to him at all that night—why the hell was he staring at her like that?
As if realizing she had noticed him there, he moved towards her. Merri felt her skin prickle just a bit—whatever he wanted, she probably had no interest in it.
"Hi," he said, flashing his teeth in a grin.
Why didn’t I just leave instead of waiting for Thad to show up?
She gave him a half-hearted smile of greeting, and then made a point of looking elsewhere. Just in case that wasn’t enough to make him get lost, she crossed her arms over her chest. Drunk or not, he had to get the hint.
"Levi said you got us a couple of drinks earlier."
Apparently her body language had been completely lost to him.
"Ran into a friend who offered to get it for us," she said with a shrug.
"Yeah, well, thanks. I’m Warren, by the way."
She knew he waited for her to introduce herself, but an exchange of words even greater than what had already passed would only serve to encourage him.
"You’re Merri?" he said at last.
"And also not interested," was her curt reply.
"Ah, I see."
Then fuck off, already.
"Just thought I’d give a couple of you a thank you gift—you and the other new girl."
Her back stiffened and her gaze moved to him slowly. "Gift?"
Warren held up a tiny plastic bag with a couple of pills inside. Merri guessed it was Ecstasy. How…quaint.
"Very considerate of you," she said as he cracked open the bag. He pulled out a tablet and reached for her, intending to put it in her mouth himself. She’d dealt with worse before—best not to make a scene. Merri stuck out her tongue and accepted the hit, tossing it in her mouth but wedging it between her gums and cheek. She pretended to swallow and Warren didn’t seem to think much of it.
"Guess I’ll be on my way," he said, gaze going to where Genevieve and Peyton sat.
"Maybe you could stay a little longer," she said quickly, moving to step in front of him. Warren smiled and she tried to mimic the way he looked at her so he wouldn’t leave so quickly.
"Actually, I was thinking of getting out of here…" He raised a brow in suggestion. "Want to come with?"
This was definitely the last time she intended to wear such a short skirt—it brought nothing but trouble.
She opened her mouth to object, but thought the better of it. "Sure," she said instead, stepping a bit closer to him. She casually put her hand on his arm and looked up into his eyes, smiling. "Let’s head around back?"
"I was kind of thinking we could drive somewhere…"
"I don’t know, something about being out in the open like that, where anyone could walk by…I think it would be more fun than a car." Her hand slid down his arm, coming to rest on the little bag of XTC. She slid it from his hands and slipped it discreetly into her pocket. "Meet you out there in a few minutes? I’ll pass on your ‘thank you’ to the girls…maybe one of them will join us."
The stupid guy must have been tripping balls because he bought every word of it—his eyes even widened in excitement.
"Great—I’ll see you out there."
"Be sure to wait for me," she replied with a seductive grin.
He nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to make it to the club’s exit.
Once Warren was out of sight, Merri spit the pill out and dropped it on the floor. Moron. At least she stopped him from trying to pass on any drugs to Gen and the others. Some of Stephie’s home grown weed on occasion? No big deal. Fucking Ecstasy? No way Genevieve needed to be on that. There were probably a couple of people in her apartment building Merri could sell the rest of the pills to, so at least her encounter with Warren wouldn’t be a total waste. For a moment, she almost felt bad for the guy—he’d be pissed when he realized she wasn’t showing up. Perhaps he wouldn’t even remember, though.
Depressed that the closest she’d gotten to some fun was some guy giving her XTC and propositioning her for sex—and a little tired—she made her way to where Genevieve and Peyton sat.
"Hey," she said, leaning over the table as the two other girls looked up. "I’m beat—I think I’m gonna catch a cab home."
"Are you sure?" Gen said with a sudden frown.
"Yeah, I’m heading out."
"Maybe we can all go?" Peyton suggested with a bright smile. "Stop and get a coffee, then head home?"
Genevieve looked over to where Levi sat. "Let me just grab Lev and we can go—"
"It’s still early—you should stay." Merri snuck a meaningful glance at Peyton, then gave Gen a quick smile. "And I don’t think Levi wants to go anywhere either."
"I’ll call you tomorrow?" Gen offered.
"Hmm, we should probably meet with Sage and…get some ‘studying’ in."
Genevieve made a face but didn’t complain. "I guess. Meet you around noon?"
It really sucked that she was leaving alone, but standing around feeling awkward among the others wasn’t much better. Merri spotted her jacket slung over the back of a chair and moved to get it.
"You’re leaving?" a voice said behind her just as she slipped her dark coat on.
Meredith turned and a small grin played on her lips. "Well, see, this guy was supposed to meet me here, but he never showed, so I thought I’d call it a night."
"Well…" Thad began, leaning against one of the thick industrial pillars that supported the gallery. "Maybe the guy had to shower first so he didn’t smell like week old Kraft Dinner as the rest of his roommates and apartment do, and then maybe that guy had to drive from the city. So maybe the guy should be cut some slack?"
"Maybe," Merri mused, looking him up and down. He certainly didn’t look as though he’d just fallen out of bed and shown up: dark hair gelled into spikes, crisp navy shirt straight off a hanger, and black jeans that had to be new. He’d definitely taken time to clean up first, and was looking drop dead gorgeous at that. Though willing to forgive his lateness, appearances were everything, and she wasn’t ready to stop playing just yet. "But it depends on how long you’ve been here scoping out the place before coming over." She nodded to the beer clutched in his hand and noted his jacket was casually slung over his arm, as if he’d been there awhile.
"About five minutes—I figured I’d be better able to find the mysterious hot girl in the purple shirt from the second floor."
"And it would be easier to slip out if you didn’t like who you found?"
"Now that would be rude of me—I’d at least come over to say hi. After all, I did go to the trouble of showering."
"So is this just a ‘hi?’"
"If it was, I’d feel pretty stupid for buying you a drink." He pulled a bottle of berry-flavoured cooler from within the folds of his jacket and handed it to her. "And to be honest, I was hoping it would be you."
"Right," she said, opening the bottle. "Bet you say that to all the girls you receive mysterious calls from and go to meet in the middle of the night."
"Just the cute ones with magical abilities, actually…of which there are about three dozen, I should warn you."
"That I’ve met with this week, at least."
"Hi Thad!" a familiar voice shouted to Merri’s right, and she and Thad glanced over to see Genevieve grinning and waving manically. When Thad waved back, she leaned over to whisper something to Peyton and the two girls burst out laughing.
"Just ignore her—she’s probably still stoned," Merri said.
"Now I’m starting to worry…is this a set up where Michael is going to jump out at any second and kidnap me to extract information?"
"I have a feeling he’s a little preoccupied elsewhere at the moment—no business here, just pleasure." Merri slid her jacket off again, took Thad’s from over his arm, and then tossed them on the chair behind her. "Dance?"
"I’m terrible," he warned.
"I’ll forgive you." She took his hand in hers and led him away from the sitting area.
She pulled him into the thick of the dance floor among bodies moving to the music and slid her arms over his shoulders. Hips swaying, she closed her eyes for a moment, reveling in that feeling of letting go, of not giving a fuck about anything, of…surrender. Christ, it felt good to be herself again.
She felt hands travel down her body, coming to rest at her hips, and the feeling of the cold, wet bottle of beer—that Thad still clasped in his right hand—just barely touching the flesh between the top of her skirt and the hem of her shirt. She shivered, the feeling delicious to her rather than unwelcome. Merri opened her eyes again to catch his gaze on her, and she smiled and inched closer, pulling her arm from him to take a long sip of her cooler.
"This is a little weird," he said suddenly with a half grin.
"If you told me last week that I’d get a strange phone call and would end up at a club dancing with the Seer of all people, I would have thought you were an unconvincing liar."
"Bit of a celebrity, am I?"
"In certain circles."
"Well, if this part of our evening was so unbelievable, I guess I shouldn’t tell you about what we’ll be doing when we leave here…"
He raised a brow in question, and she sensed he didn’t quite believe what she might be suggesting. "Is that so?"
"Yeah…so I’ll probably just spring it on you as a surprise later." With that, she rose on her toes suddenly and kissed him deeply. His lips parted effortlessly against hers, and, whether he was surprised or not, he adapted to the situation with equal ease. As her arms tightened around his neck, Thad pulled her into a close embrace. Neither was dancing anymore when he pulled back to gaze down at her with a faint smile.
"So…" she began innocently. "Wanna get some air?"
Merri sighed heavily. Though exhausted and spent, her body was still too euphoric to realize it yet. She climbed back into the passenger seat of Thad’s Nissan Versa and her head slumped back on the headrest.
"These cars really are roomy." She glanced over at Thad, but found his eyes closed. "Don’t tell me you’re asleep now…"
He cracked open an eye to look at her and grin. "Haven’t figured that out yet. Might be dreaming."
"That seems like a horrible waste of three perfectly nice minutes."
He looked at her fully then, eyes shooting wide open and jaw dropping. "Hey, that wasn’t—"
She laughed. Enough songs on the radio had played along to their activities—far more than three minutes worth.
With mocking displeasure, he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes again.
"Going to sit there and sulk?"
"Nope—already forgotten. Currently, I’m wondering what wonderful things I possibly did in a past life to elicit such a reward in this one."
"Well, you do that while I try to figure out what happened to my underwear."
"Sitting on the backseat."
She glanced back, and sure enough her pair of black cotton bikini briefs were strewn on the backseat. "Funny, I thought I was supposed to be the Seer?"
"I’m very observant when it comes to women’s panties, and now that I hear myself say that, it sounds kinda creepy, and I apologize. I actually just saw them when I glanced in the rearview mirror."
"Cheater." She angled herself between the two front seats to reach the back to snatch up her underwear, then slid them on once more while he disposed of the condom.
"Mind if I smoke?" she asked as she reached for the pack of cigarettes in her jacket pocket.
"Um…actually yeah. Sorry. Mind if I kiss you?"
She shoved the pack of smokes back in her coat and pretended to think it over. "I suppose not."
He leaned over to press his lips to hers. One hand went to the back of her neck to pull her closer, the other swept strands of sweat-soaked hair back from her forehead. He pulled back a moment to gaze at her, then gave her mouth another peck before returning to his seat.
"I realize I haven’t even asked how old you are, and now I probably seem like such a perv," he said, with what appeared to be genuine concern. "I have a horrible feeling the answer lies somewhere around ‘jailbait.’"
"Pretty much. Eleventh grade."
He winced. "Okay, that’s bad. So what is it? Sixteen? Please don’t say any younger than that."
"Seventeen, actually. Failed second grade so I was held back a year. And how old are you?"
He was definitely lying on that count, and after staring in her eyes for a moment, he seemed to realize he wasn’t going to get away with it.
"All right, all right…twenty…and a half…four months ago."
"So almost twenty-one?"
"Sure, you could put it that way if you want to make me sound like a perv."
"Twenty-one and seventeen isn’t perv-ish," she assured him.
"I don’t think you know many twenty-one-year-olds—they’re all pretty perv-ish. Hey, can I ask you something?"
"I don’t imagine I could stop you."
"How did you get my number?"
"Swiped it from Michael’s phone," she said. A slight lie, but Thad didn’t need to know that Michael had willingly parted with it.
"And why did you call me tonight?"
He was serious suddenly, intensely staring at her, and she paused before replying. Thad clearly had something in mind, and she couldn’t say for certain she would like where this conversation was heading.
Why had she called him? He’d seemed interested in her when she saw him on Monday, and she’d been thinking about him quite a bit ever since. And no one ever noticed her now—she could walk around invisibly, never getting a second glance from anyone. But somehow, the other day, Thad saw her. And that meant something. The group outing that night—coupled with the fact she ran into Michael, who knew a way to contact him—inspired her to try getting in touch. And…well…she liked him. There was an instantaneous attraction there, and by all accounts he seemed like a good guy. She’d had far too much experience with the wrong types, and Thad seemed like a welcome change.
Of course, she saw no reason to tell him any of that. While she had a big problem with anyone who lied to her, honesty about her own feelings really wasn’t her strong point.
"What does it matter?" she said instead, somewhat coldly. The heat they generated in the car a short while ago seemed to dissipate in a hurry as tension grew.
"It matters because I want to know. Did Michael know you found my number?"
"What does Michael have to do with this?"
"He’s manipulative. Shaw knows it—that’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t want anything to do with him. But Michael wants to talk to him, and I think we both know he’ll do what he has to if it means getting what he wants."
"Like send me to screw you in the hopes you’ll lead me to Shaw?" she snapped. Fuming, she unfolded her jacket and violently thrust her arms into the sleeves. What the hell had she been thinking?
"I just meant I wouldn’t put it past him to be pulling the strings somehow—"
She reached for the car door, but he caught her arm and tried to draw her back.
"He may be a liar and an asshole, but at least he’s never accused me of being a fucking whore," she interrupted, and wrenched out of his grasp. Without even bothering a final glare in his direction, she swung open the car door and stalked back toward the club. Thankfully, he didn’t follow.
She found Gen still sitting inside with a yawning Peyton. Both girls looked up as Merri slumped down onto a chair.
"You okay?" Gen asked, but Meredith didn’t feel like answering her. She managed a shrug, then occupied her time staring at the drink smudges on the table. Fuck, she felt like such an idiot. Perhaps he didn’t mean anything by it…but maybe he did. Maybe he really thought that she only called him because Michael asked her to, and after seeing he could get a little action, didn’t bring up that fact until much later.
"Where’s Thad?" Gen said.
"Went home," Merri replied without looking up.
"He didn’t drive you?"
"Not going our way." Christ, why the hell was she asking so many questions?
"Levi was talking about going soon—I think he wants to drive Kourtnee home, so it’ll be a tight squeeze in the car. You okay?"
Merri realized she had been sitting there sulking for a few minutes—there was no reason to let people see this. She flashed a quick smile, putting on her mask and assuring them everything was all right.
"Fine. Still tired, is all."
"Me too." Peyton yawned again. "Maybe if we all crowd around Levi and start snoring, he’ll get the point?" While she and Gen conspired to not-so-subtly let Levi know they were all ready to go, Merri let her mind drift off again. She’d been itching to get out and have some fun, so what was there to whine about? She got what she wanted. No complaints to be had. Maybe he really was a scumbag. Or maybe he was genuinely concerned she was using him, and then she just flipped out on him for no reason.
Whatever happened, she wouldn’t be seeing him again, so it hardly seemed to matter.
In back of On the Map, Warren Humber sat alone on the pavement in the dark. He’d been standing out there for awhile, but then dizziness struck, and it just seemed like a better idea to be sitting. Where was that girl? He was pretty sure someone was supposed to meet him out there…ah, who the fuck cared? He leaned his head back, resting it on the brick wall of the club, and gazed up at the stars. The wind chilled him, but he didn’t mind—it all felt wonderful.
A sound broke through the euphoric haze surrounding his head. What was that, footsteps? He glanced around. The air seemed heavy, thick…almost wet in the way it clung to him…
Glittering stars and a half moon lit the pavement behind the club, but for some reason the figure moving toward him was cast in darkness. He made out no face, no features, nothing at all…
"Come with me," said the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard. Lyrical, soft—never had he encountered such a sound in his life. It compelled him to rise on shaky legs and move forward, ready to go anywhere—do anything—just to reach the person that had such a voice. The figure moved toward the field and Warren chased after it.
Footsteps thumped on the floor above the living room, about where Gen’s parent’s bedroom lay. Her mother was doing the stomping, and Gen glanced over at where her father sat in his favourite armchair.
"Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready?" she asked impatiently. Merri sat on the couch with her, and Levi and Stephie would be showing up soon. Why the hell couldn’t her parents just leave, like they were supposed to? "She’s only stomping around up there to get your attention."
Her father shrugged. "Plenty of time."
Like hell he had time—ten minutes ago her mother yelled that they should have already left. Leo Weist clearly had no desire to attend whatever function his wife sought to drag him to, however, and made no move to leave his chair.
"You know the deal," Gen warned. "I have friends over. You can’t be here ‘cause you’ll be in the way of the orgy."
"In my day, we still had chaperones for orgies," he replied.
"That’s ‘cause you’re old—we modern teenage orgy participants are much more independent."
"I met your mother at an orgy, you know…"
"God, would you please get ready and go out with Mom now!"
The doorbell rang, and seconds later Levi and Stephie walked inside. A quick glance told Gen that, thankfully, Stephie had enough sense to hide the beer bottles in her backpack.
"C’mon," Gen whispered, nodding for Merri to follow her toward where the others stood. "And you," she swung back around to face her dad, "had better be gone by the time we get back from the kitchen!"
"I think I’ll stay home tonight," he replied. "Keep you kids out of trouble."
"I’m sorry," she whispered to Merri. "He thinks he’s being clever. Hopefully he’ll be leaving soon."
"It’s okay, I like your dad," she replied, though Gen found that idea hard to believe.
Levi handed Genevieve the grocery bag of snack foods and one glance at the contents made her curse his name.
"What?" he asked with an amused grin. "You like nachos and cheese."
Right—she also liked stuff she didn’t have to prepare. With a sigh—and trailed by Merri—Gen carted the bag to the kitchen to preheat the oven and prepare their snacks. Christ, he even expected her to grate the cheese—what was up with that? Thankfully, Merri took on that task, while Levi and Stephie stared uselessly from the doorway.
"So what movies did you get?" Levi asked, still annoyingly watching them rather than…well, Gen couldn’t think of something for him to do, but he at least should have asked.
"Re-animator and Bride of Re-animator," she called over her shoulder as she spread the tortilla chips on a baking pan. "And because I adore you so very, very much—or did before you brought snacks that I actually had to prepare myself—we got Bloody Murder 2 featuring a topless Tiffany Shepis." She squealed with surprise as Levi suddenly grabbed her from behind, his arms going over her waist in a hug.
"I do sometimes like it when we have the same taste in girls," he said, head resting on her shoulder.
"Yeah, well, the old movies were three for five bucks, and we couldn’t find another Re-animator one," she teased, only half meaning it. The fact that he was ready to get together as a group again and try to have some fun was important to her. Did it alleviate any of her guilt over Hayden’s death? Not in the least bit. But seeing Levi genuinely smile the last couple of days was a welcome development…and a topless Tiffany Shepis was bound to make him smile even more.
"Besides," she continued when he let her go to pull some glasses out of the cupboard. "We all know your real love is for Jeffrey Combs."
"Um, isn’t your dad supposed to be going with your mom?" Stephie said in a low voice.
"Heard that Steph," Gen’s father said from the other room. "And I was just noticing your bag strangely looks like it has a large box in it—about the size that would hold a dozen bottles…"
Stephie’s eyes got big. "Just Pepsi."
When Genevieve and the others returned to the living room to wait for the nachos and cheese to cook, she found her father still sitting in the same spot, and her mother across the room glaring at him. Her hair was done up, she wore a simple black cocktail dress, and Gen recognized her grandmother’s pearl necklace about her neck. Wherever they were going, it was formal, and her mother was going to kill her father if he didn’t get up and get dressed.
"Jesus, you haven’t even showered—we were supposed to leave fifteen minutes ago!"
"I’ll be ready soon," he said, not making any move to go. Gen had seen this way too many times before: rather than just say he didn’t want to go, he was going to wait until her mom got fed up and left by herself. That had better not mean he planned to stay home, though…
Her mother stormed around and ranted for another ten minutes, then sure enough, she stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind her, meanwhile her father sat there calmly, gazing at the weather channel. Gen sent an uncomfortable glance to her friends; Levi and Stephie were used to her parents, but it was all new territory to Meredith. None of it seemed to be bothering her, however—she didn’t seem weirded out in the least bit.
"Um, dad…" Gen began, but he put up a hand to stop her.
"Give it another…thirty seconds or so. She’s waiting in the car for me."
Sure enough, less than a minute later the headlights passed in front of the window as Rebecca Weist pulled out of the driveway. Just as the sound of her car faded, Leo stood and went to the door to put his shoes on.
"You promise you’re leaving?" Gen asked.
"Yes Genny—poker game. Don’t tell your mother. No smoking in the house, Steph, and be good, kids." He barely finished his sentence before he was out the door. It all seemed a little odd to Gen, though she wasn’t about to complain. The house to themselves, Merri offered to serve up the nachos while Gen put on the first movie and Stephie cracked out the beer.
"So you gotta tell me something, Lev," Stephie said casually as the first movie ended. She had been stretched out on the floor in front of the television, and turned over on her back to glance at Levi, who sat on the couch. "I heard you drove Kourtnee home last night?"
"I have to tell you if I drove a girl home?" Levi said, confused. Gen had to agree the question seemed odd—she couldn’t see what Steph was getting at.
"Well, I’m asking ‘cause I wanted to know if she popped your cherry or not—"
Gen burst out laughing and Stephie continued grinning like an idiot.
"C’mon," Steph continued. "It’s Kourtnee. Legit question."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"It means she’s boned half the Phoenixes, so I was curious if she added you to her list of conquests."
Perhaps it was the beer, but Genevieve found the whole exchange hilarious, and she doubled over in laughter.
"She’s not like that," Levi insisted. "And no, I didn’t sleep with her."
Stephie pulled herself onto her knees, an excited grin lighting her face. "You’re lying. Look at him, Gen—he’s lying."
"Aw, leave him alone…" Gen’s sentence trailed off as her gaze fell on Levi. His face was slowing reddening and he avoided her eyes. "Holy shit, you slept with Kourtnee?"
"No!" he said again.
"You totally did something with her, or you wouldn’t be looking so freaked," Stephie said. "So what was it? Blowjob in the car?"
"It’s okay; she’ll probably screw you properly on the second date—"
"I can’t believe you didn’t tell me," Gen said, honestly a little hurt. It was Levi…Christ, he told her everything. Not that she was particularly interested in details about that skank giving him any sort of attention, but it still seemed like the sort of development he’d tell her about.
"I already know you guys don’t like her," Levi returned. "But you don’t know her—she’s nice."
"Did you come to that conclusion before or after the blowjob?" Stephie asked.
"She’s a skank, Lev," Gen said.
"She’s led an interesting life," he said instead.
"Yeah, with her vagina."
"I’m not discussing this with you anymore." Levi slumped back on the couch and crossed his arms over his chest.
"It’s okay, you can make fun of me after I tell you who I slept with last night."
Gen did notice Stephie slipped out of the club early the night before, and she hadn’t seen her afterwards. It came as little surprise that she left to apparently go home with someone.
"Who?" Levi asked.
Gen’s jaw dropped wide open. "The math teacher? Seriously?" She shook her head in disgust as Stephie nodded. "You are such a slut."
"Yeah, but if I find myself needing another credit to graduate, I’m pretty sure I can get one for Calculus without even showing up."
"Jesus Christ—did everyone get more action than me last night?" Gen looked to Meredith, who had been sitting silently in an armchair across the room for the duration of the conversation. "I suppose that’s why you and Thad disappeared too?"
Merri shook her head. "Please, I hardly know the guy. We just went out to talk."
Gen sighed. "Well, I’m depressed now anyway. I’m making more nachos." She gathered up the plates and went for the kitchen, while Stephie continued teasing Levi.
Leaning against the warming oven, Gen crossed her arms and looked at Merri expectantly as she followed with a couple of empty glasses in hand.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Merri asked as she set the dishes in the sink.
"You should call him."
Meredith looked a little startled at the blunt statement.
That’s right—you’re not the only observant one, Mer.
"Who?" Merri asked, apparently deciding to play dumb.
"Uh, Thad. Who else?"
Mer shook her head. "I don’t think so."
"Are you at least going to tell me what went on with you guys? You were more than friendly last night, then today he completely ignored you."
"It was just a misunderstanding," she said quickly, offering a smile that Gen didn’t completely believe.
"Quite the misunderstanding considering you ran out after he left. Michael still wouldn’t tell us what was going on, even when Sage asked, so—"
"You’ve seen Sage?"
Both Gen and Merri turned, startled, to see Levi standing in the kitchen doorway. If he looked mad before when Stephie teased him about Kourtnee, he was right pissed now.
"What the hell are you doing around her?" he asked, stepping into the room rapidly, face a dark red.
"Remember a month ago when you told me you thought I should take some self-defense classes?" Gen said quickly. "Well, that’s what I did. And so did Merri. We sometimes see Sage there—that’s all."
"Sage got one of her teachers to give us exclusive lessons really cheap," Merri added. "Because it’s during the time when he’s got his advanced students—like her—there. And he’s not supposed to do that, so we’ve been keeping it a secret."
Damn, she’s good, Gen thought. Coming up with lies on her own, Gen usually had to scramble to think of something and hope it sounded innocent enough, but Merri…Merri was smooth enough about it that Gen almost believed it herself.
Gen and Levi stared at one another for several long seconds. She couldn’t be certain if he believed her or not, and she loathed lying to him but…
But could she tell him the truth? She’d always just assumed he’d think she was crazy. Witches, warriors, magic, apocalypses, assassins… Though she sometimes wanted to confide in him, realistically it wasn’t a conversation she had the slightest desire to have.
"Goin’ out for a smoke," Stephie called from somewhere in the other room.
"I’ll join her," Merri said quickly, leaving the two of them alone to Gen’s dismay.
"How often have you been seeing her?" Levi said after they heard the front door close.
"I saw her a couple of times this week, including this afternoon," Gen said with a sigh. "Barely spoke to her, ‘cause she’s not exactly the talkative type."
"I can’t believe you didn’t tell me," he muttered under his breath, dropping his gaze to the linoleum floor.
"And what would that accomplish, besides you being pissed off at me? I know you’re mad at her, but she—"
"She knows what happened to Hayden!" His eyes snapped up at hers again, blazing with anger. "It’s her fault—"
"She loved him," Gen cut in. "If she could have done something to help, don’t you think she would have?"
"She could’ve gone to the police."
"Except no one snuck into his room and killed him," Gen said. God, it hurt to talk about all this again, and fresh feelings of sadness and regret welled to the surface. "If she did know something, and if she did go to the police, how would that have stopped a blood clot? And if she was, in some way, responsible for what happened, don’t you think she probably hates herself even more than you hate her at this point?"
"So you’re taking her side?"
"There aren’t any sides in this, Lev."
Silence welled up between the two of them—silence of the awkward variety. It was the kind of thing Gen never thought would happen between them; in over eight years, there never came a time when they didn’t know what to say to one another. But here they stood in her kitchen, where they’d stood a million times before over the years, and somehow in the past month enough of a chasm had developed between them that she was truly at a loss for words.
Levi moved to the nearest chair at the maple dinette table and dropped down into the seat, his shoulders slumped forward and head hanging down. Gen fidgeted for a few minutes longer, praying the nachos would hurry up and cook so at least she’d have something to do. Should she go over to him? Give him a hug? Did she want to risk pissing him off and making everything worse?
"Sage asked about you," Gen said at last, tensing as she awaited his response. When he didn’t say anything, she continued. "When I saw her on Monday, she asked how you were."
"So?" he muttered.
"So she didn’t ask about anyone else. I figured she was…like, concerned about you."
"Yeah, I’m sure she really cares," he muttered. They heard the front door open and close as Stephie and Merri returned from their smoke break, and Levi stood. "We should probably put one of the other movies on."
"Yeah, I’ll just get the food…"
He was gone before she’d finished the sentence, however.
So her continued association with Sage was going to be a problem. And how the hell would she solve it? Avoiding Sage wouldn’t work, but lying to Levi just made her feel awful.
She turned off the oven and opened it, then slid the baking sheet out with a folded towel.
"Gen, get in here!" Stephie called. "Hurry!"
With a sigh, Gen left the nachos sitting on the stove, then returned to the living room. Stephie, Levi and Merri all stared at the television, each looking concerned. Jeez, she knew the movie was bound to be pretty bad and everything, but they were looking like someone died or something…
Her gaze moved to the television screen, where rather than another Re-animator movie, she found them watching the news. A reporter stood out in front of a brick building, and after a few seconds Gen recognized it as the club they had been at the night before. A caption at the bottom of the screen said, "Body of teenager found."
Oh, great, someone did die…
"The body was found in the field behind the popular club On the Map just hours ago," the reporter said into a microphone. Beyond her, Gen spotted police cars and officers, and yellow tape marking a crime scene. "We have confirmation that this is being treated as a homicide. No word yet on persons of interest…"
"Is it someone from town?" Gen asked, looking at the others. "Someone we know?"
"It’s Warren," Levi said quietly.
"Warren Humber?" she repeated. "But…we just saw him last night—"
"And today he’s dead," Stephie said.
Except for Hayden, Newhaven hasn’t seen a murder in at least four or five years, Gen thought, recalling one mention of a homicide years ago when she was in elementary school. Weakly, she sat on the couch next to Levi to listen to the rest of the story, all the while keeping her fears to herself.
What if this too was somehow connected to her, Merri, and Sage? And if it was…precisely what the hell were they going to do about it?
Levi stood still in the shower, relaxing under the steady stream of hot water. Exhausted, he wanted nothing more than to climb in bed and sleep for the next ten hours, but after hopping in the shower to clean the Riff Raff make-up off, he found the heat and noise a welcome way to wind down after a long night.
Kourtnee had sulked on the way home when Levi said he had little interest in attending an after party she’d heard about, though he mused she’d get over it. Or perhaps attend it without him—she’d said she wouldn’t, but if she did, he wouldn’t find it so surprising. She had other friends, other social circles; she was nice and he liked her, but he had no illusions that they might suddenly become inseparable and start running with the same crowds.
What pissed her off even more was when he drove her straight home and declined her offer to come inside for a while. The night had left him drained. They’d stayed for the full dance, listening to a representative from Crimestoppers discuss the increase in youth violence and the need for witnesses to step forward, participating in the dance-a-thon, watching the student government auction. Dealing with the principal’s brief talk of Hayden and even Warren had been difficult, but no more so than his almost-daily therapy sessions. It all seemed to sap his energy even more, however—all the talking. All this time, and no one ever said anything different. Hayden was a good guy. It wasn’t fair that he died, but that’s life. Time heals. Think of the good times. Christ, he was fucking sick of it all.
The shower water grew noticeably cooler, and though he played with the taps, it was clear the hot water was nearly out. He shut off the taps and stepped from the stall to the bathroom. Steam filled the small room, fogging the mirror and making it difficult to breathe. Still, the warmth was welcome, and Levi took his time drying off and changing into his pajama bottoms for bed. Gathering the Riff Raff costume and wig, he flipped off the bathroom light and started for the hallway.
At one in the morning, it was well past the hour his parents went to bed, so he wasn’t surprised to find the house silent. Most nights he’d head to the basement to watch TV for a few hours, but after weeks of insomnia, sleep called to him and he was eager to oblige.
A noise in the room to his left paused his step. Was he just hearing things, or—
This time a floorboard creaked—he was certain of it. Fear constricted his throat and caused a tightness to form in his chest.
The noise came from Hayden’s room.
Levi dropped the costume next to his own door, then backtracked to Hayden’s. Wild theories entered his brain—it could be anyone in there. He’d lain awake too many nights speculating about those responsible for his brother’s death to forget all those possibilities now. Had someone come to steal something, after all this time?
The smart thing to do would be to retreat to his room and phone the police…but even as he thought that, Levi found himself reaching for the doorknob, determined to catch whoever it was in the act.
His heart thudded in his chest as he turned the handle and cracked open the door.. Darkness met his gaze—no flashlights, no lamps on. He pushed the door open a little more…
Across the room, the window lay wide open. Curtains billowed in the icy wind, and the breeze chilled his still-damp skin. Goosebumps dotted his bare flesh, though at this point he couldn’t say if fear or the cold caused it. The tree just outside the window blocked the moon, and the only light spilled through the door from the hallway.
Holding his breath and listening hard, Levi heard fabric rustle from somewhere to the right, near the closet, signaling someone must be there. He opened the door farther still and stepped completely into the room.
A scan of the near-empty space revealed stacks of sealed boxes and the disassembled bed frame propped against the wall, a few garbage bags of clothes in the center of the room…and a familiar figure huddled on the floor beside the open closet.
Her back against the wall, she had her legs pulled up to her chest and arms wrapped around them. Head bowed, he couldn’t make out her expression in the darkness and she didn’t look up when he stepped in the room.
Anger roared through his veins. How dare she show up here. He knew she could climb the tree to get through the window—the walls were thin and he couldn’t help but hear her and Hayden the odd night when she snuck in. But to think she’d actually break-in…
And break-in was what she had done. No denying that, and no reason why he couldn’t phone the police. Sure, his parents wouldn’t press charges in a million years, but maybe it would scare her into actually admitting whatever shit she’d been hiding.
Pissed and resolved, he strode across the room, his sights set on the cordless phone still plugged in and sitting on the floor where Hayden’s nightstand had been.
"Where’s his stuff?"
He paused mid-step at the sound of her small voice behind him. Just ignore her and go for the phone…don’t turn around, don’t turn around…
Levi turned around. She stared up at him, tears freely flowing over her cheeks, lower lip quivering.
And god, he hated her. Hated that after everything, he could still gaze at her and feel his insides torn in two; hated that her mere presence could remind him of his brother more than anything else had in weeks; hated that though he wanted to continue towards the phone to call the police, he couldn’t force himself to do it.
He held her gaze for as long as he could, mustering up every ounce of hate within him to finally go off on her about the part she played in Hayden’s death—to scream at her and blame her and let it all out.
Then another fat tear brimmed in her eye and fell, tracing the gentle curve of her face, and he knew he couldn’t do it.
"Mom packed it up," he answered her at last. "She rented a storage locker and moved most of it there. Dad’s barely speaking to her over it."
She dropped her eyes to the floor and stared blankly for a few minutes. Levi hung back, unsure of what to do. Phoning the police still ranked as his preferred reaction to her presence, though at the moment he couldn’t find it in him to do something so cruel. Telling her to leave was still another possibility, as was leaving her alone. His stomach turned at the thought of either of those, however.
Eyes traveling up to his again, her tears fell with greater frequency now.
"I’m sorry," she whispered, her voice breaking. "I’m so sorry, Levi…" She let her head fall, forehead touching her knees, and her body shook with sobs.
Without even being conscious of what he was doing, Levi found himself moving toward her. He dropped to his knees next to her and slid his arms around her shoulders. Half expecting her to stop him—to push him away and run out of the house, and never speak to him again—it surprised him when she willingly leaned into him. As the side of her face pressed against his chest, hot tears hit his flesh. He hated that Gen had been right, but there was no denying it. Whether he liked it or not, Sage was part of Hayden’s life, and of course she missed him. Grief dampened his own eyes as it welled within him once more.
"I’m sorry," she whispered again.
Levi tightened his embrace and said nothing.
After all, there was nothing more to say.
The morning after Levi’s confession to her about both his concern for Sage and his lingering feelings, Genevieve rose early with a mission in mind. Dragging herself to Michael’s at nine a.m. was the last thing she wanted to spend her Sunday doing, but she had barely slept since talking with Levi. She knew Michael could probably reason with Sage, so she resolved to try to talk him into it.
Was it even any of her business? Possibly not, and it seemed certain that Michael would probably yell at her for it. But Merri had mentioned to her before that Sage seemed to trust him—though God knows why—and if he could help her deal with her grief, then Gen was willing to try.
Of course, as she finally stood at his front door, she found herself wishing she’d asked Merri to do it instead.
Though she wavered for several minutes on whether or not she should even disturb him—especially when he’d specifically said he didn’t want any of them around that weekend—at last she raised her hand to knock.
Several minutes ticked by with no answer. A little relieved he didn’t seem to be home, she decided to knock once more before leaving, just so she could claim she made an effort.
Unfortunately, footsteps sounded behind the door just then, and seconds later it swung open. Michael stood in a pair of long charcoal pajama bottoms, sleep in his eyes and hair even more of a mess than usual. In a word, he looked like hell—rough night, whatever he’d been doing. He squinted in the sunlight and yawned. His hand slid along the edge of the door, gripping it tightly for support.
"What?" he mumbled as he recognized her.
"Uh…I…" Dammit, she wished she had like an email address for him or something. A quick note would have been a lot easier.
"You’re not supposed to be here today," he said, as if she needed reminding.
"I just wondered if I could talk to you about something for a second."
She thought for sure he’d turn her away, but instead he pushed the door open further and gestured for her to enter the house. She moved past him quickly, happy to be out of the cold though she never felt completely comfortable in his presence and that day was no exception.
Her mouth opened to speak as he closed the door behind her, but he brushed past her and went immediately for the kitchen. As she followed, her gaze swept over the familiar space to find it not-so-familiar suddenly. The kitchen table and chairs had been moved across the room, and all the books were removed from the shelves opposite appliances in the kitchen.
"You moving?" she asked, praying her voice didn’t sound as hopeful as she felt.
"Renovating," was his reply. He filled the coffee pot with water and moved to get a coffee cup from the cupboard. Tipping it in her direction, he gazed over his shoulder at her and raised a brow in question.
"I don’t drink coffee," she replied.
"Um, sure." She didn’t generally drink tea either, but it was so rare he offered her anything, she hated to refuse. Maybe he was sleepwalking or something; that could explain why he wasn’t acting right. Or maybe he had some kind of head injury…
He filled the kettle next and it was then Gen’s gaze fell to his bare back and sides. Several dark red scratches marred his skin—fresh by the look of them.
"Get attacked by a bear?" she asked, a small smile hovering on her lips. It was hard not to giggle.
Michael met her eyes and watched her gaze stray to his sides again.
"Maybe that pussy needs to be declawed."
"The thought has crossed my mind on occasion," he said dryly. "Now what do you want?"
"It’s about Sage."
"I mean what kind of tea," he said sharply with a glare. Gen mused he must have finally woken up.
"Surprise me." She regretted that statement almost immediately—rat poison seemed a very real possibility with him. "So don’t you want to know why I’m here to talk about Sage?"
"Mind if I have my fucking coffee first?"
"Whatever." Christ, if she knew he was going to be such a baby about it, she would have stopped at Tim Horton’s first.
He pulled a few more ingredients out of the cupboard and thankfully none of them resembled rat poison, at least from Gen’s view. She kept her silence as he took to pouring the drinks and added a tablespoon of honey to her tea, but couldn’t keep her silence when he dropped a generous amount of whiskey in his coffee.
"So is that your usual morning ritual or just to deal with me?" she asked as he scooped up the mugs.
"Bit of both, though today I’m leaning toward the latter."
Genevieve didn’t doubt it.
As he walked past her, he thrust the mug of hot, fragrant tea in her direction. She accepted the cup with care and followed him out of the kitchen. Michael took a seat on the couch, slouched down a few inches so his position resembled more of a sprawl, and took in a long sip of hot coffee. Gen settled on the edge of a nearby chair and waited for her tea to cool.
"Okay, explain," he said. "And be done by the time I finish my coffee."
"It’s about Sage."
"You already said that."
God, he was annoying. She quickly reminded him of the fact that he advised Sage to go to that dance, informed him that she had shown up, and then described how it all went to hell when Hayden’s request was played. He looked then as though he was going to bark something at her about wasting his time, but she continued before he could speak, finishing with what Levi had told her.
After voicing her concerns, she took a sip of the now-cool tea. "And by the way, this is really good—what is it?"
"Masala chai," he replied. "And can you perhaps refresh my memory as to why, exactly, you decided to tell me all this?"
"I was hoping you could talk to her."
"Because she listens to you. I thought…I don’t know, that maybe you could help her or something."
"Her boyfriend died—did you think by now she’d be over it?"
"No," she snapped. "I know she’s upset—this isn’t about her getting over him. It’s about her losing it. What if she tries killing herself?"
His face remained impassive—no luck there.
"Fine," she continued. "You don’t actually care about her—I get that. But you told us before that all this end of the world crap hinges on the fact that the three of us have to stay alive. Don’t you think her suicide would impact things a little negatively?"
As he tipped his mug to his lips, he watched her from over the rim and, to Genevieve, seemed to be considering her words. Of course, if appealing to him as a human being didn’t do it, at least cold logic spoke to him.
"Can you help her?" Gen asked when it seemed he wouldn’t say anything further.
"I’ll talk to her."
"But don’t tell her that I told you all this," Gen said quickly. "And really don’t tell her Levi told me any of that—it was probably supposed to be a personal thing. Maybe just tell her that you—"
He waved toward the door. "I’m not playing those games. You can leave now."
That didn’t seem such a bad idea to Gen. After draining the mug, she stood and returned it to the kitchen. Though it seemed preferable to get the hell out of his house as soon as possible, she turned to face him once more when she was only halfway to the door. Perhaps it was the positive development with Peyton on Friday, or the fact that Levi had come to confide in her, just like old times, but Genevieve felt bold suddenly. Stronger. A whisper of power rushed through her, so sudden and small she almost didn’t notice it at first…but it was there.
"Actually," she lifted her chin slightly and her voice took on a self-assured tone, "I have something else I wanted to talk to you about."
"Is that so?" He seemed more amused than threatened, but she refused to let him embarrass her into backing down.
"Yeah. I want to know something about that day at the farmhouse, when we all went there."
He didn’t seem surprised at her question. "I figured you would. You want me to tell you what you did to them?"
A little shudder went through her at the thought. "No, actually. I’m not sure I ever want to know about that. I want to know why, when that man had a knife to my throat, you almost didn’t do anything to help me."
Finally getting the words out had done nothing to quell her fear of him, but she did feel some weight drift off of her shoulders. A lump formed in her throat as she awaited his answer, however, and as long minutes of silence passed, the air grew heavier with expectation and tension.
"You’re standing here right now as a testament to the fact that I did help you," he replied coolly, "on a couple of occasions."
"It’s not that I’m not grateful, but that’s not the point. You helped me, but not before thinking long and hard about it. I saw you. You know I did. You were thinking of letting me die."
Michael regarded her without a word, continuing to casually sip his coffee. "Yes, I did."
Having that confession at last did little to ease her mind.
"Why? I’m not stupid—I know this is personal. You stalked me for weeks and you didn’t do that with Sage. I’m willing to bet you didn’t with Mer either. And if you were willing to stand there and watch that man murder me, I’d hazard a guess that you’ve considered doing it yourself a few times." Now that part she hoped he’d argue with, but the cold half smile on his lips told her otherwise.
"Interesting deduction." He downed the last of his coffee and rose. Though their heights nearly matched, she couldn’t help that he intimidated her, and every second was an internal struggle not to back away from him.
"If I’m supposed to keep coming here and trusting you, I have to have the truth," she said. "Can I trust you? Am I going to be spending the rest of my time here looking over my shoulder, afraid of you?"
He stalked toward her slowly, and again she fought the urge to backpedal. Two feet away from her he stopped, staring at her and saying nothing.
"Should I be worried about you deciding to randomly go homicidal on me?" she asked again.
He seemed to consider his response for a moment. "No."
Gen couldn’t say if she found that reassuring or not. "And should I expect that the next time my life is in danger you’re going to stand there considering whether or not you’re going to save me?"
Even less reassuring.
Power continued to twist through her veins and down her arms, winding around her fingertips. She didn’t actually know if any of it could do her any good—if any real magic was dwelling within her at that moment—but that little power was enough to ignite her sense of fearlessness again.
Genevieve took a step forward and gazed coldly into his green eyes, issuing a challenge that she only half hoped he’d accept.
"I want to know why this is personal," she said. "I need the truth—whatever it is. I need to understand."
Michael took another step forward so mere inches separated them and looked her dead in the eye.
"The day you understand is the day I will kill you," he said evenly. "So I’d say it’s in your best interest to forget about it."
At this point Genevieve was absolutely terrified—a threat on her life tended to do that to her—but she kept her composure as best she could.
Gen plastered on an exaggerated smile, calmly said, "Thanks for the tea," and abruptly turned toward the door. Once outside—and a safe distance from Michael’s—she muttered a few curses.
She’d better learn how to do a goddamn fireball soon ‘cause a certain target was just begging to be burned alive. The imagined sight of him writhing in fiery agony made her smile.
Suddenly conscious of her gory thoughts, Gen nearly stopped mid-step. Christ, what had happened to her? She had felt sick at the thought of doing something horrible to the people who really had tried to kill her—how could she really be smiling about burning someone else alive?
Genevieve shivered a little and she knew the sudden chill wasn’t from the cold.
A call from Michael late that Sunday afternoon had startled Sage. She’d heard from Merri—she knew that, for whatever reason, he had said he had no desire to have anyone around that weekend, even her. It was with disappointment that she accepted, and planned to spend both afternoons out jogging. And then, just as she laced up her running shoes, the phone rang and her mother informed her that her sensei was on the phone. That alone worried her—two weeks had passed since she’d dropped out of all her classes without telling either her mother or Michael. So why would one of her teacher’s call?
But relief and a spark of curiosity came when she heard Michael’s voice on the line, abruptly informing her he would be expecting her within the half hour.
In less time than that, she stood at his front door, sweat sprinkled across her brow from the run. Over the past few weeks, she hadn’t knocked once upon her arrival, knowing that if he expected her, the door would be open and she was to walk in and immediately start stretching. Michael had little tolerance for small talk and greetings, and she was glad of it.
On this day, however, she found herself hesitating. Something didn’t feel right, and though she normally wasn’t the sort of person to get mysterious intuitive nudges, she couldn’t ignore it this time.
Still, she clasped the cold doorknob and thrust the door open.
Inside, Sage slipped off her shoes and socks and left them by the front door, then strode into the main room. Already dressed in long track pants and a hoodie, she didn’t see the need to change. Without any sign of Michael, she perched on the arm of the couch and waited. Furniture had been moved out of the kitchen since the last time she’d been there days ago, and now the kitchen counter was heaped with tools and boards. Against the far wall were long, wide boxes only a few inches deep, along with a huge roll of plastic.
She sincerely hoped he hadn’t called her there for help to dispose of a body. It was bad enough helping Merri get rid of the guy who shot at them over a month earlier; though Sage prided herself on having a strong stomach, the whole event wasn’t one she was eager to repeat.
There was the sound of an engine in the driveway then as a vehicle pulled in, followed by car doors slamming and voices talking loudly. Minutes later the front door opened and Sage tensed, expecting the worst.
Not one of the three men looked familiar, nor did any of them pay her notice as they passed by to go to the kitchen.
"Should we get started then," one called, the tallest and oldest of the three.
Sage swung around to see Michael standing in the loft, looking over the railing. Dressed in a thick black sweater, he seemed to meld into the shadows up there, and she realized he might have been watching her when she came in without her noticing.
"Beer’s in the fridge," he called to the visitors. "You’ve got today and tomorrow, and you’re already late." His gaze went to Sage. "Get your shoes on and come upstairs."
Confused, but accustomed to following his directions, she did as she was told and found him waiting for her at the top of the steps to his loft. She hadn’t been up there once in the past month and a half she’d been coming to his house, but didn’t have time to spare the space a glance before he was leading her to the shadowed far right corner.
"What’s going on?" she asked.
"They’re installing a breakfast bar," he replied. "So we’re working upstairs."
Upstairs…was there a third floor she wasn’t aware of?
Michael yanked on a cord hanging from the ceiling. A simple bulb turned on, revealing an iron ladder affixed to the wall. It led to a hatch door in the ceiling, and after gazing at it for a few seconds, she returned her attention to Michael.
"Had it installed yesterday," he replied to her unasked question. "It makes sense to have more than one exit here."
After a nod from him toward the ceiling, Sage went to the ladder and climbed up. A few shoves on the hatch door and it swung open.
Cool November air brushed her skin as she climbed onto the roof. Though the sun wouldn’t be setting for awhile yet, thick clouds blanketed the sky, threatening to snow if it got much colder.
"Rope ladder is over there," Michael said as he followed her and closed the hatch door again. He gestured to a steel box bolted to the flat roof near the building’s edge. "Not my preferred way to leave, but a possibility."
"It’s a good idea," she agreed. Moving towards the edge, Sage gazed at the horizon. She could see a good half of the town from up there, and the distance from everything…it was simple. Peaceful. Easy. Perhaps she might persuade him to move their training sessions up there more often, even if it was a little cold.
"Tell me something, Sage," he said casually. "Why is it you were home when I called today?"
"Huh?" She wheeled around to face him, confusion clouding her expression. He stood about three metres away and watched her with interest.
"You have Muay Thai classes Sunday afternoon," he replied.
She flushed a little—she didn’t realize he remembered that.
"You don’t normally show up here Sunday evenings until around six, if at all, so I’d venture a guess those classes finish at four. Why were you home at three-thirty?"
Why bother lying to him? She doubted he’d actually care anyway, especially not if it meant she’d have more time for his instruction.
"I dropped them," she said. "A couple of weeks ago."
Michael watched her in silence. Shifting under his steady gaze, she dropped her eyes to the side.
"You fought hard to go to those classes, and you just left?"
She nodded, waiting for the inevitable "why."
"What else have you dropped?"
Sage glanced up at him sharply. "What?"
"What other classes of yours have you dropped?"
Dammit, why did he seem so mad at her? "All of them," she replied with a sigh.
A shrug. Her Aikido sensei threatened to discipline her regarding her aggression and warned her not to come back if she couldn’t control her temper…so, logically, she didn’t go back. It wasn’t long before the rest of the classes fell to the side as well.
"Your sensei asked you a question," Michael reminded her coolly.
Sage bowed her head with the obedience ingrained in her. "You know much more than my other teachers do," she said. "I thought you could teach me."
"I don’t know Muay Thai, which was why you were so eager to keep those classes, as I recall."
"I thought my time would be better spent with kenjitsu."
"If you can’t stick with your previous disciplines, how am I supposed to believe you’ll follow future ones?"
She struggled to think up an answer for him—anything to keep him from throwing her out and refusing to teach her. But before anything came to mind, he spoke again.
"That’s not why I called you and brought you up here today."
Looking up at him again, she studied him curiously. "Then why…"
"I thought there was something you should see." He reached into the back pocket of his black jeans and pulled out a Ziplock bag with something small and square inside. She hadn’t long to speculate on the object when he threw it her way.
She caught the bag and turned it over in her hands. A familiar looking compact black cell phone…what the hell?
Holding it closer to her face, she examined the phone. Something had dried a dark brown on it, flecks falling off into the bag.
Sage looked back up at Michael. "This is his?"
"But you said you never found it at the farmhouse."
"It wasn’t at the farmhouse."
Her mouth went dry. "What?" she managed to whisper.
"I didn’t find it at the farmhouse, Sage."
"Where did you find it, then? You said they must have had it—that since they called me after they attacked him, they must have kept it…"
His lips formed into a cold smile as realization finally dawned on her. Grief, rage, hurt…it all welled in her at once. Betrayed. God, he killed Hayden? How could he…?
"You’re far more useful to me if you have a mission for yourself," he said, as if reading her thoughts.
And then she picked just one of those emotions. One that wrapped itself around her suddenly, warmly, almost comforting in its simplicity.
"I’m going to kill you," she swore.
Michael shrugged nonchalantly. "Have at it."
After coming down from the roof, Michael had sent the private contractors home, with the instruction that they were to show up mid-morning to finish. He was paying them to do the job rather than by the hour, so they’d better hurry the hell up. Sage relaxed into their regular routine after the contractors had left, following his instructions and keeping focused far better than she had recently. He sent her home at nine, and at last the house was silent…
Even if his head wasn’t.
Glass of Jack Daniels in hand, he dropped down on the couch and took a long drink.
His gaze absently went to the sketchpad on the coffee table. Thinner and larger than the one he usually used, the sheets were eleven by fourteen inches and kept solely for the purpose of planning canvas paintings.
He set his glass on the table, and then picked up the sketch pad. After removing the pencil stored in the spiral binding, he flipped through the first few pages.
Anne. Always Anne. Pages and pages of her.
And it wasn’t the first time he’d planned a painting of her. Over and over again he’d fill a sketchbook with plans, deciding on the pose and the lighting…then when it was time to paint, he’d burn the book. Every time. He’d paint still life, landscapes, occasionally hire models, but could never even start one of her.
A sketch in a book was easy. The book could be closed and put away. Or burned, in some instances. Investing the time and energy in a painting, however, was impossible. Staring at her round dark eyes every day while he worked, struggling to match the shade of her skin…
And perhaps that was what he feared most of all. The conversation with Sage had highlighted his own guilty thoughts—the knowledge that he couldn’t remember everything. Anne had been gone so long—too long. He couldn’t recall every mark on her skin, every eyelash, every line on the palm of her hand… A painting would mean facing that. A sketch was about capturing generalities; an oil painting would mean details. Ones he might not remember anymore—that he might not want to remember anymore.
He just…he was tired. So fucking tired. He’d spent so long obsessing on these memories…and he resented it. Hated it. But no matter how he tried, he couldn’t let it go.
He had no illusions of what Anne would think of him if she could see him now. Yet another reason for not wanting to see her portrait every day, coming alive beneath a brush he controlled. Those familiar dark eyes wouldn’t be looking at the same person she once knew.
Michael closed the book and threw it to the other end of the couch. He’d burn the fucking thing tomorrow.
Leaning his head on the back of the couch, he closed his eyes and tried to empty his mind. Relaxation never came easily to him, though, so he swallowed another mouthful of his drink and waited for it to kick in. He raked his hand back through his hair. Fuck, he wished he could sleep. And not just sleep, either—drift into nothingness. Just one night with no dreams, no nightmares, no faces of regret nagging his brain. That was all he wanted at this point.
Peace. Not a lifetime of it. He didn’t deserve that kind of thing. But a few hours? Jesus Christ, he’d give just about anything for that.
But even awake, he couldn’t linger in quiet for long; his phone rang just then. Michael didn’t answer it—didn’t even glance in its direction. When the machine picked up and no one left a message, he stood and went to the fridge for another glass of Jack Daniels.
A half hour later, just as his mind neared the familiar restlessness that was his slumber, a knock sounded on his door.
Much like his phone, he didn’t answer.
A second knock came, more insistent this time. The last time he’d answered the door without having the slightest desire to, Genevieve had been out there—reason enough to keep avoiding it.
Blessed silence followed, however, and for a moment he thought whoever it was had given up. And then his cell phone rang.
He pulled the phone from the coffee table. "What?" he said as he pressed it to his ear.
"Wanna answer your door?"
He hung up on her.
Minutes later, she knocked again. Then she called. Then she knocked again. Alcohol amplifying his annoyance, he rose from the couch and went for the door.
A smirk played on Krysta’s lips as he threw open the front door.
"What?" he asked sharply, definitely not in the mood for her games that night.
"I called but you didn’t answer," she said with a slight pout that he didn’t believe for a second. "I got really worried. Mind if I come in?"
"Get the fuck out of here," he said in something resembling a snarl.
"Now that’s rude." She shouldered her way past him and wandered into the main room, gaze scanning the place. "So this is how the other half lives."
Her carelessness about entering his space pissed him off even more. "I said, get the fuck out of here."
She threw a haughty look over her shoulder. "And I heard you."
Christ, if he had to fucking throw her out… Annoyed, he slammed the door shut.
As she sauntered around the living room, he returned to the coffee table to get his glass, then went to retrieve the JD from the refrigerator.
She slipped off her jacket and cast it to the floor. A black blouse and tight red skirt confirmed that yes, she did own more clothes than the robes and negligees she usually lounged around her apartment in.
"I’d love a glass of wine," she said.
"Then you should go home and get some."
Sashaying past the couch, she stopped where the old kitchen table rested, turned, and pulled herself onto the edge. Her hands slid along the wood, propping her body up as she leaned back comfortably. Long bare legs dangled below.
"You’re a terrible host," she informed him.
"I don’t recall requesting guests." He downed another gulp of liquor.
"Then you probably should have answered the first time I called. I play hostess very well."
"Get the hell out of here, go home, and try calling again."
"If I do, will you answer?"
"Fuck no—I’m going to bed."
"I could join you."
"Or you could leave."
"You could make me." She gave him an inviting smile.
And he knew he shouldn’t go anywhere near her. Not when he was this angry. Not when she was looking at him like that.
But his feet were moving him forward, one after the other. There was something triumphant about her gaze when he reached her—as if she’d already won. And he hated her for it.
He snatched her wrist and wrenched her forward. Excitement sparkled in her expression.
"Wanna play rough tonight?" she asked. "I’m game."
"Not playing. Get out."
Krysta leaned forward, nose then lips grazing his neck, settling over his pulse. Hot breath on his skin—God, the feel of it, coupled with the Jack Daniels, made him dizzy.
"And I told you," she whispered, hooking one leg around his. "You can make me."
As he glanced down at her, she lifted her lips and kissed him hard, simultaneously grinding her hips against him.
If it were just a quick fuck, he’d be fine with it. But that wasn’t how she worked; it was like a game of chess. Always was, and every move mattered. It wasn’t just about giving in, but who gave in first. Who had power over whom. Who had the control.
He could drag her out of the house and lock the door, but that wouldn’t really be winning. Not for her.
His hands going to her thighs, fingers splayed and pressing hard into her flesh, he pushed her skirt up until it bunched at her waist. Little surprise she didn’t wear panties.
In response, she reached between them to grab him roughly, and she grinned with satisfaction at finding him hard.
"Still want me to leave?" she asked as she yanked down the zipper of his jeans.
"In due time," he replied.
Her chuckle was cut short by one hard thrust, and he was in her. Warm, wet, she clutched him back and rocked her hips forward. Legs wrapped around him. Elbows hit the table as she leaned back. Eyes partially shut, still a self-satisfied smile on her face.
But he kept distanced. Watched her. Read her expressions. Pushed into her again and again until she was arching, moaning, clawing his arms, and then finally climaxing.
He pulled out of her abruptly as she came, still painfully hard but not willing to do anything about it. Zipping up his pants, he took a step back.
She blinked a few times as she felt him move away, then her eyes shot open, sending an accusing glower his way. "Michael—"
"Get out," he said coolly.
She sat up again, graceful despite the lewd position, but didn’t move from the table. Instead, she gave him a sexy grin, apparently not yet realizing she’d lost.
"You don’t really expect me to leave you like that, now do you?"
It was still about power—always about power. Annoyed that he hadn’t been at her beck and call earlier, she showed up at his place to prove a point: she still had some kind of power over him. She expected to get what she wanted, and what she wanted was someone unable to resist her. And he wouldn’t give it to her.
Krysta wanted to play games? Fine; cold rejection before he reached his own release, making the whole thing resemble a pity fuck. She was left sexually satiated, sure, but her ego bruised.
"Get out," he said again.
Watching the realization that he was serious play out on her face almost made him grin, but he held it back.
She parted her lips to speak, but closed them again, thinking.
Michael gestured to the door.
Krysta was swift to throw on a mask of indifference, but not so quick that he missed the change in expression.
"You know," she said, her tone warning. "I may have to rethink this arrangement of ours if this is the way you’re going to be."
"Stay the fuck out of my house then."
One emotion she rarely showed was anger, however, and this was no exception. She stood casually, pretending to be unbothered, and straightened her skirt.
"Next time you’re over," she called as she walked past him to pick up her jacket, "I think we’re going to have to teach you some manners."
"Close the door on your way out."
She did, but not before casting a quick glance at him over her shoulder. A knowing wink and she left for good.
He locked the door behind her, finished his drink, and then decided on a cold shower before bed.
Being near Krysta, he mused, was clearly playing with fire. He had no illusions it was anything but dangerous; though far from any of the places he used to call "home," he still had sources, and all of them warned she wasn’t to be trusted and was never to be crossed.
Not that he worried. Michael could name a couple dozen other people in the general area he’d consider more worth his concern, and even then, they paled in comparison to others he’d known in his life. For now, she was an occasional distraction. Though the idea she could become a threat was always in the front of his mind, he didn’t trouble himself with it.
Michael would cross that bridge when he came to it.
As night fell, the ground froze and frost grasped the remaining greenery in its death grip.
Sage hopped the cemetery fence with ease and followed a familiar trail through the rows of graves. The farther she traveled, the more her once-brisk step slowed.
As many times as she’d been there, she still wasn’t used to seeing his gravestone.
A line of stark white, granite markers met her at the back of the cemetery, and though his was near the end, newer ones had been added since his death.
Life moved on. Death continued its rampage… And yet she felt frozen in place, stuck in time in a harsh world without him.
Face to face now with the marker of his brief life, the date of his death staring grimly at her, Sage slid into a kneel. The cold ground bit through her pants to her knees.
She reached out to the earth gingerly, fingers trembling as they touched the ground. He was there, sort of, buried beneath, rotting in a box.
The trembling moved into her hand and up her arm, claiming her as it went, until her entire body wracked with sobs.
Some days, it didn’t seem real, as if her brain refused to accept that he was gone. However, other days—like that night—it was all hyper-real. Every moment, every breath, every step…she felt it. Felt him gone. Felt physically sick with the loss.
"I miss you, baby," she whispered, knowing he couldn’t hear her—knowing he’d never hear her again. "I miss you..."
Everything hurt...but she wouldn’t give it up; would never let it go. The memories were all she had now.
All she had…
Meredith sat on the subway, tapping her foot nervously. She had a feeling Michael knew she wasn’t heading to the smoke shop, but he didn’t try to stop her. As time went by, and she neared the point where she’d be getting off the subway, she almost wished she had just hit the store and gone back to Shaw’s. If there had been the slightest transit delay, she might have chickened out, but the TTC was on time, so off she went.
The subway paused at her stop and she got off with a few dozen other passengers and walked through the underground paths and up the stairs until she reached the surface. She caught the nearest bus, then ten minutes later found herself at her destination: an apartment building not far from the university.
While she helped Shaw in the kitchen earlier, she had found herself requesting the address even before she knew the words had left her mouth. He didn’t ask why, didn’t press for details, but simply told her what she wanted to know.
Now, here she was.
Merri waited outside for a few minutes, passing the time with a cigarette, which eased her nerves considerably. After stamping the butt out and deciding it was too cold to stand out there any longer, she at last went inside.
The stairwell took her to the second floor and after following a corridor, she found herself before a door. Hesitation-filled moments passed, a deep breath followed, and then she raised her hand and knocked.
There were very, very few times in her life that she could recall having actual butterflies in her stomach, but at that moment she definitely did. Just as she felt her courage dwindle and the desire to run beckoned to her, the door opened.
Thad Kincaid stood in the doorway. Merri couldn’t decide whether she was relieved he was home or not.
"Hi," she said with caution, and attempted to gauge his reaction to her presence. He wasn’t smiling, but he hadn’t slammed the door yet. Seems like a step in the right direction... "I was kind of in the neighbourhood."
"Michael took you guys to see Shaw?"
"Yeah, they’re back at his condo. I’m playing hooky."
"Look." His grip tightened on the door as if he was about to shut it. "I’ve got a paper due and I’m swamped—"
"Please don’t close the door—"
"—so I should probably get back—"
"Can I be honest with you?" she interrupted.
"I’d prefer that over lying, but it seems a little late now."
That stung. She swallowed hard. "I’m..." Nothing seemed more difficult than forcing her thoughts into words, and for once she wished she had more practice with it. "I’m not used to nice guys. And it kind of freaked me out, so I was subconsciously sabotaging things. It was stupid—I was stupid. I apologize. And in the interest of keeping with the honesty thing, I’d really like you to give me another chance and let me inside, ‘cause my shoes are wet from the snow."
His gaze slid down to her torn running shoes and he didn’t yet smile. "You should probably invest in boots."
"That did occur to me on the way over here when I stepped into a puddle of slush."
"So you’d like to come in just because your shoes are wet?" His tone at least seemed a bit lighter. Merri took that as a positive sign.
"Well, I’m hoping for some activities that involve nudity as well, but I’ll take what I can get."
"Now you’re speaking my language." He was guarded still, she could tell, but he seemed to be softening. He stepped back so she could come inside. "And you’re lucky you’re cute. I really wouldn’t forgive you if you were ugly, unless you brought a friend to participate in the naked time."
"I’ll keep that in mind in case I’m ever disfigured in an accident and in need of your forgiveness." She shucked off her coat in the tiny apartment corridor and slipped off her shoes at the door.
Thad paced down the hall toward the kitchen at the back of the apartment. "Want something warm to drink? There’s really bad cappuccino or—"
"Coffee’s good," she said as she followed.
A strange feeling hit her suddenly, and she blinked a few times as her vision blurred. Fear. A gasp of horror sounded in her right ear. Thad’s apartment disappeared, and wherever she was suddenly standing, it was dark, like night. Pavement beneath her feet. Something on the ground in front of her...shoes, legs, a torso…
Life had given her a lot of practice at looking calm to those around her when a random vision hit her, but she lagged behind in the hallway while Thad was still talking to her in the kitchen. He turned to see what delayed her.
"Merri?" His voice sounded distant, but she held on to it and tried to pull herself back to reality.
Not today...any other day, but not today… She reached out until her hand hit the wall beside her and she braced herself there while she took a few deep breaths.
She glanced up as the world cleared once more to find Thad at her side.
Nodding, she tried to smile while ignoring the icy chills rolling up and down her back.
"Did you see something?"
She’d almost forgotten that he knew who she was, so there seemed little point in lying. Still, she’d rather not give him any of the details. "Just a flash of something—happens all the time. I’m glad it was here and not on the subway, though, ‘cause it tends to creep people out."
"You’re sure you’re okay?" he asked again, reaching out to trace the curve of her jaw.
Relief washed over her at his touch. "I think I will be."
An hour passed with Michael hunched over the sketchbook, taking directions from Shaw regarding Natalya’s appearance. Sage pulled a book from her bag and read in silence, while Gen fidgeted in her seat and whined plenty. Shaw occasionally engaged her in conversation, until Michael interrupted to gain more details for the sketch.
After a while, Genevieve stood to stretch her legs by walking around the room. She stopped at the window to gaze outside, and then turned back to the group. "Mer’s been gone awhile. Isn’t anyone worried?"
"I believe she went to visit a mutual acquaintance," Shaw said.
"Kincaid," Michael filled in.
"Isn’t she the sly one. That’s good, though—I thought they were totally cute together."
"Why don’t you think in your head rather than with your mouth?" Michael said without taking his gaze from the paper.
He heard her wandering his way and his body tensed with irritation.
"Oh my god," she said with a gasp as she leaned over his shoulder.
"What?" He glanced up to see her blue eyes fixed on the dark haired beauty Shaw had been describing. "Do you know her?"
Gen shook her head. "No, but that’s, like, really good. I mean...God, that talent is totally wasted on you, ‘cause you’re just such a prick."
"Go sit down."
At last, Shaw looked over the final drawing and nodded. "That is how I remember her. Of course, her hair could be different now, but I wouldn’t forget that face."
Michael studied the picture. Taking in all of the woman’s features and allowing for minor errors Shaw might have made, he was certain he’d never seen her before. She would no doubt be drawn to Newhaven at some point if she hadn’t been already, however, so he could run it past his contacts later and see if anyone recognized her.
"I don’t think there’s anything else useful I can tell you," Shaw said, a not-so-subtle request for them to get the hell out of his condo.
"Sage, Genevieve, take the dishes into the kitchen," he called to the girls. They did so without complaint, leaving Michael alone with Shaw.
"Did she ever talk about the others?" Michael asked, studying Shaw’s reaction. He would have liked to have Merri there, to at least tell if Shaw was withholding something, but it hadn’t occurred to him at the time to ask her to stay.
"Only in the context that they were out there somewhere. Nothing about the future—that wasn’t her way. As you can imagine, being who she is, she was very much about the past. I think we’d all be better off if she could let it go, but that hasn’t happened yet. Please remember, Michael, that it does no one good to spend so much energy on something that once was."
"A man once said that very same thing to me," Michael said.
"And I slit his throat for it."
"Well, I suppose it is in my favour that Natalya would make you suffer an eternity if you ever laid a hand on me."
"Might be a way to get her out of hiding."
"I wouldn’t advise going about it that way. Besides, you haven’t decided whether or not you still have a use for me, and you are much more patient and pragmatic about such things now than in your younger days."
Michael swallowed down the lump in his throat. Granted, he figured Shaw would look into him a bit...but not to that extent. "Been doing some research?"
"I wouldn’t let you in my home otherwise. And you can’t move far in this world without the information making the rounds, which is why I didn’t want you here."
"Are you leaving after we go?"
Shaw shrugged. "I wouldn’t tell you either way."
Gen and Sage returned to the living room then, and Michael handed the sketchbook to its owner.
"Should we go get Merri?" Gen asked as she packed up her messenger bag.
Shaw went to the small desk in the corner where his phone sat and jotted something down on a small card. He handed it to Michael. "That’s Thaddeus’s address, which I gave to the girl earlier."
"Thank you for seeing us," Gen said brightly.
Shaw smiled genuinely in response. "Just promise me one thing..." His went to eyes Michael for a moment. "Once your powers are in full force, knock some sense into this one for me."
"Mr. Parris," Shaw said as the group was leaving the condo.
Michael held behind in the doorway and looked back at the older man.
"Remember, I have nothing to gain by telling you this...but let it go."
Michael ignored Shaw’s words. "We’ll be in touch."
Thad’s room in the small apartment he shared with a few others seemed little more than a large closet, but it was still nicer than Merri’s place, so she didn’t complain. Presently, she was wrapped up in a flannel sheet, stretched out on the futon mattress he kept directly on the floor and staring at the ceiling.
She propped herself up on her elbows and grinned as Thad Kincaid returned with a plate of reheated pizza and a couple of cans of pop in hand. He kicked the bedroom door shut behind him and then dropped onto the mattress next to her.
"Now, you are limited to what was in the fridge that looked edible. I’d order a fresh one, but I’d like to be able to pay rent this month."
"Tough life of a college boy?"
"You know it."
The front door opened then closed, and a voice called from the hallway in a decidedly feminine voice, "You home, Thad?"
"Yes. And busy."
"You live with a girl?" Merri asked in a low voice, brow raised in question.
"No, I live with two guys and one of them has a girlfriend who lives with us."
"So you live with a girl."
"Yeah. Orgies are kept to a minimum, though—only on statutory holidays." He settled next to her, placed the plate on the floor by the bed, and then flopped his arm over her stomach and drew her back down. Leaning over her with a grin, he pressed his lips to her forehead. "I’m glad you came by."
"You know, I still don’t get why you like me," she said, as it honestly did baffle her on more than one occasion.
"It isn’t obvious?" He kissed the tip of her nose. "It’s totally ‘cause you put out."
"Ah, it all makes sense now," she said with a giggle.
Late lunch forgotten, he bent his head down and kissed her deeply, dragging the sheet down and capturing her breast in one warm hand.
A phone rang in the other room, but stopped after two rings. Moments later Thad’s housemate called his name.
"Still busy," he replied between kisses.
"It’s someone looking for a girl named Merri."
With a sigh, he rose and cracked the bedroom door open a few inches to get the telephone receiver. Merri drew the sheet back up over her chest and accepted the phone from his outstretched hand.
"Yeah?" she said with a sigh.
"Funny, I didn’t dial the corner store," Gen said on the other line.
"You leaving now?"
"We’re outside Thad’s building."
Merri drew herself onto her knees and peered out the window at the head of the bed. Below, she saw Michael’s car parked on the street.
"I can see that."
Genevieve, seated in the passenger side, leaned forward to look out the windshield and waved as she spotted Merri.
"Mer?" she said.
"What happened to your shirt?"
"I’m hanging up now, Gen."
"Wait, don’t you need a ride?"
Merri glanced back at Thad, who seemed to guess the reason for the phone call.
"If you stay, we can hit a movie before I take you home," he offered.
That sealed it for Merri.
"See you tomorrow, Gen."
"Merri’s got a boyfriend," Gen sang as she hung up her cell phone. She clasped her hands together in delight. "I’m so happy for them. They were so adorable at the club and I’m pretty sure she’s been thinking about calling him a lot after that fight, whatever it was about."
She caught Sage’s sad gaze in the rearview mirror and immediately regretted her words. It was probably weird for her, seeing couples like that.
"She’s not coming," Gen continued, though Michael seemed to guess as much as he started the car again. "So I guess we can head home. And whaddya know, but I’ve once again missed all my classes. I’m so going to fail because of you."
Michael didn’t say anything and instead kept his gaze on the road. When Gen realized they weren’t heading back the way they came, she looked around in alarm.
"Where are we going? That’s not the highway."
"We have to make a stop," was all he said. She was pretty tired of him being cryptic like that, but she was used to it. As they drove, they passed signs that proclaimed they neared the airport. With any luck, Michael would be the one getting on a plane, travelling one way.
"I’ll be back shortly," he said as he parked the car. "Don’t go anywhere." Though he left the keys in the ignition when he exited the vehicle, Gen only briefly considered stealing his car. She was a terrible driver, after all; best not to kill them both.
"What do you think is going on?" Gen turned to face Sage.
"So are you going back to Michael’s later?"
"You’re there like every day?"
"Are you actually learning anything new, or is it just Michael beating you up?"
"I’m learning plenty of things," Sage replied, her tone slightly sharp. Gen wouldn’t be deterred, however; she didn’t know how long Michael would be gone and in the meantime desired a little conversation.
Sage sighed. "Like patience, concentration, and balance—the fundamentals of many things, which is more than I can say for you."
"I’ll have you know I learned a new spell recently that Mer and I have been working on."
"And does Michael know this?"
"Duh, of course not. It’s a defensive spell and I might have to use it on him someday."
"Let’s see it, then."
"Nuh-uh, you first."
"What do you want me to do?" Sage asked. "Punch you?"
"Um, no," Gen said quickly, ‘cause she figured Sage just might smack her. "But think of something impressive. I’m gonna do magic for Christ’s sake, so it has to be as impressive as that."
"Impressive like a candle going out?"
Sage thought for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, I’ve got something. Can you put the roof down?"
It took Gen a moment to figure out the controls, but eventually she was able to get the convertible top down.
"Okay," Genevieve said. "Impress me."
Sage pulled herself up onto the seat and then placed one hand on the frame and the other on the back of the driver’s seat. She lifted herself slowly, relying on the strength of her arms, and twisted her body so her head face downward and legs rose toward the sky.
"Not impressed yet." Gen yawned for effect.
"Just...wait." Sage breathed out, focusing on her balance. She shifted her weight onto one hand and straightened her arms. At a snail’s pace, she took her hand from the back of the seat and stretched it out beside her so she balanced on just once hand. The wind picked up, but she maintained the position.
"Okay, that’s impressive."
"So what’s your new spell?" Sage asked, still not changing her position.
Gen closed her eyes and rehearsed the simple spell a few times in her mind. Comfortable with the words, she whispered the incantation, breathing power into the phrase. She opened her eyes again in time to see Sage topple into the backseat and yelp.
"Oh my God, are you okay?"
"What did you do?" Sage sputtered as she sat up again. "I couldn’t move, I couldn’t—"
"It binds the person I direct it at," Gen said. "But I can’t hold it for more than a second. It’s the kind of thing I’ll be able to do to like a bad guy or Levi when he’s bugging me. It’ll give me time to get away. What thinks?"
"Some warning next time would be great."
Gen couldn’t help but chuckle, and after a few moments Sage joined in.
"Get in the backseat," Michael barked from behind them.
"Why," Gen began, but as she turned, she realized he wasn’t alone.
A blond man in his late thirties stood behind him, a carry-on bag over one narrow shoulder and suitcase in hand. Light blue eyes twinkling, the guy flashed her a grin, but she hadn’t decided yet if she should return it, being that he was a friend of Michael’s.
"Aw, did you make a friend? I mean, one that’s not a skanky Satanist?"
He gave her a look, suggesting he wouldn’t even bicker with her that afternoon, and with a sigh she unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed in the back next to Sage.
Michael took the guy’s luggage, and while he stowed it in the trunk, his friend got in the passenger seat.
"You’ll have to tell me more about the skanky Satanist later," the guest leaned over and whispered to her, a light Scottish accent to his words. Fine lines crinkled around his eyes and the corners of his mouth with his amusement.
"Skank pretty much sums it up," she said just as Michael got in the car.
After putting the convertible top back up, they were soon on the road again.
"So...who’s this again?" Gen asked when it seemed Michael wouldn’t be making any introductions.
"Finn O’Shea," Michael replied.
"Just Finn, love," the guy said. He met her gaze in the rearview mirror and smiled. "And you would be?"
Gen introduced both herself and Sage, leaving out the "witch" and "warrior" part, as she didn’t know who he was or what exactly he knew about Michael.
The car passengers were fairly silent travelling back to Newhaven. Michael dropped Finn off at his place first, let Gen return to the roomy front seat, and then drove to Sage’s.
"I’ll see you tomorrow," he told her as she got out. Gen thought Sage might have protested not going over that night, but ever the obedient one, she got out without a word.
"I can’t take it anymore," Gen said as he drove towards her house. "Who’s your friend? How did you ever actually make a friend? Does he eat puppies or something?"
"Not to my knowledge and I’ve known him for a few years."
"Then who is he?"
Michael stopped the car in front of her house. "Give me the sketch of Natalya."
Genevieve did so, but not without reminding him she wasn’t letting him change the subject. She tore the sheet from the book and handed it to him. In exchange, he gave her the card with Thad’s address.
"What’s this for?" she asked. She turned it over to see it was a business card with Shaw’s contact information, including an email address and cell phone number.
"Keep in touch with him," Michael advised. "Let me know if he tells you anymore about Natalya, or if he does in fact leave the country."
"I’m not doing your dirty work for you—"
"This isn’t for me. It’s for the three of you. Don’t argue."
"I’ll tell you what Shaw tells me if you tell me who Finn is."
Her phone rang suddenly and she snatched it out of her bag. Peyton’s number greeted her excited gaze.
"Hold on, I’ve gotta get this," she began.
"Just get out of the car—"
"Just a sec!" She answered the call and greeted Peyton, ignoring his glare.
"Missed you at school today," Peyton said.
Those words coming from her gave Gen a little thrill to hear. "I know, I’m sorry. I had to help out this..." She sent a sideways glance at an annoyed Michael. "This really useless guy needed my help with something, and I’m just such a saint that I couldn’t say no."
"Would you get out of the damn car?" Michael snapped, but she waved him off. Still, she figured she’d better speed things along.
"Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?" she asked Peyton.
"Busy with family stuff."
"Oh." Damn. Hope she’s not just blowing me off. "Thursday?"
"Wanna come over for dinner?" Gen held her breath for a moment while waiting Peyton’s response.
"Okay, I’ll catch you after school then...but I really gotta go right now. See you tomorrow." She hung up and returned her attention to Michael. "Sorry, but that was my girlfriend. Did I tell you I have a girlfriend? ‘Cause I do. Her name’s Peyton."
"I still fail to care. Get out."
"Anyway, I still want to know who Finn is. And I’m not leaving ‘til you start talking."
Michael clearly didn’t want to tell her, but eventually he spoke. "He’s a medium."
"He sees ghosts?"
"Communicates with them."
"And is this purely a social visit or are you expecting someone to die?"
"I asked him to come here for Sage."
"You mean..." She processed the information for a moment. "Like, to contact Hayden for her?"
"That’s the idea, but she doesn’t need to know that in case he can’t."
"You’d really do that to help her?" Gen asked, more than a little shocked at the thought.
"It was just a phone call," was his cool reply.
"Aw, you can say that all you want, but deep down you’re a big softy."
"Did I forget to threaten you with death today or something?" he asked, irritated.
"I see. Then get the fuck out of my car before I shoot you."
"My day is complete." She grabbed her bag and slid out of the car. It didn’t seem right to leave it at that, however—not when he was actually showing signs of being a real human being. She wanted to encourage that kind of behaviour, after all. "It’s really good that you’re doing that for her, though."
"Be at my place by three tomorrow," he said, ignoring any more talk of Sage.
Yep, a big softy. With a gun.
Late Thursday afternoon, Genevieve lay on her bed, gaze on the ceiling, waiting for Peyton to return from the washroom.
Gen found she was far more nervous bringing Peyton home after school the next day than she had been when she asked her to dinner in the first place. She hadn’t informed her parents that she was having company over, and definitely wouldn’t tell them she was her girlfriend. A couple years earlier she’d told them about liking Janine, and that had led to merciless teasing from her father and her mother telling all her friends. The fact that Gen had special powers and her life was occasionally in danger seemed enough of a relationship obstacle; she didn’t want to add her parents embarrassing her to the mix.
After showing her around the house, Gen had ended the tour at her room. She was a little worried about doing so initially, as she had only ever had her regular friends hang out there and wasn’t sure if it was "normal" to do with a girlfriend, but decided at last to just give it a shot.
She heard the bathroom door open and made a mental effort to seem relaxed and normal.
"I can’t believe you’re allowed to do your walls this colour," Peyton said, gazing around at the vibrant purple walls. "My mom would go ballistic and probably disown me or something like that. My options were baby blue, pale yellow, or dusty rose. Hunter green was okay for the den, but never, ever a bedroom."
"Oh, my mom’s a firm believer in dusty rose," Gen said. "You didn’t see my parents’ room. But the purple thing wasn’t a big deal; they like me to express myself."
"Must be nice." Peyton sank down on the end of the bed. "My little brother gets away with that, but I never did. He had a Lacrosse game last weekend on Sunday and got to miss church. If I ever tried that, I’d be made to quit the team first. You’re lucky."
Gen eased up to a sitting position and absently played with a dangling thread on the comforter. When she spoke, she tried to sound casual. "So you guys are kinda religious?"
"Not like really or anything. Not more than most people. Don’t you at least go to church?"
"Um, once when I was like six." She neglected to add the part where she hated every boring second of it and begged her dad to take her home again. Church became a threatened punishment after that and she still shuddered at the thought of being made to go back.
"We’ve gone every week since I was a kid. Wednesday night I go to a youth group thing too—I always have, but I just started going to the one in this area when we moved. Hey, you should come sometime. The pastor’s really nice and it’d be fun."
"Yeah," Gen said, trying to sound excited, but the idea of spending an hour hearing about how she was going to burn in hell for eternity didn’t sound "fun." Although it might be interesting to inform people I am both a lesbian and a witch, and then give a little demonstration of both. That’d go over well. Still, getting Peyton kicked out of her church group for bringing along her girlfriend would probably be problematic for their relationship. While Gen was trying to think of something more to say about church, she found Peyton’s gaze going to her dresser.
"That looks like a really old book," she said. "Do you collect stuff like that? My dad does—he gets all kinds of first editions…you should show him that one sometime."
Dammit! It was the book recounting all her other lives and stuff that Michael had given her. At least it wasn’t a spell book, though God knows she had some of those lying around as well.
"Yeah, it’s just this old art history book," she said quickly. "Kinda obscure. This guy I know—this, like, artsy guy—gave it to me. To look at. ‘Cause I like art." Wow, I should get some lying lessons from Merri sometime.
"Gen, did you ever like boys?"
"Um, no, but I’ve always appreciated logical segues."
"I know, I’m sorry. If I’m not talking constantly, I’m thinking constantly, and I forget stuff doesn’t always make sense. I was just wondering, is all."
"Well, no, I’ve never been into boys. I mean, I liked plenty as friends and I love Levi more than just about anyone. But never got the whole hetero thing. Girls are much prettier, anyway."
"Yeah," Peyton leaned back on the bed and sighed. "I don’t think I ever really liked boys either. It was weird, not knowing anyone else like me."
The butterflies in Gen’s stomach started up again. She should probably do something now, but she’d be damned if she knew what. Some moments were easy—it was like hanging out with any friend. But then she’d get the overwhelming urge to kiss her, and her brain would jump in and warn that it might not be appropriate.
She settled for stretching out on her stomach next to where Peyton lay. Resting her head on her folded arm, she studied Peyton’s face in silence for a moment. Her long dark eyelashes grazed her upper cheeks when she blinked, her expression was always animated and immediately drew Gen in when she spoke, then there were those lips that seemed rather kissable… No, she could honestly say she never understood the attraction to boys.
"Hey, wanna see something cool?" Gen said.
Peyton turned onto her side to face Gen. "What?"
"Magic?" She looked skeptical, though Gen could hardly blame her.
"Yep." Genevieve nodded to the pillar candle on her dresser. "I’m going to light that candle using only the power of my mind."
"Is this one of those things—"
"It’s totally not what you’re thinking. Watch." There’s more than one trick Michael doesn’t realize I know. True, lighting a candle was much, much more difficult than putting one out, and she couldn’t do it solely with her mind, but instead required a spell found midway through the workbook Michael had given her. And she’d only successfully done it once with Meredith, but she decided to give it a shot anyway. Worst case scenario, it didn’t work and she’d look like an idiot, but that could always be passed off as a joke.
She focused her gaze on the candlewick and let her vision tunnel until it was all she saw. Breathing deeply, she tapped into the power around her and directed it at the candle. She mumbled the words of the spell, low enough that her audience couldn’t make them out.
Peyton glanced back and forth between Gen and the candle. Her jaw dropped when she saw the wick ignite.
"Oh my god, how’d you do that?"
Gen grinned, pleased that not only had she completed the spell successfully, but she managed to not embarrass herself in front of her girlfriend. "I told you: magic."
"Is it a trick candle or something?"
"Do you have a controller or remote or button that you press—"
Gen interrupted by leaning forward and kissing her suddenly, tentatively. Perhaps magic wasn’t the best idea, but at least she had a good way of ending the conversation.
Peyton responded to the kiss, and though it was still a little awkward, Gen felt things definitely seemed smoother than they had the first time. Between the magic and the kissing, Gen’s head was swimming as if she was drunk and she felt giddy as the kiss ended.
"I wanted to ask you," Peyton said, her wide grin mirroring what Gen imagined was on her own face. "My family is doing their annual Christmas party next month. Do you want to come?"
As long as it’s not at church. "Sure."
"Great! It’s usually kinda boring, but I’m glad you’ll be there with me."
With her. I’ll be ‘with’ her somewhere. Gen didn’t think the world could get much better than that moment.
Genevieve retrieved her overnight bag from her locker and slung it over her shoulder, which was made difficult by her thick winter jacket.
"Running away from home?" Levi said as he leaned against the locker next to hers.
She closed the door and snapped on the lock. Pausing before answering, she briefly considered lying. Sure, he decided he still had feelings for Sage, but they weren’t exactly BFF’s or anything.
"Sage’s," she said at last. "Her mom’s going away for the weekend, so she asked me to stay there, to keep her and her sisters company."
"Want a ride?"
"Did you get Hayden’s car back or—"
He shook his head. "Police never gave us that back, though I don’t think they ever found anything useful on it. But insurance got us a new one and after a lot of arguing, Dad let me have it." He took her overnight bag for her and the two of them walked toward the parking lot.
"You got someone to talk to her?" he asked, genuine concern showing on his face. "Will she be okay?"
"I think so." She recalled what Michael had said two days before. He must have spoken to her about Hayden by now and went so far as to have a friend from the U.K. or wherever to come down. Maybe if Finn could contact Hayden, Gen could even tell Levi… Michael wouldn’t like it, sure, but then Michael didn’t like anything.
They drove to Sage’s in silence. When he pulled in the driveway, Gen prepared to thank him, but he turned to her first.
"I didn’t see you or Meredith the other day after you went to talk to that girl."
"No, we decided to blow off the rest of our classes," she said quickly. "That was when we ran into Sage and she asked me over to her place today."
"Okay, just curious. Are you coming to Stephie’s tomorrow?"
"I may still be at Sage’s."
"Let me know. Otherwise I’ll see you on Monday, Genny."
God, I hate all this lying, she thought as she got out of the car. Much more of this and I’ll be as good at it as Mer. There didn’t seem much she could do about it, though, so she plastered on a smile as she walked up to Sage’s front door. A second car was parked next to one she recognized as Diana Bethany’s, so she figured Sage’s mom’s friends were already there.
Sage’s younger sister, Kat, answered the door when Gen knocked. She had only met her once before and it was the day Hayden was attacked, so the kid was understandably quiet and upset then. On this day, however, she smiled brightly when she let Gen inside.
"Sage just got home from a run so she’s up in the shower. I’ll take your bag downstairs." Kat took her overnight bag and disappeared down the hall. Gen stowed her shoes and coat in the closet, then continued toward the living room. The youngest Bethany girl, five-year-old Cecilia ran past with a squeal and raced upstairs. A second girl, about Ceci’s age, followed with long red hair trailing after her.
Diana Bethany stepped out of the kitchen and smiled when she saw Gen. "I’m so glad you can stay here this weekend, Genevieve. Sage tells me your friend Meredith will be by tomorrow as well to stay with the girls. I feel a lot better having another person in the house."
"It’s no problem." ‘Cause if someone breaks in and attacks us, Sage will really need my help to kill them.
"And thank you for helping to bring her out of her shell. She’s done much better the past few days, and I thought you probably had a hand in that."
Or thank you Michael. Gen smiled in response anyway.
"Have a seat, dear, and I’ll get you a drink. What would you like?"
"Um, water I guess. Thanks." Gen continued toward the living room, where she heard the T.V. on but no voices. A man and a woman, each perhaps thirty, sat on the couch. A sleeping six-month old with a head of strawberry blonde hair rested in the blond man’s arms. His blue eyes went to Gen as she entered the room and seconds later the woman’s did the same. The girl Gen saw playing with Ceci must have been theirs, for the woman had the same copper hair.
"Hello," the guy said with a kind smile that put Gen at ease while being in the unfamiliar environment. She tended to feel horribly uncomfortable with people she didn’t know, but relaxed a little in their presence and sat down.
"Did you see which way the girls went?" the woman asked.
Gen gestured over her shoulder. "Ran upstairs."
"I’ll make sure they don’t break anything." She rose and left the living room. Kat returned just then and her eyes lit up as they settled on the baby.
"Aw, is she asleep?" she asked.
"She is," the child’s father said.
"We’ve got Ceci’s old crib set up—want me to put her down, or would—"
Kat retrieved the baby, who didn’t stir as she was being moved. "Hiya little Maya. Oooh, I just love babies!"
"I didn’t really just hear my thirteen year old say that," Diana called from the kitchen. She returned with Gen’s glass of water, and then looked about the room. "Where did Eve go?"
"To look for the girls."
"You guys are supposed to be out here to relax—I’ll go find her."
As Diana left, Gen pulled her messenger bag onto her lap. Sage wasn’t back yet, so she figured she might as well get some homework done. Not schoolwork, however; the notebook she retrieved contained the notes she and Merri had been making with regards to their own investigations into The Brethren and whatever Michael might have been keeping from them. They didn’t exactly have much in the way in information yet, but in between practicing spells and meditating at Michael’s, they had combed the books he had available to them for anything useful. Nothing helpful had come up yet, though, so Gen decided to independently work up a new plan of action. So far, her thoughts centered on finding truth serum of some sort and drugging Michael with it.
And of all his books, nothing about any assassins, no explanations regarding the people who attacked us…nothing about us, let alone mention of The Brethren, whatever they are. She couldn’t say what the hell she and Merri would do if they couldn’t knock Michael out and inject him with truth serum.
Maybe he’ll decide to talk the next time we’re almost getting murdered by random men.
Gen’s head shot up to see Diana’s friend, Eve, standing in the living room doorway staring at her with curiosity and a touch of worry.
"I-I didn’t say anything."
Eve’s eyes went to her husband for a second, and Gen followed the gaze. They two of them exchanged a series of long looks, though no words were said. At last Eve sat down.
A few minutes of silence followed, and then Eve turned back to Gen. "Okay, I’ve just got to ask something." She glanced back at her husband as if he’d said something, and then continued. "You gotta understand, I’m a protective mother. Are my girls in any danger here?"
"Assassins, The Brethren or whatever—are my girls safe here while I’m away?"
Gen shot a glance at Eve’s husband, but he was shaking his head and rolling his eyes. "You’re scaring the kid," he said to his wife in a low voice.
"Yeah, well, she’s freaking me out."
"The girls are settled in Ceci’s room," Diana called as she returned. She hung in the living room doorway, as if she wasn’t ready to sit yet. "They’re doing unimaginably cruel things to Barbies—it’s safe not to ask."
"Dezzie probably started it," Eve said. "She gets it from me."
"I figured as much. Anyway, let me throw my bags in the car, go over my instructions for the kids, then we can head out so you can clean house." Diana gestured to Eve but addressed Gen. "This woman is phenomenal at poker. She almost got us kicked out of a casino at one point, but Colin managed to calm security down. I’ll never know how she does it."
"It’s pretty simple," Eve said with a grin. "I can read minds."
Gen caught the sudden look her husband gave her, but Diana seemed to overlook it.
"Now that I almost believe," Diana said before she left again.
"You can read minds?" Gen said once Sage’s mom was out of earshot. "Both of you?"
"And you can put out candles by force of will," Eve said. "We’re a whole group of super freaks. You still didn’t answer my question."
Genevieve supposed that, given everything she’d seen and experienced—and in some cases done herself—she shouldn’t have been so shocked, but thus far everything had been confined to her small little world. This was too much.
"We don’t mean to put you on the spot," the man, Colin, said gently. "But we do need to know whether or not the girls are in any danger being here with you…" He paused, frowning slightly, and Gen felt the urge to shield her mind, though she had no idea how that would be accomplished. "You or Sage, apparently."
"You don’t need to worry," Gen said, glancing back and forth between the two of them. "Your daughters will be fine. I was just…thinking and exaggerating. And you really don’t need to worry with Sage around; she’s wicked strong."
"Worrying is a given," he said with a small, half-smile. "But I’ll take your word for it that it’s unfounded."
"Now how about a showing of good faith," Eve said brightly. "I know someone’s secret that I believe you’ll be totally pleased to know, given your thoughts just minutes ago. It’s about…ah, shit, I’m bad with names." She looked over at her husband. "Who was that guy we saw? At the gas station?"
"You told me you weren’t paying attention." A smile hovered on his lips. He slid his arm over her shoulder and she settled against him.
"Well, I’m nosy."
"Michael," he filled in for her.
"Right." She returned her attention to Genevieve. "We ran into Michael, and I’m pretty sure it’s the same guy you were thinking about smacking around a minute ago because he also mentioned something called ‘The Brethren.’"
"He spoke to you about it?" Gen asked, confused.
"Well, no, he was thinking about it while he was talking to some guy he was with. Now, it’s not like I go around monitoring everyone’s thoughts and invading their privacy all the time, or anything like that."
Behind her, Colin mouthed the words, "Yes, she does."
"I heard that," she directed his way before continuing. "Anyway, the whole thing stuck out in my head ‘cause a., that guy’s a fucking psycho, in case you weren’t yet aware, and b., he clearly wasn’t a delusional psycho, so when I heard him thinking about some life or death situations, I listened up. ‘The Brethren’ came up. Do you know what they are?"
Gen shook her head.
"I only got a few glimpses. They’re definitely bad news, and they’re definitely after some people that Michael guy is loathed to be looking after."
He doesn’t have to ‘look after’ us!
"Ah," Eve raised a copper brow, and Gen flushed a little as she remembered the woman could read her mind. "So it’s you guys. Well, he knows a lot more than he’s telling you."
"Are you purposely leaving out the computer?" Colin asked her. "Or are you saving that for your grand finale."
"Computer?" Her brows furrowed.
"Yes, where he not only keeps files on such things, but where he has indexed all of his books."
"Sneaky bastard," she said, and gave him an affectionate smack.
"I simply wanted to learn as much as I could about any potential murderers in the same town as the girls while we’re away," he continued.
"Whatever—you’re just as bad as me. No concept of privacy whatsoever."
"So you mean I don’t have to go through all of his books one by one?" Gen asked. "I can just go on the computer and it’ll tell me which books have info on The Brethren?"
Colin nodded. "Although if I were to advise you of anything, it would be to avoid him as much as possible. There are corners of his mind that very few would tread."
"He has his moments," Gen said, a little unsure as to why exactly she was defending the man, except that he had saved her life on more than one occasion.
"No, I have my moments," Eve said. "He has nanoseconds of humanity, and they’re the result of practicality rather than feeling."
"They’re few and far between," Gen agreed. "But I don’t really have a lot of choice in the matter right now."
"Be careful," Eve said. "He’s dangerous, and I don’t say that lightly."
"I’ll be okay," Gen said. She heard footsteps in the hallway and looked to see both Sage and her mom in the doorway. I’ll be okay…I’m not alone.
"Ready to go?" Diana directed to Eve and Colin.
Gen rose when they did and fell into step with Sage as everyone headed for the front door. Kat waited to the side with the two five-year-olds. Diana said goodbye to her girls, while Colin picked up his daughter for he and his wife to bid goodbye. Once the adults were gone, Kat chased the young girls back upstairs to play, and Gen and Sage headed for the basement.
"Sage," Gen said as they walked. "I need to tell you something that you may not want to hear, ‘cause you’re such a Michael fan and all, but…" She launched into the brief details of her recurring dreams and mention of The Brethren, that she and Merri had been trying to look into it on their own, and ended with what Eve and Colin had told her before they left. While Gen sat cross-legged on the couch and told her everything she knew, Sage sat on the end of her bed absorbing it all.
"So my mom’s friends are telepaths?" Sage said at last.
"Of course you’d miss the main point and focus on something like that." Gen rolled her eyes. "What do you think of everything else?"
"You think we need to break into Michael’s house, crack his computer password, read his private files, steal his books, all because you had a dream that mentioned a group that may or may not exist, may or may not have anything to do with us, and because my mom’s friends, who are secretly telepathic, told you they heard him thinking about these things?"
"Jeez, when you say it like that it sounds so silly."
"It is silly."
I knew I shouldn’t have told her. "Fine, if you’re not going to help us, could you at least not tell Michael?"
"Of course I’m going to help you. You’ll need the help."
"And you won’t tell Michael?"
"That would be a little stupid considering I’ll be helping to break into his home."
"Good point. I guess we need to talk to Merri."
Getting a hold of Merri proved to be difficult because it turned out Sage didn’t have her number either. Genevieve found that, thankfully, she had left Thad’s number on her phone, so she called him up. Sure enough, Merri was with him, and after Gen gave her the gist of what she’d learned, Merri promised to be at Sage’s the following day. Saturday evening found the three of them huddled in Sage’s room, hatching a plan of action. It would require a few days of preparation, but Gen figured the plan would be a sound one.
Get ready, Michael, Gen thought as their schemes took shape. Whatever you’re keeping from us won’t be your secrets for long.
Sage had found Finn didn’t care in the least that she’d shown up, and he’d paid little attention to her at all. After rolling up the rope ladder and returning it to the box, she waited around a short while, and then slipped back downstairs and left without Michael’s houseguest even noticing.
When she reached Genevieve’s, she found lights shining through just one of the windows at the front of the house. A knock at the door brought Gen and a barking dog to greet her. As Genevieve stepped back to let her inside, Sage was chilled by the other girl’s worried expression. Gen didn’t say anything as she led her to the living room.
Sage slid off her coat and folded it over a chair, and then took a seat on the floor by Gen.
She noticed Meredith seemed just as concerned as Gen did. "What did you find?"
"It’s bad," Gen said.
"Very bad," Merri said.
"Can you give me an idea? Scale from one to ten?"
"One being me not getting my homework done," Gen began, "and ten being we’re all going to die, I’d put this at seventeen and three quarters."
Nothing like Gen’s exaggeration to put me at ease. "Did you at least find out who The Brethren are?"
Merri pointed to the stack of printer paper in front of her. "The notes I found on the computer were translations Michael had gathered from a few books, two of which we brought here. We can’t read them, though, so we’re relying on what he says they say.
"The Brethren have been around almost as long as Natalya has, in some form or another. Those assassins that came after us? They’re part of it."
"But just the tip of a really big, really old organization," Gen took over. "They’ve got human members here, plus a whole whack of them in other dimensions and stuff, which I can’t even wrap my head around. And they really, really don’t like us."
"Putting it mildly," Merri added.
"So they’re out to kill us?" Sage asked, still not terribly impressed with their findings. Logic dictated that if the four of them were so important in the first place, of course there’d be a bunch of people who wanted them dead.
"Devoted is more like it," Gen said. "They’re über secret, über dedicated, and über dangerous."
"And this is different from what we’ve already had to deal with how, exactly?"
"From everything Michael has found…" Merri gazed down at the papers helplessly for a moment. She paused, took a deep breath, and looked up again. Her eyes settled on Sage’s and the look gave the Warrior a shiver. Gen looking terrified, she could deal with, but Merri never seemed scared about anything.
"What has Michael found?" Sage prompted.
"They’re going to succeed, Sage," Gen said.
"Michael has dozens of books of prophecies and everything," Merri continued. "Everything says at least one of us will die and there’s no stopping it."
"But how do you know if maybe it was supposed to happen when they came after us two months ago? How do you know we didn’t…I don’t know, invalidate it then?"
"There’s three of us," Gen pointed out, "at least that can be killed. And these Brethren guys? We’re talking numbers that might as well be infinite."
"And this prophecy crap isn’t too exact in terms of dates," Merri said. "But by all accounts, it’s set to happen sooner rather than later. This has gotta be why Michael’s been trying so hard to find The Immortal."
And why he was so worried that I have a death wish… It wasn’t some kind of friendly teacher concern, or worry that maybe she wasn’t taking things as seriously as she should…he knew they could all be in immediate danger.
"Is that why Finn’s here?" Sage pondered aloud. "Michael could be looking for people to help us if we need it, right?"
"I don’t think so," Gen said quickly. Merri glanced at her sharply, but Sage couldn’t decipher the look she gave her and Gen continued on as if she hadn’t noticed. "He probably would have shown a bit more interest in us or what’s going on at this point if that was the case. I’m pretty sure he’s just a friend."
"We should ask Michael about this," Sage said, though she knew Gen would immediately object. "Maybe there’s something more that he can tell us."
"Uh, if he didn’t tell us anything in the first place, why would he bother now?" Gen said.
"But we can’t really trust him," Gen said. "I know you do. I know Merri kind of does too," she cast a look at Meredith briefly, who didn’t disagree, "but I don’t. We can only trust each other. We have to stick together."
"Anyway, I don’t know if there’ll be any point in even asking him about this." Merri gestured around at the books. "It sure as hell seems like he had his reasons for not telling us in the first place."
"Yeah, if anyone has any ideas about how I can un-know what I now know, that’d be awesome," Gen said.
The phone rang in the kitchen then, and Gen rose to answer it.
"What’s the plan to return the books when you guys are done with them?" Sage asked.
Merri started gathering up the papers strewn across the couch. "Not sure at this point. I guess we could take the key and drop in any time. Or maybe next time we’re there, you could coax Michael up onto the roof and Gen and I could put them back."
"Do you think he ever planned to tell us about all this?"
Though her mouth opened to speak, no words came out as Merri paused to deliberate her answer. "He probably would have. Eventually. I don’t think he’d tell all of us, not all at once. He’d probably wait until he was forced to, somehow."
"‘Til it was too late?"
Merri shook her head. "I don’t think he’d wait that long. At least for us—he might for Gen." She cracked a smile, but Sage suspected she might be serious. "If I was going to guess, I’d say he wanted something more substantial to tell us."
"And maybe that’ll be sooner rather than later." Gen looked a little shaken as she returned to the living room.
"What now?" Sage asked.
"Michael. He wants me to come over tomorrow. Just me."
"You think he knows about the books?"
"I’m guessing yes. And that he’s planning to kill me."
"Want us to come with you?" Merri asked immediately, but Gen shook her head.
"I should be okay. But if you don’t hear from me that night, you can start looking for the body."
By the next night, Gen wished she’d agreed to have Merri and Sage come along. Michael’s request for her presence had to relate to the missing books, and of course he would blame her for it. She hadn’t bothered to bring any with her, however, just in case he didn’t know they were gone and his reason for calling her involved something else. Plan A. was to play dumb. Plan B. was to run like hell.
Michael met her at his front door seconds after she knocked, as if he’d been waiting. Though she was about to step inside, he moved forward so he stood on the dark front step with her and closed the door behind him.
"You need to keep the following in mind," Michael said sternly without so much as a hello. "Finn doesn’t know the details behind Hayden’s death, he doesn’t know exactly who you, Sage, or Merri are, nor does he understand your significance. He also doesn’t know about that day at the farmhouse and he doesn’t need to know you can do anything other than put out a candle. No apocalypse, no Natalya—nothing. Got it?"
"Um…hi to you too."
"Do you understand me?"
"Yes, fine—just let me in the house and out of the cold, all right?" She had no idea what the hell he had been talking about or what Finn had to do with the books, but she’d given up trying to understand the guy.
Once inside, Gen found the house unusually dark. The couches and coffee table were moved to the far corners so a large empty space was left in the living room. Finn sat down on the floor, sprawled comfortably amongst a dozen lit candles.
"So," Gen said as she slipped off her coat. "Séance or sexy male-male porno? Either way, I don’t think you need me."
"To contact Hayden, he needs someone who knew him," Michael explained in a curt voice that suggested to her he thought she should already know these things. "Sage shouldn’t be here in case it doesn’t work. That leaves you. Sit down so he can get started."
Worry crept over her as she moved to where Finn sat. She’d love to contact Hayden as much as the next person, sure, but despite what Michael said, it seemed to make much more sense to have Sage there. Why would Hayden want to come and talk to Gen? What if he was busy in the afterlife hanging around Sage, and Finn interpreted it as him just not being available for contact? A heavy pressure weighed on her as she sat gingerly on the floor and crossed her legs. Pity Michael didn’t explain ahead of time why he invited her over; at least then she could have made up some excuse not to come.
"Before anyone does anything," Michael said. "How about you explain why you’ve been taking books."
Shit. She’d prepared for this line of questioning, though, and hoped he couldn’t somehow tell she had a ball of worry rolling in the pit of her stomach.
"Well, you’re always bitching that I’m not as focused as Sage," she said quickly. "So I thought I’d start learning more. And I rented three movies about witches: The Craft, Bell Book and Candle, and Teen Witch. And two of them implied that witches lose their powers when they fall in love, and since I have a girlfriend now, I don’t want to lose my powers."
"You believe everything you see in a movie?"
"No, that’s why I rented three of them. That, and ‘cause there was a deal and I could keep them for a week. But anyway, I thought I’d borrow some books so I could learn more. And nothing says I’ll lose my powers, so I’ll return them tomorrow."
"She didn’t lose her powers in Teen Witch," Finn interrupted.
Gen’s brows furrowed in confusion as she tried to recall the movie. "Yes she did; she threw away the necklace and broke the spell."
"No, see, the necklace was merely a symbol—she didn’t need it. And even after she threw it away, everyone at the prom danced in unison. That has to be the cause of magic, therefore she accepted her power over people and didn’t give anything up."
"Aaah," Gen said with a grin. "That’s much less depressing. Good interpretation."
"If you’re done discussing your love of eighties teen movies…" Michael glared at Finn.
"He’s right," Gen said. "My favourite witch movie is from way back in the nineties: Practical Magic. Sandra Bullock is really hot in that one."
"Mmm," Finn nodded his agreement. "And Nicole Kidman."
"Should we maybe move this to the video store or something?" Michael snapped.
"Can we?" Finn asked. His smile faded under the look Michael gave him, however, and he dropped his gaze and sat up straight.
"So what do I have to do?" Gen asked Finn.
"You don’t need to worry about a thing right now. But he," Finn gestured to Michael, who sat at the new island in the kitchen drinking a beer, "needs to sit as well."
"I’m not part of this—" Michael began.
"It would help to have a third. Sit."
Michael tossed back the rest of his beer and surprisingly didn’t argue further. He did, however, make it abundantly clear that he took no pleasure in the task and stalked to where they sat. He dropped to the ground with a thud and glowered at Finn.
"Tell me, what’s his name?" Finn directed to Gen.
"Hayden Daniel Greene."
"What else can you tell me about him, hun?"
"He was eighteen, in high school." She blinked back a few tears and took a deep breath. "He died about two months ago."
Finn’s eyes narrowed a bit, but not really on her—it was as if he focused on something in the air in front of her. "How did he die? Was it violent?"
Gen fought the urge to glance Michael’s way. He said not to give details, but surely she had to tell Finn something.
"He was attacked—stabbed—but seemed okay. It was…like, surgery complications or something. Do I really have to keep talking about this?"
"You’re doing fine, love. Now let’s see if your friend is hanging around." He reached out with either hand. Gen gingerly accepted the one on her side while Michael rolled his eyes and took the other. "Complete the circle, kids." Finn nodded at them.
"Don’t be such a baby." Gen snatched up Michael’s other hand. "We don’t have cooties."
"I wouldn’t be so sure about him," Michael replied dryly.
"Close your eyes and concentrate. Both of you."
Easier said than done, Gen thought.
Several minutes of silence passed with only their breathing heard.
"Hayden Daniel Greene," Finn said suddenly, startling Genevieve and making her jump. "Got a girl here who’d like to speak to ya. It’s safe to come through."
Gen wasn’t sure if something was supposed to happen or not. If she’d hear a voice, if she’d feel a presence… Perhaps the candles would flicker or a breeze would pass… But nothing happened.
"Don’t be afraid, Hayden. I’ll be able to hear you. We’re ready to pass on a message to your girl. Speak to us."
Keeping her eyes shut tight, Gen tried to concentrate. She didn’t know if she could actually help, but she forced any magic at all in her to call to out Hayden, to will him to speak to Finn.
After a long bout of silence, Finn sighed and Gen felt him release her hand.
She opened her eyes. "What is it?"
Finn raised his hand to his face and rubbed his forehead, as if in slight pain. "He’s not here." His gaze went to Michael. "Nothing at all. No presence, nothing lingering. He’s not on this plane."
"I don’t understand what that means," Gen said. "Can’t we just try again?"
"We can try a dozen times. Not sure it’ll do any good."
"He’s gone," Michael said, abruptly rising. "Fucking waste of time."
"If a spirit has something like unfinished business or might have suffered some confusion around death, they hang around the living," Finn explained to Gen. "Right now, there are half a dozen in this room, wandering around."
Gen gave an involuntary glance around, but of course saw nothing.
"Your friend’s boy isn’t here, though. He woulda heard me and no one can pass up a chance to leave a message for a loved one. Haven’t even seen someone like that hanging around your friend when she’s here—not even once. That means he’s moved on. I see it often enough. He was a happy lad, no? Nothing troubled him?"
"So he didn’t feel he had to stay. He felt safe to move on."
"Oh God," Gen whispered, covering her mouth and closing her eyes. "God, what are we going to tell Sage?"
"Nothing," Michael said coolly.
She swung around to face him. "How can you say that? She deserves to know. Maybe…I don’t know, maybe it’ll give her some kind of peace?"
"How could that give her peace?" Michael snapped. "She’s holding on to him, but he’s left her. How the fuck would that be helpful to know?"
"I could do this again," Finn offered. "Just tell her I see him and give the usual message. Prepare ahead of time—"
"No," Gen and Michael said in unison.
"You can’t lie to her," Gen added. "She should know the truth."
"Don’t you dare breathe a word of this to her," Michael warned.
"First of all, you wouldn’t explain it properly. Second, she can’t handle that kind of information right now." He stormed toward the door and threw on his coat. "I’m going out. If you want a ride, hurry the hell up." And with that, he left and slammed the door behind him.
"Did that seem way too personal to you?" Gen asked as she stood.
Finn rose as well and nodded. "When I first met him, years ago, he was looking for his wife."
Gen’s gaze snapped to his and she paused mid-step. "He was married?"
"So I understand it."
"And she went missing?"
Finn chuckled. "No, love. She was dead. He was looking for a good medium to contact her. I came recommended."
"Did you find her?" Given Michael’s reaction earlier, she wasn’t surprised when he shook his head.
"No sign of her. She didn’t linger with him; moved on, like your friend’s man did. I don’t think he ever accepted that."
Her perspective shifted and Michael seemed far more human suddenly. A widower who never managed to find his dead wife…a surprisingly tragic background for someone so decidedly evil.
"I doubt he’ll wait," Finn said. "You’d best be going."
Gen nodded and retrieved her jacket.
"One more thing, though…"
She glanced back at him.
"If your friend is really looking to talk to her guy, ask around town for a person who can contact The Serpent."
"Sounds like a video game character."
"I can only communicate with someone in this world—The Serpent will get you into the others. But I wouldn’t try unless you are very, very serious about it."
"Lemme guess; I shouldn’t tell Michael, right?"
"I wouldn’t if I were you."
She committed the name to memory, waved goodbye, and then went for the door again. Outside, she shivered in the cold night air and looked around. At first glance she almost missed the black convertible parked in the shadow of the building. Michael sat in the front, but hadn’t started it yet. He stared blankly through the frosted windshield ahead of him.
For the first time since she’d known him, she felt a moment of sympathy. Though still a prick who considered letting her die on more than one occasion, he apparently did have feelings somewhere in him. Taking in a breath of icy air, she moved towards the car. He didn’t look at or speak to her as she climbed in the passenger side, but simply turned the key in the ignition and started driving.
She didn’t say anything to him on the way to her house, and he didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence. As he stopped the vehicle outside her place, she considered leaving immediately, but found herself pausing.
"I’m sorry about your wife," she said gently.
His gaze turned her way sharply.
"Finn told me. I wasn’t going to say anything—"
"Get out of the car."
"Even though it didn’t work, that was a really good thing you tried to do for Sage. You could almost pass for human." She offered a smile, but it was only met with more cold words.
"Get the fuck out of my car."
With a heavy sigh, she complied, and had barely stepped away from the car when he sped off down the road.
Well, I had exactly an ounce of sympathy for the man, and I’ve now used it…back to pure hatred again.
Inside the house, she found her parents sitting in the living room, watching television. Her father chuckled at something on the screen, then looked up when Gen approached. "Hello, dear. Peyton called."
"She said to call her back," her mom said in a low voice.
As Gen’s gaze moved over her, she realized she looked upset about something; her arms were crossed over her stomach, and eyes were red-rimmed. God, I hope it’s not my fault.
"You okay, Mom?"
Rebecca Weist gazed back at her daughter and offered a grin. "Bad day, hun, that’s all. Be sure to call your friend back soon—she said it had to be before nine-thirty."
Genevieve grabbed the phone in her room and hit the newest addition to speed dial.
"Hello?" Peyton answered.
Flopping down on her bed, Gen smiled absently. "I’m really glad to hear your voice."
Stretched out flat on her stomach on top of her bed, Sage stared at her open Math textbook. The words seemed to blur together; she must have been staring too long. After Christmas break, in just two and a half weeks, she was to attend school again in time for exams, per her mother’s request. The private tutor she worked with a few times a week was a pain in the ass and it almost seemed a relief that things would be going back to "normal."
Whatever normal means anymore.
Upstairs, the doorbell rang. Her mom was out and Kat was glued to the computer in her room, so Sage rose to answer it. The bell rang a second time just as she reached the door and opened it.
Levi. He stood on her front step, heavy snowflakes falling and sticking to his dark hair and winter jacket.
"Hi," she managed to say once she found her voice. She hadn’t seen him since that horribly awkward night after the dance a month and a half ago, and was quite content forgetting it all happened. "Do you…um…" She glanced over her shoulder, thinking she was probably supposed to let him inside, but she had no desire for him to stay that long. Thankfully, he shook his head.
"I’ll just be a minute."
She slipped on her shoes by the door, and then stepped outside onto the porch.
"We’re going away for Christmas break, and leaving early tomorrow," he said. "So I only had time to give you this tonight." He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small jewelry box.
Sage took an involuntary step backward, gaze fixed on the gift. "I can’t. I’m sorry, but—"
"It’s not from me." He still held the box in her direction. "There was a message on the machine two weeks ago from a store…Hayden had put a down payment on this and they were waiting for the rest of their money."
"You paid for it?" she asked, still not accepting the gift.
Levi shrugged. "There wasn’t much left to pay—he’d given them a postdated cheque for most of it. And Dad throws money at me all the time now. I already did my Christmas shopping and actually had cash left after Genny’s present. Can’t spend all my money on hookers and cocaine, right?"
"What’d you get Gen?"
"A new easel from the art store. Don’t tell her—we’re not exchanging ‘til I get back from holidays."
"Anyway, the jewelry store said he ordered this back in the summer and he obviously wanted you to have it."
At last she took the small box and stared at it resting in her hand. "Thanks," she said without looking up.
"Yeah, well, Merry Christmas and that." He quickly turned, stepped off the porch, then jogged towards his car.
Sage slipped inside once more, so focused on the jewelry box that she barely noticed her skin burn from the heat of the house after being outside. Back resting against the door, she stared at the gift for several long moments before she reached for it with trembling fingers.
After taking a deep breath, she opened the lid and stared down at the ring within. A white gold band had alternating sapphires and small diamonds along the top, making five stones total.
"Who was it?" Kat asked from partway down the stairs.
Sage wiped at her eyes without thinking, closed the box, and stuffed it in her pocket. "I’m going out for a bit. If Mom gets back sooner, tell her I’ll be home in a few hours." After slipping on her jacket, she grabbed her key and headed out into the snowy night.
Though Michael’s car was in the driveway, none of the main lights were on in the house.
Please be home, she thought as she knocked on his front door. Several minutes later Michael answered, to her relief.
"Can I talk to you?"
He got that look he sometimes had, as if he was about to tell her to fuck off, but instead he sighed and nodded. "Let me get my coat—we’ll go for a walk." He returned a few moments later and started walking straight past her. Sage took up beside him.
"Levi dropped this off at my house a half hour ago…" She took the ring box from her pocket and handed it to him. "Hayden bought it for me. I guess for Christmas."
Michael flipped open the lid and regarded the ring in silence as they walked. "A promise ring, I suppose."
He handed it back to her. "A little antiquated, but I suppose some people still do it. It’s a promise of commitment, sometimes used as a promise to propose at some point in the future."
She squeezed the box tightly in her hand as they walked. How many people had held it since him? Jewelry store owners, Levi, and now Michael…but several months ago, Hayden had looked at it, handled it, planned to give it to her, pictured her wearing it…
"He used to say we should get engaged after college," she said. "But I always kind of thought he was joking. His mom was always worried we were getting too serious—she was paranoid I’d get pregnant, apparently. So I thought he just talked about getting married several years in the future just to bug her."
"I’d say he wasn’t joking."
"What was your wedding like?"
He sighed. He grew weary of telling her things—she knew it—but he hadn’t yet called the deal off, so she continued to press him now and then. "Simple. Small. Her family, a few friends, and my sister in law. Nothing terribly exciting."
"I always wanted to elope. I mean, I never thought about it a lot… Hayden would have wanted something big and traditional but I would rather just take off and not tell anyone. Did you guys go somewhere for your honeymoon?"
He shook his head. "Getting through the wedding was hard enough."
"What do you mean?"
"We had a lot of problems in the few months before we married. The wedding didn’t solve anything, though of course I stupidly thought it would. But I was trying to be better."
This was the first he’d ever indicated that he and Anne had anything but an idyllic life. She supposed it made sense—they were only human, after all—and Michael wouldn’t have been easy to live with. Still, he had never spoken of any problems like that before.
"What did you do that was so bad?"
"Let’s just say I screwed up a lot and she suffered for it, and leave it at that."
"I’m sorry things weren’t that great," she offered.
"They were still better than they are now, but that goes without saying."
Sage nodded. "I understand. Even though…" She paused. When she originally planned to tell Hayden about what she was, she’d sworn Gen and Merri to secrecy where Michael was concerned, but there hardly seems a point in lying now… "I guess I should tell you that I was going to tell him the truth. Just about me—nothing to do with Gen or Merri. But I thought that since people went after him to get to me, he should know the truth and decide what to do about it. Even if it meant breaking up with me, he should have that option… And I wish I did sooner and that he had left me—it would have been so much…easier than this." She braced herself for yelling, but he didn’t remark on her confession.
"In the interest of being honest, then, you should know about Finn, if you don’t already."
She glanced up at him, confused. "Gen just said he was a friend."
"Apparently I didn’t give her enough credit," Michael said dryly. "Finn is a medium I’ve known for a lot of years. I had him come here to contact Hayden for you."
He’s been in town for over a month now. Sage stopped dead, her emotions a tangle of hope and anticipation mixed with anger for Michael not telling her sooner.
"What are we doing out here then? We should go back to the house and—"
"We already tried; he’s not here anymore."
"Finn’s not here?"
"Your boyfriend isn’t here anymore."
"What do you mean?"
"Finn can only contact spirits that are still lingering in this world. The fact that he couldn’t contact Hayden means he’s moved on."
No, no, he has to be here! "That doesn’t make any sense. Finn must have done something wrong—he would still be here."
"He’s not. We tried a séance to call him here. Finn has looked for him every time you’re around, but nothing has worked. He’s not here, Sage. Finn says it’s fairly common for spirits to move on when they feel they aren’t needed…"
But I need him. She bit back tears.
"You said Gen knew about this?"
"She was there for the attempt at contacting him."
She didn’t tell me…God, I’m going to kill her…
"I know what you’re thinking," Michael continued. "But Finn has tried everything. He’s not here."
"Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?" she whispered.
"I wasn’t going to tell you at all and Gen had instructions to do the same."
"Because you’ve had a difficult enough time with this, and it didn’t seem prudent to add something on top of it."
"He couldn’t contact Anne either?"
"Why did you decide to tell me now?"
"Because," he said with a heavy sigh, "I loathe admitting it, but Genevieve was right and you deserve to know."
As she mulled over his words, her very thoughts felt heavy and weighed down upon her. Hayden had moved on simply because he thought she didn’t need him, or he wasn’t worried about her, or something? She squeezed the jewelry box again and reminded herself that it couldn’t be because he didn’t care. She never once doubted he loved her. Logically, she could tell herself that he believed she could take care of herself, that she would make it through his death intact—that the fact that he wasn’t lingering meant something positive… But in her heart it stung and she couldn’t keep away the doubts.
It was probably a normal reaction. She suspected Michael felt the same way about not being able to contact Anne, and he’d probably confirm as much if she asked him. But she had no desire to talk about that anymore. He’d known about this for awhile, but hadn’t told her yet…Gen was right—they couldn’t really trust him.
"I need to ask you something," she said.
"You mentioned before, vaguely, that there were prophecies or something concerning us, concerning the apocalypse. What kind of details are in those?"
"If anything had made mention of your boyfriend or the fact that he was to die, I would have told you."
"Does it talk about our deaths, though? Me, Gen and Merri?" Now that she knew at least part of the truth, here seemed a good way to test him. "Is it possible one of us might die?"
"I mean it. They’re my friends now and I want to know."
Michael said nothing for at least a block. She couldn’t be sure if he chose to avoid her question or if he even considered it until he spoke up at last.
"Probably," he said at last.
Sage’s mouth went dry. So he did seem capable of telling at least her the truth. "One of us will die?"
"I’ve encountered a few sources that have said yes."
"And if one of us dies, that’s it, right? It’s all over? All of this is for nothing?"
"Do you know who?" She tensed in anticipation of his answer. Nothing Gen and Merri had found listed any names, so she doubted he’d give her one, but—
"I have my suspicions."
She glanced up at him sharply. "Who?"
He shrugged, not meeting her eyes. "Nothing is set in stone."
"Is it me?"
He seemed to weigh that question for a moment, when at last he spoke. "No."
"So one of the others… What are you going to do to help them? You are going to do something, right?"
"I’ve exhausted my resources already. If we don’t hear from Natalya soon…I’m not sure what else to do."
Was there relief now that Sage knew it wasn’t herself? Or even greater worry for her friends? I hate living like this...
"I think I’m going to go home now," she said quietly.
He nodded, and said nothing as she veered off the next street they came to, which led away from his house.
She didn’t, however, go home quite yet.
Though she’d only been in Gen’s home the one occasion, she’d been in the car a few times when Michael dropped her off, and Sage found the house easily. A man she presumed was Gen’s father answered the door when she knocked, let her in without reservation and called his daughter to come downstairs.
"Hey." Gen paused at the bottom step. "What’s up—?"
"Why didn’t you tell me about the séance?"
Gen’s blue eyes widened and she glanced behind her to ensure her parents weren’t listening. A quick jerk of her hand over her shoulder served as a request for Sage to follow her upstairs, and once in her room, she closed the bedroom door.
Gen spun to face Sage. "Okay, the first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club around my parents."
"Why didn’t you tell me?"
"If you’re asking me that, then it must mean Michael told you, which means you probably have your answer—I was forbidden to open my big mouth on the matter." Gen sank down onto the bed and frowned. "I’m going to have to kill him, aren’t I?"
"What happened that night?"
"Nothing. I’m sorry, but nothing happened. We sat around in a circle…okay, it was more like a triangle…but we sat there and Finn tried to call him and nothing happened."
Her knees weakened and Sage dropped onto the rattan chair opposite the brass bed. "It doesn’t make any sense."
"You know Hayden. He was easy going. He just wouldn’t hang around and haunt people."
But I want him to… "I can’t believe you didn’t tell me."
"I’m sorry, but Michael said—"
"That doesn’t matter!" She bit back any more outbursts that threatened to leave her and checked her emotions. When she spoke again, she had nearly convinced herself of her own composure. "You were the one who said we couldn’t trust him. You were the one that said we had to stick together."
"You’re right and I’m sorry. I meant what I said—I just wasn’t sure how to tell you."
And Sage couldn’t fault her for that—not when she had no idea how to tell Genevieve what Michael had said earlier. He seemed certain it was either Gen or Merri who would die, but wouldn’t say specifically. That kind of thing would likely drive both girls mad.
"Really, I’m sorry," Gen said again, probably interpreting Sage’s silence as a sign she was still mad. "I know it probably hurts—"
God, everyone’s pity exhausted her sometimes. She could tell Gen about what Michael said another day—she just wanted to get out of there. "It’s fine." Sage stood to go. "I should—"
"Wait. Maybe there’s something we can do…" Genevieve went to her dresser and took a book from the top. She flipped through a few pages until she came to a scrap of paper being used as a bookmark and held it up for Sage to see. "Finn gave me the name of someone…sort of. He said we could find someone in town, probably, to connect us with this person called The Serpent, and that they might be able to do more than he did."
"Connect with who, though?"
"I dunno—I didn’t find out anything further, ‘cause who am I going to ask, right? Like, besides Michael who is far from forthcoming."
Dammit. "There must be someone—"
"Michael is connected," Gen said. "Me, I know someone whose parents grow a bit of weed. See the distinction?"
"What about that witch?"
Gen scrunched up her face, as she seemed to realize whom Sage referred to. "The slut?"
"Wouldn’t she know?"
"Hmm…" Genevieve considered the idea for a moment, then hopped up and went to her computer desk to sit. "I don’t think I caught her last name, but we can search by address to get her number…" Gen must have found what she was looking for, as a few moments later she reached for her phone.
"Will she help?" Sage asked.
"Hell if I know."
"What are you going to say?"
"Again, hell if I know," she replied as she dialled and held the receiver to her ear. "Guess I’ll wing it—hi!" She straightened her back and dropped her bright tone down a few notches, presumably so she didn’t sound like a teenager. "I’m looking for someone—someone in the area—and I was told you were the person to talk to." She paused, listened, then seemed to pale a bit. Taking a deep breath before responding, however, seemed to calm her down and she didn’t seem quite as nervous as Sage expected she would.
"I got your name from Michael Parris," Gen continued coolly. "He said you were the kind of person to talk to about this, but if you don’t know anything…" She paused again, and then grinned at Sage. "That would be much appreciated. We’re looking for someone who can connect us with The Serpent. Yes, I’m sure… Yes, I realize that’s a bad idea… Look, before you even say it, I’m sure the consequences will be dire or something too—will you tell me or not?" She snatched up a pen and paper from the desk suddenly and scribbled something down. "Yeah, thanks—say hi to Michael for me. Or something." Hanging up the phone, she turned to Sage. "Okay, she gave me an address. Just in case we’re going to our doom, however, I’m going to send it to Mer so she can find our bodies. She sometimes checks her inbox at Thad’s, so it’s possible she’ll get the message sometime next week."
"Just give me the address and I’ll go—"
"Nu-uh. This is probably a really bad, bad, bad idea, so we’ll both go."
Sage wasn’t certain about that logic, but she didn’t argue.
Genevieve claimed she recognized the address as one on the outskirts of town, so she called a cab for them to take to the house. As the taxi drove away, leaving Sage and Gen standing in an empty driveway, both girls had their reservations about what they were doing.
"You’ve got a weapon, right?" Gen asked.
"I never carry one."
"Great—some warrior you are. You’re supposed to have a sword so we don’t have to rely on my lame-ass magical abilities."
"If we’re going to need a sword, you should probably leave right now."
They walked up the front steps, gazing at the dark bungalow before them. Gen hung close to Sage as she knocked on the front door. Moments later, the light just inside turned on and they heard footsteps nearing. As the door opened, Gen absently grabbed Sage’s arm and squeezed.
A small, elderly woman stood within, squinting her eyes in the dim light. "Can I help you girls with something?" She walked up to the screen door to see them.
"It’s always the little old lady you should watch out for," Gen whispered in Sage’s ear.
"We’re looking for someone who can connect with The Serpent," Sage said.
"Well, I-I don’t believe we have many snakes around here. Did you check in the garden?"
Damn waste of time—that witch was probably playing with us.
"Oh, but you know Austin has some pet snakes," the old lady continued. "He’s my grandson. Are you looking for one of them?"
"At this point, we’ll try anything," Sage said.
"Let me call him for you." The elderly woman went toward the back of the hall and called for her grandson. Quick footfalls hit the hardwood floors. An eight-year-old boy appeared around the corner.
"This keeps getting better and better," Gen said in a low voice.
"Let’s just go," Sage began.
"C’mon, we can just see it through. At least Mer will get a laugh out of it later."
The young boy walked up to the door and gazed up at them. "Yeah?"
"We’re looking for The Serpent," Sage said. "Or at least for someone who can connect with it."
He stepped away from the door. "Come inside."
This has to be some kind of practical joke.
Though she paused to see if the kid would crack a grin and show he was joking, he continued to stare at them with nothing but seriousness. With a sigh, Sage hauled open the door, and she and Gen went inside. They followed the boy deeper into the house. The place clearly belonged to the old lady—not a single piece of furniture dated more recently than the fifties. Austin led them to a sitting room, while his grandmother hung in the doorway.
"Should I get some cookies for you and your friends?" she asked.
Wow, she looks out of it.
"No Grandma." Austin stared at her. "We’re busy."
She left without a word and the whole exchange disturbed Sage. Creepy little boy.
The boy sat in a rocking chair and gestured for Sage and Gen to take the couch opposite him. "First, we discuss payment."
"No," Gen said before Sage could respond. "First, we discuss who you are and what the deal is with ‘The Serpent.’"
"You came here to see me and you have no idea who I am?"
"We’re looking for someone who can contact the…deceased," Sage said. "We were given this address."
"Then we discuss payment."
Sage figured she had maybe five or six bucks in her pocket and she doubted Gen had anything to contribute. Maybe he takes debit?
"What are you, like five?" Gen said. "You’ll probably spend it all on candy."
"Insulting me will cost you extra," Austin said without cracking a grin.
"Is there a Children of the Apocalypse discount plan?" Gen asked hopefully.
No wonder Michael wants to kill her, Sage thought with a roll of her eyes.
Austin sat back and regarded them thoughtfully. His light blue eyes went back and forth between them, sizing them up perhaps? Studying them? Sage couldn’t decipher the look he gave them.
"You’re serious?" he asked.
"Okay, so it was a stupid suggestion," Gen said. "You know," she turned to Sage, "being a witch and a warrior has done nothing but almost get us killed a few times—think we can exchange our membership cards for something better?"
"Yes, I believe we can make arrangements," Austin said.
Both Sage and Gen turned his way quickly.
"You’re kidding," Sage said.
Austin eyed them both. "Tell me why you’re here and what you need."
Gen explained about Finn trying to contact Hayden, but Austin kept his eyes locked on Sage the entire time.
"So can you help us contact him?" Gen asked.
"Not exactly. I can connect with the other world and pass on a message. You can’t, however."
Sage’s hopes fell. A message was better than nothing at all, but she would give anything to see him again…
"So where does the snake come in?" Gen asked.
Austin’s gaze snapped to her. "The Vision Serpent. Show some respect."
"The Serpent is the conduit to the afterlife," he explained. "I call it with a blood sacrifice and through it I communicate with the spirit realm."
"Blood sacrifice? Like a cute fuzzy animal? We’re not doing that. Ever. And I’ll probably call PETA on you."
"Isn’t there any way…" Sage began. I need to see him… "A way I could—"
"You want to actually have contact with him?" Austin guessed.
"I’d give anything."
"Sage," Gen said worriedly, grabbing her arm. "Sage—"
As the ticking clock behind her ceased, the room around them darkened until she saw nothing but that which was in their general area. A glance to her left revealed Genevieve was gone—only Sage and Austin, their respective seats, and the coffee table between them remained. Austin stared at her with a strange intensity that seemed out of place on his young face.
"I can offer you the opportunity to see him," Austin said.
He shook his head. "Not in the afterlife. For real. If you could change the past, would you do something to save him?"
For several long moments, she couldn’t speak. Could he be for real? Did he really mean…?
"In a heartbeat," she whispered.
"I can give you the chance to take back one thing—change one decision you have made. And that could lead to him still being alive."
Suspicion knotted her stomach. "What will this cost me?" She’d make a deal with the devil himself if it meant having Hayden back, but she’d prefer at least a warning of the price she was to pay.
"I don’t believe that."
"I mean it."
"But why would you—"
"Because of who you are. Because when fortune eventually smiles on you, I hope that by doing this, you will smile on me."
She hadn’t a clue what he meant, but she nodded anyway. "What will happen?"
"You change one decision you’ve made and the world changes with it. When you leave this place, things will be different. No one else will know what happened."
"And he’ll be alive?"
"Possibly," Austin said. "There are many futures."
"But what if he’s not? What if—"
"I wouldn’t send you without a way to restore things, though you’ll need something specific to this time…" He leaned forward and pulled the small wooden box on the coffee table towards him. Opening the lid, he dumped the contents on the table and rifled through the bits of string, elastics, stones, and chains.
Her hand went to the jewelry box in her pocket. "I have something." She handed him the ring from Hayden.
Austin looked it over and nodded. "It will do." He slid the ring onto a long chain and fastened the clasp. "I can give you a twenty four hour window. If you want to go back to how things were, just put on the ring."
She slipped the chain over her head and tucked the ring beneath her shirt.
"Are you ready?"
Slowly, she nodded.
The boy pulled a knife from the pile of things he’d dumped on the table and put a thick slice in his arm. Sage’s eyes fixed on the wound, horrified at how casually he watched the blood drip from his arm onto the table. Next, he ran his other hand through the crimson pool, drawing patterns and shapes she didn’t recognize.
"Close your eyes," Austin said. "Think of the decision you want to take back."
She did as he instructed. What choice could she change? Maybe she could have stopped him from going into that parking lot alone. Or she could have killed the members of the Brethren at the creek when she had the chance. But there was still the man who sent them—Hayden would still be in danger.
It was then she knew what decision she had to change. Taking in a deep breath, she squeezed her eyes shut and spoke.
Sage tightened her grip on her knapsack and knocked on the door again. Levi, from class, had told her and the other guy in their peer group to meet him at his house around four…so where the hell was he? Dammit, she’d knocked like three times already—
The door swung open then. Hayden, the co-op student from business class, stood before her.
"Hey…" He leaned on the doorframe, out of breath. "Sorry, just…heard the…bell. I was in…" He gulped down some air. "In the basement."
Sage bit back a grin. She’d been waiting outside for several minutes and her supposed host apparently wasn’t home—she should be furious. The anger wasn’t there, however—she couldn’t even muster up a frown.
"The stairs are killer," he said, offering her a charming, lopsided smile.
"Levi’s not home. Were you supposed to work on that project tonight?"
"Yeah. There was another guy too."
"He’s not here either. And Lev didn’t say anything about it to me."
Goddamn it, she was going to kill that guy. It wasn’t easy cutting time out of her schedule of evening classes, and he insisted on them meeting at his house that night. A glance at her watch revealed it was quarter after four. She could still make it to Aikido if she hurried…
"Want to wait inside?" Hayden gestured behind him.
His dark brown gaze held hers for a moment and a strange, unfamiliar feeling settled deep in the pit of her stomach…
"I don’t know, I should probably—"
"Lev’ll probably be home soon. We’re kinda low on food, but I am an exceptional chef and I’m sure I could whip something up." He raised a brow in question. "C’mon, we’ve got like six hundred channels—there’ll be something to watch while you wait. If you don’t mind my company, that is. I could help you plot your revenge against my brother."
She should go—she knew it. But something seemed to push her forward; something beyond her control or comprehension.
Wait, no, I can’t. She remembered who she was, why she was here. She couldn’t do it.
"Sorry," she said coolly, straightening her back. "I have somewhere to be."
He frowned a little and sighed. "Alright. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime—"
But Sage was already walking away.
Sage opened her eyes and blinked a few times. The living room was back the way it was, except Genevieve was gone.
"Did it work—"
"You need to leave now." Austin rose. "It’s almost my bedtime."
A little dazed, Sage stood as well and walked back towards the front door. Did it work?
"Austin," she began, turning to face him.
"Twenty-four hours," he reminded her. "Good luck."
Sage stepped outside into the cold December air. Everything looked the same as it did before—a fresh layer of snow on the ground, waxing moon, only a few days left before Christmas. The next day, Friday, would be the last day of school before the holidays, and Levi had said the family was going away early. Would it be the same in this…this version of things? Her pace quickened, a familiar house in mind. She had to see him—had to see if it had really worked.
Please let him be alive…
Hayden’s place was well across town and a considerable hike from Austin’s. She was in a full run by the time she reached the Greenes’ residence, however. Cars rested in the driveway and there were lights in most of the windows. At least they were still home…
Pausing near the porch, she considered her actions. Running up, knocking on the door, and demanding to see Hayden didn’t seem like the best plan if she hadn’t been dating him in this version of the world. But if it’s necessary…I’ll make it Plan B.
She sidestepped the garden and rounded the house. A glance up to his bedroom window revealed a dark room. Where would he be? … Around the back of the house, she saw light through the basement window. Not a breath escaped her lips and she crept forward, gaze fixed on the window. She dropped to her knees in the snow and peered inside, past the frost.
Oh God. Her hand moved to cover her mouth, to escape the sob that threatened to pass.
As her eyes opened, Sage immediately glanced at the clock by her bed. After ten in the morning—she’d missed her first class already.
Muttering an obscenity under her breath, she grabbed a change of clothes and her book bag, and ran upstairs for the shower. At least her mom and sisters were already gone, so she had the place to herself. Thoroughly washed, changed, and ready for school, she skipped breakfast and left the house in a jog.
Her anatomy class had just begun as she slipped into the school. Thankfully, this-reality-Sage seemed to be taking the same classes as her, however following the teacher’s directions when she’d missed so much school proved difficult.
I’ll adjust, she reminded herself as she struggled through a short homework quiz. It’s a small price to pay to have him back. Worst case scenario, she failed to get a scholarship next year and had to go to community college. If the reason she missed out on that was because she’d altered her history in order to save her boyfriend’s life, there would be no complaints from her.
Lunch couldn’t arrive soon enough for Sage, and as soon as the bell rang, she was out the door and on her way to her locker. The halls filled with students, and ahead of her she spotted a familiar tall figure. Genevieve weaved—and in some cases pushed—her way through the crowd. She reached her locker a few moments before Sage caught up with her.
Will she remember anything? She was there when it happened, sure, but…
"Hey," Sage said as she leaned on the locker next to Gen’s.
Genevieve looked her way, startled. The dark circles under her eyes were a stark contrast to her light complexion, which was paler than usual. Tired blue eyes looked back at Sage.
"What?" Gen snapped. She stared expectantly for a moment, but when words failed Sage, Gen went back to stuffing her books in her locker.
"I just wondered what’s up," Sage said at last.
Jesus, she’s bitchy—how could Gen change so much in just two years? "What the hell is wrong with you today? Michael giving you shit?"
Genevieve’s full attention shot to her. "How the fuck do you know about him?!" Her eyes grew huge and simmered with a combination of anger and fear. Sage found herself stammering her response.
"Why wouldn’t I—I mean I—"
Realization struck Sage suddenly like a slap across the face. She only knew about me because of what Levi saw that night I was attacked, and he only witnessed it because Hayden asked me to go to his game… So in this reality, Michael hadn’t found her yet.
"How do you know about him?" Gen yelled, frayed nerves showing in the wail her tone took. The scene startled several people in the general area, and they sent curious looks Gen’s way.
"I-I’m sorry." Sage backed away. "It was just a—a mistake." She slipped into the crowd and zigzagged between people until she could duck around a corner. Pressing her back to the wall, she held her books tight to her chest and processed this change. So they didn’t know about her. Did she even want them to?
She glanced around for the source of the voice, hoping Gen hadn’t tracked her down yet. Her gaze fell on a guidance counselor cutting through the crowd.
"Ms…Sommers," Sage said, the name taking her a moment to remember. God, what the hell is happening now? Am I a problem student here or something?
"Your uncle’s been calling all morning," Sommers said, as if Sage was stupid for not already knowing this fact.
Keep calm, try not to look too confused… But she had very little contact with any of her uncles, so who exactly would be calling her? Her mom’s brother lived in Saskatchewan and her father’s side had absolutely nothing to do with her.
"You’d better call him right away—come on. He was very worried."
Sage followed Sommers down the corridor and towards the guidance offices. They stopped at a desk, where Sommers handed Sage the telephone and a pink slip of paper with a message on it. She dialled the unfamiliar number.
"Hello?" a gruff voice answered.
"Uh, hi. It’s Sage—"
"Where the hell have you been?"
He sounded a little familiar…
"Uncle Badri?" she asked.
"Who the hell else were you expecting? Now why didn’t you come home last night?"
So it was her dad’s brother. What happened during these past two years? Had her mother dropped a few I.Q. points and gotten back with her father?
"Where were you?" he repeated.
"I was at home. I was late getting in, but I—"
"You went back there again," he said, understanding reaching his tone. "This has gotta stop. Your Aunt Jay is trying to clean the place up—the real estate agent is appraising the house next week. You can’t keep going there—"
I don’t fucking care if they think I’m crazy anymore! I can’t keep doing this.
"Why are you selling the house? Where’s my mom?"
"I want to talk to my mom," she interrupted. "Does she know about this?"
Silence followed. "That’s not funny, Sage."
Dread pooled in the pit of her stomach. "Why would it be?"
"Look, I’m coming to pick you up. We’ll discuss—"
Sage slammed the receiver down and spun to face Sommers. "What the fuck is going on?"
"Please lower your voice—"
She felt her face heat up with rage. "What the fuck is going on!"
Sommers eyes narrowed, concern knitting her brows. "Did something happen with your uncle’s family?"
Sage snatched up the phone again and dialled a familiar number.
"Who are you calling?" Sommers asked as Sage pressed the receiver to her ear.
"Sage," Sommers said calmly. "Put down the phone. You know she can’t answer."
"Where’s my mom?" she said as she hung up.
"Are you having memory blackouts?" Sommers said with concern. "Trouble remembering things? Do you recall where you were last night?"
"I was home last night. Now where the hell is my mom?"
"Have a seat—"
"I don’t want to fucking sit down!"
Sommers sighed heavily and took the seat behind her desk. "You’ve pushed the accident out of your memory, I take it."
"What accident?" Sage managed to whisper.
"A few weeks ago," Sommers said, as if that would jog anyone’s memory in and of itself. When it didn’t, she continued. "Your mother and sisters were in an accident."
Oh no, please… She dropped onto the chair behind her, gaze fixed on the floor.
"Do you remember yet?"
Sage shook her head.
"Your mom had picked up your sisters after school, I believe for a dentist appointment. An SUV hit theirs—a hit and run, according to witnesses."
They can’t be dead…they can’t all be gone… How could this really be happening? Trading Hayden’s death for that of her family—what the hell kind of cosmic joke was this?
"Are they okay?"
"Your sister Ceci had minor injuries. She’s in the custody of your aunt and uncle."
Oh god no…mom?
"Your sister Katlynn is…in the hospital. She has been since the accident. Perhaps your uncle can take you to visit her today."
"Is she going to be okay?"
"Sage, there’s…there’s little brain activity. You don’t remember any of this?"
"I told you I don’t!"
"She’s on life support. From what your uncle has told me, the doctors don’t think…" Sommers didn’t finish and Sage understood why.
She bit her lip, worry gripping her then. Why would her uncle be telling the guidance counselor all this? Unless…
"Where’s my mom?"
"Is she okay?"
"She’s in the hospital as well. She had some head trauma and spinal injuries."
"Is she on life support too?"
"No, but… Sage, I really think you should talk to your uncle—"
"Just tell me what the fuck is going on! What’s wrong with my mom?"
"As I said, she had head trauma. I think it would be best if you went to the hospital. I can schedule you another appointment to talk about this later this afternoon, if you’d like—"
"Who did it?" Sage interrupted, fearful that she already knew the answer.
"The SUV left the scene of the accident and they haven’t been caught," Sommers said gently. "It was just a very, very bad accident."
It wasn’t an accident. The Brethren assassins still came after me. God, in this reality, they’re not dead…
Sage buried her head in her hands. This couldn’t be happening. She had to go back—couldn’t let this happen to them. But, I can’t go back to having him be gone too… And maybe it wasn’t as bad as Sommers made it sound—maybe doctors were working on her mom and Kat and they would be okay after all. And didn’t doctors always tell people the worst news? Prepare them so they’d be surprised later?
"Do you need a few minutes or—"
I need to get out of here. Only vaguely aware of her movements, Sage stood and stumbled towards the door. She slipped back out into the busy hall, tunneled vision blocking out the bodies around her. One collided with hers, knocking her books to the ground.
Automatically she dropped to the floor to pick them up.
"I’m sorry—let me get those."
Her head snapped up at the familiar voice to see Hayden kneeling next to her, scooping up the scattered books. His friendly grin faded as his eyes met hers. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah—I’m…" Her lower lip trembled and tears made it difficult to see. She wanted nothing more than to crumple on the floor and cry, and breathing deeply had been doing nothing to calm her down. Grief hugged her tightly—a familiar feeling she couldn’t seem to escape no matter where she went…
Holding her books for her in one arm, Hayden stood and offered her his hand. She accepted the gesture, shivering a little as her fingertips made contact with his. Once standing again, she retrieved her books from him.
He frowned in concern. "Bad news or something?"
Her eyes locked on his, their dark depths both comforting and a painful reminder of what she’d left behind. How the hell was she expected to make that choice?
But Mom and Kat are still alive, she thought. They might be all right after all. And if not, I’ll talk to Austin—I’ll find a way to change this…
"I have to go," she said when she’d found her voice at last. "Thanks for…" She couldn’t face him anymore and fled from the corridor. After tossing her books in her locker, she went straight for the front door. Would Austin be home, though? It was only noon, but did strange, magical kids like that actually go to school?
Her uncle might be there soon, however, so Sage didn’t waste time leaving Newhaven High. Down the street was a convenience store, and it was there she chose to use a payphone and call a cab. Though she could have called from within the school, it seemed less likely that she’d run into her uncle there. After withdrawing a twenty from the bank machine, she met the cab outside and directed him to Austin’s house.
She requested the cab wait for her as she raced up to the bungalow Austin shared with his grandmother, and pounded her fist on the door. Her impatient banging was met several seconds later when an annoyed Austin finally answered.
He frowned up at her, sighed, then stepped out onto the porch.
"Thank god you’re home," she whispered.
He crossed his arms over his small chest. "My grandmother and I are working on our gingerbread house."
"There has to be another way to do this." Her eyes filled with tears. "My family was in an accident and—"
"So go back."
"But then Hayden will be dead!"
"Sounds like you have a choice."
That little prick. "I can’t make that kind of choice. You’ve gotta be able to do something—"
"You had one," he held up his hand and waved his index finger at her, "choice. One decision you could change."
"Let me do another—"
"That’s not how it works. You get one. I can’t do anything about what happened."
Sage paced back and forth across the porch, raking her fingers back through her hair. This can’t be happening… "There’s gotta be another way."
"I told you I couldn’t make any guarantees," Austin said, softening his tone a bit. "I’m sorry. I have to go back inside now." He opened the door and stepped into the house, but sent a glance back at her over his shoulder. "Merry Christmas."
She stared at the closed door for several moments in shock. How could he just leave her like that? Why wouldn’t he help her?
The taxi horn honked behind her and Sage jumped.
"Metre’s running, babe," the driver called.
Swearing under her breath, she stalked back to the cab and directed him to return to the school.
Michael, she thought as she walked back into Newhaven High. If anyone in town would have any idea of what to do, it would be him. Michael was connected—Michael knew a lot more than he told anyone. He could help, though whether or not he would was a completely different matter. So I’ll have to make him tell me…and I’ll need help.
Lunch was nearly over, and students crowded around their lockers. Sage wove around people until she reached Gen’s locker, where she found both the Witch and Merri deep in conversation.
"Both of you, come with me," Sage interrupted.
"Who the hell are you?" Merri asked.
Sage walked right passed them, only pausing briefly to gesture for them to follow. She waited for them inside the girls’ washroom, where she kicked out any unwanted occupants.
"What do you want?" Gen asked as Sage locked the door behind her and Merri.
"I take it you guys and Michael haven’t killed The Brethren assassins yet, right?" Sage said.
"Who the fuck are The Brethren?" Gen said.
Sage took a deep breath. This wouldn’t be fun.
She explained what she could; that she was the Warrior, that she was from another "reality" in which she had been dating Hayden and he died, and that she and Gen had gone to someone who was able to let her change things. She detailed what she knew about the four men with identical knives that had been chasing Gen and Merri, and related what happened to her family. When she finished, both of the other girls stared at her in shock.
"Mer, you know I’m telling the truth," Sage said when it seemed no one else would speak. "I mean, you could tell if I was lying." Her dark eyes pleaded with Merri, who watched her coolly in return. "Mer?"
"I believe you, I think," Merri said with caution.
"Mer—" Gen began.
Merri ignored Genevieve’s warning tone. "So what are we supposed to do?"
"I figure if anyone knows how to fix this—or knows someone who might know—it’s Michael," Sage said.
"Now Michael is not going to believe you," Merri said.
Sage glanced at her watch. "I’ll deal with him, but I have to head to the hospital first." I need to know how bad this is… "I’d really appreciate it if you could tell him what I’ve told you, though. And if he still doesn’t believe you, mention Natalya."
"And who is Natalya?" Gen asked.
"The fourth one of us—an Immortal."
"No—no, he would have told me about a fourth," Merri insisted.
"He didn’t," Sage said. "We only found out while he was trying to track her down, through a guy named David Shaw. You haven’t met him or Thad yet?"
"Who the hell is Thad?" Merri said, definitively answering Sage’s question negatively.
"Your boyfriend," Sage replied.
"Now I know you’re crazy."
"So do I get a girlfriend in this alternate universe?" Gen spoke up.
"Yeah, someone named Peyton," Sage said, though she could hear the skepticism to Gen’s voice. "You’ve been talking about her nonstop, but I don’t really know her."
"Isn’t she in our English class?" Merri said.
"Uh, yeah," Gen replied. "And she’s not into chicks. She went out with Levi last week."
"Look, if you just tell Michael what I’ve said, he’ll believe me." Probably, she silently added. "Head to his place. I’ll meet you there."
"But—" Gen called as Sage headed for the door.
"I’ll see you in a few hours."
The hospital was within walking distance of the high school. At the reception desk, Sage requested both her sister’s and her mother’s room numbers. Kat’s was the nearest, so Sage headed up to the third floor to see her.
She heard the slow beep of a machine just before she stepped into Kat’s room, but nothing else. Hardly recognizable, her little sister lay on a hospital bed. Sage walked to her side. Kat’s hair was bound back in braids, but for a spot on the side that had been shaved, leaving a long ugly scar. Her left arm was in a cast, while the right hooked up to several I.V.’s and machines.
"Oh, Kit Kat," Sage whispered as she reached her sister’s side. She gingerly touched Kat’s hand, her fingers sliding over the smaller, lifeless ones. Though Sage glanced over the machines, she could discern nothing from their flashing lights and noises. She ran a hand over Kat’s brow, hoping to see a reaction, hoping what her guidance counselor had said was wrong. But still, her sister didn’t open her eyes, didn’t flinch—didn’t move. Even the machines breathed for her.
"I figured you’d show up here eventually."
Sage swung around to see her uncle, Badri, standing in the doorway.
She hadn’t seen any members of her father’s family in years, though he looked the same as she recalled. Older than her father, hard eyes, and an embittered frown, she’d disliked him immensely growing up. Her parents had fought a lot, and her father left them when she was just a child. His family had sided with him during the disputes, and Sage grew up with a grudge about it.
"You weren’t at the school," he said.
"How long did it take you to figure that out?" she snapped.
"Don’t be such a brat. Not here. Your teacher at school said you had some kind of breakdown—"
"Yes, I had a breakdown. So can you explain to me why you’re here when my dad’s not?"
"He’s in jail again."
"Smack around another girlfriend?"
Big damn surprise. Sage rolled her eyes. "So why the hell are you here again?"
"I’m your mother’s power of attorney. She never told you?"
She shook her head.
"I was called after the accident."
Sage had no idea that her mother had kept in contact with him, let alone that she would permit him to make important decisions regarding their finances and health.
"I want to see my mom."
"She’s in another wing—I’ll take you there."
After giving her sister’s hand one last squeeze, Sage followed her uncle from the room. In the doorway, she cast a glance back at Kat. I’ll try to make this right…I promise.
Diana Bethany was on a different floor of the hospital, in the wing for patients requiring longer term care and rehabilitation. Sage found her mother seated in a wheelchair in a common room, staring out a window. She rushed to her side and dropped down on her knees.
"Mom?" Sage whispered, reaching up to clasp her mother’s hand.
Diana blinked a few times as she glanced down at her daughter. It took a moment, but eventually recognition passed through her dark eyes.
"Sage. Is everything all right—"
Sage stood up on her knees and hugged her mother, happy to be in her embrace. "Mom, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…"
"About what?" Diana asked kindly as she brushed the hair back from her daughter’s forehead.
Tears shone in her eyes as she gazed up at her mother. "The accident."
"Oh sweetie, you can’t blame yourself for that. I’m glad you weren’t there too."
"I’ll be out in the hall," Badri called. Her mother gazed over her shoulder at him, smiled, and nodded.
"Why did you let him come here?" Sage asked as she sat back on her heels.
"He and Jayanti have been helping us out a lot. Don’t be so rude with him."
"He said you’re selling the house."
"You know that… We’ve talked about it. In the New Year, we’re going to be moving in with them in Toronto. I can get better treatment out there."
"Can Kat get better treatment too?"
Her mother’s eyes glistened with tears. Her lips parted, but rather than speak, she wrapped her longer fingers over her face.
"The-the counselor, at school, says I’m having a breakdown," Sage said quickly. "Because I can’t remember much about the weeks since the accident."
"Sweetheart…" Her mother reached down and took one of Sage’s hands in both of hers. "I think we’re going to be taking her off the machines."
"But she can still get better—"
"We’ve been talking to a few doctors. There’s no brain activity. Honey, she’s not going to wake up."
No…no… Sage’s hand went to the ring hanging on the chain beneath her shirt. How could she trade Hayden for Kat?
"We’re going to wait until after the holidays," her mother continued gently. "We’ll still have one last Christmas with her."
I’ll make this right, Sage thought, the image of her sister in that hospital bed burned in her mind. I’ll go to Michael, I’ll make him find a spell or something—even if I have to go through his computer myself—and I’ll make this right.
Sage walked the way to Michael’s place, hoping Merri and Gen were already there and had explained at least a bit to Michael. If they had broken him in a little, convincing him she told the truth might be easier.
Michael’s old car waited in the driveway, so she guessed at least he was home. She banged on the door until Merri answered.
"He’s pissed," Meredith said in a low voice as she let Sage inside. "Really pissed."
Not exactly news.
Inside the house, Michael leaned on the arm of a chair in the living room, facing Sage and the front door. Arms crossed over his chest, she recognized the look on his face; as Merri said, he was pissed. Gen sat on the couch a few feet away, feet tucked under her and cheeks stained with tears. Long hair hung around her face, giving her a tired look.
Michael wasted no time getting to the point. "What the hell have you been telling them?"
Sage took a deep breath. "The truth."
"Oh, right, the truth that you learned while you existed in another reality."
"Yes. How else would I know about The Brethren, about Natalya, about David Shaw? Thad Kincaid, Shaw’s student whom you’ve been corresponding with to try to learn more about the Immortal? I know you have a friend named Finn O’Shea who lives in London, and that he’s a medium, because you asked him here to contact my boyfriend who died. And you know Finn because you wanted him to contact your wife, but he couldn’t."
Michael’s face changed then—his eyes widened and flesh paled.
"You tell me about her because I lost Hayden," Sage continued before he could stop her. "I know you used to be a teacher and you met her at a party. And I know you used to promise to take her to the theatre, but you never got to. And I know you fill sketchbooks with drawings of her that you later burn. You were going to name your son after your father and I know Anne was murdered—"
"Enough," he cut in. Sage went silent, accustomed to doing so under his steady gaze.
"You were married?" Gen spoke up in a small voice.
"Shut up," he snapped her way, then directed his attention back to Sage. "If this is true, how did you do it?" He nodded Gen’s way. "This one wouldn’t have been any help."
"Gen found out from this witch, Krysta, that there was a kid in town—Austin—who can connect with the Vision Serpent. We went to him, hoping he could contact Hayden, and he offered to let me change the past."
"The Vision Serpent…Jesus-fucking-Christ, do you have any idea what you’ve been playing with? Do you know what that ‘kid’ is capable of?"
"Yeah," she said, matching his dark tone and stalking forward. "I know that he brought me Hayden back—that is what he’s capable of. Now I need to know what else is out there—or who else—that can do something about my sister. She’s in the hospital on life support."
"You haven’t a fucking clue what you’ve—"
"And you’re telling me you wouldn’t do that for Anne? You wouldn’t—"
Glass shattered in the far left of the room, startling everyone. Sage glanced around, alert and attempting to detect the source of the noise. Her gaze fell on the window in time to see more panels break. Michael hit the ground, blood splattering on the floor around him.
"He’s been shot!" Merri cried.
"Get down!" Sage ducked to avoid any further gunfire.
Gen dropped down behind the couch, while Merri knelt near Michael.
Sage crawled to meet her. "Jesus, you get shot in every reality." She grabbed a semi-conscious Michael under the arms. "The kitchen," she shouted to the others. There weren’t any windows in that area, and it seemed a better place to find temporary cover.
Merri went ahead of her while Sage dragged Michael across the floor, leaving a bloody trail on the hardwood.
"Mer, look for weapons," she instructed as she safely moved Michael behind the kitchen table.
"Way ahead of you," Merri said. Silverware clattered on the floor as she dumped out the contents of drawer. She separated the steak knives, scissors, and anything else sharp she could find. "Why are they doing this now? They’ve come at us a few times, but—"
"They’ve got all of you confined…" Michael gasped in pain as he sat up. "And they must think they can kill you this time." The bullet hole in his chest seemed dangerously near his heart, but he otherwise seemed to be functioning. He reached forward but winced in pain again. "My ankle…there’s a gun."
Merri went for the weapon while Sage grabbed a knife from the stack.
"I don’t suppose you put in the roof exit yet?" Sage asked.
Michael looked at her sharply, surprise passing through the depths of his eyes for a moment before he recovered. "They hadn’t yet been to my home, so I’ve put it off."
"Damn. So what—"
More glass shattered as something sailed through the window. A bottle landed several feet away, cracking open and spilling a liquid on the floor. Sage breathed in deeply.
"They want to smoke us out," Michael said, confirming her thoughts.
"We gotta get out of here," Sage said.
Michael rifled through his pocket and produced a set of keys, which he thrust into Merri’s hand. "You need to drive."
"They’ll be waiting at the front," Sage said.
"Then shoot anything that moves," Michael said, nodding Merri’s way. "Go first and…" His eyes travelled over their faces. "Where the hell is the other one?"
Sage glanced back to the main room and found Gen still crouched behind the couch, face a mess of tears.
"Get the fuck over here!" Michael shouted at her.
Another bottle filled with gasoline hit the floor not far from where Gen hid.
"They’ll shoot me!" Gen cried.
"Jesus Christ, you’re fucking useless—"
"I’ll get her," Sage said quickly. "You guys get to the car." She crawled forward, keeping an eye on the windows and her hand on the knife. Just steps away, a lit book of matches hit the floor.
"Gen, c’mon." She reached for the other girl’s arm.
"They’re going to shoot us," Gen sobbed.
"Mer and Michael are getting the car—we’ll be fine. But you have to come with me." God, this Gen is even more of a whiner than the other one. She wrapped her fingers around Gen’s wrist firmly. "Come on."
Fire snaked along the trails of gasoline around them. She yanked on Gen’s arm and dragged her towards the door, both of them in a half crouch. The front door lay open. I hope they made it…
Out of view of the windows, Sage and Gen stood at last. Beyond the front door, Sage saw Merri and Michael making their way to the car. Glancing cautiously out the door but seeing no sign of trouble, Sage gave Gen’s wrist another tug and moved towards the car.
Gen froze behind her, drawing Sage to halt.
"We’re almost—" Sage looked back and her eyes widened in horror. A Brethren assassin had Genevieve pinned against him, knife against her throat. In the chaotic moments that followed, Gen’s terrified eyes met Sage’s, and Sage tried to move, tried to stop him…
He slashed the blade across Genevieve’s throat. Hot blood struck Sage in the face as she stepped forward to stop him. Gen’s eyes went glassy, and though her lips parted, no sound escaped them.
The assassin let her go and Gen fell forward into Sage’s arms.
Behind her, Merri screamed and fired the gun, striking the assassin in the chest. Sage backed up, Gen’s lifeless body heavy in her arms.
"Everyone in the car," Michael shouted.
Merri had the vehicle running by the time Sage got herself and Gen into the backseat next to Michael. Tires squealed as the car spun out of the driveway and flew down the road.
Sage looked up to meet Merri’s tearful gaze in the rearview mirror. Gen’s body moved in Sage’s arms and for a moment she felt an instant of hope that perhaps she was okay after all… And then her eyes settled on Michael, who had eased Gen back to feel for a pulse.
Blank eyes stared up at the roof of the car and Sage knew the answer before he spoke.
"She’s dead," he said quietly.
Sage doubled over, hugging her stomach and openly crying. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way…
"I just wanted Hayden back," she whispered, to no one in particular. "I just wanted him…"
"I wanted Anne," Michael said, his voice cutting through her and immediately drawing her eyes his way. "More than anything. But I would never change the past to have her back."
"Because I’m supposed to be here for the three of you," he said simply. "And that never would have happened if she had lived."
"Some things are more important than what you want, Sage." He gazed down at Gen, and Sage couldn’t decipher the look in his eyes. A hint of grief? Of regret? She didn’t know.
And I never will.
After driving in silence long enough to ensure they weren’t being followed, Sage directed Merri to a familiar road after dusk had fallen. As she got out, Sage sent a final glance back to the car where she could make out the form of Gen’s lifeless body in the back and Michael staring straight ahead. They drove off, leaving her to stare up at the house in silence.
Her feet felt heavy as she forced them forward, up the path to the porch, then onto the porch to the front door. Pressing hard on the cold plastic button near the door, she heard the bell ring within.
Moments later the door opened and Levi peaked out. He looked her up and down, and then frowned. "Are you—"
"I need to see your brother," she said in a soft voice, well aware that she was covered in Gen’s blood but not wanting to bother with an explanation.
Levi stepped back, still staring at her with worry, and called for Hayden. Several minutes later, Hayden came to the door. Sage stepped back. He understood the invitation and slipped on a pair of shoes, then met her out there.
"Are you okay?" he asked in concern. "Was there an accident? Do you need a pho—"
Sage threw her arms around his neck and pulled him close, sobbing into his shoulder. His arms tentatively went around her waist. She knew he probably didn’t even remember her name, but she held him anyway.
She breathed him in, felt the familiar plane of his shoulders, his back—everything was so familiar. But her joy at feeling him in her arms again was crushed by the knowledge it truly would be the last time. She tightened her embrace, heart aching.
Tilting her head to look up at him, she was met with an expression of confusion, but didn’t care. She leaned up and kissed him softly on the lips, tears falling steadily.
"I love you," Sage whispered against his lips, eyes squeezing shut. "I love you so much…and I miss you more than anything…" Her voice broke. She moved one hand to her neck and felt around for the chain. Once in her grip, she yanked it from her neck and slipped the ring off. The chain clattered to the floor of the porch as she wrapped both arms around his neck again.
"Please tell me you love me," she whispered.
"Okay…" There was doubt in his voice, but he hugged her tightly. When he spoke, she felt his warm breath on her ear. "I love you."
She positioned the ring at the tip of her finger.
She let out a deep breath. "Goodbye."
Sage slid the ring onto her finger.
She could feel the couch beneath her, the cold night air replaced by the warmth of a home, and someone’s hand on her arm. Though everything was different, she kept her eyes closed, wishing it had been a bad dream. She felt the ring on her finger, however—a reminder of what she had just done.
"Sage, you can’t seriously be thinking…"
She opened her eyes to see Gen sitting beside her on the couch in Austin’s home, her friend’s grip tightening on her arm in worry.
"You don’t know what he’s talking about—it could be dangerous."
Sage felt a warm tear hit her cheek; she reached up to brush it away. "You’re right." Casting a glance at Austin, she found the kid stared at her with little emotion. A small nod her way was the only indication given that he remembered what happened.
"Why don’t we just stick with the Vision Snake thingy?" Gen suggested.
"Maybe another day," Austin said. "I think I’m done working tonight."
"Let’s go home." Sage rose from the couch and left the room without another glance behind her. Genevieve followed suit, and soon the two of them were back outside on the street in front of the house.
"I’m sorry you didn’t get to talk to him," Gen said immediately. "Maybe another time…"
"And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you—"
Sage met her friend’s eyes. "It’s all right, Gen." She took a deep breath, hoping she didn’t sound too upset. Her voice cracked a little, but seemed steady enough. "Do you want to call a cab home or walk?"
"I don’t mind hoofing it if you’re okay with it," Gen said with a grin. "Unless you want to be by yourself…"
Sage shook her head. "It’s okay. I’ll walk you home."
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
"It’s Lord Bryon," he explained. "One I really like—I was glad to see it there."
The final line of the poem stuck out at her. Innocent. About the least likely adjective that could be used to describe her.
She glanced up at him and smiled quickly. "I love it. Thank you."
He reached out to brush the hair from her face, then leaned forward and kissed her. "Don’t suppose you’re going to invite me up?"
"I can’t—I told you before, my mom isn’t great with the idea of me seeing anyone. Especially not an older someone."
"Ah, right." He sat back in his seat, but kept his steady gaze on her. "Your mom. Whom I’ve never met. And Gen’s never met. And whom you never talk about."
"Okay, why don’t you just figure out what you want to say rather than insinuate it?"
"I don’t think you live with your mom."
"Well, I wish you were right, but you’re not."
"What’s her name?"
She wasn’t ready to give in yet, and continued grinning, as if it was all a joke. "Loretta. What’s your mom’s name?"
"Where does she work?"
"One of those General Motors subsidy plants that employs half of the town. Where does your mom work?"
"Why do you never, ever talk about her?"
"Because we have a really shitty relationship. Satisfied yet or would you care to try water boarding to pry some more answers from me?"
"I’m not going to push you to tell me anything you don’t want to," he said. "But I want you to know you can trust me." He squeezed her hand gently, reassuringly. She felt sick. "I’m not going to hurt you."
"I know—and there’s nothing to tell, I swear." She leaned forward and kissed him. "I’ll talk to you later this week? To exchange a few more Valentine’s Day gifts not in a public parking lot?"
Merri gathered her gift, then stood outside her fake apartment building with a cigarette while Thad drove away.
It’s not you hurting me that I’m worried about…
Across the bedroom, Michael’s cell phone rang from within his pants pocket.
Should have put the damn thing on vibrate, he thought, making no move to rise and answer it. His voicemail picked up and the phone went silent.
Krysta came in then with a glass of wine and lounged on the bed, silky hair falling over her bare, creamy brown skin. "I was thinking we could go out for dinner tomorrow night."
He glanced at her as if she was on crack. "Excuse me?"
She took a sip of her wine and gazed at him over the rim. "Dinner."
"Right," he said with a derisive snort.
"Might be fun," she said, giving his thigh a playful slap.
"I’m not going out for dinner with you."
She continued on, as if he’d said nothing to contradict her plans, and began suggesting restaurants she liked and ones she’d like to try. He recognized half the names she mentioned, and they were all expensive as hell.
Once she added talk of going out to a theatre to the discussion, he decided to find out what that phone call was about and rose from bed.
And the interruption is even worse, he thought as he recognized the number. Why the hell would Genevieve call him on a Saturday night?
After glancing at Krysta and hearing her continue to talk about going on a fucking date, he decided to listen to the message after all.
"Michael," Gen said, her voice filled with worry. "I...okay, so we did something kind of stupid. Me and Finn went to On the Map to talk to Warren’s ghost—and don’t yell at us, ‘cause we wouldn’t have gone alone if you had been willing to look into this—and we found a body. There are police here and everything and...and I really think this isn’t a normal killing. Finn got all weirded out and..." She sighed heavily. "I don’t know if we’re staying here or leaving, but can you try to meet us if you get this soon? Something strange is going on... Bye."
Jesus Christ, he couldn’t trust any of them alone for one night.
He slid his clothes back on, stuffed his phone in his pocket, and went for the door.
"Where are you going?" Krysta called after him.
He was already down the hall and near the front door before he responded. "Out."
"But we were—"
Michael didn’t hear anything after that as he closed the front door behind him. As he hopped in the front seat of his car, he dialled Merri’s number. Several rings in and she picked up.
"Just getting ready for bed—why?"
"What the hell did you tell Gen and Finn about your serial killer theories?"
"Nothing," she replied, an edge to her voice.
"I’m not fucking around here. What did you tell them?"
"I told you: nothing. Haven’t said a word about it. Why?"
"Apparently they decided to investigate and they’re in trouble."
"My sentiments exactly. I’m right near your place—get dressed and I’ll pick you up."
"I..." She paused. "I can’t right now."
"You have five minutes."
"Michael, I can’t—that’s not enough time."
"Look, I know you don’t live where you said you live. And I don’t give a fuck who you are or what you’re hiding from—just tell me your damn address."
Silence followed and Michael’s annoyance grew—he really didn’t have patience for her shit that night.
"Don’t tell the others," she said.
At last she gave him the address, which he recognized as one of the rougher areas of town.
"Be outside in ten minutes," he said. "And call Sage. Have her head to the house in case Finn and Gen go back there while we’re at the club."
The cab pulled up at Michael’s, and both Finn and Gen got out. Genevieve gazed up at the dark house as the taxi drove away.
"Looks like he isn’t home," she said, wrapping her arms around her stomach and shivering. "Is he usually out on Saturday nights?"
"Often is," Finn said vaguely over his shoulder as he went to the front door and unlocked it. "I’m sure he’ll be about in a wee bit." He held the door open and gazed back at her. "Coming in?"
In truth, she wanted nothing more than to go home and curl up in her bed. But her legs were restless and she felt like she’d downed five cups of coffee and a can of Redbull—there was no way she could sleep just yet.
Might as well wait around and see what Michael has to say about this, she thought as she went on inside.
Genevieve took a seat on the couch while Finn went to the kitchen.
"Want a drink?" he called.
Still shivering though it was warm inside, Gen nodded. "Yeah. Michael has this chai tea thing I like, if you can find it." She tapped her feet nervously while she waited. "So you don’t remember what happened? It was like you zoned out or something."
"Strange thing—I don’t rightly know. I was speaking to the spirit and then you had my arm and were yelling at me."
"Did Warren say anything else about his killer?"
Finn shook his head as he walked over with their drinks. "Not a thing." He handed her a mug of tea and sipped a beer himself. "Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful."
"It’s cool. Michael’s gotta listen to us now, though. So when will he be home?"
He’d better get here soon, she thought, glancing at her watch. Pissing off her dad was fun and all, but strolling into the house at one a.m. would get back to her mom, and Gen didn’t want to deal with her. I’ll finish my tea and get out of here.
She pressed the rim to her lips and took a sip. Gen tried not to make a face as a slight salty taste met her tongue. Finn was nice enough to make her tea and she didn’t want to complain, but...god, it was terrible. She closed her eyes and gulped it down, attempting to keep the warm liquid from hitting her taste buds.
"I should probably get going," she began, preparing to rise.
"I’m sure Michael will be home at some point." Finn took her arm and drew her back down. "I could give him a call?"
"It’s okay, I..." I already did...didn’t I? She couldn’t for the life of her remember if she’d called Michael or not. She hadn’t actually spoken to him—she would have remembered being yelled at. Had she left a message or something? Why is my memory so hazy...? "I can talk to him tomorrow, though."
Her legs wobbled as she tried to stand again. Slumping back onto the couch, she giggled suddenly as the whole situation seemed incredibly funny. Her head leaned against the back of the sofa, twin blonde braids hanging over her shoulders, and she stared up at the ceiling. It seemed to move farther and farther away from her...or was she sinking into the ground and moving away from it? Genevieve laughed at the thought.
Something’s wrong... Part of her knew something wasn’t right—she wasn’t right. Why couldn’t she stop laughing? Why was the room spinning?
A shadow moved over her. Gen tried to sit up, but found herself falling back again. A voice spoke words in a soft voice, though she couldn’t make them out... Someone was telling her to relax?
"I...I have to go home." She tried to sit up again, but hands drew her back down, firmer this time. Fingers trailed over her bare arms, her sides...
Panic gripped her. Someone was on top of her, holding her down, pinning her arms to the couch. Her body felt weak and refused to follow her commands. More soothing words followed that weren’t so soothing.
I have to get up—to get out of here... She gathered the last bit of strength she possessed and focused her mind, pulling forth familiar words and phrases, then pushing them past her lips.
The body atop of hers froze as she finished the spell.
Gen pushed him away and scrambled to her feet. She tried to direct her attention on the door. It seemed so far away...
Her legs gave out from beneath her and she slipped onto the hardwood.
As she fell on her side, her head spun. Her concentration broken, the spell wore off her assailant and he was on her once more.
"I hope to God they weren’t any of the people the police took for questioning," Merri said as Michael drove them home from On the Map. Cops had been milling around the place when they got there, and the buzz at the club when Michael went in said another body had been found. "Gen would crack for sure."
"And Finn would probably be deported." Michael turned the car onto the road that led to his house. "You’re sure you didn’t tell them that—"
"For the last time, no. Don’t you think that if I’d told Gen about my suspicions, I would have insisted on going with her if she decided to check it out?"
Michael had to admit that she had a point there. And if Merri had been involved, she would have at least made Sage go along with them as well.
He hoped to hell that Gen and Finn weren’t picked up by the cops. The thought of how much money he’d have to use to bribe even small town O.P.P. officers made his head hurt.
As he swung the car into the driveway, dread touched his stomach. The front door lay wide open and lights were on in the lower floor.
"Something’s wrong," Merri said, echoing his thoughts. She hopped out ahead of him and rushed for the door just as he cut the engine.
Michael popped open the glove box and took out the gun from within. As he approached the house, he heard shouts. His pace quickened and his grip tightened on the gun.
Sage had Finn pinned to the wall by the throat. His eyes were huge, his hands were up defensively, and he sputtered some kind of response to the threats she yelled his way. On the floor, by the couch, Merri knelt at Gen’s side. His throat constricted; Gen’s shirt was torn, tears streaked down her bright red cheeks, and her eyes had trouble focusing.
Merri helped Gen up onto the couch while Michael moved toward Sage and Finn.
"I got here a few minutes ago," Sage said, her voice tight with rage. She glanced at Michael from the corner of her eye. "He was on top of her. If I hadn’t come in..."
"We had a rough night," Finn said. "It was just—"
Sage smacked him hard across the face.
Michael’s gaze went to Gen again, then to Finn. His friend wouldn’t meet his eyes.
"Check his pockets," Michael said.
Though she gave him a confused look, Sage didn’t argue. She tightened her grip on his throat and thrust him harder against the wall, and then fished through his pants pockets with her other hand. Moments later, she produced a tiny bottle of white powder.
Michael snatched the bottle from her and studied the contents. His gaze locked with Finn’s. "G.H.B.?"
Finn shifted and looked away.
"Make a side trip into the club while you were there?"
"He drugged her?" Merri shouted from the couch.
"You son of a bitch!" Sage punched him again.
"Let him go," Michael said.
Both coherent girls looked his way sharply.
"What?" Sage asked in a low voice.
"Let him go."
Her eyes darkened. Reluctantly, she released her grip on him.
Just as Finn opened his mouth to speak, Michael gestured to the spare room. "Pack."
Finn retreated to his guest room without another word.
"We should call the police," Sage said immediately.
"We should cut off his balls," Merri added.
"You need to get her home," Michael said. "Someone should probably stay with her overnight as well."
"I can call my mom," Sage offered. "Tell her that—"
"I’ll stay with her," Merri cut in. "No explanations needed around my house."
Michael pulled a twenty out of his pocket and tossed it on the coffee table. "That’ll cover a cab."
"A cab?!" Merri stood suddenly, glaring up at him. "You’re not even driving her home?"
"No, I’m driving Finn to the airport."
"Make him take the goddamn cab!"
Michael pulled out his cell phone and walked toward the kitchen. "Don’t argue with me right now." Leaning against the counter, he dialled information and had his call directed to the airport. The earliest flight back to London left mid-morning, so he booked a room at a small motel as well.
Just as he left the kitchen, Finn exited the guest room, suitcases in hand. He didn’t say a word when Michael told him to wait in the car, but instead did as he was told.
Michael waited until he heard the front door click shut behind Finn before he spoke to the girls at last.
"Sage, there’s a small, hardcover book on the nightstand in my room. Go get it." Once she left to follow his instructions, he turned to Merri. "I want you to go outside and find a small rock."
"He just tried to rape Gen and you want me to bring you a goddamn rock? Are we going to beat Finn’s head with it?"
"If we were, I’d suggest finding a large one rather than a small one."
"Just do it."
She grumbled a few expletives under her breath as she stomped toward the front door.
Sage returned a few minutes later with the book. She handed it to Michael, and then perched herself on the arm of the couch where she watched Gen with worry. The witch herself stared straight ahead, eyes red-rimmed and shoulders quivering.
Michael thumbed through the book, scanning the pages until he came to the one he wanted. The front door slammed closed and he glanced up just in time to see a rock sailing towards his head. He caught it and looked it over. This will do.
He knelt in front of Genevieve and held open the book. "Can you read this?"
She blinked a few times as her eyes met his. "What?"
"Can you read the damn book or not?"
"Stop yelling at me!" She broke into tears again.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Merri jumped in, taking a seat at Gen’s side and putting a protective arm over her shoulders.
Michael took a deep breath and tried not to snap back. He thrust the book toward Geneveive. "Can you read the book or not?"
Gen’s eyes settled on the text and she nodded weakly.
Michael dropped the rock in her hand and folded her fingers around it. "Read the words on this page and try not to screw it up." Merri and Sage each gave him a sharp look, but he ignored them.
Gen spoke the words of the spell, stumbling and mispronouncing a hell of a lot of them, but at last she made it to the end. He took the rock from her and deposited it in his pocket.
This had better fucking work.
Outside, he found Finn sitting in the front seat of his car, the hood of the convertible down. His friend didn’t say anything as Michael sat in the driver’s side. Just as he slid the key in the ignition, a body climbed into the backseat.
Michael’s eyes went to the rearview mirror and locked with Merri’s gaze.
"I’m coming with you," she said.
"You’re going with Gen to her house."
"Sage is going to take her and wait until you drop me off later."
"I’ll drop you now."
"Michael, I’m staying."
He muttered under his breath, but didn’t argue as he pulled the car out of the driveway. Time is tight as it is.
The vehicle’s occupants remained silent as Michael drove Finn to a motel just outside of town. Every few minutes, Michael caught sight of Merri glaring at Finn. The source of her anger kept his gaze fixed ahead.
As the car halted in the empty parking lot of the motel, Michael expected his friend to make a hasty exit. Instead, Finn leaned back in his seat and turned his cocky grin Michael’s way.
"You think you’re so much better than me." His gaze shifted to Merri for a moment before returning to Michael. "Both of you. But for Christ’s sake, remember who I am? I see who haunts you. You’ve done a bloody lot worse than me, Mike—you have the ghosts to prove it. The stories they tell? You should hear it sometime. And you..." He swiveled in his seat to look at Merri. "He hovers over you every second. Killing a bloke doesn’t make him go away, love."
"Are you about finished?" Michael said coolly.
"I think so."
"Take your bags and sign in at the lobby. They put you in room five. I’ll be there shortly."
Finn did as he was told, and Michael watched him leave in silence.
"I can’t believe you’re just letting him go like that," Merri said bitterly. "I know you don’t like Gen, but he—"
"Stay in the car. I’ll be back in a few minutes."
"Going to bring him dinner too? Or just order him a hooker ‘cause he got interrupted before?"
"Quit arguing and stay in the damn car!"
Merri slumped back in her seat, crossed her arms, and glared at him.
After watching Finn enter his room, Michael stepped from the car and retrieved a black bag from the trunk. As he crossed the parking lot, he was thankful both for the late hour and the location of the motel—the place was deserted.
The door to Finn’s room lay unlocked and inside he found his friend sprawled on his stomach on the bed, glancing over the room service menu.
"You couldn’t spring for a better place?" Finn said without looking up. "You can afford it. I don’t think anyone here delivers past midnight." He glanced up and his smile fell to a look of annoyance. "You can fool them with this high and mighty act, but you’re forgetting I know you. I know what you’ve done."
"I don’t manipulate children into dangerous situations, then roofie them."
"Nah, a roofie would cut out all the fun for you, wouldn’t it?"
"You knew they were off limits. I told you they were off limits."
"Of course." Finn glanced back at the menu. "Wouldn’t want anyone messing with the Children of the Apocalypse, is that it?"
Michael’s throat constricted and his jaw tensed.
Finn looked up and smiled as he saw his words hit their mark. "Didn’t think I knew about that, did you? Always did take it for granted that I have two ears and a brain that does work part of the time."
"How long have you known?"
Finn shrugged. "A few months. I also know there are a lot of people interested in those girls. It would be a shame if they found out where they were, what their weaknesses are..." He turned back to the menu once more. "So I definitely think it would be in your best interest to spring for a nicer place for me."
Michael lifted a length of rope from the duffle bag and tossed it on the bed. The rope struck the mattress and Finn glanced at it in confusion.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way."
Finn’s blonde brows furrowed in confusion, then he paled as realization hit him. "Whoa, Mike—"
"You said it yourself—it would be a shame if certain people found out about the girls."
"Just a joke—I wouldn’t say anything..." Finn pulled himself into a sitting position and backed up on the bed, holding his hands up defensively. "C’mon—"
Michael snatched him up by his shirt and thrust him into the wall by the bed.
Sweat formed on Finn’s forehead. "We’re friends! You can’t—"
"You crossed a line tonight," Michael said in a low voice.
"You do this and you’ll never be rid of me. I’ll haunt you for eternity."
Michael shrugged. "From what you’ve said, it sounds like at least you’ll have some company."
"And for what I’m about to do...I’m not sorry."
Michael was sitting at his breakfast bar with a cup of hot, black coffee when someone banged on the door. He glanced at the clock. Who would come by at noon on a Sunday?
Leaving the coffee on the counter, he exited the kitchen and yanked open the front door.
A folded newspaper was thrust in his face immediately. It took a moment for his gaze to focus on the black print. U.K. Tourist Found Dead Outside of Newhaven. He glanced over the top of the paper and recognized Genevieve.
"What the hell is this?" she said sharply.
Here we go. Michael sighed heavily and walked back to the kitchen, leaving the front door open. He heard Gen’s footsteps starting after him and the door slammed closed.
"Before you start bitching at me, keep in mind that if I hadn’t done it, Sage might have, Merri definitely would have, and the two of them would have been stupid enough to get caught. I was just keeping them out of jail."
"So this really refers to Finn?" She tossed the paper on the breakfast bar and regarded him with her hands placed on her hips.
"And you killed him and made it look like a suicide?"
"How could you...he was...you can’t just..." She opened her mouth to speak, but no more words came out. Her face was flushed from anger, dark circles ran under her eyes from lack of sleep, and she looked about ready to snap.
Michael glanced at his cup of coffee. "Want a drink of something?"
Her mouth fell open again and eyes widened, as if surprised by his cavalier attitude. At last she let out a sigh of defeat and dropped onto a barstool. "Sure."
He retrieved another mug from the cupboard as well as some tea, and then put the kettle on. After topping up his cup of coffee, he leaned on the breakfast bar across from her.
"Where are the others?" he asked, a little surprised that she had stormed over on her own.
"Sage is still at home—she called to check on me just before I left to come here. Merri went back to her place to get a change of clothes, then I think we’re going to Sage’s later. I didn’t think you’d want us here..."
Gen nodded. "O-okay."
As silence took up between them, Michael watched his guest. Her vacant gaze drifted to the floor and shoulders turned inward. He still couldn’t figure out why the hell she showed up there—she could have bitched about him killing Finn just as easily over the phone. There were bruises on her arms and her wrists, dark spots against her pale flesh.
"I just feel so stupid," she said at last in a low voice. Her eyes moved to the countertop and long hair fell over her face as she shifted in her seat. "I didn’t ever think that he...I mean, he was kinda touchy-feely sometimes, but he always seemed nice enough. Not like you." She glanced up suddenly and gave him a half smile. "No offense."
"You know, I kind of remember you yelling at me last night. Did you have me do a spell or something?"
Michael studied her for a moment before answering. It seemed doubtful she remembered much, so it would be easy enough to lie to her...
"The motel where I dropped Finn off might have been a shit-hole, but it was a shit-hole with a security camera watching the hotel room doors. I had you cast a spell on a small object—a rock Merri got from outside. As long as the object was in my possession, I couldn’t be seen on surveillance equipment. It only lasted a few hours, but it was enough to get in and out of the room."
"Oh god..." Gen clasped her hand over her mouth. "So I’m an accomplice now? The police will find out you knew him and—"
"They were here early this morning. I confirmed that he suffered from depression, and given the illegal prescription for antidepressants they found on him, I believe they consider the case closed."
"Antidepressants? I didn’t know..." Her sentence trailed off as realization dawned on her. "You planted it on him?"
"So this was all premeditated... And this means I helped you with first degree murder! I—"
"I’m pretty sure that, even if the case wasn’t closed, the cops didn’t have a theory going that a witch unknowingly used magic to help cover up a homicide that they don’t even think was committed."
"I’m not even talking about going to jail—I’m talking about bad karma. I helped you kill a man! I helped you kill your friend..."
"Are you telling me that you didn’t want him dead after last night?"
His words seemed to slice through her and her expression changed suddenly. Worry flickered through her eyes before she answered. "Of course not." Her tone held little conviction.
He raised an eyebrow, daring her to come clean.
"Well, I... I’m against capital punishment. If I thought it was right to go around killing men who were assholes, I probably would have murdered you a really long time ago."
"So you’re telling me that you woke up this morning, remembered—or at least had it explained to you—what happened, and you didn’t want him dead?"
"Maybe a...a little. But what I want doesn’t matter—he didn’t deserve to die over what he tried to do to me."
"Before you think this is all to do with you, it’s not. Last night, he threatened all three of you."
That gave her pause. "He what?"
"He said he’d go to The Brethren. That couldn’t happen, so I had to remove the threat." The water had boiled, so Michael turned his back on her while he made a cup of tea.
"But you couldn’t work it out? You couldn’t...I mean, he was your friend, wasn’t he?"
Michael shrugged without looking at her. "He crossed a line."
"Well, it makes more sense knowing that he threatened all of us. I didn’t think you’d kill a guy just for trying to assault me."
He didn’t reply. The tea ready, he passed the mug her way, and then reached for his coffee to finish the cup.
Genevieve stared down into the tea, frowning.
"What the fuck is your problem now?" he asked. "It’s the kind you liked before."
"I know, I..." She shivered, hands wrapping around her to rub her bare arms for warmth. "It’s what Finn made last night."
"Jesus Christ, I’m not going to fucking roofie you." He reached to take the mug away, but she grasped it before he could.
"It’s fine. Sorry." She shook her head as she took a sip of the tea. "I’m just...jittery, I guess. I just keep thinking I was so stupid. I should have brought Merri or someone, or just not gone... And I knew I should’ve gone right home and not accepted the drink and—"
"It’s not your fault."
"It feels like it is. I should have sensed something—what kind of witch am I? But I...I’ve never been in a situation like that, you know? I hear all the warnings to girls to be careful, but I thought that was for straight chicks. Which sounds stupid, I know... I should have been paying more attention."
"It’s not your fault," he repeated. "It’s mine. I shouldn’t have allowed him any contact with the three of you. I thought I was watching him, but apparently I was wrong since I didn’t know the two of you planned to investigate at the club."
Gen shook her head. "You couldn’t have known he would..." As her eyes locked with his, she visibly tensed at what she saw in their depths. "You knew?"
He didn’t answer.
"He’s roofied girls before?" Gen asked, hysteria creeping into her voice.
His silence seemed to be enough of an answer for her.
"How could you...but he was your friend! How could you be friends with someone like that? Is that what you guys do on Saturday night—you drug women and rape them?"
"Hardly," Michael said with a derisive snort. "I’d rather fuck someone who’s awake, thank you."
"But you knew what he did and you didn’t care?"
"You know who I am, you know what I’m capable of, yet you’re surprised at the company I keep?"
"Well...to be honest, I was kinda surprised you had any friends at all. I guess I should have known you’d be pals with rapists."
"He was hardly the worst of the people I know."
"But you..." Tears filled her eyes as she gazed up at him, her expression that of a wounded puppy. "You didn’t know he’d try doing that to one of us?"
"No. He was told, explicitly, to leave the three of you alone."
"Even me? I know you hate me and you did want to leave me to die..."
He didn’t comment for several long minutes, his gaze dropping to stare at the granite countertop.
Fragile. "You’re weak and you’re..."
Innocent. "Naive. This kind of thing would change you. It would..."
Michael sighed. "It would probably make you even more useless than you already are if something like that traumatized you, and I don’t want to have to add therapy to our list of tasks every day."
"Well, at least you’re honest." She sipped her tea in silence, haunted blue eyes focused on the pattern of the counter.
Michael glanced at the clock—she’d better be leaving soon. The whole exchange, it just...it bothered him and he just wanted her to get the hell out of his house.
"Can I see the spell book? The one you had me read from?"
Dammit, of course she’d ask about that. He was tempted to say no, but then she’d probably whine about it later.
"You’re not ready to try any of them yet," he said as he walked to where he left the book on the coffee table near the couch. "Just read. Don’t cast. Got it?"
Gen nodded. He set the book next to her and she reached for the cover. Pale fingers ran along the text of the title.
She gazed up at him, once again crying. "Was it because of my tramp stamp?"
"Jesus, you’re thick," he muttered. "It’s not because you got a tattoo, let alone where you put it."
"But maybe he wouldn’t have—"
"You were attacked because you were in the presence of a rapist. It has nothing to do with you personally."
"Fuck, you’d argue about anything. I’m not saying this to make you feel better—believe me. It’s the truth. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do. It’s not about you. It was him. Now I’ve got better things to do today than sit and listen to you whine about something that’s not your fault. Will you leave already?"
She nodded and drained her tea. Book in hand, she started for the door, but stopped a few feet away.
¬Great, what now—
Turning suddenly, she ran back to him and threw her arms around him in a hug. His throat constricted at her touch—it bothered him more than anything had so far, and his skin began to crawl. Michael stiffened in her embrace, but she didn’t seem to care.
"Thank you," she whispered, squeezing him tight. She stepped back just as quickly as she’d approached him, held up the book, and gave him a weak smile. "And for this too."
He was about to tell her to fuck off already when she turned and left on her own without another word.
Michael was kidding himself—he knew why the prospect of what had almost transpired the night before bothered him. That kid walked through the world so wide-eyed and trusting. She was stupid and obnoxious, sure, but if something too traumatic had happened to her, she’d be...changed. He’d seen it first hand; he knew what it could do to someone. And he wasn’t about to watch it happen to her.
Perhaps that was what bothered him the most...that he even cared in the first place.
He stared at the door for a few beats longer, then went for the bottle of Jack Daniels in the fridge and committed to drinking away the afternoon.
Sage leaned against Gen’s locker on Monday afternoon. "How are you feeling?"
Genevieve shrugged and avoided her friend’s gaze. "Still breathing."
"I thought you might have stayed home today."
She shook her head and shivered a little. "Not in an empty house. I’d go stark Rajing mad. And I’d probably want to be out of there by the time my dad got home from work anyway, so I figured I might as well go to school." She piled her books into her locker and rifled through the top shelf in search of her supplies for the next period.
"Are you good to head to Michael’s today?"
"Why wouldn’t I be?"
"I just thought that..." Sage paused, and Gen could guess where her thoughts lay, but she didn’t say anything. "I thought it might be weird for you."
"I went by yesterday and I was fine."
Gen nodded. "I...I had to talk to him about a few things." She hadn’t bothered telling Merri or Sage about her conversation with Michael the day before when she met with them, instead electing to keep her silence for the time being. She had meant her promise to them months ago about being honest, and she still fully intended to tell them the truth about Finn’s death, but all of it was too fresh, too raw, to talk about right away.
"Did he mention Finn?"
"And it’s true," she said with a sigh. "He killed him. I’ll let Michael tell you guys the rest later today." The bell rang, signaling the start of the next period. God, I just want to go home... She leaned against the locker next to her own for a moment and sighed. "Why can’t the day be over yet?"
The halls were packed with students rushing last minute to their classes. Gen’s gaze settled on Janine, who smoothly weaved among them. The other girl seemed so confident, so put together...
And I feel like such a goddamn mess.
As Janine passed them, her dark eyes went to Gen, and she smiled in greeting. Moments after she was gone, the exchange finally seemed to register in Gen’s head.
"Did Janine just look at me?"
"Who?" Sage asked.
Gen sighed. "Not important. I’m probably going crazy. So I don’t suppose you want to skip the rest of the day and just go over now?"
"Should we get Mer?"
"Haven’t seen her today." Gen stuffed her spring jacket into her messenger bag, slipped the pack over her shoulder, and snapped the locker closed. "So?"
"I do have a Chemistry test right now..."
"Can’t you make it up tomorrow?"
Sage gave her an apologetic look. "I’m sorry..."
Of course, she has to be the perfect student... "Okay. Guess I’ll meet you—"
"There she is." Gen and Sage turned suddenly to find the source of the voice that invaded their conversation. The corridor was nearly empty now except for them and two figures that stood a few metres away. Gen’s assigned guidance counsellor watched from the side of a police officer.
Oh god, they know about Finn... Somehow, despite Michael’s promises, the police had figured out what happened. It did seem illogical that they suspected her, but Michael? She had little doubt he possessed a record of some sort—he was too casual about murder to be someone without a past...
As the officer approached them, Gen took a deep breath and hoped to god her face didn’t betray her fear. If they had just killed Finn in self defense, at least then they would have had some sort of...well, defense. Instead, the police would see the whole thing as cold blooded murder—which, she had to grant, it was—and Michael would go away to prison for god knows how long, and... Stop it, Gen. She had to calm down. Maybe the police didn’t know anything—maybe it was just about whoever died at the club on Saturday night. The police came around and questioned people when Warren died.
"Hi," Gen said as she met the policeman’s eyes, her throat scratchy and voice a little too loud. "Is something wrong?"
"You’re name is..." He glanced over the small notebook in his hands. "Genevieve, isn’t it?"
"Yeah. Did I do something, or..."
"No, nothing like that—you don’t need to worry."
Easier said than done.
Gen stepped forward uneasily. "What’s this about, then?"
"We’re looking for someone and we believe you know her."
At this, Gen was genuinely confused. "Who?"
"I need to know if you," the cop glanced at Sage briefly, "either of you have seen this girl." He pulled out a black and white photo of a young woman about their age.
Gen didn’t recognize her. "No."
Sage shook her head as well. "I don’t know her. I have to get to class, is it okay if—"
The officer nodded. Sage gave Gen a meaningful, "I’ll see you later," look, and started down the hall.
"Please take a closer look, Genevieve." The cop thrust the photo towards her.
With a sigh, Gen took the picture and studied it. The girl looked rough—like the type that would show up on the Maury Povich show and have to go to boot camp or something. Heavy, black eye make-up, cold eyes... "Sorry, I don’t think I..." The resemblance in the photo hit her rather suddenly.
Oh my god.
"Is something wrong?"
Gen looked up sharply. "N-no. Nothing. Why are you asking me about this?"
"In late October you were at the club On the Map when Warren Humber was murdered?"
"Witnesses claim you were seen with a girl who matches the description of the one we’re looking for."
Gen gazed down at the photo again. There was no denying it—the picture was of Merri. "Who is she?"
"Her name is Belle Swanson, and allegedly she’s a killer."
Metal hangers scraped against the bar in the closet as Merri yanked off a pile of clothes. She had arrived in Newhaven with nothing but her knapsack, and her current wardrobe certainly wouldn’t fit in there. She threw everything from the closet onto the couch, then grabbed the dresser drawers one by one and emptied the contents on top.
Can’t walk out with a pile of clothes in my arms... Why the hell hadn’t she bought a fucking suitcase or something? Of course, the simple answer was that she didn’t think she’d have to leave so soon. Or leave at all...
She ran to the kitchen to open cupboards and drawers, rifling through the contents until she came across a box of garbage bags. That would have to do.
She stuffed armfuls of clothing into a large green bag, tied it once it was full, and dragged it toward the door. She had to get out—had to get on the road again. Deep down, she knew she shouldn’t have stopped for long—she shouldn’t have listened to Michael. Of course the police would be on her heels. She couldn’t hide forever.
Can’t hide, but I can run. And that was what she’d do. She’d just keep running.
Another tug on the bag and the side split, spilling clothes on the floor.
"Goddamn it!" she screamed, dropping onto her knees to stuff everything back in again. The bag continued to tear. Grasping the whole package, she heaved it across the room. Clothes were strewn across the floor and the bag knocked over a lamp on the far wall. The glass bulb shattered.
Merri let out a sob and buried her head in her hands. I’m not ready. I’m not ready to go yet. God help her, but she liked it there in Newhaven. She liked her friends. She liked her boyfriend. She was...
But she had been comfortable—too comfortable. She stopped paying attention. If the police had been asking about the night at the club, that must mean she slipped up then. True, it had been risky dressing a little more like her usual self, but that couldn’t be the only thing she did... But I was there all night—I probably left prints, DNA, and all that stuff around. And of course that kind of thing would be on file somewhere.
So the authorities officially knew she was in Newhaven, and not only were they after her for one murder, but apparently a few others that she didn’t actually commit. They knew her friends and it would only be a matter of time before they found out where she lived.
Her cell phone rang from within the front pocket of her backpack. She’d take the phone with her and ditch it after being on the road for awhile; she didn’t want to be traced, but leaving it there meant the police could cycle through her saved numbers, and then they’d be bugging people like Thad...
Thad. Her eyes teared at the thought. He knew something was up with her, but he’d never really pushed. He had trusted her. It would kill him to find out what she really was... But she didn’t have time to say sorry. Didn’t have time to explain or try to soften the blow. He’d learn that he spent all these months fucking a murderer and be all the more glad she didn’t stick around.
Gotta keep moving. Merri dragged herself off the floor and grabbed a new garbage bag. This time she only half filled it, leaving the remaining clothes in a pile. She had enough clean clothes for a week or so; the rest could be evidence or whatever the cops decided to do with it. Though there was little food in her cupboard, she grabbed a few non-perishables and bottles of water from the fridge, and stuffed them all in her knapsack.
At last she came to the stack of letters from Lexie and the cash she and Jay had sent. If the cops figured out where she lived, they’d figure out the fake name she’d been using and no doubt check the post office. The next time she went in to get her mail directed to a new address, they’d catch her. So much for any more cash from my family. She was definitely on her own now.
Money stuffed in her pocket, knapsack slung over her shoulder, and anything of need or value stuffed in the garbage bag, Merri cast one final look back at her apartment. So this is all that’s left of Meredith McCreary...
Too bad. I kinda liked her.
Michael had spent most of the night driving around town looking for Merri, but to no avail. He went by the building he knew was hers, but there was no sign of her. Local hotels—even the dives—brought up no results. He had swung by the bus station a few times, but it was empty as well.
It occurred to him that she might have already been arrested, which would be...problematic, to say the least. A short conference with a few contacts he’d made at the local O.P.P., however, and he knew that wasn’t the case. No one matching Merri’s description had been brought in, and the police had no more leads about the young fugitive, Belle Swanson.
Either she was still hiding in town somewhere, or she had hitchhiked out. The former, he could deal with. Wherever she was, she could be found. The latter, though...that meant they were in trouble. He hadn’t a clue where she would go.
In part, Michael blamed himself for the whole situation. He knew she was hiding something. He knew she was on the run. Logic dictated it would all catch up with her eventually. But he hadn’t asked for any more from her. If pushed, it seemed likely she’d run, and that could be dangerous. As it turned out, he was right, but...but if it had been him rather than Genevieve, she might have heard him out. And then he would have had time to prepare and ensure nothing came of this police investigation. Now, however...
Now it could be too late.
He went home to catch a few hours of sleep, then he was back on the road again in the morning, searching. It was when he decided to take a second tour of the bus station that he finally found her.
Merri sat on a bench in front of a sign for buses leaving town. A lumpy garbage bag was on the seat next to her and she clutched the strap of her backpack in both of her hands. He had to do a double take at first; this time, her hair was blonde and barely brushed her shoulders.
Michael took a seat on the other side of her. She didn’t look at him, but instead kept her eyes fixed in the direction the bus would be arriving.
"Did you come to see me off?" she asked in a low voice.
"I came to tell you not to leave."
"Not really an option anymore." She fished a pack of cigarettes from her bag, pulled one out, and lit it.
"You can’t keep running."
"Can’t stay here either."
"You know Sage and Genevieve need you here."
"I’m pretty sure they feel safer without me around, actually. I’ll get caught eventually anyway...I just figure it’ll be better if it happens away from them. It’ll be better if they don’t see it."
"Do you remember what I told you when we first met?"
Merri smoked in silence as she thought about it. "I remember you bitching at me for not getting in your stupid car when you first told me to."
"I told you that I don’t care who you are or what you’re running from. I’m here to help you. And that’s still true."
"You don’t know what I’ve done, Michael. You don’t..."
"So what have you done that makes you think I won’t still help you?"
"I..." She dropped her cigarette on the cement and stomped it out, then stared at the butt for several minutes. At last she turned her head and gazed up at him, long blonde bangs falling in her eyes. "I’m a killer."
Michael barely blinked. "And I’m not?"
"I know you’ve done worse than me, but...but that’s not going to matter to Gen and Sage."
"Why did you do it?"
"It doesn’t matter—"
"It might to them. Why did you do it?"
Merri shook her head. "It wasn’t in self defense, it wasn’t temporary insanity...it was cold-blooded murder. I made a plan that involved the death of someone and I executed it."
"Are you sorry?"
She shook her head again. "I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The only change I’d make is that I would have done it sooner."
"Sounds like your victim deserved it."
"Is that based on your considerable experience as a murderer?" she asked with a small smile.
"Either he deserved it or you’re a sociopath—it’s that simple."
"Does that apply to you too? Are you sorry for anything you’ve ever done?"
He didn’t answer her at first. In truth, he didn’t want to give it much consideration. "Regret can’t change the past."
"No...but it can certainly affect the future. So did all the people you killed deserve what they got, or are you a sociopath?"
It’s not so black and white where I’m concerned, he thought, though he decided to ignore her question. "Are you coming back with me or not?"
"I can’t. The police know I’m in town, they’ll—"
"I can handle the goddamn police. You’ll have to find a better excuse than that."
"Gen and Sage," she said. "What am I supposed to say to them? How are they going to trust me? Especially Gen—"
"Gen’s a fucking idiot. I’ll deal with her as well. Are you coming?"
She stared in his eyes without saying a word. Half of him expected her to bolt, but at last she nodded. "I trust you."
"It’s about fucking time," he muttered.
"You have to tell me something, though. When we first met, you told me that if I let you in on my situation, you’d explain yours. So start talking."
Of course she had to bring that up. The kid had no sense of appropriate timing. "Later."
"No, now. I don’t expect you to tell me everything—that’ll take awhile, I’m sure. But...just tell me if I’m right. Was Gen the one who did..." She looked him up and down, then met his eyes pointedly. "...this to you?" She studied him in silence for a moment, frowning as she thought. "No...it was because of her somehow, though, right?"
There seemed little point in lying since she already knew the answer. "Yes. In a manner of speaking."
"Are you ever going to tell her—or even Sage—the truth about you?"
"Hadn’t planned on it."
"They will find out eventually. Gen will figure it out. She’s getting stronger."
"She’ll only know if you or I tell her."
"Or if Shaw does."
Shit. She was right—Shaw knew. Shaw might say something... But until they got to that point, there seemed no use speculating. He’d deal with it when it came up.
"Can we leave yet, or are you planning to wait until the police finally show up here?"
"She scares you, doesn’t she?" Merri asked, ignoring the fact that their conversation about Genevieve had already ended.
Michael sighed. "Why would she?"
Merri’s eyes didn’t leave his. "Because you think she’s like you. You think you know what she could be capable of."
Yes, I do... "I know at the moment she’s barely capable of putting out a fucking candle. We’ll worry about other situations that arise when they actually arise."
"If you say so."
He highly doubted she’d leave the conversation there permanently, but it would do for now.
"I guess I should take my crap back to my apartment," Merri said as she rose. While she slipped her backpack over her shoulder, Michael grabbed the garbage bag. "I think I’ll skip out on school again today and at least until this gets sorted out. Any suggestions for how to deal with the police?"
"For starters, we get you good identification and start forging records."
"I’ve got a fake driver’s license from last year..." She dug the small, laminated card from her pocket and handed it to him. "It’s the name I was using at the apartment and for my mail."
Michael only needed to glance at the card to tell "Mary Swan’s" I.D. wasn’t real. "I’m surprised that got you as far as it did."
"Yeah, I overpaid. But it was something."
"First thing we do is get you a decent birth certificate, new social insurance number, and a health card. Then you can apply for an actual driver’s license." They reached his car and Michael tossed the bag of clothes in the back. He got in the front and Merri climbed in the passenger side.
"Great, and how much is that going to cost me?"
"I’ll cover it."
"I don’t like owing—"
"You won’t be owing me anything. Consider it an investment in a worthy cause."
"Which would be?"
He gave her a sideways glance as he started the car. "Saving the world."
As he swung the car away from the bus terminal, Merri tugged at her blonde hair and the wig fell off. She tossed it in the back.
Michael glanced at her in surprise and she shrugged.
"You didn’t really think I’d bleach it, right? Please." She ran her hands through her real hair, shaking it loose. "It’s bad enough that I have to fix my roots all the time to stay a brunette. If I went blonde, it would be a daily chore to keep up. You might as well write ‘trailer trash’ on my forehead. So...any thoughts on what to tell Gen and Sage yet?"
As he drove, Michael thought about that very thing. Snarling, "Shut the hell up and deal with it," was a possibility.
"I’ll figure something out," he said at last.
"Good, ‘cause I don’t know..." Her sentence trailed off as he turned the car onto her street.
Two police cars were parked in front of her apartment. Sure, it seemed possible—and perhaps even likely—that it was a drug bust, but it seemed too much a coincidence.
"Duck down," he said as he triggered the roof back up on the convertible. Merri slid down in her seat so she couldn’t be seen as he rounded the corner away from the building.
"Shit," she swore. "Where the hell am I going to go?"
"For now, we hide you. There was nothing at your place that could trace you to me, was there?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Never written down the address, never told anyone there...no ties whatsoever."
"Then you can hide there while I sort this out."
Thankfully, they didn’t run into any other cops before they reached Michael’s house, and the two of them got out of the car and swiftly moved to the front door.
"You don’t go to school, you don’t go to work," Michael opened the front door, "and you don’t go anywhere until I—"
Michael and Merri froze just inside the door. Genevieve and Sage waited for them in the living room.
"Of course, you still have a fucking key," he muttered as he tossed the garbage bag of Meredith’s things on the floor.
"No, you just left the door unlocked," Gen replied.
He’d smack the damn witch if she got in his way at that moment. Michael gestured for Merri to put her stuff in the spare room while he went to the kitchen for the phone. Time to purchase some decent forgeries. "We’ve got shit to do, so don’t start your bitching ‘cause—"
"Oh, for once we’re in agreement," Gen said. "We don’t have time to talk right now."
Someone knocked on the door suddenly. Michael and Merri both froze and looked to the door, but it was Gen who walked confidently over and opened it. She smiled at the intruder and gestured for him to come inside.
"Yes officers," Gen said coolly. "She’s right here."
Michael stood alone in his house for a few minutes after the girls had left, trying to sort everything out in his mind.
Yes, Genevieve had finally made herself useful, but he still wasn’t pleased about it. When the hell would these kids get it through their heads that they shouldn’t be doing things on their own? He might not relish the job of looking out for them, but he’d committed to it anyway. The situation could have been dealt with much more safely if Gen had just come to him in the first place when the police approached her. If her spell hadn’t worked... Merri could have been dragged off in handcuffs.
But her spell did work. Even a few nights ago, when she’d charged a simple rock with magic while being drugged, her spell had worked. Just like Merri said...
"She’s getting stronger."
And that was the point, right? To help the girls get stronger. They had enormous burdens to bear, too many things to face in too short an amount of time. They were still young, though. Reckless. Foolish. And that led to mistakes and lapses in judgment.
He wouldn’t kid himself, however. There was more to it than that.
"She scares you, doesn’t she? "
The stronger she got, the more unpredictable things became. They’d nearly had a fucking disaster a few nights before. And the next time? She didn’t know, yet, what the real world was like. She was still an innocent. But if something happened again, something he couldn’t prevent, and she changed... And if she fully realizes the things she can do...god knows what will happen.
So what were his options? Keep her in the dark about her power in case something bad happened to her, or protect her long enough for her to grow into someone responsible enough to handle magic. Fine ideas that wouldn’t ever work in practice.
It would have been so much easier to let her die. To let everything go to hell...
He picked up Merri’s garbage bag of clothes and knapsack from behind the couch and tossed them in the spare room, then locked up the house. He had one issue to deal with, and then he could work on getting Merri settled with an actual identity.
Krysta let him inside the building as soon as he buzzed and was waiting for him in the living room of her apartment.
"I thought you’d be here sooner," she said with a smile.
Michael stopped in the doorway, retrieved the necklace of Gen’s from his pocket, and tossed it on the couch next to Krysta.
"What the hell did you think you were doing?"
Krysta picked up the pendant and deposited it in a small wooden box behind the couch. "Doing your friend a favour."
"Leave her alone."
"She came to me, Michael. Maybe you should get her a leash."
"First you sent her to that fucking kid—and we both know what he’s capable of—and now you’re helping her with spells. This has to stop."
"You’re the one who told me what a powerful little witch you had on your hands," Krysta said with a casual shrug. She rose from the couch and wandered his way, lips pulled into a pout. "Rethinking that position, are you? No reason for you to get so upset about your mistake." Stopping just inches away, she placed her hands on her hips and smiled up at him.
"Leave her alone," he said again.
"Let me remind you once more; I didn’t contact her in the first—"
"She doesn’t need your influence."
"And what’s so bad about me? Hmm? Maybe I could teach her a thing or two."
"Stay the hell away from her."
"And what’s so special about her? Why is it you’re so worried about someone corrupting her precious little brain?"
Michael ignored the question. "If she comes to you again, send her away."
Krysta’s predatory grin widened, as if she took great pleasure in their exchange. She moved her hands to him and ran her fingers down his arms. "Or what?"
"Or I’ll kill you."
"I’m starting to think I might find it interesting to see you try..."
He grasped her wrists and yanked her hands from his arms. Fingers still gripping her, he twisted her arms swiftly until her eyes winced with pain.
"No, I actually don’t think you would," he said.
Krysta’s brown eyes darkened to near black. "Get the hell out of my apartment."
Michael dropped her arms again. "With pleasure."
As he walked down the hallway away from her, returning to the elevator, he heard her behind him.
"This isn’t over."
"It never is," he muttered under his breath as the elevator doors closed.
Right around three in the afternoon, Merri returned to his house after school, without Gen and Sage as he’d requested. She left a small stack of notebooks and a textbook on the breakfast bar.
"Remind me not to leave my knapsack behind next time," she said with a sigh as she stretched her arms and slid onto a barstool.
"We need to discuss living arrangements," he said.
Almost immediately, she grew fidgety and her eyes hardened. "This is only temporary. Once I can—"
"You have better things to do than work several jobs to pay rent at some shitty apartment, and I have room to spare." Without waiting to hear her next feeble argument, he started toward the spare room and threw the door open. Merri followed him and the two of them stood in the doorway.
He hadn’t done anything to the room yet except change the sheets on the cot after Finn left. Not anticipating any guests staying for long periods of time, Michael hadn’t thought to buy something better than a cot. Boxes of books that he’d put off sorting were stacked along one wall, while trunks of his things from some of his other old apartments around the world collected dust in the closet. Simple shades covered the windows, but otherwise nothing else adorned the walls and the only furniture was the cot.
"I’ll get the boxes moved out tomorrow," he said. "And I’ll make sure there’s room in the closet for your stuff. I’d prefer you keep out of my room and the other spare rooms. You have free range of the rest of the house."
"Michael, I can’t live here for free."
Jesus Christ, what the hell was her problem now? "Look, I’ve got plenty of room to spare, the house is fully paid for so it’s not like—"
"I’m fine if this is temporary, but since you’re going to the trouble of hiring a forger and that... I would just prefer to pay rent. My cousin and my brother have been sending me money over the past few months for rent and stuff, but I can’t risk getting my mail transferred again. I’ll give you what I have saved up, but—"
Why the hell did these kids have such a problem with someone helping them? Merri at least seemed to have more sense than that... "If you find somewhere else to stay, that’s fine, but I doubt you could afford it, and you’re needed here with Sage and Gen."
"You don’t want to stay here for free? Fine. I’ll give you a job."
Merri visibly tensed. "What?"
"I’m in between assistants at the moment."
She frowned slightly, as if she hadn’t been expecting that proposition. "An assistant?"
"I have books sitting in boxes here because they need to be organized and filed into the database on my computer—which I believe you have some familiarity with—and I have no patience to go through emails from people who think they have something to tell me about the three of you. If you want to earn your keep, that’s how you can do it. I’ll give you an estimate of what I paid my last assistant if you think I’m just making up work for you to do."
A long stretch of silence passed in which she seemed to consider his words.
"You’re serious?" she said at last.
"Have I ever been anything but?"
"I think I should buy my own groceries."
"And you really need to get cable at some point."
Christ, maybe he should just send her packing now. "Anything else?"
"Any rules about having people over?"
"Keep out of the common area, otherwise I don’t care what you do with Thad in your room."
Her face coloured a bit. "And I suppose the same goes for Krysta?"
"She isn’t permitted to be in this house." And whether or not I see her again this century is looking doubtful.
"You know by having me here, you’re just setting yourself up to deal with girly sleepover parties," she said with a grin.
"I’m due for a vacation soon anyway."
Wednesday morning, Gen stood at her locker sorting through books for the day. Not going to Michael’s the night before meant she actually had time for homework for once...which she’d blown off, and caught a movie with Levi instead. Deciding to at least make an effort to finish an essay or two, the best course of action seemed to be skipping her next class in favour of a study period at the library.
Thankfully, she hadn’t yet run into Merri that day. She still wasn’t sure what to say to her. The sense of betrayal after her lies seemed too fresh, and Gen hadn’t yet decided how to deal with it. Michael would probably just yell at her some more for upsetting his precious, innocent Merri, so she wasn’t eager to see him either.
"Love the tattoo."
Gen closed her locker and looked over her shoulder to see a familiar pair of chocolate brown eyes gazing at her lower back.
"Thanks." Gen chanced a smile at Janine, which the other girl returned.
"Did you get it done in town?" Janine started walking and Gen followed—it was in the direction of the library anyway, though in truth she probably would have gone to class if that was where Janine headed.
"Yeah, there’s a new parlour on Division. It’s a nice place. Reasonable prices." I should stop before I start babbling—maybe she’s just being nice in starting a conversation with me.
"I’ll have to check them out. I waited around for like two hours at the place I went before..." She reached for her shoulder and slid the neckline of her shirt to the side to reveal a Celtic cross on her upper back.
"Thanks. I love your design, though. Was it one they had in their gallery or did you pick it out elsewhere?"
"I drew it."
Janine raised a dark, shapely eyebrow in surprise. "Really? It’s gorgeous. I don’t suppose I could convince you to draw me something for my next one?"
Oh, please do convince me. "Sure."
"I’m headed to the library to work on my Calculus homework—wanna join?"
Gen was so incredibly thrilled at the prospect that it took several moments—and Janine giving her a confused look—to realize she hadn’t yet answered and her mouth lay wide open.
"Yes! I mean, I was just headed there myself."
Did I somehow work a love spell in my sleep? Gen wondered as the two girls walked to the library together. Surely Michael would have warned her at some point if she could inadvertently cast spells?
For now, there seemed little point in worrying about it—she’d just enjoy Janine’s newfound interest in her and ponder the reasons why later.
Gen opened the library door for Janine. The other girl smiled as she walked by and Gen felt a little flutter in her stomach. This actually seemed to be going well...
Just as Gen followed, she felt fingers wrap around her wrist and jerk her backward.
"Hey—" She sent an accusatory glance over her shoulder.
Michael’s cold green eyes looked back at her. "Why the hell aren’t you in class? I’ve had the office paging you."
"Jesus, are you working for my mother or something now?" She yanked her arm from his grasp. "I’m busy—I’ll talk to you later."
"We need to go somewhere. Now."
"Then it can wait until after—"
The handful of students around the library had all turned to stare at them now and Gen felt colour rise in her cheeks.
"Are you still coming?" Janine asked. Gen looked back at the object of her affection to find Janine looking from her to Michael curiously.
Gen snapped her attention to Michael. "Go wait outside the school—I’ll be there in a damn minute. Comprende?"
She stared after him a few beats longer to ensure he really was going, then she turned back to Janine with an apologetic smile.
"Sorry, that’s my...uh...employer...sorta."
"He wants you to work during school?"
"Um...yeah, he’s like really incompetent and always needs my help. Maybe do the library thing another time?" Please say yes.
"I don’t usually do the library thing anyway."
Gen’s heart sank.
"Maybe the club thing would be better."
Janine leaned against the library doorframe and gave her a dazzling smile. "On the Map is the local hotspot now that people keep getting killed there. I’m going Saturday night. Wanna come?"
Oh-my-fucking-god-yes! "Yeah. Sure."
"Great." She gestured over her shoulder. "Better get in there and start working, though. Guess I’ll talk to you later."
"Yeah. Okay. Later." Gen gazed after her as Janine continued on into the library. So was that like a date they had planned? Janine supposedly had a girlfriend, and since she was one of only two out lesbians in the school, it seemed like their breakup would be news. Not that I’ve been paying much attention to any rumours lately. Between what happened with Finn, and then the past few days with Merri, Gen was barely aware of what day of the week it was let alone who was dating who. But another pretty girl hitting on her? This was totally awesome. It was like she fell asleep and woke up in The L Word...only with less cheating and general skankiness.
The cell phone in her back pocket rang. A glance at the screen revealed a text message from Michael telling her to hurry up.
She turned to look down the hallway, where she could see the front doors to the school. Michael stood out there glaring in her direction and gesturing at his watch.
What a whiner. She texted him back a message that said, "one minute," then stowed her books back in her locker and headed outside.
"Do you just wait around here until you see me talking to a pretty girl so that you can interrupt me and ruin my life?" she asked as they started walking away from the school. She spotted his car parked in the bus zone at the end of the walkway, so she guessed he had some sort of field trip in mind. "More spell books from skanks?" After tossing her messenger bag in the back, she got in the passenger side of the convertible. Michael took the front seat.
"We’re going shopping."
"Is this going to turn into that scene in Pretty Woman where people bring out all kinds of ugly eighties clothes for me to try on?"
He started the ignition. "Not shopping for you."
"Have you come out of the closet as a female impersonator and you want my fashion tips?"
He glanced at her sharply as he pulled the car out of the school parking lot. "It’s for Merri."
"We’re buying her ugly clothes?"
"No one is getting any clothes!"
"Then why the hell did you drag me—"
"Merri is going to be living at my house now, since she can’t go back to her apartment because of you."
"Uh, maybe she shouldn’t have been such a big ol’ liar, then. Why do you need me here?"
"She needs proper furniture and things. You can pick it out and help move it."
No amount of protesting could get her out of the task. Though Gen initially consoled herself with the prospect of having full access to his credit card, Michael nixed that idea when he revealed that everything would be paid for in cash, and he would be overseeing all purchases.
They left the department store by early afternoon. The backseat of the convertible was filled with any purchases that could fit, while the furniture pieces would be delivered within the hour. After seeing the obscene amount of money Michael parted with for his new houseguest, Gen briefly wished she could have a room there as well, until the homeowner himself snapped at her a few more times about her stupidity and incompetence.
"Okay," she said as she lugged inside the last bag of bedding and things from the store. "Congratulations—you made me miss an entire day of school for this. Can I leave now?"
She found Michael standing outside the spare room with two large boxes in his arms. "Start grabbing boxes and move them into the far room." He nodded toward the back of the house to some rooms she’d never been in.
"Why can’t we have Sage do this?" she called as she reluctantly complied. The boxes of books were heavy as hell and she only managed to carry one for every three Michael moved. "She’s stronger than me."
"Sage isn’t the one who nearly had Merri leave town."
"Once again, not my problem." God, it was like he decided to punish her with manual labour or something. Next up will be a mop and broom.
Thankfully, the delivery of furniture arrived before he could make her clean anything. While Michael directed the delivery people to drop the boxes off in the spare room, Gen went to the kitchen for a drink.
Merri and Sage walked through the open door a few minutes later. Both looked curiously from the deliverymen to Genevieve. Sage went to sit on the couch while Merri approached Gen.
"What’s going on?" Merri asked.
"Your B.F.F. decided to drag me shopping. Like, because I’m a girl, I’ll know what girl stuff to buy."
"He bought a bed?" Merri guessed as she slid onto the barstool next to Gen.
"He bought like half the store. Apparently all you have to do to get on his good side is kill a man and then lie about it for six months."
Genevieve put up her hand to silence Merri. "Don’t. I still don’t want to hear it."
It looked as though the last of the deliveries had been dropped off, and Michael saw the men out the door.
"Can I go home now?" Gen called, but was disappointed when Michael shook his head.
"The bed has to be put together."
"You picked out one that had multiple pieces."
Of course he’d turn that back on me. She’d picked out a wrought iron daybed because it looked pretty. Had she known she’d have to put the stupid thing together, she would have suggested a mattress and a bed frame.
Gen dragged her feet toward the spare room. Her muscles ached from moving boxes for the past half hour and she wasn’t looking forward to more work. Merri and Sage followed.
Though Gen had expected Michael to be directing them, instead he breezed right past and went to the living room.
"Uh, there’s a bed here for you to put together," Gen pointed out.
"Sage and I have work to do," he returned. "You and Merri can go to it."
It seemed, to Gen, to be a not-so-subtle attempt at forcing them to work out their differences, but considering the "difference" was that Merri was a murderer, Gen wasn’t so eager to bury the hatchet. She’d hold her tongue, get the stupid bed put together, and even move the dresser and desk set, but she’d be damned if they started talking about their feelings or something stupid like that.
The girls worked in silence. About an hour after entering the room, they had the daybed set up and furniture moved. Already the dark, small room was looking bedroom-ish with the boxes gone. By the time they got the curtains up and the bed made, Gen thought it might even be homey.
"Gen, I want to tell you something," Merri said as they stretched out the fitted sheet over the mattress.
"I still don’t want to talk about it," Gen said. "I probably wouldn’t believe you anyway."
"Please..." Merri dropped the comforter on the bed and gazed downward, her brows pulled into a thoughtful frown. Gen stopped working as well to listen to her for a moment. "I want to tell you who I am and what I did. And I know you’ll think even less of me than you do now, but I still need to say it. I owe you the truth."
At least you’ve figured that much out. "Fine." Gen sat on the bed and crossed her arms, waiting. "Start talking."
"So, you’ve got a date with Janine?" Levi said with a smile.
"It’s not necessarily a date-date," Gen said quickly. "It could end up being a group thing. Or it could be a horrible joke." She grinned. "But I like to think it’s a date-date."
"Who would have guessed that tattoo would help you pick up chicks?"
"I know, eh? Apparently, I could have gotten her attention ages ago if I’d just dressed up like Magenta and got some body art."
They stepped out of the school Friday afternoon together. Levi had offered her a ride home, and she’d decided to skip out on Michael’s in favour of some quality time lounging around Levi’s house instead.
"So you’re going to On the Map?" he asked. "Even with all the unsolved murders?"
"Well, thus far it’s only been the unsolved murders of guys, so I think I’m safe, unless I suddenly got uber butch..." Shit, the murders. Gen nearly stopped mid-step. Days ago, she’d been so focused on figuring that out, but then the things with Merri took over and she completely forgot.
And, whether the victims are guys or not, there’s no way I’m putting my possible-date in danger. They had to figure out what was going on.
"Lev..." She turned to her friend. "I’m sorry, but I think I’m going to have to cancel. I just remembered this...thing I have to do."
"Yeah." Why don’t I have a bunch of excuses already made up for situations like this? "I have to go Merri’s. About this class thing." Sorta true.
Levi shrugged. "If you have to. I’ll see you tomorrow night at the club, though? Just in case it turns out to not be a date-date, but a group friend thing."
"Yes, please! I could use the moral support." Gen backed up in a hurry, hoping Levi would be too busy getting to his car to realize she wasn’t headed in the direction of the apartment where he thought Merri lived. "I’ll call you tomorrow."
I can’t believe I let a bunch of unsolved murders slip from my head, she thought as she swiftly walked to Michael’s house. Michael had been right—there was no way the group of them were ready to play detective and solve murders if they could so easily get distracted.
Gen burst through the door at Michael’s to find Sage and Merri had arrived several minutes ahead of her.
"Okay, we really gotta sort out this serial killer thing," she said. Though she pushed the door closed behind her, it didn’t quite catch and lay ajar a few inches. Gen walked toward Michael, who stood in the kitchen.
"I thought we had this conversation a few times," he said coolly. "You’re not looking into this thing."
"Except with all of the stuff that happened, we haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about all the new things I learned!"
"Which would be?"
Gen paused. Dammit, she probably should have collected her thoughts before she started talking.
Michael rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, lots of new information."
"No, really! Uh...the new girl! Warren said something about the new girl."
"Except I already explained that," Merri pointed out. "I did tell him I’d meet him out there."
"Oh. Right. Well, there’s still the matter of something supernatural going on there. Finn got all wiggy and said he was hearing music. And I got wicked creeped out, like I felt something there."
"Your evidence so far then is the word of a man who roofied and assaulted you, and the fact that you got ‘wicked creeped out’?" Michael asked.
"Stop making me sound stupid!"
"I'm not--you're accomplishing that quite well on your own."
"My visions," Merri said. "From what I’ve seen, I gotta agree with Gen. There’s something less natural and more super about the whole thing."
"So we head there tonight while armed," Sage said. She moved to the weapons cabinet and opened it, her dark gaze trailing over the swords and guns. "We investigate. We’ve got a witch, a warrior, a seer, and Michael. Why, exactly, should we be afraid of anything out there?"
"Okay, I gotta ask..."
Genevieve’s heart seized at the sound of a familiar voice behind her. Everyone turned to see Levi standing in the open doorway staring at them.
His eyes swept around the room, then settled on Genevieve’s. "What the hell is going on?"
Gen was pleased when Michael did return home a few hours later with a large dry erase board. While he mounted it on the far wall, Merri went through the notes he’d taken at the police station and hospital. Gen was the first to jump up and start jotting down notes on the board, highlighting any important details from both the official reports on the murders, as well as things from Merri’s visions and what she and Finn had learned.
Sage sat at the back of the kitchen at the breakfast bar, glass of water in hand, watching the others with disinterest. She was all in favour of stopping a serial killer, sure, regardless of whether or not he was of supernatural origin, but...
Still, she couldn’t get into the discussion. Her mind kept trailing back to Levi’s arrival at the house a few hours ago.
Feelings of guilt stirred in her once more. They were never really gone for long, but seeing Levi again, watching him digest the truth about Hayden’s death...it all made the hurt fresh once more.
God, what would he say if he knew everything? If he knew she’d had the chance to have Hayden back for good, but been forced to give him up?
They should have told him sooner, despite what Michael said. Granted, she had no idea how to even start that kind of conversation, but Levi still should have known the truth months ago. If she’d been in his position, she would have wanted to know.
Sage glanced up as she heard footsteps approach and saw Michael nearing her.
"A dry erase board, and yet you aren’t interested," he muttered with sarcasm.
She glanced to where Gen stood across the room, drawing big circles around different words in various colours. "Some are more easily amused than others."
"Come on, she’s about to crack the case." Michael nodded toward the board. "With details like, ‘music’, ‘killings’, ‘water’, and a whole lot of question marks, we should have the list of suspects narrowed down any day now."
"At least she’s enthusiastic."
"Which would be helpful if enthusiasm solved crimes."
"So you really don’t believe them?" She met his eyes. "You just think it’s a ‘normal’ serial killer, whatever that means?"
Sage snapped to attention and sat straighter in her chair. "What?"
"The police reports said the victims drowned."
"Well...they’re kinda near the lake, so that’s not exactly strange."
"Except the bodies weren’t actually found by the water. In the case of the victim from last weekend—the one Finn and Gen stumbled upon—he had only been dead a half hour or so when he was found. There weren’t any signs that he had been dumped there after being killed in another location, his clothes weren’t wet, and he showed no signs of drowning except that his lungs were full of water."
Sage looked at the board again and studied what little Gen had written thus far, the wheels turning in her head. "Exactly how supernatural does ‘supernatural’ mean, in this context?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I don’t know what else is out there. There are all these people in the world—me, Gen, and Merri included—who can do things, right? Perform things like magic and that?"
"So what else? What is real that we think isn’t? I know it was just a joke earlier when Gen asked if there are vampires, but...but what else is there? What other...creatures or something could we be dealing with? Are there demons? Monsters? We’re supposed to have an apocalypse coming at some point—doesn’t all that seem possible?"
She half expected him to tell her she was as stupid sounding as Gen, but instead she found his gaze fixed on the board. A frown slowly came over his face.
"Shit," he muttered.
Uh oh... When Michael looked worried about something, Sage figured there had to be cause for it. "Michael—"
"New plan," he called to the others as he walked toward them with Sage at his heels. Merri gazed up from the notebook in her hands and even Gen stopped writing on the board. "You," he gestured to Merri, "need to go to my computer to start looking up books. Not everything is catalogued there, however, so the two of you," he looked to Gen and Sage in turn, "can start going through the boxes of books in the other room."
"Uh, I helped you move those the other day," Gen said. "There are a hell of a lot of books—"
"Then I suggest you start now. Sage and I will bring out the boxes, you can pull out the books." He moved toward the spare room without any further explanation.
"But what are we even looking for?" Sage asked.
Michael glanced back at them. "Tales of mythical creatures that could have basis in fact. Specifically, I’m thinking of sirens."
"I don’t know..." Gen yawned. "...why we’re doing this." As her gaze travelled over the book in front of her, the words seemed to blur and she felt another yawn coming on.
The open book lay on the coffee table with a dozen others while she sat on the floor. Merri had a stack of her own to go through where she sat on the couch. Sage and Michael were seated at the breakfast bar with yet more books. Midnight neared and they were no closer to answers than they had been hours ago.
Of course, he’s got like a bazillion books to go over—no wonder we’re so slow.
Gen rested her head on her book and yawned again. "I already know who did it," she continued when no one commented on her previous remark.
"And that would be...?" Merri said without looking up.
"Uh, I can think of one evil succubus in town; it’s gotta be Krysta."
"It’s not Krysta," Michael said, also without looking up from his book.
Gen lifted her head to look his way. "You don’t know that. I told you that woman was a demon or Satanist or something when we first met her. She had that doll thing in her bathroom cabinet with candles and stuff. I bet it was some kind of succubus spell."
"We aren’t looking for a succubus—we’re looking for a siren."
"If you think that, then you’d better start reading more closely."
"How do we know it’s not her, though? You still haven’t given me a reason. I think we should probably just cut her head off anyway. Better safe than sorry."
"It wouldn’t hurt to double check," Sage said. "Maybe make sure she has an alibi?"
"Yeah," Gen said. "I’ll call her and ask where she was last Saturday—"
"She was in her apartment, with me," Michael said, still without looking up at any of them. "End of discussion."
"Oh." Gen slumped down again. Great, Michael just had to alibi their only suspect. He wasn’t much of a team player.
"It’s going to take us forever to get through all of these," Merri said with a sigh. "Your last assistant did a shitty job trying to catalogue things."
"She had a system, I just never did figure out what it was."
"This stuff goes so much faster on T.V.," Gen said. "But I don’t sense a montage coming on, so we should get more help."
"Help as in...?" Michael glanced her way and raised a skeptical brow.
"Well, maybe Levi—"
"He’s not going to want to come back here," Sage said.
"How about Thad, then?"
Merri paused her reading to meet Gen’s eyes. "That’s not a bad idea."
"This isn’t a fucking party," Michael said.
Gen closed her book and tossed it on the floor. It landed on the hardwood with a thud. "I think we should start doing more than reading. We don’t have all weekend for this—I have a date tomorrow night that I am not missing. You," she pointed at Michael, "should be out there shaking down all your contacts. Including Krysta, if you really don’t think she’s the one we’re looking for. Merri can get Thad over to help us. I’ll drop an email Shaw’s way, just in case he knows anything about this stuff. How’s that for a plan, Mr. Anti-Giles?"
"Tolerable, I suppose," Michael said as he rose. "Though I could simply be inclined to agree with you because I’m tired of sitting here."
While Michael disappeared upstairs to make a few phone calls, Merri went to her room to call Thad and invite him over for a "study date." Gen pulled out Merri’s laptop and sent David Shaw an email, requesting any help he could provide.
"You think Levi’s going to be okay with all this?" Sage asked in a low voice as she joined Gen in the living room. She sank down on the couch where Merri had been sitting.
"I don’t know. He’s never stayed mad at me for long, but that was before this year. It’s not like it used to be."
"Nothing’s like it used to be."
No, it isn’t.
"Thad will be by tomorrow morning," Merri said as she returned. "He said he has a friend who may be able to help, so he’s bringing him as well."
Gen glanced toward the loft. I sure as hell hope Michael didn’t hear that. They already had a full house.
A hand shaking her shoulder awoke Gen from a dreamless sleep.
Stretched out on the cot in Merri’s room, she yawned and turned over to see Meredith standing over her.
"Ooooh...I don’t want it to be morning." Gen rolled over once more and drew the sheet over her head.
"Thad and his friend are on their way over," Merri said. "And Michael’s already been up for hours."
Gen grumbled under her breath as she tore the blanket off and sat up in bed. Stupid lousy supernatural monsters interrupting my life, she thought. She missed her own bed, too, but Michael wouldn’t let them go home the night before, deciding instead that it would be much better for everyone to stay under one roof so they could get back to researching in the morning. And Gen had been too tired to argue, so she crashed on the cot in Merri’s room. Which was easily the stupidest thing I’ve done in awhile...now I have to work.
Sage had insisted on taking the couch in the living room rather than Merri’s bed, but then she was nowhere to be seen when Gen got out there. Pots and pans banged in the kitchen, and a glance in that direction revealed Michael cooking breakfast.
So I really am the last one up... At least Michael hadn’t come barging in the room to dump a glass of water on her head or something—that seemed like something he’d do.
"Where’s Sage?" Gen asked as she wandered toward the kitchen.
"Went for a jog," Merri replied.
"I don’t suppose she plans to pick up toothbrushes? ‘Cause I could probably use—"
Michael grabbed a plastic bag from the counter and tossed it over his shoulder onto the breakfast bar without taking his eyes from the pancakes cooking on the stove.
Gen peered into the bag and withdrew one of a few packaged toothbrushes. "Cool. Maybe Chez Michael’s isn’t so bad after all. I don’t suppose you also thought to get deodorant or anything?"
"You can use anything of mine you find in the bathroom," Merri said. "Don’t worry about—"
The front door opened and Sage returned. Two guys trailed her; Thad and another whom she didn’t recognize. The other young man looked to be about Thad’s age, and Gen figured he was the friend from school Merri had said would be coming over.
"They just got here," Sage said as she slid off her jacket and shoes. She walked up to the breakfast bar and took a seat.
"This is the last fucking time we do this," Michael muttered under his breath.
"He doesn’t like guests," Merri whispered to Gen.
"No, he doesn’t like anyone," Gen whispered back.
"We did bring donuts," Thad said as he walked over and set the box on the counter. He went to Merri next, wrapped his arm around her shoulder, and pressed his lips to her forehead in greeting.
"You also brought an uninvited guest," Michael said without looking Thad’s way.
"Oh..." Merri’s eyes widened innocently. "Did I forget to tell you that?"
"A useful uninvited guest," Thad said. He nodded to his friend. "In case one witch isn’t enough."
"Yay! Less work for me." Gen took a closer look at Thad’s friend. The top of his head of short, black hair barely came up to her nose, and his dark brown eyes were fixed on hers. "So what do we call a boy-witch?"
"We don’t," Michael said. "We ignore him until he goes away."
"I think ‘warlock’ is the common phrase," Thad’s friend said. "But I think that sounds cheesy so I don’t usually refer to myself as anything but my name."
"Which would be?"
"Raji." His easy smile extended to his eyes. He reached toward her and she accepted his hand for a quick shake.
"Nice to meet you..." He held her hand for a beat longer, so she wiggled her fingers out of his grasp and backed away from the group. "I’m headed to get cleaned up now—save me some pancakes."
Merri noticed the gaze of Thad’s friend, Raji, trail after Gen as she left. Oh, great.
"You’re not her type," she said in a low voice as she started toward the breakfast bar. She glanced over her shoulder to see him still starring in the direction Gen had taken. "Seriously."
With a sigh, Raji turned and followed. "Too short?"
"He does have a thing for tall blondes," Thad said as he slapped his friend on his shoulder. "Probably should have said something, but I thought this would be funnier—"
A plate struck the counter loudly, startling everyone. Michael’s glare was turned their way.
"This isn’t a social visit," he said. "You people insisted on looking into these killings, so that’s what we’re doing, but if you’re not going to take it seriously, you can leave."
"Oh, that reminds me..." Thad dug through his pocket for a moment and pulled out a slip of white paper, which he handed to Michael. "I guess Gen emailed Shaw last night. He called me this morning and when I said I was coming over here, he gave me a list of books that might help us. The ones with stars next to them are texts available online, if you don’t have a copy. He doesn’t know if it’ll help, but it’s the best lead he has."
Michael glanced over the list, then left for the loft without a word.
"Did you just make that up?" Merri whispered, but Thad shook his head.
"I was saving it for when he started yelling, though. Maybe I should have saved it for when things get worse."
And they’ll definitely get worse, Merri thought.
And things did get worse.
Michael spent the afternoon yelling at everyone about everything, from the disorganized way people returned books to the boxes, to the noise of Gen yawning from time to time. When afternoon rolled around, nearly everyone seemed ready to call it quits.
Perhaps we’re not so successful as a group after all, Merri thought as she closed yet another book on mythological creatures. She was starting to lean towards Sage’s plan of, "get armed and go after the monster."
"I think I found something," Raji said from where he sat on the floor, back against the side of the couch.
Gen glanced up from her open book on the coffee table and raised a brow skeptically. "That’s what you said half an hour ago. And an hour before that. You should probably stop going through books with weird languages when you can’t translate them. It just makes Michael madder when he has to read it for you."
"This is different." Raji slid across the floor and set the book next to Gen’s. He pointed to a particular passage.
Gen scanned the text, then grabbed the book and turned it over to look at the cover. "Lake monsters? We’re not looking for Nessie."
"We’ve been focusing on mythology and old stories about sirens, but even if they’re based on actual accounts, they’re still stories, no? So I thought we should look at mystical theories surrounding what is commonly known as cryptozoology."
"Please tell me this has a point," Michael said.
"‘Water is a natural conduit for energy,’" Raji quoted the text. "‘Therefore dimensional portals are often found near oceans, lakes, and ravines. If sightings of mythical beasts near large water sources are to be believed, it seems highly probable that such creatures are the result of dimensional tears.’ That would explain how it got here."
"So we open the dimension again and send it back?" Gen guessed.
"I’m much more interested in killing it," Michael said.
Gen looked at him in horror. "Why do you have to kill everything? We can just send it home—"
"This isn’t E.T.—this is a monster that has killed several people."
"Still," Raji said. "It would be a good idea to ensure that whatever portals might be around there are definitely closed. You don’t want a second creature appearing."
"So Raji and I can start researching portal stuff," Gen said. "Like how to make sure the one around here is sealed up tight. Where should we start?"
"Two of the murders so far have occurred at that club," Michael said. "The first one and the latest. We should focus on that area—if there is a tear in the dimensions around the lake, it’ll probably be there. If we don’t find the siren, we check the other locations."
"So how are we going to find it?" Gen asked. "I didn’t see anything the night Finn and I looked around. What if we can’t see it? What if it runs from us?"
"We need bait." Both Raji and Thad opened their mouths to speak, but Michael stopped them by raising his hand. "I will act as the bait, if need be."
"And how are we dealing with the siren?" Thad asked. "I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not drown, if I can help it."
"I wouldn’t mind you drowning," Michael said dryly. "But yes, this isn’t so simple that we can just waltz up and kill it."
Merri shifted in her seat and glanced up at the board. "Gen, you said that Finn said he heard something, but you didn’t. He heard music."
"So us girls should be fine around it—it’s the guys we have to worry about."
"Another spell?" Gen suggested, but Michael shook his head.
"Focus on the portal one first. In the event we can’t kill the siren, sending it back should be priority."
"Uh..." Thad raised his hand. "But I really like the idea of not drowning."
"Then tonight, you can stay out of our way."
In the few times Genevieve had been at On the Map, she’d never seen it as busy as it was that night she went to meet Janine. Being the site of local murders didn’t seem to matter to anyone—in fact, it seemed to attract patrons. Serial killer groupies and curious residents were among the usual crowd at the club.
At least I’m not the only freak around here, Gen thought as she rounded the dance floor with a pair of virgin cocktails in hand. Hell, for a lesbian witch, she was starting to feel downright normal.
Her gaze settled on Janine. Gen had seen her walk inside the club from where she stood on the upper level, and decided to pick up a drink for both of them. Now she found the other girl was seated at a table by herself, watching the crowd.
So she didn’t bring any friends. That meant it wasn’t a group outing, but an actual date, right? Gen still hadn’t heard anything about Janine’s long time girlfriend, or if they continued to be involved. She had been hoping to slip the question into conversation that night, because she wasn’t eager to jump into another relationship where she was the secret girlfriend.
"Hey," Gen said as she took the seat across from Janine. She set the cocktails on the table and pushed one Janine’s way. Her stomach fluttered when Janine smiled.
"Thanks," she said as she accepted the drink. "Didn’t know you were here yet."
Gen gestured over her shoulder to the upper level around the club. "Up there. Was me. Where I was, I mean. Uh...yeah." She grasped her drink and took a long sip before she could say anything else stupid.
"I can’t believe how busy the place is," Janine said.
"Yeah—I don’t think I know half of the people in here."
"I’m kinda glad of it, actually."
Gen’s eyes froze on Janine’s. What the hell did that mean? Was she embarrassed to be seen with her or something?
Janine must have noticed something was amiss in Gen’s expression, for she was quick to correct herself. "Trish. My ex. I’ve stayed in the past few weeks because I didn’t want to run into her—ugly break up."
"I hadn’t heard about that."
Janine shrugged. "Didn’t want to make a big production out of it. Know what I mean?"
"Not really—I couldn’t have made a production out of my break-up with Peyton if I wanted to."
"You two were—"
Probably shouldn’t have said anything... But then who the hell cared? Gen had handled the break-up remarkably well, so Peyton could shove it if she didn’t like her mentioning it to Janine. "Yeah. For a few months—broke up on Valentine’s Day."
"Ouch. That’s gotta hurt."
"I did the breaking, so I guess it’s okay."
After taking a long sip of her drink, Janine seemed to mull things over for a bit. "I’m pretty sure she’s in my History class. Had no idea she was into girls."
Genevieve rolled her eyes. "Hence the breaking-up part."
"Ah." Janine nodded. "Gotcha. Oh, did you bring Levi?"
Gen set her drink down. "Huh?"
Janine nodded in Genevieve’s direction, her gaze fixed at something over the other girl’s shoulder. "He’s over there."
Oh...great. Gen sighed when she spotted him in the crowd several metres away. His gaze was fixed on her, though he made no move to join them at the table. She’d asked him to the club, sure, but since he was mad at her, she hadn’t expected him to show up, and certainly not to stand there and glare at her.
"You can invite him to sit down," Janine said. "I don’t mind."
"I think he would." God, I wish this drink wasn’t a virgin. The whole situation was giving her a headache.
"You two are always together," Janine said. "I can’t remember a time I haven’t seen you side by side since we started school."
Her friend troubles momentarily forgotten, Gen let Janine’s words sink in. She noticed me? All this time, she actually did know who I was?
"For the longest time, I actually thought the two of you were dating."
Gen nearly spit out her drink. "Oh, God no. I mean, he’s nice and everything and I think he’d had a crush on me since we were eight, but...I’m not into that."
"Does he still have that crush? ‘Cause he looks kind of mad."
Another glance over her shoulder and she saw Janine was right. His stare had definitely settled into "glare" territory.
"No, it’s not about you and me sitting here. Other stuff."
"Like...?" Janine’s face flushed a little. "It’s probably none of my busine—"
"It’s okay. I just..." She stirred her drink absently, gaze falling to the bright pink depths. "Levi found out I’m not the person he thought I was. And he’s disappointed."
"Oooh, secret identity? That’s hot." Janine pressed the straw between her dark red lips and took a sip of her drink.
Gen’s cell phone rang. She pulled it from her pocket and checked the number.
"Oh yeah, really hot," she mumbled. She flashed Janine a quick smile. "Hold on, I gotta answer this real quick." Gen pressed the phone to her ear. "What!"
"We’ll be at the club in about an hour," Michael said. "Meet us out back."
"You know police are milling around the place—"
"I checked, and no, they won’t be. My source at the station says the cops believe there’s a pattern to the killings, and they’re focused on a different location. People will be patrolling, but I’ll take care of them."
I really don’t want to know what he means by that. She glanced at her watch and cursed under her breath. An hour would make it nearly ten o’clock—way too early to leave. Christ, she basically just got there. What the hell kind of date ended in an hour?
"This was your idea," he reminded her. "You wanted to go forward with this."
Bastard. Of course he had to throw that back up in her face. "Fine. I’ll see you then." She hung up the phone before he could reply.
"Another date?" Janine asked as Gen turned off her phone.
She said "date"! "No. Stupid guy from work needs help with something. Again. I’ll have to duck out in an hour or so."
"Oh. That’s too bad."
Yeah. Better make the most of it. "Wanna dance?"
Janine smiled. "I’d love to."
The field behind the club was pitch black.
"I miss Gen’s light spell," Sage said with a sigh as the group walked.
Merri had to agree. Michael carried a small flashlight, sure, but had refused to bring it out until absolutely necessary, as they didn’t want to be noticed out there.
It’s really seeming necessary, though, Merri thought as she stumbled on the uneven ground.
The wind picked up. In the distance, Merri heard waves slapping the lakeshore, and she shivered. Her visions played fresh in her mind again—it all seemed so familiar. Disturbingly so, and no matter how she tried to distance herself, the fear clung to her.
Part of her wished Thad was with them, but then she’d probably just worry. He kept watch in the busy parking lot with Raji. The men waited on either side so they could see the sides of the building and would know if anyone approached.
Michael had parked his car off road about a quarter mile from the club, then led Merri and Sage through the field. Their plan seemed simple enough; Merri would keep herself open in the hopes of seeing the dimensional tears around the lake, then Gen would cast a spell to close it again. Raji was on hand to help if need be. Once that was done, they’d find the siren.
Which is easier said than done when we can’t see a fucking thing. Michael seemed to hope that Merri’s abilities as a seer would give her a certain advantage over the creature, but she wasn’t so sure. And then they would wait. Michael was still willing to act as bait, not the least bit worried about his own safety. Truthfully Merri didn’t worry either, but that didn’t change the fact that the plan seemed a little...flawed.
"You know, we’re still relying on the idea that the siren chick is hanging around this area," Merri continued. "But this is a busy place, and therefore not the best feeding spot. There’s no guarantee—"
"There is a guarantee," Sage said. "The other spots—the hotel, the beach—are places where food would be scarce. But On the Map is regularly busy. This seems like the best bet."
Maybe she’s right, Merri thought. Maybe her doubt came from not liking the idea of facing this thing when they still didn’t know much about it.
They neared the bright lights that ran along the back of the club. And we’re here...
Michael stopped at the fence and peered through the chain link. "I don’t see her."
"She’s probably just—" Merri began to defend her, but Michael waved her off.
"She’s probably just late. Jesus-fucking-Christ..." He pulled out his cell phone, the LCD screen bright in the darkness, and dialled her number. A few minutes later, he hung up. "She’s not answering."
"She is on a date," Merri said. "I’m sure she’s just—"
"We can send Thad in to get her," Sage suggested.
"No," Michael said. "He needs to watch the building."
"I’ll go," Merri offered. "You two should to stay out here in case you need to kill something."
Michael stepped forward and pulled out heavy-duty wire cutters from the bag he carried. He snipped through the fence until he could pull back a chunk of it for Merri to climb through.
"Hey," he said as she stepped through.
Merri turned back to glance at him. "I’ll be careful—"
"Don’t be careful—be fast."
Oh yeah, ‘cause I frequently run a hundred metres.
Merri jogged—or walked quickly, as necessary—the way to the club without incident. As she reached the front of the building, she caught Raji’s eye and gave him a nod. Michael had no doubt called him and Thad to let them know Gen hadn’t shown up yet.
Inside the club, Merri glanced around for Gen. Truth be told, she was about to kill the girl herself. They really didn’t have time for this...
She caught sight of Genevieve near the edge of the dance floor with Janine. The girls danced hand in hand to the music, laughing. Merri felt a twinge of guilt for having to separate them.
Still, we’ve got work to do. Merri wove through the dancers until she reached Gen and Janine. Gen’s smile faded as her gaze settled on her friend. The glance they exchanged said everything.
"Oh...dammit." Gen turned to Janine. "I have to run. I’m sorry..."
Disappointment filled Janine’s dark eyes, but she nodded. "Okay." She gave her a wan smile, and then began to back off the dance floor. "See you Monday."
"Gen, I’m sorry," Merri said over the music as they started toward the door and in the opposite direction of Janine. "But we—"
"I know, I should have been out there..." Gen stopped suddenly, eyes fixed on the floor as she pondered something.
"One sec." Genevieve turned suddenly and ran back toward Janine. She took the brunette by the arm, and Janine spun to face her. Gen stopped her mid-sentence when she leaned forward and kissed her suddenly. "I’ll see you on Monday," she called over her shoulder.
Merri couldn’t help but grin as Gen returned absolutely glowing.
"Sorry, I just had to do that."
"I’ll tell Michael you got caught in a line at the bathroom," Merri said. "Rather than smooching with a cute girl."
"Even he can’t ruin this moment."
No, but maybe a siren can.
The two girls walked swiftly outside and around the building. Once they hit the dark, Gen conjured up a glow around them and they hunted for the break in the fence where Michael and Sage waited. The glow around Gen illuminated Michael’s annoyed expression.
"Where the hell—"
"You said ‘about an hour,’" Gen pointed out. "You didn’t say—"
"We were ten minutes late."
"Then I guess you shouldn’t be pissed at my lateness, hmm?"
"Let’s just find this portal," Sage said. "I don’t like it out here."
Gen and Merri climbed through the hole in the fence to follow Sage and Michael toward the lake. Merri shivered as a cool wind blew off the water and wished she’d worn a jacket.
"What do we do if it’s in the middle of the lake?" Gen asked. "I’m a little unclear about the range of this spell—we may need a boat."
"Do you see anything yet?" Michael asked Merri, ignoring Gen.
So far nothing seems out of the ordinary, Merri thought. And Gen was right—the tear could be anywhere. The beach stretched for miles, and if they had to search the entire lake, Michael might just be investing a boat after all.
The four of them paused at the water’s edge while Merri looked around.
"From what I saw in that book of Raji’s, time isn’t a guaranteed constant," she said, feeling a little dismayed. "If it moves differently in this other dimension, then the tear doesn’t always exist in our time. Or something like that. Honestly, it’s all really fucking confusing." Merri continued to sweep her gaze over the water, hoping to find something that would help them.
A sliver of light a dozen metres away caught her attention.
At first she took it for a trick of light. When the clouds moved over the moon, the sky reflected on the water and threw off her vision. But then she saw it again and moved forward.
"There," she gestured to the light. "There’s something off about the space right there."
Gen followed her and gazed at the spot. "Should I be seeing something? Because I don’t."
"Trust me, there’s something there. I don’t exactly run into a lot of dimensional portals, but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m looking at."
"Well...one way to find out." Gen dug into her jacket pocket and pulled out a small velvet sack. Dipping one hand into the bag, she pulled out a scoop of dust. Muttering a few words of a spell that she and Raji had practiced earlier, she tossed the dust into the air.
Glittery particles stuck to the thin tear in space.
Gen gasped. "Um...okay, I see it."
"We should hurry," Sage said. "Like Merri said, these things come and go. You should seal it now."
"Oh yeah, seal up a portal—I do this every day." With a sigh, Gen dropped down to a sitting position on the ground in front of the dimensional tear and pulled out a folded piece of paper from her pocket, photocopied from a spell book. "Just don’t stand in my light, guys."
Merri and Sage stepped back to let Gen do her thing. Michael’s cell phone rang and he moved a few feet away to answer it.
"This seemed a little too easy," Sage said in a low voice. "I keep expecting something to jump out at us."
"You know, you probably just jinxed us," Merri said.
As Gen spoke the final words of her spell, the tear shimmered and closed. A low rumble, similar to thunder, sounded, and then there was silence.
Genevieve stood slowly, her hand going to her stomach. "I don’t feel so good."
"Are you okay?" Merri asked immediately. "Did something—"
Gen shook her head. "Same thing happened that time at the farmhouse, which makes me guess that whatever I did to those guys involved dimensional stuff."
"Who was at the club with you?" Michael said as he returned from his phone call and fixed his gaze on Genevieve.
Her brows furrowed in confusion. "Just a girl from school. Why?"
"Raji called and said some guy followed you outside. Thad’s watching the other side of the building and didn’t see him, but Raji’s sure of it."
"Who would have..." Her eyes widened. "Oh god." Long blonde hair swished around her as she looked back at the rear of the building. "Levi."
Levi looked around the empty lot behind On the Map. Several minutes earlier, he watched as Merri came inside to speak to Gen. He knew something was up when the two girls took off moments later.
He kept his distance as they walked around the club and then he waited at the side of the building for a few minutes. It seemed entirely likely they went out there to push drugs or something, and Levi didn’t want to get in the middle of things, but...
But this is Gen, he realized. He didn’t know what the hell she had gotten herself into, but he was determined to get her help.
He hadn’t found anyone when he chanced a look around the back of the building, however. No people, no voices, no sign that anyone was around. So where the hell did Gen and Meredith go?
Beyond the weak lights affixed to club’s exterior, Levi saw only blackness. Suppose they went for the field past the fence? Or even the beach? He sure as hell didn’t want to head out in the dark to run into possible drug dealers...
Or killers. He recalled, vividly, his conversation with Genny and the others the day before. The group of them were involved somehow with killers—the people who murdered his brother and tried to kill Sage. And all this talk of special people and super powers...did they think he was stupid? That he would actually buy it? That he wouldn’t recognize it as a smokescreen for whatever other shit they were into?
And poor Genny was wrapped right up in the thick of it. He knew she’d lied to him all these months, knew she’d kept things from him... But at the same time, he couldn’t completely hate her. This person she’d become—this wasn’t the Genevieve he knew and loved. It had to be the drugs or the influence of the others, like Merri. Gen would have told him what was going on otherwise. Maybe she just didn’t know how to ask for help...
Whatever the reason, he wasn’t about to let the same thing happen to her as happened to Hayden. He’d get her help—get the police, if he had to. He’d—
The sound of a voice singing caught his attention. Levi paused his step and glanced around. He couldn’t pinpoint the location—it was as if the music came from all around him.
"Hello?" he called.
The song called to him, dragged him forward, pulled him into the darkness. A cold breeze brushed over him, bringing with it a watery mist, as if he stood at the lake’s edge. Rational thought left him then—he just knew he had to follow.
Gen, Merri, Sage, and Michael moved quickly through the dark field...or as quickly as Gen could given her spinning head and frequent bouts of nausea. She had to stop a few times when a headache would swell up and she felt as though she’d pass out.
Halfway through the field and a couple dozen metres from the fence, she felt a hand on her shoulder draw her to a halt. She turned to see the vague outline of Michael in the darkness.
"We have to—"
"You’re stumbling every few steps," he said. "You need to stop for a minute."
"Sage, Merri, head toward the club and see if you can find Levi."
The other two girls took off ahead, and Gen had to admit they were infinitely faster without her dragging herself along.
"I seriously didn’t see anything in that book that said it would take this much out of me," Gen said. She bent over and placed her hands over her knees, propping her body up while she closed her eyes and willed the rumbles in her stomach to pass. "I really suck."
"The fact that you were able to successfully cast the spell to begin with speaks volumes," he said. "Far worse could have happened than some flu-like symptoms."
"Worse as in...?"
"A brain aneurysm."
Gen stood straight and wished she could see him better in the darkness. His tone sounded dead serious and she wanted more than anything to see a wry grin or something. When he didn’t follow up his words with a chuckle about her gullibility, fear crept through her.
"An aneurysm? Really?" Please say no...
"It’s happened to others."
"You really let me do something that could have—"
"As you can see, yes, I did."
"I might have died," she pointed out, as obviously that fact had escaped his brain at some point.
"I knew you wouldn’t."
"You had done it before and you survived. You’re stronger now than you were then—"
She elbowed him in the ribs playfully. "You gave me a compliment," she said in a singsong voice. "You think I’m awesome. I’m telling everyone as soon as we catch up."
Michael’s cell phone rang, which he answered. All Gen caught was a couple of "uh huhs" before he hung up again.
"Levi hasn’t reappeared around the front yet," Michael reported back to her. "Merri and Sage didn’t see him at the back of the club, and decided to check with Thad."
Lev... Gen swept her worried gaze over the black field. Where the hell was he?
As they neared the fence, they caught sight of Merri and Sage again.
"No luck," Merri said.
Michael nodded. "I spoke to Thad."
"We can’t see anything out here," Sage said. "But we need to find him. You only have the one flashlight?"
We need the light spell, Gen thought. She was used to doing one that only lit the immediate area...it couldn’t be that difficult to light part of a field, could it?
"I’m going to try again," she said. She closed her eyes and stood still, taking deep breaths to will her body to relax. Reaching internally, she sought the piece of herself that lay buried deep—the other girl from her dreams. The powerful version of herself, the confident one. She could do anything.
Gen drew on that energy and whispered the incantation, changing a few words so that a larger area would be lit. She knew immediately it didn’t work, and so she pushed herself farther, repeating the words of the spell and willing it to succeed. Her head spun and she felt displaced, as if she wasn’t quite there in her body...then she breathed out the final words and felt power tingle through her fingertips.
Her body swayed and she lost her balance. Hands caught her arm, saving her from hitting the ground.
As she opened her eyes, she found it difficult to focus on her surroundings—she wanted nothing more than to just sleep. A glance to her left revealed Michael holding her arm, keeping her steady. He looked down at her with a frown—perhaps of worry—and it was then she realized she could make out his features as if a light shone overhead.
"Are you okay?" Merri said from her other side.
Gen nodded as she stood straight. "It worked. That’s what matters. We have to move, though."
"Looks like it has a radius of about two dozen metres," Sage said. "It’s not a lot, but it should help."
"The bodies of the guys killed here were found between the fence and the lake," Merri said. "If the siren is leading Levi somewhere, it’s gotta be around here."
"Someone can take Michael’s flashlight and we can split up," Gen said. "We could..." Her voice trailed off as she noticed Merri’s gaze fixed on a spot behind her. Turning around, she saw Michael walking away from them and into the dark. "Michael?"
"Looks like maybe the bait worked," Sage said dryly.
"I hear something," he called over his shoulder as his pace picked up.
"At least he’s not a thrall yet," Gen muttered as she, Sage, and Merri went after him.
Sage moved up to his side, asking him questions about what he heard as they walked, while Merri kept an eye out for anything strange. Gen still felt dizzy and struggled to keep up with both their pace and conversation.
"It’s definitely music," Michael said as they walked. "A voice singing something..."
"Can you make out words?" Sage asked, but he shook his head.
"No words...just the sense that I need to follow."
"He’s not zoning out like Finn did," Gen said in a low voice to Merri. "Why not?"
"My guess?" Merri sighed. "The siren’s full attention is diverted elsewhere."
Michael stopped so suddenly that Gen nearly bumped into him.
"You three, go," he said. He handed off the bag slung over his shoulder to Sage. "I won’t be much use to you." He swallowed hard, his gaze was fixed ahead, and Gen suspected it took every ounce of his willpower not to continue forward.
"You’re sure you’ll be okay," Gen started, but Michael waved off her concern.
"I’ll phone Thad and Raji in case we need backup. Go now."
"I can take over from here," Merri said as she, Gen and Sage moved on without Michael. "I can already feel it..."
Though she wasn’t feeling one hundred percent herself, Gen was infinitely happier that she didn’t have the powers—or burdens—Merri did.
Several feet farther, the light around them revealed the outline of a figure in the distance. Gen’s step quickened. "Levi!"
A second figure stood just in front of her friend. As Gen neared them, she saw hands on the back of Levi’s head, drawing him nearer, and then Levi began to struggle.
Sage dropped the bag on the ground and raced head of them. Diving for Levi, she grabbed him by the shoulders and knocked him to the ground. Gen’s need to check on him was put on hold when she caught sight of the siren.
A young man gazed back at her, eyes a solid midnight blue—almost black—and with soft, handsome features. He grinned at her. "Hello, Witch."
"Okay, why is it speaking English?" Merri asked.
The siren regarded her with a smile. "You hear my intent. Your brain interprets them as words."
Gen glanced Levi’s way. Sage had him on his side where he coughed up mouthfuls of water. We should keep it talking—keep it distracted and away from Levi.
"So you know us?" Gen guessed as she looked at the siren once more.
"I know you." His voice came out smooth and melodic, though Gen could hardly see what had all guys so gaga over it. "I’m here because of what you did. You let me in."
What I did... Realization hit her suddenly. The day at the farmhouse. The spell she cast from that book without knowing what she was doing. It affected dimensions and sent those Brethren assassins somewhere else... And let this thing into our world.
Levi thrashed on the ground under Sage’s grip, trying to rise, trying to heed the call of the siren. Merri joined them, kneeling down to give Sage a hand.
"So rather than look me up and ask to go home, you thought you’d start killing innocent people?" Gen asked.
"The desire, the need to consume," the siren said. "It’s overwhelming. Need must be served at all costs. The need rules the body, the mind. You understand. Or you did. I see it in you."
"You’re batshit crazy," Gen said.
The siren moved towards her suddenly, so fast that it took a moment for her brain to register the movement. He grasped her head and yanked her forward. Fingers dug into her skull and Genevieve screamed.
The siren released her as a body collided with them.
Sage stepped between them, knocking Genevieve out of the way. "Go get the bag," she called over her shoulder.
Gen ran to where Sage had dropped the black bag a few feet away. Grasping the handles, she heaved it up and dragged it closer to Sage. "Please tell me you brought a sword this time."
Sage pivoted out of reach as the siren grabbed for her. She dove to the side, somersaulted Gen’s way, and landed by the black bag. Grasping the zipper, she yanked it open and felt around inside. The blade of a long knife glittered in the light as Sage pulled the weapon from the bag.
"You’re not still committed to sending this thing home, right?" Sage asked, meeting Gen’s eyes for a moment.
"It’s trying to kill us," Gen replied grimly. "Send it to hell for all I care."
Sage leapt up, the hilt of the weapon clutched in her hand, and advanced on the siren. Supernatural drowning abilities seemed to be his only defense, as he could do little to stop her from slashing the blade in wide arcs. The tip nicked his skin a few times, tearing flesh.
Gen moved to where Merri sat with Levi. Having recovered from his near drowning incident, Levi tried to rise again, unfocused eyes staring at the siren.
"He’s not responding," Merri said, holding him back. "He’s right out of it."
Pausing behind him, Gen wrapped her arms around Levi’s torso and held him there. The front of his shirt was soaked, reminding her again how close she had come to losing him. She tightened her grip as she looked up at Sage.
The siren was fast—faster than Sage, perhaps—but the Warrior was quicker to react. She wove around him like a dancer, deflected his attempts at grabbing her with ease, and whipped the knife back and forth as she moved.
As the siren weakened, so did Levi’s attempts to escape from them. Gen felt him stop pulling, stop thrashing, and all at once slump back.
"Lev?" she said as she lowered him to ground and knelt over him.
He blinked a few times as he gazed up at her. "Genny?"
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him. "It’s okay. You’re okay now."
Hearing footsteps treading on the ground nearby, Gen looked up to see Michael with Thad and Raji in tow. The two younger guys looked completely in shock at the siren, but Michael paid it no heed, instead heading straight for the black bag. He pulled out a simple sword, called Sage’s attention, and tossed the weapon her way.
Sage caught the hilt and turned on the siren, who hissed in response. He was weak now, however, and did little to stop the blade from slashing across his throat. As he slumped to his knees, the siren dissolved into water and splashed on the ground. The liquid seeped into the earth and silence followed.
Gen glanced at Sage. The other girl’s dark eyes were wide and excited. She panted a little and sweat dotted her brow, but she looked more thrilled than anything.
After sending a worried look to where the siren fell, Gen gazed up at Michael. "Is it...dead?"
"Um...looks like," Raji answered. He held up his palm pilot. "Did some reading on the subject while we were waiting. The siren has trouble existing in this dimension in the first place and apparently liquefies when the body is damaged too badly."
"What the hell just happened?" Levi asked as he sat up. He looked down at his soaking wet clothes, the spot where the siren had dissipated, and then made a face. "And...and I think that’s my only question at the moment; what the hell happened?"
"There was a siren hanging around the lake that I accidentally let into this dimension," Gen said. "And it’s been making out with young guys, causing them to drown. But we killed it. Any other questions?"
After dispensing introductions, the group gathered and headed back toward the club. The girls took turns trying to explain to Levi what had happened, in some cases repeating themselves, but he looked as confused as ever.
Still, Gen felt better being able to tell him everything. He’d adjust at some point, now that he knew they weren’t all insane.
"So no one else was around when I chased after the siren guy, right?" Levi asked. "I don’t want everyone at school thinking I’m gay."
Gen prickled immediately and smacked his shoulder. "And what the hell is wrong with that? Is being gay so bad that you wouldn’t want people thinking that?"
"C’mon, Genny," he said. "What if everyone thought you were straight?"
"Oh. Okay, I see your point." She linked her arm with his and sighed. It was good to have her best friend back.
"I think that went well," Sage said.
Gen looked at her in horror. "Levi almost drowned after kissing—"
"Can we please stop acting like I had some kind of choice in the matter?" Levi asked. "And at least not so loudly?"
"Fine," Gen said. "Levi almost drowned after falling under the inescapable thrall of a siren."
"I wouldn’t say it’s ‘inescapable,’" Michael pointed out, a half grin hovering on his lips.
God, even he enjoyed himself, Gen thought.
"It’s true," Merri said with a laugh. "Michael retained some willpower."
"‘Cause it was focused on Levi," Gen said. "We should have let it live a bit longer so it could go after Michael. He’d never live that down."
"Although Raj and me missed most of that, I’m inclined to agree with Sage," Thad said, sliding his arm over Merri’s shoulders. "I think that went well."
Gen extinguished the light that hovered around them as they reached the back of the club and the overhead lights provided enough for them to see clearly. She didn’t say anything to the others, but even that simple spell had left her drained. Leaning heavily on Levi’s arm, she was glad for the support—and that no one seemed to notice how weak she actually was.
"Well, I hoped you enjoyed yourself," Michael said. "Because that’s the last time we’re doing that."
"But we did it." Sage skipped ahead and turned to face them so she could walk backwards. Her eyes danced. "We stopped him from killing anyone else. Maybe this is what we’re meant to be doing. And God knows what else Gen let loose—"
"Hey!" Gen said. "It’s not like I knew what would happen."
"So your mystical purpose is to clean up Genevieve’s messes?" Michael asked. Even he looked ready to burst out laughing, and Gen rolled her eyes.
"You know, you can all pick on me, but I did seal up that tear back there. So shut the fuck up."
"There should definitely be a next time," Sage said.
Just as they reached the corner, a figure stepped around the side of the building and stopped in front of them.
The group froze and stared at the young woman who confronted them. Shorter than Sage, but with lush curves and shoulder-length black hair, Gen recognized her immediately, and she imagined a few of the others did as well.
"I’m afraid I might have to say something about that," the woman said in a smooth voice. Her fathomless dark eyes trailed over all of them, pausing the longest at Genevieve, Sage, and Merri.
Gen spoke up when it seemed no one else would. "Natalya?"
The Immortal smiled. "I haven’t used that one for about three years now, but it’ll do. Yes, Genevieve, I’m Natalya. Perhaps we could all go somewhere for a quiet chat?"
After ensuring Levi would be all right to drive home, Genevieve bid him goodbye in the parking lot at On the Map, and Merri did the same with Thad and Raji. Michael drove the three younger girls back to his house and Natalya followed in her own car.
While Sage, Merri, and Gen sat on the couches, Michael sat back on a barstool at the breakfast bar. Natalya stood not far from the girls, posture straight and movements graceful.
"So, like, what’s our purpose?" Gen asked once they were all settled. "Michael says the end of the world is nigh or something. I can’t believe I got to use that word again."
"Yes, it is," Natalya said. "Well, near, that is."
"And we’re important?"
Natalya nodded. "Very. There have been prophecies of the end times for thousands of years. The three of you—and myself—exist to keep it from coming to pass."
"Now that gets a little complicated and it’s really not a discussion we should have tonight."
"So can you tell us about The Brethren?" Sage asked. "What do they want? I mean, besides having us all die."
"Death to the three of you is pretty much their focus," she said.
"We were attacked before, but others haven’t come yet," Merri said. "Why not?"
Natalya nodded, as if she’d been expecting the question. "Their numbers are great, however they are spread all over the world and they aren’t exactly what I would call ‘organized.’ They’re separated into branches and the left hand doesn’t always know what the right hand is doing, so to speak. The four and their leader that came after you were working as a small, independent group and had little contact with the others. Since they haven’t set upon you, I’m relieved to say the rest of The Brethren aren’t aware of where you are...as of yet."
"I’m glad you’re finally here," Michael said. "There are a lot of things I need to—"
Natalya swung around to face him, straight black hair gliding around her shoulders as she moved. Her eyes narrowed on his. "You’re half right."
Michael’s brows furrowed in confusion. "Excuse me?"
"I’m glad I’m here as well, however there is nothing you need at this time except to have no further contact with my girls."
Silence reined in the room. Michael felt his heart beat faster as he searched for words, but Gen spoke up for him.
Natalya kept her cool gaze fixed on Michael. "You’ve pulled them into a confrontation with highly trained assassins belonging to The Brethren, taken them into a life-threatening situation this evening, allowed them contact with some of the most dangerous supernatural lowlifes in the general area, and I’ve had enough of it. These girls aren’t here for your amusement."
"But it’s not Michael’s fault," Gen started.
"No," Merri agreed. "He—"
"He isn’t providing a safe environment for you." When she turned back to the girls, she smiled kindly. "Your well-being is the single most important thing. Mr. Parris can’t guarantee that."
"But he’s been training us," Sage said. "We can’t just stop. What are we supposed to do?"
"I have a close friend of mine on his way to Newhaven now," Natalya said. "Not only is he just as adept at training you, but I trust him implicitly."
"So you’re firing him?" Gen said, shock spelled out across her face.
"More or less," Natalya said.
"I live here, though," Merri said. "I can’t help but have contact with him."
"And I’m not saying you can’t continue to stay here, for the time being. However, your training will be done by someone else and you no longer need to trouble Michael with anything more." She turned suddenly to face Michael with a smile. "May I have a glass of water?"
He was livid. There was no other word for it—he wanted to kill her. Who the hell was she that she could just stroll in and change everything? Decide that everything he’d done wasn’t good enough? He had done everything in his power from the day he came to Newhaven to find her—to get answers for the girls, to ensure they were taught and protected, and now this? If she didn’t resemble the drawing David Shaw directed him to create, he would have questioned if it was, indeed, Natalya or not.
"If you don’t mind," she said, reminding him of her request. She raised a dark eyebrow and tilted her head to the side, saying volumes with just that small movement. She knew he was upset. Knew he wanted to throw her out.
She also knew, however, that he wouldn’t. He’d be civil, at least in front of the three girls.
Without a word, he slipped off the barstool and went into the kitchen to get her drink. His hand tightened on the cup to the point that he thought the glass might shatter under his grip, and his other hand shook a little as he poured water from the jug.
Michael heard soft footfalls on the floor behind him and turned to see Natalya. He thrust the glass toward her, which she accepted and sipped from gingerly.
He glanced over the top of her head to see the three girls whispering quietly amongst themselves. Satisfied they weren’t listening, his angry gaze went to Natalya. "What the hell do you think you’re doing?"
"Ensuring the welfare of my girls," she said coldly. Out of earshot of the others, she made no pretense of being nice. "They could have been killed tonight."
"But they weren’t—"
"But this wasn’t the first time they were in danger of being killed or harmed, and half of the time you don’t even know what’s going on. I know what nearly happened to the Witch last week."
"‘The Witch’ has a name."
"Don’t you dare suggest that I don’t know my sisters, and don’t pretend that you care what her name is. I know who you are, Michael Parris. I know what you’ve done."
"Then you know why I’m here," he said. "And you know that I’m the one who’s supposed to help them—"
"Why? Because someone, somewhere, told you that? Told you that everything happens for a reason and it was all so that you could be here, at this moment, to train them and teach them? They are not here as your playthings, nor are they here to give your pathetic life meaning. They have a purpose beyond your understanding. I have lived much longer than you—I know far more about this than you do. As long as they are around you, their lives are in danger. And I’m not putting up with it any longer."
"You can’t just do this," he said in a low voice. "You can’t just—"
She stepped forward and glared up at him. "I think I just did. You are to have no further contact with them, save for the Seer while she temporarily stays here. My reach is far greater than yours and trust me when I say that you do not want to cross me."
Without waiting for him to respond, she turned back to the girls and strolled away from him. "I have to get to the airport, as I have a plane to catch shortly, so I’ll be taking my leave. The three of you can gather here on Monday after you’re done school. A man named Cade McMahon will be here around four p.m. and he’ll instruct you from there. I’m hoping I’ll be back in the country before too long, and I’ll see you then."
"But—" Gen began, though Natalya stopped her with a warm smile.
"Questions, I know. Cade will be able to answer many of them. Those he can’t shall fall to me when I return." Before she left, she sent one final, warning glance at Michael, then exited out the front door.
"Holy shit," Gen mumbled. Her wide blue eyes went to Michael. "I can’t believe she fired you."
"She just doesn’t understand," Sage said, rising. "We’ll explain it to that Cade guy when he comes, though—"
"Leave," Michael said in a low voice, gaze fixed on the floor.
"Michael," Gen said. "It’s okay—"
"I said leave," he snapped without looking at them.
A few beats of silence passed, then Gen and Sage finally rose to leave. As the door closed behind them, Merri turned to Michael. "I know what she said, but—"
"It’s late," he said, starting past her and heading for the stairs to his loft. "Go to bed."
"It’ll be okay—"
But Michael was already upstairs and didn’t hear what else she had to say.
"This will work out much better," Natalya said. She stood at the window, peering out through the sheer curtains. Sunlight travelled over her, highlighting her fine features and making her all the more breathtaking. "I had high hopes after they took care of those assassins that the girls would be safe for a spell... But it's clear they weren't safe with him."
"I'm not sure if—"
She swung her gaze his way. "Michael Parris is a monster masquerading as a man. Do not question my judgment."
"I'm not. But I told you that I never thought they were in any real danger."
"They've had contact with any number of unsavory people, many of whom would sell them out to our enemies in a heartbeat, not to mention there's the matter of him allowing a friend to stay with him who in turn tried to assault the Witch."
"But they trust him."
"A mistake that can be excused by their youth and ignorance. But he can't be trusted. If you had any idea what he's done—what he's capable of—you wouldn't want Merri anywhere near him either, Thad."
Thad sighed. There was no use arguing with her, of course, but still... "Look at what he did for Merri, though. Gave her a place to live, helped get the cops off her back—"
"As you had me understanding it, that was as much the Witch's work as it was Michael's. A handful of good deeds in under a year hardly balance out his past."
"You and Shaw keep saying that, but what does that even mean?" Thad asked. "What has Michael done that's so bad? What are you so afraid he'll do to them now?"
"History repeats itself," Natalya said. "It always has and it always will. It doesn't matter if he tries to escape it. You can take the man out of a monster, but once it's in him, you can't remove the monster from the man."
Thad rose and started for the motel room door. "I have to go. Merri's expecting me and I'm pretty sure you were supposed to leave town days ago."
"And I will be," she said. "You said Cade is working out, though?"
"I guess." Thad paused at the door to glance back at her. "Merri said he's nice enough. Still haven't met the guy myself, so I'm taking her word on it."
"And Michael is keeping out of their way?"
"Yeah. Don't worry—I don't expect he'll be a problem anymore."