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Amour

by Viola

Author's Notes: This a not!sequel of sorts to 'Lovelorn,' 'Lure' and 'Surrender'. While it isn't a sequel in the traditional sense, the pieces are intended to exist in the same 'universe.' You don't have to have read those to understand this though. This time around we've got quotes from the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23) and the epigraphs at the beginning of each section come from Michael Drayton's "Idea" sonnets. Big love to Deb, for moral support, Pat Benatar and, of course, beta reading. ^_-

Parable: n., a short fictitious narrative that illustrates a moral attitude, a doctrine, a standard of conduct, or a religious principle; from the Greek 'parabole', from 'paraballein,' to compare

AMOUR

((and some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.))

  1. I hear some say, "This man is not in love." "What? can he love? a likely thing!" they say

When they were sixteen, Julia dyed her hair purple. It marked the beginning of a long love affair with Clairol.

Afterward, the tiny bathroom sink was ruined. Stained with a thick, purplish ring, the color of bruises, that wouldn't scrub off no matter how much bleach they used. Julia collapsed laughing on the furry toilet seat-cover, while Justine, determined, attacked the scratched porcelain with steel wool and Comet.

It was the first stain of many, and it never did come out.

All through high school they lived in the midst of glossy boxes and foils, bottles of Blush Blonde, Ginger Zing, Chocolate Cherry, Hot Toffee and Midnight Ruby. The bathroom tile smelled of ammonia, the green, cotton shower curtain was splattered and soiled.

Julia had had artificial SoCal sunlight in her bangs the day they buried their grandmother. The white-gold clashed with the charcoal grey and black both wore, so bright it made Justine's eyes water. Made her blink against the Saturday morning sun. She'd always been a night person anyway.

Julia, of course, loved days and mornings, lemon-yellow sunlight and golden sand.

Justine sold the house; Julia found an apartment (it was much too expensive). Julia went to Vidal Sassoon, Justine (keeping a half-hearted promise to their grandmother) to community college. Justine registered to vote, Julia registered at Bloomingdale's (a store account with a limit too high for good sense). Julia strolled the Promenade alone at night (fearless and watching the crowd), Justine carried pepper spray through the parking lot to her car (watching for lingering drunks at three a.m.).

Their differences kept the world in balance, kept it from spinning from its axis away off into the unknown.

Julia chopped her hair short or let it grow with the fashions. She dressed the part -- sleek, trendy, Santa Monica. Justine never cared as much. She worked nights, took classes during the day. She didn't get enough sleep, didn't have enough money for cellophane wraps and good shoes. She probably could have found a way if she'd wanted to, though. Everyone else seemed to. Occasionally, she let Julia talk her into coming in to the salon - but not nearly as often as Julia would have liked.

"You know you'll get better tips if you do," she'd say with a half-wicked smile. "A little cut, a little highlight, shape up those eyebrows and buff those nails. No man can resist a girl with pretty hands. This is LA, after all."

Was it ever.

But Julia was right. Acrylic tips and a lip gloss smile helped her take home a couple hundred extra each night. More on the weekends. That didn't mean she had to like it.

Life wasn't perfect but it had potential. She had people who would be there, things she could count on. Things that remained constant. Like Wednesday night trivia and Guinness at O'Brien's on Main, like her monthly ordeal at the best salon Santa Monica Place had to offer. Regular customers who tipped often and well. Classes that mostly didn't bore her to tears. The hope that at some point all this was going to pay off.

And the certainty that, leaf-like, Julia's hair changed color with the seasons.

It had been red, though, when Justine went to identify her body. Funny that she hadn't noticed it till that moment. Not their natural color, but red all the same. A glossy, Gillian Anderson-red, a perfect shade from an expensive bottle.

"Ms. Cooper?" The detective who'd brought her in was a rumpled, grey, little man, with wire-rimmed glasses and pale, thinning hair. He looked more like a high school guidance counselor than LAPD. His hand at her elbow was too gentle and made her feel as though she might fly to pieces. The room shifted dangerously, white tile and gleaming metal under florescent bulbs. And for a half-second Justine thought she could smell ammonia and eucalyptus oil.

"That's her. That's my sister."

Not many people can say they know what they'd look like dead.

The assistant ME watched her, a stricken expression on his face. You'd think he would have seen something like that before. You'd think, between the medical examiner and the cops, that they'd have seen everything. But this had them running scared and even through her haze of grief, Justine wanted to know why. It had to be more than the twin thing, creepy as that must look to them.

Questions. Later, after everything, after she had had some time, only the questions remained. Questions with no answers, no answers at least that she could get from the police. They were kind to her, explained gently that sometimes these things never get solved, and buried the thing -- whatever this so-frightening truth really was -- beneath stacks of paper and crime scene photos. Under cases with fingerprints and clear motives and murder weapons and suspects who could be interrogated. They did not go searching in shadow; they would not look under rocks and in the recesses of dark alleyways. Because they knew what was there, and knew they couldn't fight it (or face it).

But they knew. So Justine listened to what wasn't being said, poked around, and finally learned to ask the right questions. What the silences and significant looks told her was all she needed to know.

And then, one night, after work, she went walking alone through that alley.

It wasn't a conscious attempt at suicide. Not really. But she dropped her bag at the mouth of the alley, went walking, empty-handed, into shadow, and waited.

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" The voice that spoke to her from the darkness was molasses and tobacco, smoky with the promise of death. Most of her instincts screamed at her to turn and run, to get the hell out of there.

Part of her, though, had known, had come looking for this. So she stood very still.

"Why don't you come on out to play and maybe you'll find out," said a voice that might have been her own, except for the way it didn't shake.

"Oh," the shadow laughed at her. "I think I'm going to like you."

And then the world turned upside down. She fell hard on the concrete, the breath knocked from her, a thousand little stings and bruises that she wouldn't feel until the next day. She rolled onto one side, scrambling away, grasping for a makeshift weapon on the littered ground. Her hand closed around a broken bottle and she brought it up into the creature's face.

It fell back, wiping the blood from its cheek with a grin. "Oh, yes. I definitely like you."

"Go to hell," she spat, standing up.

"Gladly. But I'm taking you with me. Won't that be a kick?"

So fast. It knocked her feet from under her before she even saw it move. She hit the wall and the force of it took her breath. Before she had a chance to react she was on her hands and knees, staring at damp pavement, trying to force her lungs to work properly again. A shadow crossed the mouth of the alley, then another, shivering in the glow from the streetlight. Intoxicated laughter ricocheted off the dumpsters and, irrationally, Justine wondered if any good citizens of Los Angeles had stood by like this, oblivious, while Julia was murdered.

The vampire grabbed her by both wrists, hauled her to her feet. "What's the matter? Don't like the song anymore? Don't want to finish our dance?" It tossed her back against a dumpster and swaggered carelessly over. Playing with her, flirting, grinning like a Cheshire cat. It leaned over her, pinning her to the filthy, trash-strewn pavement with one heavy arm across her chest. A jagged piece of broken glass scraped the skin along her spine. It shoved her head to one side, exposing her throat, making self-satisfied noises in anticipation of a meal. Assuming she was beaten. Confident in the knowledge that it could snap her neck if she gave it anymore trouble.

Thing was, it didn't realize that she didn't care if it killed her. And that made the difference.

She grabbed up a sliver of broken chair leg from the pile of debris and shoved it into the vampire's chest. Reflex. The thing collapsed in a shower of dust, fine and ash-grey, in her hair, in her mouth, underneath her fingernails. And for a full thirty seconds she couldn't feel the pain in her chest. So she went out again the next night, and the next, and the next. The ache dulled a little more each time. She quit school, quit her job. She could live off the dead for awhile if she was careful, off Julia's money, their grandmother's money. She didn't think too much about what she would do when it ran out. Perhaps part of her didn't expect to live that long.

She fought and she won. She won because she didn't care if she lived or died. The vampires had more to lose. It made them cautious, made them stupid. Vampires in LA were as soft as the people, accustomed to comfort, ease, affluence, warm nights.

It got to the point where she needed it, the hunt, the chase. Couldn't sleep without it. But, like most cravings, sweet but bad for you, she knew it wouldn't last. It couldn't. She might have even gotten over it. She would have gotten over it or died trying.

But that, of course, was before him.

*

When Caroline consented to marry Daniel Holtz, it naturally caused something of a scandal. A ward of the church, a serious, raw-boned man ten years her senior, he had no money, no land, no family. He had, quite literally, nothing to offer her.

But Caroline looked at him and saw fire. Low-burning but white-hot, a blacksmith's refining flame. The fire of holiness and conviction, a little piece of God's glory on earth. Given the chance, he would set the world aflame. And she wanted to be at his side when he did.

He was already a favorite of the Church on the day she met him. He came to dine with a house full of the wealthy and the pious (some more wealthy than pious). She heard the whispers of miracles and wonders and hero's deeds, spoken with the hushed and half-fearful excitement reserved for secret masses and high holy days, and found she wanted a glimpse of this man who'd become legend. She was merely curious.

She did not expect to fall in love.

Looking back, of course, the danger of it was clear. But at the time she'd been blind, blinded by her own restlessness, her own curiosity.

"He's not at all what one would expect, dear Caroline, but perhaps he'll have some adventures to relate to us," her hostess whispered as she welcomed Caroline and her sisters.

Caroline wasn't sure what a man who fought devils should look like, but it was not Daniel Holtz. A slight young man, too thin and ascetic, he carried grey shadow with him like a worn cloak. She blinked when he was pointed out to her, asked twice to make sure he was the man himself.

He did not speak much, not so much ill at ease as apart. He was cordial when spoken to, but detached, as though he knew something the others did not. As though there were some secret he possessed and because of it he merely humored them. Perhaps even pitied these fine people with their fine things. She realized then that he would not approach her to be introduced as most men would. And so, moved by forces she was still too young to completely understand, she approached him. She didn't dare to be obvious about it, of course. But the right word, the right smile to the right man and she found herself exactly where she wanted to be. This was something she had practice at, though she used the power with more care than most pretty girls.

He took her hand in greeting, saying nothing, merely nodding. But the look that passed between them was heavy with promises, of knowledge, of something like temptation, seduction without sin. He would teach her things, take her places as no one else she'd ever met.

His regard promised fire, and their clasped hands a vow.

*

He catches her when she falls, and that's the beginning of it all.

She doesn't want the embrace, pushes him away, tells him to go to hell. (He doesn't point out that they're already there.) Instead, he kills for her and pulls her from dust into darkness.

He makes her a promise when he takes her hand, but it's not the one she thinks.

He tells her so.

"And you're here to teach me about passion?" She's defiant. She circles him, wary, like a cat. He circles back, and he enjoys it. Walks circles about her among the headstones and weeds. It makes him dizzy, a little breathless. He thinks, perhaps, she feels it too. He walks her back toward an open grave and they're dancing familiar steps. He wonders why it feels as though he's done this before.

But then he leans in close and she doesn't breathe. It's a half-second, a heartbeat, but she catches her breath and looks at him just so. And he knows he's won.

"I'm here to teach you how to fight," he says instead. He tells her what he wants, what he expects and dances her back until she holds her ground. Until there isn't anywhere else for her to go.

She's bound, vowed, promised. They are. They were before he ever saw her. Bound to something larger. And now she's bound to him. That she doesn't understand yet, he's sure. But when he turns to go, she follows and doesn't ask.

*

This guy was probably a serial killer, Justine knew. The friendly neighborhood psychopath on the prowl, but she followed him anyway. It had been awhile since self-preservation had topped her list of priorities. And if he wasn't lying... If he wasn't lying, then just maybe there was hope. Or something.

She followed him down through the tangles of un-mowed grass and weeds of the graveyard. The ground damp and untended, the headstones cracked and crumbling, she slipped in the mud and caught hold of his sleeve to steady herself. In turn, he took her wrist and helped her onto the pavement.

He bought her coffee at some greasy, all-night shithole. When he paid, she noticed he fumbled with the money, as though he couldn't quite figure out which bill to use. He certainly wasn't from LA, at any rate. She slid into a booth, her jeans snagging on the ripped vinyl, her sleeve dragging through a puddle of spilt coffee. He sat across from her, folded his hands. She noticed a plain gold ring on the left, before he spoke and she felt compelled to look up into his face.

"I am going to tell you things that sound impossible. But you already know something about impossible things, don't you?" he said. She tried not to roll her eyes and wiped old ketchup from the chipped, white enamel of her coffee mug.

"Sure, sure. Impossible things -- like vampires and demons and the boogie-man. Been there already, thanks."

He frowned. "Is it your custom to speak this way to your betters, girl?"

So, not a serial killer then. One of those punishment freaks, instead. Great.

"Look, if you're just cruising for someone to warm up your riding crop, there are clubs for that sort of thing..." She stood to go.

"I've told you what I want. I want you to help me kill a vampire."

"Does that line actually work? Because I can't imagine it would."

"Sit down, Justine." He laid his hands carefully on the table, palms flat, and looked evenly up at her.

"Whatever. I'm out of here," she muttered, turning to go.

He brought one hand down sharply, striking the dirty tabletop hard enough to make the flatware jump and clatter. "Sit. down."

None of the other customers so much as twitched. Coffee went on being sipped, forks clinked against grubby plates, a study in urban indifference. He reached across the distance between them and grabbed her roughly by the chin, leaning over the table so his face was inches from hers. "You will listen to me, Justine. You will sit here quietly until I am finished. Are we very clear?"

She sat.

*

Caroline danced. And knew that Daniel followed her every step with his eyes.

"You're somewhere else tonight, Caroline," her dance partner said, catching her hand. George was a childhood friend, wealthy and handsome, and she'd heard gossip that most people expected her to marry him eventually. "Do tell me about it."

She laughed. "I think I'll let you wonder. You've more imagination than I do anyway," and danced away from him, down the line.

When they met again, he said, "I think you've acquired yet another admirer."

"Is that jealousy I hear?" she asked, amused.

"Not your usual sort, though," George continued, pretending not to hear her. "That cleric-fellow. The one they tell all those outrageous stories about. Hasn't taken his eyes off you all evening."

"You are jealous. How amusing." She smiled at him. "Besides, don't you believe those stories? Dueling devils and fighting unnatural creatures?"

"Now you're trying to trick me into blasphemy, you sly Delilah, so I shan't answer."

The song ended and George was carried off by his friends, promising to return and dance the rest of the night with her. Caroline laughed and took the opportunity to slip away for some air. The garden stood empty in twilight, still too early in the year for much more than shoots and buds and the promise of summer flowers.

There was a hole in the garden wall. As a child she'd hidden treasures inside -- letters and pins and pretty rocks. Her father called her 'magpie' and she'd laughed, tying handkerchiefs with blue ribbon and hiding them away. She put her hand into the hole now, her amethyst and silver rings looking very much like yet another treasure to be kept safe. The hiding place was empty. She wasn't sure when that had happened, or where those childhood things had gone.

It wasn't until another hand slipped over hers, covering her fingers, that she was aware of someone standing behind her.

"Mr. Holtz? You frightened me."

"That was not my intention, I assure you." He spoke softly, very close to her ear. Too close. She ought to move away, or ask him to. But she didn't.

"Have you gone hunting for robin's eggs?" Laughter echoed in his voice and the hand on hers squeezed her fingers gently. "Or perhaps a lost key?"

"No. I just-" She turned to look at him over her shoulder. Oh, he was very close. "It's just a memory."

"A pleasant one, I trust."

"Mostly. Pleasant but also a bit sad," she answered and wondered why she didn't pull away from him and suggest that they go back to the house. "Sad because I was careless with things that I once considered precious."

"I'd say we all have those regrets. Or we will." He smelled of incense and tobacco and wool and something Caroline couldn't name. Sooner or later someone would come looking for her, and she couldn't be found like this. She took a breath, trying to ignore that scent, the warmth of his presence.

"Perhaps we ought to be getting back? You should join the dancing when we do. I'd hate to think you missed-"

"Aren't we dancing now?" he asked, still closer, still touching her hand.

"Yes. Yes, I suppose we are," Caroline said and, despite her best intentions, didn't move.

*

She is very still the first day or so, afraid to move for fear of upsetting some mysterious balance between them. She is still even when she does move, which he finds fascinating. It's as though, at some point in her life, she learned to move without attracting attention, without making a sound.

The stillness, of course, doesn't last.

Eventually (rather quickly, actually) she becomes accustomed to him and his odd ways. His temper is mostly forgotten, though she's still careful to listen when he speaks. She teases him, makes terrible jokes he doesn't understand. She is an exotic creature, a curiosity, a woman who fights and talks like a man. This ought to scandalize him, offend his sensibilities. She is stubborn and willful and far too familiar with him for comfort. She shocks him hourly. (He tries not to let her see.)

He likes her, though.

She looks at him the way Sarah did. The way Caroline had, at least at first. As though he's a poet and a prophet and a pilgrim soul. As though he's the hero of the piece, as though he could do no wrong. She looks at him and sees exactly what she needs, exactly what he wants her to see. He sees this and knows just how to make her love him. He finds he likes it.

It isn't long, however, before he has to hurt her.

When he does it, he leans close and breathes in her gasp of surprise. She tastes of mint and soap and beeswax and the lingering scent of sweet tobacco. She gasps again and now her scent is spiked with the copper tang of blood.

"Are you fucking crazy?"

"Are you wasting my time?"

And so a stalemate. He gives her a scar and she gives him a bruise and he takes comfort that his is the more lasting gift of the two.

2.      Is not Love here as 'tis in other climes, 
        And differeth it, as do the several nations? 
        Or hath it lost the virtue with the times, 
        Or in this island altereth with the fashions?

Daniel was a man of words, of letters, written in a cramped and earnest hand with cheap ink. Caroline awaited each new letter anxiously, answered them almost immediately, but hid them from her family. Tied with ribbon, they lay hidden in a locked drawer of her writing desk. She had quite an impressive collection of them.

She was fascinated by him, enthralled, but couldn't help wondering what he saw in her in return. There was nothing extraordinary about Caroline. Nothing, she felt, that should attract the regard of a man so brilliant and blessed.

She resolved to ask him the next time they met. She smiled, extended a hand to him, and said, softly so that no one else in the parlor could hear, "I have enjoyed receiving your letters, Mr. Holtz. You do me a great honor with your attention."

She looked straight ahead, her expression carefully neutral, but she could feel him, seated next to her in their discreet corner, considering. "Are we going to play those parlor games, my girl? I thought better of you."

This surprised her. "I-" she faltered for a polite response and failed utterly. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean simply that you are intelligent and clear-headed. You are an exceptional young woman, burdened with none of the silliness one expects from girls your age." She turned to gawk baldly at him as he spoke, a serious expression on his face. "So I ask that you not simper, or play the coquette with me. It is a waste of us both."

"You speak quite plainly," she said.

"Only to those who can appreciate it."

She felt the color rise to her cheeks and turned so he would not see.

"I do not flatter idly. You are an extraordinary creature." He paused. "I must know whether this is simply a diversion for you."

Intention was clear behind his words and her breath tightened in her chest. He intrigued her, she even fancied herself in love with him. But marriage was something else altogether and she was a creature calculating enough to know the difference. If he asked, would she accept him?

"If I am the woman you claim me to be, would I use you that way?" she said instead.

He gave her one of his rare smiles. "No, I don't suppose you would."

He was like no one she'd ever known. She felt when he looked at her, that he really saw. Not as most men, who praised her fine features or dark hair. He saw her, looked beyond all that and saw her heart, her spirit and her mind.

He saw the woman Caroline wanted to be, and for that, in the end, she was his.

*

After Julia died, Justine rented an apartment in hell. In the kind of neighborhood where no one asked questions, where missing persons and mysterious bodies were a way of life. The kind of neighborhood where nobody noticed.

After she met Daniel, she didn't go back there much.

Sometimes, though, she had to. The apartment had indoor plumbing for one thing, something Daniel didn't seem overly concerned with. Now that the house in Silverlake was starting to get crowded, she'd have to find a way to get the water turned back on.

She fumbled with her keys as she went up the darkened stairway, stepped into the corridor and nearly tripped over a shadow from the past. Waiting there, leaning against her apartment door, his MTV bleach job and wire-hoop earrings looking very out of place in the dingy hallway.

"Jesus, Justine," he looked her over with a mixture of pity and fear. "You look like hell."

"Kevin." She gawked at him for a full minute before she could think of anything to say. "What are you doing here?"

"I was in the neighborhood?" he said experimentally.

"Right. Slumming."

He looked down, studying his hundred-dollar Nikes. "Okay. Maybe not. I came to find you." He frowned at her. "Do you ever check your messages, by the way? I've left about twenty."

She ignored that. She'd erased her machine, without listening to any messages, the last time she'd been here. "How did you find me, anyway?"

He grinned a little sheepishly. "I peeked into the files to see where they were going to forward your W-2." He looked significantly at the closed door. "Aren't you even going to invite me in?"

A thousand times no.

She crossed her arms over her chest and just looked at him.

An expression that was half sympathy, half frustration flashed across his face. "Look, I know things have been rough for you. I can't even begin to imagine."

"No. You really, really can't," she muttered, under her breath.

"Look, Justine, come on back to work. Just a couple hours a week, at least at first. It will help. Things are gonna get better."

"I can't go back," she said quietly, knowing he'd never be able to understand. "And not just to work. I can't go back to life the way it was before. Too much has changed."

"Hey, no one's asking you to pretend it never happened. But... this," he gestured around at the apartment building. "This is not the way to make things better. You've got to quit punishing yourself."

"Is that what you think this is?" she asked, shocked.

"Isn't it?" Kevin took her hand. "Come on. Let me take you out. We'll grab something to eat." You need it, he didn't say.

She wanted to go. The realization was unexpected. She wanted to go with him, sit in a restaurant and drink coffee. She wanted to talk about work and people they knew and how lame reality t.v. was. She wanted to have a cigarette and let him hold her hand. She wanted twenty minutes of normal.

She couldn't have it back, not completely. But she wanted one evening of pretend.

"Justine?" Daniel's voice was nicotine smoke in the shadows, dark and addictive and deadly. Kevin jumped about a foot.

"What are you doing, Justine?" he asked, stepping into the light. "I thought we agreed you'd tell me before you came here."

Kevin recovered himself and glowered at Daniel. "Who is this guy? Is he bugging you?"

"Justine," he said again. "I'm waiting."

"It's fine, Kevin." She put a hand on his arm. "I'm fine." To Daniel, she said, "You weren't around. I was short on time." And put her key in the lock.

She opened the door and Daniel pushed past her, walking inside with an air of ownership that made Kevin narrow his eyes. Justine followed, stopping just inside the door and turning back to Kevin.

"This neighborhood isn't safe for you," he said with a dark look over her shoulder at Daniel.

Justine laughed. "And Santa Monica is?"

He looked down at her, surprised maybe by the bitterness in her face, in her voice.

"No place is safe. Not anymore," she said, and shut the door in his face.

"I'm disappointed." Daniel stood in the middle of her dingy living room, his hands clasped behind his back. "I thought we'd gotten past this rebellion of yours."

"Whatever, Dad," she said, sweeping two weeks worth of unopened mail into an overflowing trash can. "You were busy, I was in a hurry. If you're really that hot to keep track of my every move, invest in a leash." Perhaps not the smartest suggestion to make - he'd probably do it.

"And just what was so urgent that it couldn't wait?"

She shrugged. "I needed a shower. It's starting to get a little cozy in that attic in case you hadn't noticed."

"I hadn't." He seemed bemused.

"I wasn't planning on being gone that long anyway, but I was-"

"Wasting time while you dallied with the boy." He paused. "Who was he, Justine?"

"No one. Just somebody I used to work with." She said it casually, trying to change the subject, but Daniel caught hold of her wrist.

"A lover then." Something edged his voice, made it dark, honed sharp, like obsidian. Jealousy? Impossible. But she glanced sidelong at him and saw that his jaw was clenched, his face shadowed grey in the evening light.

"No," she said carefully. "Not like that. Maybe... but it doesn't matter now."

He released her. "Do what you came to do. I'll wait. But be quick about it. You've taken most of my patience already this evening."

Justine nodded once and fled to the bathroom.

*

"You surely can't be serious about this madness. Sweet girl, it's folly!"

On reflection, Caroline was forced to admit that George had, perhaps, been a poor choice of confidante regarding Daniel.

"George..." she began.

"I can't believe you would even entertain the notion," he said, beheading a white lily and pulling the petals off in frustration as he spoke. It was mid-summer and they were walking in the garden, now in full bloom. "Utter. Folly." He pointed the naked stem of the ruined flower at her for emphasis.

"I love him."

"You can't possibly!"

"But I do." She paused, allowing herself a smile. "I really do."

"I won't even pretend to understand that. I find him a very unpleasant fellow... But even supposing you do love him for some reason I can't fathom, even supposing that, dear Caroline -- do you really mean to marry this man? What can he possibly offer you?"

"And there you see my dilemma. Ought I marry for love, or should I make a more practical choice?"

George went red. "I think- I don't think you ought to ask me what I think. Perhaps one of your sisters-?"

"Why ever not?" Caroline sat on a stone bench beneath the shade of an elm and motioned for him to sit beside her.

"Caroline, are you that blind? You can't be. You're far too intelligent to be." He took her hand. "I love you. I've loved you since we were children. I want you to be my wife."

"But that's just idle talk-"

"It most certainly is not," George said, dropping her hand, his color high. "I've never made any secret of my feelings. I never thought- Well, now you can see why I am the last person to advise you in this matter."

"But, George," Caroline said, feeling as though she was choking on something bitter. "There's no one in the world whose opinion means more to me."

"But anything I said to you would surely be to serve my own interests."

"Nonsense. You're far too good and honest for that."

He looked at her for a long moment. "I could never live," he said at last, "with knowing I was simply 'a more practical choice.'"

"Oh, dear sweet George." She grabbed up his hand again. "You are wonderful, a charming and handsome man. And you are a wonderful friend... I hope you always shall be."

He smiled. "You know I could never resist you anything, no matter how trifling. All I wish is your happiness. You must know that, must believe it. But I could not forgive myself if I didn't speak my thoughts... You do not know this man, Caroline. I think you misunderstand him terribly. I think you are making a grave mistake." He shook his head. "But marry for love. Anything less would be beneath you. But consider carefully before you make that choice. Love is best of all things, but it is also the worst. It can make us very ugly indeed." He turned to her, serious again, a shadow darkening his face. "I fear for you. I fear this will all end badly."

*

He comes back from meeting with the demon to find her sprawled familiarly on his makeshift bed, surrounded by books. Some of them he recognizes.

"What's this?"

She raises an eyebrow at him. She's still mildly insolent, but her tongue has become less sharp in these last weeks. She still baits him, but it's tempered with affection.

She waves a thick, leather-bound manuscript at him. "Daniel Holtz, the early years."

"Where did you get that?"

She tosses him a shiny, little card printed with the words 'Los Angeles Public Library.' "You've just got to know how to ask for the right books. The librarian got all excited, thought I was a-"

He snatches the book from her hands and looks down at the page she'd been reading. "What possessed you- You very stupid girl. Do you want to attract Angelus' attention?"

"Uh-huh. Because he's all about libraries. Somehow I don't think so." She picks up a paperback copy of Dracula and begins to thumb through it. It's all he can do to keep from striking her or shaking her. But he doesn't, because he's begun to suspect that this constant low-level frustration with her is something else entirely.

He hands the book back to her instead. She takes it, looking up at him. "Three hundred and seventy-eight vampires, huh? That's quite a batting average." She says it to herself, chewing the ragged end of a fingernail and choosing not to meet his eyes. "There's one thing it doesn't say, though."

"And what is that, Justine?"

"How many of your own soldiers died?" There's something in the way she asks the question, something in the way she watches him decide how to answer.

After a moment, he admits, "I'm not really sure."

She nods, sitting back, pleased, as though that were the answer she expected. Perhaps, he realizes as they watch one another carefully for a silent moment, perhaps she understands him better than he gives her credit for. If she does, and she's still willing to offer herself to him, then perhaps he ought to guard her a bit more jealously, treat her with a bit more care.

"It's almost sunset," he says quietly. He wants her out of the room. He wants a few moments of silence. She shrugs, then gathers up the books, wrinkling the threadbare blanket, and walks out.

She leaves her scent on the sheets when she goes.

*

Caroline had two sisters, both younger, and quite possibly the vainest, silliest creatures in all of England. Caroline, as the eldest, had spent most of her girlhood settling disputes, mending broken hearts and broken china, drying spilt tears and spilt milk alike.

Bella, the youngest, looked nothing like her sisters, bore almost no resemblance to anyone else in the family. She was fair, pink-cheeked and freckled, with strawberry-gold hair, the color of Spenser's Glorianna.

Charlotte, the middle sister, was nearly a perfect copy of Caroline in everything except temperament. Dark-haired, dark-eyed and fair, the two could easily have been mistaken for twins and, in fact, had been born only ten months apart.

It was as the three sisters sat at tea on an autumn afternoon, that Caroline announced her intention to accept Daniel's offer of marriage.

"You fool!" Bella said, aghast, slamming her rose-sprigged teacup down into its saucer in a most unladylike manner. "Have you gone completely mad?"

"Well, I don't care what she does," Charlotte declared. "Once she's married, you and I have a much better chance of being asked ourselves."

"But to that dreadful, gloomy churchmouse? Oh, Caroline." Bella shook her head, the red-gold afternoon sun sparking her hair with the movement. "I was afraid of this. It's always the sensible ones who go and make utter-"

"Have you told Mama and Papa yet?" Charlotte asked, eyes alight with mischief. "Oh, do tell them at dinner so we can all watch. It will be most amusing."

"You think they won't approve?" Caroline asked mildly, folding her hands in her lap.

"If they did, they'd be as great a pair of fools as you and your..." Bella paused, crossing her arms over her bodice and appearing to search for an appropriately low word to describe Daniel. "As you and your cleric."

*

He took her to church of all places.

Once a week, like clockwork. The first few times she tried to get out of it, made excuses. But in the end, he had his way (as always).

They didn't go to Mass. Instead, he would take her on a quiet afternoon. Usually a Tuesday. When the church was empty and sunlit, colored shadows cast on the polished floor.

They made their own ritual.

"You really ought to cover your hair when we come here," he'd say every time, reaching up and fingering a lock. And she would pull away, and go to sit patiently while he confessed. They lit candles for the dead and he would make her kneel with him while he prayed.

The wooden kneeling rails left bruises on her legs and the incense made her dizzy. She burned her fingers on the votives and splattered wax on her jacket. But she went anyway.

One Tuesday, though, late in the afternoon, she waited and he didn't come to get her. She waited until the sun set. She sent the others out and still she waited. Finally, it got dark and she went searching for him.

She found him at the bottom of a bottle of scotch.

"Daniel?"

He looked glassily up at her and, for a moment, seemed to have trouble figuring out just who she was. She sat beside him and gently took the empty bottle from his right hand. "Is this where you've been?"

"Yes, I suppose I got a bit lost," he said, looking at her like he still wasn't quite sure of her. Then, "You have a sweet face. I imagine there was a time when you were all sweetness." He caught her face clumsily with one hand, dragging a thumb across the corner of her mouth. This close she could smell the scotch on him, heavy and mellow-gold.

"Stop that. You've been drinking."

He laughed, low in his throat, almost a growl and slightly predatory. "Yes, I have. Sweet girl," he said and laughed again. "Before, you were sweet, but now the world's gone mad and you'd rather die than live in it."

"No," she said. "That's not true. I don't want to die. But I will if I have to." I will if you ask me. But those words didn't need to be spoken. He already knew.

"Don't stay out here all night," she said, taking the bottle and standing up to go.

"No." He pulled her back down and held tight to her arms. "No, you will not go. Not this time."

So she didn't. She sat beside him, quiet and unmoving, until the sun rose.

3.      And all this while I was mistaken there: 
        Your love and hate is this, I now do prove you, 
        You love in hate, by hate to make me love you.

Years later, all Caroline would remember of her wedding was that her shoes were too tight -- delicate, gold silk slippers that pinched at the toes.

The wedding came at the exhausted end of a pilgrimage to Rome, almost an afterthought. If asked about the ceremony, Caroline simply replied that it had been tolerably pleasant and she was quite lucky to have married so well-respected a man. But, somehow, she felt disquiet within herself. Caroline had left England a girl and a virgin, and left Rome a woman and a wife. The transition was not smooth.

Rome appalled her. The consumptive decadence of the place left her feeling trapped. She aired out rooms, flung the heavy drapes wide, opened windows. But the streets were thick with it as well, the air oppressive and dust-heavy even in the sunny days of early summer. The ancient cathedrals, with their bloodied icons and gilt crucifixes, gave her the creeping horrors. She wanted to flee the whole place, to get back to the open fields and cool nights of England as quickly as possible.

Daniel, of course, knew none of this.

He patted her cheek absently, left her to her own amusements until he wanted her, wanted her company or her voice or desired her attentions in other ways.

He wanted her now.

"Come, Caroline." He extended an arm to her. "We'll have a walk in the gardens before dinner."

She didn't like the gardens in Rome either. They were too old, too ordered, too cold. She wished for the wildness of English roses and creeping ivy. She did not speak this desire aloud either. So, Daniel took her by the arm and led her into the midst of it. He gripped her too tightly. He was stronger than he looked, his appearance deceptive. He crushed her arm to him, his clutches and embraces always threatened strength and force and the edge of pain. Caroline felt bruised, both in body and spirit, and the feeling wasn't entirely unpleasant. She felt she might grow to like it. She wasn't sure she wanted to.

*

He asked her where Julia was buried and, when she told him, asked to be taken there. An odd request, but one she couldn't deny him, any more than she could deny him anything. The sun was just rising and all she wanted was to head home and get some sleep, but instead, here they stood. The neatly-trimmed grass was very green, cool and wet. Early mornings in LA were somehow colder than the nights and she shivered.

Daniel stood at the foot of Julia's grave and asked simply, "How did it happen?"

She laughed. "You of all people should know that."

"Certainly, I know that she was killed by vampires. But you've never told me where or how."

"Maybe I don't know," she said shortly and turned away.

She didn't want to talk about this, not even to him. She could still call up every detail of that night, sights, smells and tastes, little noises, touches. Every last bit in 3-d, surround sound and dolby digital: Kevin, flipping vodka bottles around and making like Tom Cruise in Cocktail to impress her. Dropping a bottle of Stohli that left the floor sticky (-er than usual) for weeks afterward, even though he tried to hose away the evidence. Kevin snagging the phone before she could reach it, "Hey, twin sister!" Elbowing him in the ribs, the scent of fabric softener and Fahrenheit when she leaned in close to take the phone from him. "She has a name, you know."

"You ought to know better than to think I'd believe that," Daniel said, his voice very soft.

"Fine. She was out with someone. Got jumped and pulled into an alley. That's pretty much the end of the story."

Except it wasn't.

*"I need saving."* Funny how she could still hear the cell phone-crackle in her memory. "I'm on the worst date in the history of history." Julia had been hiding in the ladies' room at World Caf, trying to stall having to go back to her table.

It had been a slow night; they'd only had a few customers. Otherwise, Justine wouldn't have had time to talk. She'd balanced the phone on her shoulder, mixing a round of Mai-tais for a table of drunken Swedish tourists in the restaurant upstairs. And Julia had laughed, the sound echoing around the empty bathroom and through the phone, made some comment about always knowing how to pick the winners. "Look. Call me in twenty. Pretend there's a family emergency or something. I'm in need of some serious bailing out here..."

She'd rolled her eyes and promised as she hung up. And Kevin had laughed, taking the tray of drinks from her, bouncing up the stairs singing nonsense words like the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show the whole way. He winked at her and time froze and she'd never be able to forget that moment.

Because in the next one the world changed forever.

She'd hit redial and said, without waiting for a 'hello,' "It's me. And this is the last time I do this for you. Start screening your dates before you agree to- Julia?" There had been something wrong with the silence, Julia's breath stopping then quickening unevenly.

"Sorry. It's just- Hang on..." Her last words echoing over the stupid cell phone Justine had told her not to buy, frivolous and expensive, no bigger than a Snickers bar. It had come back to Justine in a plastic baggie, its silver LCD face cracked and splotched, bruised black.

"He fought them, tried to save her. They ripped out his throat for his trouble. Ironic. She didn't even like the guy."

Daniel didn't answer, just smiled slightly and walked around behind her. He'd obviously gotten what he wanted from her story, because he pushed her to her knees, then knelt beside her. Holding her very still, her father confessor and demon lover, her trial by fire and her Adam's rib. He pulled rosary beads from his pocket and wrapped them around her fingers.

"You know what I want from you, don't you? What I expect? I think you know it better than I do."

The world narrowed to their tangle of beads and fingers and the crucifix bit into the flesh of her palm. He wanted blood, an offering, a vow. As if she hadn't already vowed a thousand times over, every day. But she looked up into his eyes and realized he needed flesh, he needed her die for him in ways she hadn't counted on. She was even more surprised to find that she didn't mind.

*

He doesn't love her.

But he wants her. He finally admits this to himself, makes his peace with it. Touching her is like tempering steel. Fashioning forth. She will be well-suited to him by the time he's finished.

But he knows he doesn't love her.

He could, though. He thinks maybe he could, if any one of a thousand little things were different. Couldn't he? (Perhaps this is yet another comforting lie. He begins to lose track.)

But she will complement him, nonetheless. She will fill a void, a lack he hadn't even been aware of. He will have to instruct her, but he doesn't mind that so much either. She is strong, her mind quick and her will. She will be a challenge. He has had many challenges in his life, but rarely one so pleasant.

She will love him, though. He can't accept anything less. She must love him, he will see to that. She will love and obey and honor. She will wait for him and come to him when he calls her. She will give him a son, one way or another. There will be a house, a home. There will be order, justice. Things will make sense. There will be a hearth and a heart and a bed. There will be peace.

And things will be as they should.

*

The sun was setting again and Daniel laid a hand on her shoulder.

"You're better with them than I," he said, nodding at their little army. All together in the twilight, waiting for marching orders. "They like you."

"They like me, but they'll follow you," Justine said, following his gaze.

"They will." He nodded solemnly. "But will you?"

This surprised her. "To the gates of hell. You know that."

"Perhaps where I ask you to go will be more complicated than that," he said softly, and lifted his hand from her shoulder. "I want someone to watch Angelus tonight. You go and take Israel with you. Send Aubrey with John and Mr. Perry to watch the hotel."

Justine liked Aubrey. She was smart and direct, cool-headed, and the two women got along. They worked well together. She was also far less likely than Iz to do something stupid and get them both killed. But Daniel generally didn't like sending Justine and Aubrey out as a team. He worried aloud that two 'ladies' might not be equal to the tasks at hand. To this, Justine had acidly responded that they were fighting vampires, not taking tea with the Queen.

"Indeed. I doubt even the Queen would be equal to the pair of you."

At the time she'd been so shocked that he'd actually made (sort of) a joke that she forgot to finish the argument. But now, tonight, she pressed the point, "It doesn't make sense. Aubrey and I will follow Angelus." He looked as though he were about to protest, but she said, "We can handle ourselves. You ought to know that by now."

She'd expected to have to fight harder, but he only nodded his agreement. "Very well. You go. The men will stand watch at the hotel."

She went, before he could change his mind.

They ducked out the back door of the old house, the last glow of daylight already disappearing behind trees and houses. Justine often wondered what the residents of this neat, little neighborhood made of them, of the dilapidated house and their odd comings and goings. Probably thought the place was a crackhouse. They'd have to be on the lookout for the Neighborhood Watch.

"Here. You drive." Aubrey tossed her the keys.

"Nice." She slid behind the wheel of Aubrey's high-end SUV. "Wow. Leather interior, CD changer." She grinned, turning the key in the ignition. "I've got to get one of these."

"Coffee first? Something tells me this is going to be a long night."

Justine laughed. "What're we? Cops?" But she swung by the Krispy Kreme anyway.

The sun had fully set by the time they reached the hotel. "You don't think we missed him, do you?" Aubrey asked.

"No, something tells me our Angelus is a late-riser..." Justine trailed off as the door opened and the staff of Angel Investigations trickled out. "What the-?"

Aubrey followed her gaze. "Are they-? Are those tuxedoes?"

"Must be prom night. Where's the limo?"

"Looks like our friends prefer riding with the top down. Ironic."

"What are the odds?" Justine shifted the car into drive, wishing all the while that it were a five-speed, and slowly pulled out into traffic behind the convertible. She was ready for something weird, but the last place in the world she'd expected them to go was-

"The ballet? This has got to be a joke." Fate was on their side and she managed to find a place to park directly across from the theater.

Aubrey grinned and pried the lid from her double latte. "I almost wish we could go in. I always liked Giselle."

"I don't think we're exactly dressed for it, do you?" She frowned at the lighted marquee. "What the hell is a vampire doing at the ballet?"

"You think it's a trick?"

"Doubt it," she replied.

"We should stay then," Aubrey said, not sounding too sure. "That's what the Captain would want, right?"

"We stay," Justine confirmed, reaching down to change the radio station.

Aubrey nodded, then said quietly, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

Surprised, Justine turned and looked at her. "Of course."

"I meant about Holtz."

That stopped her cold, one hand halfway to the radio dial.

Aubrey, casual but slightly cautious, continued, "Because, sleeping with the boss? Almost never a good idea."

Justine punched a button on the car stereo at random, taking an overly long time to find a station she liked. After another long moment she finally said, "How did you know?"

"Just an educated hunch. Body language, the way you'd say things... He touches you. He doesn't touch anyone, at least not anyone he intends to let live." She shrugged. "It's not too hard to figure out, if you're looking for it."

"And why were you?"

"I just like being aware of all the variables, you know." She shrugged again.

Justine frowned. "What you're saying is, you don't trust us."

"I'm saying that things are more complicated than they look." Aubrey sipped at her coffee again. It had to be cold by now, and she made a face.

"It doesn't change the basics," Justine said. "Vampires: bad. Stakes: handy."

"It changes more than you probably think it does." The expression on her face was vaguely maternal. "I'm just saying... be careful."

"He's a good man," Justine insisted.

Aubrey softened a little at that. "Yes, he is. But even a good man can hurt you -- or get you hurt. Even one with the best of intentions."

Silence descended between them, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Not really. After a few minutes, though, Justine shifted in her seat and asked, "Is the ballet always this long?"

*

He took her from her sugar-spun and gabled tower to his cottage in the woods, a fireside-story prince in reverse, and she went willing with him. It wasn't far from the countryside where she'd grown up. Not far from the rolling, quilted hills, the breeze-cooled houses and refined afternoons. Not far, and yet a world apart.

The little cottage sat astride a fallow field at the edge of a dark wood. The fingered shadows and cold-water brooks kept the house cool even through the summer afternoon. Caroline stood in the doorway, put her hand on Daniel's wrist and told herself that she would warm it up.

The shabby roof sagged at the west corner.

Caroline planted ivy. It grew up the wall and across the roof and covered every flaw.

Inside, the walls were made of bare and splintered wood.

Caroline embroidered till her fingers bled, hung them with tapestry.

The steps wanted fixing and the front door rattled in its frame.

Caroline grew rosebushes, thick and full and tall enough to cover them.

Winter came, cheerless and bitter, long nights and grey days shadowing the little rooms. Made them smaller.

Caroline baked and stewed and filled the cottage with rich smells and roaring fires.

Their bed was cold, too far from the only fireplace.

Caroline sewed a quilt, stuffed a featherbed.

Daniel grew aloof and silent.

Caroline had a baby.

And it was this last that attracted his attention. The child interested him, provoked his affection. (Though, Caroline suspected, he wished it had been a boy.) But it was something. At times she felt it was all she had to offer. She intended to have another right after the first, but fate and circumstance intervened. Which, it happened, was just as well. Because Daniel proved a poor farmer -- and, worse, it made him unhappy. Restless, frustrated. He thought himself, Caroline suspected, more attuned to heaven than to earth. So when God's hand touched him again, beckoned with bloodied fingers, it was almost a relief. Caroline knew that she shouldn't feel this way, that to find comfort in the suffering of others was a sin and a destructive one. But, at least at first, she couldn't help the fact that she breathed more freely when Daniel held a sword rather than a ploughshare. She felt herself whole, more at ease in worry for him than when he sat beside her.

Her daughter grew, taking toddling steps and sing-songing baby words. Daniel fought monsters in the night and did not speak of them inside the house. Caroline still did not have a son. Silence settled over their home, which another woman might have taken for peace. Caroline did not. She saw the silence for what it was, but could see no way to break it. And things might have continued on in this way forever, if not for a pair of shadows.

4.      By this I see, however things be past, 
        Yet Heaven will still have murther out at last. 

He hurts her sometimes when he doesn't mean to. It's become easy for him to forget how small she really is, how soft.

Caroline was small, fine-boned like that. Fragile.

At least, he thinks she was. That's how she looks when he sees her in his memory. But time fades the edges, blurs the differences. And leaves him wondering. Is what he remembers really what he remembers? He doesn't know anymore. And he's not sure that he's ever loved. But he's hated. He hates. And it makes him strong, makes her love him. And that makes him strong as well.

She's older than Sarah would have been. But not by much. Still a child in so many ways.

And sometimes he's afraid they'll get tangled up: wife, daughter, lover. And other times he doesn't care. Those things, those three, aren't really so different from one another anyway.

But the boy. Now that's a different matter.

Different altogether. A second chance and so much more. The chance to rebuild and tear down all at once. This intrigues him, intoxicates him. It occupies his thoughts and he knows what he must do.

*

It consumed him from the inside, the fire she'd loved him for. It burned away at his soul and kept him awake nights. Caroline had long known that the demons Daniel fought against were not all flesh and blood, were not all defeated by skill or luck or providence. Some, the most dangerous ones, were not defeated at all.

Daniel, like all great men, fought most against the darkness within himself.

Not that she would ever say this. But he knew she understood. She did not think he liked it. Daniel wished for his wife to understand his character, but only to a point. Caroline had learned this early on and then learned quickly when not to speak. And so she kept silent. Patient, obedient. But even Caroline's patience had limits.

And so it happened (by skill or luck or providence) that the shadows in Daniel's head were made flesh, brought to life. And Daniel began to hunt them, hunted them as he'd hunted nothing before. To Caroline he said nothing of them, save that he was doing holy work. She had to gather news in other ways. She went more and more often to visit her sisters, taking Sarah with her, leaving their house empty when she went.

Her sister's house was very fine. Bella had married well, far better than either Charlotte or Caroline. The house was large and well-kept, the grounds beautiful -- a perfect blend of gardens and woods and ponds. Sarah loved visiting the place, exploring the paths and riding the ponies, and, most especially, Sarah loved her uncle.

"There are my girls!"

"George!"

"Hullo, Caroline," he said with a smile, swinging Sarah up into his arms. "And how are you and my niece? I imagine you're fatigued after your trip."

"It's not so far really," she said and felt the distance of it as though it were oceans.

She had feared, after her marriage to Daniel, that George would marry Charlotte. But her fears proved unfounded. He'd married Bella instead, who possessed a keen mind and lively spirit, and although he confessed he did not love her so passionately as he might have hoped, the two were well-matched in humor and made a peaceful and happy house between them.

Bella was still outlandish and vain and occasionally silly, but she had grown into a strong and charming woman. She welcomed Caroline into her house with a warmth as surprising as it was foreign. It did not surprise Caroline because she expected any less of Bella, but because the long, quiet, cold days had made her forget. She forgot what it was to touch and smile and greet the world with joy. She caught her breath, the happy bustle of the house threatening to overwhelm her, and squeezed Bella's hand.

"Isn't it absolutely shocking? You have heard, haven't you? You must. There are whispers of it even here," Bella laughed, when they had settled down to tea. "Such stories we hear from the north! I suppose we shall all have to lock our doors against such fearsome ghosts as these."

Caroline smiled mildly, realizing which stories Bella meant. "You laugh, but perhaps calling them ghosts is not amiss."

"That's right! Of course you know all about this. Your worthy husband," and here Bella smiled in a way that showed exactly how worthy she regarded him, "is probably in the thick of it all. Tell us, Caroline. Do."

"I doubt I could add anything of consequence."

"Really! I don't believe that for a moment. It seems exactly the sort of unpleasantness your Mr. Holtz would relish."

"Bella, be kind," George said, but Caroline could tell he did not disagree.

"Oh, Caroline knows she is dearest to me in all world, save only you. She will forgive me my little fun."

"I always have," Caroline replied, a bit archly and Bella laughed.

"Now that is the elder sister I remember. I had an absolute terror of you as a child. I feared your displeasure more than I ever feared Mother's or Father's. But I'll not let you distract me. You'll not get away so easily as that." She leaned forward. "These ghosts, is your husband hunting them? You must tell."

Caroline looked at Bella, her face flushed, the very appearance of fickle curiosity, and saw beyond it. Saw the worry, the concern, all the things she couldn't say aloud, hidden behind bravado and laughter. Hidden behind the only face Bella could show to the world.

Caroline saw this, saw her sister for quite possibly the first time, and decided to tell the truth.

"Yes, he hunts them, these ghosts you've heard people speak of. He hunts this most recent pair in particular."

"Devils with the faces of angels, they say." Bella put her cup down onto its saucer and nodded. "I wonder how one is supposed to tell the difference."

"Perhaps you can't," George said. "Perhaps that's the point."

"What is on the outside is rarely the measure of a man, that much is true," Caroline said softly, and found Bella watching her, a measuring expression on her face.

"George dear, why don't you show Sarah the new ponies? And then," she smiled down at her niece, "if you go to the kitchens, Cook just might have a little treat for you."

"For me as well?" George asked, merriment in his eyes.

"Only if you behave yourself."

He took Sarah by the hand, and Bella stood, reaching a hand out to her sister. "It's a lovely afternoon. The weather is quite fine for this time of year, don't you agree?"

Caroline stood nervously. "I ought not let Sarah-"

"Oh, let George spoil her. It makes him happy since we've none of our own to spoil." Bella laced Caroline's arm through hers. "And you and I shall have a pleasant walk."

The day was fine and they walked in silence for awhile.

"How is it with you really?" Bella said abruptly when they were among the narcissus, yellow blossoms and green stems swaying with the breeze. "And don't offer me that sugar-coated fiction about your happy, little cottage in the woods. You look unwell, Caroline. You cannot fool me."

"You are quite mistaken, I assure you."

"I see more than you credit me with," Bella said, uncharacteristically serious. "I'm not the child I once was. I see how unhappy you are, how ill-used." She shook her head. "Am I wrong? About your unhappiness? About this man you've married? Please, Caroline, tell me I'm wrong. I want to be."

"You still dislike him so violently?" Caroline squeezed her sister's arm as they walked. "I know you never liked him. I know you thought he was beneath me-"

"Do not think me so proud as that, dearest Caroline," Bella said. "If the man were a clerk or a butcher or a blacksmith I wouldn't care a bit so long as he was honest, so long as you loved him. But I cannot love your husband. He fancies himself too clever, there is a double meaning in all he speaks." She paused. "But even that I could forgive if he loved you as you deserve."

"He loves me as well as he can," Caroline replied. "And he is a good man."

"It is his goodness -- or should I say his pride in his own goodness -- that I find most offensive." Bella stopped and turned, spreading her hands wide. "He leaves you on your own while he chases shadows. He puts you in danger, Caroline, and appears not to care. He does not think of you at all. I could not live that way, and you shouldn't have to."

"I know how it must seem. But-"

"But nothing, Caroline! There is something wrong in all this. George sees it, too. We are sick with worry for you, and for Sarah." She shook her head. "George would have me say nothing, but I cannot keep silent." She smiled, a bit ruefully. "I never could. You of all people know that. Just promise me," she took Caroline's hand and her fingers were ice-cold, "promise me you will be careful."

*

After all this, after all their work, all their sacrifice, they were just going to walk away. And he'd asked whether she was unsure of him. Of course she was. She was unsure of everything. She never knew from one moment to the next what he'd want from her.

The only thing Justine knew for sure was that she wanted him.

And for that, she'd do anything. But, nothing about this felt right. Nothing, nothing, nothing. But what else could she do? What else could be done?

They were going to walk away, from all the others. From people just like her, people who wanted nothing more than to believe in Daniel. And Aubrey, who could have been a friend, almost was a friend... Well, it didn't matter now. But part of her, part of her knew that Daniel was more than capable of walking away from her just as easily. That he might, that he could, if things didn't go his way. She also knew, with an equal conviction, that she couldn't. She'd stay by his side to hell and back; she'd die at a word from him.

What he wants is revenge. He's driven by it, he's blinded by it and if you, me or anyone else gets in his way, he'll kill for it.

Wyndham-Pryce intended to scare her off, make her see reason. He had no way of knowing she already knew it all and had decided she didn't care.

Or did he?

His eyes were like a mirror. She wondered if he saw it, too. They were both ready to die, to kill and be killed, to wage war. She liked that in him, which was why she didn't want to hurt him.

But she would. And, she was fairly sure, if their positions were reversed, he'd do the same.

*

The man she's going to kill for him is looking at her like maybe they should go out for coffee sometime. And she almost falters, almost walks away. He knows her so well by now, every inch. He can tell, can see the indecision in the way her shoulders tighten, can hear it in her voice.

That won't do. That won't do at all.

Wyndham-Pryce obviously likes her. He'd counted on that. He hadn't expected Justine to like him in return. The fact of it makes him obscurely jealous.

"Be careful." And the words are oh-so tender. He wonders if she likes being spoken to that way.

"You are being careful." His own words can be soft, an echo of that longing if he needs them to be, if he wants them to. "I didn't even hear you leave."

She jumps, turns to face him. "Daniel. You frightened me."

He walks close, puts a hand on her shoulder, makes her look up at him. Reminds her who she belongs to. He isn't quite sure why he does this, but he does it.

"You like him."

"He's a good man," she says simply.

"But you haven't changed your mind."

And there's a moment, a pause, and he can tell she wants to tell him she has changed her mind, that she won't do it, not even for him.

He can't let her, he won't. He grabs a handful of her jacket and drags her to him. She trips on the uneven sidewalk, falls hard against him and he kisses her till she can't breathe. She's off-balance, pushing against him, trying to stand on her own, but he won't let her.

"You haven't changed your mind," he says when he lets her go. She stumbles a little and grabs hold of him to keep from falling.

He kisses her mouth again, softly this time, and smoothes her hair away. Holds her at arm's length, the rough creak of leather beneath his fingers.

"Are you ready?"

"Yes." She's sure this time. He believes her. But, still, she closes her eyes as she says it. She does that often, when his hands are on her. And he wonders what it is she sees, who. And then he wonders why (whether) he cares. But now, as then, he makes her acknowledge him anyway.

"Justine."

Her eyes open.

*

Daniel had never struck her. In all the time they'd been married, he had never once raised his hand to her in anger.

She almost wished he would.

She bore his children, cooked his meals, kept his house, put aside her youthful and pretty things to live simply by his side. Only to find his fire of passion did not burn for her. Did not touch her, could not be touched. His anger would have at least been something, some kind of proof that she wasn't invisible to him.

Had he ever loved her? Could he? She didn't dare to ask.

She had finally given him the son that had once seemed so important and he'd barely stayed home long enough to have the boy properly christened. He left her in their house alone, and these last months had forbidden her to visit her sisters. He gave her no reason save that he considered the travel too dangerous. There probably was good reason for this, but he did not share it with her.

The days were very quiet and Caroline had gone cold. The baby needed something Caroline feared she no longer knew how to give. But at least her daughter still laughed and she rejoiced in that, vowed to find a way to keep her laughing always.

Sarah laughed and held her brother, teased him, made him giggle, made him laugh liquid, infant laughs. Sarah was so like Bella it made Caroline's heart hurt.

"I'm to leave you again tonight," Daniel said and made her look up from the fire.

"I wouldn't mind so much, if you merely trusted me enough to tell me why and where you go," she replied softly.

"There is no need for you to know." He knelt beside her on the hearth and took her hands. "I would not have you know. I prefer it that you are not touched by such concerns."

"What touches you touches me, Daniel. That is the way of being in love, that is a marriage."

He moved his hands from hers and narrowed his eyes. "I would not have my wife tell me the way of being a husband. This is my house, Caroline, and you are my wife. You will heed me in all things, as you always have."

She stood slowly. "This cannot go on. I do not think you ought to go."

Daniel stood as well and stared at her, looking at her as though seeing her for the first time in a very great while.

"I have been your wife for ten years. In all that time, have I ever asked you to turn aside from your duty? Even once? For any reason?" She didn't allow him time to answer. "I have not. Because I well knew you wouldn't. But now- now I am asking. This one and only time. Let this go."

"You speak of matters you do not understand, girl."

"Don't speak to me as though I were a child! I am not your daughter, and I am not the foolish girl you married. I have learned since then. I know the workings of this world as well as you. I've read them in your eyes, in the silences of you, the emptiness. I have learned patience and coldness and duty. I have learned that you love God and Rome and your own power more than you have ever loved me. I have learned that my children will grow up in fear and awe of you, but will never love you. I have learned that no one listens when I speak. I have learned, Daniel, to stand very still."

He turned his back on her, moved to walk away, but stopped when she spoke, "I have also learned that pride is dangerous, more dangerous than anything you could hope to protect me from. And I have learned those lessons at your hands, Daniel. Yours."

"I'll not be gone long," he said as though she hadn't spoken. "Don't forget what I've told you about letting strangers in after dark. I expect you to heed me in that at least."

He went out into knowledge and into night, leaving her behind as ever. Walking away every time as though it were the last.

Only this time, it was.

5.      I pray thee, leave, love me no more,
        Call home the heart you gave me!
        I but in vain that saint adore
        That can but will not save me.

She killed him passively and in that moment, in that hesitation, lost everything.

Because she found (trembling steel in her hands, sweat-slick, and the metal of blood in her mouth) that when it came right down to it, love wasn't enough. Not for this. Not even for Daniel. So she hesitated (the cut sloppy, messy, unfinished, a loose end). She walked away and left him to die of neglect, as though somehow that would remove the responsibility of it from her. She could have killed him (clean, decisive, the power of it hers, the responsibility hers, the blame) but she didn't. Not really. He would die, of course, but she wouldn't see it happen. She would walk away and not know, would always be able to look back and say what if (he didn't bleed so much, someone found him in time, helped him, made a miracle, it could happen). She would be able to sleep with the maybes.

A few blocks away she stopped the car. Had to stop. She didn't want to, if she stopped, if she thought, then she might start shaking and that would never do. But she pulled the car over to the curb and stopped anyway. Because she'd looked into the rearview and seen smears of blood on the baby's face, blood from her hands where she'd held him, her own blood and Wesley's blood, where she'd strapped his little body into the car seat. Her stomach lurched and she fumbled blindly through the diaper bag (it was slate blue and sprinkled with absurd little yellow ducks and totally irrelevant, but she noticed anyway) till she found a box of baby wipes. She swiped frantically at his fat cheeks, while he turned his head this way and that, frowning up at her. The sickly, powder-sweet scent of the wipes mingled with the drying blood and made the baby whimper. At least, she told herself it was the baby.

She leaned over him and scrubbed the blood from the sides of the car seat. He reached up a fat, little hand and grabbed hold of a messy chunk of her hair, still slightly damp from Daniel rinsing the blood from it with careful hands. Too much blood. There'd been too much. She could take a million showers and never scrub it all off and if she kept thinking this way she was going to get them all killed. She needed to keep moving, to get to Daniel. To see him, to hear his voice and be reminded why this was right. Why this was the only way. To see him smile at her and tell her she had done well, that the hard part (the thing she hadn't wanted to do, had sworn she would only do for him) was done and over and things were about to start again.

She turned around, re-started the car and didn't look back again.

Instead she concentrated on the road ahead, held tight to the steering wheel, held tight to the promise of where they were headed. Held onto the promise of it all. She found herself saying these things aloud, to the baby, promising him (and herself) that everything was going to be all right. Just as long as they kept moving. She drove them forward, through the nighttime shadows, until her very own shadow stepped out from the darkness and opened the car door.

"It went well?" Daniel said, and smiled.

*

Death came to the door just after sundown and surprised her with its beauty. Death was a well-matched pair in fine clothing, with good manners and refined voices. Death was attractive, pleasantly seductive, inviting and sweet.

But Caroline did not want to die.

Perhaps she should have. Perhaps she even expected to welcome a little the idea of death. But she did not, and this surprised her. She did not want to die.

The man asked for her husband and the woman smiled. And Caroline realized what they were, who they were, who they must be, but it was already too late. She swallowed her panic and greeted them politely. Devils with the faces of angels, and they were. She did not scream until they touched Sarah. The baby's wails cut off abruptly and she knew she ought to do something. But by then everything hurt and she could feel the pounding of her own heart in her ears, her fingertips, her belly.

She wanted Sarah to laugh forever. Wanted her to laugh, wanted her to live, wanted her to have better. Wanted her not to be sacrificed to Caroline's own mistakes. She'd promised that to herself. She said it aloud, to herself and to Death.

"What's that?" the man asked, his voice lilting slightly. Daniel said the Irish ought to be left to starve, to be punished for their treasons, their superstitions and perversions.

She reached up -- there was blood on her hands -- whispered into his ear, knowing it was probably hopeless, that he would only laugh and kill her anyway.

He did laugh. But he didn't kill her. Not just then.

"That's a lovely idea, madam. But do you think your husband would approve?"

"Please," Caroline said, and her own voice sounded as though came from very far away.

"I wonder," he said, his breath hot and unpleasantly moist against her ear, "whether you are very cruel or very kind."

Maybe both, Caroline thought. But all she said was, "Please," and he took his hands from her shoulders. He crossed the room, took his companion by the arm and pulled her away from Sarah.

"What are you-"

He slashed his own palm, a perfect line of red, and held it to Sarah's mouth. The woman grinned, her mouth stained, the blood on her face like cheap rouge.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" The woman dropped her eyes, oozing sweetness, the kind that tasted of sugar on the tongue but soured the stomach.

"Oh, yes," he replied in that too-soft voice. "After all, we've got her mother's blessing."

6.      Die, die, my soul, and never taste of joy,
        If sighs nor tears nor vows nor prayers can move,
        If faith and zeal be but esteemed a toy,
        And kindness be unkindness in my love.
        Then with unkindness, Love, revenge thy wrong,
        O sweet'st revenge that e'er the heavens gave!

After everything fell apart, Justine lit two candles everyday. Her apartment wasn't a church and the candles were left over from Julia's influence on her life -- a pair of apple green pillars from Garden Botanika. She lit them anyway, put them on her windowsill and did not pray.

She didn't drink, or smoke, or fight, or look for things to kill, or any of the things she'd done when Julia died. Instead, she sat very still, on the bare floor, in the quiet center of her room. Her rage was gone, her hate, the thing that kept her moving when nothing else could had failed her now. She didn't care. She didn't feel enough to care, and truth be told, after feeling so much for so long, she kind of liked the absence of it.

She supposed she'd come full circle, though this wasn't the way she'd have chosen to do it. So, what came next? She wasn't sure. Since Julia died, she'd kept moving. It had been the only thing that kept her alive.

And, now, she'd stopped.

She didn't have to be a genius to figure out what that meant. Even after Julia, even right after, she hadn't really wanted to die. She hadn't much cared whether she lived, but that was a very different thing.

And then, for the second time in two days, somebody knocked on the door. Justine hadn't answered it yesterday, had remained seated on the floor and pretended not to hear. Aubrey had dropped by a few days earlier, too. She'd banged on the door for a full ten minutes before giving up. She'd started with pleas and concern and gotten all the way to "Damn it, you owe me an explanation," before realizing Justine was never going to answer.

Today, though, Justine opened the door at the first knock, only to discover it wasn't Aubrey. She recognized the man at her door, knew he had been with Holtz's little army, but was strangely embarrassed to realize she couldn't remember his name.

"Yes?"

"So it is true," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Some people said you left town. I didn't believe it."

"Well, good for you," she replied, feeling a little more like her old self. "Was there something you wanted?"

"Yeah. To give you this." He handed her a matchbook from a bar downtown. She stared at it, glossy and red with a logo that would have been cool maybe ten years ago, in the palm of her hand.

"Thanks, but I'm trying to quit."

He ignored that. "The address is on the back. Big vamp hang-out. You know the sort of place. Some of us are going there tonight."

Justine blinked once, then looked slowly down at the matchbook again.

"Look. I just thought you'd want to know. Not all of us have given up, you know," he said and left. She shut the door behind him and dropped the matches onto her coffee table.

It had to be a trick, of course, and even if it wasn't they'd never be equal to that many vampires all at once.

She picked up a pen and copied the address down anyway.

She wandered over to the window, sitting on the sill, passing her hand idly over the flame of first one candle, then the other. Decisions, decisions. Stay here and wait for a knock on the door that was never coming, or go down fighting? Neither option sounded particularly attractive. Without really thinking about it, she stood up, walked over to the tiny storage closet in the hallway. She rummaged through until she found another candle. It was green, too, but darker. She set it on the windowsill and didn't light it.

She didn't light it all afternoon. She wandered around the apartment, tidying up, folding her clothes, finding the little case of make-up she'd tossed under the bed months ago (Daniel hadn't liked her wearing any). Finally, just as the sun was about to set, she walked back out to the living room and picked up the book of matches.

She lit the third candle and went to wash her face.

*

The day they buried Caroline, Bella prayed for rain. She asked God to open up the heavens and pour it down. She didn't ask for forty days or forty nights, just one day, one hour. Swallowed up completely, that was what she wanted.

When the hour came to put Caroline in the ground, it drizzled.

Bella stood with her family, veiled against the light rain, and wished disaster upon Daniel Holtz's head. George stood beside her, his hand at her elbow. He was pale with grief, and she knew he'd always loved Caroline best. That had never been a secret between them and she had never been jealous. At least not much.

The caskets were closed. There had been no viewing, not even for the family. Bella thought it likely for the best. She feared the bloodthirsty priests Daniel had brought from Rome, feared what strange ritual they might have performed on her sister and the children. A shaken George had whispered to her that Sarah's coffin was so light he couldn't imagine she was even in it.

On reflection, it wouldn't have surprised Bella if she were not. Ten years as Daniel Holtz's sister-in-law had brought stranger stories to her ears.

He didn't even notice the rain (it really wasn't much more than a light mist), didn't notice much of anything. He was cold as ever, reserved and apart from them all. Bella had never liked her sister's husband, proud, prickly man that he was. But in that moment she hated him.

This was all his doing, and he'd never even shed a tear.

He'd known this would happen, Bella was convinced. He'd known the risks and gone hunting the devil anyway. He'd killed Caroline, not some phantom. They all had. She and George had known, had seen what was coming and done nothing but talk. Bella would go to her own grave regretting that.

"Bella, dearest." George took her arm more firmly and steered her forward. He nodded toward the graves, where her parents were trickling dirt on the coffins. George gently pressed some into her palm. Bella looked up and met Daniel's eyes. What she saw there would be all the explanation she would ever need for the things that came later.

It was, however, too little and far too late. Perhaps he had loved Caroline, perhaps not. All that was clear was that he hadn't loved her enough, or that he had loved himself too much. And that Bella would never forgive.

She cast down the fistful of dirt and wished to see him in hell.

*

He missed newspapers in Quor-toth, though he'd hardly had time to adjust to the idea of them. Now, holding the L.A. Times, newsprint on his hands, he finds he has to sit down.

There is much he doesn't remember. Details, faces, facts all fade. His memories are a snarl, a coil, twisted in upon themselves and too hard to untangle. He has too many memories of too many different times, different worlds.

He does, however, remember the date.

The date, the day, the hour. He was cast into the pit and came forth whole. It's been less than a fortnight here, a handful of days.

Steven doesn't understand. How could he? The boy knows everything and nothing. The boy. His boy. And yet not his. He wonders if that feeling of same-but-different will ever fade. He thinks it will not.

He does love the boy, though. With an unusual ferocity. He suspects the reason behind this but never really thinks it. Never admits it. Not even to himself. But it is interesting, this love. Unique.

He followed the boy out of hell; he follows him through the city now. He hopes that, in the end, the boy will follow the path he has chosen.

*

So, she'd been wrong. Justine had been wrong quite a lot lately, though this was the first time the realization of the mistake had come to her courtesy of quite so much broken glass. The irony of earning seven years' bad luck was not lost on her either. But, her more immediate concerns were these: First, she'd been wrong. She didn't want to die. Rather strongly, which was surprising but pleasing. Second, she was injured, outmatched and very, very stupid to have come here alone.

And so, she found herself face-down in a puddle of spilled liquor and shards of glass, wondering what the hell she'd been thinking. Someone hauled her to her feet. She wasn't sure whether it was one of the vampires or Angelus (a weird distinction to make, but what the hell) and she honestly wasn't sure which would be worse. She half-expected to feel heavy hands around her throat (always throats and necks with these people), half-expected someone to snap her neck. She didn't expect the kid, hands on her shoulders, looking at her like he'd never seen anything quite like her before. He stared at her and she was dimly aware of fighting and screaming and then something broke above their heads and they ran.

But she couldn't stop staring, and neither could he, standing there stupidly, the kid looking down at her like Sir fucking Galahad. She went cold.

Oh, god. It couldn't be. But Daniel was all over him like fingerprints.

The boy held onto her, something like recognition sparking in his eyes, which was not only impossible but weird as hell. But, then, she'd recognized him. She would have known him anywhere, even without Angelus there. And then Angelus was there, right there, shoving the kid out of the way and, god help her, she flinched. She ran when he told her to, tripping over her own feet and looking back at the kid who'd saved her life, who shouldn't have even existed to do so.

Outside she stopped, leaned against a parked car and forced herself not to think. Because, if Connor... if he, then maybe Daniel and she absolutely couldn't consider that. She didn't want to think it, didn't want to know. She really, really just wanted this to be over and she almost wished she'd wanted to die in there. Because then she wouldn't be here, about to do what she was going to do and hating herself the whole way.

She imagined herself going home, imagined herself locking the door, sleeping away the weekend and then, on Monday, getting the number of a really excellent shrink. Instead, she stayed put, lit a cigarette and waited.

She didn't have to wait long.

Daniel liked to consider himself clever, but really, in some ways he was very predictable. Of course he was right there. There wasn't anywhere else he would be. She knew him too well to think otherwise. When he left, she followed him. She was kind of predictable herself sometimes.

She followed Daniel to a second-rate motel and waited some more. She had another cigarette. Eventually, the kid came storming out of the room. Justine dropped the smoke immediately, stamping on it to keep him from seeing the flame. He stopped abruptly and for a half-second she thought maybe he had seen her. He looked around, casting his gaze over her chosen shadow and she had the unsettling feeling that he could see in the dark. Just like dear, old dad. That was nice and creepy. But he shook his head and went sprinting off.

Justine looked up at the motel room door and tried to decide what she ought to do. Well, she knew what she ought to do. She also knew what she was going to do. She had to see him, to talk to him again.

She wanted answers, she wanted absolution, she wanted assurance. She wanted, she wanted. Something. Anything. His blood, a fight, a pound of flesh. She wanted to hear his voice again.

She'd kick the door down if she had to.

7.      Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath,
        When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
        When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
        And Innocence is closing up his eyes.
        Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
        From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.

He knows her but he doesn't.

She's the same but different, like Steven. He feels he ought to know her. He feels he ought to remember her name.

Her memory is all tangled up with another and after so long he can't pull the threads apart. Memories, senses, of skin and words and taste and vows. Of blood and dust, sweat and whispers, of gunpowder and eiderdown.

Something broke in him years ago and the words no longer speak in his head. Not as they used to. Some are lost, some are changed. Meanings altered, memories popped like soap bubbles.

But she says his name and that's almost familiar.

"Daniel," she says, and he knows her but the color of her eyes is wrong.

And anyway it can't be, because she's dead. He cut out her heart and put her in the ground. He knows he did. He held her close and smelled the blood on her and knew she was dead. He took her heart because he had to. He needed it to save her, to seek out those responsible. And now he knows he remembers it because it's about Angelus. Those memories remain, because he spoke them aloud. To the boy. Passed them on by repetition.

Her hands are on him then. Her arms around his neck, and she looks like she can't quite decide whether to kiss him or tell him to go straight back to hell. He knows that look, that touch, but not well enough to speak it.

He looks at her and tries to tell her that he's been lost, tries to explain. Tries to tell her that she shouldn't be here because he buried her a long time ago.

The words cut her when he speaks them and he realizes that he's got this all wrong.

She starts to back away. But he knows she can't go, can't be allowed, even if he doesn't quite know why.

But that's not quite true, because maybe she is who he thinks she is. It wouldn't surprise him so much after all. Maybe things are different than the way he remembers them. It wouldn't be the first time. Or maybe she always was right there beside him, alive and warm and he just never noticed.

It's fitting anyway, that now, at the end of it all, he has to bury her again.

*

He kept the knife, the one they used to cut out Caroline's heart. Kept it for years, across continents, across seas. He could not keep it with him across time, but by then it hardly mattered.

She hadn't been turned, that much was clear, but they took her heart anyway. There were rituals to be followed, forms to be maintained. Her sister knew, he could see that much at the funeral. She had looked at him and understood. She had understood and hated him for it. He understood that. He hated himself. But the fact remained that he'd had no choice. There were some things that were beyond his control. It was not for him to ask why, not for him to decide what and when and how.

This knowing, though, did not keep him from revenge.

That was a sin and he understood that as well. But faced with a choice between two evils he took the one more likely to give him some measure of satisfaction. He would deal with the consequences later, if there ever were a later. At times it felt as though the future was endless and he would sleep without ever waking.

At times it felt as though maybe this was hell.

Hell for him was to be motionless, to be always waiting. To be out of control, helpless. He was not, however, hopeless. And that one fact was what allowed him to keep his reason, his sanity. Because hell was a place without motion, but also without hope. So in those moments when he was most convinced, there in the dark, in the silence, that he had been tricked and this was hell, he held on to hope. The hope of justice, or revenge, of equilibrium.

He held on while he waited. While he waited for the beginning. While he waited to be reborn.

*

He vanished from the world as though he'd never been and Bella should have been glad of it. But she wasn't. She had to sit when she heard the news, felt strangely empty afterward; the ache in her chest almost worse than when Caroline died.

Perhaps, because without Daniel there was no one left to blame. Or perhaps, it was because with him gone (vanished in the night, they said, without a word, without a trace) it was though Caroline had never been.

She wasn't surprised at the news. Quite the opposite. Somehow she'd known this day would come and had been dreading it for nearly ten years.

She understood, somehow, why he'd done it but that didn't mean she would ever forgive it. Selfish man, proud man. He'd learned nothing, though Caroline had given her life to teach him. Bella would have said these things aloud but now there was no one left to contradict her, no quiet voice to tell her she was mistaken, that he was good and true and misunderstood. There was no longer anyone to make Daniel's excuses for him.

And perhaps that, really, was why he ran away.

Bella understood this as well and wished she did not. It would have been much easier to simply hate him. She resented him, she held him responsible, but most of all she pitied him. Brought so low and all alone and no one to blame but himself. Well, perhaps that was not quite true. She heard the whispers of where he'd gone and why. She knew the truth of them from Caroline. But Bella did not believe that he would find absolution on that path. She also believed that she would probably never see him alive again.

She was right.

Time wore on, Daniel never returned, and nothing could stop the years from going as quickly as they came. She had George and he had her, and the rest of the world slowly fell away. She felt somehow as though they were the sole survivors of some great and destructive war, even though they'd been little more than spectators. They were the only ones who knew the truth of things, pieces of the truth at least. The rest was filled in with guesses and maybes and things left forever unsaid.

Bella loved her sister and knew the hurt would never leave her completely. But she also knew it would fade, that years and distance would blunt the edges and make it bearable. That someday the happier times would seem the stranger memory. She believed that someday she would see Caroline again. She believed that someday Daniel would as well. She wondered if he would be ready for that day when it came.

*

Death is at his door, and she is lovely. He remembers why he liked her. He remembers a great many things. She gives him back his clarity. Or perhaps it's simply the knowing, at last, of what must be done that returns it. Whatever, however, he's grateful for it.

There's ink on his hands, blue and black and a red that stains the same color as the paint on her lips. He reaches up to wipe it away and she doesn't flinch. She smells of sweat, leather and smoke; she smells of sin and that's fitting.

She was a sin, one in a long line. The boy is his last, unpardonable. He fears it, but he's committed to it. It's the only way. He can see that she sees it, too. He can see she doesn't want to be the one, but it has to be. He must ask her this last thing. Because, where else could they go, after this? How else could things be? There is no other ending. Not if he wants what is best for his boy, for himself.

He told her of his love for the boy and it hurt her and attracted her all at once. Hurt her because hers is the sort of love that does not like sharing. Attracted her because it's all that's left of the things he promised her. He wonders if, perhaps, she will watch over the boy after he's gone. It will depend, he thinks, on which is stronger, her jealousy or her devotion. Whichever wins out in the end, she will do as she's promised him. Of that he has no doubt. She takes her promises seriously. This is another thing about her he remembers, another reason he liked her. He's glad he remembers that now. Is glad, here at the end of everything, that he remembers her.

Here at the end, he remembers Caroline. Though it's been a long time since he thought of her that way, the way she really was and not the way he chose to see her. He remembers Sarah, in bits and snatches, a laugh, a smile, a hand in his. He remembers his son, his first.

But most of all he remembers Steven. His/not-his, but more a part of him than any of the others. He knows this is ironic but he's beyond caring.

The city is screaming around them and his back is up against the wall. He wonders if she's thinking about the first time they spoke. Probably. He hurt her then but those were the sort of wounds that healed. These are not. Steven probably won't ever heal from this either and he feels guilt over that for a moment.

But only for a moment.

Because he knows that this is for the best. Tenderness has no place here with everything at stake. But she touches him, a hand on his face and an arm around him, and he has to thank her. Has to. Before things fade. Before the end of it all.

8.      Or if no thing but death will serve thy turn, 
        Still thirsting for subversion of my state, 
        Do what thou canst, rase, massacre and burn, 
        Let the world see the utmost of thy hate; 
        I send defiance, since, if overthrown, 
        Thou vanquishing, the conquest is my own. 

Daniel was dead and all she could think was that there should have been more blood.

Justine stroked a hand over his hair and it was funny because he never would have let her hold him this way if he'd been alive. Daniel's embraces had always been severe, a matter of strength, testing her limits, finding her boundaries and breaking through them. She wasn't sure how long she sat there before... Footsteps. And somehow she knew without knowing how, knew that it was the kid. Connor. Steven. Whatever. She didn't want to look up and see him but knew she'd have to eventually. She could only raise her head once he was inches from them.

He pulled his father to his chest. She knew what she was supposed to do, the things she was supposed to say -- but they stuck in her throat. She couldn't seem to stop the tears, couldn't quite seem to play her part. The boy sat beside her in the dirty alley and didn't say anything either.

She opened her mouth to speak, unsure of just what, if anything, she could make herself say. But the boy cut her off, letting go of Daniel and kneeling beside her.

"I know," he said, apropos of nothing, a strange and distant expression on his face. Shock. It had to be.

"What do you know?" She expected him to question her at least a little. About who she was, what she was doing here. She had ready answers for him, but he didn't ask.

"I know you."

"Yes, from before. At the club..."

He shook his head as if to say that wasn't what he meant. "You know Angelus, you knew my father."

"Yes," she replied carefully, not quite sure where he was going with this.

"Good."

*

She calls him by his right name when she touches him. A soft hand on his shoulder.

(Two names, two fathers, two worlds. Nothing fits.)

Women are softer, he knew that already. His father taught him the difference. Women are softer, prettier, sweeter, milder. Quieter, obedient.

This one, though, is angry. (Sunny had been sad.) Both were still soft, like he'd expected. He's glad of that.

Pretty. That hair. Reminds him. Better not to think of that just now. There are things. Things to be done, to be set right.

(Oh God...)

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he wishes he knew the prayers better. But his father had always been there to lead him over the difficult words and so he hadn't ever had to learn and maybe that's the whole point.

"What is it?" Her voice is softer than before, and that's more like what he wants to hear. "Whatever it is you want to do, tell me and I'll help you." Her hand moves to his wrist, covers it with a gentle palm. "With anything."

"Why?" he asks and his voice is small and cracked like when he'd been little and the howls had scared him in the night.

"Because." She moves closer and kneels down, wiping his face the way his father had so long ago, the way he would have again if he could. "Because I promised I would."

He doesn't ask who she promised. He doesn't have to.

His father is heavy in his lap and somehow he's crying again. She moves away a little, like maybe it's hard for her to watch this. She looks at him again and opens her mouth to say something, then closes it. When she speaks next, he's fairly certain it isn't what she was originally going to say. Instead she tells him again the things Angelus did, the things his father said. He believes her because her words sound like his father's words.

"This is all my fault," he says and his voice is very far away.

"No, it isn't." But he can't help thinking she sounds like she's trying to convince herself.

He has to know. "You said you'd help me. How will you help me? What will you help me do?" How far will you go? He wants to hear the words again.

"I told you. I'll help you kill him."

*

"Fire. There has to be fire. It's the only way to be sure."

This was too hard.

Too much, too fast. Justine really, really needed to get far away from this kid. He spooked her and, face it, that was saying something. He also looked at her like he could see all the way through her, inside her, to the bone and that scared the hell out of her. He scared the hell out of her.

But, then, she'd promised.

Daniel burned like a torch and lit up the night sky. She had to turn away, but Steven kept watching, rapt until the fire began to die down. She stumbled a few steps into darkness, away from the heat, toward the cool night shadows. The too-sweet smoke from the fire churned her stomach and set the world to dizzily spinning. She was numb with shock, exhaustion, maybe a little fatigue thrown in for good measure. She'd fueled the entire night on two beers and a half-pack of smokes. She realized she was shaking, sat down on the running board of their stolen truck, pressed her knees together and folded her hands in her lap.

"Are you all right?" His shadow fell over her and she looked up. The fire had almost burned itself out and the embers sent odd flickers over his face in the dark.

"Maybe you should drive," she said and began to laugh. Too hard.

His expression was earnest, too serious. "I don't know how."

"I know, I- Just never mind, okay?"

He seemed a little abashed at that and sat down beside her. "I would learn," he said solemnly, "if you think it's important."

"No- No, I was just making a joke. A bad joke." She looked sideways at him and saw her own desperation reflected in his eyes. And for a half-second she entertained the notion of jumping into the truck and driving off, leaving him here. But she caught hold of the thought and held it down until the moment passed.

"Come on," she said, standing up. "You want to do this thing of yours, we've got a lot to do before morning."

"Okay." He followed her unquestioningly and clambered up into the passenger's side of the cab.

He didn't say much on the way back into the city. He kind of curled up and in on himself, even after she made him put on his seatbelt. He couldn't figure out how the damned thing worked and she'd had to pull over to the side of the road and show him how to fasten it. He turned away from her after that and watched the darkness whiz by outside the window.

Which gave Justine time to think.

Did she really want to hurt Angelus? Yeah, probably. But without Daniel she wasn't sure any longer how far she was willing to go to do it. The idea was curiously freeing. There was nothing binding her to this. Nothing but her promise to a dead man, to a man who had loved this fucked up kid more than he'd ever bothered to love her. By the time they were back in the city and cruising down Sepulveda, she'd half-decided to drop Steven off at his motel and never come back.

But then the kid turned toward her, away from the window. He was crying again -- silent, raw tears. She wasn't even sure he knew he was crying. He put his hand beside hers on the gearshift and looked up at her like they were on the Titanic and she had the last lifeboat. Guilt stole her breath and she had to look away, back at the road before she killed them both. Her resolve crumbled. All right. So she'd stay with him just a little longer. Just until the deed was done, till she'd done what she promised Daniel. But then the kid was on his own.

*

He wonders why she chose this place for their meeting. Somewhere closer to the hotel would have been better, but perhaps she fears being seen. That makes sense, he supposes. And still, as nervous as he is, as pressed for time as they are, this place leaves him equally awed and unnerved.

"It's a little overwhelming, I know," she says from behind him, and he pauses to memorize the sound of her footfalls so he'll know them in the dark.

"I was wondering," he traces a finger over the mural without turning to her, "who this is supposed to be."

"I don't know," she admits, stepping up to stand with her shoulder to his. Her shoulder barely comes up past his elbow, though. "A saint probably? But I'm not sure which one."

"Steven was a saint... only I think it was spelled differently. My father told me the story. They killed him with rocks. Lots of those stories end that way, with rocks or lions... or fire." He stops for a moment, not thinking about burning or funeral pyres. "I don't think this is him, though."

"Is that why he picked that name for you? I wondered."

He's mildly surprised at that. "You were there when he named me?"

She turns to him, an odd expression on her face. "Yes, I was."

"But you're so young."

"He didn't explain-? No, why would he." She laughs, a little bitterly, to herself. "Never mind. It was a stupid question."

"No, it- I don't know why he chose the name. He never told me."

She smiles at him and it feels grateful, even though there's still something a little angry, a little hurt, behind it.

He hasn't stopped to consider before now how this girl (woman? She's older than he is, but he can't tell by how much, or even if they count those things the same way here.), how this girl knew his father. Or why she loved him, because it's obvious she did. Loving his father just seemed natural and so, naturally, everyone else who knew him would have loved him, too.

He wonders if he should ask. Or maybe she'll tell him when she's ready. Or maybe he's supposed to understand already and it's just another one of the things about this world he doesn't get.

He has the beginnings of an idea of who she might be, though. But he also suspects it's not the sort of question you ask of a lady you've just met. His father taught him proper manners, after all. Even if he never had the chance to practice them.

He asks her about the boat instead.

"Yes, I got it." She still isn't sure about any of this, he can read that behind her eyes. But then he realizes that isn't quite true. There's something else. Maybe she's sure she wants to see Angelus hurt. Maybe she's sure she wants to see a little bit of justice finally done. He can sympathize. "It wasn't easy, but things should be ready by tomorrow." She gives him a sidelong glance, like maybe she's having second thoughts about letting the teenage kid call the shots.

"No. Tonight."

"What?"

"It has to be. Get everything ready for tonight. We won't get another chance."

She looks at him doubtfully, like she'd love to know how he knows that. But she doesn't say anything. Instead, she nods, squeezes his elbow and shows him again how to use the tiny phone she gave him.

"Just press that button and you'll be able to talk right to me. Don't forget."

"I won't." He hopes he doesn't. The things she's given him are all hard metal, with too many buttons, and smells and sounds that don't make sense. They are unfeminine things, not the sort of gifts he would have asked of her. He understands, though, why they need to use them. This was his idea, after all.

He realizes he's staring when she shifts away from him uncomfortably. He looks away quickly.

"We'd better go," she says and starts to walk away from him.

"Why did you want to come here?" That stops her. He wants to reach out and touch her but it feels wrong here somehow.

"Your father used to bring me here." A pause. "It just seemed right."

He nods and she begins to walk again. He follows in her wake. She stops to light a candle before they leave, her head bowed for a moment, eyes closed and hand trembling a little over the flame.

He waits while she does it, then takes her by the wrist and leads the way out into the sun.


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