He looked up. Among his own people he was called First One--for he was above all the others, with the exception of Him, who needed no designation.
"First One," the henchman said. He, like all underlings, had no native name. He didn't need one. He was replaceable. "The informant--we have gathered some fascinating news--"
"Oh?" First One looked over, sufficiently piqued in interest to pay attention to the underling. He swivelled the chair around. "Is it about their new arrival?"
"Indeed it is, sir," the underling nodded vigorously. "Shall I bring the human in, sir?"
"Of course." First One turned back to his computer, to continue with his labours. The underling bowed and left.
Within a few moments he was back. The human was in chains, ripped, and bleeding; it was found that continual wounds created obedience faster than purely psychological tactics. Humans, for some reason, just couldn't stand to watch, or feel, themselves bleed.
"Human," First One said, standing up, "what was it you found out?"
"Go to hell," the human snapped. He was a younger male, a class known for its stubbornness, lack of reason, and hostility. He struggled against his chains, even though the movement opened blisters and sores around his wrists. "I'm not helping you!"
"Now, now--" First One crouched by the human, and fingered the tag that was pinned to the human's shirt, "--Gerald, I'm sure we both know how futile this is."
"Go to hell," Gerald said, in a low tone, almost a growl.
"This human is been--" the underling began.
"Has been, lowerform, has been," First One corrected, his gaze never wavering. "Haven't you learned language yet?"
"Of course. Has been. This human," the underling continued, his voice almost concealing a note of terror at his mistake, "has been most stubborn. He has never, once, cooperated with us."
"How long have you been here, Gerald?" First One asked, smiling slightly. Gerald stared straight back at him.
"Six months," he said, triumphantly. First One was actually surprised; that was a long time even to live in the compound, never mind fighting the entire time.
"He is a hero, among the other humans," the underling added. "Sir."
"Hero, eh?" First One stood up. "Really. They still worship rebels and survivors?"
First One made a thoughtful noise, his hands clasped behind his back as he regarded the pitiful human. "How unevolved. I hate this place, lowerform. Humans disgust me."
"They would disgust any one with a degree of understanding or simple taste, sir."
"How true." First One thought for a moment, and then crouched down again. "You heard from the informant, Gerald?"
"Hell, yes, I should have seen that coming." First One sighed.
"It's his favourite expression," the underling offered. First One waved him silent.
"Now, Gerald, if you heard from the informant, then I want to know exactly what you heard." First One reached out and grabbed the chain that was around the human's neck. "It's no good withholding the information, we'll get it out of you one way or another."
The human nodded, fearfully, and then leaned forward. First One leaned in as well.
"Go to hell, you bastards," Gerald whispered, then spat in First One's face.
The underling looked horrified and yanked the human back on his chain. Gerald gargled as his windpipe was hampered by the shackle; he was starting to turn blue.
First One reached inside his jacket to pull out a tissue, which he used to wipe off the spittle from his face. "Admirable." He stood up, looking down at the human with disgust. He gestured slightly with one hand for the underling to raise the human to his feet. "If one cares to worship rebels and survivors, of course."
The human was dragged up, and forced to stand.
First One held onto him by the chin with one hand. "You, Gerald, are setting a very bad example." He activated his powers, assuming the half-form shape. Gerald flinched momentarily at the sight of the fangs, and the black, iris-less eyes. First One reached out with his free hand, touching the human on the temple. This one was stubborn; his mental powers were strong, as was his will to survive, and the mental walls he had created were extraordinary--First One pushed harder and then his hand disappeared within the human's head, creating a mental link.
Tell me what you know, First One commanded. It was a hard struggle to not simply take over the human's body, as was normal procedure; however, that would not gain them access to his mind, and so any information would still be secret.
"I won't tell," Gerald whispered, his eyes glassy, his body shaking, fighting the strain.
"He is still fighting?" the underling whispered, wide-eyed. "Impossible!"
"Gerald is unusually strong. Has he sired any off-spring?" First One asked, conversationally.
"No, we were unsure of whether to use him for stock, as his stubbornness--"
"Stubbornness can be trained out, from birth." First One narrowed his eyes, concentrating harder. Tell me what you heard, human! The human strained, until, like a rope breaking, his resolve snapped. His mind was under First One's control.
"I heard them singing," Gerald whispered, tears building in his eyes. "I heard them yelling."
"Who?" First One asked out loud. He nodded to the underling, who nodded back, his confidence in his superior restored.
"The angels. I heard the angels singing."
"That's what he was yelling when we found him," the underling explained. "Apparently, there was a burst of communication from the informant that all the receivers picked up on, but only this male could make out what the fuss was."
"Which was?" First One inquired, looking to the human.
"She's gone," Gerald said, his voice wispy. The pressure that First One was putting on his mind was intense. An ordinary human would not even have known what First One was doing; they would have just felt compelled to obey him. Gerald knew. Gerald was fighting. "She's gone. She's run away. Why doesn't she trust us? She's gone, she's gone, she's gone--"
First One yanked his hands away from the human. Gerald gave a little cry then toppled backwards, holding his head, shaking and trembling. He was ignored by his captors. "Their new recruit. She's run away. Who are our operatives in the area?"
"Uh--I'm not sure off the top of my head, sir."
"Activate them. She must be very important to them, if they have wasted this much time and resources on securing her. If she is important to them, then she is important to us." First One smiled. "Don't have her harmed. I want her whole."
"She was already injured, Sir," the underling felt the need to report. "But not fatally so."
First One's smile faltered. "Injured?"
"Preliminary wound, sir. In the shoulder. To create the fear."
"Ah, yes. Well, that doesn't really count. Just don't injure her any more." First One nodded. Then he turned sharply. "That is all, lower being."
"Of course, sir. I was just--curious--" the underling trailed off and then kicked Gerald in the ribs. The human groaned and glanced up, scowling, at the underling.
"Ah. Yes. Gerald. Have his DNA collected for testing, then execute him and display his remains in the feeding area." First One chuckled. "That ought to stop the hero worship in its tracks."
Gerald paled, but then actually smiled, astounding both his captors.
"Why are you smiling, you stupid human?" the underling asked, with another savage kick to the male's ribs.
Gerald's grinned deepened. "Ever heard of martyrs?"
First One didn't reply. He knew what a martyr was--some sort of cult member--but didn't know the significance. His eyes narrowed.
"We'll beat you yet," Gerald said, his voice low, still grinning. The underling grabbed him by the chains and pulled him to his feet. "You can't win."
First One waited until the human was gone, then rolled his eyes. "Idiot human. What does he know?"
Jill woke up, sitting up suddenly in bed, ready to bolt. They were all around her, they were going to get her, they were going to kill her--blood was streaming down her shoulder--
She stopped, breathing hard. She was in her apartment. Greg was sprawled asleep next to her. It was raining--it always seemed to be raining--and she could hear it pattering against the patio glass.
There was nothing there. There was nothing to be afraid of.
She felt her shoulder, gingerly. It wasn't bleeding, it seemed to be healing well.
She sighed, and lay down again, snuggling next to Greg who mumbled something and threw his arm over her. She drifted off to sleep, safe in her own apartment, safe at last.
"You know, I was thinking," Greg said, one Sunday afternoon. They were sitting on the couch, enjoying the weekend paper. Jill was stretched out, her feet resting across Greg's legs. "I know you say you're fine--" she started to protest, dropping the paper, but he held up a hand to stop her. "--but I think maybe you need a bit more rest."
"My shoulder's fine," Jill retorted.
"That's not the point." He sighed, and rubbed one of her feet, almost absentmindedly. "Jill, you've been waking up with these nightmares for the past week. It doesn't take a Freud to know that you're still frightened, no matter how much you protest otherwise." He paused. "Honey?"
"What do you expect me to say?" she asked, in a small voice. "Yes, I'm still frightened, occasionally, that they're going to find me and--"
"They're not going to find you," Greg told her, reassuringly. "They're only two-bit crooks. They wouldn't know where to begin looking."
"Yeah," Jill agreed in a tiny voice.
"Maybe--maybe if we told the police it would give you some
"No!" Jill sat upright, grabbing his arm, tightly. "No police. Okay? No police."
"You know they didn't buy the story about you visiting your mother and forgetting to tell me," Greg snapped, irritated. "I don't see why you don't want to find these guys and get them arrested. They can't hurt you any more, Jill. It's not like they were connected to the Mob, or something."
"Maybe they were," she suggested, hesitantly.
"Jill..." He sighed, then shook his head. "We're getting off-topic again. What I originally wanted to say was, I think we should go away for a few days. Get you out of the city. Maybe go back to Birchen."
She considered that. "It would be nice," she agreed. "To get out of the city, I mean."
"I know how much you hate it here," Greg said, sorrowfully, "but I have to stay, for my job. Once I get enough start-up cash, we'll move somewhere smaller. I promise." She sat up, and leaned forward to kiss him.
"I know, honey, I know," she said, with a sigh. "When were you thinking?"
"Of going away...?" she prompted.
"Oh! Right. That was silly of me--I was thinking, maybe next weekend. I could take a couple of sick days, maybe Thursday, Friday and Monday--have an extra long weekend. They'll understand. I mean, after all you've been through--" He started to say more but she cut him off.
"That'll be great, really," Jill said, hurriedly. "I'd love to go."
"Great." He smiled and kissed her again. "It's a date." He picked up the paper again and started reading. Jill didn't; she sat, for a moment, looking at him, and then swung her legs off his lap. He looked up, confused.
"I'm going to get another cup of coffee," she explained. She got up and headed to the kitchen, feeling chills running along her spine. She hadn't told Greg the truth, he wouldn't have believed her. He believed that she was caught up in a robbery and then the bungling crooks brought her along as a hostage; she had actually picked that up from a newspaper headline that was lying in the gutter when she was on her way home. It was the perfect cover story, believable, with a precedent, hard not to accept and even harder to disprove.
She felt dreadful lying to Greg. She didn't want to have to, but she knew that he wouldn't accept the truth. He couldn't--it was not possible for him to believe without seeing, and he would never see. She would just have to live with this lie.
But that wasn't so bad, was it? She hadn't wanted to believe in it at the time. Even when it was happening to her it didn't seem real. Her lies were more like reality than the truth.
She poured herself the cup of coffee, her hand shaking.
What if they came after her?
They knew where she lived, she was sure of it. They had to. They knew her name, they had known where to find her, just as the vampires were attacking--it would be foolish to assume they didn't know where she lived. Besides, they had seen her wallet and they still had keys--at least the keys to the old locks--thank god Greg hadn't taken much persuasion to change them.
She took a sip of the coffee, black, wrinkling her nose at the sharpness of the taste.
It had been a couple weeks. If they were going to kidnap her, why hadn't they done so?
She sat down at the kitchen table. The only sounds that she could hear was her own heart beating, loud in her ears, and the quiet rustle of Greg reading the paper. It was too quiet, too still.
Jill reached over and turned on the small tv that was mounted under one of the shelves. It was there so that they could watch tv while preparing dinner, waiting for the stove, chopping vegetables, that sort of thing.
As the picture flipped on, she realised she was watching a special bulletin of the news. A young man--the reporter--was explaining about a sudden fire that had broken out downtown. Several people had been killed or seriously wounded--and the police were suspecting arson.
The fire chief came over to be interviewed by the young reporter. He sounded disgusted with the carnage that he and his men had been forced to witness inside the blackened shell of the building.
Jill barely heard a word he said. All she was aware of was the reporter's fangs, the Chief's iris-less eyes, the savagery that was written across their features.
The cup dropped, spilling down over the table, splashing over the top and all over Jill. She gasped, standing up with the shock; luckily for her the coffee wasn't very hot, having been standing on the counter for a while. It hurt, but she wasn't scalded.
Cursing and muttering under her breath, she started to head from the kitchen to change her shirt. Then she stopped and turned back to regard the television.
She paused for a moment, then reached over to turn the tv off, silencing the vampire delivering the news.
"I have located the operatives in the area, Sir," the underling reported with a bow. First One swivelled around in his chair to face him. He hoped he wouldn't have to get up, he was rather comfortable. And hearing good news put him in an even better mood.
"Excellent. How many are there?"
"There is normally five, however, sir, three have been called away to deal with the relocation of station ten." The underling scratched his nose, a slight human affectation. "They are available for back-up, sir, should two not be enough to recapture the human."
First One made a thoughtful noise, staring off into the distance. The underling checked over his shoulder, wondering what his superior was staring at; there was no one in the office but themselves.
"I wonder," First One began, his eyes narrowing, "why, exactly, she's so important to them."
"Sir?" the underling asked, hesitantly. First One sighed.
"If I may speak freely--I don't believe that she is that important to them, sir." The underling snapped to attention, fearing the worst. Contradicting First One was not a task to be undertaken lightly. "That is to say, sir, that they have not made any attempt to recapture her. Sir."
First One blinked. "No attempt at all?"
"Hmmm." He leaned back, in the comfortable leather chair, considering the new information. "Perhaps she's a trap."
"Perhaps they know that we know that she's important to them--they've let her get away on purpose so that we can capture her and bring her back here. No doubt she's a homing beacon of some kind."
"How very devious, sir."
"Yes, They are all like that--no respect for the rules. That's why you constantly have to keep your eye on Them." First One smiled. "Of course, we can't let on that we know that They know that we know. Do you follow, lowerform?"
The underling scratched his nose again. "I don't think so, sir."
"Well, I didn't expect you to. You are just a lower form. Still. I want the human captured anyway--we simply won't bring her back here until we know what it is that she's important for. Understand that, lowerform?"
"Capture human, do not bring to station one, I think I understand that," the underling repeated dutifully. "Sir."
"Good. You may go." First One swivelled back to face his computer. The losses as a result of the explosion at station ten were bad, but not devastating. They still had their informant, at least; as long as they held that, they held the edge.
Jill sighed, and sat the bags down on the side-walk while she rubbed her sore shoulder. It was healing very well, but carrying around the grocery bags was pulling at it, and it was starting to hurt. She wondered, idly, if a wheelbarrow would make the job any easier, then decided against it.
There were another few errands for her to run--several blocks to go before she was home--a few bills to pay--supper to make for Greg if he was home on time--she looked across the street and saw a cute little cafe, with a sidewalk patio and table umbrellas. She sighed, a hand shadowing her eyes as she looked up the sky--not a cloud in sight. No hope of shade. And it was already too hot--
She shrugged to herself. An iced tea wouldn't hurt anyone, least of all her. She wouldn't be long, and besides, if she had a break and something cool to drink, it would help her speed up for the rest of the afternoon.
She looked both ways, then quickly jogged across the street. The bags felt like they were weighted down with bricks; it was a relief when she found a free table--a nice shady one in the corner, surrounded by big potted plants--and she sat down, dumping the bags on the chairs around her table. The table was especially well positioned because it let Jill watch the activity on the street without being too obvious about it. She sighed, settling in, already feeling relaxed.
A waitress noticed her and swerved over. Jill was about to ask for a menu, but the waitress beat her to it.
"Can I talk your order?" she asked, bringing out a small note-pad.
"Um..." Jill's mind went blank. Why should they expect her to order without a menu? Then the waitress seemed to realise what the delay was and pointed at something over Jill's shoulder, towards the cafe itself, and Jill turned to see what it was. It was a blackboard sign, with the day's specials written in chalk. Ice tea wasn't on the list, but there were several other cool drinks and a house-speciality beer. "Oh. Um, I'll have the iced coffee, that sounds good."
"It is," replied someone next to her. She jumped, startled by the familiar voice. She turned back around, slowly.
Keller was sitting next to her as calmly as if she had invited him, as if they were two acquaintances meeting for a drink. "I'll have a beer, please," he said to the waitress, pointing at the menu and the house special. She nodded. If she was surprised at his sudden and silent arrival, she didn't show it; naturally she would have no reason to suspect anything other than Keller and Jill being friends who had decided to meet at the cafe.
"What are you doing here?" Jill demanded, after the waitress was out of earshot. She had to strain to keep her voice down.
Keller shrugged. He was leaning back in the chair, looking as nonchalant as he normally did, although remarkably more casual; he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and a pair of dark sunglasses. He raised the sunglasses for a moment, looking at her, then lowered them again. "Your shoulder is healing well," he remarked.
She bristled. "That's not any of your business." She griped the edge of the table, tightly, to keep from yelling at him to leave her alone. What did he think he was doing? Her life was getting back in order. She was going to be going on a vacation soon, she'd have Greg all to herself again, and she'd be able to put the entire mess behind her and what did Keller think he was doing by stirring it all up again? "What are you doing here?"
"Just having a chat with a friend," he replied, innocently. "What's the matter, Jill? You seem a little tense."
She just glared, thinking horrible thoughts.
He smiled, just slightly, at her reaction to him; the smile quickly faded and left him with his usual sardonic expression. He sighed and looked around the patio. "You'll be happy to know that Grayson's head is doing well. He didn't even need stitches. And I thought that I was the hard-headed one..."
Jill's anger faded, for a moment, as she felt remarkably ashamed--she still felt guilty over having to clout Grayson on the head with a teapot. She knew now, as she did then, that it was necessary, and she'd do it over again, and yet--
She couldn't think of anything to say. Luckily, the waitress chose that moment to appear with their drinks on a serving tray, setting the iced coffee down in front of Jill and a beer and chilled glass in front of Keller. For a moment, there was a reason for Jill not to respond. But then the waitress left, taking her excuse not to talk with her.
"It looked bad for a while there," Keller said, amiably, opening the bottle and pouring himself a glass, and continuing as though nothing was the matter, "and Larkspur kept freaking out. She kept blaming herself. Of course, she was scanning at the time and no one in their right mind could blame her, but try telling her that." He took a sip. "Not thirsty?"
Jill hadn't touched her drink yet. She was still glowering at Keller. "Why are you here?" she asked, again, wrapping her hands around the tall parfait glass. When he didn't respond, she stared at her drink, not willing to make eye contact. The ice cubes were melting rapidly, even in the shade. "Are you here to take me back?"
Keller sighed, and put his beer back on the table. "You were never our prisoner, Jill."
"Felt like it," she retorted, still not willing to meet his gaze.
"You weren't. You were free to go whenever you wanted--and I don't mean by breaking crockery over our heads. We were only keeping you inside because we were worried--worried about your shoulder, about how you were coping--"
"Coping," Jill repeated snidely. "That's an interesting way of putting it. I suppose, if people had bothered to give me any answers, then I would have been coping a lot better."
"Look," Keller snapped, starting to lose his temper before he realised what was happening and calmed himself down. "Look, Jill," he began again, sounding more relaxed, "we haven't had to do this before, except with Grayson, and he was a lot more open-minded--" he paused when he noticed the expression on her face. "I mean, he didn't fight us so much. We want you to join us, Jill, and help us, but it's your choice, and it always has been."
"My choice, huh?" Jill took a sip of her iced coffee, studiously avoiding eye contact. "Then I choose not to join."
Keller sighed, bringing the chair forward so that it rested on the ground again. "I had a feeling you were going to be like this."
"Like what?" she demanded, frostily.
"Stubborn. Look, I can't make you join, and I wouldn't anyway. I was just sent to ask. That's all I am these days, glorified messenger boy," he replied, sounding bitter.
"I feel for you," she answered, heavy on the sarcasm. He ignored her, and instead reached inside his pocket.
He drew out a small leather case that resembled a very small, very flat wallet; he flipped it open and withdrew a card, handing it to her. She didn't touch it. "Take that. And don't throw it out--it's important. Think about this, Jill--do you really want to go back to your old life, knowing what you know now?"
"Yes," she answered, emphatically, bring her gaze up to meet his, eye to eye, to show how strongly she meant what she said. He kept the contact for a second, then broke it, looking away; after a moment he shrugged and got to his feet, laying the card on the table.
"Then there's nothing more I can do. Have a nice little existence, Ms Melville. If you need us, call." He threw a bill down--for the beer--and then walked off, quickly disappearing around the street corner.
She watched him leave, then picked up the card, curious despite her intentions. Jill blinked in surprise as she read it. It wasn't a business card, although at first it looked like one; all it had was a stylised picture of an angel--or at least, a person with wings--and then "Jill Melville" written underneath, in black type.
Why on Earth, she thought in confusion, would they put my name on it? There was no phone number or address or anything of the sort on the card--so how was she supposed to call them?
She flipped it over. More writing.
"You are not alone," she read out loud. Thoroughly confused and a little bit disturbed, she put the card in her pocket and tried to enjoy her iced coffee.
Keller sighed, strolling along the pavement, hands in his pockets, until he was out of sight of the main street and especially the cafe. He paused under one of the trees, whistling a few notes.
A head poked itself out of the foliage, shaking leaves out from its dark hair. It was Tanager, hanging upside down from one of the branches; her hair was standing on end and her eyes were wide.
"How did it go?" she asked, breathlessly expectant, before she flipped herself around, down out of the tree. She landed gracefully on her feet, wings held against her body tightly, although they fluttered when she was safely on the ground. "Did she take the card?"
"Yeah, but that's all she did," he replied, shaking his head, giving a half-hearted shrug. "I've got a bad feeling about this, Tanager, I really do."
"What do you mean?" she asked, curious, following him down the side-walk. "Keller? What's the matter?"
"Nothing," he said, with a sigh. He was walking hunched-over, his hands in his pockets, slumping along...
"Keller," she repeated, having to jog to keep up with him--his legs were longer, and she was still on tip-toes--"You can't fool me."
"Do I look like Grayson?" Keller snapped, stopping suddenly to face her. She came to a startled halt.
"No, but I do know you. Are you upset over Melville not joining us?"
"No." Keller paused. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know." He started walking again. Tanager sighed and hurried after him. She knew that if she just left him alone for a while, he'd tell her what was bothering him.
Just when she was starting to wonder if she'd was underestimating his powers of silence... "I just wonder, Tanager, about the point of all of this."
"The War?" she asked, shocked. "You're doubting us?"
"No, no." He was quick to reassure her. "No, I mean--Jill--what's the point of recruiting people if they don't want to believe in us? She wants and thinks she can just waltz back into her charade of a normal life and everything will be fine."
"Humans, I've found," Tanager began dryly, "are good at believing in one thing and sticking to it."
He snorted, and shook his head. "I don't see why we go to the effort--"
"Because we need more people. And because we don't want the Others to get to them first," Tanager reminded him. She was frowning, and looking at the area around them, curiously. She shook her head. "Would you rather that they'd killed Melville, when they first attacked?"
Keller stopped. "No, of course not. Tanager--is something the matter?"
She paused, deliberating, narrowing her eyes, scanning the area. Then she stiffened. "Them."
Instantly Keller was on guard, looking around. They were entering a quiet neighbourhood and there didn't seem to be anybody around--but then, the Others could have been in the houses. "Where?"
She didn't answer for a moment, she just continued to look around the area. Her wings spread and started fanning back and forth. Suddenly she turned around, facing back towards the main street. She pointed. "That way."
She and Keller both exchanged glances and said what the other was thinking: "Jill."
"Melville," Tanager agreed. "They're going after Melville." She spread her wings and flapped, taking off into the air. Keller started running, and she swooped down so that she remained over him, shadowing him. "Should I call Larkspur?"
"I don't think she'll be here in time," Keller replied, skidding to a halt as he neared the bend in the road. He slid around the corner, and sure enough, there were two men in suits heading up towards the cafe. They could have just been men out for a walk--but all chance of that vanished when they turned and saw him, their features shifting in response. Vampires.
"Ready, Tanager?" Keller asked, getting the gun that he had kept hidden under his baggy t-shirt.
"Always," she replied, her voice a hiss.
The two vampires charged, baring their fangs and their claws. Tanager was similarly armed--literally; claws unsheathed themselves from under both her fingernails and her toenails. She screamed, sounding remarkably like a hawk, and dived.
She attacked one of the Others from above, clawing at his face and shoulders, keeping him diverted.
The other vampire had kept going forward, but then saw Keller and Keller's gun, and turned, heading back towards Tanager.
The human realised what they were doing with a flash of insight. "Tanager! Pull up! Pull up!"
Tanager, caught by surprise, wasted valuable seconds, her attention diverted from her prey to her partner; it gave the second Other a chance to grab her around the ankle. She shrieked, fluttering wildly, clawing as well as she could at both of them--the first vampire got a firm grip on her other ankle, and together they were dragging her down.
Dammit, Keller swore as he started running again. With Tanager down and fighting on the ground, flapping her wings like a bird in a snare, he didn't have a clear shot--it must be what the vamps were going for. Keller would have to do this the hard way.
Tanager fought against the two Others furiously, but she was surrounded and unused to fighting on the ground--when she wasn't in the air, her wings were almost a hindrance; she couldn't regain her footing easily, and the two Others knew it.
They were grabbing at her arms, pulling her down--then one of them shoved her, hard, and the other kicked at her legs; her knees gave out and she fell to the pavement. Now she was trapped. By standing on her wings they made sure she was unable to get up. She was entirely on the defensive now, trying to keep them away from her throat. She was successful, marginally, in kicking at them with her clawed feet; but they moved too quickly out of the way for her to properly slash them.
Keller grabbed one by the shoulder and forced him away from Tanager. The Other clawed at his face and Keller brought his arms up on the defensive, the claws ripping the skin on his forearms; then he threw a punch. The Other didn't see it coming in time and staggered backwards. Keller flipped his gun around and used it on the side of the creature's head. The vamp dropped like a rock.
The other vamp saw what had happened and backed away from Tanager, anxiety written across his inhuman features. He obviously recognised Keller, and seemed to know what was in store for him. Keller flipped his gun around and aimed it. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Who sent you?"
The Other hissed, and then, suddenly, a portal opened up behind him, a black opening ringed with sparking energy and red and golden light. The Other ran into it, and the portal sealed itself, disappearing without a trace.
Keller sighed, half with relief and half with frustration. He looked down at the Other lying in the middle of the road. He was still in the vampire form; his corpse would leave no trace. Keller fired, the shot echoing in the quiet neighbourhood. It couldn't be helped. The body disappeared and he holstered the gun again.
"Tanager?" he asked, crouching beside her, careful not to touch her wings. She just lay still for a moment, shivering slightly; then she raised a hand, one that was covered in green Wing blood. He stood and grasped it, carefully pulling her up to her feet.
She was covered in scratches, some quite deep, mostly on her torso and arms, where she blocked their blows; her wings looked terrible--they hung limply and tufts of feathers had been ripped out, along with several primaries, which was even worse--until the primaries grew back she wouldn't be able to fly very well, if at all.
She was standing hunched over, so Keller put her arm around her shoulder. "Let's get you home," he said, starting slowly down the sidewalk.
"I feel terrible," she moaned.
"You look worse. But nothing's broken, right?"
"Right," she agreed, wincing as she walked; one of her feet was scratched pretty badly. "And we did save Melville."
"That we did," Keller agreed, through gritted teeth. "That we did."
Jill finished her iced coffee with a slurp. It had been just the thing to cool her down. The card was in her purse, forgotten about; Keller was gone, and she didn't waste any thought on him either.
A few minutes after he had left there was a sound like a gunshot going off; but that was so unlikely--guns being outlawed and this being the quiet part of town--that no one in the cafe paid it very much attention at all. It too was forgotten.
She stayed another few moments at the cafe, then paid her bill--and Keller's--and left, on her way home.
Outside of her apartment she ran into Joe. He was very pale, as though he'd had a bad fright, and he was covered in sweat.
"Are you okay?" she asked him, as they got in the elevator together. He still unnerved her, but she was forcing the feeling down.
"Oh, yeah, fine," he was quick to reply. "I've... uh... been out jogging."
"Jogging?" she repeated, incredulous. "In a suit?"
"I had to work off some tension from the office." He shrugged, and leaned against the elevator wall. "I was talking to Greg this morning as he was leaving--I hear you folks are going out of town."
Jill nodded and smiled. "We're going away for the weekend."
"That'll be nice, help you relax," Joe agreed. He smiled. "Where is it that you were going, again?"
"Birchen," Jill answered. "That's where I used to live, and where I met Greg."
"Very nice, very nice," Joe agreed. He grinned at her slyly for a moment, but then the sneaky look from his face vanished and was replaced with his normal, open, perfectly natural smile. "We'll be waiting for you when you get back."
"That's nice," Jill agreed, chills running along her spine. The elevator stopped. "Oh, here's our floor."
"After you," Joe offered gallantly.
She smiled at him and darted out of the elevator. They lived at opposite ends of the hall, so she was relieved that he wasn't following her; she slipped her key into the lock, hurried in the door and slammed it behind her, sighing with relief. She just stood, leaning against the door, waiting for her heart to stop pounding.
She jumped and screamed. It was only Greg, emerging from the kitchen. "Honey? Are you okay? What's the matter? Jill?"
She backed away from him. "Please--Greg--I'm fine--I just need--I just need to sit down for a moment."
"Sure..." He went to touch her and she flinched. He backed off, confused and hurt. "What happened?"
"Nothing," she replied. And that was the truth--nothing had happened, nothing concrete, anyway. She sat down on the couch and he sat down at the opposite end. "Nothing. I just... I thought I saw someone... that's all."
"Jill." Greg moved closer towards her, cautiously. "Jill, are you sure you're all right?"
She nodded, wiping her hair out of her face. "Really. I'm fine." Now that she was back in her apartment, everything did seem to be settling down. She wasn't sure what had set off her anxiety attack, she was just glad that it was over, that Greg was home early, that everything was going to be okay.
"You know, Jill," Greg was continuing, "that if you're having a problem with something, you can tell me all about it. You know that you can tell me anything."
She stopped, frozen, shocked by the remark. She turned, slowly, to face him. He was looking at her with love and concern in his eyes; how could she tell him that he was the last person she would ever be able to tell anything to?
She opened her mouth to say something, although she didn't know what; then it closed again.
"Jill?" Greg prompted.
"I brought home some eggplant to make for supper," she said, at last.
Grayson was at the door to meet them. "Oh my god," he said, when he saw Tanager up close. "Those bastards. Did you get them?"
"One," Keller replied, tiredly. "The other one slipped through..." he trailed off.
"A portal," Tanager answered for him. She allowed herself to be transferred from Keller's care to Grayson's. "He disappeared through a portal."
"Must have been a higher-up," Grayson remarked, with a whistle, although his expression of surprise didn't last long. "I shouldn't have left, I should have gone with you."
Keller shook his head. "That wouldn't have made any difference."
"It would have," his partner tried to argue, but Keller held up his hand to quiet him. Grayson stared, startled by the stripes of red blood; Tanager seemed surprised as well, she had been concentrating on her own injuries.
"Grayson, I told you. Jill probably would have clammed up entirely if you'd been there. She wasn't very talkative even with just me. And as for Tanager--we were surprised and made some stupid mistakes."
"I did," Tanager corrected, quietly.
"No, we both did. I should have shot when I had the chance," Keller reminded her. "Now, let's just get you seen to and put this behind us."
Grayson nodded, reaching out towards Tanager, putting an arm around her so that she could lean on him and give Keller a rest. "I told Larkspur the moment I heard from you, and she's talked to Vireo--"
"Oh no," Tanager and Keller both moaned.
"--and Vireo said that it's best for you if you go back for a while to heal--" he tried to continue.
"No!" Tanager exclaimed, starting to struggle away from him, as though he was the one dragging her away. "I'm not going back home. Not for something as minor as this!"
"Minor?" Keller, who had been examining his arms now that he had the chance, looked up, startled by her remark. "Minor--Tanager, have you seen yourself in a mirror?"
She glared at him.
"Well, no, of course not," he acknowledged after a pause. "But still--"
"I'm not going back," Tanager continued.
Just then Larkspur appeared at the top of the landing, looking over the railing. "Tanager!" she cried. She leapt over the railing and fluttered down to the main floor, running as soon as her feet touched the floor. "Why didn't you call me sooner? I would have come!"
Tanager didn't say anything. Larkspur reached out and wrapped her arms around both Tanager and Grayson. The human disentangled himself after a moment, looking sheepish; he dashed off into the kitchen.
Tanager remained, sighing, leaning against her friend as Larkspur folded her wings around them both. They seemed to disappear under the cover of glossy black feathers, until Larkspur pulled back.
"Look at your wings!" she exclaimed.
Tanager nodded, sniffling, her orange eyes welling with tears. "I tried to fight them off, but--"
Larkspur sighed and started looking Tanager over, cataloguing the injuries and wounds, shaking her head and making tsk-tsk noises the entire time, as though Tanager was an errant child that had gotten its clothing covered in mud.
Keller rolled his eyes and remembered he had his own wounds to take care of. He headed into the kitchen after Grayson. He got a clean cloth from a drawer and wet it under the tap, to clean his wounds with. "They should be fine in a week or two," he remarked, as he also got out the bandages from the counter over the sink.
"Huh?" Grayson had been standing by the window, looking at the neighbourhood from over top the privet hedge; at the sound of his partner's voice he looked up, his face blank. "What did you say?"
"Tanager's wings. She said that they should be fine in a week or two, but the primaries might take longer." Keller sat down at the kitchen table, and started to dab the wet cloth against his arm. It wasn't too dirty, but somewhat dusty from the walk home. When he was satisfied with the state, he started to wrap the gauze bandages around his arms. He was shocked at the amount he was still bleeding, but kept his surprise to himself.
Grayson joined him, after a moment, pulling up a chair. "Here, I'll help."
"I can do this on my own, thank you."
Grayson scowled. "I'm offering to help. What's the problem with that?"
Keller paused, deliberating on what to say. Then, wordlessly, he held out his arm. Grayson nodded to himself and started to wind the bandage around it.
"You should have had Tanager call for back-up."
"I should have, but I didn't. You wouldn't have gotten there in time to stop anything anyway," Keller retorted, wincing. "It was over in a matter of minutes."
"They always are. That's why I should have been with you."
"Well you weren't. Get over it. You can come next time I have to hand-deliver a business card."
"Dammit, Keller!" Grayson snapped, furious. "Why do you always have to be like this? It isn't funny. Tanager could have been killed. You too."
"Don't you think I know that?" Keller remarked, coolly. "I'm just saying that there's no reason to wallow in guilt."
"I'm not wallowing."
"You were about to."
"I was not." Grayson finished bandaging Keller's arm. "That might not last for too long, you're still bleeding fairly heavily. Do you want anything for the pain?"
"No," Keller replied. He flexed his arm and then winced. "Although I might, in a while."
"You know where they are." Grayson got up, to put away the unused bandages.
"Have you heard from Indigo Bunting?" Keller asked, suddenly. "Anything at all?"
"Nothing," Grayson reported, sitting back down, rubbing a hand through his hair. He looked tired, and wan. "Larkspur and I were trying to scan the area, but we couldn't find any trace of her, so she's either outside our range or--" He didn't let himself finish the sentence. "Anyway, I'm sure if Vireo talked to Gyrfalcon--"
"Which isn't going to happen," Keller reminded him. "Vireo wouldn't. What's all this nonsense about sending Tanager home?"
Grayson took a deep breath. "Vireo thinks that with Indigo Bunting gone we're at a disadvantage, and so now, with Tanager hurt and possibly unable to fight, we're even worse off, so she thinks that Tanager ought to go back home, assume her natural state and heal that way, and then come back to her corporeal form. It's much faster and we'd be at a disadvantage for less time."
"Yes, but we'd be even more 'disadvantaged' for a short period of time, as opposed to being less so for longer." Keller squinted, trying to make sense of his own logic.
Grayson shrugged. He knew what Keller meant. "It's six of one and half a dozen of the other, really. That's not the point; Tanager refuses to go anyway."
"And Tanager doesn't want to go because...?"
"Larkspur says it's too disorienting, especially if you're used to being corporeal--the sudden shift is off-putting, especially if you've been here for a while." Grayson sighed again, rubbing his eyes. "It's not something that they take lightly. I should go check on them."
"I'm sure Larkspur's on top of it," Keller remarked.
Grayson glared at him. "How can you always be so dismissive? Don't her injuries worry you at all?"
"It's not like she's at death's door," Keller snapped in return. "Look, if you want to waste your time and energy worrying about something that you can't affect anyway, then go right ahead. Be my guest."
Grayson snorted and got up from the table. He left Keller alone in the kitchen.
Keller sighed and tried to flex his arm again, hissing through his teeth at the pain. He got up and headed over to the sink, reaching into the cupboard for the pain-killers. His fingers--their movement hampered by the pain and growing stiffness in his arm--brushed against the bottle but didn't grasp it; it fell out of the cupboard and into the sink. The lid hadn't been properly secured and the pills spilled out all over. The sink was still a little wet, with tiny puddles left from the running tap. Consequently, some of the pills started to dissolve. He managed to save most of them, laying them out on a towel to dry before he could put them back in the bottle.
Keller closed his eyes, leaning against the counter, and took several deep, calming breaths. He wasn't having a good day. He really wasn't.
Jill checked over the train tickets a final time as she stood in the lobby, waiting for the taxi and for Greg. "Greg? Honey?" she called. He had disappeared down the corridor, and she hoped that he hadn't gone back up to the apartment--she didn't want to keep the taxi waiting.
She sighed, and mentally checked through her luggage. Did she have everything that she had wanted to bring? She thought so. Of course, there was always something that she never noticed she had forgotten until she started unpacking, but obviously she couldn't do anything about it now.
"--it ought to be very relaxing," she heard Greg saying, as he approached the corridor.
"I don't doubt that," replied a voice, Joe's. Jill's nose wrinkled. That man had taken an awfully intense interest in their business lately, and she didn't like it. Of course, Greg saw nothing wrong with it, so he continued to treat Joe like a close friend; Jill avoided their neighbour whenever she could and put up with him when she had to.
"Jill! Is the taxi here yet?" Greg asked, coming around the corner. Joe raised a hand as greeting. She declined to wave back and offered only a tight smile.
"Not yet, but--" She heard something and looked out the glass doors of the lobby. "Oh! Greg, it's here!"
"Okay. I'll see you later, Joe." Greg picked up the two duffle bags. "Good lord, Jill, what did you pack?"
"The weather reports are sketchy, so I brought a range of clothes," she replied, in a huff.
"It feels like you've packed anvils," Greg grunted, moving towards the door.
Joe laughed. "See you two later. Have fun."
Jill didn't reply, pretending not to hear him. However, as she was holding the door open for Greg she was unable to avoid catching Joe's eye. She shivered.
He grinned, and walked off. There was something about him--the way he walked, perhaps, or maybe the glint in his eye--reminded her of Jorge, the Other that had first attacked her in the bar, so long ago. Was it so long ago? Or was it only a few weeks?
"Huh?" She looked around, shocked back into reality. Greg was staring at her.
"Come on, Jill, I've loaded the stuff already." He held the door of the taxi open for her, and she jogged over, sliding into the back seat. "Honestly, you've been really spacey all morning."
"Just excited," she said, with a grin.
He smiled back and took her hand. "I know the feeling." He stared out the window as the taxi pulled out of the driveway. "One of these days, we'll get our own car."
She laughed. "Right. Our own car. And how expensive will that be?"
He snorted. "Don't worry, we'll be able to afford it. Wouldn't it be great? We could head up to Birchen whenever we wanted. We wouldn't have to worry about schedules or anything."
"Except for insurance... the price of gasoline... parking tickets--" Jill shook her head and looked out the window. "Besides, we can get any where we want to go by walking, or transit, or the train."
Greg rolled his eyes, squeezing her hand. "You worry too much."
She continued to look out the window, wondering who was watching her, while she was unaware. She could almost see the eyes staring back that no one else could see.
"Pardon?" Greg asked.
She blinked, and looked at him.
"You said something," Greg continued, confused.
She shook her head, then shrugged. "I don't remember."
He sighed, and brought her hand up to give it a kiss. "Don't worry, Jill, a little vacation is all you needed to get you feeling back to normal."
"Normal," she repeated, without much conviction, turning back to the scenery moving by through the taxi window.
She sighed, and stretched. "We could have just taken one of the trolley-buses," she said, as they stood on platform four, waiting for the mag-lev that would take them to Birchen. "It would have been cheaper than the taxi."
Greg shrugged. "Not by much. And we would have had to stand around for ages--we would have had to make about five connections to get all the way out here."
"True." She sat down on one of the duffle bags. It sagged, slightly, under her weight, but was still a fairly good seat. "How long?"
"Another ten minutes until its ETA. Jill," Greg began, after a long pause, "do you really not want to get a car?"
She shrugged. "It just seems like waste. I mean, even one of the hybrids would be expensive--"
"I could work more hours, bring in a little extra income," Greg interrupted. "Then, of course, once you settle in, you could look for a pharmacy--"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Jill snapped.
"What? I thought you wanted to go back to work--"
"I--I do, not yet, but I do. It's just that I don't think you should work any more hours, I barely get to see you enough as it is," she explained.
Greg went silent, glaring at her through his sunglasses. She had to raise her hand to the sun to see him properly. "What do you mean by that?" he demanded, coldly.
She blinked. "It's just that you're always working--"
"To pay for the apartment, to pay for you--"
"'You'?" she repeated, incredulously. "What is that supposed to mean? You were the one that encouraged me to get used to Forreton before going back to work--"
He didn't reply, but stood, arms crossed, looking down the tracks in the direction that the train would come.
She sighed, rubbing her eyes, tiredly. This wasn't a good start to their holiday, not at all. She looked up at him. The sun was so bright, it was making her eyes tear. Turns out that the thing she had forgotten was her sunglasses. "Greg--" she began, stopping, in relief, as a shadow passed over the sun, giving her a respite from the harsh light--until she realised the shape of the shadow.
A large bird. She stood up, frightened, scanning the sky.
She located the source of the shadow--a seagull, wheeling around the train station, no doubt hunting for a dumpster or other trash receptacle. She sighed, shaking her head.
"Jill?" Greg touched her arm. "You okay?"
She nodded, with a sigh, feeling very weary, but calming down after her fright.
"I'm sorry. I don't know why I started snapping, and I'm sorry." He smiled at her. "I don't want to start the vacation like this."
She smiled back at him. "Neither do I. Neither do I--hey, here comes the train."
She looked out the window, pulling back the curtains. The bed-and-breakfast seemed very nice, and they had spent a pleasant night there. Breakfast would be soon, and then they had the day to themselves.
"What should we do?" she asked, taking in the view of the garden.
"Do?" Greg repeated. "Why do we have to do anything? There's the garden to walk in, there's a pool--"
She shook her head, unable to articulate her feelings. Birchen was her home, it was where she came from. She had hated Forreton, detested moving, protested everything she could about it, and yet... it was starting to feel more like home than this small, provincial town. She sighed.
"I suppose we can go shopping, or something like that," Greg said, after the pause stretched on for too long, and he interpreted her silence as anger. "Whatever you want to do, honey."
She turned to look at him, smiling slightly, as the idea occurred. "I want to go see my old house."
"I don't know, I haven't heard anything from her," Grayson replied, honestly.
Ellis sighed, shifting around in his chair, rubbing his eyes with his hand. "Vireo said someone had heard from her."
"I--" Grayson frowned. "I don't think any one has."
Ellis straightened up to look at him. "Don't think so?"
"Ellis, they'd tell me if they'd heard from Indigo Bunting," Grayson said, simply. "I'm not saying Vireo is mistaken, but..." He trailed off and let the sentence finish itself.
Ellis sighed, shifting around. The laptop in front of him beeped and he pressed a button on it. He put on a headset that was connected at the back of the computer. "Ellis here," he replied, sounding weary. He looked to Grayson and then nodded towards the door. Grayson nodded back, and got up, the legs of his chair scraping against the hardwood floor. He went to the door. "No, Phoebe, we haven't heard from her--"
Keller and Larkspur were waiting out on the landing. Larkspur looked over, excited, as Grayson exited Ellis' office; it didn't take more than a moment before she turned back, disappointed, her wings drooping.
"Bad news, I take it?" Keller asked. He was leaning against the wall, awkwardly, since he didn't want to cross his arms. He kept shifting around every few moments, trying to be comfortable, his arms at his sides, uselessly. "You haven't heard from her?"
Grayson shook his head, running a hand through his short fair hair. "Ellis said something about Vireo--he said that she had heard from one of us about Indigo Bunting."
Larkspur was perplexed. "We haven't heard from her."
"No, I know that," Grayson replied.
"We would have told you," Larkspur continued.
"I know that too." Grayson shrugged. "Then Phoebe got on the phone--"
"Phoebe?" Keller repeated. "Which one?"
"The Peregrine," his partner answered. "I don't think Ellis' Phoebe has the number here."
"How very sad," Larkspur commented. The other two looked at her strangely. She rustled her wings. "They must miss each other," she explained.
Keller shrugged, non-plussed. "They see each other every few weeks. They get by." Grayson started to say something in response and then stopped, shaking his head.
"I wonder if Vireo got her information backwards," Larkspur said, suddenly. "I was talking to her about what I thought Indigo Bunting could be up to--perhaps she didn't realise that I was just speculating."
"Vireo is a little on the literal side," Keller agreed, quickly, with a smirk. "I don't suppose it makes any difference."
"Vireo's just worried," Grayson added.
"We all are," Keller said, quietly. "Indigo Bunting's a good kid. Wing. Whatever."
Larkspur dipped her wings in response, her version of a resigned nod. "She should have been home by now."
"Then her mission was delayed," Grayson said, grimly. "There's no point in worrying about something we can't change." He headed out of the lobby. Larkspur and Keller exchanged glances, Keller in particular looking surprised; then Larkspur jumped over the railing and fluttered down to the floor. Keller sighed, again, crossing his arms. He winced, and un-crossed them.
The underling twitched his nose, irritated. He sat by the telephone, waiting for their operative to call. First One had been most displeased at the progress reports; he wanted the special human, and he wanted her yesterday. The underling sighed, wishing he didn't have to sit around in a human form waiting like this.
The phone rang. He picked it up so quickly that he nearly dropped the receiver and disconnected the caller. "Yes?"
"Sir?" it was the operative. Being lower in rank than the underling--since the underling was an assistant to First One--the operative didn't dare use the underling's human name. Such a action would be considered the height of rudeness. Not to mention stupid. "Sir, I have news about the human."
"Good work," the underling said, feeling a glow of pride at being the bearer of good news to First One.
"What?!" The rosy glow vanished, replaced with a cold dread. The underling attempted to control his voice. "What?" he repeated, civilly.
"She's gone. But I know where she's going, so all you need to do is activate the operative in Birchen."
"It's about an hour and a half east--"
"I know where Birchen is, idiot! Why would the human go there?"
"She was originally from Birchen, sir."
"Ah, I see. Fine." The underling started tapping keys at the computer station by the phone, with the receiver cradled on his shoulder. "There is an operative in Ash Grove, which is near Birchen."
"Good enough. Give me his name and I'll call him." The operative paused, realising his mistake. "Sir."
The underling's nose twitched again. "The operative in Ash Grove is Alexander. I will inform him myself--you will give him the details on the human. Then you will report back. Is that understood?"
"Good. Station One out."
The underling slammed the phone down, irritated. They were so close. They always seemed to be so close. First One was curious how the hunt was going, but it would be best not to report to First One yet--not until there was something to report, at least.
Greg looked up at the simple, old-fashioned house, at the large tree in the front yard, at the ruined garden and faded shutters that rattled in the heavy breeze. He didn't seem that interested; to him, this was an old house, one that she had moved out long before she ever knew him. He had no connection to it and couldn't understand how she did. Houses had sentimental value, sure, but they were not something to waste much time upon.
Jill seemed fixated on the--on her--old house, taking in the cracked glass window on the second storey, flinching every single time that the worn "For Sale" sign blew in the breeze.
Greg stuck his hands deep in the pocket of his anorak, glad that Jill had brought jackets for them both. "Jill? Now what?"
She looked at him, startled, as though she had forgotten he was there. "Huh? Oh. I don't know. I... I wonder if the doors are open."
"It looks abandoned," he remarked.
"I only moved out a few years ago," she said, slowly, remembering the circumstances. She looked pained, having to dredge up the memories. "Maybe more than a few years--I guess the new owners didn't take care of it."
"I wonder why it didn't sell," Greg mused, looking around. The house was on the outskirts of Birchen, which was a small, mostly rural, village. "Perhaps a decrease in the town's population--"
"It doesn't matter, does it?" she snapped, staring at the house. He shrugged.
"Look, why are we even standing out here? You've seen the house. It's ruined--"
"It's not ruined," she corrected him, quietly, sternly. "It's just fallen into disrepair. I spend most of my childhood in that house, Greg. It's not something I'm willing to just--"
"Leave to the past?" he offered, leaning against the small fence around the yard. He shrugged again. "Jill, this is silly. It's cold out, and it's not like the door is open--"
The wind picked up. There was a hesitant creak from the front of the house and they both turned to look as the front door, on its heavy rusted hinges, blew inwards, slamming against the front hall.
Jill grinned, and started to open the front gate. Greg pulled her back.
"Don't," was all he said.
"I'll only be a few minutes," she replied, pulling her arm free. "It's not like I'm trespassing."
"I'm not going in," Greg retorted.
"Nobody asked you to. Just don't leave without me, all right?"
"Did I say I was going to?" Greg went back to leaning against the fence. "Enjoy your little trip down memory lane."
Jill, worried that she'd done something to offend him--although she didn't know what--was tempted to just not go in, however her pride kicked in and she became determined to look around, if only for a moment or two. She opened the gate and approached the house.
The walls were a different colour, a horrible faded blue that reminded Jill only of hospitals, and not of her home. Her house, when she and her mother had lived there, had been done in warm shades, sunny yellows and pale, pale oranges, peaches and creams. The blue didn't suit the house, it didn't match with her memories.
The hardwood floor was the same, creaking under her feet. How many times had she tried to sneak outside, caught by the squeaking of the floorboards? She had been certain her mother had done the floor that way on purpose.
She ran a hand along the walls, her fingertips lightly brushing the faded paint, leaving stripes of dusted, less faded, paint. She sighed, wondering why she had even bothered to come back here.
She stopped as she entered the kitchen. It seemed so much smaller, so much--she shook her head, wishing that she hadn't done this. Wishing she had listened to Greg. Perhaps it was better just to leave her memories undisturbed.
There was a creaking sound from over her head. Startled, she looked up. Was there someone up there? Why would anybody be in an old, abandoned house?
You are, she reminded herself. You're here. So somebody else could be, too. She heard the creak again. Perhaps it was just a cat--a cat living in the old house, raising kittens--and it sounded again. That was a hell of a heavy cat.
Images sprang from her from nowhere--of the Others, of the creatures that had tried to hunt her down. Where was that coming from? she wondered, idly. They wouldn't be in the house--would they?
It was impossible. Wasn't it? They didn't exist. Did they?
Shivers ran all over her, and she froze, trying even to stop breathing, but she couldn't. Her breaths seemed loud.
The creaking had stopped. The feelings had not. There was something up there, she was sure of it. A creature that did not belong in her house.
She looked down the hallway, down the corridor, towards the front yard. Greg was there, outside, waiting; she should just leave and go to him. She would pretend she was just spooked by the empty house and leave it at that. She wouldn't mention the creaking or the tingles that ran up and down her arms.
The creaking started again. This time it was definitely not a cat, or a raccoon, or anything else that could have been living in the house. Her house. There was someone in her house who had no right to be there.
She looked around the kitchen, scouring for something to use as a weapon, but there was nothing. She looked towards the stairs. Something seemed to be calling to her, drawing her upwards. She took a deep breath and stepped towards the stairs. She placed a hand against the wall; it was cold to her touch.
Step by step, hesitantly, she made her way around the curve in the stairs. Her head peeped over the ledge of the landing, between the rungs of the railing that cordoned off the landing from the stairs leading downstairs. She remembered when the railing was first put in--it was after she nearly tumbled head-first off the edge.
There was no one there. Unless they were hiding in one of the bedrooms. There had been three bedrooms, one for Jill, one for her mother, and a guest room. All three were roughly over the kitchen downstairs. Any of them could be where the intruder--it--was hiding.
She reached the top of the stairs, looking around, keeping as quiet as she could. "Hello?" she decided to call, trying to sound confident. I have the entire Birchen police detachment in the front yard, she thought to herself. I have the Army, Navy and several masters of Kung Fu waiting for my signal to attack. I am certainly not a lone woman with no fighting expertise and no back-up besides my fiancee outside, who is sadly Kung Fu-deficient. She stopped dead in her tracks. What the hell am I doing here? That's it, I'm leaving! She turned quickly and started to head back to the stairs.
He appeared in the doorway of her mother's room.
He was tall, quite a bit taller than she was, with longish blonde hair. She froze, feeling as though her heart had stopped.
"So you're the one?" it was a friendly question, although it turned into a sneer very quickly. "You don't look like much."
"Who are you?" she managed to say.
"Me? I'm just a simple agent, that's all." He took a step closer. She found she couldn't move.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
He laughed, moving still closer. "Luring you, of course."
She didn't know what to make of that. She tried one more time to move backwards. She couldn't. Now he was towering over her, with a grin. "You can't move if I don't let you," he said, simply. "Stupid humans, too blind to see what's right there in front of them."
She blinked. Something felt very familiar about all of this. She looked up at him, staring into his eyes. She felt dizzy, sick to her stomach--the world seemed to go gray around her and then it reformed, startlingly clear.
He sneered again, showing his fangs. She could see him now, every detail that confirmed him as something-other-than-human. She remembered, just as clear, where she had felt this sensation before--when she was dreaming that she was trapped inside the burning building. It was a dream--he was holding her trapped inside a dream.
She looked up at him, defiantly, and took a step backwards.
His black eyes went wide. "How could you--you can't break my hold!"
"I just did," she replied, taking another step backwards. She was close to the edge of the stairs, but the railing was in her way, so she couldn't fall. She would have to edge around it, to get downstairs.
He scowled, and suddenly something started to burn, on her shoulder. She put a hand to it, the hand came away sticky. Her wound, somehow he'd re-opened the wound--
He stepped towards her, fangs bared. She remembered being torn into, eaten, and she began to panic. He's going to kill me. He's going to eat me. Still pressing her hand to her shoulder, she tried to back up more, but she hit the railing. She tried to slide along it, to the end, but he blocked her, casually, with an arm, and forced her back, away from the stairs.
"You're not that strong," he said, with an evil grin.
She paused, the panic and fear clearing for one single moment of realisation. He hadn't re-opened the wound--he couldn't have. He'd barely touched her. This was part of his illusion! Just like drawing her up here. Just like making him seem like a normal human. She pulled her hand away from her shoulder. It was still bloody--and then, as she realised what he was doing to her, it wasn't. The blood didn't fade, it simply was not there any more. It hadn't been there in the first place.
She looked up at him, triumphantly, and he roared with anger, grabbing her by the front of her jacket and hauling her into the air. She tried to break his grip, but he was too strong for her. Her feet were dangling above the musty carpet.
He scowled at her. "You are strong enough to break my mental hold, human, but that doesn't mean that you're strong enough to beat me physically." With that he shoved her backwards. She slammed back into the railing with a great deal of force and the old wood splintered around her. It--and her--crashed down to the stairs.
She rolled a little before managing to catch her wits again. She got up, pain cascading in waves through her head, but she was on her feet and she made it all the way down the stairs to the kitchen.
There was a thump, and then there he was, landing on the stairs, jumping from above her. She staggered backwards, and unable to keep her balance, she tripped and fell. She could barely breathe, the impact had knocked the wind from her. He stood over her, pausing for a moment to pick her up by the front of the jacket again.
"I was told not to kill you," he said, scowling at her, "so you had better not die." He threw her again and this time she hit the wall. It didn't hurt as much as she thought it would; possibly because she was in shock and wasn't feeling all of the pain. She got to her feet, shaky. He was standing between her and the front door.
Greg. She couldn't let him get to Greg.
"What do you want me for?" she demanded, her voice trembling.
"I don't want you, he does," the agent corrected her. "Our Leader, our First One. I was only told to collect you, that's all."
She nodded, nothing of what he said making any sense to her. He was an Other, that was for certain, but what did they want her for? Just because the Wings did?
Jill felt a rush of anger. She was supposed to be on vacation. She hadn't asked for all of this, she didn't want to be involved, and yet they seemed intent on involving her anyway. As her anger rose, it brought with it a relief from the pain. She could begin to see clearly again, no longer viewing everything through a haze of sparkly gray. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the splintered remains of the railing that had come crashing down with her.
Splinters. Stakes. Stakes were what was used to kill vampires, weren't they? The Others were sort of like vampires, weren't they? They could be killed. Keller had done it, with his gun. Jill didn't have a gun, but maybe something like a knife would work just as well. She made a run for it.
The Other had been expecting her to run, but he had misjudged her intent; he assumed she would try to flee out the door, not towards the stairs. When she bolted, he moved to intercept where he assumed she would be heading. As a result, she slipped right by him, scrambling up the stairs.
She grabbed a one of the posts from the railing. It had been ripped from its mooring and consequently the tip was broken and sharp; it would do. She was nearly at the top of the stairs when something gripped her around the ankle. She screamed, toppling forward. It was the Other, he was trying to pull her downwards.
She kicked at him with her free foot, trying to get his face while avoiding his other hand. Then she realised that if his hands were busy holding on to her feet, then they couldn't be used to defend him from her stake. She kicked at him again, deliberately slower this time--and he managed to grab her other ankle. She twisted around to glare down at him.
"I told you," he said, starting to drag her downstairs. "You wouldn't be able to--"
She swung the railing spoke like a club. It wasn't that thick, perhaps the circumference of a baseball bat, but it did the trick. It connected with his head, solidly, and he yelled, flinging a hand up to grab the post from her. Her foot was free and she kicked him solidly in the nose. He yelled again, backing up, and letting go, in his shock, of her other ankle. She kicked at him again and he backed up more, losing his footing on the stairs, flailing backwards with nothing to grip on to.
He tumbled down the stairs, landing in a heap at the bottom. She brandished her post at him, but he seemed to dazed to notice.
He was blocking her way down the stairs. She'd have to jump over him to get back into the kitchen. She didn't want to get close enough that he could grab her again.
She was only a few feet away from him. The remains of the railing had been dragged down with him as he had fallen and they made it even harder for her to make it down the stairs. Finally, she just gathered what nerves she had left, tensed herself, and leapt.
He sprung upwards at her, no longer dazed--or no longer pretending to be. They slammed into each other and fell to the floor. He was much heavier than she was, and soon had her pinned. He bared his teeth, and dove in to bite. She still had her part of the railing and she swung it with all the force that she could. It connected and snapped his head away from her. She swung it again, and again.
Now he was definitely dazed, and not faking--she pushed him away from her. She tried to scramble away but he seemed to shake it off and grabbed at her again. She swung the club, but this time she missed and clocked him on the neck, instead. He roared in pain. She swung again, knowing that a normal human would have been pulp by now--she wasn't pulling her punches, or checking her swing. He was still in one piece. Hitting him wasn't going to do anything. She was going to have to go for blood.
Can you do that? asked a quiet voice inside her head. Can you kill someone? Jill blinked, pausing between blows. Could she? Could she kill someone, even if they weren't human? He was still a living, breathing entity. Could she do it?
He yelled again, showing his fangs. She remembered the sensation of those fangs sinking into her flesh. She had repeated it many times in nightmares. Kill or be killed. It wasn't a trite philosophy, redundant in modern times. It was a reality. Kill--or be eaten.
He leapt up at her, fangs bared, no longer caring about his orders not to injure the human. He hurt, and she was prey, and that's all he was thinking. He dove at her, and she raised the post again. This time, she didn't swing it like a club, she drove it downwards, pointy-end first, into his neck.
He gurgled, falling short of his leap. She screamed, closing her eyes, protecting her head with her arms. There was the sound of a thump on the old wooden floors.
She opened her eyes.
She was alone.
The stake rolled slowly to a stop.
She sank to her knees, trembling, sighing with relief, shaking with the tension. It was over. She had done it.
Done what? She couldn't think straight. It didn't seem real. She had been attacked--the pain in her side and back confirmed that--but where was her attacker? Had he run off? She had gotten him, though, she was sure of it. Wasn't she?
A memory wound itself up through the mental haze. Of a gun going off in a bar, of a creature spinning with the impact, collapsing on the ground, fading away.
That creature had been an Other, too. Did they not leave corpses?
Jill didn't bother to think about her questions. She rested, kneeling, her hands flat against the floor, supporting her as she bent over, waiting for the fog to clear.
Greg. Greg was still waiting for her, he'd be so worried--
She stopped herself. Greg wouldn't know that she was in danger. And even if she told him, he wouldn't believe her. Where was the assailant she had stabbed in the neck? Where was the blood? He wouldn't believe her. No one would. Except for Keller. Grayson. Ellis. The Wings.
Keller had been right. How could she go back to her normal life, knowing what she knew now? The Others were all around. She couldn't lie forever. She didn't want to.
She got to her feet. She undid her jacket, lifting up her shirt to see the damage. Bruises--bruises that would be shortly turning a lovely shade of purple--but it didn't seem like anything else. She assumed she'd feel worse if there was something badly damaged. She felt out of breath and her side was throbbing, but other than that, she felt okay. "Okay" in the sense of "will be fine after a shower and three days of sleep".
She started for the door.
He was still waiting for her at the gate. He saw her coming and sighed, happy to see her again. She smiled faintly back at him.
He held the gate open for her. "Feel better now?" he asked. She looked at him blankly. "That you saw the house," he elaborated. She nodded, but didn't reply. He tried to put an arm around her waist but she flinched away from him. "Honey?" he asked, confused. "Are you okay? You seem a little... tense."
"Sir, I have the report from Birchen." The operative's voice sounded weak. The underling scowled.
"This had better be good news--" the underling warned. "First One will not be happy if the human has escaped again."
"Then First One isn't going to be happy," the operative replied, adding a belated "Sir."
The underling's breath halted. He gathered his nerve together. "What do you mean?"
"She escaped, sir, and killed Alexander, as well." There was a pause. "What should I do now, sir?"
The underling didn't reply immediately, mulling it over in his head. He was as good as dead if the operative didn't succeed in capturing her--that meant he might as well pull out all the stops.
So what if the humans learned of the operative? Either she would be captured and unable to warn her friends, or she would escape, again, and the operative and the underling would both be executed by First One. Either way, the security would not be compromised. Much.
"Operative," the underling found himself saying, his throat dry, "I want you to capture the human the moment she returns to her dwelling. I don't care how many other humans you have to kill to get to her, I want her captured."
"Of course, sir," the operative replied. "I will make sure she is captured. Sir."
"Good. Now, I do not wish another report unless it's the one to tell me that she's in our custody. Understood?"
"Understood, sir." The operative hung up.
The underling sat for a moment, listening to the dial tone of the phone, before he hung up, defeated. He was as good as dead, he knew it. The informant had been quiet for ages, the human kept slipping through their grasp--it was not good. The only cheerful thing to report to First One was that, since the public death of Gerald, the captive humans had been more docile than normal.
It wasn't very comforting, but at least something was going right, for a change.
She got out of the taxi, sighing heavily, and holding on to her purse. She slung it over her shoulder as Greg paid the driver. She started to unload the trunk, but he stopped her, and gestured for her to go inside. She nodded, and headed into the lobby.
The vacation had been a mess. With her sore side and back she had been in a terrible mood, and not being able to tell Greg the real reason--she said that she had fallen down the stairs in the house--made the mood worse.
She stepped inside the lobby, holding the door open for Greg as he walked in with the luggage. The elevator doors opened--and out walked Joe.
Oh no, she thought, dismally. This is just what I need.
"Hey, Greg," Joe said, cheerfully. "Hello, Jill. Back already?"
Greg smiled sheepishly. "We decided to come back a little earlier. Jill had a bit of an accident."
"Really?" Joe looked over at her, concerned. She didn't meet his gaze. "Not a bad one, I hope."
"She fell down a flight of stairs," Greg said, running a hand through his hair. "But she only got a few bruises, nothing broken."
"Fell down a flight of stairs? That must've hurt," Joe said, in the condescending voice of someone who doesn't feel the slightest sympathy but is keen on pretending to. Suddenly his tone changed completely. "Are you limping, at all? Having problems walking, running?"
"No," Jill exclaimed, startled by the question. The remarks Joe was making, and the way he was looking at her, was making her extremely uncomfortable. "Greg, I'm going to head up the apartment. Do you want me to take the luggage?"
"No, no, it'll only hurt your back more. You go on up, I'm going to catch up with Joe for a bit." Greg waved at her, shooing her towards the elevator.
"I'll make some lunch," she offered, feeling guilty about not carrying the luggage. Greg nodded, but he was already engaged in conversation with Joe; he didn't pay her any more attention.
She walked over to the elevators just as they opened. Two rather burly men got out, walking in unison. As they walked by her, she felt a distinct sensation run up and down her arms. Others. They didn't look like the creatures--they seemed fully human--but the feeling was there. They were headed towards Greg.
The elevator doors were still open. Making up her mind, quickly, she headed down the hall instead, counted to thirty, and then crept back.
She peeped around the corner of the hallway. She couldn't say why she was doing this--only that it seemed a good idea to keep an eye on Joe and the two new creeps.
Joe and the creeps were friends. They must have been--he had introduced them to Greg. They were all talking, a little social circle in the middle of the lobby.
If Joe's friends were both Others...
The feelings she had been getting from him, the revulsion and loathing, suddenly snapped into focus. It was the same as the feelings that she had experienced with the "agent" in her old house, back in Birchen. It was the sensation of seeing an Other disguised as a human. No, that was impossible. Joe wasn't one of them. She checked again around the corner and now Joe was gone. It was just Greg and the two new creeps.
She couldn't hear what they were saying, but one made a slight gesture with his hand that Greg didn't pick up on. She was ready to call out to him, but she wasn't quick enough.
One of them stepped sideways, grabbing Greg by the shoulders. Greg stared at them, not understanding; he said something with Jill couldn't catch.
The other brought his fist down on the back of Greg's head.
Jill gasped, and rushed out into the lobby, determined to defend her fiancee.
The two Others--both discarded their human disguises--stared at her openly, and then one of them realised who she must be. "That must be her!" he exclaimed, pointing. "Get her!"
She suddenly realised how foolish it had been to leap out into sight, and she tore off down the corridor.
At the end of the corridor was the stairs; the Others were between her and the elevator. She would have to get up to her apartment. She would be safe there. She pushed the door open and started to run, leaping up the stairs two at a time.
She fumbled through her purse, searching for her keys. Her keys, she needed her keys--
She pulled out something. It was the card Keller had given her. The one that had "you are not alone" written on it. What use was that when she was being chased by other-worldly creatures?
She was one flight away from her floor, and she had to slow down, her heart was pounding too hard for her to continue at that pace. She looked at the card again. "You are not alone" had vanished. The writing was simply gone--all there was, was blank space. She blinked, and then realised that she could see very faint gray lettering--letters that were growing stronger.
Help is on the way.
She blinked again, confused, but then she heard voices down below, angry ones, and then footsteps on the stairs. Break time's over, she thought. She redoubled her efforts to out run them. If she could just make it to her apartment, she'd be able to wait it out until the help arrived.
"Help is on the way," Jill repeated to herself, as she entered the level her apartment was on. She was completely bewildered by the message, and its delivery. How had the writing changed? What could it mean? They--Keller and Grayson--must be heading to her apartment.
She heard the sound of footsteps behind her, and realised with horror that she had stopped running. She started again, tearing down the halls. Her apartment was around the corridor. She was almost there--
She could hear them now, yelling to each other. Someone else had joined them, so now there was three chasing her. She could barely hear their voices over her breathing and the pounding in her ears, but she could just make out what they were saying.
"--distracted long enough."
"--and got keys--"
She nearly stopped dead in her tracks. Greg. The reason they'd knocked him out was to get his keys. She wasn't safe in her own apartment! Now would should she go? She forced herself to keep going. In desperation, she looked at the card again, wondering if it would strike her with sudden inspiration--
It did. "Help is on the way" had been replaced with "The roof." Two words. That's all the direction she needed. Having a plan again, she whipped around the corridor, reaching 509 in a matter of strides. She fumbled with the lock and opened the door; then slammed it, loudly, re-locking it.
"--in the apartment--"
She grinned and kept on going until she reached the next bend. She hid around the corner. There were another flight of stairs at this end; she could get to the roof from here. But she wanted to see if they fell for it, first.
The three stopped at the apartment door while one of the creatures fumbled with Greg's keys. She could see his keychain dangling from where she crouched; it made her feel like sobbing out loud, but of course, she couldn't dare. At last they found the right lock and headed in. Or rather--one did. It came out a few moments later.
"She's not here, sir," it said, after sticking its head in. "I checked in all the rooms and the closets. I can't even smell her that strongly."
His superior grunted, taking in the information. "It's a decoy. She's probably heading back down to rescue Greg." Jill froze, as it slowly turned around, scanning the area.
It was Joe.
Joe, her neighbour. Greg's friend. That's how they had known where she was going for vacation. That's how Greg had been distracted, how they knew her movements. She didn't want to believe it, but it was undeniable, now--he was one of the Others.
Joe's black eyes narrowed, and then he grinned. Jill realised, belatedly, almost too slowly, that he was looking at her. He raised a clawed finger and pointed.
She gasped and got to her feet, scrambling to the door of the stairs. She flung it open and started running up, two at a time again. It was hard to keep up but it had given her the edge before. She heard the door slam two more times and feet on the stairs. "She's heading upstairs," one remarked, his voice loud and reverberating in the well.
"She thought she could trick us," Joe told him, no doubt with a shrug although she couldn't see it. He raised his voice. "But there's no escaping us, Jill, you're only wearing yourself out."
It was true. Her breathing was already becoming laboured. She had already run up five flights just to get to her apartment. Her legs were aching from climbing so many stairs--how many flights to the top? She didn't know--but--she had to get there--help was on the way--
A thought crept into her adrenaline-addled brain: how did she know that they were going to come for her? She reached for the card again, in the purse that was almost becoming too heavy to carry. She looked at the number on the door as she swung through the landing. Ten. She was on the tenth floor. How many did her building have? Fifteen? Twenty? She honestly couldn't remember. She always got off at five.
"She's stopped, sir," reported one of the flunkies.
"Shut up!" snapped Joe. "She can hear you, you idiot!"
She gripped the railing tightly, and pulled herself onto the stairs, building up her speed again, getting her second wind.
She had to reach the top. But even if she did--what if they weren't there yet? She couldn't fight off three vampires all at once. Especially not after climbing so many stairs. She'd be lucky if she could stand, once she got to the roof.
She fumbled around in her purse while she was running up the stairs, around the landing, up the next flight. Her fingers reached around the card and she pulled it out. It was--it was a card for her video store. In frustration, she tossed it over her shoulder and it fluttered down, slipping over the treads and falling down the center of the well.
She sighed and started fumbling around for the card again. This time she grabbed the right one. The letters had changed again; now it said "Help is on the way" again. It was strangely comforting. She gripped it tightly and continued to run.
An idea occurred to her as she rounded the seventeenth story--what if she left the stairs--quietly, of course--and then ran through the corridors to the other flight of stairs? She'd probably lose them.
Only--then they'd reach the roof first.
"There's no where to run, Jill," Joe called, up through the well. His voice sounded alarmingly close. "There's no one to help you."
An idea struck her. Maybe they'd fall for it a second time. She paused on the eighteenth landing and slipped off her shoes, gripping them in her hands.
"That's what you think!" she yelled back, in gasping breaths. "They were here, all along, Joe, in your own building!"
The vampires stopped running. She could hear the silence--the absence of heavy footfalls on the treads--as well as she heard them running, before.
"You're lying," came a snarl.
She grinned. She had them now. "If you say so!" she called back, trying to sound as triumphant as she could muster. She opened the heavy, fire-proof door, and slammed it again.
"That must be the eighteenth," one of them reported.
"Don't just stand there, idiot! Follow her!"
The running started again. She grinned and started to tip-toe her way up the stairs. It was far slower, but she made no sound. She reached the bend in the flight just as they reached the landing. The door opened.
Through the railing, she could see them dash in. One. Two. Joe paused for a moment, as though listening, and she froze, not even breathing. He couldn't see her, could he?
He slipped through the door.
She allowed herself a sigh of relief, and kept on going. She didn't have to run as fast, there was only two floors until the roof (she was pretty sure), but on the other hand, they might realise the ruse soon.
She reached the twentieth floor. On the landing, instead of the continuing stairs, was another door, bright orange. "That's odd, there's only twenty floors," she said out loud, in a whisper. "Shouldn't this be the--oh, no, of course not." She shook her head, ruefully. The orange door must be the door to the roof. She looked through the small, fire-proof glass window, and sure enough, there was more stairs. She tried the handle. It didn't open. It must be locked.
Her heart almost stopped.
She tried it again. And again. It rattled at her, furiously, as she struggled with it, tears streaming down her cheeks in frustration, anger, and panic. How was she going to get to the roof? How was she going to get out of here?
She rattled it one last time, furious. Stupid door. It should just swing open on its own accord. Swing open. The hinges! She could take the pin out of the hinges. She'd seen that in a movie once. Then she realised that the door would open out--not in, not towards her. That meant that the hinges were on the opposite side of the door from her.
She rattled the handle again, turning it--
She stopped. In her frustration, she hadn't realised that the doorknob was actually turning. The door wasn't opening, but the handle was turning.
She bent down, eye-level with the tongue in the latch. Sure enough, as she turned the handle, the tongue receded into the door frame. The door was open--but it wasn't open, open. Why not? Her gaze drew upward. To the bolt at the top of the door. There was another one a few inches from the floor. The door was just bolted! For crying out loud--
She grinned to herself, feeling the urge to do a victory dance--
"--I supposed to know?" The door two landings down slammed shut. There were footsteps on the stairs again. "She must be going to the roof."
Jill gasped and reached up to grasp at the bolt. Fairly heavy duty and almost too high, she couldn't get a very good grip on it. She took a deep breath, and pushed hard. It slid back. The second was easier to reach and undo. The door was open.
She pushed it open and rushed through, fleeing up the small steps that led to yet another door.
"Stop her!" They were on her level. They threw open the previously-bolted door and rushed at her, fangs bared, claws ready. She shoved herself against the roof door and it swung open. She tipped out into the bright sunshine.
Hands grabbed her arms, pulling her away from the door frame. Her eyes weren't adjusted, she looked up in a panic--right into the face of Grayson and Larkspur.
He smiled at her, and helped her to her feet, shoving her behind him. She looked around. Keller nodded at her, his gun drawn, as they all moved backward, towards the lip of the roof.
She could see Forreton spread out below her. Way, way off, was the view of the lake, the thin blue line on the horizon. The view was fantastic. Then she looked down.
The ground was twenty storeys below her. She started to get a heaving sensation in her stomach and had to back away, but not before she noticed some commotion around the base of the apartment building.
She went back to Grayson's side and concentrated on just looking around the roof-top...
Hovering above Keller was--it wasn't Tanager, it was another Wing, her wings rusty-brown with patches of an iridescent dark-blue. The iridescent feathers were glinting in the light as her wings flapped, slowly, while she hovered, waiting.
The wait wasn't long. Joe and his thugs burst out into the sunlight. They paused, hesitant, as they saw the reception waiting for them.
"So this is how you knew where Jill was," Keller remarked, his gun trained on Joe.
Joe grinned. "Partly."
"Partly?" Larkspur demanded.
"Partly. I did half the work, our informant did the other half." Joe started to edge backwards. Keller and Grayson exchanged glances.
"What do you mean by that?" Keller yelled. "Don't move." He gestured with his gun.
Joe sighed, and raised his hands. His features began to shift, until he was standing there a normal human. "Do the same, lowers."
"What? Why, sir? We'll be outmatched."
"Maybe, but they won't kill us." Joe smirked, now fully human, as his thugs transformed as well. "We'll leave messy, complicated, hard-to-explain bodies."
Grayson swore under his breath.
Jill tugged on his shirt. "What's going on?" she whispered, seeing Larkspur's hesitation in charging, the confusion on the new, unnamed Wing, the frustration written across Keller's features.
"When they're in human form, they're just like us," Grayson whispered back. "We can't just kill them, they'll leave corpses. We can't take the chance of getting caught."
"I have an idea," Jill said, suddenly. She darted out in front.
"Jill, wait!" Grayson yelled, but she held up a hand, twisting slightly, to keep him back.
"I know what you're trying to do, Joe," Jill told her neighbour. "And it won't work."
"Oh, why not?" Joe sneered. "I'll be innocent."
She grinned. "No you aren't. You're the people who kidnapped me before. You hunted me down, attacked Greg, and followed me to the roof. When you heard the police sirens from the street, you panicked, fearing you were caught, and jumped over the side of the roof."
Joe paled. "Police?"
Almost on cue, a thin, watered-down, wisp of a siren could be heard from down below. Jill had seen the lights when she looked over the edge.
Joe straightened. "They'll still notice a bullet in us--and you aren't armed."
"Possibly. After twenty storeys, I doubt it. And I certainly doubt that they'll notice whether or not you were, in fact, mauled to death." Jill stepped back, her arms spread to indicate the two Wings, both with their claws bared.
One of the thugs panicked, changing back into his vampire form. He charged, and the unnamed Wing swept forward, screaming. They met in a flurry of feathers as the Wing dove and slashed.
The other thug tried to make a run for it. There was a shot, and he fell forward, shoved hard by momentum, falling down the flight of steps.
There was suddenly a squeal, and then the first thug--the one fighting--disappeared, even as he fell to the concrete floor of the rooftop.
"That just leaves you, Joe," Keller said, walking forward, as the Wing leapt back into the air. "How about you tell us about this informant?"
Joe rolled his eyes. He shifted to his vampire shape and charge forward. Keller fired, but Joe kept going, his claws bared.
Larkspur had been next to Grayson but now she took to the air, diving in sync with the other Wing. They both landed, clawing and slashing, on Joe.
Jill gasped and covered her eyes the moment she saw the flash of red blood. The Others were human enough to bleed red--she hadn't seen what had happened to the first thug--it had happened so quickly--this was Joe, her neighbour--
They stood up, wings fluttering with residual excitement, the body of Joe gone. Keller sighed, holstering his gun. Grayson touched Jill on the arm, to see if she was okay; she nodded, and he took off, opening the door and looking down the flight of stairs.
"Is he gone?" Keller asked.
"No. I mean yes. I mean, dammit, Keller, he was a human when you shot him."
"Goddammit." Keller continued to swear under his breath, jogging forward. "Is he...?"
"Dead? Yes, I said that already." Grayson stepped back, letting Keller have a look. Keller started swearing and muttering again until Grayson nudged his arm. His partner looked up.
"Jill?" Grayson called. "When you said you were kidnapped, did you say whether the crooks had guns or anything? Could you have taken this guy's gun in the struggle? I don't want to leave you on your own with this but--"
Jill shook her head. "I didn't tell the police anything."
"What? But you told Joe--" Larkspur began, confused.
"I told Joe and Greg that I had been kidnapped. I told the police that I'd gone to visit my mother on an emergency and the note I left Greg had gotten misplaced."
They stared at her.
"That's a really lame excuse," Keller told her.
"I know!" she snapped, exasperated. "That's why I'm going to have a hard time explaining any of this!"
"Then we'll use Plan B," Grayson remarked.
Keller snorted. "That implies we had a plan A." They ignored him.
"But there's two of us," Larkspur pointed out, "and three of you."
"True," Grayson replied. "Which is why you're going to call Vireo for back-up. Isn't there a Peregrine in the area?"
"Yes, Nuthatch should be," the other Wing volunteered.
"Good. Call her. Larkspur, you can carry either me or Keller, and Indigo Bunting can carry Jill," Grayson finished. Larkspur nodded and then closed her eyes.
The other Wing--Indigo Bunting, Jill surmised--leapt back into the air and then came to hover over the woman.
Suddenly Jill got a strange feeling that ran up and down her spine--she looked up in the and then suddenly, without warning, another Wing popped into the air. She was bigger than any Jill had seen before. Her wings were brown, a plainer brown than Indigo Bunting's, but the span was greater. Her hair and eyes were coloured to match her wings. She landed gracefully, glancing at each of the humans in turn.
"Which one of you is heavier?" she said, without preamble. Grayson pointed at Keller and Keller pointed at himself. "Then let's get going. This place is going to be swarming with police any minute." Nuthatch fluttered around to land behind Keller. She was just as big as he was--and even a little taller.
Jill felt arms wrap around her waist. She gasped and twisted around to find herself looking into Indigo Bunting's dark blue eyes. "Don't worry," the Wing said, brightly. "This is going to be fun!"
Jill started to say something, but then Indigo Bunting launched herself into the air, knocking the wind out of the human. As Jill got her breath back, she realised what they were about to do. Currently they were hovering over the roof-top, as Larkspur with Grayson and Nuthatch with Keller joined them in the air.
"Oh no, oh no," Jill began to chant.
"Don't worry," Indigo Bunting repeated. "This is going to be fun." She swooped down, over the lip of the roof top, into the sky.
Jill started to panic. "But I'm afraid of heights!"
"Don't worry," Indigo Bunting told her, cheerfully, "we won't take you that high. Certainly no more than a mile or two."
Jill just stifled a scream and scrunched her eyes closed.
"It was just amazing, when you think about it," Grayson remarked, cheerfully, as he was putting the bandage around Jill's torso. "I mean, Indigo Bunting was several days late, and then we got your distress call, and we thought we'd have to contact another cell for back-up, which is always an emergency measure, and then Indigo Bunting just popped in, and then we were off. The coincidences are just fantastic, really. There, all done." He stepped away and she let her shirt drop back down. She had been holding it rolled up over her ribs.
"Thank you," she said, awkwardly, still feeling embarrassed. They had insisted that she had needed ointment as well as bandages on the bruises and she had finally obliged them. Keller had disappeared as soon as she had started to pull up her shirt; that only left her and a slightly red-faced Grayson to see to it.
He had gotten over his own embarrassment, and had started telling her about the events that had led up to her rescue.
"Tanager and Keller managed to fight off some vamps who were going after you just after you met with Keller at the cafe," Grayson continued, wiping his hands on the towel. They had been covered in the slightly-sticky salve. "They managed to kill one, but the other one got away. Keller thinks the one that got away might have been Joe."
Jill shook her head. The thought that she could have been massacred at any time--without any warning--gave her chills. She took a deep breath, wincing when her still-sore muscles pained her. The ointment seemed to be working nicely; it was making her skin feel very warm, and the heat was helping fight the dull pain the bruises had given her.
"How come you needed back-up?" she asked. "Where's Tanager?"
Grayson started to say something, but stopped and scratched the back of his head. "Tanager's here. She was... wounded in an attack. She's mostly recovered now, except for her wings, and we didn't want her getting into a fight and not being able to get away."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Jill said, truthfully. Something occurred to her. "She... she wasn't hurt fighting Joe off, was she?"
Grayson nodded. He started to say something again, but this time someone interrupted him.
"It's all part of the job," Ellis told her, appearing in the doorway. Keller was standing behind him. "It's good to see you again, Jill."
Jill smiled politely. "It's good to see you again too, Ellis."
"Really?" he asked, coming into the kitchen.
"No, not really," she admitted, with a sly grin as she hopped off the kitchen table where she had been sitting. "I would have preferred just--"
"To remain in a normal life?" Ellis finished for her. She nodded. He smiled, shaking his head. "I think we all know that feeling." He grew serious. "I hope we have convinced you that you're not our prisoner."
"And even if we haven't, I've taken the precaution of removing all the blunt objects from the kitchen," Keller remarked, as he stepped past Ellis.
"Keller," Ellis warned, seeing the expression on Jill's face. "It's something we all might have done in her situation..."
"I've been in her situation before and I've never smashed china over anyone's head," Keller replied, earnestly, heading to the fridge. "Anybody want anything to drink?"
"Just ignore him," Grayson said to Jill, after casting an angry glance in Keller's direction. "He just likes pushing people's buttons."
"I've noticed that," she remarked, dryly. She sighed. "Ellis? I need to talk to you about something."
"Sure, go right ahead," Ellis answered, leaning against the wall, his arms folded. When she hesitated, he sighed. "Do you want to go somewhere private to discuss it?"
"No, I guess not," she replied, after a moment, feeling sheepish. "It's just that... I was wondering... what happens to me now?"
He looked at her. "You join us, of course. That's what we contacted you for. I assumed that when you came here--"
Jill felt even more sheepish. They were going to such lengths to convince her of their sincerity. "It's... not that easy."
"Ah." Ellis looked to Keller, who was enjoying a can of pop and watching the proceedings with close interest; and then to Grayson, who was trying to look like he wasn't, in fact, watching the proceedings with close interest. "Jill, want to go for a walk?"
She looked startled, then nodded.
"Maybe you should borrow someone's jacket, a cool wind has whipped up," he said, as he started to leave the kitchen. He turned when he realised she wasn't following him. "Jill?"
"Coming," she said, jogging after him.
Ellis had on a light jacket, and Jill had on one of Grayson's sweatshirts that had been in the closet in the front hall; it was overly big, but perfect for the temperature outside.
They started walking along the sidewalk. In the day, in nice weather, the Victorian houses looked worn and well-kept, aging gracefully among the old oaks and maples that lined the streets. Many of the houses had well-tended gardens, and the late-summer flowers were out in full bloom, creating bursts of colour and smell as they walked.
Ellis started the conversation with a sigh. "You know, I don't get out as much as I like to, any more."
"Oh?" Jill asked, trying to keep up with him. He was taller than her, by a handspan, and his legs were longer; she was having to walk/jog to keep from lagging behind.
"I have a lot of paperwork, stuff to get through, people to keep in contact with--" He turned to look at her and realised that she wasn't shoulder to shoulder with him. When he realised how fast he was walking compared to her he slowed his gait. "Sorry."
"No problem," she replied. She paused. "What sort of paperwork? I mean, I'm not really sure what it is that you do, but I didn't think it involved a lot of red-tape--"
He laughed. "It doesn't, not really. When Keller and I were agents, on our own, we didn't realise how much work there was in it either. Then I got given my own cell to take care of--when more people became my responsibility--it's hard to launch anything without sitting down and organising it beforehand, know what I mean?"
She nodded, then realised he couldn't see her nod. "Yeah."
"Keller's a little bitter," Ellis went on, "that it's not just him and me, footloose and fancy-free, any more, and that's why he acts the way he does, especially around Vireo. So I wouldn't take any of it personally."
"I don't," she assured him. "Half the time, I don't know what he's talking about anyway."
Ellis laughed again, then continued to chuckle.
"What?" she asked, confused.
"That remark would take the wind out of his sails, no doubt about it," he said, grinning. "I ought to tell it to him."
Jill grumbled. "I don't want to get off on the wrong foot with him, either, especially if..." she trailed off, getting her bearings. "Especially if I'm--I don't know what I'm doing."
Ellis nodded, sagely. "I know how you're feeling. When I first found about how the world was, truly, I had the same indecision. The hard truth of it, Jill, is that there's a war going on, and you're involved it, whether you like it or not. And I know you don't. But denial won't change the fact that the Others are after you. We don't know why, yet, but they are." He stopped, and looked at her, right in the eye. "We do want you to join us, Jill, and help us. We need all the help we can get, and then some. But it's your decision, and it always has been." She started to say something, but he held up his hands to stop her. "Don't do anything yet. Stay a couple of days, if you want. I realise a decision like this can't be taken lightly, and so--"
"It's not just my decision," she interrupted, firmly. "I have my fiancee to think about as well. What will happen to Greg if I get wrapped up in all of this? He's already been hurt once. It's one thing for me, I know what's going on--" she faltered, "mostly, I mean, I still don't have all the answers, but I know more than Greg does--than Greg ever can. How can I..." She faltered again, her hands falling limply to her sides. "How can I explain any of this to him? And how can I live with him if I don't?"
Ellis smiled, slightly. "You know, you and I have a lot more in common than you think." He looked up at the great leafy-green bowers created by an oak and maple on the either side of the street. "That's another hard decision to make. And I know from experience how difficult it is to drag a loved one into all this mess. But ultimately, Jill, the decision is about you. Is up to you. You alone. The Others aren't interested in Greg--except to get you through him. They've tried that once, and they'll do it again."
She sighed, feeling defeated. "I don't want to see Greg get hurt." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, her resolve strengthening. "I can't live a lie, either. I thought I could, I thought that I could go back--but I couldn't. I can't go through life saying one thing and believing another, I just can't do it." She paused. "But I don't want to lose Greg."
Ellis didn't reply. He looked as though he was going to, and he even opened his mouth to say something, but then he stopped, shaking his head. "It's your decision, Jill. Same as before. If you want to go home, talk to Greg, then I can send you out with Larkspur. She'll go in case there's trouble." He smiled at her, and started walking. "Night is probably the best time to go. The cops will have cleared out by then, and in the meantime, you can just lay low for a while."
Jill nodded, lost in thought, wondering how in the world she was going to explain this--any of it--to a person who couldn't see to believe it.
Indigo Bunting hopped from one foot to the other, anxious. Keller was leaning against the railing of the landing, watching her, amused. "Hey," he called down. "What's the matter? You look like you have to go to the bathroom."
She looked up, startled by his voice. "Oh! I didn't see you there. Is Ellis around?"
"No, he went out with Jill." At her blank stare he added: "Melville."
"Oh. Melville. She seemed nice. Is she going to join us?" Indigo Bunting added, hopefully. "It would be nice to have more people, don't you think? I think it would too. So do Larkspur and Tanager. I think--"
"Whoa, there, Indy, calm down." Keller held his arms up in surrender. "I know about as much as you do."
"I don't know very much," Indigo Bunting confided sadly. "Well, not about Melville, anyway. I know a lot about my mission, though." She started hopping again. "Vireo said I had to talk to her and Ellis and I tried to find them both but Vireo is gone and Larkspur said that Ellis should be in his office and he isn't."
Keller grinned, shaking his head. Indigo Bunting's enthusiasm for her job, mission, and new life in general was infectious. It was something he had missed while she was gone. "Ellis ought to be back soon, so I wouldn't worry. Where's everybody else? Grayson's not here."
"He's in the aerie," Indigo Bunting replied, "with Larkspur and Tanager."
"Ah." Keller rubbed his eyes. "Scanning?"
"No, they're just talking. But most of what they're talking about I don't understand yet." Indigo Bunting looked crestfallen. "There's so much here that I don't understand."
"Yet," Keller finished for her, resting his forearms gingerly on the railing, looking down towards the floor. "Yet. What do you have to talk to Ellis about?"
"My mission. I have to tell him everything. I can't tell any one else, though." Her wings drooped, then fluttered up again. "I want to, I really do! It's so hard not to tell everybody, especially Tanager and Larkspur and Grayson, and of course you too, Keller, but I can't, I was told not to."
Keller's head whipped up to stare at her. "Why can't you tell us?"
"I was told not to," she repeated.
She squinted. "Does that matter?"
"Yes! We're a team, goddammit, and I'm not going anywhere or doing anything until I have all the information." Keller straightened up, indignant. "Who told you not to?"
Indigo Bunting shrank backwards, confused and frightened by his tone of voice. She didn't like it when people yelled; she was still unused to seeing such displays of anger and it always threw her off-balance.
"Who?" Keller repeated, lowering the volume but keeping the tone firm. He started down the stairs. "Who told you?"
"Vireo," Indigo Bunting replied in a tiny voice.
He stopped, half-way down the stairs, fuming. "She told you not to tell anyone else, or...? Or what? Did she say anything else?"
Indigo Bunting nodded. "She said that if I couldn't be trusted to keep classified information to myself, that I'd be sent back. Back home." She looked up, hopeful, and frightened at the same time. "I don't want to go back, Keller! I like it so much here. Do you really think she'll do that?"
"We won't let her," Keller reassured her. "We won't let her do anything like that, Indy, I promise. She doesn't tell us what to do. We don't take orders from her."
"Which," sounded out an angry female voice from above, "is exactly why Vireo told her not to tell anyone." Larkspur descended down from the ceiling, wings spread as she glided to the ground floor. "Do you have to turn everything into a fight, Keller?"
"This isn't everything," he retorted. "This is Vireo throwing it in my face."
"Throwing what?" Larkspur demanded, landing demurely on her feet.
"Throwing the fact that we're no more than messenger boys. People. Wings. Whatever." Keller shook his head. "We haven't had a job in months. Station Ten--we could have done that. We were in the area, anyway. And yet we got passed over. And then Indigo Bunting gets a mission. She's only a Hawk!"
"Hey!" Indigo Bunting cried, hurt. "I only just started out!"
"You know what I mean," Keller added, quickly, before turning back to Larkspur. "Before Vireo showed up, we were getting things done. Accomplishing things. And now--now all we do is wait for orders, like sheep."
"That's an interesting comparison." Ellis was at the doorway. No one had heard him enter. Jill was behind him, shrinking back, unwilling to involve herself in the argument, whether she was invited to or dragged in. "I didn't realise sheep took orders."
"You know what I mean," Keller persisted, angrily.
"I think you'd do a better job of persuading people if you actually said what you mean, instead of relying on us to read your mind," Ellis replied, amiably. He had his hands in his trouser pockets, leaning against the door frame. "There's a very good reason we haven't been in the public eye, so to speak. And there's a reason why Indigo Bunting was told not to divulge information."
"And that reason would be?" Keller asked, arms spread.
"I could tell you," Ellis replied, dead-pan, "but then I'd have to kill you."
For a moment the two men stared at each other, and then Keller broke into a grin, shaking his head, and astounding Jill and the two Wings.
"You drive me nuts," Keller said, running a hand through his hair. "You really do. Just tell me why everything is being kept so hush-hush."
Ellis shrugged. "I can't tell you that either. Yet. Trust me, after tonight, after I talk to Indigo Bunting and Vireo, I'll tell you everything I know, and then you can tell me everything that you know, everything that happened on the rooftop. I'm going to need all the details for the report."
Keller nodded. "Between me, Grayson, and Jill, we should have a fairly detailed report." He leaned over, to see past Ellis. "Jill? Are you staying with us?"
She frowned. "Well... yes and no."
"Yes and no?" Larkspur repeated, exchanging a glance with Keller. "What does that mean?"
"It means she is for today, but after that we're not sure yet," Ellis supplied, before Jill had a chance. She could only nod in agreement.
"I don't understand," Indigo Bunting said, her wings starting to flap in agitation. She, too, leaned past Ellis to look at Jill. "Why wouldn't you want to stay with us?"
Keller looked at Jill for a long moment, until she couldn't stand it and dipped her head. He nodded to himself. "Indy," he couldn't resist saying, "You'll understand when you're older."
She scowled. "I hate it when you say that."
Ellis laughed, and moved toward his office. "Let's get this show on the road. Come on, Indigo Bunting."
She jumped up and down. "You mean I get to tell you now?"
He grinned and opened the door to his office. She jumped up and down a few more times then tried to follow him into the office. She forgot to bring in her wings in time, and they collided with the door frame. She scowled again, and then made herself intangible, slipping through the wall with ease.
"Ah, to be young again," Ellis sighed, with a grin, before he closed the door behind him.
The three left in behind looked at each other as if to say now what?
"I don't know about you two," Keller announced, "But I am going to get myself something to eat."
"That sounds like a good idea," Jill agreed, still feeling uncomfortable. "Uh... Larkspur?"
She shook her head. "I'll see you later. I'm going to back to the attic." She spread her wings and leapt, flapping a few times to propel her way up and through the ceiling.
Jill watched with her mouth open. She caught Keller staring at her and closed it, feeling sheepish. "I'm still new at this, okay?" she said, crossly.
He sauntered by her and shrugged. "I didn't say anything..."
She grumbled and followed behind him.
Jill's feet touched the smooth concrete of the balcony, and Larkspur's hands loosened from around her waist. Jill opened her eyes, seeing her deck-chair and window boxes. She let out a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. Her own balcony seemed almost alien to her. Had so much changed?
She shook her head, deciding not to waste any time. She tugged on the sliding door, realised that it was locked and cursed under her breath.
"I wish I knew what you were expecting," Larkspur said, quietly, as she moved towards the glass door.
"I wish I did too," Jill admitted, stepping out of the way. Larkspur stepped through the glass as though it wasn't there, and then unlatched the door from the inside. She stepped back through. "Where are you going to be? In case--I need--" She trailed off, momentarily breathless, as Larkspur took into the air, her great black wings glinting, moonlight streaming from behind her, around her, a bright night-time halo.
"I'll be on the roof," the Wing replied, sailing up. "Don't worry, I'll know if something's wrong."
Jill sighed, waiting until Larkspur was out of view, before she slid the door open. She stepped into her living room. Her old living room--she wasn't sure yet, of whether this room was still hers, or only hers, previously; she still didn't know how Greg would respond to all of this.
There was a creak on the floorboards and she whirled. It was Greg, at the door to their bedroom, his face ashen. "Jill? Jill! Where have you been?"
She wanted to run to him, to hug him, hold him, but she didn't move. There was a funny expression on his face. "Greg? What's the matter?"
"What's the matter?" he repeated, incredulously, taking slow steady steps towards her. "What's the matter? Where have you been all day? I came back here after I got out of the hospital--"
"The hospital," Jill breathed, horrified. She didn't realise that he had been badly hurt--"Oh my god, Greg--"
"You're telling me," he interjected. "The police came here, looking for you--"
"The police?" she repeated, feeling a cold hand clamp around her insides. Greg didn't seem to hear her or notice her expression.
"--they came to the apartment and couldn't find you. I couldn't tell them where you could be, I had no idea, and then they found a body, they found a dead body, Jill, on the roof--someone was shot." He held his head in his hands, then moved towards the couch to sit down. "I've been frantic, all day, looking for you." He looked up at her, with tears in his eyes. "I thought that they'd gotten you, Jill, I thought you were--" He didn't finish the sentence, but just took a deep steadying breath.
Jill's head was whirling on the inside. She felt as though the room was spinning and she was going to be sick. Greg's voice seemed to be coming from far away.
Numbly she brought her gaze over to him. "The police?" she inquired. "Greg--what did you tell them?"
He glared at her. "The truth!"
The truth. How much worse could this get? "How much--of the truth?"
He continued to glare at her. "Jill--where have you been?" He said it very forcefully, and her resolve to tell him everything--everything that she knew, everything that had happened--crumpled. She remembered the scorn she had been treated to when she had tried to tell him about the first incident, in the bar, in what seemed like centuries ago.
"I--can't tell you," she said, at last, in a quiet voice.
He stood up, furious. "Jill! What the hell is going on here? The police were combing the building. Joe's gone missing, did you know that? His wife doesn't know where he's gone, she can't raise him on his cellphone. Then there's the body on the roof. Gunshot. Guns, Jill. You didn't tell me that they had guns!"
"Yes I did," she managed, weakly.
"No you didn't! You said that they had knives, that they had cut your shoulder!" He grabbed her by the shoulders, and she winced. "What really happened, there, Jill? Where were you today? Why weren't you here?"
She pulled away from him, startled by his movements. "I... I ran, Greg. I had to. They were chasing me--"
"The thieves." Greg started pacing. Then he paused, looking up at her, horror written across his features. "Did you... did you shoot him, Jill? Were you the one who...?"
"No!" she exclaimed, horrified herself. "No, I didn't. It wasn't me."
"Then who was it?" His tone grew colder. "Why aren't you telling me everything, Jill? Don't you trust me?"
No. "Yes, of course, Greg--"
"Then why do you lie to me? Why didn't you go to the police? What are you hiding?"
"What?" She had started to back up as he advanced on her.
"What are you hiding?" he repeated, dangerously. "I didn't think you were the sort to keep secrets, but you're not telling me something."
The hurt on his face, the expression of betrayal--it broke her heart. She shook her head, sadly. "You're right, Greg."
He looked triumphant, then confused, then frightened. "So what is it, then? What's the whole story?"
Jill kept her gaze to the floor for a few moments, then looked up. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
He glared, his expression settling back into betrayal. "Try me."
She took a deep breath. "I was never kidnapped by thieves. I was attacked--by creatures from outside our dimension. Not everyone can see them, but I can. I'm one of a few. Other members of this... organisation, I guess you would call it, are fighting against these creatures. Joe was one of them--one of the creatures, I mean. He had his agents attack you to get your keys, so that they could trap me in the apartment. I fled to the roof, where the members of the organisation saved me. They killed Joe and both of his thugs."
Greg blinked, his jaw dropping.
She knew from the expression on his face that he didn't believe her. How could she ever have expected him to? The explanation sounded ludicrous even to her, and she'd lived through it. She had been hoping that, even if Greg didn't believe her, that she'd be able to convince him to meet Keller and the others, and to come away with her. But now the police were involved--oh god, the police--
"I can't... I can't..." Greg was saying, incredulous.
"It's hard to accept, I know--" Jill began, but he cut her off.
"I can't believe that after all this time, after all that we've been through, that you would try and feed me something so utterly ridiculous--" He stopped, shaking his head. "I remember that stupid story that you made up after the bar incident--"
"It wasn't a stupid story!" she yelled, suddenly indignant at his patronising tone. His casual dismissal was bringing up a lot of things that she had let herself forget. "It was the truth!"
"Come off it, Jill. Creatures from another dimension? Secret organisations? Joe an agent of evil? He was our friend, Jill, and making up such garbage about him--it's worse than dishonouring his memory, if he is dead. They still don't know." Greg stood, scowling at her, his hands on his hips. "Can't you grow up and tell me what really happened?"
She blinked, at a loss as to what to say. Greg, for one, was not at a loss for words.
"You know, a marriage is supposed to be based on trust, Jill, and if you can't give me that, then maybe we ought to rethink what we're doing."
She stepped backwards as though he had slapped her. Never, not the entire time that she was worrying about telling him, had it occurred to her that they would break up. Greg was such a part of her life that the thought was... it would have just never come to her, even as a worst-case scenario.
Trust. He was right. How could they base their marriage on lies?
"I can't..." she stopped herself. "What are you saying, Greg?"
For once, he seemed contrite, as he realised the full impact of his words. "Jill, honey, it's been a long day, my head is still throbbing--"
"What are you saying, Greg?" she repeated, her voice rising.
He looked startled. "Jill, honey, please, calm down. You need some rest too--"
"Are you saying we should call everything off?" she demanded, fiercely. "Is that what you just said? That if we can't trust each other, then we should break up? Is that what you meant?"
"No, Jill, no," he tried to soothe. "That's not what I meant. You're over-reacting--"
"Over-reacting!" she exclaimed, her voice growing louder. "Over-reacting?!"
"Yes. Over-reacting. You need to calm down." Greg tried harder to placate her. "It's been a long, stressful, upsetting day. Just come to bed, Jill, we can go to sleep, the police are meeting us in the morning, they'll sort everything out..."
"No, they won't." She cut him off abruptly, shaking her head, feeling faint and sick to her stomach. "They're not meeting me, at any rate. I am having nothing to do with them."
"Jill, be reasonable. They're only going to ask a few questions--"
"Greg, honey, you're not listening to me. I'm not having anything to do with the police. I can't. Do you know why? Because I'd only be able to tell them the truth, and they wouldn't buy it. They'd think I was nuts, just like you do." She took a hard look around the apartment, realising that this might be the end.
What she noticed wasn't nostalgic, but disgust--so much of the decor was from Greg's suggestions--very few paintings, cushions, or anything like that was from her ideas. She had never paid that much attention before. It didn't seem to matter.
"I don't think you're nuts, Jill," Greg said, quietly. She turned on him.
"No, you think I'm lying to you. Have I ever lied to you, Greg? Of course not--wait--yes I have. When I told you that story about being kidnapped. I didn't think you'd have believed the truth, and I was right, you haven't." She rubbed her eyes. "I wish I didn't have to say this, Greg, but if you can't trust me, then--"
"Then what?" he snapped, suddenly. "Then what? You'll run off and join this little cult? Wait for the mothership to arrive?"
"It's not like that!"
"How do I know? I don't know anything, since you didn't see fit to tell me!"
"I did tell you!" Jill yelled, furious, close to tears. "You told me to grow up, remember?"
He sighed, theatrically. "If you bothered to listen to yourself, you'd see where I was coming from--"
"Oh, so I need to understand your position, but you feel free to dismiss mine?" she inquired, hurt. She folded her arms across her chest.
He glared at her. "Fine. Let's discuss your side. Where were you today?"
"I was... hiding," she said, at last. "I didn't want to get involved with the police."
"Hiding," he repeated with a nod. "I see. And what, exactly, do you have to hide?"
She paused, unsure how to answer. She looked down again, her anger fading, leaving her without the strength to continue. When she did speak, her voice was low, quiet. "I was worried about what they'd do. My... my friends in the organisation killed that man up there. He was trying to kill me. I didn't do it, but Keller did. I--" she shook her head and then continued.
"I knew that if I told the police that the man had kidnapped me before then they'd want to know why I didn't tell them before. I'd be trapped in my lies, and the truth would satisfy no one. They'd lock me up or something." She closed her eyes. "I knew you were hurt, I wanted to come and see to you but I knew that the police were downstairs and I couldn't. I just couldn't. So I went into hiding, back at their house."
She looked up, to see Greg staring at her in distaste.
"So you've been lying to everyone this entire time," he said with a sneer. "Telling everyone a different story to cover your tracks."
"No! It's not like that!" she protested.
"Not like what, Jill? If this 'organisation' is what you say, then they should have nothing to hide either. Unless they really are crazy." He spat the last word out and dared her to contradict him.
"They're not," she whispered, still feeling cold on the inside. "I've seen them, Greg, the creatures. They're horrible--like demons, and I didn't make them up. I didn't."
"Fine. Demons. Whatever." Greg sat down on the sofa again, looking up at her through narrowed eyes. "So if you're in hiding and can't show your face, what did you come back here for?"
"For you!" she exclaimed. "I came back to get you."
"Oh." He snorted. "What for? I was supposed to just pack up and leave everything behind, on your say-so? To go fight the evil and injustice in the world?"
She began to feel her anger rising. "Yes. Yes, and why not? I did that for you, for less. I packed up everything I had and left everything I knew, to come here, to be with you. Can I not ask the same from you?"
"This is different," he replied, coldly.
"You're right, it is. My life is in danger if I stay here, Greg," she snapped. "They're still after me. I need to stay with people that can protect me."
"You can't, Greg! You can't even see them, and you don't want to anyway." She turned away, looking at the view on the balcony. Her eyes watered with tears. She had loved the night view from the balcony, with the downtown skyscrapers glittering against the sky. It occurred to her that she might never see it again, like this.
She turned back to face him, tears in her eyes. "If you can't believe me," she said, slowly, "then I can't ask you to come with me."
"There, that's settled," he replied, decisively.
"Which means that I have to go alone," she finished. He looked up at her, startled.
She started to walk to the balcony door, hoping that Larkspur would be able to hear her, if she yelled. He grabbed her arm, pulling her around to look at him.
"Jill, you can't leave," he said, almost desperately. "You can't do this. You can't walk out because of... because of..."
"Because of what? Say it, Greg. Come right out and say it," she snapped, wrenching her arm free.
"Because of some fantasy," he finished, sadly. "They're not real, no matter what these people have told you. There aren't people from other dimensions running around attacking humans. It's not real."
Larkspur had landed on the balcony. She was looking through the glass door at Jill, and Jill caught her gaze and stared back, then nodded, sadly.
She turned to look at her fiancee. "Goodbye, Greg," she said, sadly. She started for the door again. He grabbed her arm again, and this time, she couldn't wiggle free. "Greg--you're hurting me--!"
"Do you think that I'm just going to let you go?" he snapped. "That I'm just going to let you go anywhere like this, when you're out of your mind? I didn't realise you were that crazy--suicidally crazy."
"Greg, let go!" she yelled, but he started to drag her towards the door.
"I'll take you to get some help. Therapy, drugs, whatever it takes. There's something wrong with you, Jill, but I'll help you."
"The hell you will!" she snapped, kicking him in the shins. He yelped and let go, and she started to run for the balcony door. He ran after her, trying to grab a hold on her clothing. She caught Larkspur's expression through the glass.
The Wing had unsheathed her claws, and she was hissing. She leapt and dove through the door, arms outstretched, ready to stop Greg from hurting Jill--ready to defend her team-mate--
"Stop!" Jill yelled, to Larkspur, but her exclamation startled Greg as well and he paused, straightening up. Larkspur skidded to a halt, her toe talons skittering on the floor, her wings flapping to keep her upright. "Don't."
"But he could--"
"He's not going to do anything," Jill told her, firmly. She looked to Greg, and he was staring at her in horror. She thought, for a brief, shining moment, that he could see Larkspur as well--that he also had the ability, that he was just like her--and then, as his expression shifted into disgust, she realised he thought Jill was talking to thin air.
"Goodbye, Greg," she said, again, firmly. She looked to Larkspur, who nodded and sheathed her claws, holding a hand out to Jill.
Jill took it, and felt a funny tingle that was starting to feel familiar. She started walking with Larkspur towards the balcony. She took a deep breath and then... and then stepped through the glass door as though it wasn't there at all. It was only when she was on the balcony that she turned to see Greg. He was standing, bewildered, looking around the apartment.
She couldn't hear him, but she could see his mouth moving, forming her name. She reached out and put her palm against the glass--or, at least, just over the glass. "He can't see me."
"No," Larkspur replied. "I made sure of that."
Jill nodded, sadly, turning away. The Wing wrapped her arms around the woman's waist, and then they lifted into the air.
"Jill?" Keller poked his head out from the kitchen, as she walked in through the front door. "Are you--you're back so soon--how did it go?" He stopped himself when Larkspur came through the front door--literally, slipping through the wood, and he saw that the two were alone. "Ah."
Jill nodded, unable to trust herself to speak, yet. He started to say something, and then paused. He reached out, instead, and patted her on the shoulder.
She looked up at him.
"Do you want something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Whisky? Actually, I don't know if we have any whisky, but we may have some rum tucked away somewhere--"
"It's all right," she said, waving his offers away. "I'm okay."
He studied her face. "No you're not."
"No, I'm not," she admitted. "But I'm not ready to talk about it, yet. How did the meeting go?"
"We haven't had it yet," Keller replied. "It's been rescheduled. Indigo Bunting is still talking to Ellis, believe it or not. He says we'll get caught up tomorrow morning."
Jill nodded, rubbing her arms. She felt very cold, and very tired. Keller looked as though he was about to say something again, but then he stopped, dropping his gaze.
"I think we all need some sleep," Larkspur said, suddenly. "Come on, Jill, I'll help you get settled in. Goodnight, Keller."
"'Night," he replied, before reaching out to touch Jill's good shoulder again, very gently. Then he disappeared off into the kitchen.
Jill sighed, smiling slightly for a brief moment, lost in reflection, before she followed Larkspur and headed upstairs.
First One glared down, at the crouching, snivelling, useless example of an underling. What were they good for? Only grunt work. Only slave labour. No better than humans.
"I--" the underling began, his voice cracking, "I am sorry, First One, but it was--" He was about to say out of my control until he realised what a useless thing that was to say. First One was not interested in excuses, in blame. First One only wanted results.
The second-in-command stood, heaving a great sigh. "Lowerform, you have vastly disappointed me, today. I expected the human under our control. You did not deliver."
The underling did not respond, did not lift his head, did not avert his eyes from the carpet. He knew he was about to die; he only wished that his corpse would not remain behind, like a human's.
"However," First One continued, looking at his nails, "you are the leader of my legion, and I really can't be bothered to train a replacement. So I will let you live for the time being."
The underling fought the urge to start kissing First One's boots. "Thank you, sir."
"Yes, well. Don't think you're irreplaceable. You are dismissed." First One waved his hand, and the underling scuttled out from the room, making sure not to make eye contact or raise his head in any way. First One sighed, again, and sat down.
Things were not going as he planned. They never did, did they? And of course, He was only interested in results. It didn't matter to Him that First One was hardly to blame. No, it didn't matter at all.
"Oh well," he said to himself, out-loud, "tomorrow's another day."
End of Part Two