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Tales told - a.k.a free reads > May 2015 Creative Writing - girls on a Bike - STORIES

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message 1: by Kaje (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments Here's the winner for our May picture prompt -



As usual, any length is welcome this month. Just keep it YA with some LGBTQIAP content. Poem? Story? Novella? 100-word Drabble? Sure! Have fun. I look forward to seeing what our creative members come up with.


message 2: by Kaje (last edited May 30, 2015 08:31PM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments Reserved for story links.

Kaje


message 3: by Kaje (last edited May 30, 2015 08:30PM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments (trigger warning for (view spoiler).)

Well-Met by Moonlight

A female voice behind me said, soft and low and urgent, “You see nothing unusual. You're going home, same as always. Walk past the motorcycle and past the truck to your car, and drive home.”

I stared at where the red-roan horse stood in one parking space, shifting weight from one back hoof to the other on the hard pavement of the school's student lot. That was one amazing horse, glossy in the moonlight, fine-boned and long-tailed. It wore a black saddle, sliver-spangled reins, and a bored expression. The other two cars still in the lot looked… like a newer pickup and my rusting-out Camry. “These are not the droids you are looking for,” I murmured to myself.

“What?” The voice was less purry-smooth this time.

I raised a hand to rub my eyes, slowly. The horse didn't change, though. Just cocked the other hip and blew out a blubber-lipped breath, eyes drooping shut. “That's a horse.”

“It is not.” The girl behind me cleared her throat, and lowered her voice into that vibrato again, “I mean, you're dreaming. Seeing things. You should drive home and get some sleep.”

I turned, using the movement to take a step back. “Okay.” I stared into Tanya's changeable hazel eyes. “What the hell are you up to this time?”

“Me?” She gave me the little twisted smile of mischief that made me go weak at the knees. And she clearly knew that got to me, the way her eyes went brighter. We were best friends, and we'd been dancing around going out together for months now. For some reason, she kept turning me down and then kept coming back with some unexpected gesture of friendship as if to make up for saying no.

But a horse was over the top, even for Tanya. “Yeah, you. Where's your bike? How did you do that?”

She flicked a glance over my shoulder. “My bike is there. What are you talking about? Have you been into your foster-brother's stash?”

I winced, and she had the grace to look a bit ashamed. She knew I didn't do drugs, and that living around Timmy, who did, was not fun and games.

“Sorry. But really, Gwen. You see a horse?” Her laugh was fake.

“You tell me.” I started to turn away but she grabbed me by both arms, leaned in and kissed me.

“Mph!” I pulled free, angry now. “You did not just do that!”

“Don't you want to?”

Of course I did. I'd wanted to kiss her since she walked in the homeroom door back in January. Five months of chasing her, and now she was willing? Like that didn't stink to high heaven of ulterior motives. I whirled and dashed down the steps toward the poorly-lit parking lot. I'd surprised her enough to be two strides ahead of her, so she only caught up to me as I reached the end of the sidewalk. She grabbed my shirt from behind, and I yanked free, and shouted loudly, “Hey! Horse!”

Okay, not my most brilliant move ever. But there was this impossible, insane horse parked at the curb, and the girl I thought was my friend was trying to tackle me, and I was not high.

The horse came alert with a start, arched its neck and blew a breath toward us. And said, “I do not answer to Horse.”

“Oh!” I stopped so short that Tanya crashed into me from behind, and had to wrap her arms around me so we wouldn't both go down. Too bad I had no time to enjoy it.

Tanya muttered against my hair, “Now you've done it, dumbass.”

The horse, the stallion because there was no doubt about that, came towards us, its steps light and tightly controlled, almost mincing, and its nostrils flared. “I don't believe I know this human, Your Highness. Introduce us.”

Tanya said, “Way to convince her that there's nothing going on here, Sprite.”

“She is already far too well aware.” The horse was bigger than I'd thought, looming up alarmingly as he came to a stop in front of me. I managed not to flinch as he lowered his head to sniff and then blow into my face. “No scent of Second Sight here. No primrose or clover, no ointment on her eyes.”

Tanya hugged me closer, then stiffened, “Gwen, why is your shirt inside out?”

“It is?” I felt a moment of embarrassment; I'd taken a quick wash in the school bathroom after finishing in the office, since at home we shared one bathroom between seven foster kids. I must have screwed up… “So what? Do I have to be properly dressed to meet His Majesty the horse?”

The horse's voice was amused, rather than angry. “Turning your coat on Midsummer's Eve is one way to see things that are not safe for human eyes. Was it an accident then?”

“Turning my…” I tugged at the front of my T-shirt. “This isn't a coat. And this is all crazy. And I'm arguing with a horse.”

“You're not. You're listening to one.” His long hairy face came closer to mine, until I couldn't see his eyes and his mouth at the same time, and I focused on the little blaze of white between his flared nostrils instead. “Titania, this is your problem. What do you propose to do about it?”

Tanya's arms around me tightened. “I'll handle it. I swear.”

“Well, you know the rules.” The horse suddenly nudged my chest, knocking us both back a step. “I am not going to face down your mother over this for you.”

“I wouldn't ask you to.” Tanya set me to one side and put a hand on the horse's wide roan forehead. Her white fingers looked tiny against his head, but he backed up at her touch. She walked him three steps away from me, just with that hand on him, each faster then the one before, his head lowering as he went. “Don't get above yourself, Sprite.”

The horse backed up another few quick steps, putting space between them. It shook its head, neck arched, mane rippling. But its voice was more grumpy than arrogant as it said, “And I suppose you want me to just stand here some more, bored stiff.”

She laughed quietly. “No. That's all right. Go ahead and run.”

I cleared my throat, because I have never been good at hanging about quietly keeping my opinions to myself. “Yeah, no one will be surprised to see a horse galloping loose through the suburb. Or a ghost-ridden motorcycle.”

The horse gave me an unfriendly look, then shivered. Its muscular red-coated body blurred, changed, shrank, and became a fox. With a yip of disdain, (and it totally was disdain, even in a fox voice), the creature dashed off across the grass and under the hedge. A flick of white-tipped tail, and it was gone. The parking space where Tanya's familiar bright-red bike had been parked was… empty.

I turned toward her. The late-May evening air was suddenly cool, and I hugged my arms across my stomach. “So. Let me guess. You're the Chosen One.”

“The… what?”

“You know. The Slayer. All that stands between the Earth and utter destruction.” My voice wasn't quite steady but I got the whole quote out. Not that I could believe it, exactly. But it was something to say that wasn't gibbering in fear and confusion. I added a scowl for good measure. It was unfair that she had long straight hair like dark silk, and the face of an angel, somehow even brighter and finer tonight than ever, but that wasn't enough to make me play nice.

“I am nothing you need to know about. Take off your shirt and fix it.”

“I think I like it this way. I think truth is always better than pretty lies.” When you're a foster kid, you learn real fast not to fall for a good story.

“So.” She tossed her head, flicking that long hair, but I had the impression she was less confident than she wanted to seem. “I have a magical horse. He can look like a motorbike.”

“Or a fox.”

“Sometimes.”

“And you have this, like, sarcastic Kelpie-horse because…?”

“Oh, Sprite's not a Kelpie.” Tanya's expression was surprisingly serious. “You don't want to meet those. Really sharp teeth. Carnivorous, you know. Sprite's just a fae-horse.”

“Just.”

“Well, yeah. Practically ordinary.”

“I could tell.” I didn't unwrap my arms.

“They live a long time. They get, um, touchy sometimes about their duties.”

“Snarky, even.”

Tanya sighed. “Now what?”

“You tell me? What's the punishment for pissing off a fae-horse? Or seeing the real face of whatever you are, Your Majesticness?” I hadn't forgotten the horse had called her royal. I was common as common gets, and not half as gorgeous, even without the added shine she wore that night, but I'd always been faster with words.

“Highness,” she corrected as if that came automatically. Then she pressed her lips together.

“High and mighty of what?”

“Well, the fae. One tribe of us anyway. My mother has the real power. And I have a dozen sisters. I'm the spare.”

“Going to school with humans for shits and giggles.” That probably came out more bitter than I meant it, because I'd spent those five months lusting and pining after someone I apparently didn't really know.

“Um.” She cocked her head. “Would you believe this school is built over a Hellmouth?”

Damn her, she made me snort and loosen a little of my desperate grip on myself. “No.” That was unfair. I'd been the one to make her watch Buffy. She didn't even like it much. Or claimed not to.

“Well, you'd be right. Joss Whedon has a great imagination, but in fact I was doing something much more banal. Well, kind of banal. From a fae point of view.”

“What's banal to a fae?”

She sighed. “You're really not going to change your shirt, let me get you drunk, and pretend this never happened?”

“I'm eighteen. I don't drink.” I could not afford to get arrested, ever. When you're in care, they dump you out at eighteen, ready or not. I was lucky that my foster parents were letting me rent my bed from them for another month, until school was over. They'd have had the right to kick me out on my birthday. This way I had a month longer to prepare. I'd found a college, a stipend. But every useful bit of it went away if I got busted. “You know, you're actually safe. Go away and don't sweat it. I can't afford to have anyone thinking I'm crazy.”

“And when you see me in school tomorrow?”

“You're going back to school? On purpose? Your Highness?”

“I'm a Hunter.”

“Not a Slayer?”

“Quit with the Buffy, already!”

“Sorry.” Although I wasn't really. “So you're hunting something?”

“Someone. A shreevahn.”

“What's that?” I'd actually read a fair bit of folklore and the name didn't ring bells. Although a lot of things didn't sound the way they looked on the page.

“A shreevahn. They're a kind of vampire.”

“Ooh, do they sparkle?”

Tanya hit my arm, hard enough to sting. “Absolutely no Twilight. Ever.”

It somehow shook me loose of the paralysis that had been gripping me. “Sorry. That was a low blow.”

“They prey on the weaker humans, but they hide their presence well. I know there's one around, but can't find him. Yet.”

“And they're out there sucking blood? No wonder so many kids look anemic first period.”

Tanya said in a hollow voice that made my throat hurt, “No, they suck hope. Life. Light. They drain a kid dry and leave the shell. Those seven suicides this year? That's what brought me here. That's what a shreevahn does.”

“Oh.” I'd known Daniel, just a little, watched him go from a quiet geeky kid to a silent ghost, and then one day he wasn't there and they brought the grief counselors in. Again.

“I Hunt for the dark ones who break the law, at my mother the Queen's command.”

“That's… good.” My brain still hadn't caught up with all this, although the hollow feeling in my stomach said I was getting there.

“Well.” Tanya lowered her voice and her tone eased. “Don't give Her Majesty too much credit. She doesn't really care what they do to humans, until it risks exposure. But killing human children is high on the shit-list.”

“And, do you care?” I realized I desperately needed to know that.


message 4: by Kaje (last edited May 31, 2015 11:10AM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments “I'm half human,” Tanya said. “My father was a musician, brought Underhill for his hair like black silk and his voice like velvet.” There was an odd trace of mockery in the way she quoted that, like it meant more than it said. Or less. “He was allowed to go back to the human world after seven years, when I was six. But he'd eaten of fairy bread and drunk liquid sunshine, and within a month in the mundane lands, they told me he'd killed himself. Yes, I care.”

“I'm sorry.” I reached out. Her arm under my hand felt the same as ever, warm and smooth, with a gymnast's muscles. I frowned. “They told you he committed suicide. When you were six?”

“Oh, it was a lesson. I'd pined to go with him.” She shrugged then, and moved away from my hand. Her voice had seemed to float in and out of two worlds too, sometimes a teenaged Minnesota girl, sometimes drifting higher and smoother and more formal, but now she spoke almost roughly. “Tonight, I get to do something good up here. Earn my keep, and justify my title.”

“You're going to go after the—“ what had she called it— “sheevin?”

“Yes.” Her face turned cold, almost avid. “After months of a hint here and a miss there, darkness slipping away when I search for it, tonight I'll get him.”

“How? By yourself?” I swallowed. “Can I help?”

“Midsummer magic strengthens me while it weakens him,” she said, “And no, and no. I have Sprite. And you can't.”

“He ran off,” I pointed out sourly.

“Just shaking the tickles out of my feet,” a voice growled by my knee. I jumped sideways and stared down at the fox who was suddenly sitting on the sidewalk. He licked his whiskers, deliberately. “And getting a morsel to eat.”

Tanya said, “He'd never abandon me. He's a friend.”

The fox gave a little high-pitched yip. “Not to mention your mother the Queen would have my guts for garters, an' I left you in danger.”

“That too.” She looked at me. “We need to talk, I guess. Later. Right now I need to do my job. You should be safe, going home. The shreevahn preys on those he considers weak and easy. You've never been that.”

I heard myself say, “I could be easy,” and blushed. “Seriously, I want to help. I knew several of those kids.”

“They weren't all the shreevahn's work.”

“So? If any of them were, I want to—“ what had the fox said?— “have its guts for garters. Although not really, because yuck.”

The fox said, “Time's wasting, Your Highness. Send the girl on her way, and to work we go.”

But Tanya gave me a long, considering look. “Can you follow orders? Help only when asked, and leave when told?”

Sprite snorted, down by my knee. “Aye, she's done so well with that thus far.”

“I can try,” I said, because blank-check promises are not my thing.

“Come on!” Tanya held out her hand, and I'd have had to be made of rock to resist. I took it. She laughed in a way that was excitement and anger together, and turned to run toward the school, dragging me in her wake.

The doors were locked, of course. At this hour, they only opened from the inside, and I'd been last one out. My job taking care of the office earned me some bucks, and even better, some references, and I was paid by the hour on the clock. I didn't cheat, but I found stuff to do that ran as late as I could get away with. And then I'd used the john.

Tanya tugged the handle, and muttered something. The fox said, “Silverseal, Highness.”

I didn't know what that meant, but even as Tanya unslung her backpack from her shoulder I said, “I've got a key.”

She glanced at me, and this laugh was softer. “Like this was meant to be. Let us in, then?”

I opened the door, and punched in my code in the alarm box. If anyone cared to look, they'd see I keyed back in ten minutes after going out. But I'd just say I forgot a book or something. The fox's nails clicked on the tile as he slipped past Tanya. I closed the door behind us. “Alarm on or off?”

“Best leave it off, in case.”

I did that. It would be harder to explain a long gap. Hopefully there would be no reason for anyone to look at the night's record. “Now what?”

Tanya led the way into the main hallway, dim with only the security lighting on. Her reflection danced across the glass fronts of the trophy cases, and the frames of the teacher portraits that lined the hall, shadowy flashes of pale skin and dark hair. I kept my eyes on her.

She set down her pack and dug through it. Pulling out a small jar of ointment, she dabbed a little on her eyelids, then glanced at me. “Do you want this?”

“What is it?”

“Fairy ointment. It lets mortals see the Fae as we are, so it's forbidden to humans, but that ship has sailed anyway. It gives us clearer sight yet, when used under Midsummer's Eve moonglow.”

“Not much moonglow inside the school,” I pointed out.

“I'm working on that.” She tilted the pot at me questioningly.

“Well, what the hell. Sure.” Clear sight was always a good thing, right?

She stood and brought it to me. Reached out a finger tipped in green and I closed my eyes. Her touch over my eyelids was cool and soft, the barest brush, but I felt it to my toes. The smell of the ointment was summer green, mown grass and crushed leaves, and clear water.

“You can open them.”

I did so, slowly. She was standing there, so close. Still the same, although with that wild glow I'd already seen, but still Tanya, gorgeous and untouchable, and I closed my hands to fists not to reach for her.

Then she stretched out again, and put a finger on my lips. “Later. Hold that thought.”

Before I could respond she'd whirled away, calling, “Sprite! Get your ass over here!”

The fox reappeared, skittering down the hallway. “Mine ass is thine to command, my foul-mouthed lady.”

“Manners later,” Tanya said. “As Gwen has pointed out, we need moonlight.” She dug into her pack, and pulled out two polished silver mirrors. She held one to me. “Here, take that.” The other she extended to the fox, who patted it with a paw, chittered at it, and then blurred. When he re-formed, he was a red-coated monkey, with a ruff of white around his face.

“The things I do at my lady's behest,” he muttered, scratching over his rump with agile black fingers. Then he took the mirror and ran off down the hallway on his back legs.

It turned out that I was useful. We went to the few windows that did line the corridors and caught the light on our mirrors, reflecting it up and down the rows of lockers along the walls. Sprite was uncanny in his ability to angle one mirror at another, and the silver surfaces seemed to amplify and spread the soft white light.

For a while, nothing happened, as we shone our lightbeams over the scratched blue-painted metal. Tanya stalked behind the glow like a hunting cat in denim, her lip curled in frustration at row after row of boring nothingness. Then one locker glowed oddly, turning the silver light to smoke. Tanya paused there. She dug in her pack for a handful of something which she tossed into the air with a muttered curse. Or perhaps spell. It wasn't English, either way.

I should have been freaking out. I should probably have curled up catatonic on the sidewalk out there when the horse became a fox. Or driven home and tried to pretend I hadn't seen a thing. But instead this night, this hunt, made my heart race and the blood spark in my veins. Boring as this part had been so far, watching a monkey with a mirror, and Tanya prowling, was the most fun I'd had in forever.

We all kept our eyes on the motes she'd tossed in the air, as they swirled, formed shapes as they fell. The monkey grunted. “Old trace.”

“Proves we're on the right track,” Tanya said. “Keep going.”

I angled my mirror a touch to the left. “Old trace?”

“The shreevahn had his claws into whoever has that locker, but a while ago. Either one of the suicides, or he moved on to easier prey. He leaves a trace on his victims, a slime of doubt and pain, that lingers where they touch. Kids handle their lockers many times every day. It concentrates.”

“Oh. That's what you're looking for.”

The monkey said, “Less talk. Turn the glass, human girl.”

I gritted my teeth, but swept the light slowly down the row.

It was a big school. Way too big. Kids got lost in the shuffle all the time. I bet there were kids went there for four years and not one adult knew them well enough to put a face to their names. We found three more lockers with old trace before, on the second floor, we found one that had smoke boiling over it like the fumes from dry ice.

“There!” Tanya's triumphant shout echoed loudly in the still corridor. The monkey set his mirror down, the smoke vanished, but we gathered in front of the locker anyway. Number 2016. Halfway down from the History classroom, and across from the boys' john. Nothing special to mark it.

“Now what?” I asked. “Can you, like, trail it?”

“We need to know who the human child is,” the monkey said.

Tanya fiddled with the lock. “Sliverseal and lock-picking time. I wish I was better at this.”

“I told you to pay more attention,” Sprite murmured.

“I did.” Tanya dusted something on the lock, then bent to listen to it, turning the dial slowly. After a moment, she tugged on it. I'd come far enough in believing her powerful to be startled when it didn't open. “Oberon's balls,” she muttered, and bent to try again.

On the third failure, Sprite began a less-than-helpful coaching. “More. Turn slower. Listen carefully. Use your perfect ears for once, Highness.”

I could see Tanya flinch at that last one. I said, “Why don't you just do it, if you're so expert?”

He bared long yellow teeth at me. “Cold iron. I can't touch it. Half-breeds can.”

I thought for a while, as Tanya worked over the lock. “What about a bolt cutter? There's one in the janitor's tool closet.” They'd cut open the locker of a student who got busted for meth. I'd seen it then.

“I'd rather not leave marks on the locker of a kid who might—“ She bit her lip, but I heard the unsaid, ”turn up dead tomorrow.”

“Well, do you need to get in, or just know who it is?”

“We need a name, address, something. And tonight, not tomorrow, so we can't just stake it out.”

“We could look in the computer,” I said. “Lockers are assigned, and recorded.”

“They—“ She straightened fast. “I wouldn't begin to know where to find that.”

“I would.” I grinned smugly at Sprite. “I can get into the system. Mrs. Benedict has all her passwords written on her desk calendar.” Working in the office had been eye opening in many ways.

Tanya looked at me, her eyes shining. “If you can, that'd be awesome.”

I'd have done far more than breaking and entering to get her to look at me like that. Plus I didn't have to break. Just enter. “Come on.”

The offices were on the ground floor. I let us inside. For a moment I worried about cameras, because they'd talked about security upgrades. But with Tanya crowding me urgently, and Sprite muttering about the time, I kept going. I did say, as I sat at Mrs. Benedict's desk, “If there's a video of me talking to a monkey, I'll never live it down.”

“I have a glamor on us,” Tanya said. “Can't do invisible, but we're mice, squeaking.”

“I bet we get the exterminator called in,” I muttered, clicking on the desktop screen with a tissue wrapped on my fingers. No sense leaving fingerprints if there wouldn't be damning video. Maybe I'd get away with this after all. It took me a few minutes to get into the system, and find the locker records. I typed in 2016.

The record opened. “Bradley Thompson.” I went to student records, used another password to get into them. Honestly, Mrs. Benedict's laziness was coming in handy. I read out his address. Sprite and Tanya recited it back in eerie unison. I shivered, as I powered the system down. “Now what?”

“Now we Hunt,” Sprite said. I could hear a bloodthirsty capital in the word.


message 5: by Kaje (last edited May 31, 2015 11:23AM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments “Come on.” Tanya took my hand, her warm palm a comfort against Sprite's sharp tone. She tugged me up out of the chair, and then hugged me hard and fast. I'd have risked anything for that, even though it lasted only a moment of her body against mine. “Let us back outside now, and leave no trace.”

I did as she said, wiping the door handles as we locked the office, and priming the alarm as we left the building.

The air outside was warm and still. The moon shone full, touched by the smallest wisp of a cloud. Sprite looked up, then at the horizon. “Time's wasting, Your Highness. Let's go.”

“Can you find the address?” I asked.

“I have all these streets memorized,” Sprite said with disdain. “I am a fae steed.”

Tanya turned to me. “Time for us to go.”

“Let me go with you.” I wasn't ready for the magic to end. And I knew Brad, if only by sight. “I might be useful.” When Sprite snorted, I said to his face, “Again. There are things you two can't do, clearly.”

“I don't want you hurt,” Tanya said.

“You said it preys on the weak and the lost. When have I been weak?” Lost I had been. It's hard not to be, when they shuffle you from house to home, family to group counselors. I'd never lived one place long enough to feel like I belonged. But I was not weak.

“Bring the girl,” Sprite said, to my surprise. “But we must go now.” He shuddered and grew, bulking up, stretching out. Until Tanya's familiar red bike stood there on the pavement, chrome gleaming.

“I thought he couldn't touch iron,” I muttered, to cover my startled recoil.

Tanya slung her backpack over her other arm and smacked the front fender, with a hollow clunk. “Not metal.”

I didn't want to think about how flesh and blood could become fiberglass, or if that was bone… Instead I shouldered my own backpack.

“Stick that in your car. It'll just get in the way. And then come on.”

I went quickly to my car, tossing the pack on the passenger side floor— it felt so normal. I fought a moment's impulse to get in and leave. Instead I stuck my phone in my pocket, and locked the door. The phone was just a cheap burner, no GPS, no Google maps. But it could call 911 in a pinch.

Tanya was already on the bike when I turned. I went and got on behind her, awkwardly grabbing her around the waist with the lumpy pack between us. She tugged my wrist, cursed, and then slipped free to take the pack off. “Here. You wear this. And hold on tight.” The moment I was snugged down against her back, arms wrapped across her stomach, the bike took off like a bat out of hell.

I might have whooped a bit. It was perfect. Sublime, even. I never had an excuse to use that word, but this— rushing through city streets, the bike an unnaturally low purr beneath us, wind and speed and Tanya's hair in my face, Tanya's body against mine— this was worth every SAT word I knew, and then some.

We slowed at the top of a hill and rolled soundlessly down to the curb in front of a small one-story rambler. Tanya swung off the bike, and held out a hand to me. When I was clear, the bike shuddered and became a cat, tabby-striped with tufted ears and about twice normal cat size. It shook its tail at me, sat down, and began grooming its shoulder.

Tanya took her pack, and stood close to me. She murmured, “Down there,” and pointed two houses further along, at another small single story. “That one. The shreevahn is there.”

“Can you, um, see it?” I spoke equally softly.

She gestured at a window on the near side. With that clue, I could see the trail of fog seeping around the edges to vanish in the moonlight. “What now?” I asked.

“We can't barge in uninvited. Not unless he asks us inside. Not even I can, though my half-human side gives me other protections.”

“I thought that was vampires.”

“All supernaturals have a hard time crossing thresholds to a human hearth and home. Some can. If we'd brought a Brownie, they're house dwellers.” The cat cleared his throat, and Tanya glanced down. “I know. You said so. I still think keeping a Brownie out of mischief for three months would have been less than worth it.”

“So then, what?” I asked.

Tanya began to walk toward the house, the cat stalking at her side. “Sprite will try. People find it hard to resist him.”

“Really?” I looked down at his powerful, rangy body. I don't know that I'd have let that twenty-pound hunting cat into my house, and I like cats.

Sprite smirked up at me, and changed some more, smaller, softer, until as we reached the hedge between the two houses he was fuzzy and small, all big kitten eyes, and quivering whiskers.

“Oh.”

Tanya and I stood back and watched, as he jumped to the sill of the window and rapped on it with his nose, little pink mouth open in a plaintive mew. It would have made me all gooey and eager to help, but the window stayed shut. After a couple more tries, he jumped down and scurried back to us.

“The boy is in there, sitting in his bed with that carrion-crow of a shreevahn perched on the headboard.”

“What's he doing?” Tanya asked.

“Staring at his hands. He didn't even look around. The misery is thick as night in there.”

Tanya swore softly. “I can try.”

“Let me,” I said quickly. “I know him, a little.”

“All right.” Tanya touched my cheek. “If he lets you in, the moment he lets you in, you call, 'Titania and Sprite-of-the-meadows, I invite you to enter.' Repeat that.”

I did, not even choking over 'Sprite-of-the-meadows' despite his toothy kitten grin.

“Good luck,” she murmured, and then pushed my arm. “Now. Quickly.”

I hurried over to the window and looked in. Bradley sat on the bed, hunched over his crossed legs like his stomach hurt. His hands were in his lap and his whole body was tense and still as stone. With the dimness of the room, it was hard to see the shreevahn, but there was an aura of darkness, like the pall of smoke over a burned-out building, behind him. No face, no eyes that I could make out, but a cold, hungry waiting thing.

I rapped hard on the window. “Hey! Brad!” He didn't turn to look at me, didn't even flinch from his fixed pose. I knocked harder, shouted loud enough that Sprite hissed, and I was glad no neighbor yelled back at me. But Bradley didn't seem to care. After a moment he took a deeper breath, and I saw the moonlight flicker, a tiny silver flash on something in his hands. The dark cloud at his shoulder flowed a little closer to his skin.

I reached down and yanked off my boot, pulling my own little knife out of its sheath as soon as I got it off. Noah got me that knife when I was thirteen, a wicked smile on his angelic face as he said, “Take this. Hide it. Use it if you have to.”

With the heel of my boot, I smashed the window and sliced through the screen with the tip of my knife. Quickly, I broke out the rest of the glass, clearing the sill of shards with a sweep of the lug sole. Bradley did glance over then, his face pale but still blank. The window was low enough for me to boost myself up and get my stomach over the edge, until I tumbled into the room.

Bradley's expression went from dull pain to startled, which was an improvement. “What? Who?” His voice was thin and rusty-sounding.

“Whatever you're thinking, don't!” I could see the blade in his fingers, close against the inside of his wrist, the first drop of blood welling at its tip. “Listen to me.”

“Um? Gwen?”

Confusion was good. But even as he said it, a little softer and more like his real voice, the dark cloud behind him surged forward across the floor, and touched my bare foot.

It was an odd touch, comforting almost, familiar and gentle and yet exhausting. It took away pain, took the ache in my back from moving boxes of paper for an hour, and the blisters on my heels from boots a size too small that I couldn't afford to replace. Took the loneliness of knowing there was not one adult in the whole world who would be sad for more than a moment if I disappeared. The sharp quality of all that was gone. It got softened, blurred, grayed out. Nothing really mattered, after all.

Nothing mattered. There was no grand significance to it. My life was a little spark, a guttering ember in the dark, dull sewer of the world. We humans had it all wrong, thinking that we could grow and grow and eat the planet and never stop. The end was coming. We'd go out, not with a bang but with a whimper. Flood waters rising, air thickening to choke us, water that you could light on fire from our taps.

The powerful didn't care about people like me. Look at my life. No dad, mom dead when I was eight. And at eight, already too old for anyone to want me. Home after home, passed around for the foster money. Ditched from one place when the mom, who pretended to like me, got pregnant with her own, real baby. Sent from another when one of my foster brothers broke the TV. Ran away from the one where the uncle watched me, day after day, with that look in his eyes, and ended up in the group home where the adults were doing pot on the back step while the boys beat each other up.

Not one of them ever cared about me. No one had. And why should they? What was I? Ugly, unpopular, geeky and confused. I was eighteen and in a month, I'd be out there on my own, to sink or swim. I'd sink, of course. How many of my foster sibs were on the street somewhere, turning tricks, doing drugs, sinking in the uncaring dog-eat-dog of American life where you had to sit up and beg pretty for every bite they gave you?

I turned the little knife in my fingers over, and over, looking at the shiny blade. Somewhere, someone was speaking but it was dull and far away, irrelevant. That knife held an answer. I pressed it in on my skin, watching the pale inside of my wrist dip under the flat of the blade. Just a little more, just a turn from flat to edge, and I wouldn't care any more. The blade was sharp. Noah had taught me to hone it…

Like a clean, cold breeze, the memory of Noah swept through my mind. Noah, who could have auditioned for any K-pop band, all cheekbones and black-silk hair. We'd only shared a home for a month, before I woke to shouts and a siren in the night, and we were all taken away and separated the next day. But before that, he'd bought me the knife somewhere with his own money. He called it a butterfly knife, showed me how to pull and flip it ready. Made me practice. I sewed up a sheath and clip with the leather from an outgrown boot, and kept it on me, always.

Noah had said, “For protection. We both know you might need it. But.” He'd reached out with long slim fingers and gripped my wrists, so tight I had bruises the next day. “If I ever, ever, hear about you using it to cut or shit like that, I'm gonna come bust your ass. Got it?”

And I'd said, “Hey. I don't do that stuff.”

He'd said, “Yeah. You're tough. You're gonna make it.” And let me go with a satisfied sigh.

So why was I sitting here with the blade against my skin?

I pulled it away and slashed, blindly, down toward the soft touch on my ankle. The blade passed through nothing, hit nothing, but for a moment the fog in my eyes lifted. I remembered. Yelled, “Titania, I invite you to enter.” Coughed like I was clearing smoke from my lungs and added, “Sprite-of-the-meadows, come in too. I mean, I invite you to enter.”

As the words left my mouth, there was a crash and something landed on my ankle. It hurt but the greyness was ripped away. I rolled and sat up. There was Tanya, her eyes blazing, hand raised. She stood at my feet, and tossed a handful of something at the swiftly coiling gray fog at the headboard. Her voice came loud and commanding, syllables that I heard with my ears but couldn't hold in my mind.


message 6: by Kaje (last edited May 30, 2015 08:24PM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments The fog condensed, thickened, pulling in and in. I saw out of the corner of my eye that Bradley hadn't turned to look, just hunched tighter and smaller. A thread of the gray was still wrapped around his throat. I got my feet under me and leaped for the bed, grabbing at his wrists. I got one, missed the other, but my fingers came between his blade and skin. The shallow slash across my knuckles stung like fire, but he gasped and cried out like it had caught him instead.

Tanya's voice got louder, and Sprite in big-cat form sprang, and bit at that strangling thread around Bradley's neck, teeth snapping shut. He caterwauled through clenched jaws, but didn't let go. A second later the thread fell away from Bradley and he collapsed like a puppet with cut strings down on the bed. His chest was heaving so I knew he wasn't dead.

I kept my hands on him but my eyes fixed on Tanya. God, she was stunning. Her hair whipped around her head like a stormcloud and her eyes were brilliant with starlight. She raised her hands, gesturing as she spoke. Slowly, slowly, the dark form on the headboard shrank into a humanoid creature. It was tiny, perhaps a foot tall, and stunningly beautiful.

Tanya said, “You are mine to command now,” and either it was in English, or I began to understand another language.

The tiny man with cheekbones like cut glass spat in her direction but didn't move from where he perched, hands and bare feet gripping the top rail of the bed.

“By iron and rowan and tansy I bind you.” Her voice was clear. She tossed another handful of powder at the small figure and he shivered, but didn't dodge the fine dust that settled over him.

Sprite leaped from the bed to the floor, dropped the dark coil he was carrying onto the floor and batted at it like a cat with a string, but his eyes blazed too and he kept them on the shreevahn. For a moment, the only sound was the padding steps of the cat, as he finally flicked the coil out the window with a scoop of one broad paw, and then went to sit at Tanya's side.

“By what right?” I'd expected the little man's voice to be horrid, or tiny, but he had the rich, mellow tones of a revival preacher. “You cannot hold me.”

“By word and warrant of our queen,” Tanya said.

“Your bitch-queen, not mine.”

“On Midsomer's Eve, Seelie holds sway over Unseelie for a night,” she said evenly. “And you might want to watch your words.”

“Let me go.” He stood, balancing easily on the headboard as if the edge was a broad roadway. “I've harmed none of yours.”

“I'm a Hunter,” she said. “All humans are mine. And you've been careless and greedy enough to bring attention to yourself. The Queen does not forgive that.”

“I can do better.” The little man looked down at Bradley, curled up on the covers with his eyes squeezed shut. “Let me finish that one and I will go. Of my own will. I'll not feed for a year, on my oath.”

“No deal.”

“He's almost empty anyway.” The creature licked his lips. “Only the nugget left. Two years, then, after.”

“No, and no.” Tanya stepped toward him, one hand out to her side with the moonlight from the window pooled in it like liquid silver. “Tonight, I hold all the cards. I need no bargains, and no oaths. We'll see what deal you make in Her Majesty's prison.”

The little angelic face twisted. “It's my nature. We all live by our natures.”

Sprite snarled, “And die by them. You lost.”

The shreevahn sprang at him without warning, small, sharp, white teeth bared. Tanya tossed the moonlight in her palm, and it became a noose, a loop of pure silver that dropped over the shreevahn and yanked tight, jerking it out of the air.

Sprite snarled at her. “I could have dealt with him.”

“We promised to deliver him.” Deftly, as if it was a familiar task, Tanya began reeling in the dangling, struggling shreevahn, wrapping the cord around him further and further. As he was pulled into the moonlight by the window, the cord thickened and flattened, tying up his arms and hands until he was half-cocooned. Tanya gave Sprite a grin. “You want to walk up to my mother and say, 'I know we were supposed to bring the wight in to you, but I preferred to eat him'?”

Sprite looked sulky. “No. Highness.”

The shreevahn said on a gasp of breath, “Release me and I'll give you a wish. Two wishes.”

Tanya laughed. “And you'd twist them to ill. I know your kind.” She held him on a short string, dangling and kicking. “Sprite, you want to deliver our package to my mother's court?”

Sprite blinked. “While you do what?”

Tanya's smile dimmed. She gestured at Bradley and me on the bed. “Clean-up.”

“Oh. Right.” Sprite eyed us too, for a long moment. I pulled my gaze off Tanya, in her glory and power, to meet his gaze. His green eyes narrowed and heated, but I'd stared down worse than him. I kept my stare steady on his. The air in that room was thick with so many things. I wanted to look at Brad and make sure he was all right. I wanted even more to look at Tanya, to take in every moment I had. Because of course she'd be leaving, now her job was done.

That realization hit me like a punch to the chest, knocking out my breath. She would be gone. But even that wasn't enough to make me take my eyes off Sprite.

Eventually he said, “I'll deliver our prize, aye. And Your Highness, sometimes you don't have to give up everything for the job. Sometimes your life can be fit in, around the edges.”

He looked up at her, breaking our staring contest, so I did too. Her expression was puzzled, confused, perhaps needy. He shifted, doubling in size, until he was a lanky, thick-maned, red-coated bobcat that I was sure had never appeared in the pages of Wikipedia. This time it was Tanya's gaze he held for a long moment. Then he said, “See you soon, Titania.” He leaped, snatching the sliver-wrapped form of the shreevahn from where it dangled below her fist. Then he paused, shook his head, whipping the unfortunate shreevahn around, sneezed, and mumbled around his full mouth, “Argh. T' many iron filings in t'mix, Highness. Less is more w' that spell.”

“You can dunk him in a stream on your way,” she suggested.

“Don' think I won'.” He adjusted the silvered shreevahn in his mouth, his tongue working and face scrunched like something tasted awful. “No one'll care if't arri'es wet.” The shreevahn's gaze crossed mine but before he could speak, Sprite whirled him away to the window. The last I saw of the evil little creature was his twisted, wailing face, as Sprite gripped him firmly in his jaws, sprang out the broken window into the Midsummer moonlight, and was gone.

The air in the room got lighter and cleaner, like after a storm has passed. Tanya turned to me. Her eyes were just her eyes, lovely and dark but not flashing with power. Her face was stunning, her hair like silk, but it was a human beauty. It hurt my heart more than her flashing your-highness power ever could. So I said, “Okay, I'm betting you're ugly as a troll under the glamor, right?”

She laughed, a human sound. “Right. I actually look like a large rat.”

I couldn't help a snort. “Sure you do.”

She came over and sat on the bed beside me, and reached for my hand. “You cut yourself.”

Brad shuddered against my knee at her words, eyes still closed. I said, “Yeah. Sharp knives around. It happens.”

“Gwen, I, um. Now I…”

It was almost refreshing to see her unsure. I said, “You have to go report in. And then what? Another hunt?”

“It's what I do. Who I am.”

“Sure. Like a cop. Or a bounty hunter. You need a tattoo, and an AK-47.” I was talking randomly, to cover the thinness of the breath in my chest.

At least I made her laugh. “I have Sprite, and moonlight. It's enough.”

“And me?” I left it ambiguous. She had me, if she wanted, but she didn't need to know that, if it made her uncomfortable. If it was impossible. So that might be just a question about my fate. Which I was actually curious about. “What happens to a mortal who shares a hunt with a princess?”

“Half-breed Hunter.”

In case there was some kind of put-down in those words, I laid my unbloody hand on hers. Her skin was silk-smooth under my palm. “The best kind. But what now?”

“Now? I take his memories and turn them to dreams. I should take yours.”

“But you won't.” I said it fast and hard. “No worse violation that that.” Through everything that had ever happened to me, the inside of my head had always been my own.

“No-o.” She said it slowly.

“Your word on it!”

A long breath. “My word.”

I sighed against the thumping of my heart. “Thank you. You can trust me, you know. I won't tell.”

“I know.” She seemed to slump, leaning in against me until my shoulder was under hers.

Her weight was heavy on me. For a moment I felt older, wiser, tender. I turned my head so my lips just grazed her hair. It wasn't a kiss. “How old are you, Tanya? How long have you done this?”

I thought she might not answer, but eventually she said, “Twenty-one. And four years. It used to be all fun.”

“And now?”

“It's mostly fun. But sometimes I wish there was more.”

“More? Like?”

She straightened away from me, to meet my eyes. “You know like what. And I can't have it, when I move on every few months, at my mother's whim.”

“Can you quit?”

“It's a calling, not a job. I can't hand in my papers.”

I swallowed and wet my lips. I had to try, had to dare. “You might find someone willing to move on too. Someone with no ties, no family, willing to scratch a living wherever you land, however long.”

She reached out and touched my cheek. “I wouldn't do that to someone I cared for.”

“They might think it worthwhile.”

“You have plans. College on the foster-care supplement. You've worked for that future for years. You told me how hard.”

“Plans change. I own the car, fair and square. I can travel… once I get my diploma, anyway.” I heard that fall out of my mouth and winced. She was right, I was too cautious to give that up. I sighed. “A month. Less than.”

“I'll be weeks gone.”

“Can't you tell me where you land? Send a text? A red-winged carrier pigeon.”

She chuckled with the sound of tears in it. “Right. I'll tell Sprite he's reduced to letter-carrier.”

“Well, he already does packages,” I said.

She hugged me, suddenly, fiercely. Her arms around my neck almost strangled me. “I'm going to miss you so much.”

My eyes stung and blurred. I said, “Kiss me good-bye?”

“If I do, I'm not sure I can leave.”

“Let's test that,” I whispered. I turned my head, and she did the same, slowly, until our mouths met. She tasted of salt. Neither of us made it more than a simple press of lips on lips, because that was enough and almost more than I could bear.

When we separated, she said, “I still have to leave. I don't want to.”

I rubbed my face with the back of my hand. “Well, you know where to find me. For three weeks.”

She reached for me, the hem of her shirt in her hand. “You have blood on your face.” I sat silently and let her mop at my cheek. “There. Better. I can't bear to see that.” She touched me again, the trail of a fingertip across my skin. “Perhaps. Maybe. Think of me now and then?”

“Like I'm going to forget you after making you swear to leave the memories alone,” I said, trying to sound tough. “I'll think of you in my shower. Now and then.”

She actually blushed, a flush of pink across he cheeks in the moonlight. “Um. Okay, I don't mind. And other times?”

“Now and then,” I said roughly.

She pushed away, off the bed, and stood. From the pocket of her pack, she grabbed a handful of the dust and held it up. “Back off the bed.”

I tumbled to the floor as she threw it, to drift down over Bradley. “Only dreams, in the moonlight,” she said. Brad twitched and took one long slow breath.

She turned to me, her cool Highness look in place. “You have a cut on your foot too. That'll need tending. Want a boost safely out the window?”


message 7: by Kaje (last edited May 31, 2015 11:43AM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments I hesitated. Another moment with her, another touch of her hands… but it was clear she was going to make it nothing personal. That might hurt worse than nothing at all. And I looked at Brad. His breathing was getting shallower and more ragged. “What about him?”

“He'll wake with no memory of the shreevahn or us.”

“Or thinking about killing himself?”

She dropped her gaze. “I don't know. That's probably not a new thought for him. The shreevahn picks victims who are already going down, and tugs them under. I can't fix that with a puff of rowan and a spell.”

“Then I'll stay.” I got up and sat back on the foot of the bed. “For a while. So he doesn't wake miserable with blood on the sheet and a knife beside his hand.”

“You could steal the knife.”

“That wouldn't fix the problem.”

“No. True.” Her expression did soften then. “Will you be okay? I know it touched you too.”

“I have never been a victim,” I said. “Not starting now.”

“One of the best things about you. You're a fighter, through and through.” She went to the window, sat on the sill. “Stay safe and strong, Gwen. For my sake.”

“For my own,” I said with a toss of my head that I didn't really feel. The lump of my scraggly bun thumped against my neck where her hand had been. “Unless you come back.”

“Right.” She seemed to think about that, nodded, raised a hand to me and was gone out into the night.

I whispered after her, “And you stay safe, for me.”

The room was cool and empty. The night air came in through the broken-out glass, at least fresh and clean. Before I had time to wallow in how I was feeling Brad woke with a shout, sitting up fast. “What the…? Get away from me!”

“Take it easy,” I said. “I'm here to help.”

“I don't need help.” It was a reflex growl. “And who the hell are you?”

“Gwen. Rider. From school?” I slid off the bed slowly, staying low so I wasn't looming over him. Found my boot on the floor, and slid my own knife away into the sheath inside it. Butterflies are illegal as switchblades, most places. I didn't want it found. I said, “I've cut myself on the glass. Pass me some tissues?”

“What?” He still gaped at me.

“Tissues? Kleenex? Little cheap squares of paper that soak up blood?”

“I. Um.” He blinked, then tossed the box at me.

I caught it and pulled out a handful, pressing them to the glass cut on my heel. “Crap. That stings. Don't get out of bed. There's more glass on the floor.”

“What? Why?” He shifted around, trying to sit tall. “Why are you here?”

“You first. Why were you sitting there with a knife to your wrist when I looked in?”

“I what? I didn't…” He looked down, and I knew the moment when he saw the little nick in his skin, and felt the sting of some kind of memory. He jolted, and pressed his fingers there.

I tossed the tissue box back on the bed. “Try those.”

He turned a startled look on me, obediently pulled out a couple and used them. “I don't remember.” His voice was thick and uncertain. “I don't think I meant to.”

“Well, I wouldn't have busted out the window if I thought you were shaving your arm hair,” I said tartly.

“You broke the window?”

“If you'd opened it when I yelled at you, I wouldn't have had to.”

“You… yelled?”

“Get with the program.” I folded a couple tissues against my heel and managed to cram my foot back into the boot. It hurt like a bitch, but that was nothing new. My cash all went for the car right now, and the phone, and rent. Boots would wait.

I sat slowly, on the end of the bed, as far from him as I could get. Carefully I leaned forward and slid my hand along the sheets until I found the knife. It was a Swiss Army, sharp but not extra well-honed. He could have done the job with it, if he was determined enough. A good thing he'd picked such a crap tool, though. That little cut he had wasn't much at all, and my fingers would live. I held it up. “Recognize this?”

“I, um, it's mine.”

“And it's in your bed with blood on it for what? Moonlight ritual?”

“No.” He looked down. “I guess not.”

“Ever played with it before? Cut yourself a little? Pressed it there, where the vein is? Wondered if you dared?” I'd known kids who cut, and kids who tried more. Foster sisters, a couple of them, gone into the bureaucracy, who knew where. I hadn't told on them, hadn't helped them. I was stronger now.

He flushed and looked away at the wall without answering me. Which was kind of an answer.

At that moment we both heard the garage door going up. Then a house door slammed. Two voices carried down the hall, male and female. Brad glanced up at me in a panic. “Quick, you have to get out of here!” he whispered urgently. “Go! Now!”

I thought about it. His secrets were his own. Until they could kill him, that is. “I don't think so,” I said softly. “What kind of people are your folks?” I knew family life wasn't all roses. Maybe they didn't care.

“I don't want them to know,” he muttered. “They'll carry on and worry.”

“Beat you? Throw you out? Buy you a sharper knife?”

“What?” He looked stunned. “No! They'll be all smothery and anxious—”

That was enough for me. You can fix anything except dead. I said very loudly, “I'm not leaving yet!”

There was a stunned pause, in the room and out, then footsteps and a knock on the door. A woman's voice. “Bradley? Honey? Are you okay?'

“I'm fine, Mom,” he called out. “Just a bad dream.”

“Are you sure? Can I get you anything? Want to talk about it?”

I don't know if it was the fairy ointment still on me, or just the ache of never having heard that myself, that made me read her voice. But I could hear it— the deep worry and fear for him, the love and confusion, that made her linger at his door— so I said clearly, “He's not as okay as all that. But watch the glass on the floor.”

He smacked at me with one hand, an easy swing to dodge.

The door swung open. There were two people there, a short, round woman with a frown on her face, and a taller, thinner man behind her. The both stared at me, and around the room.

“Who are you?” The man's voice was deep and rough.

“A friend of Brad's from school.” I slumped, trying to look small and harmless. Being a girl would help too. “I was worried about him.”

“I hardly know you!” Brad protested.

I frowned at him. “So I should let you slit your wrists in peace?”

“What?” His mother took a step closer. I saw she still had street shoes on, so I didn't stop her. She had eyes only for her son. “Brad, you didn't?”

“No,” he lied flatly. “I—”

I tossed the knife onto the blanket between us, the blade still open. His parents both looked at it like it was a snake, then his dad leaped over and grabbed it. His mom kind of collapsed onto the bed sitting with her back to me, her arms open to him. “God, baby, no!”

For a moment I thought he'd still deny it. Then it all seemed to catch up to him, and his face crumpled. He let out a wail that was all misery and no words, and the last half was muffled against her shoulder. She rocked him, murmuring reassurances. I got up then, and backed away, the glass crunching under my boots. His father looked back and forth between us, then gestured out into the hall. I nodded and followed him.

Outside the room, he turned to me. “Tell me what happened.”

I've always preferred truth from other people. Doesn't mean I'm not an excellent liar. And the best lies are mostly truth, with flavoring. “I know Bradley, a little, at school. He's been down a lot lately, and for some reason today he looked, um, off. Gray.” Especially in the greedy-shreevahn smoke of despair. “I was worried, and I don't have his phone number but a friend knew where he lives.”

“And you just… came over?”

“Our school has lost seven kids this year. Seven!” I didn't have to fake the thickness in my throat. “A couple I knew better than Bradley. Every time we all said, 'If I only knew. If I only did something.' So this time it bothered me, until I did something.”

“What did you see?”

I didn't pull my punch, with this man's worried blue eyes on me. “He was so fixated on the knife in his hands, he didn't even hear me knock. So I broke the window. And came in and took it away from him.” I tilted my head. “He might not admit it.”

His father shook his head. “It's his knife, and his mother will get the truth out of him. We should have, sooner. We didn't want to pry.”

“Sometimes it's good if someone wants to,” I agreed, relieved. “Is it okay if I go now? You'll get help for him?”

“Yes, of course. But.” He looked down at my hand. “You hurt yourself. Do you need the ER? Or a bandage?”

The scrape along my fingers had broken open again, a few drops welling up. “I'll take some gauze if you have it. It's not bad.”

“Wait a moment.” He hurried off and came back with a roll bandage he insisted on helping me wrap around my hand. “What's your name? Can I drive you home?”

“Gwen,” I said, suppressing the impulse to lie again. After all, I'd be in the yearbook when it came out next week. “And I have my car nearby.” I could hardly say I came over on a shape-changing fairy-bike.

“Gwen.” He said it like he was memorizing it. “Shall I at least call your parents? Tell them why you're out so late?”

“Fosters. And God, no.” I shuddered at the thought. “Don't wake them up. There'd be hell to pay. I'm fine.”

“Seriously? They wouldn't think you did a good thing?” He touched my arm like he couldn't believe it.

I shrugged his touch off. “In theory, yeah. In practice, not enough to be woken at midnight. No worries. The door is this way?” I set off down the hall.

He followed me in silence, but as he reached to open the door for me he added, “Whatever happens now, we owe you. My wife and I, and Bradley too, even if he's mad right now. I'd like to repay you somehow.”

I shrugged. “I'd have done it for anyone.”

“But you did it for my son.”

It was never a bad thing to have someone owe you a favor, but in this case I didn't want to be sucked in. I said, “Pay it forward?” I thought of Noah, and the knife, and the night I never saw him again. I'd have to try again. Some people you shouldn't lose. “That's kind of what I did.”

“All right. But if you ever need anything…”

“Thanks.”

He reached for my hand, like men do, sealing everything with a handshake, but I held up my bandage with a smile, slipped past him out the door, and took off running.

I had no clue where I was, and those boots made it torture. As soon as I figured I was out of sight I slowed down. I'd have to walk till I found a gas station or Seven-Eleven and ask how to get back to school and my car. I turned in a circle, peering down the dark streets for a promising direction. Then a squirrel scurried down a tree, scampered across the sidewalk to me, and said, “Can we at least get off the common road?”

“Sprite?”

“An' how many fae-steeds do you know?”

“One, apparently.” I only realized how unhappy I'd been by the lift in my spirits to see him.

“This way.” He led me up alongside a thick hedge, deep in shadow. “I'll bring you to your car. Don't thank me though. Don't ever thank the fae. It's dangerous to acknowledge a debt to us.”

“Oh, all right.” I thought, said cautiously, “It would be good to have a ride.”

He chuckled, “Aye, that's the way. It's the letter of the law that counts with us. We'll twist the spirit of it in a pretzel and wrap it round your throat, or perhaps crown you with it if we like you.”

“Do you?”

“Like you? I've known worse. For a mortal.”

He flowed, changed, became the bike, engine throbbing quietly. “Get on.”

I startled, wondering how the hell he could talk in this form, with no mouth. Although, a cat's mouth wasn't made for English. Let alone a horse's… He revved impatiently, and I swung a leg over the saddle, grabbed the handlebars and hung on.

Damn, he was fast when he wanted to be. And yet, whether he was cornering low enough to brush the cuff of my jeans on the pavement, or flying off the top of a rise, I've never felt as secure. My arms missed the living warmth of Tanya in front of me, but it was still glorious.


message 8: by Kaje (last edited May 31, 2015 11:48AM) (new)

Kaje Harper | 16460 comments He pulled up beside my car, in the quiet school lot. The truck was still there too. All was still, and ordinary. I got off, my knees suddenly shaky. I caught a reflexive thank you back at the last moment and said instead, “That was fun.”

“You don't lack for nerve,” he murmured. “Go on now. Build your life well and strongly, like she was never coming back. But keep your eyes open.”

“For what?” I firmly squashed the rise of hope in my heart.

“Ah. That would be telling.” He rolled back a couple of feet, shuddered, and became a stallion again, free and unharnessed now. With a neigh loud enough to echo off the concrete and walls, he reared, plunged past me, leaped the seven-foot fence, and was gone.

“Show-off,” I muttered.

There was my car. The battered, rusted, twenty-year-old hope for a future that sucked down all my money. On the passenger floor, my backpack, with a bunch of books that mattered very little now in these final weeks. Acceptances were out, I'd got in at the U, with a foster-kid scholarship, so long as I passed. No money for room and board, but I'd find a job and live in the car, at first. I'd done it with Mom and knew how it worked, till the weather got cold. By then I'd have savings again. I could do this.

It all seemed dull and pointless, as I glanced back to where a red-roan horse had leaped an impossible height, and taken the last color of the night with him.

No.

I could do this.

I dug out my keys, opened the car, got in, drove home. I could do this. I wasn't weak, wasn't prey. I wasn't a toy, even for a Hunter. Life went on, right? And you danced on the grave?

It wasn't quite as easy as that, but I managed. Bradley missed three days of school, and then came back looking a lot less gray. I kept a subtle eye on him. I'd be damned if he'd get lost in the crowd again. But he seemed to be staying above water, as the year drew to a close. He spotted me once, and came over, not quite looking me in the eye. Said, “Thanks.”

I said, “No problem. Pay it forward.” And walked away.

I didn't go to prom. No money for a dress or pictures, no one I wanted to see. I spent the evening researching more scholarships on the library computer at the community college. When they closed down at eleven, I left grudgingly, behind a pair of tall guys talking basketball, and a girl texting on her phone. I was the last one to the parking lot, and there was my car. On the windshield, stem tucked under the wiper, was a single rose. It was a strange color, almost sliver with a hint of pale pink. The waning moonlight glinted off the edges of the petals as if they were sharp, but their touch was soft as velvet. The parking lot was deserted, though.

I took the rose with me, set it on the passenger seat as I drove home. And hoped. Even though in the morning, despite putting it into a glass of water, all that remained was a heap of glittering dust on the milk-crate by my bed.

Graduation was two days after the end of term, a warm sunny day. Everything I owned, which was pitifully little, was packed in the back of my car. My foster parents were off at a tractor-pull, which was fine with me. We'd done best when we ignored each other. They weren't the worst, by far, but I had no illusions they wanted more from me than my rent.

Under my gown I wore practical clothes, khaki pants with good pockets, the sneakers I'd found on the hood of my car one morning, and a sleeveless shirt because my new tattoo still stung a bit. A dumb waste of money, you could say. But I'd wanted to write something on my skin of that night. Something I'd never lose. The cut on my knuckles was healing, and a scar on my heel was a piss-poor souvenir. So I drew this complicated thing, with a bike and a cat, a kitten and a horse, and smoke, a knife, a rose, a silver whip. Everything except Tanya, because I couldn't do her justice. I found a guy to ink it on my arm. It was worth the cost.

I stood in the shade offstage as they called our names. They called Tanya's by mistake, and the silence afterward ran cold down my spine. But there was a mutter of, “Sorry, she left,” and then the roll went on.

“Gwen Rider.”

I went up the steps onto the stage. The sun was hot on the black broadcloth across my shoulders. My unruly bun was coming down again, wisps tickling my neck like eyes on me; hairpin failure seemed to be my fate. I took my diploma, and found out I also got the science award. It came with little certificate and no money, but it was nice. I walked off the other side to the sound of polite clapping. Done. Graduated.

We were supposed to stay and take pictures and I don't know what. But instead, I snuck away, leaving my gown with the company rep at their booth. The cap was apparently mine to keep. I sailed it into a tree, where it hung like a Dali version of a crow, black on a branch. Done.

As I rounded the school, with the sounds of the ceremony still coming muffled from behind the building, a girl on a red bike coasted to a stop beside me. “Hey.” Tanya's voice was rough. “Going somewhere?”

“My possibilities are wide open,” I said.

“Care for a ride?”

“Maybe.” I squinted at her. “Are you going to disappear for three weeks again after?”

Sprite's voice said, “Get on my back, girl. Then Her Moodiness might stop pining.”

I felt a smile pull at the corner of my lips. “Have you been pining, Tanya?”

“Not a bit,” she said. “Now get on the damned bike.”

I swung my leg over and got on behind her. She pressed a hand on my knee, pulled it in against her leg. I leaned my head on her shoulder, breathing in the scent of her. She laughed softly. “I bet you didn't miss me any more than I missed you.”

“Nope.” I dared to lay my hand on her thigh. She was warm and solid to my touch. “I've forgotten you completely.”

She turned, her long hair brushing my cheek, and looked at my new tattoo. “You have six versions of Sprite on your skin. Should I be jealous?”

“I go for the unpredictable type,” I muttered.

“At least you added my rose.”

“That was from you? I thought I had some secret admirer.”

For a moment I thought I'd gone too far, but then she laughed. “Not so secret. That was a long three weeks.”

“Mm.” I closed my eyes and turned my forehead against her neck.

“I was going to let you go.” Her voice was soft but steady. “I thought I could do that. Move on. Next job. I missed you with every breath I took. So… I do have a new job, new Hunt. It could be dangerous.”

“I laugh in the face of danger! Then I... hide until it goes away.”

“The hell you do.” She hesitated. “Oh, wait, that's Xander, right? Um, The Witch, right?”

“Have you been studying?”

“No, I just, well, you like that show. I thought there must be something to recommend it.”

Sprite rumbled, “She memorized it.”

A laugh bubbled up in my chest and I didn't try to hold it back. “We'll turn you into Buffy yet.”

“No chance. Maybe Willow. She's cool.”

“And hot?”

“Not compared to you.”

“Oh.” That did it, right there. I squashed my diploma to wrap my arm around her.

She turned and kissed me, just a fast, light brush of her lips. “So, Gwen. Will you come with me?”

“With us?” Sprite said.

Tanya kicked him in the side. “Hush, you. I'm courting.”

“Badly,” I suggested, just because.

“Too badly?”

“Nope. I like finding out there are things you don't do well. Go on.” My body felt light and warm.

“So, this time I'm a secretary. An excavation company dug up something that should have stayed buried. It escaped. I have to find it.”

“Exciting.”

“You've never been a construction company secretary.”

“True.”

“So I need someone. I need you. To, um, let off steam with. So I don't shove my boss's chauvinistic tongue down his throat before I finish the Hunt.”

I smiled. “Going with you would be a service to humanity, then?”

“He's barely human. But it might save me from the queen's anger.”

“Sounds worthwhile.”

She breathed against my throat. “I'd make it very worthwhile.”

Sprite shifted underneath us. “The humans are going to be heading out here soon. Quit playing.”

I took a long breath, but it was mostly for show. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I'll go with you. Wherever. Let me help.”

She kissed me again, this time tongue to tongue, our tastes mingling, sealing the choice. I leaned back eventually, smiling, then blinked, seeing a mist suddenly wisping across the sunny lawn behind us. “Um.” I waved. “Is that a problem?”

Sprite snorted. “That's the bridge to Underhill forming. I think Her Highness is a bit carried away.”

Tanya's laugh was wonderfully free. “What about you, sweetheart? Would you like to get carried away? Shall we check out the lands of Underhill on our way to New Ulm?”

I tried to be practical. “My car? My stuff?”

“Oh.” She hesitated only a moment. “How about a run through the gardens of the fae, and then we'll come back. You can drive your ugly car home behind me.”

It sounded like the best dream I'd ever had, but I didn't get this far by dreaming. “I have a scholarship in September.”

“Three months. We'll do a lot in three months. We'll figure it out.”

“Hmmmm.” I had to tease her. She could feel the clutch of my arms around her and the pounding of my heart against her shoulder. “Are there silver roses there?”

“As many as you like. All for you.”

“Well, hell,” I said. “How can I pass that up?”

I grabbed on tighter as Spike popped a wheelie, standing still, and then leaped forward. His voice drifted back to me over the rush of air, as the mist thickened around us. “About time. What wordy creatures you humans be.”

I felt more than heard Tanya's reply. “Words are good. I missed you. I need you. Nothing wrong with words.”

“Actions are better,” I whispered in her ear. “Is there a quiet glade or a nice soft bed, in Faerie?”

Her laugh was joyful and free. “I have the day off. I bet we can find one.”

And I was laughing too, breathless, scared, exhilarated, safely wrapped around my lady's back on her elfin steed as the world I knew faded from sight into the mists of a new land.

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