Ever After

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EVER AFTER
by
Kim Harrison

 

Chapter Two



           Quen’s car was warm, the seats heated and my vents aimed at me to make the escaping strands of my braid tickle my neck as we slowly wove through the twisty hospital campus. Feeling ill, Ileaned to the dash and peered through the curved glass, both anxious to get there and uncertain as to what I was going to tell Trent. It was starting to mist, and everything had a surreal glow. The tall main building looked foreboding in the rain, lights gleaming on its slick walls. That was not our destination. People got better—mostly—at the hospital. Where we were headed, the only healing was emotional.
           The tires hissed on the wet pavement as we took a tight corner into a cul-de-sac. Three modest structures, identical apart from their color, were before us, I.S. cruisers and black Crown Vics parked in the drives and at the curbs. My lips curled in disgust at the news van, bright lights spilling out along with heavy wires like grotesque umbilical cords running into one of the houses. It must have made their night to have their local story picked up nationwide.
           The three two-story homes looked out of place in the otherwise institutional hospital setting. They were relatively new, the landscaping bushes still small and inadequate. It was Cincinnati’s Rosewood wing where Rosewood babies were moved to, sometimes born here, but always dying here, never surviving. A lot of parents elected to take their baby home for his or her last days, but not all, and the homey atmosphere was a boon. Counselors were more prevalent than nursing staff. They hadn’t had such a place when I’d been born, and as Quen parked his two-seater into a space too small for the official cars, I felt odd and melancholy.
           Quen put the car in park, making no move to get out. I, too, leaned back into the plush seat, afraid almost. Blowing his breath out noisily, Quen turned to me. “I’m going to tell him we had dinner and talked about his security,” he finally said, his eyes holding a hint of pleading. “I’m also going to tell him that I was asking your opinion if he was secure on his own merits, and that you said he was, but that if the situation changed that you would . . .”
           My heart thumped as he let his words trail off into expectation, waiting for me to finish his sentence and tell him I’d watch Trent when he couldn’t. That wasn’t even mentioning the little white lie. I didn’t know how I felt about that, and I searched Quen’s expression. The shadow-light coming from the lit-up building made him look older, his worry clear. Damn it all to hell. “That if the situation changed that I’d be able to assist in keeping the girls safe,” I said firmly, and Quen’s expression became stoic.
           “Very well, Tal Sa’han,” he grumbled, and my eyebrows rose. Tal Sa’han? That was a new one. I would have asked him what it meant, but his voice had been mocking.
           “Then let’s go,” I said, reaching for my bag. The little clutch bag felt too small as I got out, and my clothes were totally inappropriate for a crime scene. The cool mist touched my face, and the thump of Quen’s door surprised me. Dropping my eyes to the damp pavement, I shut my door as well.
        I took a deep breath and lifted my chin, starting for the door, already propped open for the sporadic flow of people in and out. I couldn’t help but notice the opening was almost twice as wide as usual. I hated oversize doors—or rather, I hated the wheelchairs they alluded to. A sudden wish to be anywhere but here struck me. I had escaped dying from Rosewood syndrome. It had taken almost all my early life to do it and it shaped me in ways I was only now figuring out, but the reminder was bittersweet.
        Quen met me stride for stride. “Are you okay?”
         We had gained the paved walk, which artistically meandered to give the appearance of distance and interest. It just looked fake to me. “Fine,” I said, my mood growing worse. I didn’t want to be here—didn’t like the memories being stirred up. Someone was stealing Rosewood babies, and what followed from there was enough to make my nights sleepless.
            Head down, I stepped over the news van’s cords, walking sideways to get through the door and flashing my ID to the I.S. guy. I think it was more Quen’s and my fancy dress that got us in than my ID. The officer clearly didn’t recognize me, but only someone who needed to be here would come dressed in formalwear. I’d have to remember that.
           The cool night mist vanished, and I hesitated just inside the wide entryway, feeling Quen’s silent, solid presence behind me. A set of stairs led up, probably to nurses’ quarters; the kitchen was behind the stairway, down a short hallway. There were two living rooms, one to either side of the door. Both of them were full of people standing around, talking, but only one had the lights of the news crews. It was warm, even for me, and I didn’t like the excited tone of the newswoman asking the distraught mother how she felt now that her baby—thriving against all odds—had been stolen.
           “What a slime,” I whispered with a surge of anger, and Quen cleared his throat in warning. Someone had pieced together that the Rosewood syndrome was actually an expression of too much demon enzyme and was “harvesting” demon blood while the babies still lived. I’d be dead, too, if Trent’s father hadn’t modified my mitochondria to supply the enzyme that blocked the lethal action of the first enzyme that actually invoked demon magic. It was a mouthful that basically meant he’d enabled me to survive being born a demon.
           Quen’s hand cupped my elbow, and he gently pulled me out of some- one’s way. Numb, I looked for a familiar face—somewhere to start. My evening dress was garnering odd looks, but it also kept people away. That stupid newscaster was still interviewing the parents, and I.S. agents stood at the outskirts hoping to get some airtime. No one recognized me, thank God, and I felt guilty for being surrounded by so much grief—grief that my parents had endured and triumphed over. Damn it, I would not feel guilty for having survived.
           “There he is,” Quen breathed in relief, and I followed his gaze to the back of the living room to the hallway running from the nurseries to the kitchen.
           “And Felix,” I said, surprised to find Trent talking to the undead vampire. Or rather, he was talking to Nina, the young vampire that Felix currently liked doing his aboveground talking through. The young woman was looking thinner than the last time I’d seen her, better dressed and confident, but decidedly peaked, as if she’d been on too many amphetamines for the last four months. It was hard to see her behind the suave, collected undead vamp controlling her body, living through her for a few hours at a time.
           It was about what I had expected. Serving as an undead master’s mouthpiece wasn’t safe for either party—the old vampire was reminded too strongly of what it was like to be alive and began to pine for it, and the young was given more power running through his or her mind and body to handle alone. It was a knife’s edge that only the most experienced attempted at this level, and I was starting to think that the relationship had passed the point where it could be ended safely.
           Concerned, I bit my lip, wondering if the I.S. was questioning Trent about the abductions. But as I watched, I decided that though Trent had proved he could be calm even while being arrested for murder at his own wedding, he didn’t have the guarded air of someone being grilled for kidnapping. He was probably getting the real story, not the canned tripe they were feeding the reporters.
           Trent’s short, translucently blond hair next to Nina’s thick, shoulder-length wash of Hispanic elegance was striking. The woman herself had no political sway, but Felix was shining through, making the woman unusually sophisticated and in control—and slightly masculine in her mannerisms as she stood with her knees too far apart for her professional skirt and suit coat.
           “Running into Trent and Felix at a crime scene is starting to become a habit,” I said as I rocked into motion, moving slowly to avoid the reporters as we crossed the room. Seeing Trent, my entire perception of Quen shifted. Oh, both men had grace, but Quen’s was born in the confidence that he could handle any situation. Trent’s was from a lifetime of being listened to and taken more than seriously. They were both dressed well, but Trent’s suit was tailored to every inch of his trim, sexy self, and it was growing obvious that Quen would rather be in his usual loose-fitting, security uniform. Though I’d seen both men take down an attacker, Quen would always use the minimal amount of force, whereas Trent would be a conflict of visions—elegance coupled with savagery and a frightening grace—magic sung into existence.
           Trent felt my gaze on him, his expression startled until he hid the emotion. Only after running his gaze up and down—appreciatively taking in my evening gown—did he touch Felix’s shoulder to point me out. The young/old I.S. operative turned, beaming, the young woman’s normal mannerisms gone as Felix took complete control.
           “Rachel!” Nina said a shade too loudly and with an exaggerated slowness as Quen and I tucked into the marginally quieter hallway where we could still watch what happened. “I’m surprised to see you here. Is Ivy back yet?”
           With a guarded air, I shook both my head and her hand. “Not until next Saturday,” I said, pulling my hand from hers, not liking Felix’s interest in my roommate. “I was at dinner when I heard the news and came over because . . .” I hesitated, my grip tightening on my clutch bag. Because I wanted to know who was kidnapping babies who could invoke demon magic? Sure, that sounded good.
           Trent cleared his throat as the silence became awkward. “Because I asked her to,” he said, reaching to shake my hand. It was missing the last two digits, but he hid their absence well until our fingers met. The glint of a pinkie ring twin to my own was still on his index finger, and I hid my hand behind my back, not wanting Felix to notice and ask. “Hello, Rachel. I appreciate you . . . changing your plans.” The hesitation had been slight, but it was there. Beside me, Quen cleared his throat, clearly not wanting to explain in front of Felix.
           I don’t know if I want to lie to you anymore, I thought, warming at his touch and wondering if I had felt a faint tingle of spilling energy before our fingers had parted. “Who did this?” I said, trying to block out the woman sobbing on the couch. My God, didn’t newspeople have any soul at all?
            Nina laughed lightly, Felix apparently immune to the human tragedy. “Let me consult my magic ball,” she said, then sobered when both Trent and I stared at her. We weren’t the only ones. That laugh had traveled.
            “Quen, thank you for bringing Ms. Morgan out,” Trent said as he inclined his head.
           “It wasn’t a problem. Sa’han . . .” Quen paused. “If I can have a moment of your time?”
            “In a moment.” Trent beamed one of his professional smiles, and I slumped ever so slightly. As long as Felix was here, Trent would be the epitome Teflon—knowing nothing, seeing nothing, accomplishing nothing—boring, boring, boring. He was also ticked. I could tell by the faint rim of red on his ears. He wouldn’t talk to Quen until they were alone, and until then, he was going to believe the worst. Three days in a car was having unforeseen benefits. “I hope you and Rachel had a pleasant dinner.”
            That was catty for him, and I slipped my arm into Quen’s, startling both men for different reasons. “He bought me sparkling wine. It doesn’t give me a headache like most wines do.”
           Trent’s attention lingered on my arm in Quen’s, then rose to Quen’s eyes. Slowly Quen pulled away, stiff and uncomfortable.
            “Quen,” Nina said as she looked at the reporters now asking the staff for their views. “Since you’re here, could you give me your professional opinion on something?”
            Quen straightened in surprise, his hands behind his back. “Me?”
            Nina was bobbing her head. “Yes. That is, if Trent will let me steal you away for a few moments. You’re well versed in a variety of security techniques both mundane and magic,” she said, one hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, the other extended to escort him deeper into the building to the bedrooms.
           “Personal security, yes. I don’t see how I can help.”
           Drawn by the living/dead vampire, Quen brushed by me in the scent of wool and cinnamon. “I’d be most appreciative if you would look at the security system here and tell me what would be needed to circumvent it,” Nina said.
           The man glanced back at Trent, and when Trent shrugged, Quen said, “It would be my pleasure. Ah, I don’t want to give testimony in court.” He continued, “This is strictly my casual opinion,” his voice going faint behind the noise in the front room as they walked away.
           I couldn’t help but smile. It was quickly followed by the sour emotion of envy. “Always a bridesmaid,” I muttered as I shifted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Trent. No one ever asked my opinion of a crime scene. Reconsidering, I glanced at Trent. At least not before the vacuuming guys were done.
           If I didn’t know better, Felix had taken Quen away intentionally so Trent and I could talk. The feeling strengthened when Trent glanced at me and turned away, making me feel as if we were two wallflowers at a dance, left by our respective dates so we could “get to know each other,” Trent in his three-piece suit that cost more than my car, and me in a slinky tawny number I’d probably never wear again ever.
           Then the woman on the couch began sobbing again, and the feeling died.
           “This is ugly,” Trent said. The mask was gone.
            He hadn’t asked what Quen and I had been doing, and my shoulders eased. “How serious is the I.S. treating this?”
           Trent’s breath came out a shade too forceful, the small tell ringing through me. He was worried—a lot. “Not seriously enough.”
           That I could tell already, but Trent wouldn’t be out here for just this. “How many babies are missing?” I said, wincing as the mother balled up her tissue in a tight, white-knuckled grip, her eyes red-rimmed and drained. “Other than this one, I mean. The press said three.”
           His gaze somewhere across the room, Trent whispered, “Eight more across the United States, but the I.S. is only admitting to those that get leaked to the press. The one just before this was a set of twins from a prominent political figure. They were over a month old. The parents are devastated. They don’t know why their babies were surviving. Most of the infants abducted are male, which is odd since the female gender has a naturally higher resistance.”
           That was why he was here, and my eyebrows rose as he faced me whispering, “It’s not me. Someone has been giving them the enzyme that blocksthe destructive actions of the Rosewood genes or they would never have lived even this long. Now that whoever is doing this knows that it works, he or she is coming back and stealing the infants who have been treated.”
            A sick feeling stole over me as I looked into the living room with its pain and guilt. “HAPA?”
            He shook his head. “Felix says no.”
           That info was questionable at best, but I’d go with it until I heard otherwise. “Well, who else knows what these babies are capable of invoking?”
           Trent gracefully turned to look down the hall as if wanting to leave. He was tired, but it was only because he was letting his guard down that I could tell. “Anyone can piece it together—now that it’s common knowledge what you are.” His gaze came back to me, an empty regret in them. “The sole survivor of Rosewood syndrome happens to be a demon? Perhaps we were lucky it took this long. That an enzyme can keep them alive, though?” His lips pressed together. “A handful know that, and most of them work for me.” Silent, I forced my arms to relax at my sides, the silk of my dress whispering. “This isn’t good,” Trent said so softly I barely heard him.
           “You think?” A silence grew, not companionable, but not uncomfortable, either. The news teams seemed to be packing it up, and the I.S. operatives were getting noisy, a last-ditch effort to get the cameras on them before they left. I looked at Trent’s jiggling foot and raised my eyebrows.
           Grimacing, Trent stopped fidgeting. “You look nice tonight,” he said, surprising me. “I can’t decide if I like your hair more up or down.”
           Flushing, I touched the loose braid Jenks’s kids had put my hair in, still damp from the mist. “Thanks.”
           “So did you and Quen have a nice dinner?” he asked, pushing me even more mentally off balance. “Carew Tower, yes?”
           “As a matter of fact, it was drinks at the bar, but yes, it was Carew Tower.” Flustered, I gripped my clutch bag tighter. “How did you guess?”
           His feet scuffed, the small move telling me he was satisfied—and yet still ticked. “You smell like damaged brass. It was either Carew Tower or the deli down on Vine. The one with the old bar footrest?”
           I blinked, lips parting. Wow. “Oh,” I said, trying to decide what I could say. “Yes. We were at Carew Tower.” I looked down at my dress, clearly not suitable for a deli.
           Trent moved to stand next to me, so near I could smell his aftershave under the broken-green smell of him. Together we watched the newscaster finish her interview with a nurse, and him being that close was almost worse than his accusing stare. “You were discussing me,” he said, his voice a shade high, his attention fixed determinedly across the room. The scent of spoiled wine and cinnamon joined the mix.
            “Quen asked me to fill in for him when your schedules don’t mesh,” I said. “He knows you’re planning the conflicts—did you think he would do nothing?”
           His eye twitched, that’s it, but I’d spent three days in a car with him and could see right through it. “Give the man a break,” I said, and he finally gave up his false indifference to glare at me. “Quen cross-checked your prom date and took you to the DMV office for your license. He worries about you, okay?”
           Unwilling to believe, Trent clenched his jaw. I could feel the reporters watching. His eyes flicked to them and slowly his hands unclenched. Exhaling, he forced a fake smile, but I didn’t think he was fooling anyone now. He was ready to walk, and I took his elbow.
           “Trent, I told him no,” I said softly, and his gaze shot from my grip to my eyes. “I told him you don’t need a babysitter. I told him he was selling you short and that you had the skill and dexterity to take care of yourself. He’s trying to wrap his mind around it, but after a decade of keeping you safe, it’s hard. You might want to ease up on the rebelliousness for a while.”
           Trent’s anger vanished. “Rebelliousness?” he said, and we both moved sideways when the vacuum guys trundled out past us. “Is that his word, or yours?”
           “Mine,” I said, relieved that I hadn’t tried to lie to him. “I know rebelling when I see it. Come on,” I cajoled, my hand slipping from him. “Let the poor guy come to grips with your independence before you go forcing it on him. That’s kind of cool, you know? That he loves you so much.”
           Again he started, clearly at a loss. “Thank you,” he said as his gaze canvassed the room behind me, but his smile was honest when it returned to me. “I never saw it like that.”
           My heart thumped when Trent ducked his head to rub his chin ruefully, and a funny feeling went to my middle. Behind me, the bright lights of the news crews pinned down the human tragedy like the African sun, exposing it in a distasteful savagery like lions ripping the underbelly of a gazelle. It was just as hard to look away.
           I took a breath to tell him if he ever wanted someone to watch his back to give me a call, but I chickened out. Instead, I nervously shifted to stand beside him again. A wisp of separation drifted between us. “You’re leaving.”
           “Ah, yes,” he said, clearly surprised. “That newswoman has been eyeing me, and I don’t want to give an interview.”
           I nodded in understanding. Soon as he left, I was going to beat a hasty retreat in the other direction in search of Nina. Maybe they’d let me into the crime scene if Felix asked them to.
           “Rachel,” Trent said suddenly, and I brought my attention back from the empty hallway between the kitchen and the bedrooms. “Be careful. It might be HAPA even if Felix says it isn’t.”
           Angry, I nodded. Whoever was doing this knew I was a hard target, so they’d abducted babies instead. Cowards.
           Trent was rocking forward to leave, and I stuck out my hand. “You be careful, too. If whoever this is knows about the enzyme, they’ll know that you’re the only one who can make the cure permanent.” Could I ever work for him? I wondered as he looked at my hand and I recalled the satisfaction of bringing in Cincinnati’s HAPA faction with him and the two-hour long conversation with him over pie and coffee afterward. It had been wonderful, but I didn’t think I could stomach taking direction from him, and I doubted he would ever learn to be anything other than what he was. I didn’t know if I’d like him if he changed. Damn, I liked him, and it kind of hurt admitting it.
           Trent eyed my hand for a half second, taking it only to pull me toward him. Surprised, I almost fell, my breath held as he gave me a quick, professional hug, our shoulders touching. My free hand went around him for balance, and the memory of kissing him flashed through my mind as my hand slid from his waist. “Thank you, I’ll be careful,” he said as my heart pounded and I stared at him. Then he let go and I stepped back, my face warming.
           “Are you available tomorrow morning?” he asked, as if unaware I was now bright red. Jeez Louise, what was with the hug? And in front of the reporters? Everyone can see me blushing. “I’d like to talk to you about what this might mean,” he said, his gaze rising to take in the entire ugly scene. “And I know Ceri and the girls would like to see you.
           I hesitated. I hadn’t seen Lucy and Ray for a few weeks. I was their godmother. Of course I wanted to come over, regardless of the reason. “Make it . . . ten?” I said, remembering that elves, like pixies, usually slept the four hours when the sun was the highest. “I’m, ah, usually not up before eleven, but I can swing ten . . . occasionally.”
           Oh, God, I was blushing even more now, but Trent only bobbed his head, smiling at my red face. “We can make it eleven if you like,” he said. “That’s their usual riding time. Wear your boots. We can talk on the trail. I’ll see you then.”
           Calm and relaxed, Trent headed for the door, his steps confident as he timed his retreat perfectly to avoid the rising newscaster reaching for him. And then he was gone.
           Crap on toast, I was gripping my clutch purse like a fig leaf, and disgusted that I’d handled that with the grace of a troll, I fidgeted where I was, feeling out of place in my tawny dress now that I wasn’t standing next to a man in a suit. My heart was still pounding, and through the window, I saw a flash of light as Trent got into his car.
           Hands swinging, I edged backward down the hall where Quen and Felix had gone. Quen would want to know Trent had ditched him again. I expected that the hallway led to the nurseries, and indeed, behind the first door I hesitantly peeped in was the expected double bed, two soft chairs, a rocker, TV, dresser, mirror, and a crib. There was a bank of white cupboards. I was sure they held lifesaving equipment, hidden like an ugly secret.
           “Not here,” I said to myself, starting to relax the farther I got from the noise and warmth of the living room. I pulled the door shut, then hesitated, looking at my fingers. They felt slippery, and I brought them to my nose, breathing in the smell of crushed leaves.
           Pixy dust?
           Pulse quickening, I went down the hallway, following voices. “Felix?” I called out, hiking my dress up so I could move better.
           “In here, Rachel,” Nina called back, and I froze at the tiny ultrasonic wing chirp of surprise that followed. I never would have heard it over the noise, except that I lived with pixies.
           I spun back to the kitchen, my eyes widening. “Jax?” I blurted, seeing the little pixy looking at me from over the rim of the light fixture attached to the ceiling. “Jax!” I shouted as he darted down the hall and into the kitchen.
           I moved. Dress hiked up, I stormed down the hall, blowing into the kitchen and scaring the two I.S. guys standing at the open fridge. The sparkling of pixy dust hung in the air.
           “Pixy!” I shouted, and the two men stared at me. “Where did he go?”
           Wide-eyed, they said nothing, the pie between them like guilt given substance.
           “Where did the damn pixy go!” I repeated, my heart thudding.
           “Pixy?” one of them asked, as if I was asking about a unicorn. The sound of a vehicle starting came in through the open window, and I ran to the back door. Adrenaline surging, I shoved the door open. Cool night air hit me, misty with no moon—and the sifting silver dust of a pixy trailed like a moonbeam. It drifted to the sidewalk running past the Dumpster and vanishing around the corner.
           Breathless, I followed the tracing of dust, my heels sending shocks up my spine as I clip-tapped around the corner. A squeal of tires brought me to a halt, and I put a hand on the Dumpster and watched as a blue Ford truck drove away, tires smoking. Anger sparked, but it wasn’t until it hit a speed bump and the passenger door flew open that I was sure.
           N-n-n-n-nick.

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Revised: 12/26/2012     Copyright © 2012 by Kim Harrison. All rights reserved.