Well, never let it be said I don't finish what I start:) Long overdue but at last finished, this short something which was last updated (embarassingly) in March '03. My humble apologies for the long time between parts.
Thank you to those who commented last time round; to Debbi, Shadow, Kris, Dulce Ambrosia, Nokomiss, Bex, MerryD, girltype, Dianna, K'Ranna, Bikifriend, quiet liban, galli-vi, CalliopeMused and last but not least, Amy.
Feedback is very much adored and appreciated; I'd love to hear anything you have to say, be it good, bad or ugly. Lyrics belong to the luscious Tom McRae, who is amazing.
Dedication: For Ivory, who remembered.
I hope you enjoy reading,
Strange Lullaby Part Four
She lies still
Her eyes on fire
Undressed to kill
And untethered in time
Breath by breath, Sally Lupin shredded their friendship, methodical as a coroner picking over the leavings of death. She counted Marina's flaws over and over, each time exaggerating them a little more, increments of lies, until it seemed mercy to take such a life.
Envy: green and lurid, Marina was never good at hiding it. She wanted the simple admiration of men, to have eyes trace the curves of her body and follow the sway of her hips – she was blessed in her ordinariness, and didn't even realise what a gift it was.
Blindness. The years had swung by, and Marina still could not see the dark glory of her companions. She walked with a wolf and a cat who wore human form as casually as humans wore coats, yet saw nothing of the predator in them. Even when the moon was wide and white, and Sally felt the wolf bursting from her eyes, Marina had been oblivious. She would never survive the real world – if she could not see the inhumanity in the inhuman, how could she ever hope to recognise the inhumanity in what truly was human?
Weakness. She was human and soft, dealing in words, not actions. She could talk a good fight, but she would rip like crepe paper under the claws of a wolf. No matter how you looked at it, she was inferior, and it was inevitable that someone more powerful would beat and break her eventually. Sally was only saving her from that fate.
Instead, Marina would die under the hands of a goddess, in a sacrifice as sweet and shadowed as the foxgloves that grew thick in the hedgerows, and the best part of her would live. That tender, rich soul would live on, gleaming in the wild, brilliant eyes of a wolf, throwing back the hallowed moon in the darkness, lifted from obscurity into glory, savagery, beauty.
Sat there, shrouded in self-conferred holiness, Sally was unable to see what other, older eyes would have seen.
Beneath her peach and coral skin, a monster huddled.
X - X - X - X - X
For a few moments as Marina left, all three of them stared after her retreating form. The night absorbed her, until nothing remained of her but the fading sound of her footsteps. It seemed a confirmation of his private suspicion: that the Nightworld and humans could not coexist in peace. Humanity would always deny them, refute them and inevitably run from them.
But not, Raith thought, because she feared them. He'd seen fear in her eyes earlier, and it probably still clung to her, pernicious as acid, but that hadn't been why she left. That hadn't sparked her ferocity.
Nor did she lust for the dark splendour of immortality. He'd never believed that one himself – decades as a pariah had convinced him otherwise - but he'd heard others say it.
There could be no excuses: it was they who had failed, they who had driven her away because they were petty and cruel and frightened.
And I am just as guilty. She wanted to know me, and I was too afraid of what I am and what I will become, afraid she truly would see me as hideous, deformed in soul as in body.
Maybe I am. I just don't know – I only know that I must search, and I must find my soulmate. There is nothing more to it than that.
"Rina!" shouted the shapeshifter, jolting Raith from his thoughts. "Rina, come back..."
His voice died, and the silence seeped in around them, thick as fog. Kaffir's cockiness had withered away, leaving only a tense, bewildered young man.
Raith knew what came next, and he prepared himself for the onslaught-
But when Kaffir did turn with the viciousness of a snake, he was not the target.
"You poisonous bitch!" Kav shouted at Vanya. "Why did you say that to her, huh, why'd you do something so stupid?"
She gawped, and then a flush marched up her face – Raith could smell it, the odour of heat and fear and anger, rank as rotting fruit. "I'm the stupid one? Me? Which one of us brought that scum in-"
"Don't talk about Rina like that!"
"I'll talk about her any way I want," she hissed, her lips drawn back, her face narrow and taut with loathing. "She knows about us, Kav, she knows. Don't you get it? You lied to her, you lied and lied and lied and now you've told her the truth, do you really think she's going to turn around and say, well, hey, you're all scary monsters and I'm your natural prey, but let's be friends! I. Don't. Think. So."
"Well, you wouldn't, would you? It's not as if you've got any friends."
Raith gazed from one furious face to the other. There was no point in hanging around. Sooner or later they'd remember him, and drag him into this mess. It was time to leave.
After all, he hadn't found her yet. The silver chain was still pooled in his pocket, proof she was here somewhere. Proof that he was needed once again.
Or he could chase Marina, and settle this nagging hope in his heart, to see if she had looked at him and seen more than scars – if that glimpse of affection in her mind had been real. God, he wanted it to be.
In all the years of his nomadic existence, he'd only met two other people who had looked at him and felt neither pity nor revulsion. An old man, down on the coast, who'd given him a lift into Portsmouth; he'd chattered away amiably, munching on toffee the whole way, and told Raith that life gave everyone tough breaks, and who gave a damn if his was a little more visible?
The other had been a child on Halloween, who'd whispered 'cool costume' when she was stood next to him in the shop. Her horrified mother had stammered apologies, but Raith had met those curious blue eyes and found himself saying, "Nah. I think yours is better." Against the turmoil of her mother's mind, the girl had been soothing as sunset, beaming up at him from her witch's outfit.
And now Marina. No, he couldn't let her go, not like this, wondering forever if they could have been friends, or they could have been more, if she could change everything. Duty and destiny just weren't enough. He hungered for more, for her sweetness and her flashes of temper, for her carefree passion; for all the things he lacked in himself.
Decided, he began to edge away from the argument which had gone from semi-lucid exchanges to insults with alarming rapidity.
"You...you..." Vanya sputtered and searched and finally spat out the words like bullets. "You fucking wanker!"
"Classy, very classy," sneered the shapeshifter. "About what I'd expect from a hooker's daughter."
As he melted into the shadows, their voices followed him, sharp and high on the air, rising to a cruel crescendo.
"Don't you bring my mother into this! Don't you dare, Kaffir Lybica, or I'll...I'll..."
"You'll, you'll?" parroted Kav. That was the last that Raith could make out clearly as he pursued Marina, the fading shrills of the Nightworld's blame and shame. All that was worst of it, he left behind.
And all that he wanted to be best...he followed, hoping.
X - X - X - X - X
Her shoes snapped on the pavement, the staccato beat puncturing her frenzied thoughts.
For all my dreams of worlds beyond, I never guessed at this.
In idle moments, Marina had wondered what it might be like if she found herself in some secret land – of course she had. But in her mind, it had been a place of adventure and easy gratification. The heroes were handsome and the monsters hideous; the dragons were slain, the villains definable and despicable. There were no blurred lines, no place where one might glimpse the grotesque in the smile of a friend or see salvation in a stranger's eyes.
The brisk night made her walk faster, but she could not outrun her emotions, tumbling like rain.
How can it be true? How can they live unnoticed among us? Are they just that good at lying to us, or am I just too stupid to see it?
She felt as if she hardly knew Kav, as if all their moments of easy familiarity had been a sham, his lies covering them with the sleek taint of oil.
And Sally? A werewolf? No. Sally squealed if she got a spot of make-up on her top - how could she possibly streak through the woodland without caring about the mud and the bugs?
She could just about cope with Kav as a cat. There was something feline about him – about his ineffable smile and propensity to pounce on anything he considered should be his.
But Sally couldn't be a wolf. Wolves had hordes of fur and big teeth and they were everything her dizzy friend wasn't. She wore pink. She cried at sappy movies. She painted her nails, and unless there was a wolf loping around with shiny blue claws, Marina just couldn't reconcile the two.
Or perhaps she'd misunderstand what they were trying to tell her: of everything she'd seen tonight, the things that lingered were no marvels. No, it was the banal and the mundanely tragic that flashed through her mind again and again.
It was the look of hurt in Kav's face, it was Raith flinching back from sharp words, it was Vanya's rage, and it was even the blasé contempt of Nate. All those familiar emotions, and all of them born from fear and misunderstanding.
Maybe she was wrong to feel betrayed that they hadn't told her – maybe she should be relieved.
But part of her still thrummed with resentment; they should have trusted her – they shouldn't have left her blithe and blind to their twilight lives, which divided them like harlequins. All right, it would have been difficult for her to accept, but she would have done it, wouldn't she? And it would have been better than finding out like this, than being haunted by regret and confusion and anger, and the memory of wounded green eyes.
She couldn't stop thinking about it, them – him - and she wanted not to care, but she could do neither, so instead she stomped along the icy road, gritting her teeth against the cold. Her home wasn't far now, and then she could fall into undemanding, empty sleep with its alluring promise to forget for a little while.
Except she had the feeling she would dream of green eyes. Curse him.
X - X - X - X - X
A key turning in the lock, almost drowned beneath the TV which was cranked up to deafening. Thrills shot up from Sally's stomach. This was it; her finest moment.
A brief clutter of human voices – Marina's parents making small talk, she brushing it off with murmurs of tiredness. Creak of the hall door, and then the soft insistent beat of Marina's feet on the stairs. Her perfume came before her, delicate, faint, a tantalising appetiser.
The anticipation spiralled up through her, and she had to fight not to change there and then, not to slide into her savage skin. But she wanted Rina to know, to understand how Sally would save her.
It wasn't death: no, it was an offer of immortality.
Her hands flexed, trying to become claws. But for one last time, she held her human shape, a welcoming smile bright on her face, and the hunger lurking in her eyes.
The door swung open.
X - X - X - X - X
Marina stopped, speechless, and all thoughts of infuriating men and mysterious societies were driven clean out of her head.
Sally was on her bed, naked. Very, very naked.
"What are you doing?" she squeaked. She shut the door, glancing about for Sally's clothes, but saw nothing. Where had she put them?
There was something weird about Sally's expression. When she spoke, her voice had a deep, dreamy quality that sounded as if she were drunk. Maybe she was. "Waiting for you."
"Sal, are you okay? Mum and Dad didn't say you were round."
Those baby blue eyes were almost drowned out by the dark pools of her pupils. Marina amended 'drunk' to 'drugged', though that seemed even less likely. Sally had always sneered at the boys who crowded round the back of the science labs, smoking with furtive haste.
"They don't know," she purred, easing into a full, languid stretch, and Marina averted her eyes hastily. There were some things she didn't want to see, and Sally was flashing most of them right now. "This is between you and me."
"What's between you and me?"
"There's something I need you to know."
Realisation struck. It was the Nightworld, it was just the stupid Nightworld and its secrets again. Kav had good as said that he and Sally had discussed telling her; maybe she'd been wrong to assume it had been an easy choice.
Now she looked, there seemed a strain to the way Sally sat, as if she were trying to hold back some immense emotion. Her shoulders quivered with it, while her hands gripped the duvet as if she would tear it apart.
And of course, a slightly less subtle sign of stress: she was sitting there drunk and naked on the bed.
"I know about the Nightworld," she blurted. "Kav told me. I know you're a...a..." God, it sounded daft. "...a werewolf."
But it didn't bring the rush of relief she'd hoped for. Sally only tilted her head, ever so slowly until she was staring at Marina from a grotesque angle, as if she had been hanged. Her hair twined around her neck like a flaxen rope, intensifying the illusion.
And Marina felt the first icy fingers of fear, brushing over her shoulders.
"You don't know the half of it," Sally whispered. A fell light gleamed in her eyes – the wild, unearthly green of the Northern Lights, as if the whole night sky shone out from her.
"Tell me, then," she urged so her fear would be banished, so she would see something in her best friend's face that she recognised.
"Terry was the first one," Sally said slowly.
Terry? The name was familiar. A blurry face waded into her memory – one of the boys who'd hung around longer than most. He'd been The One, but then they'd all been The One until boredom set in.
He'd been handsome, and like most of Sally's boys, he'd ignored Marina except when he was forced to make polite conversation. But she did remember that his eyes were a startling shade of green – a clear deep colour that jumped from his skin like a slap of summer. She'd asked if they were real, and he'd given her a surprised glance, as if a monkey had spoken.
"They're contacts," he'd admitted reluctantly. "But don't tell Sal. She likes them, and that's fine with me."
But she wasn't sure, so she only said, "Terry? That guy who ran away a couple of years ago?"
Sally's smile was brittle and knowing. "He didn't run away."
Marine felt her stomach lurch and she didn't know why. "Yeah, he did. His parents were on the local TV. They never found him."
"He didn't run away," Sally said patiently, as if she were a teacher with a slow student. "His parents thought he did, because I made them. We can do that, you know – play with your mind."
A flash of the doctor freezing in the doorway of the hospital, poised like a ballet dancer on the apex of action.
"I know," she whispered hoarsely. Dread was welling up in her body, pouring like mercury into her legs until she was transfixed. "Then where did he go?"
Sally seemed to glow, her face as radiant and lustrous as the Madonna, gazing into sacred spaces. Marina thought that she had never looked lovelier, her lips parted, her eyes wide and almost adoring. "I killed him," she said in a hushed, ecstatic breath. Her smile was so soft, so sweet that she might have been confessing to love and not murder.
Oh god. It was murder, wasn't it?
No. This isn't true. This can't be true.
She didn't know where the next words came from, but they sounded desperate. "No, you didn't. Oh my god, Sally, what are you saying?"
Incredibly, that was sympathy in Sally's expression. "I did, Rina. I had to."
"Did...did he attack you?" she said, clinging onto the only explanation that could make sense. "Was it self-defence?"
"Terry? No, he was harmless."
Mum and Dad are downstairs. If I can bring them up here...they can call the police. They can make this all stop. But if I leave, she'll know something's up. I need another way...
She didn't know she was stepping back until she felt the door against her spine. Only then did she feel the tight bunches of her shoulders, the nails digging into her palms. Only then did she realise how frightened she was.
I believe her. I truly do. "Then why?" she asked, not knowing what else to do.
All the serenity drained from Sally until she was a wraith with dark, lost eyes. Suddenly she was huddled on the bed, arms wrapped around her knees – and Marina had to stop herself from going over there to comfort her like she always did when Sally was left heartbroken after her latest One sauntered away.
"You don't know what it's like, Rina. How dark and empty it is. We play at being human, and we're so good at it that we can fool you all, but we're still on the outside. Some of us can even believe the pretence after a little while, like Kav. He talks about friends and family and love as if they're real."
"For you. Not for me." The anguish in her voice was awful to hear. "All those boys...I wanted to know what love was. I wanted to know why it mattered."
"Anything!" Sally drew a ragged breath. "Why was everyone else happy? Why not me? There was nothing. Not love, not hate, not even anger. Just nothing. And then...and then when I was hunting one night, I came across this guy. A tramp, or some homeless guy. I don't know why he was in the woods, but he saw me, so I decided to scare him a little. I chased him...I chased him, and I was alive. And when I caught him, and when I had his throat in my jaws..." She shuddered, her head tipping back. "You have no idea how it felt."
Marina's heart was hammering so hard she could barely hear Sally. "Wh-what does this have to do with Terry?"
Her CD player was on the desk. She could flick it on – turn up the volume. If she could drown out the TV, that would bring her parents up. Nothing annoyed her father more. She began to edge towards it, away from the dubious safety of the door.
"It didn't last. By the time I got home, I was empty again. I didn't understand why, until I met Terry. I loved him, Rina, I really did, and when I was with him, I could hardly feel the emptiness." She paused, and when she spoke, there was a terrible poignancy to her words. "He made everything okay. He made it bearable."
Marina nodded, concentrating on moving closer to her stereo.
"I thought he'd understand what I was. I was going to make him like me, so he could show me how to be human and wolf. I'd never be lonely again." Her face hardened; the ruthlessness there was startling, a side of Sally that Marina had never glimpsed. "But he ran. He ran, so I caught him, and I tore out his throat with my teeth and it was even better than all the other times had been. He was human, and he loved me too – I saw it when he died, I felt it beating in his heart. It wasn't real love though, so it didn't keep me warm for long. It couldn't have been real love, or he wouldn't have run."
She was almost next to the desk. She just had to reach out, and flick the switch-
"He didn't love me like you do."
X - X - X - X - X
Raith lingered outside, debating whether he should ring the doorbell. He'd caught up with Marina a few minutes before she reached the house, but indecision and fear had kept him from showing himself. Instead he had trailed behind her, watching for any threat lurking in the gloom.
She was safe, back in her human world. He didn't belong there, grotesquerie that he was. He should leave her alone. It had been a dream, and even if she had welcomed him in-
And then her voice echoed in his head, strident and fierce.
"You know what? I saw a monster tonight, Raith, and it wasn't you. It won't ever be you."
And later, some miraculous later, he'd said half-shyly, "Next time?"
The look in her eyes had stolen his breath. "I'd like there to be one."
No. He wouldn't be a coward. He wouldn't let this lie. He'd shied away from people for too long because of what he was – because of who he had to be.
And so, hesitant, he reached out to the house before he approached just to reassure himself, just to feel the soft, petal-pink blush of her presence and draw forth courage to step into the light for the first time in centuries.
But there was someone else there; a cluttered thing of madness and grief and need, tangled up like a rat king. A mind he knew too well, blazing out in murderous determination.
X - X - X - X - X
Marina froze. A chill swept her body, ringing in her ears. "What?"
"It's all so clear now," Sally continued, and her eyes were bright and sharp and focused. It was a predator's stare, the same merciless look she had seen in Nate's eyes earlier, and suddenly Marina couldn't think at all for panic. "None of them loved me, so how could they make me human? All I consumed was false love and desire."
Consumed? She'd eaten them? Gazing into Sally's pale, intense face, Marina believed it.
"But you..." Sally crooned, "You do love me, don't you, Rina?"
Her mind seemed gluey, the words grazing across her like nonsense. This wasn't real. This wasn't her heart thundering, her skin rippling with fear, her friend saying these preposterous things.
"That's the difference. I'll consume you and your love, and I'll be human. It'll save us both."
"You'll never be lonely again, Rina, you'll never be left out or abandoned or used. I'll keep you safe forever."
She found her voice at last. "By eating me?"
Sally looked at her as if it was a particularly stupid question. "Well, yes."
This couldn't be happening. People didn't make such wild, impossible claims and they certainly didn't announce them as if they were the most normal things in the world. People didn't eat other people.
And from nowhere, amidst the babble of thoughts that made no sense, Kav's voice cut through, level and leached of emotion. "Just like you've got serial killers, so have we."
People didn't eat other people. But monsters did.
"No," she breathed. The door was further away now – could she get there before Sally?
Sally's eyes chilled into a fey, inhuman green. Her voice had become a growl, thick and slurred. "That's not an option."
There was a series of grisly sounds; pop and cracks and tearing. And suddenly there was a massive, bristling beast on her bed, a thing that bore no resemblance at all to Sally Lupin except, perhaps, for the voracious stare that registered her only as prey.
She did the only thing she could think of; she drew breath to scream-
And it sprang.
It hit her hard, knocking the wind from her; there were claws and teeth and streaking hot pain beneath its frenzied weight. Her head was cracking on the leg of the desk; stupid thing to notice, her arms were bleeding but she still tried to keep its jaws from her face and throat, making only a faint keening sound that would not be enough to bring help.
Then she felt an immense, raw agony in her stomach and knew that it didn't matter now if anyone heard. Time became meaningless, lost beneath the pain that overwhelmed everything else, that turned her into gasps and gristle and not much else. She forgot her parents were downstairs. She forgot that the thing snuffling above her had ever been Sally.
And strange, before she looped into unconsciousness, she thought she heard a sound like breaking glass. Maybe it was just her heart.
The last she knew was pain and a sense of immense injustice, and arching over her last waking moments, utter hopelessness.
X - X - X - X - X
It had been a long time since he had moved so fast, but his body remembered; his muscles moved like silk and steel, just as he needed. He was at the house in an instant, and he leapt with the smooth ease of a cat, up to the window which was all that stood between him and them.
Him and her.
He barely felt the impact or the slivers of glass that left blood streaming down his forearms like ribbons. A moment's pain, that was all, then he was healed and grabbing hold of the thick fur, dragging her back-
It was like lightning in his veins, her presence, and even death and a couple of centuries could not diminish the poisonous tinge of her insanity.
He gritted his teeth against the invasion, as if a thunderstorm had crawled under his skin to try and split him with lightning. It wasn't a new sensation; he'd done this before.
After all, this game had gone on for countless lives, with only one difference.
This time, he had lived on.
Before, their deaths had occurred in bitter synchronicity. Time turned like a serpent, and they were reborn, alone and star-crossed, until some brief and fatal interchange. Each life, she was as shattered and wild and dazzling as she had ever been, clawing a bloody swathe through the world. A life here, one there, plucked and rendered into tattered pieces by her endless search for humanity.
And inevitably, she would find him; sometimes he had come across her hunched over a body, digging through its cavities in her desperation to find one piece of love made flesh. Sometimes he was seduced by her long before he knew anything of her barren heart; a flirtation at a gathering when his eyes were drawn by the glint of her silver necklace, a peasant girl who worked in the fields and sang strange lullabies yet wore jewellery that belonged to a lord, a courtesan twirling a gleaming chain around her fingers in coy invitation.
The constants in his life: him, and her pale, wintry beauty and the bright shackles of her silver necklace, drawing his eye and beginning the sequence.
So he was left with the choice. He could let her live and others die, or let her die, and him with her, dragged down by the swansong of her jealous soul. No, she would not leave him without her.
The story had been retold a thousand ways, each stitched into the past until their mismatched romance formed some bright and awful tapestry. He had taken every option, and always it ended the same; if he was not willing to be the executioner, her lust would turn to him, convinced the answer lay in his body. And if he died as he had so often, for she was the stronger of them and he the saner...well, she lived on until someone else came to stop her.
Such was his existence. The only mercy of it had been that each time he was born innocent, oblivious to the choice that waited for him. So it had been that he snatched happiness from his brief lives, not knowing his purpose as judge and executioner.
No longer. For the first time, she had erred and erred twice: she had killed someone he loved and she had made him a vampire, giving him the will to survive her demise.
Survival - a bittersweet gift. With it had come the tidal wave of memories, staggering him as he stood outside the burning church a hundred years ago. For a long time after that, he had wandered like a hermit, coming to terms with it all. And waiting for her, searching out the wicked gleam of silver.
And even knowing the future, he had been too late – he'd wanted it to be a clean fight for once, just him and his soulmate. Yet here they were, opposed over another ruined carcass.
But it wasn't over yet, no matter what his soulmate might think.
Not while he could still hear the distant whisper of Marina's mind like the sound of the ocean snared in a conch shell, not while he still hoped.
It was not the wolf in his hands anymore, but a girl; Sally Lupin, Marina had called her, but he could have given her countless other names; Adelaide, Sarah, Harriet, all worn under this one face.
Her eyes were wide and bright as a harvest sky. "I know you," she breathed, her mouth rimmed with blood. Her presence danced about him, her thoughts full of bloodlust and desire and famine. She was still powerful, despite her youth, and he fought the urge to run, to run and keep running, knowing what had to happen.
You'd think it would be easy after all these times. You'd think I could be brave about it.
The stink of blood rose from her, ferrous and thick. He wanted to gag, but that would hardly evoke the air of wistful romance he was after.
Her eyes narrowed. "What are you hiding?"
Suddenly she was in his mind, rummaging through his thoughts with ease; but practice had made him nimble as she, and quickly as she moved, he blocked the parts he didn't want her to see, leaving her only glimpses of the soulmate link, of times when he had been fooled by her and their relationship had seemed one of bliss. He made himself bait, radiating the humanity she sought so avariciously.
She was softening, opening like a flower – and with it came her hunger.
Careful now. If you're too slow, she will win. And if you're too quick, she will realise, and I think the fight will still go her way. Mad, yes, deluded, definitely – but strong and clever, and full of mistrust too.
"Is it true?" she demanded. It was the expression of old, aware of her own beauty and of the emotions she engendered. He had let her see that too; when she was Adelaide within the sanctuary of the church, seeming a saviour as she spoke to him of tenderness and salvation. "Are you really my soulmate?"
"You know it's true," he answered.
Her hands gripped his face, fingers touching the ridges of the scars and he had to fight not to cringe. Those critical eyes saw every mark and every flaw, judging, suspicious.
"You're still hiding something," she murmured, and her nails dug into his skin, tiny stinging crescents. "Why?"
He fumbled for a response, hands digging in his pocket to stop himself from flinging her away. And there it was between his fingers: the answer. "I wanted it to be a surprise," he said, his voice just a little panicky. But that was okay, she'd take the panic for fear of losing her.
Her lips pursed, the drying blood starting to crack. "What?"
Slowly he drew out the necklace. It glimmered, and this lifetime, it was her eyes that were drawn to it, she who was caught. "This."
"You found it!"
"I knew it was yours the moment I saw it." He made his smile genuine. You learned that, out on the road. Affability could be useful currency. "And it's brought us together again."
"So it has," she purred, and swept back her hair. He almost shuddered with relief as her toxic touch vanished.
He'd have to lean in to put it on; his hands would be occupied and his neck would be exposed. Raith saw how this one was going to go. She was a predator in every sense of the word.
And then he thought: why the necklace? Why is it with us? Have I been missing something – is there more to it than I've realised?
It was always there. And at the last, when she killed him, she wore it. Not for other murders – just him. And however he kicked and fought and flailed, generally futilely, it was the last thing he saw, dangling in his eyes as she loomed over him.
Trying to hide the revelation, he undid the clasp and reached around the back of her neck. Unseen, he switched the ends from hand to hand.
Her eyes flared – they were wolf eyes, and her jaws opened, revealing long rows of caked teeth-
Raith pulled the necklace tight, and shock bulged in her face.
And then he tried not to think about it, tried to stand there oblivious to the claws that raked across his chest, and even when she knocked them both to their knees, he hung on with the tenacity of a terrier. Blood streamed into his eyes, down his sides, but the cuts healed as fast as she could deal them. The only sound was his breath and the frantic twists of her body.
The necklace didn't break. He had known it wouldn't, and he wondered how many other lives he might have saved if he'd been quicker.
She was in his mind the whole time, her emotions exploding with the fury of fireworks, blistering in her rage and her denial and her horror. Pictures flickered past him, fast as a carousel – other faces, caught in anguish and fear, bodies that were bloodied, limp, pathetic. Hardest of all, Marina collapsing under her, her eyes wide and disbelieving.
That was the last thing she thought of, and with it, her mind became a swirling black nexus, trying to haul him in with her. Part of him wanted to be drawn down with her – to end this complex, difficult life and to be reborn into forgetfulness and naivety once again.
They tussled there in the space between them, her mind full of spite, grasping him, trying to make sure he followed her into death.
But he clung on, hearing himself in startled awe and Marina echoing in his memory over and over: Next time? I'd like there to be one. Next time...
Next time next time nextimenextime...counting down the seconds in terms of next times, hundreds of them, ripe possibilities and hope that made him fight his soulmate as finally she released him to go howling into death.
At last she was still. And he was alive. Shaking, he let go of the chain, let her slump to the floor.
Half-numb, he crawled over to Marina. God, she was so badly hurt...no human could survive this. He needed help, and he could think of only one place where he might find it right now.
Gathering what was left of his strength, he reached across the village to Farbrook and to the only minds he thought he'd be able to pick out there: Kaffir and Vanya.
X - X - X - X - X
People were dragging them apart, still spitting epithets when the call broke over them both.
Who the hell are you? Kav snarled. He didn't know the mind; it was wavering and pallid, and then a rush of images came at him and he reeled.
Marina covered in blood and so mangled that he could barely understand that was her body, a wolf hunkered over her, a bitter fight, the wolf becoming Sally, a silver necklace, hands grappling, ghastly images of Sally hunting someone – no several someones, all mashed together as if the owner of the mind could no longer separate them, Marina again, Sally limp on the floor, a dark ring around her throat, Marina, Marina, Marina-
Stop! Stop it, stop it, stop it!
The voice sounded half-dead. Sorry. I'm so sorry.
And suddenly Kav realised he was screaming aloud, and Neo was there, crouched in front of him, gazing into his eyes. "Kaffir, you're broadcasting everything. Calm down."
He blinked. There was a crowd around him. He could hear people crying. Someone else was throwing up, and he understood why. "Marina...Sally..." Kav wanted to cry. Something horrible had happened, and he didn't know what to do.
"I know. Do you want me to help you?"
He nodded, unspeakably grateful, and then he felt Neo instilling calm into him, soothing away the nausea and the panic. It was only temporary, but he felt able to breathe again.
"Who are you speaking to?"
Who are you?
Raith, came back the answer. Please...Marina needs help. She won't survive. I don't know what to do.
Kav felt the panic start to rise up again, but Neo was there, joining the conversation, taking the burden.
Where are you, Raith? We'll send help. In the meantime, use your blood. It won't heal her completely, but it's a start.
When the image of Marina's house wobbled into focus, Kav started. "What's happened?" he said, unaware of how young he sounded as he turned to Neo. "It'll be okay, won't it?"
He wanted reassurance. But Neo only stared at him with eyes that seemed older and sadder than they had before, and said, "We'll find out."
X - X - X - X - X
Marina lived in mist for a long time. Sometimes sensations pierced it; she heard Kav's voice, talking with a kind of yearning about school and the Nightworld, which both seemed odd topics for conversation. More often there was a warm fire that came to chase away the cold and the damp. It always smelled of cut grass and growing things, and each time it seemed to linger for longer.
Early on, she recalled a pair of fierce green eyes and wondered why she felt such joy at seeing them. A voice accompanied them, low and warm, begging her to stay – though why, she didn't know, because she hadn't gone anywhere. She only stayed in the mist, shrouded and puzzled.
In odd moments, she thought she saw fur bristling in the tendrils of mist, and she'd feel uncanny fear. But when she turned, it was just an illusion, and she would forget it, and drift on.
It was a phantasmagoric existence, but one in which she found peace. Her only worry was why she was here, and it never bothered her much. There was some purpose to it, she felt, some process taking place that could not happen elsewhere.
Most often she thought of the green eyes, and of a hand in hers which although it was ridged and smooth in strange places, brought a sense of comfort and amazement with it.
Some days, sunlight would shoot through the mist, stippling the ground in gold. At other times, she smelled flowers, and her mother's perfume. Once she dreamed her father was telling her about the Six Nations scores, and another time, he grumbled about politics until her mother stepped in and told him that if that was all he had to say, it was no wonder Marina was comatose. And then she heard her mother sobbing, and footsteps clattering from the room.
Comatose? Could that really be true?
Piece by piece, memories came back to her like swallows returning after winter. She began to understand what had happened to her, though at first she found the recollections hard to bear – and afterwards, she would always see wolves in the corner of her vision which faded as she grew used to the truth of exactly who – and what – Sally Lupin had been. At last she could put a name to the green eyes and the amazement that came with them: Raith.
And when she knew what had happened, and she understood what she might awake to, she found the mist began to clear in front of her, leaving a path.
It was time to go.
X - X - X - X - X
She woke up alone. The room was unfamiliar, but filled with her possessions, and flowers bloomed on the window sills. Someone had drawn strange symbols all over the walls.
Cautiously, Marina slid her legs out of the bed. She was wearing her own pyjamas, which was odd. Clearly this wasn't a hospital.
She padded over the mirror that hung on the wall, half-afraid of what she would see. But it was her own face peering back, if a little pale, her brown hair that hung around her face as if it was in need of a good wash. No marks; nothing hurt either. She felt weak, but...but compared to how Sally had left her, that was a miracle.
She found a shower attached to the room, and her clothes in the small wardrobe. Dazed, she made use of both, and when she was dressed, she felt more like herself.
Marina hesitated before she left the room. Part of her was childishly afraid that Sally would be outside, waiting to finish what she had begun. Part of her was afraid this was all another part of the dream.
The door opened onto an elaborate hallway which led to some equally elaborate stairs. She had a giddy urge to slide down the banister, but instead, wobbling slightly, she walked down into the small anteroom. Someone had thoughtfully put up signs over the two doors leading out. One went to the main building; the other to the offices, whatever they were.
Main building, she decided, and when she went out, she glanced back to see a sign on the back of the door that told her she had been in the guest accommodation. Well, that made sense, she supposed.
Another long hall that she walked down slowly – and then she heard noise, the rumble of a lot of people. When she pushed open the door, she found herself in the dining room Kav had brought her to last time she'd come to Farbrook.
At first the few faces that saw her showed no recognition. Then a woman dropped her spoon and squeaked. "You're that human girl I've been healing!"
A man next to her glanced up too, and his eyes were amused. He had the sleepy air of subdued danger that Sally had had right – before, and Marina found herself flinching back. But when he spoke, his voice was kind, if a little mocking. "Looks like you did a good job, then. Enjoy your beauty sleep, girl? You caused a right ruckus, you know."
She didn't know what to say. "I didn't mean to."
"Well, I can see why you're friends with Kaffir. That's his excuse too." He bellowed in a voice that crashed over all the chatter of the dining room, "Kaffir Lybica! Come and look after your houseguest!"
And then there was Kav, twining between the tables, a look of familiar annoyance on his face. "What are you yelling about? I haven't got any bloody guests-"
He saw her, and not for the first time, she glimpsed him off-guard, astonished – but this time, there was no fear in his face, only awe. "Rina?" he said, as if unsure it was her. Then he gave a wild yell. "Rina! Rina, you're okay!"
She found herself swept up in a gigantic hug – the first she'd ever had from Kav, which was something of a miracle in itself – and then he dropped her and said, "Oh god, how girly was that?"
She looked up at him and despite herself, couldn't help giggling. "Very."
He sighed. "There goes my street cred. And I suppose you want breakfast."
"Breakfast," she agreed, and some of her exuberance drained away. She could put it off – but she didn't want to. "And an explanation."
When she saw his sombre face, she knew it wasn't going to be pleasant.
X - X - X - X - X
The explanation was long and complicated, and took several hours. It was interrupted frequently, and each time she was glad of the diversion – her parents bursting in to shower her with hugs, and in her father's case, a running commentary on the state of British rugby. There seemed new fragility in them both as they spoke uneasily of the Nightworld, and gazed about Farbrook with frightened eyes.
Sally was dead. Marina shocked herself by bursting into tears – she shouldn't care, surely, not after the attack. But part of her could only think of the piteous way that Sally said, "They don't love me like you do." Part of her could only think of her friend with whom she'd shared so much, some good, some bad, all them.
No one would tell her how she had died; only that it had happened, and that she was safe. That alone gave her a good idea of just what had occurred.
Her parents sat beside her as Neo explained about the bones they had found in the woods and she echoed back what Sally had told her about Terry - poor Terry, too human to live. She listened numbly as Neo spoke about soulmates and past lives, but when she pressed him for detail about Sally and Raith, he only shook his head and said she would need to speak to Raith about that. And that, she thought, was the why of what happened.
It was only after Marina gave her own version of events that she learned Raith had been held as a prisoner in Farbrook.
"We had no choice," Neo said quietly when he saw her flare of anger. "We had only his word that Sally attacked you. Even for us, it was a hard story to believe. Soulmates...well, it has been a while since I heard that old myth, and if it weren't for some interesting tales that have reached me from across the pond, I don't think I would have believed it at all."
"Are you sure you didn't want him to be the villain?" she said, her voice low and dangerous. They were alone; her parents had left for work.
Neo met her eyes squarely. "Want? No, though others did. But I had my reasons for believing he might be dangerous."
Raith was with me, she thought. Even in the mist and the fever he was with me, begging me to stay. She didn't realise how stern her face was, but she recognised the grain of respect in Neo's eyes. "You're all dangerous," she said. "Every last one of you. But he was the only one who made me feel safe."
"Speak to Raith before you judge us too harshly." As she left, he called, "Marina?"
She turned. His smile was compassionate. "Try not to judge him too harshly, either," he advised.
X - X - X - X - X
It took her a week to accept the new shape of her life; she knew it might take years or longer to adjust to it.
She wanted to speak to Raith, wanted to so much that it burned in the back of her mind like an ever-present fire, but he was avoiding her. Despite the fact that he was now just a few doors up from her, ensconced in the guest rooms (after being moved from what Kav termed 'secure accommodation' and she called 'prisons'), she had seen nothing of him. Was he afraid of her, or simply avoiding her after the way she'd spoken to him?
She didn't know, and she was too unsure to force a confrontation, so she only tried to adapt to her life. A week of digesting the facts, and putting together what she thought to be true. A week of conversations as she tried to siphon information from Farbrook without anyone realising.
"Do you think you'll find your soulmate?" she said to the witch who came in every day to check her progress.
The woman snorted. "I don't think my husband would be too pleased if I did."
"But aren't they the love of your life?" she persisted, acting the naïve human.
"Your soulmate's someone who is bound to you, for better or worse. Who's to say it wouldn't be worse, eh? You read the stories, you'll soon see that. There's a whole book about soulmates who couldn't stand each other, and most of them came to a sticky end. Besides, my husband's the love of my life," the woman said gruffly, handing her a cup. "But don't you tell him that. He's too big for his boots as it is. Now drink this, and don't pull that face."
X - X - X - X - X
"I don't know how she hid it," Kav said softly as they sat watching a film. "She was so emotional."
Marina glanced over. The subject made her uncomfortable as it did him, but she wanted to talk about it. She needed to. "Sally told me...she told me that she all of you played at being human. She said some of you believed it after a while."
He froze. And when he spoke, his voice wasn't quite calm enough for her to miss the strain in it. "Do you believe that?"
She tried to hide her fear. It would always be there now, she thought, like a ghost of Sally returning to inject doubt into her friendship with Kav. "I know we're friends," she said cautiously. "And I know you'd only lie to me about things that don't matter."
He glared at her. "You matter," he snapped, "so don't play word games with me. I dealt with all that shit when I was a kid, and I got sick of it. I've never had a human friend before, okay, and I didn't realise how...how breakable you are. When I realised what happened..."
He trailed off, mouth taut.
"What?" she prodded, curious.
His eyes were angry, and she thought he wouldn't answer. Then he muttered, "You scared me. I'd miss you, you know."
She knew what an admission it was. "Kav," she said, stammering a little. "You're about as human as you can get, even though you're not."
There was a pause and the atmosphere lightened. "You talk such crap," he said, but she saw his smile.
X - X - X - X - X
Neo was a harder nut to crack, and she suspected he knew why she was probing.
"I wonder what it must be like having past lives," she'd said mildly.
His smile was crooked. "Most people don't remember them."
"But still," she persisted. "If you did..."
He watched her as if deciding something. She had no idea what conclusion he came to, but when he spoke, she listened. Everyone in Farbrook treated Neo with reverence, and she'd be an idiot not to notice that.
"From what I hear, most past lives are similar to this one. You always follow certain paths, make certain choices, meet certain people. Some arise from your nature; others seem...pre-destined, or at least occur too often to be mere coincidence. Luck, perhaps we should call it. However hard you try, you cannot escape these certainties – only choose differently. But you can't live by past lives. You have to seize happiness in this one, or it might pass you by completely."
"Do you have anyone you'd like to meet again?" she asked, not sure why.
For some reason, the question made him smile. "Plenty of people. Whether they'd like to meet me again is another matter."
X - X - X - X - X
She might have put off seeing Raith forever, but then Kav told her he was leaving the next day. So she took the decision to see him before he was gone; before he would be nothing but a wistful memory.
Thus she found herself outside his door, just a few up from her own.
Marina hadn't expected to feel so nervous. She didn't know what she'd come here to say, only that she wanted to see him, to know if he could still arouse the same intense feelings in her.
She lifted a hand to knock, and then thought better of it. He might tell her to go away. He might not answer at all. Why else was he avoiding her? He didn't want to see her, that was obvious; exactly why was not.
So instead she thrust open the door and strode in as if there wasn't a battalion of butterflies in her stomach and fluttering along her skin.
He was reading, but when Raith saw her, he dropped the book and flinched back; the reaction was almost violent, the way he hid the ruined side of his face from her. How wary he was, poised there as if waiting for an excuse to flee. A small suitcase was already packed, the room swept clean except for him.
"Why are you hiding from me?" she demanded, stung to the quick. He'd treated her as if she was one of those idiots, staring at him, making cruel remarks. "Haven't you figured out that I don't care what you look like?"
Surprise in his eyes, and when he turned to face her, so slow, as if she would change her mind, they still held a rawness and a power that bewitched her. All those conflicting feelings came back; she wanted to protect him from all the savagery of the world, yet knew with iron certainty that he could shelter her from the Nightworld and its brutality.
"I thought you might have changed your mind," he mumbled.
She half-smiled. No. Not likely, not when her dreams were saturated with him, when she was so often disturbed by thoughts of him. "You're not one of the monsters. Not to me."
His expression went blank, and he was very still. "I killed Sally."
"I know," she said, though hearing it aloud made the reality of it all congeal inside her mind.
His shock wiped away any pretence of serenity. "What?"
Marina eyed him. "It wasn't hard to work out." She clasped her hands together so they'd stop trembling. "I don't know whether to thank you or not."
"Neither do I."
"Neo said...he said she was your soulmate."
"Yes." His smile was tired. "I came looking for her. I thought I could find her before the killings began this time, but it took me years to find her. And all the while, she was going what she does every time – killing them, trying to find love or peace or humanity or whatever the hell it is she's looking for."
"It happens every time?"
"Yes. Last time..." He closed his eyes, as if it was easier to speak about it when he didn't have to watch her reactions. "She was the vampire who made me. She killed my girl, but I thought that was just...because she wasn't human. I thought she didn't really understand how easily we died. She was so much stronger than me, so good at hiding her thoughts. It was only later I realised my girl was just one of a crowd. And then, of course, she turned on me. We fought – and she knocked over the candles. She caught fire – I've never seen anyone burn like that, as if her blood was petrol. And when she died...I remembered everything. Every life when she'd killed me, every life when I'd killed her and she'd taken me with her, every body I'd found, all the people I'd loved that she'd killed..."
He trailed off and she only stood there, unable to find any words that could ease the enormity of his grief.
"It doesn't excuse any of it," he said softly. "It doesn't make it right, what I do. It just makes it necessary."
"Do you love her?" She hadn't meant to blurt that out.
"No. I thought I did, once, but all I ever loved was a pretence." He spread his hands. "She was a good actress. She fooled me every time."
"She fooled me too," she said bitterly. "How did I miss it?"
And then the grief came, a great grey wave that curled over her. She wanted to hold her composure, to be cool and confident under his eyes, but suddenly the words were pouring out from her, unstoppable.
"I loved her," she flung at him, her anger tangible, bitter - but not directed at him. "I loved her and she used me. I thought she was my friend, but she took all my secrets and my flaws and she turned them against me. She made them reasons for me to die."
It might have been easier if she could muster tears, but she could only speak with this hollow, husky voice and know the truth of just what Sally had been. She couldn't drown it with salt water or scream loud enough to silence it – she would just have to bear it, the fear and the sorrow and the fury.
But it would be so much easier to bear with him. That, she realised, was why she was here. To beg him to stay as he had begged her when she lay on the threshold between life and death.
"She left you scars too, didn't she?" he said. There was no pity there, just the plain speaking of one survivor to another. It calmed her, knowing he wasn't going to throw homilies at her. "They just aren't as visible."
She nodded, gathering up her pride. "She wanted me to die," Marina said flatly, tasting the words with rancour. "But you..." It was a tremendous thing to say to him – a huge, frightening thing to confess. "You wanted me to live. I heard you calling."
His mouth was wide and startled, and she was delighted by the fact she could surprise him. "You heard?"
"I dreamed of you," she said, and when a flush crept up his face, she knew that he remembered his words alone to her: no one dreams of me these days.
I do. I dream of you. Surely that's enough?
"Stay," she pleaded.
He shook his head. "I can't. Marina, this will all happen again. This is what I do – I find her and I stop her and then I wait for the next time."
"And that's it?" she demanded. "That's all?"
"Either I kill her or I'm killed. Not much of a choice." His smile was bitter.
And she looked at him, looked at the hurt in those green eyes which had haunted her all through her feverish dreams and said, "Maybe it's what you do in between that matters."
She moved towards him then, step after step, her gaze unflinching and unafraid. He had tensed, and she knew from his quick breaths, from the stillness of his body that he was ready to run. And when she reached out and touched him, brushing her fingertips along the line of his jaw, over the scars, up into his hair, she felt him quiver, but he didn't draw back.
Marina sat down, sinking against his side. She was waiting for rejection, but he put a tentative arm about her, and for the first time she had awoken, she felt no fear at all. "Don't you want to know what might happen?" she asked, her heart hammering.
His eyes were vast and green and amazed as he looked down at her. He gazed at her as if she were something unaccountably beautiful, something to be cherished. No one had ever looked at her like that before.
"Yes," he answered.
"Then stay. Please."
It wouldn't be forever, she knew. After all, he had his duty to call him away some dark day, and she would grow older, and perhaps it wouldn't even last beyond a few weeks, but she wanted to know. And she thought of Neo's advice, for advice it had surely been: you can't live by past lives. You have to seize happiness in this one, or it might pass you by completely
And this boy, with his careful hands and his soft voice and his eyes the colour of luck and his scars – she wouldn't let him pass by. Not in this life; and this was the only one that mattered.
When he spoke, his voice was just a little rough. "Are you sure you want me?"
"Certain," she said, not knowing that the look in her eyes was a mirror of his; sweet, steady, and full of promise. She only knew that something had begun; something that might become fabulous or appalling, might be a mistake or a fool's paradise or a dream or anything at all.
But right now - something beautiful.
And in the arms of a stranger
You search for someone like her
And the music carries on
In a simple border song
You once knew
-- Fin --
Thank you for reading and again, sorry about the delay. I'd adore hearing what you thought.