"Helen." He had such a commanding tone, such a deep, romantic voice as he rested his hands on her arms and smelled the soft waves of her hair. Helen did not move as he absorbed her scent, turning her eyes toward him just enough that she could make out his sharp features in the shadows. The room was quiet, the snow drifting against the glass, the fire snapping in the hearth. John pulled away, ever the gentleman. Except for those dark hours when he had gone mad and turned murderous. Even then his sensibilities had been peculiarly warped, a gentlemanly manner to his murders that was also barbaric.
She turned to look at him and saw he was changed; his features older and careworn, strained by recent acceptance of his many crimes. Ashley had explained everything, that Tesla had tortured him into sanity. There had been a catch in her daughter's voice, an anger that resonated in her frustration that the truth had come from him, and not from Helen. Ashley would not have minded so much if Helen had told her, but she had not been able to bring herself to. How does one explain to a daughter that her father is a murderer? When Helen had first seen him after so many years apart, his eyes had been cold and distant, but now were warm and affectionate, even pained. He was waiting for a much-deserved chastisement.
"Did Ashley tell you… everything?" he asked softly. She could hear her daughter and Will in the corridor, arguing, their voices growing distant as they faded down the passage. Helen nodded, and he looked somewhat relieved but also hesitant. Her eyes shifted meaningfully to his chest and she said, "I want to see."
Moving away from her, John removed his stylish black jacket and threw it onto the bed. His narrow fingers unbuttoned the front of his shirt as she approached, pulling it open to reveal the spider veins that spiraled out from the burn marks on his chest. Helen drew in her breath and reached out to trace their unique pattern, finding the skin rough where Tesla's machine had dug into it. "Oh, John," she whispered, horrified, knowing Tesla would have employed similar methods on her if given the chance. His chest moved slightly beneath her palm, his heart beating steadily as he looked down at her. Helen could not bring herself to meet his gaze.
John placed his hand over hers. "Everything I told Ashley was the truth. Tesla, quite unintentionally I assure you, did me a favor. He has healed me."
"How can I be certain of that? You have deceived me before." Helen did not attempt to pull away as he caressed the finger where once she had worn his engagement ring. She still had it in one of the drawers of her dresser, hidden in a little velvet box. Never had she forgotten the man who had won over her heart when it was still young and naive. Before she had seen the ugliness that often accompanied love, the pain it could cause. Memories, and sorrows that accompanied them, resurfaced and she withdrew, retreating several paces.
"Would I have saved you in Rome otherwise? I wanted to spare you from the barbarities Tesla had planned. I wanted to atone for my mistakes." Helen turned to him incredulously and he hastened to add, "I know I can never erase them; I cannot make up for the lives I have taken, or the immense harm I have done you and our daughter, but I will spend every remaining moment of my life attempting to atone for my mistakes; for my sins. I don't expect anything from you, Helen, least of all your forgiveness." He crossed the room but did not reach out to her, knowing she needed him to remain distant.
There was something different about him, more than just in his eyes. It was unsettling to her, for Helen had grown accustomed to having him as an adversary. She drew in her breath to steady the pulse of her heart and said, "You told our daughter the truth of her parentage."
"I didn't. I merely told her of our previous involvement. She discerned the rest on her own. Ashley is not a fool. She would have learned the truth eventually." His features softened into a smile. "She is a great deal like you were at that age… impetuous, intelligent, and formidable."
Except that Helen had been tampering with undiluted vampire blood in an attempt to make new discoveries, and Ashley was content to roam the streets in search of abnormals. She was like both her parents, with her mother's looks and intelligence and her father's intuitive and violent nature. He had soundly beaten her twice in hand to hand combat, which had frustrated her into increased training. Ashley would never achieve his level of greatness, not without his instruction, and her mother could not permit that, not yet.
He buttoned up his shirt and reached for his jacket. "I did not come to interrupt your evening," he said as he pulled it on, straightening the sleeves and sliding his hands into his trouser pockets, "only to apologize for the abruptness of our last meeting. I wanted you to know the truth and have the opportunity to have at me if you needed to, but I see I have come at a bad time."
Rather than allow him to escape into the night as he intended, Helen stepped toward him, her voice catching in her throat as she said, "A few months ago I was stranded in the Alps when my plane went down during a snowstorm…"
John smiled. "Yes. I was there."
"I thought you were an illusion."
"And so I was, in my own way… the solution you gave me weakened me considerably, but I could still influence your dreams. I tried to wake you numerous times, but you never realized it was truly me, only believed it was a fragment of the creature's mental manipulations. But I was there, if only for an instant. I was too weak to teleport home when Ashley came for you, so I made it to London instead, where Tesla caught up with me. He was always an ingenious inventor, a manipulative mastermind, the tag-along none of us particularly cared for but who always got the best of us. I fear we have not seen the last of him."
"At least now we know his intentions." Helen had not left Rome without dealing with the vampires he had created. One had escaped with Tesla, but the others were safely hidden in the Sanctuary. Ashley had enjoyed hunting them down in the catacombs and although Helen had not seen John again, she knew he was there, keeping watch over them. It gave her an odd sense of security. "Thank you, for all you did in Rome."
Soft sounds drifted up from below, indicating her guests were beginning to arrive. John bowed but did not respond. Helen hesitated. "Our daughter has a lot of questions about you. We have hardly spoken since she discovered the truth. I often think it would easier for her to ask them of you than it would be me. She believes I lied to her, I betrayed her, and while she is attempting to forgive me, she still has a lot of anger to work through."
"What about her mother?" John inquired. She could see the anguish in his eyes, fear he had forever severed their connection and she had come to hate him, but Helen had never despised him; it was not in her nature, despite the harm he had done her. John had broken her heart, abandoned her when she needed him most, had done the most inhumane, horrible things, but somehow, perversely, she never stopped loving him. He saw her visible reaction and took her by the shoulders. "Helen, how can I make it up to you? I despise myself for my actions, for my treatment of you, for my abandonment of our child… tell me what to do and I will do it, even if it means my own destruction."
There was no way to prove he had changed, for John was clever. He had deceived her until she had innocently discovered the truth.
"Tell me," he whispered fiercely. "Tell me what to do."
A loud knock caused them to break eye contact and Ashley called out, "Mom, our guests are here!"
"Coming," Helen replied, and listened as her daughter's footsteps faded down the passage. She turned her gaze to John and found it had not altered, composed in an expression of emotional anguish. His hands slid tenderly down her arms and her skin tingled beneath the gentleness of his caress. She could remember those hands comforting her when the injection that had brought longevity had first entered her bloodstream; the hands of a former best friend and lover, offering pleasure and reassurance, pain and torment. It was unfathomable that he could still have so much power over her, but it took every ounce of determination she had to step away from him.
When she reached the door, she turned back and found the room empty behind her. Heaviness was in her heart as she descended to meet their guests, but she put on a smile. There were old friends and new acquaintances, individuals who came in out of the cold at the invitation of other abnormals and were introduced to the woman that would forever alter their lives. Young and old mingled amid conversation and refreshments. Henry gave them a tremendous light show with the assistance of his laptop, and Will led them all in a rousing round of carols. Ashley was beautiful in her short red skirt, and no one set fire to anyone else, toppled the Christmas tree, or got into a brawl. The most amusing incident of the evening came beneath the mistletoe, when Henry was forced to plant a kiss on a particularly charming girl with six fingers and cat eyes.
Snow continued to drift outside, blanketing the world in white. On several occasions, Helen thought she saw John in the shadows, but he did not remain long and she never saw him in the same place twice. His final words haunted her, the desire to believe him and the wisdom to refrain. Helen bid their guests farewell as they traipsed out into the darkness, thanked Two-Faced Guy for his help and sent him off to bed, said goodnight to Henry, told Bigfoot to let everyone sleep in the next morning, and warned Will to make certain his window was latched. Ashley got a hug and kiss before she went up to bed, promising they would all come down in the morning for presents.
Her room was cheerful, for Bigfoot had stoked the fire and turned on a lamp. Helen closed the door behind her and went to the bureau, pulling out the drawer where she had stashed the pieces of the crystal snowflake her daughter had attempted to hide from her. All that remained were fragments of the beautiful ornament John had made her for their first tree. He had been a master at shaping crystal. It was a delicate work and she was sorry to see it smashed, knowing Henry had not meant to drop it.
Six inches of snow blanketed the courtyard and it would double by morning. Wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, Helen climbed onto the bed and rested her head against the pillow. Eventually, her eyes closed and her breathing slowed, but she was conscious when a hand came out of the darkness to brush the hair away from her face. John sat down beside her, resting his fingertips on her shoulder as he had so often done in the past. "I'm surprised you kept it," he whispered, knowing she was awake.
Helen did not open her eyes, allowing his presence to remain no more than a distant dream. "Not everything about our love was painful to me," she answered.
There was a pause in which he remained still and quiet at her side, his warmth comforting against the chill in the room. He leaned over and pressed a kiss to her forehead. The mattress moved as he arose and she heard him cross to the bureau, knowing he was picking up the fragments of their former life.
When he was gone, the room felt strangely cold without him.
Morning came, and when Ashley traipsed sleepily downstairs in her silk robe and bunny slippers, there was something different about the tree. The presents under it remained untouched and none of the ornaments had been moved, so it took her a moment to discern what had changed.
Beneath the shimmering strands of ribbon and glass ornaments was a perfect crystal snowflake.