A secretary, a paralegal and a partner in a city law firm are walking through a park on their way to lunch when they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a Genie comes out in a puff of smoke. The Genie says, “I usually only grant three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.”
“Me first! Me first!” says the secretary. “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.”
Poof! She’s gone.
“Me next! Me next!” says the paralegal. “I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of pina coladas and the love of my life.”
Poof! He’s gone.
“You’re next,” the Genie says to the partner.
The partner says, “I want those two back in the office after lunch.”
A month had passed before I got the letter. It was actually a slender envelope, with no return address, slipped in through the mail slot at 6 AM. I frowned, eying it suspiciously. There was a slender bulge in it. I passed a metal detector over it briefly, and got a soft tone. I tensed further, and placed it in the back yard, opening it carefully with a rake from behind a small stack of cinderblocks. It completely failed to explode, and I looked like a damn fool to the nice couple next door. I gave them a polite, abashed wave, opened the letter, and read it.
At 8 AM, I was at the office. The window had been replaced, and was looking in good shape. Polly sat in the front room that had been sectioned off from my office. She leaned back in the chair, stretched out. “How was the bike ride here, Atina?” she asked, giving me a bright, cheerful smile. She was fully recovered, and if anything, more cheerful than she had been before. There’d been a bit of guilt about failing me and a lot of crying, but we had come to an agreement. She acted as my secretary, and if need be, my bouncer. I wasn’t paying her as much as I had when someone had been actively trying to murder me, but it was a decent wage. God knows I could afford to pay for a few people’s livelihoods.
“Well enough. Did we get any calls?” Strictly speaking, Polly was not a great secretary. I sure as hell could type faster than her, and I still did most of my work on my own. But having someone to talk with meant a lot, and she was a top notch bouncer.
“A few. Seems like a lot of people are interested in talking to you. The Half-Faced Man left a message for you, Jenny said she hadn’t seen you in a couple of weeks, Lady Ann Willing wanted to talk to you, oh- and a Michael Gray came to visit you? Said he’d dropped by before, but that you hadn’t come to see him like he asked.” She smiled. That’s when I noticed her eyes were red, and her hair looked a bit dull.
“Something the matter, Polly? You look like you’ve been crying.” I frowned. “And you haven’t even used a trace of Irish accent all morning.”
“No. I mean yeah, I mean…” She sighed softly. “I broke up with Alfred.” I stared, my jaw dropping. Alfred had been in quite a few failed relationships. I’d gotten to hear about most of them. But I’d never heard of one where the woman had broken up with him. She looked up at me, and smiled. “Don’t get me wrong. I still care about him. I care the world about him. But…” She took a deep breath through her nose. “I can feel it around him. You know? The story. He’s going to have some big, earth-shakingly important story in the world, and I don’t know if I’m the one who’s going to be able to protect him.”
I frowned. “So you’re just…”
“No.” She smiled. “That’s why I’m sticking around you. Big things happen around you. Who knows, maybe I’ll get some fancy-schmancy powers like Jenny, huh?”
“You don’t have to be powerful for someone to love you. All you need to do is fulfill a few basic needs. And Alfred badly needs someone who can keep him grounded.” I sighed. “I won’t stop you, but it still seems awfully sad.”
“Nah, nah. This ain’t forever. Like I said, things happen around you.” She tapped her nails on the desk. “Maybe I’ll become the kind of person who could be with him, eh? Or maybe I won’t. It’ll be a hell of a ride, either way.” She chuckled. “You want me to come along with you to the asylum? The Earlen isn’t going to put a bomb in my car, you know.”
“The offer’s a kind one, and I might take you up on it when we go to visit Lady Ann Willing and Jenny.” I smiled. “But I could really use the exercise.”
The snow was crisp and heavy on the sidewalks and the grass, but the roads were clear. That was one thing to be said about the Northeast, it had its shit together when it came to snow. I pedaled through the bitter cold, gloves keeping my hands warm. The iron sap gloves. I had a few remaining questions for the Half-Faced Man, and all that he had put me through. The thought kept the cold off of my back, and gave my legs fresh strength. I made it up the long hill to the Inebriate’s asylum in one push, and chained my bike up to the fence outside.
“Atina.” He smiled, as I approached him. He looked around the building, a nostalgic expression on his face. “They’re thinking of moving the court, you know?” He shook his head. “A sad thing. But this too shall pass, hmmm?” He smiled, and traced a finger across one of the stone walls, as though caressing a lover, and I felt vaguely embarrassed. “It seems that everything went well for you. I am sorry we haven’t talked for a time, I wanted to give you time to recover after the difficulty I placed you in.”
“Yes,” I said, giving a light smile. “You had quite a hand in all of this.” My fist tightened behind my back as I stepped closer, nonchalant in my movements. “You were the one who found Jenny in the first place. You sent her to my office, gave her my card, got me involved in this whole mess. A very prescient move on your part. Then, you told me to start looking for a way to sell the coins, which brought me closer to Roy. Your advice wound up ending with me meeting Miss Faraday in Atlantic City. But I have to ask myself, it all seems very manipulative.” I stepped even closer. One good strike with the iron-filled gloves could put him on his ass. Fae didn’t like iron. “How long have you known Roy was a dragon?”
“Roy’s a dragon?!”
I’d seen the Half-Faced Man annoyed. I’d seen him irritated. I’d seen him surprised, I thought. This was something beyond surprised. Flabbergasted seemed like the appropriate word. His mouth had dropped open, the expression of shock so wide his jaw looked to be in serious danger of falling off. I coughed, and swallowed, feeling a little weak in the knees. “You… You didn’t know he was a dragon?” I asked, as my hand unclenched slowly.
“Dragons are extinct!” He rested his hands on his forehead. “You came face to face with a dragon- I called you here to ask you how you survived! I had planned to try to save you, pull you through to a place of safety, but I couldn’t push my way through to where you were, I thought Chaac had set up some kind of barrier- Oh god.” He sank down into a squat, both hands on his head. “A dragon. A dragon.”
“The, uh… The first dragon, in fact. That’s what he claimed. And he was… terrifying.”
“The first dragon.” The Half-Faced Man’s voice was weak. “In Binghamton.”
“You really didn’t know?” I asked softly.
“The things that I don’t know are few. But sometimes, the gaps in my knowledge are very significant. How did you quell the dragon? Usually, if one of them is roused, it’s… chaos. Destruction incarnate. Conquest and death. The least of them, in the waning days of heroism, were still natural disasters unto themselves. By the four seasons, I thought Chaac was a serious threat, how are you still alive?”
“I think he fell in love.”
The Half-Faced Man swallowed. “With you?” I nodded softly, feeling embarrassed at the inherent narcissism in suggesting anyone was in love with me. “Well. I fear that I have landed you in the hot soup. What did he demand of you?”
“Oh, Atina, I’m so sorry-”
“I didn’t give it to him. I made an alternate agreement. I promised him I wouldn’t ask for his help, that I wouldn’t make him defend me.” The Half-Faced Man stared at me.
“You persuaded a dragon. Dear god, he really must be in love.” He rested his hands on his head. “I don’t think I can help you with that. I’m sorry, but the first dragon… That is well beyond my abilities.”
“He left,” I said softly. “I don’t know if he’s ever going to come back to the city.”
“For all of our sakes, I hope he never does.” The Half-Faced Man leaned forward, and sighed. “I am sorry, Atina. I did not foresee these consequences.”
“Well, you can’t win them all.” I sighed. “God, I could do with a drink. Haven’t been able to muster the energy to booze it up since the end of the trial. How about you and I meet up tomorrow for a beer?”
“Tomorrow? Not tonight?”
I smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve got plans for tonight.”
When I returned to the office, I was feeling ready to take the nice, heated car to our next destination. Binghamton is a beautiful, gorgeous city for perhaps five or six months out of the year. I was deep in the other side of the year, when it was a frozen arctic hellhole. This was still a nice year, but that meant only that I could survive the trip back to the office. I spent the entire drive to the botanical garden rubbing my hands together, and warming them by the heater vents. It felt immensely good to sit there, warmed, and relaxing for a while.
The botanical garden looked stark as hell, but even that was kind of pretty. Jenny sat in a small gazebo, on a cleared off space. A small pad of paper sat on her lap, a pencil in one hand. As Polly and I approached, she smiled. She was back in school. I’d been surprised, but she’d made it clear that her parents wouldn’t accept ‘Solar goddess’ as a career. Nobody outside of the supernatural world would know what had happened to Tony, but I knew that she had buried him here, in the botanical garden. I had been there when she did, just after the trial. She was still trying to figure out how to tell his cousin. “Atina, tell me, how does this sound to you? Ice settles on wood/The sun does not warm the earth/The world slumbers on.”
“Mmm. Doesn’t really have a cutting word, does it?” She sighed, and nodded. “Still, I like it.”
“Mmmm, if only my teachers did.” She studied the pad, and then looked up at me. “You still haven’t cashed the check I sent you.” It had arrived shortly after we’d finished the transfer of assets from Hun-Came to Jennifer. The old vampire had taken to compound interest in a big way. The check had been for all that I had expended in the case, and a bit more.
“I got lucky. And I did some things I’m not very proud of, there, at the end. How’s Chaac?”
“Interesting, as always. You took chances, Atina. Yet things worked out, didn’t they?”
“They might not have.” I sighed softly. “I don’t-”
“Cash the damn check, Atina.” She gave me a wry smile. “I was angry, but you made the right decision. That is why I have a lawyer, to make the right decision when I am not thinking clearly. Hmm… Frost is a cruel king/ But cherries blossom and then/Pink Funeral Shroud.” She twisted her lips, crinkling her nose. “No, no. Still not quite right.” She sighed. “I’m sorry I was angry. I’m sorry I forced you into a difficult decision. But you made it so I could go back into the sun. You knew better than me.” She chuckled. “There are so many people in this world who know better than me. It’s rather strange to be more powerful than most of them.”
I couldn’t meet her eye. She didn’t know how little I’d been able to plan. “How are you settling into the whole vampire life?”
“Mmm. It is… troublesome.” She smiled wryly. “At least I have not gone hungry. Hun-Came made very sizable regular ‘donations’ to the Red Cross. They show their appreciation. I’ve been going through two pints a week.” She frowned. “Dean Morton has been making overtures towards me about creating a pact with one of his students, but they’re all such… nerds.”
“Yeah. Yeah, they are.” I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find a good person when you’re ready for it, and need it. And thank you for forgiving me.”
“Well, someone had to, or you’d just go on being a living guilt complex.” She smiled. “I called my family. I’ll be seeing them over the summer. I might have to talk with you about immigration procedures at some point, though.”
“Well, you’re in luck there. Turns out the United States loves helping rich people immigrate.” I gave a smirk. “We can think up businesses for you to start. Once you do that, hey, bam, they probably won’t even make you do a citizenship test.”
“God Bless America.” She tapped her chin. “Hmmm… Cold has killed the land/All life has ended and yet/this too shall pass.”
“Last part isn’t five syllables, is it?”
Jenny smiled. “Sometimes the message is more important than the format. Sometimes it’s worth breaking a tradition.”
Polly snorted. “Yeah, see how that one works on your teachers.”
I looked around. Jenny was dressed loosely, in a jacket that was meant more for fashion than for warmth, and a light skirt. “I have to say, you don’t seem to be taking the loss of feeling cold very poorly. You don’t miss that like you missed the sunlight?”
“Atina, this city is a frozen wasteland for five months out of the year. As far as I’m concerned, becoming immune to the cold was the single largest advantage of becoming a vampire.” She smiled warmly. “Polly, cash the damn check.”
“And if you see Fang Fen… please tell her that I hope she comes back.”
“I will,” I saidsoftly.
It wasn’t that I was rich or anything. The money had been good, but after putting a large portion of it towards taxes, repairing my house, my office, paying back my debts, most of it was gone. Still, enough was left that I’d be able to keep the lights on for a good while, and jobs had been flowing my way. It was far from ‘retire at 30’ money, but retirement didn’t sound like much fun at all. Besides, the world was ending. I didn’t want to die wishing I’d spent more time at the office.
Lady Ann Willing met me for tea. It was a lot less intimidating than usual, partially because of the children. Lady Ann smiled towards me as the pair of children ran through the room. “Great, great, great, great, great grand-children. Their mother and father are sending them to stay with me for a little while. Now, children, don’t be rambunctious with Miss LeRoux. She is a lawyer, you know. A very fine and noble profession.”
I snorted. “God, don’t encourage them to be lawyers, Lady Ann. I don’t need the competition.” I gave the kids a smile, nonetheless. You ever want to have kids? I do. Man, I’d love to have kids. It was just one of those things where you always thought ‘I can do it later.’ Ah well, maybe once they invented artificial wombs, and I met a guy who wasn’t a psychotic all-powerful demon. Call me picky. “So, what did you want me for?”
“Just to have tea. To talk a bit. No great matters of law or import. The city is stabilizing. Great changes have rippled the fabric, and because of your actions, they did nothing more than ripple.” She smiled. “I suppose I just want to say thank you for everything that you did. You did not have to fight as hard as you did, you did not have to do everything that you did, but because of the effort you put in, well. It’s a good day.” She tousled the hair of one of the children, and the child laughed with glee, squeezing her hand. “And I am ready to step down as the leader of this city.”
“Step down?” My eyes widened. “But- You- I.” I closed my mouth. “Who’s going to keep the undead in line?”
“I do not know. Dean Morton, Edwin Link, Tadodaho, all of them would be fine choices. I will not be stepping down all at once, I will continue to do what I can to stabilize things. This is more of a leave of absence than anything else. But I think that the city would benefit from some fresh blood. I will keep you informed.” She sipped her tea.
The last stop of the evening was the school. I walked through the twisting halls of one of the larger buildings, following a byzantine set of instructions that seemed to carry me past the same few rooms half a dozen times. The seventh time, there was a new room at the end of the line of rooms, with a delicate silver pentagram inscribed on the doorknob. I turned it, and stepped into the room.
Michael Gray was a rather wild-eyed young man with the kind of beard you get from not taking care of your beard. He turned towards me, his eyes widening. “Miss LeRoux! I’m sorry. I tried to get in touch with you several times. You are in danger. Grave danger. There is a creature, a beast, a leviathan, stirring in this place. I know I may sound crazy, but there is something terrible. It nearly rose a month ago, but then grew quiescent. That night of the blackout, when that tornado destroyed that Shark Belly. I fear that it may raise again, and it has its eyes on you-”
I placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand, and I believe you. It’s safe, for now. But I think I’ll need to visit you again, in the future. If you think that the beast is going to rise again, if you feel it stirring again, I want you to call me immediately. Okay?”
By the time I returned to the office, the sun had set. I pulled on my jacket. “Polly, I’m going to call it an evening. I’ve got a real estate transaction to check over tomorrow, if I’m not in by 9, give me a call and make sure I’m not sleeping in. Alright?” She gave me a smile, and I bicycled home. A light, powdery snow was falling, but it had not yet grown thick enough to coat the ground and become slippery and treacherous. It stuck on my arms, melting into droplets as I peddled. I stepped up to the front door, carrying my bike, and noticed that it was very slightly ajar.
I slid the door open, slowly, as quietly as I could. I placed the bicycle up against the wall, kickstand down, where the snow could melt harmlessly on the linoleum tiles. I took a few steps forward, towards the kitchen. Someone was inside. I clenched my fist in preparation, and stepped into the doorway.
“Hello, Atina.” Roy turned towards me, and smiled. His voice was as warm and gentle as ever, with that same silly accent. Three pots bubbled on the stove, and the smell of sweet sauces and meats filled the air, making my head spin. “Sorry, I thought you’d be out a little bit longer, dinner’s still going to be a few minutes.”
I threw my arms around his shoulders, and squeezed him as hard as I could. It didn’t even faze him, but he ran a hand over the back of my head. “I got your letter.”
He smiled. “I shouldn’t stay for too long. Wouldn’t want anyone to get suspicious-”
“Stay the night. Please?” I smiled up at him, and he rubbed the back of his head. Then he nodded.
I slumped down into the chair, as he poured me a cup of hot chocolate. I sipped at it slowly, eyes closed. He’d made it with milk, the real kind, with just a hint of peppermint from the herb garden. The two of us sat, and ate dinner together on the small kitchen table, intimate and warm. He listened and nodded and laughed and groaned as I told him about the real estate transaction and the bastard clients, and it all felt perfect. He loved me. And I loved… if not him, the him he could be. The Roy he’d shown me. Maybe the monster out of my nightmares was who he really was. Maybe the soft-hearted goof who made the world seem worth it was real. I wanted to luxuriate in that. God damn it, I deserved to feel loved for a few brief moments, at least.
“Here. It’s my favorite movie.” He lay on the couch, and I lay on top of him, my head on his stomach, lying on my back. His fingertips kneaded at my scalp slowly, running across them. It was a fantastic massage, and I groaned, only partially because of his choice of movie. It had arrived in the envelope that morning.
“Reign of Fire? That movie was awful.”
“Hey, it’s one of the great Draconic tragedies. The dragons come so close to victory, but then, tragically, are cut down.” He shook his head. “Very moving.”
“Hell no. We’re watching Godzilla.” I smiled, taking the remote control. “One of the Showa era ones. Something where he’s the big lovable goofy hero.” Roy snorted softly, but I flicked over the Netflix list anyway and started the movie. The two of us watched for a while, and I lay in his arms. He was warm. You rarely notice it, when you’ve gone without for a while, but human contact is a wonderful thing. Touching someone, being touched. We’re programmed from birth, like most mammals, to find that very soothing. Grooming, intimacy, they’re all things that we need. I wondered if it was the same for Roy, or if he was just that different.
“Atina?” He frowned. “You’re staring at me.”
“If I hadn’t saved Chaac and the others, what would have happened? Would you have destroyed the world, or…” I left the words unsaid.
He frowned. “I don’t know. I suppose that… If you had let them die, if you hadn’t done everything you could to save even someone who had betrayed you, you wouldn’t be the woman I fell in love with. And leave it at that. Shall we?”
I slowly settled, nodding, turning my head towards the movie. Right now, the world wasn’t ending. Right now, Roy wasn’t evil. Right now, there were no catastrophes, there was no one I loved whose life was sitting on the line. Right now, the only things that I had to worry about were a few annoying clients. I was getting steady work, my friends still cared about me and were proceeding towards the future. I had someone in my life who would hold me and watch bad movies with me and who could cook, who could cook wonderful food and who agreed to spend the night. And hey, he was a dragon, so he was probably even rich.
For the moment, things were good.
This too shall pass.
But not yet.