Harper winced, then cursed every bite of junk food she'd ever eaten. So far, they'd only done some warm-up exercises, but she was already winded.
Afterlife closed during the day, which meant the empty dance floor was the perfect place to showcase just how out of shape she was. When she'd caught her breath, she gave Sarah a skeptical look. "I could join a gym, you know."
Sarah shook her head. "Even if you found a good defense place, they'd emphasize restraining an attacker. They won't teach you to kill — why would they? For humans, incapacitating them is enough. But you're not fighting men, and stopping demons sometimes means killing them."
"I don't want to kill," Harper said.
"Little late for that," she said, though not unkindly.
"That was the nexus," Harper said, remembering the way she'd destroyed Jahres' men. Sure, it was the nexus… but it was her too, no matter what she said. "But maybe you could teach me to do that?"
Sarah shook her head. "You may learn some of it eventually, but you won't learn it from me. Now, look how I'm standing. See my feet? Shoulder-width apart, but you'll step forward with your — wait, are you right-handed?"
"Yes," Harper said, doing her best to mimic how Sarah stood.
"Okay, so you'll want your left foot forward, not much… more than that… there you go." Sarah stepped up to her, placed her hands on Harper's shoulders, and pushed down. "Bend your knees — you're locked up. You want flexibility, or…"
She stepped away, then in a quick lunge, shoved out hard. Harper flailed back, almost falling, until Sarah reached out and steadied her. "See? Keep your knees loose. Try me."
Harper was flushed. She did as Sarah said, though, adjusting her stance before shoving as hard as she could. Sarah took it, but her legs and feet moved with her upper body, keeping her balanced and sure-footed.
She moved toward Harper again, but at a slow enough speed to give Harper time to prepare. She felt nervous, which made her muscles tense, but she forced them to relax. Flexibility, she reminded herself. Then when Sarah's hands hit her, she stepped with them. It wasn't as elegant as the other woman's step had been, but she didn't fall either.
"Better!" Sarah said, her smile wide and sincere. "You'll get this in no time. But keep your feet in mind when moving back with a hit. Look down. Your stance is wrong."
"Oops," Harper said, moving her feet back to her initial stance. Shoulder apart, that was important.
"Knees," Sarah said.
Harper's shoulders slumped. "There's so much to think about."
"The goal is to not think about it," Sarah said. "Don't worry; your muscles will remember what to do after a while. The best way to get there is to practice. We'll do some shuffle drills, okay?"
Harper took a deep breath and nodded. Together, she and Sarah went around the perimeter of the dance floor, keeping the fighting stance. It was hard, tiring work, made worse by the need to think about every foot placement.
"This is the worst," Harper told her when they'd stopped.
"It gets easier," Sarah promised. "Besides, you'll be glad for it the next time a demon takes a swing at you."
Harper wrinkled her nose. "Sure, I'll be able to move backward with their fist."
Laughing, Sarah motioned her forward. "Fair enough. Here, let me show you the easiest way to block a punch. We can go over the finer details, but that'll be a good starting point. Hands up, make a fist. Good, near your face, that's what you want to protect. Left always stays there; you'll be stronger with your right. So when someone takes a swing…"
She brought her fist at Harper but in slow-motion. "Uh-huh… no, block with the left… across your face, keep it turned, and…"
Her fist struck Harper's arm lightly. "There you go!"
"That's not too bad," Harper admitted. "Can we try it faster?"
"Sure," Sarah said. "But knees and feet, too. A solid blow, even blocked, will have weight to it. You'll fall just the same if you're rigid."
"Right," Harper said, then adjusted her feet and lifted her fists.
For the next fifteen minutes, she practiced blocking punches. Sometimes Sarah slowed them down to give tips, but even faster, she had perfect precision. Harper knew that if it were an actual fight, she'd stand no chance.
Sarah called a halt after Harper sidestepped into the right stance after blocking the latest jab. "You did great."
Harper was sore but excited by her progress. "This is easier than I thought! What about me, though? Don't I get to punch you now? Can you show me how to do that cross body hit thing? Is it like this?"
"You're swinging too wide, and with the wrong fist," Sarah said, sounding amused. "Your left guards, right hits. We're not working on offense right now, anyway. That's a lesson for another day."
"We'll practice soon," Sarah promised. "Every other morning for now. You'll need some decent gloves and better workout clothes…"
Harper looked down and saw her shirt was almost soaked through. "Ugh. Yeah, I'll get some. But why not every day?"
"Time commitment. Plus, you don't want to burn out — mentally or from muscle fatigue. A day between gives your body time to recover. That doesn't mean you can't work on shadowing, though."
"What's that?" Harper asked, trying not to feel disappointed.
"It's a little less than shadow-boxing," Sarah said. "Basically, you practice the moves by yourself. You won't want to move and block as though in a real fight, not yet anyway. You don't have the instinct yet, but you can practice moving from stance to stance and building up your muscle memory."
"All right," Harper agreed.
"It's a good workout, and eventually it'll help you put some actual power into your swings. Then you'll be better than even Conner."
Harper laughed. "I doubt that. He looks like he could punch through concrete. When he's demonic anyway… the rest of the time, I'm not sure he'd risk breaking a sweat."
"He's been known to, time to time," Sarah said. She wiped her hands on her shorts. "We're done for now. You should go change."
"Right," Harper said, giving her a sideways glance. She went to the bat cave, meaning to cut through it to Alec's apartment, but Chloe and Brittney entered at the same time.
They were both balancing several bags of groceries and laughing. Brittney kicked the back door closed behind her, but she became unbalanced in the process, nearly dropping her bags. Harper dashed over to help catch them. Sarah joined them.
"What are you doing here?" Harper asked as she set the bags on the conference table.
"You asked me to come?" Brittney reminded her, grinning. She and Chloe put down the rest of the bags. "I know, not what you meant. Chloe texted me about shopping. I couldn't say no."
Chloe smirked. "See, Brittney was willing to shop."
"Uh-huh," Harper said, rolling her eyes. "Brittney, you were supposed to go talk with Emma. That's the woman whose—"
"Chloe filled me in," Brittney said. "No worries, I'm headed there now. We just stopped to drop these off first. Plus, Chloe needed to get me credentials."
Chloe went to the storage closet. She propped the door open while rummaging around. "It's here somewhere, just a sec. Oh, Harper, can you take that stuff upstairs? Some of it needs refrigerated. You need a shower too if we're going shopping…"
"Shopping?" Harper rolled her eyes. "We just went last week."
"You can't shop too much," Brittney chided.
"Well, I do need work out clothes," Harper allowed. "Sarah, will you come too?"
Sarah gave a rueful smile. "Not this time. I've got a torture appointment."
"She means a dental cleaning," Chloe corrected from the other room. She said something else, but her voice was muffled. Then, a minute later, she popped out, holding a marked windbreaker and brandishing a badge. "Found it!"
"Oh good," Brittney said, accepting both. She looked them over, then slipped the badge's chain over her neck. "How do I look?"
"I can help," Chloe said, laughing at the ill-fit. "Come here, sit down."
"I've got to go," Sarah said. "Good luck, Brittney. Harper, I'd get something breathable. Maybe a few somethings."
Harper wrinkled her nose. "Point taken. Heading to the shower now."
She picked up the bags with the perishables and left the rest for the moment. She knew how picky Alec was about organization, so she set the bags in his fridge for him to sort through later. Then she drank down one of his bottles of water and went to shower.
It wasn't until she was out and dressed that she realized Alec hadn't been downstairs. Conner either. Snatching up her phone, she checked for texts. There were none, but she'd missed a call from her mother. She ignored the voicemail and went to Alec's bedroom door.
Harper stared at it, curious. What was he hiding in there? A coffin, like the movies? She doubted it, but he never left his door open, not even for a moment. It would be wrong to snoop around, look under his bed, as Brittney once suggested, but… it couldn't hurt just to peek inside.
Before she lost the nerve, she reached out and turned the knob, half-hoping to find that Alec had locked it. He hadn't, though, and she pushed the door open about a foot.
"Alec?" she called, whispering into the room.
There was no answer, so she opened it the rest of the way and stepped in. A candle-lit chandelier cast a warm glow that reflected off antique furniture. Her eyes were drawn to the redwood bookcases that must have been at least a century old.
No bed, but a plush sofa sat atop a beautiful white fur rug. She stepped further in and realized the floor was an intricate pattern of hardwood. There was a desk too, one meant for reading. On the walls, he'd hung paintings. Most were portraits — his windows to another time. She saw a woman in one; a woman who looked like her. "Ileana," she murmured, smiling. The details were impressive.
She stepped up to a bookcase but stopped herself from touching his collections. The books looked a similar age as the decor; worn, faded, but well kept. She couldn't have read them anyway; all titles she could see were in Russian.
Harper saw more light coming from the doorway to his private bath. Would his bathtub have clawed feet? She almost laughed as she went to find out. She wouldn't have pegged Alec as so sentimental, not in a hundred years. But here he was, with a room of relics.
She was halfway past the closet when one of the elegant double doors pushed open. She yelped in surprise, then laughed as Alec stepped out, her heart racing. "God, you scared me. I thought you were gone. Why were you in there? Do you — Alec? Are you—"
He shot out a hand, gripping her upper arm tightly. "Why are you in here?"
She glared at him, trying to jerk free. "I was looking, that's all. Cut it out; you're hurting me. It's just a room, Alec. You don't need to be ashamed of enjoying an older style of—"
Alec's grip tightened; now it actually hurt. Harper saw his eyes were black, his skin hardened and pale. If he spoke again, she'd see his fangs.
"Did I wake you up?" she asked, softening her tone. "Alec, it's all right. It's me. It's Harper."
"I know," he said, disgusted. He yanked her around and close, so her back was tight against his chest. He lifted his grip from her arm, but only so he could press it up to her throat.
"Stop it!" Harper said, struggling against him, her heart racing. She beat at his arm, but it was a futile gesture that did no more than if she'd been shoving stone. "Alec, stop it. You're scaring me!"
"I should scare you." He whispered this next to her ear, his voice a velvet growl. "You think I wouldn't hurt you, is that it?"
The pressure on her neck tightened, making it hard to draw in air.
"I could crush your windpipe, snap your neck—"
He pressed even tighter until her eyes watered and her knees tried to buckle. He relented then, just enough for her to draw in a ragged breath. While she did, he opened his mouth, touching his canines to her neck.
"But I like the taste of blood," he snarled. "Should I feed instead? One bite, that's all it takes…"
"That isn't funny," Harper said, her voice hoarse.
"No, it's not," he agreed, then shoved her away.
She whipped around, furious. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"What's wrong with me?" Alec shimmered, then he was human again. He strode past her and snatched a book off his desk. "I'm not ashamed! This isn't some antique, Harper. This is the sequel to my favorite fiction. I was fourteen when it came out. I saved all my pennies for it. Look at it. Look at me."
He glared at her. "I look young, so I am young. Is that it? Because I was an old man when your grandmother was a little girl."
"I know that," Harper said.
"Do you?" he gave a derisive snort. "You come in here, and you see a museum. You don't know. This is my life, and you can't see it. You can't see the rest either — you were sneaking around a vampire's room. If I had any less control, I might have killed you."
At that, Harper lost her patience. "Shut up. You're old, fine, but you're an old idiot. I know you're a vampire, but you couldn't kill me any more than you could have killed her."
She jerked her head at Ileana's portrait, then stepped up to him.
"Just get out," he told her, moving back.
Instead, she grabbed his arm in the same spot he'd held hers. "Come on, Alec, be honest. You're mad because you want me to see you as young."
He glared at her but said nothing. For a moment, she wondered if she'd overstepped. Then he reached out, brushing his fingers against her cheek.
This time, she stepped up to him willingly, wondering what it would be like to kiss him. Would his lips be cold? His heart didn't beat, but hers might be enough for both of them.
Alec's phone rang from somewhere near his desk, breaking the moment. He looked relieved, but she didn't move. "Ignore it."
"I can't," he said.
"Sure you can," Harper said. "It'll go to voicemail."
They stared at each other, waiting. But it didn't stop.
Alec glanced over at the desk. "What if it's important?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "Unless it's an emergency, they can wait."
A full minute passed, then the ringing was replaced with a pounding on the front door. "Open up, Alec," Conner shouted from the other side. "We've got a problem."