The van pulled to a stop.
Harper took off her seatbelt, opened the door, and got out. Chloe slid out her door and Sarah from the other.
Another car stopped behind them, and the doors opened. There was talk, but Harper couldn’t hear it. Then Conner got out, and when a small figure followed, he scooped him up and held him. It was a good call, she thought. The neighborhood wasn’t great, and you couldn’t trust demons.
Conner joined the others as the two vehicles pulled away. “Can I borrow a cell?”
Chloe turned away from him.
Sarah took hers out and handed it over. He tried to punch in a number but couldn’t do it with his arms full.
“Hey, James, I’m gonna put you down. Just stay right here,” Conner said. He set him down and dialed.
Harper glanced at James. She expected him to look scared, weepy, or even angry. Instead, he had a bright, inquisitive expression.
When he saw her looking, James smiled, stepped past Conner, and held out a hand. “Hi. I’m James De La Rue.”
Harper shook with him, forcing a smile in return. “Nice to meet you. I’m Harper.”
“You’re a friend of Conner’s?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Harper said, glancing at him. The phone was ringing.
“He knew my mom a long time ago,” James confided. “They were probably dating, though she doesn’t like to talk about boyfriends.”
Sarah joined them. “Parents usually don’t. I’m Sarah.”
He offered her a hand too, and she shook, smiling with more sincerity than Harper had managed. “I think it’s because she feels bad, but she shouldn’t — people date. I had a friend at school — I go to first grade — Tom. And Tom dated Becca. I said, why? She’s a girl, and he said — well, boys will be boys.”
Sarah laughed, and Harper did too. There was a fussy imitated voice he’d slipped into at the end, perhaps so naturally he didn’t realize he’d done it, that was humorous, even now.
Chloe glanced over at them but didn’t smile or join in. Her arms were crossed, and Harper could tell how upset she still was.
“You’re probably ready to be home, huh?” Sarah asked.
James nodded. “Yeah, I miss Mom. Which is what little kids say, but I’m only six. Seven, soon. Besides, I haven’t been home to feed my turtle, and that’s a promise I made. Mom said, ‘people oughta keep promises, kid, even little tykes.’ I’ve had him since four, and I don’t forget. But… I haven’t been home.”
Sarah reassured him about the turtle while Harper listened to Conner. He was talking to Emma, and she guessed because he’d just told her that James was safe and unharmed. He gave her cross-roads next, then hung up.
“Emma is on her way,” he said to them all.
Chloe snatched her phone from her jacket pocket. “I’ll call us our own ride.”
Conner cleared his throat. “Chloe, look—”
“Years,” Chloe shot at him. “It took years — no, decades — for him to get over it last time, Conner. And you asked him to go back to that.”
“What was the alternative?” Conner demanded, now angry too. “I should have let them just—” he cut off, glanced at James, who was talking to Sarah, then lowered his voice. “— He’s innocent. He did nothing wrong. Can Alec say the same?”
Chloe opened her mouth, then closed it, and shook her head. “Damn it. Damn it, Conner! We could have figured something out. It wasn’t our last option.”
“No, it wasn’t,” he agreed. “And someone else, we might have let them stay with Trentreen until we tried other options. But not a kid, Chloe. You know what could have happened while we worked on a plan. So does Alec, and that’s why he agreed.”
There wasn’t an argument for that. Harper waited while Chloe ordered them a rideshare, then they all stood there, talking about anything but what happened. James was the life of the evening and had even Chloe smiling by the time his mom arrived.
Emma got out and covered her mouth to hold back a cry. There were tears in her eyes as she rushed forward, knelt, and embraced her son. James hugged her back as tight as he could, and Harper saw the relief on his face.
After, they talked in quiet voices, and then Emma hugged him again before standing up. She kept a hand on his shoulder, keeping him from leaving her side. She looked at Conner, then all of them, then back to him. “Thank you.”
Chloe looked flustered and ashamed. Sarah just nodded, then drew Harper away, leaving Conner to speak with her.
“He’ll be all right,” Sarah told her. Chloe joined them. “It doesn’t seem like they hurt him. He was more bored than anything else.”
“At least there’s that,” Chloe said, sounding glum.
A few minutes later, their rideshare arrived. Conner waved them off, saying he’d ride with Emma and James. The others climbed in.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Afterlife,” Harper said before the others could.
They got there twenty minutes later. It was near morning, and the club was empty. One of the bartenders was still cleaning up his station and tried to call to Chloe when they passed. She gave him a tired smile and said she’d check messages later.
Harper almost expected to see Alec in the bat cave, but of course, he wasn’t there. The monitors were all dark, and she felt a flash of unease. As Sarah moved toward a chair, she said, “No!”
Sarah paused and looked at her. “What?”
“Not here,” Harper said. “Let’s go upstairs.”
“To Alec’s apartment?” Chloe asked, raising her brows. “I’m not sure he’d like us there uninvited.”
“You’re invited,” Harper said, firm. “Come on, let’s go.”
Chloe hesitated still, but when Sarah nodded and followed Harper to the door, she did too.
Once upstairs, Harper fed them leftovers. Then they all decided to rest. When Harper laid down in her room, she could see the light beginning to filter in through the window. Her last thought before falling asleep was of Alec’s closet and how much he must enjoy the total darkness it provided.
When she woke up, she didn’t hear Sarah or Chloe, so she took a shower. By the time she was clean, dry, and dressed, that had changed. Chloe was making coffee, and Sarah was doing stretches on the floor.
“You sleep okay?” Harper asked as she flopped on the couch. There was a wadded-up blanket in the corner that Chloe hadn’t put away yet. She wrapped it around herself.
“Like the dead,” Sarah said.
“Not me,” Chloe admitted. “I mean, the couch is nice, but Sarah snores.”
Sarah didn’t rise to the bait.
“You want a cup?” Chloe asked Harper.
Chloe fixed three and brought them over. Sarah stopped stretching, took hers, and scooted over to lean against the couch.
“So we need to go after Alec,” Chloe said, sitting down next to Harper. “He can’t leave himself, not unless Trentreen is dead. They would have made him swear it.”
“So?” Harper said.
Chloe made a face. “It’s different for demons. They can’t just break oaths. Promises, sure, but oaths use certain magic. The three of us didn’t swear anything, though, and you’re both humans.”
“I resent that,” Sarah said, though she smiled to lighten the jest.
“Yeah, I’m a gypsy,” Harper told her.
“Semantics,” Chloe said. “The point is, we can attack Trentreen. Once we do, it breaks the deal Conner made — the peace between Afterlife and him.”
“Putting James at risk,” Sarah said. “Conner won’t like that.”
“Yeah, but it frees Conner too,” Chloe said. “And we know he’d love a chance to go after that freak.”
Sarah shook her head. “Maybe. But he still won’t agree. He made this deal happen, and he won’t throw it away.”
“He doesn’t have to agree,” Chloe said. “Once we break the peace, he’ll join us. He’ll have to because of James if nothing else.”
Sarah leaned back more, thinking this over. “Well, you’re not wrong. It forces his hand, but that may not be a bad thing. Do you think the intention is enough? If we have a plan, does it free Conner to join us? Or do we have to act first?”
Chloe considered. “Probably action. But going to the unders might be enough. He could meet us there after it breaks.”
“No,” Harper said.
They both looked at her, surprised. Sarah repeated, “No?”
Harper saw them again, dead in front of her. She felt a flash of anger. “I told you about my vision! Do you want us dead? I couldn’t stop Alec, but with the — the peace — in place, we should be safe.”
Chloe and Sarah exchanged looks.
“Don’t do that,” Harper said. She yanked the blankets tighter around her. “Don’t dismiss me. This isn’t a game, and I don’t want to die. I don’t want you dead either — and for what?”
“For Alec,” Chloe said, her tone icy. “You have no idea what it was like for him—”
“However bad it was, it’ll be worse if he kills us,” Harper snapped. “No. No, I won’t support this.”
“You don’t have to,” Chloe said, standing. “You can just stay here, holed up in Alec’s apartment, scared to stand up for your friends, but I’m going to fight for him. I won’t just give up. Sarah, you coming?”
“Sarah,” Harper said, as the shapeshifter stood up too, shifting on her feet, looking torn. “Please, don’t do this. You’re putting us all at risk.”
Sarah shook her head, her conflicted expression turning to stern resolve. There was no anger like Chloe in the look she gave Harper, but there was no empathy either. “He’d do it for any of us. In fact, he has.”
They left. Harper watched them go, cradling her coffee. She wanted to go after them — but she didn’t know if she wanted to convince them or join them.
In the end, she stayed. She finished her coffee, cleaned the kitchen, and thought about apartments she could move into. She planned to put a list together from the different online classifieds and maybe send an agent a message. She’d vacuum, then do that.
But instead, she walked over to Alec’s bedroom door.
Harper stared at it, thinking about the last time she’d been in there. She wasn’t scared of him then, even though he’d held her by the throat and talked about killing her. If that were the only Alec she’d ever known, she would go after him.
She went inside. His life was here, an ancient history of who he’d been. His favorite book was on his desk. A glass half-filled with amber liquor was beside it.
Harper could have gone to it, picked it up, tried to learn more, understand him better. But she’d seen another Alec already. It was the man, not the vampire, who’d been in that house with her. It was the man who’d looked at the succubus and discovered a mother underneath the pain. And he’d used that. He’d killed her, not with his teeth; with his words.
He’d kill them too.
“I hate this,” she said out loud. She turned. “Why am I even here?”
The portraits on the walls were beautiful. Faces of people he’d known, people who were important to him. There were at least a dozen, but she only knew Ileana, so that’s the one she went to.
It was always a shock to see herself in a woman born over a century before. Alec spoke about her sometimes. About how much she meant to him, how much he meant to her.
“He’ll get us killed,” Harper told Ileana, defensive over an accusation never made. “You don’t understand. I Saw it.”
Harper’s vision doubled, and she closed her eyes and let the vision come.
She was Ileana again. She was tall, fit, powerful, and had all the arrogance of youth. Gone were her beautiful dress and her soft shoes. She wore trousers, a vest, a pair of laced boots. And a smirk, she couldn’t forget that.
The village she was visiting spoke of a vampire. He was handsome, charming, and deadly. But he’d be no match for her. None were; no vampires, demons, or conmen were pretending to have power.
He expected her. She knew that because she’d set the gossip herself about her plans to kill him. Ileana didn’t have reason to doubt her prowess. She came from a long line of gypsies, and she’d inherited their skill and honed it from childhood. Let him be afraid. Or confident. He’d be dead at the end of the night either way.
He came, striding out of the shadows like some sort of brigadier. She wondered how he saw himself when he did that. Laughter burst from her.
That gave him pause. He made up for his hesitation with an intentional swagger. “Many maidens laugh when nervous, but never worry. I’ll be gentle.”
Ileana’s laughter came again, more robust. “Oh god. That’s the angle you play? It’s not a good look for you. Not tall enough, not broad enough, and you can’t even claim dark and mysterious. Blonds don’t step from the shadows, boy. Did nobody tell you?”
His eyes narrowed. “And did nobody tell you that women should stay home and raise children? I was told that a powerful gypsy wanted to have a go at me, but here you stand, just another future house-wife having fun before settling down.”
She’d hit a nerve, but so had he. Her anger flared, but she reeled it back from her words and let it fuel her magic instead. The moment she reached out to test his strength, she knew she had him.
The fight was short and sweet, and she thought there might be some relief in his eyes when her stake was bearing down toward him. It was always the same, wasn’t it? They regretted it but didn’t stop, not until someone stopped them, then they thanked their god of choice that another did what they couldn’t.
She’d seen the look, been disgusted by it before. Nothing new. She aimed well but stayed her hand just before killing him. Because there was something here.
And her vision doubled.
Harper knew with quick certainty that the vision that came next wasn’t hers. It was Ileana’s. A vision within a vision; worlds within worlds.
She was on a porch, sitting on the swing. Older. Wiser.
The sun was behind her, and the evening was coming. She looked down the road and saw them there, a blond, curly-haired man, still young years later, and a little girl with her eyes and smile.
Ileana stood, relief filling her. She went to join them. The girl saw her mama, dropped Alec’s hand, and rushed forward. But then she stopped, looked back, and smiled. She knelt and picked a flower from the dozens growing wild. It was blue, like the sky. She turned and gave it to him.
Alec smiled and tipped an invisible hat before tucking the flower into his lapel. The vision faded.
Ileana stared down at his face, the same face from the road, the same face that had just smiled at her future daughter. She dropped the stake and helped him stand.
Harper’s vision darkened, and she opened her eyes, back in the present.
Her confusion lasted only seconds before everything fell into place. Ileana let him live because he’d give her a child. She’d seen it, as much as Harper had Seen all of Afterlife dead.
But Alec had said it himself. He’d never had a child, never been a father.
“Not all visions come true, Harper,” she said out loud, in her voice, in his words. Then she was on her way, hoping she wasn’t too late to help.