Tanya sat under a dark cloud for the better part of a week. She curled in her blankets. The sounds in her headphones alternated between new wave and podcasts. Every second meal consisted of leftover pizza, and the only time she left the dorm was to drag herself to class. How long had it been since she’d changed out of her pajamas? I couldn’t tell you, but the smell was too much.
Soon I was at my limit. “You need to get out.”
She presented the typical arguments; ‘I’m fine.’ ‘I need time.’ ‘It’s not that bad.’ ‘Don’t waste your time worrying about me.’ Next she offered distraction by reminding me that there was a city to patrol. Though all had been quiet since the reign of cats and dogs.
No more talking. I threw the duvet to the floor and dragged her by the feet. Tanya kicked and whined but it was no use. Tough love was the order of the day, followed by a shower and some real food.
I sat and waited for her while she was in the bathroom. Tanya had every reason to mope. Her first romance met with one disaster after another and fell on its face. It could be it was never meant to last, but even so, she was still a girl, and girls always remember their first. Or so they say in TV dramas.
But she couldn’t wallow forever. There was a life to live.
It was sometime after scrolling through her Frieldlr that we found a place to go. The Lovin’ Spoonful was off the table; too many feelings while Trix was working there. Instead we settled on an open invite from a new friend, Brandon. He was hosting a game night at a cafe bar only a few miles away.
Tanya was a wreck. It took the last dregs of enthusiasm to keep from slumping. Her feet dragged like the bags under her eyes.
“You’re doing great,” I said.
At least she was wearing clean clothes. Shorts and a sweatshirt were miles from week old sleepwear. More than that was asking too much.
Street lamps blinked to life as we approached the meeting place. Sugar & Spice was a two level establishment with wood panels and a tall, thin staircase. The management had it painted in cool hues and illuminated by a rustic iron chandelier. Art by local talent hung on every other wall, and the drinks were served in mason jars. An artisan menu bragged a dozen brews off coffee, and variants thereof. There were also an equal number of teas and hot chocolates. Then there were the ‘adult’ options.
It took a lot of pushing to get Tanya inside along with the protests she was too grumpy to articulate. After a time we made it up the stairs where the group was set to meet.
“Okay, so which one is Bran-”
I stopped. Worlds came crashing together in an instant. There, sat by the window at the end of a long table was Captain Ortega’s personal assistant. Sure, he’d dressed down and smiling in a way he never did at the office, but it was him all the same. My blood ran cold. Would he recognize me without the mask?
Now it was Tanya’s turn to ask. “You okay?”
“That’s Brandon,” I said.
My shoulders tightened. “How do you know him?”
It all came flooding back the moment she opened her mouth. Rockland Hills, the earthquakes; he was the camper they picked up on the way to higher ground. Of all the random guys to make friends with…
He lifted his head and smiled. “Hey, T!”
Any chance of a tactical retreat faded when he crossed the room toward us. I peered at the floor and brushed hair across my face. Though it was platinum as Glimmer Girl it was a mousy color in the day to day. I prayed it made enough difference.
They fell into small talk and I watched the exit. So close, yet so far. Ironic that after prying Tanya from bed I was the one begging to split. But how could I do that? Brandon cracked a joke and for the first time in a week Tanya smiled. Well, half-smiled; more than I’d seen since her romance ended.
“We’re playing Halls & Haunts,” Brandon said. “It’s a paranormal adventure game set in an old mansion. Care to join us?”
Tanya said yes before I could make an excuse. I guess I was playing too.
* * * *
If Brandon put the pieces together he didn’t say. My worst fears never realized. Instead we sat around, dealing cards and rolling dice. A supernatural nightmare played out on the open board. Fighting monsters for pretend was more fun than in real life.
Even Tanya managed a good time. All it took was escaping into a turn of the century pickpocket. Her attempts at a cockney accent would make any Brit scream, but left us in a fit of giggles. Just what the doctor ordered.
A wise person once said that the best fun is had by mistake. Even when dreading going out it’s usually better once you’re there. Regret vanishes in an instant, and you have a new memory instead of a night on the sofa.
After vanquishing the flying lamprey in the fictional kitchen it was time for coffee.
“Worms, seriously?” Tanya groaned.
Brandon pouted in agreement. “Yeah, I’ve had enough worms for a lifetime.”
I skipped to the counter downstairs for a pair of affogatos. On the shelves were Arabica and Robusta beans from every corner of the globe. Each ranged from light roast to dark, some mixed with flavors I’d never heard of, catering to every taste. Sugar & Spice put The Lovin’ Spoonful to shame with variety.
Then things took a turn for the strange. Lost in the geography of exotic blends I didn’t notice a man pulling close from behind. The hum of his voice tickled my ear.
I jumped and leered at him. “Hi. Ever heard of personal space?”
He turned away with a bashful smile. Some girls might have found it adorable. Me, not so much.
“Sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t help but notice you and had to say hello.”
Oh my gods. He was coming onto me! How unprecedented! Some guys were attractive, sure, but on the whole they never seemed to like me back. Did he know I was trans? Would he freak if he found out? I froze like a rabbit in the headlights.
The stranger leaned against the counter with an air of assuredness. He was the handsome sort; clean shaven with slick black hair, and wearing a smoky dress shirt with an open vest. On first inspection it seemed he wasn’t much older than I was. His skin seemed pale and dry. A gamer turned pick-up artist?
At last I found my words. “Listen, I’m flattered,” I lied, “but I’m here with a friend…”
“Tanya’s fine for now,” he said.
My blood ran cold. I jerked away. My fists balled tight. “Who are you?”
There was no violence in those wide gray eyes, though they conveyed a knowing too deep for a first meeting. They sat fixed, intense and unblinking, as though ready to swallow me whole. The stranger grabbed my palm in both hands.
“My name is Demond,” he said, “and though you don’t know me I have loved you from the first time I set eyes on you.”
I wrenched my hand. “And how long is that?”
“About ten minutes,” he said, “but that is all I need to know that you, Kaira Cade, are perfect.”
My heart raced a mile a minute. Did he think that was romantic? If only Glimmer Girl could burst out and throw him through the window. It took all I had to restrain my panic.
The barista called out to the room. “Two affogatos for Kaira?”
In the space it took to peer at the counter and back Demond vanished. It was too soon for him to make the door or climb the stairs. Was it all in my head? Somehow that was worse than the alternative.
I took the tray with the drinks and returned up the stairs, hoping this was the end of it.
* * * *
The night ended with every character either insane or dead. That was the fun part, or so Brandon said; nobody walks away from a horror game intact. If nothing else it was a distraction from… that other thing.
At least Tanya was in better spirits. She carried herself up to the stairs to the dorm with a fixed half smile. The gloom lingered a few steps behind, but no longer dominated her every waking moment. The night was worth it for that alone.
“I still can’t believe your Brandon and my Brandon are the same guy,” she said.
Neither could I. Keeping a secret identity was a cinch with the two halves of my existence divided. Only Tanya had to know. The fact I had to cover my tracks tied a knot in my stomach. Whatever. I’d deal.
Tanya unlocked the door and ushered us inside. She closed it and frowned. “So are you going to tell me what’s eating you or not?”
I kicked off my shoes and slipped off my jacket. I ignored her and fed my bra-straps through my sleeves.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
She collapsed onto her bed and rolled to the side. There was that look; peering over her glasses like a teacher waiting on an excuse. It got me every time.
“There was a guy,” I said. “A creeper hit on me.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“You were having a good time, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. Gods, I’m still creeped out. He said it was love at first sight.”
Tanya frowned. “All the more reason you should have told me. If you see him again I’ll kick his ass.”
“He left before I could say anything,” I told her. “It was so fast; part of me thinks I dreamed him up.”
“More like a nightmare.”
I fell into the pillow with hair everywhere. There were classes in the morning, but I was nowhere near tired. The numbers flashing on the bedside table read one twenty-seven, leaving me six hours.
“You don’t always have to protect me, you know.”
“I know,” Tanya said. “You’re the girl who beat a dragon.”
“Well, more of a lizard.”
“A giant flame-breathing lizard,” she said. That much was true.
No sooner had the lights gone out than the window between us shattered. Shards fell against the curtain, and a heavy object rolled to the other side of the room. Tanya leaped out of bed to turn on the light while I peered outside.
A red-haired woman stood under the front lights of the building. She wore a tan leather jacket, and didn’t bothered to hide. She glared upward, canines bared, as though challenging me to come down and face her.
She didn’t respond, and continued to blast silent hate up to our room. Who did she think she was?
Tanya marched toward the closet and pulled a baseball bat. “You call campus security,” she said. “I’m going downstairs to kick some ass!”
But before I could stop her she was halfway down the hall. When I returned to the window the furious woman had vanished, like Demond. A chill ran down my arms. Who were these people?
* * * *
The rent-a-cops came and went, and we were still shaking. They took statements, and photographs of the damage. Their promise to check security footage of the yard didn’t carry much hope. Beyond that there wasn’t much they could do aside from file a report.
Where was Glimmer Girl when I needed her? It would have been easy to fly out and scoop up the perpetrator. Too bad I had a secret identity to protect. A hero should never feel so helpless.
It was late; too late to sleep. I set to the roof with two mugs of coffee, instant from the student kitchenette. The caffeine brought us in time with the settling panic.
Tanya gripped her mug in both hands and blew. “This smells awful,” she said with a grin.
I laughed. Of all the problems we shared bad coffee was the best of them.
“We could stay with my parents until someone fixes the window,” she said. “You’re welcome to come with.” But there was more to it than that, like the nearby store and the myriad of emotions it inspired. Distance from them was just as important.
“You don’t mind the commute?”
“When flying takes a couple minutes? We’d never be late for class,” she said.
I flicked her arm. Gods, the idea was tempting. And why stop at her Mom’s house when we could jump to Los Angeles, Hawaii, even Australia! Somewhere our troubles couldn’t follow us.
Early hours on campus were always eerie. The same quiet fell when animals seized the city. It was a hard memory to shake, and even harder to remember a state of peace.
I studied my drink. My thoughts steamed in the murky brown.
“This is going to make me sound like a huge dork,” I said, “but whatever. I have to say it. You’re my best friend, and I love you better than a sister. Things have been weird lately, and… I don’t know. But we still have each other, even if I don’t have to lean on you like I used to. I’m still here, and whatever you need…”
The words tasted like a kiss from family, but I meant them.
Tanya said nothing. She didn’t even move. All she did was lean over her mug as though considering its contents. It wasn’t until I shuffled closer that I realized it wasn’t by choice.
“A friendship for the ages,” remarked a voice. “Like Atticus and Cicero, Twain and Tesla, platonic intimacy is something to treasure.”
Demond stood balanced on the balcony rail with the confidence of a creature more agile than man. He waltzed along the steel with grace and poise. I stood equal parts amazed, horrified, and praying for him to fall. How had he come to be there when we had eyes on the only door? But that was the least of my worries.
“You shouldn’t be here,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s a free country.”
“But not a free campus,” I said. “You need permission to be here. I-I’ll call security!”
Demond dropped to the safe side of the ledge. “Let’s not be droll, Kaira. You know I’m not here to hurt you.”
I stepped away and readied to scratch. “Actually, I don’t know that.”
“You have my word.”
“The word of a stranger who doesn’t understand boundaries,” I spat. Tanya remained idle and unaware. “Did you do this to her?”
“A low level trance,” he said, “to afford us a moment alone.”
I backed into the wall. “Funny, I don’t remember wanting a moment.”
Demond stopped and raised his hands, as though he would read as anything other than a threat. “I understand that most men have left womankind wanting, wary,” he said. “Rest assured that I am not like that.”
“They all say that.”
“I’m sure,” he continued, “but if you’ll allow me I can show you such wonder…”
“No chance in-”
I blinked and the world shifted. In place of a rooftop balcony on a three level dorm were silver clouds shimmering in the moonlight. Below them was the entire city as seen from the highest level of a mirrored skyscraper. The precipice beside a man-made waterfall was no place for a person to appear. I stumbled back to safety.
“As I said,” Demond continued, “I am not like other men.”
He was nowhere in the dark reflection of the windows, yet he was right there behind me. He smiled, offering the chance to study the shape of his teeth. Then it all made sense.
“You’re a vampire…”
Demond nodded once. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, my love.”
* * * *
Tanya blinked at the mug in her hands that was hot only a moment ago. In an instant it had turned stone cold and was undrinkable. She placed it down with a look of disgust and then realized that she was alone.
“KC? Still here?”
No response. The rooftop was barren save for her and the empty chair beside. Did she lose track of time? It was still dark out, and the campus was quiet as the grave.
She checked her cell. No messages. She texted Kaira, but as long as she waited her friend did not read it.
Tanya clutched her arms, but it was small comfort. As if the night couldn’t get stranger.
With sudden force flying at her Tanya slammed against the brick wall. Mighty hands wrenched her arms and burned through her cardigan. Once the dizziness wore off she made the face of the red headed woman, snarling. Her breath foamed with the hot scent of meat.
Before she could gather herself the furious woman barked at her. “Where is she!”
The smell turned her stomach, but Tanya could not flee.
The beastly woman’s grip tightened. “You know who! The bitch you room with!”
Fighting proved futile, even more when the attackers humanity slipped away. Her eyes flared bright amber while her face contorted around her shifting muzzle. The fine hairs on her face, neck and hands stood on end. Muscles surged against the limits of her tan jacket.
Tanya steadied herself. Panic wouldn’t help her. “What do you want with Kaira?”
The other woman struck the wall so hard it left an indent in the brick. “No, you answer my question! Where is she? And don’t lie. I can smell her on you… I can smell her all over this place!”
A million thoughts flooded Tanya’s head. Who was this monster? An adept, one of the Society of Sin who was tracking Glimmer Girl? Then again she could have been an animal whose evolution lead to a human shape. Or she was something new.
“She… she was here a minute ago,” Tanya said. There was no reason to lie. Glimmer Girl could handle herself against this… this… whatever she was!
The beast sniffed the air and settled. Her quarry lingered in the air, though the scent it was cool enough to indicate some distance. There was something else; far more subtle, so much that even her kind had difficulty following.
“He was here as well,” she growled.
Tanya frowned. “He who?”
But the woman was in no mood for conversation. Her clenched paw flew at Tanya and sent a flash of pain across her senses. Once more did time escape Tanya’s notice.
* * * *
Cornered by a vampire. Each passing day revealed something fantastic, but this defied belief! Yet there I stood on the ledge of a highrise, next to a figure with no reflection. Demond wasn’t at all subtle, so don’t ask me how someone like him remained myth.
He inched closer, but stopped when I backed away.
“Are you going to eat me?”
Demond gasped and clutched his chest. “Heavens no! A delectable a morsel you may be, but to regard you as other human cattle would be a crime!”
I readied to launch. “Then what do you want?”
The vampire smirked, like it was funny. “You’ve not been wooed before, have you? No need for shame. There’s always a first time. Rest assured that my intentions are pure. A woman unique as yourself deserves to be cherished.”
My heart froze in my chest. “‘U-unique’?”
“Come now. Let’s not dance around the fact,” he said. “Such a treasure stands out from the rest.”
Did he know about Glimmer Girl? There was no telling what a vampire might sense. It was time to stop being coy. I had the power to resist, and resist I would.
“I’m not a ‘treasure’,” I said. “I’m a person!”
Demond would have blushed were his cold cheeks able. “Of course. Please accept my apologies. It was not my intention to reduce you to a mere object, only to convey your value and rarity.”
“Apology not accepted,” I said. “What you’re doing is creepy and possessive and wrong! This is how ‘me too’ stories start!”
“I am not like ordinary men,” he started. I didn’t let him to finish.
Without warning I sprinted to the ledge. Braless and barefoot I dived into the open air. Demond screamed something, but not even he was fast enough to see my body vanish into the night. Glimmer Girl flashed into the invisible spectrum, and rounded the building, unseen.
A scared girl flew around one side, and a hero emerged from the other. I floated before the astounded vampire, hands on hips. I glowered with piercing golden light.
“It’s not very gentlemanly to steal young women away,” I said. Classic hero line.
Demond grinned from ear to ear. My stomach turned at the sight. You’d think a vampire would be afraid of a burning human shape, but he was anything but.
“I knew you were extraordinary, but I never imagined how much,” he said, falling to his knees. “That you were in the guise of Kaira Cade this whole time-”
“If that’s the name of the young woman I rescued, then I’m sure she’s very special. Too special for the likes of someone such as yourself.”
Demond rolled his eyes. “If that’s the game we’re playing then allow me to court you again. Glimmer Girl, though we’re only recently acquainted, I have loved you from afar. Will you do me the honor of becoming my paramore?”
As if my frown wasn’t answer enough. It seemed this night would never end.
To be continued…