Black Sun 004: The Seventh Star (Original Draft)

Black Sun 004: The Seventh Star (Original Draft)

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“I couldn’t find any leotards that weren’t hot pink. Last thing I want to do is prance around looking like a flamingo.”

“You know you don’t need a fancy outfit for dance class, right? Did you make it in to that shop?”

“I am way too cute to show up wearing yoga pants and a t-shirt. There’s going to be boys.” Angela stopped on the sidewalk, momentarily distracted with a pair of shoes in a shop window. “It closed at seven, and I have to work another shift tomorrow too. So you’re gonna have to go in there yourself. I don’t know why you’re so freaked out by it, everybody knows that lady is a whackjob, Jules.”

“Oh god, don’t you start calling me that too. Besides, it’s not HER, it’s the shop itself. Or the stuff in the shop. I don’t know! Um, it’s okay, though. I’ll go after school.”

“Right the whole psychic vibes thing. WHICH, I’m still totally confused about here! Creeper Leo is helping to teach you tap in to your inner goddess as a favor to Mikey for what exactly? Don’t say it, you can’t tell me, right?”

A sigh sounded on the other end. “It’s kind of not just for Michael. What if I COULD learn how to turn it on and off? At the very least I could get a good night of sleep, and at the best-“

“You could figure out what happened with your parents.” Angela answered. She pursed her lips, wandering aimlessly down the sidewalk. It was worrisome, but she totally understood. Julian wanting to actively do something was way better than being dark and depressed. This was way overdue. She could thank Michael for this. Or Leo. Angela wasn’t quite sure which, and didn’t care so long as her bestie was finally acting NORMAL again.

“You know I’m on board. What is our official opinion on Leo again, by the way?” Speak of the devil, Angela was pretty sure she just caught a glimpse of him down the street. The guy already had two strikes as far as she was concerned, and it was about time someone hassled him.

“I might have overreacted just a little bit… I don’t know, he irritates me but he’s really not that bad? He gets under my skin.”

“You don’t have to be everyone’s friend, Julian, some people are just jerks. Is he dating anybody?”

Julian laughed. “I see how it is. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Angela dropped her phone in to her purse and marched down the street. Once she confirmed it really WAS the man she was looking for, she reached out and gave him a good hard shove on the shoulder.

“HEY. What crawls in through windows and drags girls through graveyards? A guy about to get kicked in the balls! Unless you have something reeeeaaaally cute to say and change my mind with.”

The taller teen didn’t immediately react, his eyes focused on something further down the street. Then he blinked down at her, stopped dead in his tracks, and broke into a cheeky grin.

“Does that mean you think I normally have something cute to say, Angela?” He didn’t seem very concerned by her righteous indignation, judging by his flirting. He also evidently remembered her name and face, despite their brief introduction in the cafe.

Leo looked just as he’d been that day he’d first walked into Fleetwood Macchiato, too. Same air of mischief, same quirked eyebrows, same bright blue eyes to rival Angela’s. Same leather jacket. The rest of his ensemble- light grey t-shirt, black leather belt, dark jeans- might have been different, but he wore it with the same lazy confidence. The guy just oozed personality. (And dressed a hell of a lot better than most of the teenage guys Angela knew.)

“Are you stalking me on orders from Jules, or is this just, y’know, what you’d expect to happen when roaming the streets of a small town?”

“Well, don’t you think you’re special! Why would Julian want to have you stalked?” she smirked, resting her hands on her hips, making her bracelets jingle. Angela eyed him up and down. Oh, he did look good. Not like Michael’s dressing all old-man style.

“Though you are a hot topic of conversation.” She lazily shrugged her shoulders and gestured at the street. “I just got off work and coincideeeeentally was talking to Julian. Who, for some weird reason has decided you’re NOT Satan’s Little Helper, even though twice,” she held up two ringed fingers, “now you’ve pulled some kind of future serial killer antics and scared the hell out of her.”

Her hand went back to her waist and she rocked back and forth on her heels. That smirk faded to a more serious frown. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and your cousin – YET – but I’m gonna find out. And lucky for YOU, I think she actually likes you, despite all those fun words she used to describe you yesterday. So you get a nuts-get-away-free card.”

“Here’s an idea. Have you tried asking Michael?” He’d barely asked the question before he was snorting. “Yeah, no, I can’t keep a straight face. You probably have and he probably didn’t tell you jack. That’s my cousin!”

The overall tone was lighthearted and breezy, but there was an undercurrent of something more there. Something with a bite. It looked like Michael had been upfront about at least one thing: Leo definitely had a problem with him.

“I’d love to clue you in myself, but… my hands are a little tied. Metaphorically speaking. Let’s just say it’s a ‘family secret’.” And yeah, he actually did the air quotes for Angela’s benefit. Rolling his eyes, he folded his arms over his chest and made a what-can-you-do sort of face. “I’m guessing Jules gave you the Cliff Notes version anyway. I’m helping her flex her third eye muscle, not plotting to put her in a shallow grave. By Michael’s request, by the way.”

Half a beat’s pause before he gave her a weird look. “You think she likes me? After… well, I’m sure she told you that too.”

“Sooooo Mikey is having his cousin psychic train his almost-girlfriend in graveyards for mysterious reasons. That’s tooootally not shady at all.” she remarked, tapping her fingers against her hips with mild impatience. Of course he wasn’t going to blurt out the big secret. But now she knew that Michael wasn’t kidding about Leo’s distaste for him. If he was even trying to hide it, he was doing a shitty job with the devil-mar-care breeziness.

Then there was the look.

That confused what the hell did you just tell me, you can’t be serious look. Angela smirked, bouncing over to him and linking her arms with his. She started walking with him, regardless of whether or not that was the direction he intended to go.

“She doesn’t HATE you, I know that for sure. After all that crap you pulled and she’s still bothering to talk to you at all, she’s gotta like you or something. And I’d be real careful not to cross that line. When she hates you, not even Michael’s gooey cow eyes are gonna get her talking to you again, and I bet that would put a damper on your…. search for a lost family treasure?”

Leo’s left eyebrow rose a centimeter or two, but he didn’t protest being led around, and he didn’t try to shrug Angela off either. He was even almost smiling.

“Not exactly,” he supplied amiably but vaguely. “Good guess, though.”

He glanced askance at the girl next to him, then tipped his head back to cast his eyes heavenward like he was silently asking someone up there a question. Something like What exactly am I supposed to do here? And in fact, that was very close to what he was asking Angela aloud a moment later, running his free hand through his already-kinda-messy brown hair.

“You sound like you have your own idea of what I should do. You going to share?” He made an irritated little hum, but he didn’t really look mad. “You know, I didn’t exactly plan for things to go that far. She just had to go and be way more psychic than I thought she was.”

“Close huh?” Angela kept that in mind. She looked very much like a cat preening over it’s captured prize. He seemed to take her attention well, which gave him a plus on her mental check list. He also even seemed to feel a tiny bit bad about yesterday. Angela was a little relieved to know Julian probably really was just being wishy-washy over a freak out, instead of hanging around some dick because her new crush wanted her to.

“She used to do that psychic stuff all the time when we were kids. I don’t know if she remembers or not now, since it was a while ago. She’d know stuff a person shouldn’t, right? And stopped a little over a year ago. I’m not a super genius, but I’m pretty sure chasing her around a bunch of ancient dead people was proooooobably the worst idea ever for a suppressed psychic.” She shrugged her shoulders, giving a thoughtful purse of her lips.

“I actually don’t know what you should do, but I DO know she’s taking it pretty serious. Oh-” Angela let go of his arm so she could dig around in her purse. There was a jangling of god-knew-what inside before she pulled out a slip of paper. “She gave me this list of stuff to get at the witchy store down the street, but it was closed already so she’s gotta go herself tomorrow. Stuff like crystals and things? It’s hilarious cause she thinks the store is all bad juju or something and she’s a total baby about it.”

“ANYWAY, my point is that- Actually, I lost my point. I just want you to be careful with her, okay? Julian is the only person on the planet that deals with my shit. If you get her killed, I’m going to kill YOU, got it?”

The list was plucked right out of Angela’s hands.

He didn’t so much as skim the contents before sticking it inside his jacket. He just took it as if it were the most natural thing in the world, then slipped his hands into his jeans pockets and kept right on walking alongside her.

“I’ll swing by,” he told her, just in case she’d somehow missed his fairly obvious intentions. “I’ve been meaning to check the place out, anyhow. You can let her know it’s covered.

“Threats of bodily harm have been covered too, by the way. You’re not the first person to give me an earful. ‘Leo, you awful brute, do not dare to touch a hair on the head of that poor darling girl or you will rue the day’.” Somehow, even with the exaggerated dialogue, he’d managed to perfectly capture what Angela had seen of Michael’s speech patterns and facial expressions. The illusion broke as he rolled his eyes and pulled one hand back out of his pocket to gesture dismissively. “I’m not trying to kill her. Come on, she can’t help me if she’s dead, can she? Besides, she’s way too much fun to mess with.”

“Oh god, that sounds just like him! He’s such an old man!” Angela laughed, far too loudly for the nice quiet street. Forget Julian, she liked Leo. He was sure to be trouble, but he was her kind of trouble. She clung to her purse strap, grinning her cheshire cat grin.

“Julian IS fun to mess with, isn’t she?” she giggled, skipping up ahead and spinning to walk backwards. “You can tell her yourself tomorrow! If she finds out I talked to you about aaaaany of this, she’s going to uninvite me to our little friend-date Friday with Michael. And I haven’t decided what I think about that one yet!” she waggled her fingers, turned back around and was already flouncing her way down the street.

She waved over her shoulder. “See ya later, Leo. Try not to get yourself punched!”

It’s just a store. It’s just a store.

The mental reminder really wasn’t helping any. Julian had her hands in her coat pockets to protect from the chill. Fall was coming and to herald it was a nice overcast day. Or terrible overcast day. Julian figured it could only be worse if it was pouring down rain and thundering every ten seconds. That would have perfectly set the scene for walking in to a little shop of horror.

She stopped in front of the shop, edged all the way on the ledge of the sidewalk and practically in the street. It’s what she did every time she passed by the place if she even dared to walk on this side of the street at all. The lettering on the glass was sweet and friendly. Colorful curtains and pretty trinkets sat out on display in the windows. For all intents and purposes, the shop looked charming and interesting from the outside.

It just didn’t feel that way.

There was no getting around it. This was the only shop in town that had witchy weird things, otherwise she would have to order it all online and have to wait forever for shipping. Julian took a deep breath and stepped towards the door. She didn’t get farther than three paces before she hissed through her teeth and turned right back around. She repeated the process twice more, even getting almost as far as reaching out towards the door handle before she lost her nerve and wound up back at the edge of the sidewalk.

This was so stupid.

“What are you doing?” a voice inquired from directly behind her.

Julian didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. And that he was doing a poor job of trying not to laugh.

Leo sidestepped around her, blocking her view of the storefront and smiling down at her. He might have been enjoying the joke at her expense, but at least he wasn’t smirking. Unlike Julian, he wasn’t shivering either. Despite the overnight drop in temperature, he hadn’t taken any precautions for the weather that she could see; he was just in the same old leather jacket that might as well have been sewn onto him for all she knew, since he was always wearing it. Maybe the cold didn’t bother him. Maybe it was a vampire thing. Or a Leo thing.

“You know, you nearly stepped on my foot,” he informed Julian. “Careful there, Jules.”

Oh look, it didn’t have to rain to get worse.

“My name is Julian. And what I’m doing today isn’t any of your business.” Oddly enough, him standing there in her way seemed to shield most of the skin crawling effects of her bad vibes. Which was causing her to give the most peculiar expression as she leaned to look around him and frown at the shop door. It shouldn’t have been surprising, he was big and annoying.

He had probably been there lurking and watching her skitter back and forth like a scared squirrel. The ass.

“I have an errand to run. So unless you wanted something, scurry along~!” She wiggled her fingers at him, hoping to send him on his merry way.

“Whoa there.” He held his hands up, tilting his head at her. “Look, I come in peace. Actually, you’re the one ruining all my plans to make nice in light of the other day. I heard you needed something so I figured running an errand is something I can’t possibly screw up. Guess I was wrong.”

Producing a piece of paper from inside his jacket, he twirled it in his fingers before grabbing her wrist and pressing it into her open palm.

Julian recognized that piece of paper.

“But since I’m here anyway,” Leo went on, his eyes glued to hers, “I figure I should go in too. Since I’m currently helping someone brush up on their crystals and all that jazz. I figure, I can maybe give a few pointers on what actually works and what doesn’t. I’d have told you I was planning to pick up the shopping, but I don’t have your number and you weren’t a fan of me dropping in late at night, last I checked.”

“Maybe if you used a door instead of a window…” her huffiness lost all of it’s bite, despite the fact she could recognize Angela’s messy handwriting on the little slip of paper. Julian had NO idea what to think about Leo and Angela conspiring together, but apparently the result was a vampire doing good deeds.

The paper disappeared in to her jacket pocket and she shifted uncomfortably on her feet. Here he was doing a NICE thing, and she still didn’t want him there. There was no way she could back out and send him in to the shop for her without looking like a total coward. He’d start smirking, she’d hit him, and it’d probably break her hand rather than do him any damage!

“Okay, I guess having someone that actually knows what is what is a good idea.” Julian stepped around him, with every intention of just sucking it up and marching right through the door. But every step closer had her slowing, until she stopped just at the door and spun back around.

“Of course, you could just tell me what’s not worth the trouble and let me worry about it.” Which was totally not an excuse to get rid of him and then run away down the street, she told herself.

“Yeah, I don’t think so. Come on.” He reached over her shoulder to push the door open. Incidentally, he was now blocking her exit route. “It’s now or never, right?”

For all of Julian’s foreboding, the shop interior was normal enough. For a given value of normal. It was certainly New-Age-y with the hundred-and-one glass baubles of varying shapes and sizes dangling from the ceiling, and deep blue wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor. Silk scarves and dyed cloth emblazoned with Celtic knot-work or pentagrams and other weird symbols were hung on the walls or serving as tablecloths for displays of crystals and incense. Shelves upon shelves of books were clustered toward the back of the store. All the organized chaos might have been claustrophobic but for the bright lighting and the wide front window.

They were the only customers. The counter was unattended, but Leo made a beeline for the merchandise, examining a bronze statue of a four-armed goddess with mild interest.

“It would help if you told me exactly what you think you’re trying to do.” The statue was in his palm, and he was opening a tiny compartment at the base. Julian hadn’t even seen how he’d done it. “What’s your strategy? Meditation? Have you ever tried anything like this before?”

Julian didn’t explode upon crossing the threshold, so that was something. She watched him warily, stiffly taking a few careful steps further in to the shop. The place really did seem normal and harmless, which made her feel all the more ridiculous about that overwhelming sense of dread. Nothing was worse than not knowing why.

“I thought we already discussed my extreme lack of practice?” she muttered a little softer than was necessary. The mausoleum hadn’t even felt as overwhelming as this. And not all of it was the irked feeling creeping up her spine. There were a lot of interesting little things scattered around. Things that hummed, things that shimmered. Julian leaned over a table to poke at a dangling crystal.

“There’s a lot of info on the internet, and most of it sounds like a load of crap. But everyone agrees about the metaphysical property of natural stones, and stuff like that. So I figured it would be a good way to help me focus on what I want to focus on, rather than flailing around hoping I tune in to the right psychic radio station.” She was shifting on her feet again. Antsy and uncomfortable, which irritated her all the more because she was so curious about the place now that she was IN it. There was an open set of tarot cards on a counter and she couldn’t resist picking up the book for them and leafing through the pages.

“Well, you’re not wrong.” He put the statue back on the table; even though he hadn’t dropped it, it went down with a thud, so it must have been heavier than it looked. “Same basic principle as a magnifying glass. Just, you know, for your brain instead of your eyes.”

His finger ran along the edge of the table, then jumped to a rack of little stoppered glass vials. They were full of what had to be oil or perfume or something, most of them clear but some darker or full of floating bits of whatever. Leo leaned in for a closer look, peering at the handwritten labels and tapping idly against the wooden case.

“It’s not necessarily safe to do it without someone to teach you, though. And that goes double for you, Sylvia Browne. One good thing about our last session was that it proved you can do a lot more than just get premonitions. Which is a nice surprise. I know Michael was over the moon about that behind his disappointed, broody, accusatory stare.”

Pausing, he snatched up one of the vials of oil and tossed it between his hands.

“What you want to look for is a clear stone. I mean, almost anything will work, honestly, but for a newbie like you it’s important to consider the associations your brain is going to make. Amethyst is good too, but I think it’d be better to go vanilla and start with quartz. A cluster, if we can find one, since…” He trailed off, snorting, but didn’t explain. “Also, buy this.”

He held out the vial to Julian expectantly. The liquid contents looked kind of like olive oil, dark and greenish, but there were tiny things suspended in it that she couldn’t quite make out. In flowy cursive script, the label read Rose Otto.

Julian took the vile and handed Leo the book of Tarot she had been flipping through. Reading it’s label, she absently wandered away towards a counter covered in varying sizes and grades of quartz. The scent of roses was strong enough that she could smell it just waving it under her nose.

“Rose oil? What is this supposed to help me with?” she gestured with the bottle, while her free hand was hovering over the clear stone clusters. Ever so often she’s tap the point of one. Julian really had no idea what she was looking for, but she had a knack for knowing once she spotted it. Picking out crystals wouldn’t be any different.

The entire while she had been chewing on the inside of her cheek, and now she could taste blood. Julian twirled a finger in the air, her signal to speed things up.

“What else do I need? No more browsing. I’d like to get out of here, I shouldn’t be in here.”

“It’s for…” Leo trailed off. When Julian looked, he was staring at her with this weird look on his face, his brow furrowed slightly. “…vampires. Keep it on you, wear it as perfume. I’ll explain more later, but, uh, you know what. Maybe you should put some on now. Just a suggestion.”

He shook his head, then moved to the counter- the tarot book still in hand- and slapped the bell. A moment later, one of the cloth drapes at the back moved, and a figure ducked out from a hidden doorway.

“How may I help you?” The man- the owner or an employee of the shop, presumably- was in his early forties, or thereabouts; there was a touch of grey in his hair and his glasses were the kind grandparents picked out, but his face was unlined and even sort of boyish. His manner of dress was casual, but less New Age hippie than aged punk rocker: a white t-shirt with the British flag on the front, the sleeves rolled up to bare his shoulders, tucked into ripped jeans with a studded leather belt. Weirdly enough, he pulled it off.

“Just ring us up,” answered Leo, not batting an eyelash. He wasn’t even looking at the guy, really, his attention on the shelves of dried herbs behind the counter.

“Together?” the man inquired, turning to Julian and meeting her eye.

Rose oil for vampires? There was an open door for questions and a distraction she welcomed. It gave her something to think about besides being woefully antsy. She couldn’t ask before the man appeared, his presence setting her a bit off kilter. Julian had been expecting a little old woman, with her breezy bohemian skirts and fingers full of rings. When outside of the shop, she was a cheery lady (though a little ditzy) and a start contrast to the creepy store. Julian really really didn’t like unexpected surprises.

“Together.” she nodded, thankfully without squeaking or ducking behind Leo. Because THAT would have just been the icing on her embarrassment cake. Make a scene out in public over a creepy building.

Julian picked her quartz cluster, choosing the one that was nice and clear, and had an odd number of pillars. She brought it to the counter and set it down along with the small vial of oil. She took a deep breath to still her nerves. They were almost done and then she could relax and ask Leo a million questions.

If Julian were calmer, she might have figured Leo would make some kind of comment or smirk at her regarding her prompt confirmation that it was a joint purchase. But he didn’t. Leo was practically looking at everything but her or the shop guy. “Shop guy” sure was focusing on Julian, though; he looked back and forth between Julian and her purchases, and something registered on his face that pressed his lips into a hard, thin line.

“School just getting out?” he asked slowly, propping his elbows on the counter.

“Hey, can we skip the small talk, buddy? No offense. The lady’s in a hurry.” Leo’s voice was clipped, but friendly.

At least, until Shop Guy opened his mouth again.

“I don’t think so,” he said, and Leo finally snapped to attention.

“Excuse me?” The vampire straightened up, gaze zeroing in on the man who was only separated from them by the counter. His brows knitted together, eyes flashing. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. I’m not selling you anything.”

In a split second, it felt like a charge went off. It didn’t take a psychic to realize there was a problem, but it did make the situation feel ten times more uncomfortable. Had this been a different place and a different kind of moment, she might have laughed at how similar Leo shooting his mouth off sounded like Angela when she snapped at somebody. Maybe it was because of that similarity that gave her the courage to insinuate herself between Leo and the counter. An hand resting laminated wood as if to block him from leaping over it and biting someone’s head off, or even the other way around and getting his face punched by an irate cashier. Damage control. She wouldn’t be able to deal if things got out of hand!

“It’s for me, not for him. And I do need to get home soon, homework, you know?” Julian cast a pleading, toothy smile. One that she hoped conveyed lots of apologies for her big mouth friend, and not the fact she wanted to run screaming out the door.

Don’t freak out, don’t freak out.

“Sweetheart,” the man addressed Julian, pointing at her, but his line of sight was fixed on Leo now. “You should be home right now. You can leave. Just you. You… stay.”

His eyes were dark behind his glasses. Like, really dark. Not normal dark, and Julian wasn’t the only one seeing this because Leo took a step back like he’d been burned, hackles raised and mouth twisting into a grimace.

Witches.” Leo sounded surly. “Give me a fucking break. Look, I don’t know what you’re thinking-”

“Save it. The mirror over the shop window is silvered-glass, shit-for-brains.” As if on cue, the shade atop the front window rolled down with a sharp snap, dimming the store’s interior and making everything look suddenly a lot more unpleasant. Just as the man said, there was a long, skinny, horizontal antique mirror hanging over top of the window. Julian got just enough of a glimpse to register that yes, vampires do have reflections before Leo jerked and turned his face away.

“You have a problem with all vampires, or only the ones as handsome as me?” quipped Leo, but he was being weirdly quiet. He took a deep breath… and something must have happened, because he stiffened up. “Yeah, Jules? About that thing he said for you to do? Y’know, leaving? Do that.”

She was freaking out. She couldn’t do this. This was a person – a witch – this wasn’t running around in a graveyard shouting curse words at Leo. This was real, actual, in her face, crawling up the back of her spine danger and she just couldn’t deal.

Julian took a big deep breath and swallowed it. She waved her hands over the items on the counter. “I need all of this.” Stiffly she pointed over her shoulder at Leo, keeping her stare focused on the man, because she was afraid if she didn’t that broken eye-contact would mean someone exploding in to dead witchy sparkles. Did vampires explode in to spar-?

“I need him.” she cut off her own panicked thoughts. “Please? His name is Leo and you can kick his ass later and I won’t object, but for right now I need him to leave with me. Okay? With thus stuff too.”

“Lovely. He’s Leo, you’re Jules, and I’m Walter.” Walter- as was Shop Guy’s name, evidently- smiled at her tightly. His eyes were still freaky and black, and they didn’t show any signs of stopping that anytime soon, so Julian was going to have to get used to it. “Little girl, you do know that you’re spending your time with a walking corpse, right?”

“Yeah, failing to see how that’s any of your business. Jules, get out.” Leo was angling himself in between Julian and Walter, picking up the book and crystal- and the little vial of rose oil- and shoving them at her. “Don’t worry about paying. I don’t think this guy works here.”

Walter tilted his head, one hand resting on the counter and the other slipping out of view.

“And what makes you say that?” he asked.

“Because.” Leo jerked a thumb in the direction of the curtain from which Walter had emerged. “I just got a whiff of your mess back there. Not something that people usually do in their own place of business, Walter.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” the witch replied calmly, and there was a loud click behind Julian. From the direction of the shop door. “And I think you ought to show a little respect.”

“I could kill you,” Leo answered, tone dipping into something low and flat and matter-of-fact. “You know that. It would be over really quickly.”

“Want to bet? I’m pretty fast. And you’re not the only target in the room. Normally I wouldn’t hurt a kid, but it’s better than letting her end up some filthy vampire’s whore.”

“HE’S NOT MY BOYFRIEND.” There was absolutely no reason to say that, or to have done it so loud. Plus he said whore and not girlfriend. And who cared that THIS wasn’t the vampire who was her sorta-boyfriend, when there was a black-eyed witch and apparently A DEAD BODY IN THE OTHER ROOM. Why was this even running through her head at all!

The shop door clicked shut and even knowing it wasn’t going to open when she rushed to it and shook the handle, Julian did it anyway. She shouldn’t have come in here, WHY did she think it was a good idea. What did she know about witches?! This was why she wanted to do research first! Julian pressed her back against the door and eyeballed the window, debating just how big of something it would take to smash right through it, and if that would even be a good idea under the very strange circumstances.

“I’m glad we can all talk about this like nice friendly and civilized beings of the occult, but could we NOT do any killing today and maybe just walk out the door as if nobody saw anybody? A shop full of dead people is probably not going to be convenient for any of us.” Julian couldn’t believe she got that out, let alone could speak in full sentences.

Leo was looking at her like he couldn’t believe she was saying all this, too. For that matter, so was Walter the black-eyed (murdering?) witch.

“You honestly believe we can all just walk away from this?” Walter asked her incredulously, drumming his fingers on the counter as he stared her down. “Everyone goes home happy?”

There was a brief pause, and then Leo spoke up.

“Well hell, why not?”

Walter whipped his head back to stare at Leo. The vampire shrugged.

“Even if Jules calls the cops on you, we both know you’ll get out of it. Sure, it’ll be a pain in the ass, but something tells me you’ve got some experience with this sort of thing. Am I right, Walter?” Leo quirked an eyebrow, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Like she said, I’m not her boyfriend, so you can stow your moral outrage on grounds of necrophilia there too. I’ve seen Twilight, I know nothing good lies down the path of teenage vampire romance, okay?”

“You’ve ‘seen Twilight’.”

“Really? Because that was the important part of that conversation.” Leo rolled his eyes. “Walter, Walter, Walter. You really don’t get it, do you? She’s offering you a good deal here.”

Walter set his other hand on the counter and leaned forward, taking Leo’s measure. “Why do you say that?”

What happened next was almost a blur. Leo’s hand shot out to close around Walter’s throat, and with that one hand he not only hauled Walter up and into the air but slammed him back down, spreadeagled on the countertop with Leo crouching over him. Julian definitely hadn’t seen him jump, but Leo was up on the counter with him somehow, his hands pinning the other man down and- judging by the strangled rasping- putting pressure on Walter’s air supply.

“Because, shit-for-brains, I can either let you go or we can bring the body count up to even numbers. Un-mojo the fucking door.” The words came out mostly from between his teeth, like he was pissed, but the corner of his mouth was curved up in something like a grin yet not quite there. “You had to go and ruin my day, huh? Couldn’t have been screwing around in some other shop?”

Even Julian was rendered in silent bafflement about Leo’s choice in movies. Although she doubted they had the same opinion on- this was SO not the time. He moved faster than she could keep up with and the last thing she wanted to witness was someone being killed. There was no hiding her cringing and her efforts at looking at the ceiling or the floor or anything that wasn’t a man two steps away from being strangled or getting his throat bitten off.

She cleared her throat rather loudly, more for her own sake in trying to keep her voice even and her tone at a reasonable level. Julian could at least pretend like she wasn’t scared, even if she probably reeked like a coward.

“Seeing as how I would rather not witness a murder today, and you’re probably not keen on being murdered, unlocking the door for the pissy vampire is the way to go. Then you’ll never have to see us again. Hurray for problem solving!” she chirped breezily, knocking her head against the shop door, practically willing it to open just by her thoughts alone.

She could be fairly sure it wasn’t her thoughts that were responsible, but the door did finally give way under Julian’s shoving.

As soon as it did, Leo let go of Walter. Well, okay, so he threw Walter across the room, but he was off the counter and not choking the guy anymore, which was what Julian had wanted. Right?

Leo didn’t waste time. While Walter struggled to disentangle himself from where he’d crashed into a hanging tapestry, the vampire made a beeline for Julian and nudged her over the threshold of the shop. Grabbing her hand, he tugged her along down the street at a remarkably casual pace, all things considered.

“Sorry for the manhandling,” he said, pitched for her ears only, “but you need to promise you’re not going to do something dumb like scream or bolt. My car’s just around the block.”

Julian refused to promise anything. Silently. In her head. She was too busy trying to take deep breaths and let them out without shrieking. Those feelings of dread were subsiding the farther they got away from the shop, leaving her wondering just what part of her psychic wheel they even belonged to. Was it a feeling of death? If that was the case, there was a dead person in there for months. Or was it premonition of a really bad day and a freaky witch guy – who, oh god, was still alive.

She cast a worried look over her shoulder, and suddenly it required zero dragging to keep her moving and she was squeezing Leo’s hand tight enough that it might of had any normal guy wincing in pain.

“I’m sorry, am I supposed to NOT be freaked out by a black eyed psycho casually talking about murder?! You gave me vampire repellent, not witch repellent. What am I supposed to do about witches…!” Seriously! Witches. Screaming and bolting sounded EXACTLY like the sort of thing to do.

“Not much,” Leo admitted with mock cheer, “which is why I really should have killed that guy. I don’t think he likes us very much. And that’s why… shit.”

His expression twisted into one of disgruntlement and long-suffering.

“….That’s why I’m going to have to tell Michael. Believe me, I don’t want to, but I don’t have a choice.” He caught her eye, and then glanced behind them as he steered her around the corner. “All things considered, though, that could have gone a lot worse. I’d have been paying more attention to begin with, but you… Did you bite your lip or something? Whatever. Anyway, I dropped the ball back there.”

The shiny black Mustang came into view ahead of them, up the block, and Leo finally relaxed his fingers.

“Don’t worry. Two vampires can handle one witch. And I’m getting the picture that ol’ Walter back there isn’t exactly Best in Show. I could wipe the floor with him. And being psychically gifted, luckily enough, you’re immune to some of the crap he’d think to pull on a newbie witch… which it’s safe to say is probably what he thinks you are.”

Subconsciously she licked the sore spot on the inside of her cheek. The taste of blood was gone, but she could feel where she had been chewing. The same spot she always worried with her teeth when she was nervous. It dawned on her then that he hadn’t been paying attention because of her blood. That tiny, insignificant bit. What would happen if there was more? The thought was unsettling, and she had more than enough danger for the day.

“I knew it was a bad idea to go in there. I should know the difference between me freaking over something stupid, and when it’s an actual… thing. I WILL know the difference.” It made her feel a little bit better to know that there was going to be Michael around in case something happened. Michael was safe and wonderful, and… couldn’t be with her 24/7 any more than Leo could. Julian definitely wasn’t keen on a bedroom window repeat. She looked down at their hands and quickly pulled hers away to shove in to her coat pockets. She huffed under her breath, fingers circling around that bottle of rose oil.

“The two of you can’t follow me around everywhere and watch for lurking witches. And I kinda don’t want another day of me bullshitting my way out of somewhere, cause I have the feeling that’s not going to work twice. So, seriously, what do I do about witches? Lighter fuel and a match?”

Leo blinked and gave her an appraising look before nodding once, shortly.

“Okay, yeah,” he said slowly, “You’re right. Thing about witches is that they’re just people. They’re born with powers, but otherwise, they’re not supernatural in the same sense that vampires are. You can hurt them all the same ways you would any other human being.”

They’d reached the car, now, and as they piled in and the engine fired up, he kept talking.

“So… yeah, lighter fluid and a match would fuck up their day, just like it would fuck up yours. But there’s no special recipe for killing one. You know, if you’re down with murder.” Leo eyed her. “What you really need to know about when dealing with witches is how to keep them from killing you. Case in point with our friend Walter; I didn’t just smash his larynx for the fun of it. Those little parlor tricks he did were nonverbal magic, but the nastier spells usually require chanting or recitation. Block off their vocal chords and you give them a big handicap. Another thing: Don’t ever let them get hold of something that belongs to you, especially something like your hair. That’s always bad.”

“Do you know how easy it is to get a hold of someone’s hair?” she muttered, sliding down in her seat. The seat belt was now her shield and she had her fingers curled tight around the strap against her shoulder. Julian was frowning, chewing in to the side of her cheek again. Protecting herself from a human witch might not be too difficult, she even already had some ideas. But her house was another matter all together. Her house was vampire safe, but she doubted it was witch-proof. Something would have to be done about that too.

This was too much to worry about.

Julian sighed a huffy sound. “There’s going to be more, isn’t there. Not just vampires and witches. Werewolves, ghosts, demons, and everything else.” She didn’t need his confirmation, she knew.

“Welcome to Silent Pines, Jules,” Leo answered nonetheless, his tone dry. “I hate to break it to you, but this town has a long history of attracting this kind of shit. You can thank our ancestors for that.”

A silence stretched between them for a few minutes, until he flipped on the radio. Unlike last time, at least he didn’t blast it. The slow, bluesy notes of a Stones song filled the car as he steered through downtown Silent Pines. Leo tapped his thumb on the wheel along with the beat, eyes ahead and on the road. After a few minutes, he spoke again.

“You know, it’s not that bad. Being a weirdo.” He smirked. “I mean, you’ve got to be used to that anyway, right?”

Leo took a turn, and if Julian was paying attention, he was not headed for Julian’s house.

“It’s funny. I always thought I was weird and didn’t belong, but it wasn’t true. I was fine. Now, though…” she trailed off, lost in the process of thinking through it. Julian had never been the extroverted, out going, take charge of things kind of person. But she had friends, she had things figured out, she managed. A few weird psychic vibes rarely hindered her and she never had reason to pay attention.

Over a year later and she felt like a different person. Sitting in a car being melodramatic about herself and having a conversation with a vampire. She was definitely weird now.

She hadn’t noticed at first that they were headed in the wrong direction. Not until she realized none of these buildings were in her neighborhood.

“What happened to taking me home? Or have you decided running away with me is a better idea?” The quick grin she cast him didn’t quite meet her eyes, but it was genuine and much better than the grim mood she almost slipped in to.

“I never said I was taking you to Chez Hollinger,” he pointed out. “More like Casa de Hightower. Why, do you want me to run away with you?”

He grinned right back at her, wiggling his eyebrows, and for a moment he was the same Leo she’d met at Fleetwood Macchiato, the Leo who scarfed down burgers and nudged her foot in the graveyard and offered to help her go into the store that was freaking her out.

Then his phone started ringing, and he cursed, fishing it out of his pocket.

“What? …I’m on my way now. I’ve got your girlfriend with me. …She’s fine. I’ll explain when we get there. …Nope! Gotta keep an air of mystery or else you’ll think I’m slutty.” He hung up, fiddled with the settings for a minute, and tossed the phone on the dashboard. By the time the call was over, the air of fun had evaporated and he was back to being cool and snarky. “I swear, you’d think he’s my dad. Oh, that’s right, I forgot. He thinks he is.”

Julian wasn’t sure how she felt about having her first visit to Michael’s house being sprung up on her by surprise. Especially when she was still feeling all strange. Though, she did really want to see Michael. To be held and not have to think or worry about anything. She almost slipped in to a string of daydreams, but something else was dominating her attention.

She glanced from the discarded phone to Leo and back again. Her mouth opened, ready to ask what his problem was. To see what happened between him and Michael to have him so pissy. But she couldn’t do it. This wasn’t her place to pry, and she doubted he wanted to have ANY kind of conversations about his torrid past. Julian wasn’t sure if she was ready to hear it yet, either.

However, she liked loose Leo better than pissy Leo. That she could do something about.

“I don’t know if you’d be such a great escape partner. I’d want to go to a tropical beach and you’d fizzle in the sun. Suppose we could get you a leather umbrella to match your jacket.”

Her head tilted to glance at him. “And thank you. For going in there with me and not being a dick about it.”

“Don’t get all mushy on me now. You’re doing me a favor; of course I’m going to help you if it helps me.” He shrugged, but there was less tension in his shoulders than a minute ago, and it sort of looked like he was trying not to smile. “Besides, you’re sort of fun. Sometimes.”

Now that Julian was paying more attention to where they were going, she could guess that they were headed somewhere in the same general direction as the high school- although not nearly as close as Angela’s place was. It was one of the nicer areas of town, an old neighborhood with lots of big houses. They made a sharp right into what looked like a small street, but it soon became evident from a pair of cobblestone gateposts that it was actually a long paved driveway curving through a copse of trees. Up ahead, a large white-walled house came into view. Julian had never actually seen Hightower Manor, since most of the “Founding Families” events took place either at the town hall or at the Berkshire Estate, but it was possibly even more ancient than her own family home. If it hadn’t been in such pristine condition, it would have been exactly the kind of place you’d expect to be a vampire’s lair. It was also fairly big; it had three stories, and even a steeple on one side.

On the side nearer them, opposite said steeple, was a garage that was definitely more modern than the rest of the architecture. Leo rolled right up to it, but he parked the Mustang in front rather than pulling inside.

“Come on, Jules.” He ran a hand through his hair and stepped out of the car. “Time to meet the family.”

“Leo Lanier, I think you’re starting to like me.” her grin was cheeky as she climbed out of the car. Truth be told she was feeling a lot less panicked now about witches and all the other creepy things in the night. It wouldn’t stop her from worrying over it later, but for that moment, she was considerably lighter.

Julian paused on the driveway, looking wide-eyed up at the house. Her family had money, but it wasn’t this kind of money. Her family home could probably fit somewhere inside of this one. Margrit would be rolling on the floor dying to host an event at a place like this.

“Hmm, family…?” she finally asked curiously, catching up with Leo. “There’s not just you and Michael?”

“I don’t like anyone,” Leo shot back, but he was definitely grinning now. “Especially not pushy little psychics.”

There was a short flight of stone steps leading up to the house’s rather impressive front porch (seriously, it wrapped around at least two sides of the building from what Julian could see, and it had those fancy wooden columns and railing atop the brick foundation). Leo took the steps two at a time- although he hovered and waited for her at the top, leaning back against one of the columns. Just behind his feet, Julian could see what looked like a date carved into the stone, but it was so worn away and littered with leaves that it was hard to read.

“Michael didn’t mention David to you?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest. “The cover story for the locals is that Michael is his much younger half-brother, but he’s actually Michael’s… whatever degree of cousin. Which makes him my little cousin, too. Also the last living Hightower, as it happens.”

Living Hightower, even? That’s a trip.” She vaguely recalled the name now, but if she were honest with herself she might have been too busy mooning over Michael to always keep track of their conversations. Most of their conversations rarely involved anything about him, or even anything about the psychic stuff.

There was a peculiar look on her face as she ascended the steps, her hands slipping in to her pockets. A thoughtful twist of her mouth alluded to some mysterious thought or another, but it vanished just as quickly.

Once she was up on the porch, she gently nudged his knee before she backed away towards the door. “Last chance to jump in the car and run.” she said in a gravely, grave whisper and a wicked grin.

“Come on and let me in. I’ll only read your diary a little bit and I swear I won’t give it Michael.”

His lips twitched in a weird way, but he just rolled his eyes and approached the door with his keys.

“I’m not exactly the diary type, Jules.” He tossed the words over his shoulder as he let them into the house. The foyer was brightly lit, with well-polished dark wood flooring and a plush-looking patterned rug spanning the length of the hall. A staircase swept upward on the left- with a single, closed door by the foot of the stairs- and on the right were a series of doors interspersed with small tables (the kind that usually have porcelain curios and vases of flowers of them, and in fact, that was exactly what these were decorated with). Every inch of wall that Julian could see was papered with an old-fashioned rose print. It was… weirdly homey.

“Honey, I’m home,” Leo called out. After a brief pause with no answer, he scoffed and headed for the nearest door on the right. Julian could hear him muttering something under his breath; the part she caught was, “Don’t know why we’re bothering-”

It turned out that the room behind that door was the living room- the parlor?- and that Michael was inside, sitting on a striped sofa with a book in his hands. He set it down on an end-table as they entered, his eyes homing in on Julian.

When he spoke, however, it was to Leo.

“You hung up on me,” he accused, voice dripping with affront. “And you brought Julian here without a word of explanation, making it very clear that something had happened. Do you have any idea how worried I was?”

Michael didn’t want to do this in front of Julian, but it had to be said, and it had to be said promptly.

He had to admit that a large part of his unease was due to the fact that Leo had- once again– taken Michael’s proposal regarding Julian as an excuse to abscond with the girl whenever he pleased. They had been together again unsupervised a mere few days after Leo had driven Julian into near-terror in that cemetery. And he could tell from Leo’s too-casual and too-flippant behavior that once again… something had gone wrong.

And Leo knew very well how Michael felt about all of this.

“You turned off your phone,” Michael continued, “because you knew I would call you back.”

He was on his feet now, crossing the room.

“I don’t care if you hate me, Leo, but you will not,” he said in a low voice, gaze locking with his cousin’s, “use Julian to make a point.”

Leo’s eyes flickered, and for a moment Michael felt a pang of regret. But Leo shouldn’t have pushed, not like that. He knew better.

“It wasn’t his fault.” she immediately blurted out. Julian could understand why Michael was upset, and she’d have hissed at Leo too for hanging up on her if she knew something had happened. But he couldn’t lay it all on Leo.

And just like at the shop, she felt it important to insinuate herself between Michael and Leo. This was danger. Perhaps not witchy-murder, or anything so dramatic, but he didn’t deserve his cousin’s wrath for something that was her doing. Julian put herself in front of Leo, and very gently was reaching out to tug at Michael’s shirt to try and soothe his temper.

“I went to get things from a shop today and he went in with me because I was too freaked out to go in myself. Which honestly, I should have known better, because it felt all wrong, but you know, I am still learning, WHICH of course is the reason why I wanted to go in the first place, since I’m not exactly the greatest psychic on the planet.”

She took a deep breath and let it out. “It really wasn’t his fault.”

Julian’s fingers tangling in his shirt was unexpected, as was her vouching for Leo’s actions. Combined, it was enough to bring Michael up short.

“…Julian,” he began, still sounding clearly unhappy, “I didn’t know what to think.”

“If you’ll calm your tits for ten seconds, someone can explain it to you,” drawled Leo. At this point, Michael could almost swear that the boy had turned insolence into a form of art. It was an artwork done in very poor taste. “Like she said, we went to that New Age shop downtown. The Seventh Star, that’s the name.”

That name rang a bell that Michael wasn’t certain he liked any more than he liked the situation at hand, but that could wait.

“What happened?” he asked, turning back to Julian. (He didn’t think he could look at Leo for much longer without doing something… imprudent, so it was for the best.) His palm moved to cup her cheek, and he found himself scanning for any signs of injury or duress. “You went to… Julian, you were so shaken up the other day. Why did you go there, of all places?”

Damage control was a success and now she was getting rewarded with a soft touch and those dark worried eyes. She would have absolutely loved to throw her arms around his waist and let him soothe all the terrifying bits away. She could be whisked away and forget the hole thing.

After she made sure Leo wasn’t going to be in trouble. He wasn’t helping with his smartassery. She might have kicked him and told him to shut his mouth if she weren’t transfixed on Michael.

“I guess I can’t do things halfassed.” she muttered with a sheepish expression. “I have to know how to control it, and I intended to just read and practice simple things. Wasn’t really expecting Walter the Murder Witch to be the cashier of the day.”

“On the bright side, it was a really good exercise for learning how to recognize psychic vibes? And Leo and I made a new friend today, so hey… it’s my very first nemesis!” Julian really hoped Michael found the humor in that. Despite the fact it was going to keep her up all night fretting about the damned man, it was sadistically funny.

“‘Walter the Murder Witch’?” Michael couldn’t help but repeat, his eyebrows arching at Julian’s nomenclature. “Did he hurt you? What-”

“Relax. There’s not a scratch on her. Actually, Jules here handled herself pretty well,” Leo cut in. “She gave me a good hook to distract the moron long enough to get us out of there. Wouldn’t let me kill him, though. Although to be fair, it would have been a pain to deal with the body. Especially since there already was one in the shop.”

“Whose body might that be?” He felt his lips purse, but he kept his eyes safely on Julian rather than whatever Leo’s body language of the moment might be.

“If I had to guess, probably the actual proprietor, but I didn’t exactly get a chance to find out. The place reeked like blood though. And a death spell.”

Michael took a moment to absorb that particular tidbit. And then…

“What is that?” he asked, brow furrowing as he recoiled ever so slightly from Julian. Of course, he knew perfectly well what that scent was; he could even guess what the source might be, considering where she’d apparently been. It was simply yet another unanticipated element of the day, and he was caught off-guard. It was so very faint that he’d not picked up on it until Julian was practically in his arms, so it must at least be contained. Michael was thankful for that. “Leo, did you…?”

Death spell? That was enough to give Julian the creeps all over again. She suppressed the urge to shudder and counted her blessings that she hadn’t actually seen a body. There was now a death spell casting witch out there, probably with a spell just for her. She was monumentally glad to be somewhere safe for the time being.

Julian could almost feel Michael flinch, which left her blinking at him in confusion until….

“Rose oil.” Crap! Julian pulled away, her hands going in to her pockets until her fingers circled around the little vial. She forgot it was in her pocket. Michael was the last person she wanted to repel! She didn’t realize they could be so sensitive to it that they could smell it in a sealed container.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t remember it was still on me. He was instructing me on how to protect myself, it just turned out to be the wrong lesson for the day. I’ll make sure not to have it when I’m with you, though.” by the expression on her face, it looked as if she wanted to say more. But she closed her mouth and kept it to herself. Some questions just felt better saved for Leo.

“It’s good to know that Leo had your interests in mind,” Michael murmured, shooting his cousin another look. “It’s alright, Julian. No harm done.”

“She needs to know this stuff if she’s going to live long enough to be useful.” The returning stare from Leo was mocking, and Michael marveled that the other vampire could still successfully annoy him after all these years. It came with being family, he supposed. He watched with narrowed eyes as Leo sauntered past him to take a seat on the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table- without even removing his shoes, of course.

“It’s good that you brought her here,” he managed finally. His calm was returning as the situation came securely into hand. Julian was unharmed; the witch could be dealt with. And Julian would be protected. “If you would feel more comfortable… Julian, if you want to, you can stay here until the danger is past.”

Leo’s feet slipped right off the furniture and hit the floor with a thud.

“Are you serious right now? No, she can’t. A little early to be asking her to move in with you, don’t you think?”

Michael shifted his weight from one foot to the other as a mildly flustered expression crept over his features. “I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t think… I just want Julian to feel safe. Of course we can guard her in her own home just as well.”

Julian gave a beaming, way too pleased smile. There was no way to suppress it, even if she wanted to. It didn’t matter that there was a murderer loose and the reasoning behind the offer. Michael wanted to protect her and was offering up his home to do so. Despite Leo’s joke, she knew it wasn’t for salacious reasons. Michael just wasn’t like that! His intentions were noble and sweet… Julian couldn’t wait to tell An-

Ah, but she couldn’t tell. That would spill a little too much about this secret. Remembering that sobered her sudden elation just a tad. But the smile remained and she was rocking gently on her keep that warm fuzzy feeling contained. Jumping on him to hug him and kiss his cheek would probably be super immature.

“It’s okay. I don’t think I need a couple of bodyguards just yet. And you know, who is going to chase after some harmless girl anyway? Leo probably has more to worry about than me.” For Leo’s benefit she leaned to the side to cast him a toothy, cheeky smirk from across the room. Then it was right back to smiling at Michael.

“I won’t object to you coming over and helping me bad-guy-proof my house, though? I’d feel better knowing that weirdos can’t climb in to my windows.”

Michael watched the interplay with some measure of surprise. Only yesterday, she had been furious with Leo. Now she was defending him and making friendly overtures. What’s changed?

On the other hand, Leo wasn’t returning Julian’s grin or her tease. He wasn’t so much as looking at her; he seemed more concerned with making faces of disgust at Michael. His attention only returned to Julian- briefly- when she made comment on visitors at her window.

“She’s got a point. If I can get in that way, so can someone else.” Leo shrugged. “Probably not a bad idea.”

“Agreed. I can take care of that tonight.” Michael did return Julian’s smile, with genuine feeling. “When I take you home.”

He caught the distant sound of footsteps on carpet- too faint for Julian’s ears, doubtless- and recognized the patterns of David’s long stride. Generally speaking, the official head of the Hightower household didn’t interrupt Michael and Leo when they were at home (understanding that both were fairly solitary creatures, in their own ways), but Michael suspected he’d heard Julian’s sweet voice carrying down the hall and grown curious about their guest.

“We’re in the front parlor,” he called out, and David’s tread drew nearer until the man himself poked his head around the door frame.

The cover story that Michael was David’s younger half-sibling had been chosen for a reason. The resemblance was quite strong, despite the several generations which in truth separated them. It was there in the squareness of their jaws, the straight and almost beak-like noses, the lines of their eyes and mouths. David’s hair was straight and fairer and his eyes a more golden brown than the dark near-black of Michael’s, but that wasn’t unusual even for full siblings. Physical age distinguished them as well, of course; David was taller, his frame and features those belonging to a man drawing close to his thirtieth year. Michael suspected Julian would draw the obvious conclusion as to David’s identity nonetheless.

“Hello,” David greeted not only Julian, but his vampire housemates as well, Michael knew. He could see the care with which David chose his next words, and though the precaution was unnecessary, Michael was warmed by it all the same. “Is this a friend from school, Michael?”

“This is Julian Hollinger,” Michael answered, still smiling- now as much because of David as the girl at his side. “Julian, this is David Hightower.”

Escorted home by her vampire prince. That was probably the stupidest thought she had had in a really long time, but Julian didn’t care how cheesy, how cliche, and how potentially insane it was. It had been too long since she had a crush on someone and got to enjoy all the fuzzy feelings that came with it. If Leo hadn’t been sitting over there, she might’ve tried a little more aggressive flirting. He would be taking her home, though… there was time!

When Michael called out to someone, she curiously turned to look over her shoulder. David was the distant relative. Julian had to admit she was really curious how that dynamic played out. A mortal family members in the house with two vampires. The resemblance to Michael was easily spotted. What he didn’t have was the same presence. This was no surprise, since she now recognized Michael and Leo’s dominated the room for entirely special reasons.

“Hallo David.” Questions. There we so many questions she was itching to ask. But she was unaware just how much she was allowed to talk about or mention. How much was a secret? Julian really wasn’t good with all of this secret business.

“Um! It’s nice to meet you. I wish I could say that I’ve heard a lot about you, but you seem to be even more mysterious than these two.”

“Actually, I think I might’ve met you before,” David answered, peering at Julian with badly-hidden curiosity. “We were both a lot younger, though, and I wasn’t really paying attention. Nice to meet you properly.”

“She’s helping us look for my friends,” Michael explained. “Or will be, when she’s ready.”

“Oh, okay.” David still seemed a bit bemused, but he didn’t question further. Other than one thing: “Is she… staying for dinner?”

“If she wants to.” Michael couldn’t prevent his chuff of laughter. “I’m not going to eat her, David. Relax.”

“Can you blame me for wondering?” the man returned ruefully. “This is the first time you’ve had a visitor.”

Over for- Julian laughed out right, having to cover her mouth with the back of a hand. Maybe an intelligent person would be concerned that Michael’s cousin was a little worried about her BEING dinner, but Julian had faith that was not and would not ever be the case.

…Well, no. Based on her distracting Leo earlier today, maybe that wasn’t so far-fetched, but Julian was no much more interested in the home life of her new vampire companions.

“I’d like to stay.” she confessed. “Mostly because I’m curious about your house and want to snoop. But I could behave.”

“There’s not much to snoop for, really, unless you’re a history buff with an interest in the ‘Big Six’.” The stiffness had melted away from David’s shoulders now. Michael knew that the man was not the most socially at-ease person, but he was confident that David and Julian would get along well together in time. He could tell from the subtle curl of David’s lips that he was as charmed by Julian as most people seemed to be. “We have some old records up in the attic and a lot of dusty books here and there. I could show you those if you like.”

“Pretty sure she’s talking about snooping in Michael’s panty drawer and reading his diary.” Leo snorted, jumping up from the couch. “You kids have fun playing house. Don’t let her into my room, which is where I’ll be for the rest of the day.”

In typical fashion, he chose to exit the room with supernatural fleetness, leaving Michael to set his jaw and David to blink in respective irritation and discomfort.

“I’m sorry,” Michael apologized on his cousin’s behalf, mustering up a stiff smile. “He’s been… temperamental, lately.”

“That’s my fault too, I’m sure. I told him I was going to find and read his diary before we walked in.” she was completely unapologetic about potentially irking Leo, especially since he was being so… well. Himself. But there was no sense in pondering the 101 Problems of Leo, when she was presently more interested in David.

David had a unique position in the household. A normal person surrounded by the strange and dangerous. Her hands clasped behind her back as she rocked on her heels. A nervous motion in trying to keep herself from reaching out to invade his space in ways that he probably wouldn’t appreciate it. She was itching to practice and see what she could actually divine from people, but doing it to Michael’s relative would not be a good way to start. It would have been nice to show Michael she could do little things to practice without wearing herself thin.

Julian smiled, entirely for David’s benefit. Even without cheating and using psychic sense, it was easy to tell he was a little uncomfortable. “Do you all ever have dinner together, or is it usually a solitary affair?” Her ACTUAL question was Do they eat PEOPLE for dinner? but she kept that to herself.

“I have dinner with David on occasion,” Michael answered, “but I try not to intrude upon his time too much.”

“It’s not any trouble,” David was hasty to assure him. “You know that.”

Michael smiled.

“I do, but I also know that you’re a grown man with no need for me to be breathing down your neck. And there’s no reason for me to increase the grocery bill.” He shook his head. “No, David. I enjoy your company, but the routine that we have is fine.”

He chose not to mention Leo’s eating habits. It would lead to an indelicate line of conversation, and the two humans present had been under enough strain for one day already.

“Tonight, however…” Turning to Julian, Michael spread his hands. “I think a family dinner would be nice, if you would really care to join us?”

He hoped very much that she would stay. Somehow it felt that they’d not had adequate time in one another’s company this week, despite the eventful schedule that seemed to have cropped up. He also, admittedly, had not entirely recovered from his state of concern for Julian’s safety. The longer he had her in his sight, the better.

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