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Twice Shy

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1

Through the years, Mitchell had woken up in any number of strange places and with any number of strange injuries. Hangovers, bruises, scratches, deep cuts and gouges, black eyes, fractures, sprains—he'd nursed himself through them all. Hell, one morning, he'd woken up with all of the above. She'd been a fighter, that one. Even now, decades later, he sometimes thought back to her and felt that familiar stirring.

But he'd never woken up in a room like this one, feeling as shite as he did this morning. How long had it been since he'd woken up with aches like these? Normally his body healed that all away while he slept. He tried to sit up, but there was a pain in his chest that kept him pressed to the mattress. Something cold crept in around the edge of his consciousness. This could be bad.

He looked around the room, trying to gauge exactly where he was. It was a woman's room: a young woman's room, at that. The walls were a dusty pinkish color, with white trim and light golden curtains. This was the room of a very nice girl, a girl who never went home with strangers she'd met in a bar. Anyway, he'd been dry for years now. And he was likely to remember falling off the wagon.

Someone was coming up the stairs. She was small, light. She had the usual tripping gait of a human, and she was carrying something. Sure enough, a moment or two later, the door opened and he caught a glimpse of her. She had skin the color of coffee with just a splash of milk. He groaned. Coffee. How long had it been since he'd last had a cup? It was probably too much to hope that she'd brought any with her on that tray in her arms.

“Ah, you're awake! I was getting worried.” She sounded genuinely happy to see him. A scruffy, filthy stranger bleeding in her sheets, and she sounded happy to see him. He wasn't sure whether to pity her or envy her. She settled down on the edge of the bed and balanced the tray on the nightstand. There was no coffee on it, just a plethora of first aid supplies.

“What—happened? To me? Where am I?” He tried to sit up again, but this time it wasn't just the pain in his chest weighing him down. She reached out to press him back down.

“You really shouldn't sit up. I don't know if you have a concussion, and I've only just stopped the bleeding. Well, not bleeding so much as...oozing. For as badly hurt as you were, I really would have expected you to be bleeding more, but you're...not. Whoever got you must have missed anything important. That's fortunate.” She pulled the sheet off to reveal his bare chest—and a nasty, rather stake-sized hole just to the right of center.

“Idiots,” he muttered. What kind of dickhead managed to stake a vampire and completely miss his heart?

The girl drew back a bit, looking shocked. “What did you say?”

There was something in her eyes that...shamed him. If he'd had any real blood flow to speak of, he might have even felt his cheeks grow warm. “I—uh, I meant, you know, I'm an idiot. It's not my first barroom brawl. I should really know better. Thanks for patching me up, but I'll just be out of your hair now.”

Both of her hands came down on him now, to keep him lying down. “You really must be an idiot, if you think I'm going to let you leave in this state. Just lie back and let me fix you up. You'll be good as new and ready to leave soon enough. You heal faster than anybody I've ever seen. What's your secret?”

“Just lucky, I guess.” He stared at the ceiling as she dabbed at his skin with a warm flannel. He'd have to let her play nurse for as long as he could stand it, then sneak out the window or something while she was downstairs. She could wrap him in all the bandages in Bristol, but he wasn't going to get better without...well, without blood. His mind raced. How would he get his hands on any in this state? Would blood from a package be enough to get him back on his feet? He certainly couldn't do any real hunting like this. Did he even want to? All this time without killing anyone, and he'd have to throw it all away because a couple of werewolves had managed to get the jump on him.

He growled under his breath and fisted his hands in the sheets next to him. Immediately, the girl stopped working. “Sorry. Did I hurt you?”

He couldn't help the wry smile that curled his lips. Such a sweet girl, worried about hurting the likes of him. If she knew who he really was—what he really was—she would be begging him not to hurt her. But she was looking at him strangely. He forced the smirk into something a bit more disarming and shook his head.

“No, love. It's alright. Just thinking is all. Go on.” He let her work in peace for a few more moments, then: “Why am I here? Why didn't you take me to hospital? You could have just dropped me off at the door and been done with it.” It's what anyone with any common sense at all would have done.

She dabbed at the wound a few more times, more to avoid making eye contact than anything else. Interesting. He wouldn't have thought this girl could be possible of being anything other than what she appeared. She was all sweetness and light, like a soap bubble or candy floss, but there she was, trying to think up a lie. But as soon as the thought came to him, she looked up. If her skin was coffee with cream, her eyes were rich earth lit only by moonlight. “I was going to, but as soon as you heard the words, you went mental. Yelling and fighting me. I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself even worse, so I just brought you up here. It was this or let you go wandering the street. Maybe now that you're feeling more like yourself, you'll let me take you to get looked at?” She looked hopeful.

“Why would I need to do that, when you're doing such a good job taking care of me here?” As expected, color rose into her cheeks. She looked lovely: so rosy and full of life. Maybe he wouldn't have to go out hunting. Maybe he could stay here. He could wait until his wounds had healed a bit more and then sneak up on her. He could almost definitely overpower her even in this state, as long as he had the element of surprise on his side. And he was reasonably confident that he could stop himself in time. He didn't necessarily have to drink her dry. He could stop just after she'd slipped into unconsciousness and call her an ambulance from a pay phone somewhere.

“Uh...Right. See, the thing is, is I'm not a doctor. Or a nurse.” Her hands fluttered like injured bird, then came to rest against his chest. Of course, a moment or two later, she seemed to realize what she had done and pulled her hands back to fiddle with the hem of her top. “I work at a pub down the street? I don't even watch hospital shows because I don't like the sight of blood.”

“And yet here we are.” He shot her another charming smile. Careful, he thought. Don't come on too strong. Don't scare her. “You've done a wonderful job so far. And you said it yourself, I'm healing very fast. Just...keep doing what you've been doing, and I'll be out of here before you know it.” She was wavering. He could see the indecision in her face. “I really am lucky that you found me. You're so well-stocked.”

“Yeah...” She stood up abruptly and wiped her hands on her jeans. “Right. Well. All done here. What would you like for breakfast? I make an amazing cup of tea.”

“Actually, if it's not too much trouble, have you got any coffee?” He struggled into a sitting position, and was pleased to see that he could actually do it this time. He looked at the girl again, perhaps inviting her to share in this small triumph. She smiled weakly.

“One coffee, coming right up.” With a quick nod, she gathered up her tray and scurried out of the room.

While she was gone, Mitchell rested against the headboard for a while. He didn't remember much from last night: there were at least two of them, probably both men, possibly both werewolves, but even that was shaky. He tried not to growl again. If he'd gotten jumped by a couple of wolves... He was perhaps the one vampire in all of Bristol who didn't bother the damn hounds. He didn't hunt them down. He didn't corner them in dark alleys. Hell, even when he happened across one, he didn't do a damn thing to them. And here they were, trying to kill him. It was almost enough to make him change his mind.

After a while, he grew tired of sitting still. Wounded or not, he wasn't used to not doing anything. Somehow, he managed to work his way to his feet. He was weak, and swayed more than he would have liked, but he was able to ignore the way the room moved around him. Finally, things settled a bit. There. He was nearly ready to leave this place already. He looked around. The room was tidy and uncluttered—not just compared to the usual mess of his flat, but...objectively tidy. If it weren't for the warm colors and the few framed pieces hanging on walls and sitting on her dresser, he might almost call it spartan.

Her dresser. Now that he gave it another look, he could see that there were some frames laying face-down on top. A tiny stuffed bear sat between them, its beady eyes fixed on a point somewhere between the dresser and Mitchell, but it sat surrounded by at least four picture frames that he could just barely see. Intriguing.

He staggered over and picked up one of the frames. He recognized the girl in the photograph as the girl who had just finished patching him up, but something was different about her. Her face wasn't as bright. She was smiling, but it didn't reach her eyes. There was a man in the photo: pale skin, obnoxious haircut. He was smiling for real, but it was a slimy smile. More of a smirk, really. He picked up another photo: same people. He had one arm flung around her shoulder and their cheeks were pressed together as they grinned at the camera. Hm. He wondered which of the photos had come first.

He placed the two frames upright on the dresser's surface and reached for another, but just a he touched it, the door opened. He jumped a bit, which was mortifying. He should have been listening for her on the stairs. He turned around to look at her. She had that tray again, this time loaded with food as opposed to first-aid supplies. That kind of food wouldn't do him much good, he knew, but the smell reminded him just how hungry he was.

“I don't think you should be out of bed,” she said as she placed the tray on the nightstand. “What if you'd fallen and opened things up again?”

He turned back to the dresser and picked up the third frame. “I saw these sitting like this and wanted to come straighten them up for you. It's the least I could do, after you've been so kind to me.” The man from the other two pictures was alone in this one: leaning against a brick wall and staring moodily off into the distance like a model in some horrible catalogue. Mitchell tried not to roll his eyes.

“Er...thanks, but you really don't need to do that.” She'd come up behind him, and reached to replace all the photos facedown again. “They're all like that on purpose. If it bothers you, I can get rid of them.”

Interesting. A bad breakup? Why not just throw out the pictures, then? “Please, it's your home. Don't do anything on my account.” He started to make his way back over to the bed, but stumbled a bit. She was there in an instant, one arm slid under his arms and around his back to keep him on his feet.

“What did I tell you?” She tutted at him, but there was more concern in her voice than gloating. “If you fall, I'm taking you to hospital even if I have to conk you over the head before you'll let me.” She eased him down onto the mattress and he groaned despite himself. He felt like he weighed about fifty stone. It was better to be sitting.

“I don't think you've got it in you,” Mitchell told her, careful to keep his tone friendly. She was being exceedingly kind, if overly naïve, helping him like this. It would just be rude to provoke her for it. “What if you scrambled my brains?”

She handed him an over-large mug of black coffee. It warmed his hands wonderfully. “I didn't know how you took your coffee, so there's milk and sugar on the tray.” He waved her off and took a sip. Yes. It was thick and bitter. Bracing. Perfect. “Anyway, it wouldn't matter if I scrambled your brain, because there'd be doctors there to fix you up again. And I'd say your brains are pretty well scrambled as it is, if you won't let me take you in the first place.” She thrust a plate at him. It was piled high with eggs and sausages, fried potatoes, tomatoes, and beans and toast.

“You really didn't need to—” She'd cooked him a full breakfast. It almost seemed hopeless to think about catching her by surprise, with the number of times she'd already caught him off-guard.

“Oh, hush. You need to build up your strength, and you need food to do that. Just eat it.”

Rather than argue with her, he did as she said. She hovered nearby for a few more moments, but then went back over to the dresser. He watched, mouth stuffed full, as she gathered up the frames, opened a drawer, and dumped them inside. She pushed it shut with a resolute shove, but remained standing there like that for too long. He wanted to ask her about the man in the pictures, but there was something about the way she was standing. He recognized that stance. She was just barely holding herself together. Maybe she was crying silently, maybe she was trying not to burst into hysterical laughter. Either way, Mitchell didn't want to be the one to push her over the edge. So he kept his mouth shut, except when he was putting more food in it. He stayed quiet, to let her go on with the illusion that she was alone in the room.

After a very long and awkward silence, he heard her draw in a steadying breath, and she turned around. She looked paler than she had before, but other than that, nothing really seemed amiss. He raised his fork in her direction. “This is wonderful, by the way. Did you eat any?”

Her hands fluttered in the air as they'd done earlier, and came to rest this time on her stomach. “Oh, no. No, I had tea and toast like always.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “Fry-ups are for men with taxing jobs and men who've just survived a stabbing. I don't need much. Er...I should go tidy up. I'll be back in a bit for the dishes, yeah?”

“Wait.” He couldn't say exactly why, but he didn't want her to go. Maybe it was because he'd feel like he'd chased her out of her own room. Maybe it was because he liked the look of her and wanted to get to know her better. Maybe he was just bored. “Can't you stay? I'd like you to stay.”

For a moment or two, she stood frozen, looking trapped. It was nearly enough to make him regret having asked her to stay in the first place. Of course she'd be uncomfortable here with a strange shirtless man she'd just barely met. He swallowed and was about to tell her she could go, nevermind, when she nodded resolutely and sank down into the oversized chair near the window. “Yeah, alright. I guess I could stay. The washing-up can wait a little bit longer.” She pulled her knees up to her chest and ventured a tiny smile. “And who knows what kind of trouble you'll get up to while I'm gone.”

He allowed her the remark, and busied himself with the rest of his breakfast instead. Odd that she'd reacted so strangely to his question. And odd that she'd reacted so strangely to those pictures. Just...odd in general. Humans.

When he'd finished eating, she all but leaped to her feet, likely to collect his dishes and go back downstairs. He pulled the plate backwards out of reach and smiled. “Why the rush?” He didn't want to force her to stick around, but...he wanted her around. She leaned over to reach for the plate. She was so close. He could almost see the blood as it pumped through her veins, could almost smell it there, just below the surface.

“I...just thought you'd prefer to heal in peace. I don't want to bother you.” Up close, he could see how smooth her skin was. God, what he wouldn't give to see two perfect puncture wounds marring the surface. He was struck by the urge to pull her down to the bed and run his tongue along her throat. He resisted it.

“Are you it's not that I make you nervous?” He drew in a deep breath through his nose. Damn. “A strange man half-naked in your bed. You're all alone in the house. Who knows what I could do to you. Aren't you worried?”

She was mesmerised. He watched with pleasure as her lips parted slightly. She was still so close, close enough that he could watch her pupils dilate as she raised her eyes to his. He briefly considered letting his eyes flash black at her, just for a fraction of a second, but decided against it. It was too soon. She let out an unsteady breath, and he could smell the barest hint of the tea she'd had for breakfast. No toast. Liar.

The moment passed. She snatched the plate from his hand and straightened. “You don't know anything about me.” Her voice was strong enough, but in her haste to back away, she stumbled a bit. Good. If he scared her, even a little, then it meant she wasn't completely stupid. With more of a distance between them, she regained what little confidence she'd had before. “I've got a lot of work to do, that's all, a-and you need to recuperate. The sooner you're well again, the sooner things will get back to normal for both of us.” She made her way to the door. He could tell she was trying to look angry, maybe haughty, but she was still just a little too flustered. “If you need anything, I'll be downstairs. Just yell.”

With that, she disappeared, not quite pulling the door closed behind her. As the distance between them grew, so too did his guilt. He hadn't asked her to take him in, after all. She could easily have left him in the street (or wherever she'd found him; he was a little fuzzy on that) so his attackers could come back and finish the job. And here he was, thinking about feeding from her. Scaring her. Hurting her. It seemed like she'd had enough of that from someone else already.

Usually when he felt this guilty, it was over victims he'd already killed.