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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.

Chapter Text

He laid there in silence for most of the morning, mostly dozing to escape the restlessness that he felt when he was awake. The hours seemed to drag on, but the worst part was that, even if there had been anything for him to do, he wasn't sure he'd have been able to do it. Everything felt weak, heavy. His large breakfast had been delicious, and he could feel his body using the energy to try to heal, but that would only go so far. He couldn't make his own blood. He needed to feed—really feed.

He was awakened from his fifth or sixth nap of the morning by the girl poking her head in the door. Her face was carefully blank. She was bracing herself for another go-round, he knew. He smiled, and hoped that it came across as nonthreatening. “Hi.”

“Hiya.” She came in with still another tray. “Are you hungry? It's about lunch time. A little past that, actually, sorry. I got caught up in cleaning. I do that a lot. People are always telling me I should pay more attention. I'm a bit of a scatterbrain sometimes.”

How much of this was nervous rambling, and how much was her actual personality? He might have smiled, if he didn't actually suspect the worst. “That's alright. There's no clock in here. You could tell me you've only been gone an hour and I'd believe you.” He tried to sit up, but found it even more difficult than before. She must have seen his struggle, because she put the tray down quickly and helped him up. The call of her blood was as strong as ever, but, as before, he resisted.

A tiny silver cross dangled from a delicate chain around her neck. He hadn't noticed it before, but now he couldn't ignore it. He hissed despite himself and pushed her away. She looked frightened again. Well done.

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—it...just...something twinged, and I couldn't stop myself. Did I hurt you?”

“No, that's alright. I didn't think. It's my fault, really. I wasn't very gentle, was I? I'll be more careful next time.” She smiled tightly.

Rather than argue with her, he let the matter drop. At least it meant they didn't have to have that awkward conversation about his aversion to religious symbols.

“What's for lunch?” He didn't actually care, but it was a change of topic, anyway.

“It's not much.” She helped him to situate the tray on his lap. “Just soup and a cheese toastie. When I saw how late it was, I just sort of threw something together. And I wasn't sure if you'd want coffee or tea or just water, so...” She gestured toward the tray, a little sheepish.

“...So you brought me all three. You truly are a marvel.” And she was. He grinned at her, but then he had a thought. “You know, you've been so kind and taken such good care of me, but I don't even know your name?”

She seemed startled, as though perhaps it hadn't occurred to her that he might be curious about her. “Er...Annie. My name is Annie.” But she said nothing more, and hovered by the chair from earlier.

“Won't you join me for lunch, Annie?” He said, and gestured for her to sit. He took a few bites, watching her all the while. “Aren't you going to ask me my name?”

Still more surprise. She sat up a little straighter, clearly flustered again. “Of course. Yeah. I just figured that you'd tell me if you wanted me to know it. Not really my place to ask, is it?”

Of course it was her place. He was, quite literally, intruding on her place, so why shouldn’t she be allowed to ask him his name? He narrowed his eyes, but didn't bring it up. “I'm Mitchell. Well, John Mitchell, but friends call me Mitchell.” He paused. “Actually, everyone calls me Mitchell. Call me Mitchell.”

She smiled more brightly than she had since the first time she'd stuck her head through the door, and nodded a bit. “I'll call you Mitchell, then. It's lovely to meet you, Mitchell.”

“Likewise, Annie.” Her cheeks colored slightly at the way he said her name, he noted with pleasure. “You're a brilliant cook, Annie. This is just as delicious as breakfast was. After how I treated you this morning, I really didn't expect anything more than bread and water. I can be a right monster sometimes. I'm sorry.” And he was. It just so happened that he also wanted to see her blush again.

Mission accomplished. She ducked her head, but not before he caught the shy smile and the pink in her cheeks. “Please, that's alright. I'm happy to do it.” She hesitated, then: “And don't trouble yourself about your...behavior. You're hardly the worst man I've known.”

He wasn't entirely surprised by the confession, except that he wouldn't have expected her to confess in the first place. “How do you mean?” She'd let the cat out of the bag herself, after all: he might as well see how far she'd let it run.

“Nothing. That was stupid. I didn’t mean anything. Enjoy your lunch.” She'd jumped out of the seat: she was going to try to run away again.

“Stop. Annie, it's not stupid. You said it, so it must mean something. What is it?” He didn't like the thought of scaring her away, no, but he was used to people with a certain amount of backbone. Until the fangs came out, anyway. She remained standing, but at least she didn't try to leave again.

“The man in those pictures...we were dating. We dated for a long time, but, er...he wasn't very nice. It took me a long time to see it, but when I finally did, I got away from him.” She shrugged. “It's not that big of a deal.”

“It is that big of a deal.” He looked at her thoughtfully. So there was a backbone in there. “You're very strong, Annie.” Her cheeks went pinkish again. God, he could just lick them. No. Probably shouldn't. It was enough of a miracle that she'd told him about that instead of running away. He'd behave.

“So, where are you from? What do you do for a living?” She was desperate to change the subject. He'd let her, he decided.

“I'm from all around, really. Can barely even remember where I started out.” Not quite the truth, but as close as he was going to get. “Right now I'm working as a hospital cleaner. It's good, you know? It's nice to have a job you don't have to think about. Leaves me more time for other things. You said you're a barmaid?”

“I work at a pub, yeah. It's...okay. I'm clumsy and forget things all the time, but my boss is really nice and hasn't sacked me yet.” She was fidgeting with the hem of her shirt again. This was certainly that guy from the pictures speaking: she couldn't have grown up genuinely believing those things about herself. Mitchell wondered if that man had any idea what he'd done to her. Maybe once he was ready to feed, that guy would be the one Mitchell could hunt down. That'd be fitting, in a way, and a hell of a lot more decent than feeding from the woman who was trying to nurse him back to health.

“I think you're too hard on yourself, Annie,” he said in a low voice. He knew she was only going to shrug him off, or else protest, but it still seemed important for her to hear.

She didn't say anything. That was a fair response as well, all things considered. He drained the last of the broth from the bowl and let the matter drop. The silence between them this time was less awkward. It almost seemed...companionable. He had been here less than a day, and already he felt comfortable here. That could be a problem.

“Annie.” He put the bowl back down on the tray. “Would you mind terribly helping me up? I'd like to wash up a bit.” He wasn't overly thrilled with the idea of getting so close to her necklace again, but he could not spend the afternoon lying about.

The poor girl all but leapt to her feet. “Of course! I'm so sorry! I didn't think about that this morning! Yes! Let me help you. I'll just get this tray out of the way...” She was frenetic, bustling about here and there. He didn't bother to stop her and remind her that most stabbing victims wouldn't be ready to get up and move around so quickly. He just slid himself to the edge of the bed and fought his way to his feet. Annie was there in an instant, slipping herself beneath his arm and pulling it around her shoulders. He felt her wrap her arm around his side, her delicate fingers resting against his waist.

“You're still freezing cold,” she murmured in dismay. “I should get you another blanket. Or a clean shirt. I don't think I have anything that would fit you though...” She opened the door and helped him into the corridor.

“I'm always cold. I feel fine.” He was leaning on her more than he really liked, but he didn't feel as comically heavy as he had this morning. That was a start.

She stopped them in front of a door. “This is it,” she said, a bit uncomfortably. “Look, don't mind the mess, yeah? I'm the only one who uses it, so I don't clean it as often as I should.”

“I won't say a word,” he promised. He pulled away from her support and paused for a few seconds to make sure he had control of his balance before opening the door.

“I'll give you your privacy, but I won't be too far, just changing the sheets in the room. Yell if you need anything.” She hovered for a moment. She stepped backwards quickly and hurried back to the bedroom.

The bathroom wasn't nearly as bad as she'd made it out to be, but he could have expected that. The fixtures gleaned and the porcelain practically sparkled. The most “mess” that he could see was a sparse scattering of hair products and cosmetics on the sink and the shelf above it. In truth, it was nice.

He splashed some water on his face but didn't bother to look in the mirror. It was probably a bad idea to try to take a shower with the bandage and, anyway, this was hardly the longest he'd ever gone without bathing. His body didn't grow much of the bacteria that resulted in body odor: maybe something to do with his body temperature. Still, he didn't want to make Annie think he was filthy, so he patted his skin with some water and dried off.

By the time he was finished with everything, he could hear Annie pacing back and forth in the bedroom down the hall. He thought about calling out to her, but decided against it. He was feeling a bit drained from standing up for so long, but he could manage the short walk to the bedroom. He kept one hand on the wall for balance as he made his way to the room.

When he pulled the door open, she must have jumped halfway to the ceiling, but then turned to fix him with a disapproving scowl. “You should have yelled for me,” she admonished. “I would have come to help you.”

“I made it just fine. You said it yourself: I heal fast.” He looked at the bed. She had, indeed, changed the sheets and pulled back the duvet. It should have looked comfortable and inviting, but now that he'd gotten up and moved about, he wasn't sure he could stomach the thought of lying there all afternoon. His feelings must have shown on his face, because she shifted uncomfortably.

“If you'd prefer, you could spend the afternoon downstairs. The sofa’s lumpy and if you sit on it wrong sometimes a spring'll get you, but it's in front of the telly. She opened her arms to indicate the room. “I know there's not much to do up here.”

“That would be wonderful. Thank you.” He had only the vaguest recollection of going up the stairs last night. It was more like flashes of images: her big brown eyes wild with fear, his own panic about the attackers coming back for the two of them, finally collapsing into a bed that smelled sweet and distinctly of a woman.

She slipped under his arm the way she'd done earlier and helped him to the staircase. He gripped the railing tightly, but couldn't help putting too much weight on her. He felt bad, but, realistically, the alternative was falling down the stairs.

“How on Earth did you get me up there last night?” He gasped. He didn't need to breathe as often as humans did, but his own weakness and the exertion was incredible. She must have heard the strain in his voice because she stopped for a minute.

“Panic, mostly. You were yelling about them coming back and us not being safe down there. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I managed to get you up the stairs and that must have convinced you that you were safe. Once I got you to the bed, you just...fell asleep.” She readjusted his arm around her shoulder. “Just a few more steps to go. Are you doing okay?”

He nodded, and they continued down the stairs. “I'm sorry I yelled at you. He hadn't been himself, of course, but, knowing what he now knew about her history with men, he couldn't help regretting it.

“Please, you had other things to think about at the time. Don't apologise.” They stepped off the last stair and he could have cried with relief. Downstairs was just as tidy as her room upstairs had been. There was almost no clutter anywhere, but between the warm colors and the decorative touches here and there, it was very cosy.

She led him over to a sofa and helped him sit down carefully. This time he couldn't stop himself from groaning with relief. He hated that he needed to feed so badly. He hadn't hurt anyone in...ages. Maybe he could try to find a willing donor online or something—or maybe steal some blood from work and hope for the best.

Annie had busied herself with fluffing the pillows around him and just fussing a bit in general. He grabbed her hands to still them, and her whole body froze. She looked at him with wide eyes, but he didn't see any fear in her expression, only shock. How long had it been since she'd last been touched? He wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. He brushed his thumbs gently across the soft undersides of her wrist. She was so warm.

“Annie. Please don't make such a fuss over me. You've already shown me more kindness than I deserve. Sit with me? Will you sit with me, and watch some awful daytime telly?”

“I've got DVDs if you don't want to watch what's on!” She started to rush away, likely to gather up her entire collection and drop it in his lap, but he tightened his hold on her. Beneath his thumbs, he could feel her pulse quicken. Her blood was so close.

“Annie.” He was saying her name a lot, and yet each time, the color rose in her cheeks as before. He smiled tolerantly, patiently. “Would you sit with me a minute? Please?” He just wanted her to relax for a moment: he got the distinct feeling that, if she didn't sit down, she'd go off and tidy some other room.

Finally she nodded. He let go of her arms to let her move away, and she took a seat. He would have expected her to perch on the very edge of the cushions as far from him as she could manage, but she sat a rather normal distance away and relaxed against the cushions. She tilted her head back against the back of the couch and closed her eyes.

He watched her for a long time. Unless he was seriously mistaken, he could see her pulse beating, solid and steady, in her neck. What would she do, he wondered, if he reached out to stroke her neck? It was all but impossible for him to separate sex from hunger, but h was struck with an odd tenderness for this girl. If he had to kill her, he knew he would do it as quickly and gently as he could. Fear made the blood taste...stronger somehow: more intoxicating. But he would hate to taste it in her blood.

She caught him staring. For one brief but disorienting moment, he worried that his eyes had gone black or his fangs had shown themselves, but she was just...looking at him. No fear, just concern.

“Is there something on my face?”

“No. Sorry. I was just...somewhere else, that's all.” True enough. “You're very pretty. Did you know that?”

She opened her mouth, probably to dismiss the compliment or refute it somehow, but didn't say anything. Instead, she started to lean forward. He was worried that she was going to get up and leave already, but she was simply reaching for the remote. “Silly me, I nearly forgot.”

He'd let it drop, then.

She stayed there for the whole afternoon. Mitchell found himself glancing over at her from time to time. Each time, she caught him looking and gave him a small smile. Just as the light was beginning to take on the golden color of a sunset on a clear day, he looked over and realized she'd fallen asleep. Her head was resting on the arm of the couch, and she'd pulled her feet up onto the cushions. She'd drawn her knees up high to keep from kicking him. He'd never have been able to sleep so cramped like that, but she looked perfectly at ease.

He could do it now. Lift one of her knees to expose her femoral artery and sink his teeth in. It might be difficult to get through the material of her jeans, but he was a determined man. If she woke up and tried to fight him off, her racing heartbeat would only make his job easier.

Jesus. This was horrifying. He reached out to pat her foot gently, as a kind of apology. Her whole body flinched, but she didn't wake up. She did sigh, though, unless that was just another deep breath. He did it again. She drew her knee up even higher but, no, that one was definitely a sigh. She even made a soft little noise that time. He sort of wanted to find out just how solid a sleeper she was, but not at the risk of disturbing her. Anyway, it was safer for her that he never discover just how much he could move her around without waking her. He wished there was a blanket around, something that he could cover her with, but he couldn't see anything within reach.

Ah, well. He focused his attention completely on the screen, flipping channels when one got too tedious. The room grew dim around him. The sun was mostly gone now, and he couldn't quite reach the nearest lamp to turn it on. From beside him, he finally heard movement, and then a tiny yawn. He looked over. “'She wakes.”

“Alright?” She sat up quickly. “Do you need anything?” So much for that peaceful expression she'd had while she was sleeping. He shook his head.

“How much sleep did you get last night?” Something told him not to tease her about snoring or drooling.

“Not a lot,” she admitted. “I was mostly too worried about you dying on me to sleep. I spent most of the night in that chair up there, watching you.” She hesitated. “I don't mean in a creepy way. I did it to make sure you were okay.”

“Well, that's a relief. I don't know what I'd do if I thought a beautiful woman had been keeping an all-night vigil by my side in a creepy way.” It was stupid, the way he kept talking to her like this. It'd only make it worse if he had to do something awful in the end. But something about her compelled him. He couldn't help it.

Before she could answer, her stomach spoke up, growling loudly.

“You didn't eat lunch either, did you?” He ended up sounding more accusatory than he meant to, but damn. Here she was practically starving in a house full of food while he couldn't get his hands on what he needed.

“I was...busy,” she said uncomfortably. “And then I was rushing to make lunch for you, and then...here we are. Don't be angry.”

The last plea sounded more like a reflex than anything else. It had to be left over from when she was still with that prick. Now he was reminding her of her abusive ex-boyfriend. He sighed and fixed his eyes on the television, hoping to make her feel less like she was on the spot.

“I'm not angry. I'm not the boss of you, Annie. No one is. But you've got to eat. I don't care what that dickhead might’ve told you.”

She was quiet for a long time. If he could just tell her the truth, maybe she'd see things differently. But of course that wasn't possible. Not right now. If she was smart, she'd throw him out, and, as much as he hated to admit it, he really needed her help at the moment.

"I know,” she finally said. “It's just...hard. I'm still getting used to that again.”

He nodded. Where was the balance between helping her remember her own strength and simply stepping into the role the other man had played? At least he'd be gone, he told himself. She wouldn't have to summon the strength to get away from him because he'd be the one who left her.

The thought was not nearly as encouraging as he thought it'd be.

“What would you like for dinner?” She asked. He was probably just as eager to change the subject as he was.

“How do you feel about pizza?” He didn't want her cooking for him again today. He felt bad enough as it was. “I'll buy, as long as the people who attacked me didn't take my wallet. It's the least I can do after all you've done for me today.”

“Pizza...” The word sounded odd, foreign, like she hadn't so much as thought about pizza for a long time. “Yeah. That sounds...great. I didn't take anything out of your trousers, so if you came here with your wallet, you should still have it.”

He shifted up a bit to search through his pockets. Sure enough, there it was: his wallet. At least he wouldn't have to go through the trouble of replacing everything in it. He didn't carry much, but it was still a pain. He held it up for Annie with a small grin. “Dinner's on me.”

Chapter Text

A phone call and about half an hour later, they were sitting on the couch together eating pizza. She'd made herself a cup of tea and, unbidden, had brought him black coffee. He was more used to drinking beer with pizza. He didn't ask. They watched television as they ate. He discovered that she quite liked The Real Hustle, though she said she hadn't watched much television in a long time. He also discovered that she'd called in sick to work that morning so she could keep an eye on him.

Yet another reason to feel guilty.

When they'd finished eating, she sat back with a satisfied sigh and rested her hands on her belly. “That was really good. I can't believe it's been so long since I've had pizza.”

“I'm happy to have helped.” He smiled at her. She smiled back. She was even lovelier when she smiled: her face relaxed and her eyes sparkled.

“I should clean this up. Do you want any more?”

He declined. It bothered him that he couldn't help her, but the truth was that, at this point, he was more likely to fall and make a mess of things. She gathered up the dishes, balancing the plates and mugs on top of the pizza box to carry it into the kitchen. Not long after she'd disappeared through the odd little beaded curtain, he heard a smashing sound. She mumbled something—he was too far away to hear exactly what—and everything went silent.

He couldn't be sure which came first: her whimpered curse or the smell that made him tighten his grip on the arm of the couch. She'd cut herself on something. There wasn't much blood—nothing life-threatening—but even from here he could almost taste the rich coppery smell in the air. It took every ounce of his strength not to fling himself off of the couch and descend upon her.

“Everything okay?” He was aiming for nonchalant but managed “shaky and concerned” at best. He smelled her come to the doorway before he heard her.

“Yeah, it's fine. I just broke one of the mugs and cut myself on the pieces.” She must have squeezed the wound, because the renewed scent of blood about knocked him over. He closed his eyes tightly, just in case. “Told you I was clumsy.”

His fangs were out. He hadn't meant to let them out, but there they were. This was a mess. “Come here,” he said, before he even knew he'd spoken. “Let me see.”

She didn't move. Smart girl. Maybe she heard something new in his voice. Maybe she was finally frightened. But then, without any further prompting, she came closer. He was sweating, and his fingers ached from holding the couch so tightly, but he couldn't let go.

“It's not that bad,” she said. He could barely hear her over the din in his head. “I don't have any more plasters, though, so I'll just have to wrap something around it until it stops bleeding.

His hand shot out to grab the wrist of her injured hand and yanked her closer. Every feeble scrap of his humanity was screaming for him not to do this. It didn't stop him. When she was close enough, he ducked his head to inspect the cut. It was worse than she made it sound—she could probably have done with a stitch or two. The blood welled up through the skin and dripped down her finger. One droplet landed on his knee. An obscene waste. Without taking even a moment to ponder the consequences, he wrapped his lips around the wound.

Immediately he could feel his body relax. He couldn't get enough blood from her like this, not by far, but it took the edge off a bit. She gasped and must have tried to pull away, but his grip was iron. His tongue played with the edges of the cut, delighting in each fresh drop he extracted. Something poked his tongue—not bone, of course...a tiny shard of glass—and he sucked harder to pull it out of the cut. The bleeding had mostly stopped. He held the glass in his mouth and loosened his grip. With one more tug, she freed herself and took several large steps backwards. “Mitchell...!”

He waited a few moments to make sure that he was under control, and spat the glass into his hand. He held it out to her, trying to smile sheepishly. “You had some glass in your finger. I was just trying to help.”

She put her finger in her mouth, then must have remembered that he'd just done the same thing, because she quickly pulled it out again. “I have tweezers. You...you didn't need to do...that!” She still looked sick. Had he rattled her that badly?

“I'm sorry.” Now that his vampire side had been sated (though of course only slightly), his humanity was returning to him bit by bit. “This was faster. And I thought it would hurt you less.”

There wasn't much she could say to that, was there? She stood there in silence for a while, but then: “What if I have...some sort of blood disease? You could get sick, doing things like that.”

Was this ridiculous girl actually worried about him? He didn't smile. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do. “Do you? Have a blood disease?”

“Well...no. But you don't know anything about me. Do you do that to a lot of people?” The anger in her voice had dulled. She was casting about now, likely looking for reasons that her heart should still be beating so wildly.

“Just the people I like.” That was true enough, if you squinted. He could still taste her blood in the back of his throat. God.

She was looking at him differently now, with slightly-narrowed eyes. If he hadn't been around for so long, he might have been worried that she suspected something. But if he'd learned anything from this long and filthy life, it was that modern humans seldom jumped straight to mythology. He offered her a disarming smile, but she flinched and looked away.

“God, there's...blood. On your teeth. I'm sorry. Let me get you some water.” She fled back into the kitchen. He ran his tongue along the front of his teeth. She was right. It was diluted by now, but the taste was unmistakable. He laid his head back. He hadn't gotten nearly enough blood to do much of anything, but his spirits had been lifted considerably. He could heal. He wouldn't take another drop of blood from this girl, but he would heal, and then he would hunt down her abuser. He toyed with the idea of leaving the head on Annie's doorstep afterwards, but dismissed the thought. She'd be traumatised, wouldn't she? Maybe just a driver's license or something, then.

When she came back with the glass of water, she was still giving him a wide berth. He tried not to react. When she handed him the glass, he didn't try to brush his fingers against her hand. When she told him that she was going to read in another room for a bit, but that she'd be back later to help him to bed, he did not try to convince her to stay. He just nodded agreeably and wished her a good night.

He spent the rest of the evening flipping through the channels and idly wondering if Annie would notice if he cut the bloodstained bit out of his jeans and swallowed it.

He must have fallen asleep on the couch, because when he woke up again, he was still down there, and his neck was killing him. He listened carefully, but didn't hear Annie anywhere in the house. She wasn't moving around anywhere. She might have been sleeping upstairs: there was no reason he should have been able to hear her breathing from so far away, but he couldn't get a sense of her. Reasonably, he knew that meant she must have gone out, but, less reasonably, he feared that someone—the bastards who'd attacked him? her prick of an ex-boyfriend?—had taken her.

There was someone at the door. He could hear a shuffling sound, a jangling. He struggled to his feet. If it was an intruder, he'd greet them standing up.

The door opened and, a few moments later, Annie walked in. He felt a bit silly for not realising sooner, but he offered her a smile anyway. She smiled back. If she felt strange about last night, she didn't show it.

“I am so sorry I didn't come back last night. I fell asleep in the middle of my book, and I didn't wake up until early this morning. Did you yell for very long? You must be aching. I'm so sorry.”

“I fell asleep as well, to be honest. I didn't even notice until this morning.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I'm a bit sore, I guess, but I'll survive. How's your finger?”

He regretted it immediately, of course: if she had been planning on pretending like nothing had happened, he'd just effectively destroyed that—but what was done was done.

“Healing already. I ran out to get plasters and a few other things this morning. I hoped I'd get back before you woke up, but...” She shrugged. “Are you hungry? I'll get breakfast sorted as soon as I finish putting all this away.”

Since he was already on his feet, he trailed after her into the kitchen. It was neat, and homey. She was unpacking one of the bags already, and hadn't noticed him yet. He could have come up behind her and sank his teeth in her neck, or else startled her just to feel her jump, but he hung back. Better not.

“You don't need to do all this every day,” he said. She jumped anyway. Oops. She hadn't realized he was in here. “Really. I rarely even eat breakfast most days.”

“But most days you're not recovering from a pretty serious wound.” She caught and held his gaze, frowning. “You need food in order to recover. Food, and rest, and peace and quiet.”

“And blood,” he muttered before he could stop himself. He spoke softly, but apparently just loud enough that she knew he'd spoken. She gave him a strange look, but didn't press him on it, for which he was grateful. He watched her move about the kitchen, feeling very much like an intruder. For all her insistence that she was clumsy, she moved with a certain grace, stepping lightly as she moved from one place to another. She reminded him of one of the dancers he'd killed years ago. He didn't bother to tell her what he was thinking, just watched her quietly.

“What would you like for breakfast?” she asked. He didn't look away quickly enough—she turned and caught him staring. He cleared his throat and sat bad.

“I'm easy. Is there any pizza left?”

“Cold pizza for breakfast?” She sounded personally offended. “That's not happening. This isn't uni, Mitchell. You need a proper breakfast.”

He shrugged. “I mean it, Annie. All I really need is coffee. I'm not even that hungry.” It seemed impossible that so little blood yesterday had made him feel so much better, but it had. If he could just get his teeth into someone today, he could probably leave this place and take Annie out of danger. She had her back to him and was washing her hands. She wouldn't even know what had hit her...

She dried her hands and turned to face him again, leaning against the sink. “Can I make you toast as well, then? At least let me do that.”

Was she actually going to let him “win” this argument? He kept his face neutral but nodded. As soon as he did, she burst into action, starting a pot of coffee and dropping some bread into the toaster. It was...idyllic, the sounds she made and the way the grey sunlight (what little managed to peek through the gloom) lit the room. Before long, she was placing a plate of toast and a mug of coffee in front of him. He shook his head and pushed the plate back towards her. “That's yours.”

She crossed her arms. “You've got to eat.”

“And I will. But so will you” He rose unsteadily to his feet before she could stop him. “It's time I start pulling my own weight around here.”

“You were stabbed in the chest just over a day ago.” He felt her put her hand on his shoulder, but she seemed too nervous to pull on him very hard. He was able to shrug her off easily.

“It was a flesh wound. And you can't stop me. Sit down.”

Surprisingly, she did. He'd seen where she'd put everything, so it was simple enough to make his own bloody toast. When he finally sat down, hers was still untouched, but she took a bite and smiled shyly at him. Neither of them spoke much as they ate: instead, that same companionable silence fell between them. Mitchell's mind wandered, as it so often did, back to the thought of blood. He could sneak out some night, or while she was at work, and then pretend he'd simply healed all of a sudden. Or maybe it'd be better to drag it out a bit: get better day by day. It meant he'd be here longer. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing.

“I should check that,” Annie said abruptly once she'd finished, pointing to his heart. No, not his heart, his bandage. He nodded. There wasn't much point in trying to tell her that it didn't matter: vampires didn't exactly get infections. But that would just open the door to a conversation he wasn't ready to have. So he allowed her to guide him to the couch, and laid down to give her easier access, as it were. She piled the table high with her first aid supplies and then perched on the edge of the couch. After taking the bandage off, she peered down at his wound.

“That's odd...” she sounded thoughtful, but not concerned. “It must not have been as deep as I thought it was before.” She worked quickly, her hands gentle, and before long she was smoothing some new gauze into place. She smiled brightly at him. “Or you heal superhumanly fast. I almost think that by this time tomorrow you won't even need the bandage.”

He didn't say anything for a long time. Feigning surprise would be a lie. Basically anything he could say to her would be a lie. Thankfully, she didn't wait for a reply: just busied herself with gathering the supplies back up and lugging them away. The next time she returned, she had a t-shirt in her hand.

“I found this last night.” She held it out to him. “It was Owen's and I think he was a little bit smaller than you, but it's better than nothing, yeah?”

He vaguely recognised the name on the shirt as being some whiny band that had been relatively popular a few years ago. It did indeed look too small, but Annie was looking at him with such hope in her eyes that he put it on anyway. It wasn't very comfortable. She must have seen that in his expression, because her face fell.

“It was worth a try, at least,” she said with a voice that was too chipper. “Sorry. You don't have to wear it.”

But he didn't take it off. It was strange, how intensely he hated the fact that he'd made her look so disappointed. What was happening to him?

“I have to go to work today,” she was saying. “So I'll stop somewhere on the way home and find something better. I've left the number of the pub, my mobile number, and the house phone here on the table. There's the remote, and...I'm really glad you're getting around better, because you can have the pizza in the kitchen for lunch.” She stuffed her hands in her pockets. “Call me. You know, if you need anything. And I'll call you on my breaks, to check in. I'll be home in the evening. I can bring takeaway for dinner! Do you prefer Chinese or curry? Or pizza again? Wait, you don't have to decide yet, what if you change your mind? I'll call before I come home.” She paused and gave him a long hard look. “Should I call in sick again? I should, shouldn't I? What if something happens?”

He interrupted before she could work herself into a full-scale panic: “Please don't worry so much. I'll be perfectly fine. And even if I'm not, you said it yourself, the phone is right there. You've got to go to work. I don't want you getting sacked because of me.” She still looked uncertain, so he made as though to get to his feet. “Are you gonna make me push you out the door?”

“No.” She looked at him oddly, as though trying to decide whether she thought he would actually do something like that. She must have decided it was a possibility, because she gave a resolute nod. “Okay. I'm going. I'll be back later.”

It took a little more convincing, but before too long, she was finally heading out the door. He sat back against the cushions and tried not to think about the hours that stretched out before him.

Between television and dozing, his day was pretty...full. At one point, he started dreaming. He was standing in the middle of some huge empty warehouse. Annie was there with her back to him. He came up behind her and ghosted his hands up and down her arms. She had goosebumps. She turned to face him with a knowing smile and reached one hand into her pocket. When she removed it, there was a razor blade clasped in her hand. Before he could stop her, she pressed the razor to her wrist and, with one solid movement, sliced the skin open. She dropped the razor and used her free hand to pull him close, close enough to drink from her. She held his mouth to her skin until his body took over, at which point he clutched her arm tightly. He drank deeply and insistently. When the blood started to slow, he took her other arm in his hands and bit the skin open. She didn't make a sound.

He drank until there was nothing left. It was only then that she fell to her knees. He guided her carefully to the floor, though of course there was no point in being careful with her now. Suddenly the warehouse was filled, teeming with bodies. He recognized their grey and bloodless faces. He was surrounded by every person he had ever killed. Annie was standing there with them now, and she was looking at him with contempt. He wanted to say something, but what was there to say? No words would come. Nothing. So he just looked at her. Every few seconds, blood dripped from her wrists, and he could not ignore the uncomfortable fact that he mourned their waste more than the waste of her life.

There was a scratching at the door. He awoke with a start and sat stock-still for several moments while he got his bearings. It was a dream. He was in Annie's living room, she was alive and well at work, and there was something or someone at her door. It wasn't the jingling of keys, and the sound was too far up the door to be a stray cat or something scratching. He forced the dream out of his mind and got up to investigate. As he got to the door, there was a click, and the door swung open on its own.

There was a man on Annie's doorstep, and he looked familiar. Realization dawned, and—oh, this had to be another dream. It had to be. Mitchell had lived in the world for a very long time, and he had never known the universe to be so kind as to deliver his next victim straight to his doorstep. It was the man from the photos in Annie's room, standing there with a stupid expression on his face and a set of shitty lockpick tools in his hands.

“That's my shirt,” he said. He had the nerve to sound upset, as though he hadn't just been caught trying to break into his ex-girlfriend's home while she was out. “Why are you wearing my shirt? Who are you?”

Mitchell crossed his arms in front of himself and looked down at...well, it had to be 'Owen', didn't it? Though he wasn't much smaller than Mitchell himself, he was a wormy-looking guy, with hair like some annoying teen pop star and thin lips that curled into a sneer as he looked at him. “I'm Mitchell. What are you doing here, Owen?”

Shock registered in the smaller man's features, but he didn't ask how he knew his name. He just repeated Mitchell's name, his mouth turning the sounds into something disdainful and laughable. Without meaning to, Mitchell thought back to the way Annie spoke his name: kind and thoughtful. How had she ever ended up with someone like this?

He felt dizzy. Here was the very man that he'd intended to hunt down and kill, and he couldn't do a damn thing about it. What would he do with the body? He couldn't drag him very far away, not with this hole in his chest, and leaving the body in Annie's yard—or worse, her house—was out of the question. This was downright cruel. Mitchell reached out and snatched the lockpick tools away. “What are you doing here?”

“That's none of your business.” Owen looked him up and down, but couldn't quite hide the uncertainty that crept into his voice. If nothing else, he was secretly pleased to note that he could still sound just as frightening in a too-tight shirt for an awful band.

“I think it is, given that I just caught you trying to break in. Maybe I should call the police and let them sort this out?” It was a bluff. If he called the police, there was one more link between the two of them, and could make things difficult if Owen turned up dead somewhere. But he didn't have to know that.

“Yeah, no offence, mate, but of the two of us, I think the police are more likely to think you're the intruder. You look like a fugitive. Have you got Annie tied up somewhere? Because, between the two of us: she's not going to get you much in ransom. Her family's cheap and poor, and she hasn't got any friends.” He looked strangely proud about that.

Okay. Owen had to know exactly what was going through Mitchell's mind, and he was taunting him. He was begging him to kill him here and now, in full view of the street. Why else would he be saying something like that? Mitchell let his arms fall to his sides. “Why don't you do us both a favor and piss off?” For once, he didn't try to suppress the fury that so often threatened to take over. Being a vampire wasn't at all sexy or thrilling. Most of the time it was dark, and hungry, and infuriating. It took a conscious effort to make himself feel even the slightest bit human, but this worm wasn't worth it. He would have let his eyes flash black, if he wasn't worried about him running away and sending the police to Annie's doorstep. He wouldn't make even more trouble for her, not if he could help it.

The smaller man opened his mouth but no biting retort came out. Mitchell drew himself up to his full height, ignoring the twinge in his chest as he stretched the wound. Owen actually took a step back.

“Fine. Jesus, you can have her.” He took a few steps backwards, glaring at him all the while. The wind caught some of his hair. He looked like a petulant child sulking over having lost a favored plaything. “She's awful in bed anyway. Good fucking luck, mate.” With that, he turned around and started half-walking, half-running down the street. Mitchell watched just long enough to be sure he'd actually gone, then slammed the door shut behind him.

The damage had been done. He spent the rest of the day alternately glaring at the television screen and stalking over to the door to make sure no one was there. When Annie called, he was unintentionally short with her, but couldn't shake his anger even as he heard the uneasiness creep into her voice.

When she finally got home later that night, laden with several bags from some clothing store and one bag of dinner, he met her at the door. It wasn't entirely on purpose: he'd already been standing there to make sure Owen wasn't there again, but then he saw her coming up the walk and so he opened the door for her. When she saw him standing in the doorway, she stopped, and her eyes grew wide for a minute.

“God. Mitchell, you scared me to death,” she said with a nervous laugh. He felt his face soften a bit, but his dark mood didn't lift much. She shifted uncomfortably. “Er...can I come in? I brought some clothes so you don't have to wear that shirt anymore, and...dinner.” She studied him, still painfully uncertain. “Are you alright?”

Right. He was being weird. He stepped aside to let her walk through the door. Should he tell her that Owen had been by? Did she know that he knew where she lived, or would it scare her? But then again, that seemed like something she needed to know, regardless of whether it scared her. He still had yet to say anything to her, but he followed her into the kitchen anyway.

She had placed the bags on the table, and was pulling dishes down out of the cupboard. She didn't even look over her shoulder when she heard him come in. “The clothes are in those bags there. I didn't think to ask you your sizes before I left this morning, which was stupid, so I just guessed. If there's anything that doesn't fit, I can take it back tomorrow. Sorry.”

This woman. 'Here are...' He counted. 'Three bags of clothes that I didn't have to buy you in the first place, sorry for inconveniencing you.' He pulled out a dark red plaid shirt and held it up to his chest. No, that looked pretty much the perfect size.

She glanced up at him, and once again he caught the lovely blush that rose in her cheeks. “I thought that color might look nice on you.” As quickly as she'd looked at him, she looked away again, and fumbled with the containers of food. “But I didn't really know what you like, so there are some other things in there too.”

Careful not to rip the bandage off his chest, he took off his—Owen's—t-shirt and crossed the kitchen to drop it into the bin. He could feel Annie watching him from the corner of her eye, but she didn't say a word. He put on the red shirt and buttoned it up, noting that it did, indeed, fit perfectly. He took a moment to roll up the sleeves and then held his arms out, presenting himself to her. “What do you think?”

That was definitely pride. She looked at him with pride sparkling in her dark eyes. Her mouth curled into a tiny smile and she ducked her head again. “Yeah, it's good. You look wonderful.”

“Then I guess I'll keep it. Thank you, Annie.”

“You're welcome.” It seemed as though she were working up the courage to do something, and then she stepped closer to him. She reached up and around his neck, and for one brief moment, he wondered if she was going to hug him—or kiss him. But no. She gripped something firmly and pulled, and then stepped back, holding the sales tag up for him to see.

Was that disappointment that stabbed through him? Surely not.

“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I suppose I should have asked before, but if you don't want to eat yet, I can cover this and put it away until you do.”

He wanted to laugh at the sight of her standing there, holding a plate of Chinese food and looking so nervous, but when he thought back to the day's visitor, the laughter stuck in his throat. “I'm starving,” he answered honestly. It was only now that he realized he'd been so worked up that he'd forgotten to eat lunch.

She looked relieved, and pressed the plate into his hands. That would take care of one hunger, at least.

He placed the bags of clothes on the floor (he'd have to go through them later—and find a way to pay her back) and gestured for her to sit at the table. They ate together, chatting when they felt like it and lapsing into silence when they didn't. He liked people like that—people who didn't have to yammer away. He'd spent a lot of his life in silence, so he'd grown to appreciate it. Annie wasn't afraid of the quiet either.

He dropped his napkin on the table when he was finished eating and sat back. She was leaning forward, resting her chin in her hands while her elbows were propped up on the table. There was something about her face—a relaxation, a calmness—that drew his eye. She was already looking at him. “Hey,” he said, perhaps in truth just a little embarrassed at having been caught stealing a look at her.

She smiled, wide and slow and genuine. “Hiya.”

Sitting with her, looking at her right now, he got the feeling that this was the woman she'd been before Owen had gotten to her. This was who she had been before he'd done whatever it was he'd done to make her so isolated and high-strung. Which was why he already regretted what he was going to have to say next.

“I caught Owen trying to break in today.” Maybe if he kept his voice flat and even, it would have less of an effect on her. She sat up straighter and folded her hands in her lap.

“What do you mean?” On the one hand, she didn't seem outright terrified, which was probably a good sign, but she also didn't look thrilled. He couldn't blame her.

“I found him at the door trying to pick the lock. I threatened to call the police if I ever saw him again and he lost his nerve and ran away. I just thought you should know.” Had this been a mistake? Who said he'd had to tell her? Owen had surrendered her, more or less, before he'd run away, so he might never have shown up back here again. “Is he still...you know, a threat?”

She ran her fingers through her hair. “I don't know. No. I don't think so.”

He laughed, but it was a quick, nervous sound. Imagine, the likes of him concerned for the safety of the very woman he'd dreamt about murdering. “Well, if you're so sure...”

She laughed as well, and looked at him again. “He's not, you know, violent for the sake of violence. He's just got a short temper, and I was usually the one to set him off.” She was fidgeting with something in her lap: the hem of her top again, or her fingernails, he couldn't see. “I don't like thinking about him being here, but neither of us are in, you know, real danger or anything.”

Or so she thought. What would she do if she knew?

“Did he ever hurt you?” It wasn't his business, and even if it somehow was, it wasn't proper dinner table conversation, but he spent so much of his energy controlling his dangerous urges that it sometimes it was just easier to let the stupid ones slip.

She stood up and took their dishes over to the sink. He didn't expect her to answer. He wouldn't have answered. But maybe the distance between them, or just the fact that she had her back turned to him, made it easier for her. “Sometimes. Not a lot. And not on purpose, I don't think. Like I said, I set him off a lot.” She was scrubbing the dishes a lot harder than she needed to be. He was regretting ever having brought any of this up. He let her work in silence. Abruptly, she stopped, and stood frozen at the sink. “No. It wasn't my fault. None of it was. He grabbed me, threw me around sometimes. I stayed because I thought I loved him, but it wasn't my fault.”

It sounded like she was mostly talking to herself. She was repeating a mantra. He was incredibly uncomfortable, but reminding her of his presence by getting up and leaving her alone promised to be even more uncomfortable. So he sat awkwardly in his seat and watched her back as she washed the dishes. He tried not to think about someone Owen's size throwing her around. Owen was smaller than Mitchell, absolutely, but still larger than Annie.

A different man—a safer man—might have gotten up at this point, and gone over to pull her into an embrace. Strangers or no, British or no, it was clear that she could do with a hug. But he didn't trust himself. There was so rarely physical contact for him without trouble, and he'd already vowed not to cause her any more trouble. He traced the fake wood grain pattern of the tabletop with the tip of one finger. She turned off the tap after rinsing the dishes, and that was just jarring enough to make him stand up. He could dry the dishes, at least. They reached for the drying rag at the same time.

“Oh, you don't need to—” He covered her hand with his. The surprise made her close her mouth abruptly.

“Let me, Annie,” he said. He kept his voice low and nonthreatening. He was not ordering her to let him do anything; he was asking. She seemed unable to raise her eyes to his. That was fine. They were standing close enough, touching enough, that he didn't need to lift her chin to make this even more cinematic. There was something else he was supposed to be saying right now. Maybe he was supposed to be assuring her that not everyone treated people like that. Maybe he was supposed to be reminding her that she deserved better. It all seemed so patronising. Of course she knew all that. It didn't change anything.

She slid her hand out from under his, and if he thought for a minute that maybe he missed the warmth her skin gave off, well, that was...no. “Okay. Thank you.”

So he took over drying duty, and she pulled herself up onto the counter beside him. She was so close. Too close. If she was smart, she would have left him in the street or the alley or wherever she had found him. Every second that he was here, she was in jeopardy. He could tell himself over and over again not to hurt her, but in such close quarters, it was more “when” than “if”.

She was watching him. He could feel her big curious eyes taking in every move he made. What would she do if she knew how easily he could kill her? And why was that always his first thought in these quiet, comfortable moments? As he dried the last plate, he looked over at her. Her eyebrows drew together in concern and she reached out to touch his shoulder.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” But he couldn't bring himself to shrug her off. Hell, before he could stop himself, he had taken her hand in his and brought it to his cheek, near his mouth. He could smell the blood where it pulsed through her wrist, but he was merely pressing his lips to her skin, not his teeth. What a poor, pathetic monster: overcome by the day he'd spent leisurely thinking about killing an innocent woman.

“Mitchell, what's wrong?” He could hear panic creeping into her voice. “Does something hurt? Should I take you to a hospital?” She squirmed on the counter: she was trying to get down, probably to help him, but his closeness and the way he was holding her hand made it difficult.

He let his lips linger against her wrist for just a few more moments, imagining that he could feel the actual flow of her blood, and then released her. He had to grip tightly to the counter to hold himself up. Or keep himself away from her. “Oh, Annie.” He had no reason for his voice to be so wavery. He was the predator here. He wanted to grit out a warning, or maybe come clean altogether, but he couldn't make his tongue work.

She slid off of the counter and, an instant later, she was wrapping herself around his body and hiding her face in his neck. She held him tightly. At first he was too shocked to do anything—he just stood there, arms hovering in mid-air—but then he felt the warmth of her body begin to creep into his skin. He reached up with one hand to pull her hair over her shoulder and expose her neck. She was so close.

And so vulnerable.

He felt his fangs descend.

Chapter Text

He pushed her away. She hit the counter, much harder than he intended, but there wasn't time for guilt because her eyes had gone wide. Her face was ashen. He blinked, but the damage had been done: she'd seen everything. Neither of them moved for several very long moments, but her chest heaved with each ragged breath she took.

His mind was racing. He might be able to play it off like she'd imagined the whole thing. However long she'd spent with that manipulative prick, it had clearly been enough to leave some lasting damage. He could just poke at that a bit and make her feel the way Owen had, then—no, that was disgusting. He'd rather kill her outright.

She was struggling: he could see it in her face. She had no idea what to say—or maybe what to say first. What are you? What do you want? Get out of my house. He'd wait. He didn't want to be the one to break the silence. Still neither of them moved.

“Do...it again.” She wasn't screaming. Instead, her voice was low. Maybe she couldn't trust it. Maybe she was going to throw up. “With your face. I need to see it again.” She was edging away along the counter, moving so that she wasn't quite so trapped between it and him. He couldn't blame her. He turned with her and took a step backwards. She wasn't screaming. She wasn't reaching for the nearest sharp object.

“Are you—”

“Do. It. Again.” Anger took over her features for the briefest of moments: her lips curled and her brows furrowed. He would not make her ask again. He pressed himself against the counter, holding tight with his hands to show her that he would not lunge at her, and allowed his eyes to go black. She drew in a sharp breath. But she wasn't done. “The teeth too. Show me.”

He wanted to argue with her. Why was she doing this? But all he did was bare his teeth to show her his fangs.

“Mitchell?” She sounded like...she didn't know if she should be frightened. Stupid, beautiful woman. Of course she should be frightened.

But he couldn't lie to her. “It's me,” he assured her. “Still me.” He let her look on for a few more moments, but soon couldn't stand it anymore. “Can I put it away?”

She made some sound that seemed like agreement, so he looked away and forced himself back into that mask of humanity. But he couldn't look at her. He didn't want to see her fear. He didn't want to watch her look at him with disgust. He didn't want to see any of it. “I wanted to tell you.” He was studying the linoleum on the floor. “You bring a stranger into your house, that's something you need to know about them. I just didn't know how to do it without you thinking I was crazy.”

“Well, er...that did the trick, I think.” Her voice was still very soft, but she spoke with nervous laughter just behind her words. She still wasn't screaming. “You're a...vampire?”

“I am.”

“Do you drink...” She couldn't finish her sentence, but she didn't need to. He nodded.

“Sometimes. I try not to. I don't like hurting people. Annie. I don't like hurting people.” He needed her to know that more than anything else. If he wasn't still gripping the counter behind him, he might have held his hands up in front of him, palms toward her. The atmosphere in the room was the same as if someone had cornered a wild animal in the tiny kitchen, and they were trying to minimize the damage of the situation. He just wasn't sure which of the two of them was more likely to do the most damage.

“But you've done it. Hurt people.” From the sound of her voice (he still didn't dare to look at her), she hadn't moved an inch. She should have been running away. Maybe she was afraid that would make him give chase. Should he close his eyes?

“More than I can count.” There was no point in lying anymore. “And I regret every single one of them.”

“Do you want to hurt me?”

And there it was. He should have expected this from the moment he resolved to tell her the truth. He swallowed hard. “I've thought about it. I dreamed about it today.” More words sprang to his lips: wild assurances, promises, explanations. He needed blood or he wasn't going to heal. But it was all pointless. It'd only scare her. She didn't care.

She didn't say anything. She was thinking. He raised his eyes, but not far: just from the floor to her knees. They were trembling. What had he done? It would be best to just slink out the door now, but he still couldn't move.

“You could have,” she said thoughtfully. He wondered whether she meant just now or in all the time he'd been here. Maybe both. “You pushed me away.”

There was something new in her voice now that made him draw his eyes all the way up to hers. She wasn't looking at him in revulsion. What was this? “What?” He remembered how hard she'd hit the counter and cringed. After she'd just finished telling him that Owen had thrown her around. “I'm so sorry. Are you okay?”

She laughed, but mirthlessly. “No, I mean, you could have killed me just then, but you didn't. You pushed me away. That's sort of like saving my life, yeah?”

He still could only look at her in disbelief. Her arms were crossed, but she was looking at him with something like hope. She was desperate to explain all this away, make it normal. He should have let her chase him off into the night, but at this point, he knew that wasn't going to happen anymore. They were both idiots.

“Then I guess we're even.” He offered a tentative smile, and she returned it. A thought occurred to her; he could see it in her face.

“Was it other vampires who stabbed you?”

He hesitated. But, in for a penny, in for a pound and all that... “No. I think it was a couple of werewolves.”

“Werewol...” She breathed out, hard, and had to sit down in the chair behind her. “This is completely mental. If I hadn't seen you...” She put her face in her hands. “Please just tell me you're not taking the piss. If I see myself on some stupid reality tv programme, I swear to god, Mitchell, I will finish the job those...'werewolves' started.”

He smiled despite himself and despite the situation. “This is real. I'm telling the truth. I swear. Might make for interesting telly, though.”

She looked down at the table again, though he saw the faint smile that graced her lips. Was this it? That was the big reveal, and this was...her acceptance of it? He didn't know exactly what he'd been expecting—tears, probably, and at least one scream—but then again, the fact that men could be monsters wasn't exactly news to her, was it? He felt his own smile fade.

“Do you want to go see what's on the telly?” Dinner was done, the washing-up was done, and the terrifying and emotional portion of the evening was done. What else was there?

She didn't look up. “No, that's alright. I think I'm going to read for a bit. You can have the remote all to yourself.”

It was a pretty weak excuse, but he accepted it. Anything short of “I'm not watching television with you and if you're not out of my sight in the next five seconds, I'm calling the police” was, to be honest, a bit of a miracle. So he nodded and backed away from her when she stood up, and then watched her leave the room.

What an odd night.

He'd had more than his fill of television that day, so he left it off and instead looked around the room for something to read. He didn't have to look far. There was a small bookshelf in the corner of the room that held some promise: it was stuffed with books with creased spines and new ones alike. His eyes fell on one name in particular: Heaney. It sounded familiar, and made him think of a darkened Irish pub in the sixties. Maybe he'd met him there, talked for a while. He remembered a poet, anyway, and later, remembered listening to the same man speak at some university. He pulled the book off of the shelf and settled himself onto the couch with it.

The book was familiar. He definitely remembered the voice of the poems, even if he didn't recognise the poems themselves. But then he came to one that jolted in his memory. It was about summer blackberries, and how he'd sacrificed his skin and clothes just to collect all these succulent, sinful fruits, only to find later that rot had taken hold. He remembered the phrase from the poem—“rat-grey rot”. This had been the poem the man in the pub had read to him, and more than anything else, that “rat-grey rot” had stuck with him. In his darkest days, usually not long after giving up blood for the fifth or twentieth time, it plagued him. What once was sweet and full of promise had fermented.

He stared at the words on the page, not thinking, not reading, until they all blurred together.

A sound in the doorway drew his attention. Annie was standing there, not nervous exactly, but timid. “I didn't hear the television going,” she explained, lifting one arm just high enough to gesture vaguely at the set. “I was afraid you'd gone.”

He studied her. She'd traded the clothes she'd been wearing at dinner for soft grey leggings and a cardigan. He had the odd urge to bury his nose in her neck again, this time having nothing to do with her blood. He wondered what her soap smelled like against her skin. He'd never paid attention to that before.

“Wouldn't that be better?” He closed the book he'd been reading but kept his eyes on her. She still hovered in the doorway. A spectre. “You wouldn't have to be frightened of me then.”

The look in her eyes was intense. “You've still got a gaping chest wound that I'm trying to heal. Don't you dare go out there and get yourself hurt even worse.” She looked away. “Anyway, I'm not that frightened of you.”

“Then come sit with me.” It wasn't quite an order: more like a challenge. She must have recognised it as such, because she came to the couch without speaking and sat much closer to him than she had the night before. He might have been impressed, if he wasn't concerned about how untroubled she was by his nature.

She had nothing to say. She pulled her feet up onto the couch so that her knees pressed against her chest and opened her own book. He watched her for too long. She must have felt his eyes on her, but she didn't look up once, not until she'd finished the next chapter. When she did, she finally closed the book and turned her head to look at him.

“You're really not afraid of me.” It was half-question, half-statement. She laughed.

“Don't sound so offended. Do you want me to be afraid of you?”

“Of course not.” Well, maybe a little. A little more than she actually was, at least. “But you could at least have the decency to show a little concern for your own well-being. I could rip out your throat here and now, maybe even before you could make a sound.” His voice was starting to get a little too high-pitched. He paused and took a breath. “And you're kind of scarily blasé about this whole thing.”

She shrugged. “It's just...You've had all these opportunities to hurt me, and you haven't done. You scared Owen away, which you didn't have to do. You helped me with the washing-up. I don't think you're going to hurt me.” She rested her chin on her knee and tilted her head to look at him. “What kind of a monster helps a girl with the washing-up?”

“How do you know I'm not weakened by my injuries? Maybe once I regain some of my strength, I'll become dangerous again.”

“I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I'm done spending my life afraid of what might happen.” She closed her eyes for a moment. He couldn't pull his eyes away from the way her lashes curled against her skin. When she spoke again, her voice was dreamy. “Anyway, there are worse ways to die than at the hands of a beautiful man.”

She hadn't meant to say that last bit out loud: he could tell because she stiffened immediately and her eyes opened wide. He was too taken aback (and secretly pleased) to so much as tease her about it. It did put some very small part of his guilt to rest: not the guilt that stemmed from thinking about killing her of course, but the guilt that stemmed from looking at her the way he did.

He let it pass. To do otherwise would have been...borderline cruel. So he opened his book again, this time to a random page. Despite her embarrassment, that must have drawn her attention, because she looked over at it. Without being asked, he held the book up so she could see the cover.

“Oh, good one. And here is love, like a tinsmith's scoop, sunk past its gleam, in the meal-bin.” She smiled. “It's one of my favorites.”

He didn't know that one. She must have seen the blank look on his face, because she took the book from him and opened to a particular poem. When she held it back to him, he noticed that the pages stayed flat, like she'd opened to that page many times before and the spine had learned that position.

He glanced over the poem, but, sitting so close to her, with her leaning in and reading over his shoulder, probably did not manage to take in as much of the meaning as he might have otherwise. It did have a certain charm to it. A peace. Leave it to Annie, of all people, to find the one sweet poem in a book filled with unease and rot. He hadn't spent much time in Ireland during the Troubles, but this man seemed to have been there through it all.

He closed the book. “I wouldn't have taken you for a poetry fan,” he said, quite honestly. Magazines, certainly. Modern bestsellers and a few old classics like Jane Austen, absolutely. But this?

“It was one of the courses I was taking at university,” she said with equal parts pride and regret. “I never finished it. Owen got a job offer out here and we kind of rushed off in the middle of everything. I don't know why I held on to it, most of my money went towards the move so it would be stupid to waste any more of it on a poetry course. But...I just really like that one. It's nice.”

“Yeah, it kind of is.” He looked at the words again. The more he was learning about Annie's life with Owen, the more he couldn't wait to get his teeth in him. Uprooting her, taking her out of uni, spending her money to get a place. It was disgusting. What kind of a man was he? Of course, there was always the possibility that she'd left school on her own and volunteered her money, but with as wistfully as she was looking at that book, it wasn't likely. He nudged her with his shoulder. She smiled and nudged him back. “You shouldn't have left school for that prick.” It wasn't any of his business, but he couldn't stop himself.

“I know that now.” She opened her book again. “I was young and blind and... dumb.” A shrug and an overly cheerful smile. “But I like where I am right now so it wasn't a complete waste.”

“There's that, at least.” He moved to put his arm around her and didn't realize how terrible an idea that was until his arm was already in the air. Damn. He recovered quickly though and flung his arm around the back of the couch instead. That was a little better. She didn't seem overly uncomfortable. Maybe she hadn't noticed. She read for a little while longer. He pretended to read. In reality, he was trying to keep his mind carefully blank. This was the closest she'd ever been to him, not counting the time she'd spent caring for his wound. He scratched absently at the bandage, which drew her attention right away.

“Does that itch? That could be a good thing or a bad thing. Either it's healing, or it's infected. Should I check on it? Have you looked at it today?” Her hands fluttered in the air.

“It's nothing,” he assured her. He liked the thought of her checking him again too much. “Just an itch. You worry too much.”

“I don't want you dying on me. What am I going to do with a dead vampire, bury you in the backyard?” A thought occurred to her. “Can you die?”

“I can die. That's what the werewolves—” He noted the way she flinched at the word. “—were trying to do. They didn't get my heart, though. Idiots.”

She was quiet, clearly turning this information over in her head. “Just like in the films. Long-time feud between the vampires and werewolves, a classic stake to the heart. That makes sense.” She spoke calmly but he could swear that there wasn't as much color in her face as usual.

“Alright?”

“Yeah. Fine. You just live your whole life thinking things are one way and then suddenly in one night your whole world turns upside down. Just takes some getting used to. I imagine it wasn't easy for you either.” What kind of a person looked at a demon with pity in their eyes? He wanted to shake her. Or kiss her.

“I don't know. Yes and no.” He'd been turned a very long time ago. A lot about his former life was fuzzy now, all the way up until that meeting in the forest. “It was a different time. People were a lot more superstitious then. So it wasn't so crazy to believe in nightmares.” He fidgeted with his book. “And I made a deal with the one who turned me. I saved a lot of good men. It seemed worth it at the time.”

“And now?”

He'd almost forgotten that he'd been speaking aloud to her. He'd been lost in the battle, back in the misty forest staring in shock at the group of monsters. Her voice pulled him back to the present. “Hm?”

“It it still worth it now? If you had it all to do again, would you still do it?”

“I've never thought about it,” he lied. “Seems pointless to spend much time thinking about what-ifs. I've gotten to see a lot of stuff that I never would have seen otherwise. The future is now.” He flashed her a smile. In truth, it was a question he'd agonized over from time to time. All those people he killed.

“Smart.” She nodded, but when she spoke, she sounded a bit put off. “So... How much else is true? I mean, the myths. Are you repelled by garlic? Can you cross running water? If I drop a handful of rice on the floor, do you have to drop everything and count it?”

“False, false, and false. I love Italian, I can travel just about anywhere I want, and I'm more likely to kick the rice under the refrigerator than count it.” She looked disappointed. “I have to be invited into a private home though. And I don't have a reflection.”

She perked up a bit. “Yeah, you fought with me on the doorstep when I was trying to get you inside. I thought maybe you were in shock and trying to be a gentleman, but you wouldn't let me bring you in without inviting you.” She fell silent again, like maybe she was struggling to process everything, but turned to him suddenly. “What if you wore make up? If you were wearing a full face of makeup, with foundation and everything, would you have a reflection?”

He couldn't help but laugh. It was a brilliant idea. “I don't know, I've never really tried it. Probably not. Clothes don't show up, so maybe if it's touching my skin, it disappears too?”

But she wasn't really listening. The wheels in her head were turning. “If that's the case, what about other things that touch your skin? Or what if you were holding something but not letting it touch your skin, just the clothes? Would it still disappear? If I touched you, would I disappear?”

“Are you some kind of government researcher? Are you going to throw me in a cage and do experiments on me?” But his tone was light. He didn't mind.

“Sorry. This is just all so strange. Er, no, not strange. Sorry. You're not strange or anything, it's... new. I never would have thought this was possible.” She leaned back against the back of the couch. She was close enough that he could stroke her hair if he wanted.

He kept his hand to himself.

Minutes of friendly silence stretched on, and became hours. He drifted in and out of a light doze, never quite letting himself fall asleep for real. He didn't want to put a burden on Annie, but his body was still aching from sleeping on the couch last night. Even if all she did was help him lie down on the floor, he would need her help.

After one particularly sleep-like doze, he woke to find Annie's head resting against him. If he hadn't put his arm up behind her, she would only be sleeping on his shoulder, but, as it was, she was leaning against his chest. Hm. He could shake her awake and send her to bed, but what if she was embarrassed by it? Or he could leave her be, but what if she slept through the night again? He really didn't want to stay here all night.

She dropped her book before he could struggle with indecision for too long. It hit the floor with a solid thud, and she jolted awake. As soon as she gathered herself, she sat up. He pretended to be just waking up too.

“I should get you to bed.” If it had been someone else, he might have cracked a joke, but that didn't feel quite right.

“If it's not too much trouble.”

She got to her feet. “Right. Of course it's not. What do you think? I've got a few rooms down here, but if you're still worried about the werewolves coming back, there's that other room upstairs.”

“Downstairs is fine.” It seemed pointless to make her help him up the stairs tonight, only to make her help him back down the morning.

“Okay, up you go then.” Gently she eased him up onto his feet. Once again, he had to lean on her more than he would have liked. She didn't seem to mind, but it still bothered him. She helped him into a room and then down into a bed. It was a nice room, comfortable, but he wondered how much longer he have to depend on her like this. She bade him goodnight and left him alone in the dark.

He was awakened the next day by the sounds of someone puttering around in the kitchen. He sat up. Before he could join her, he decided, he really should wash up. Maybe even shower. He struggled to the washroom and looked at his lack of reflection in the mirror. Annie had been so intrigued by him last night, by the aspects of his existence which he had long since learned to ignore. It was interesting. Refreshing.

He turned on the shower. He could likely have gone another day or two, but now that he was feeling a little better, there was really no reason to do that. He washed as quickly as he could bring himself to do. The water was hot and lovely against his skin. He left his bandage on until the last minute, to keep from getting too much soap in the wound. When he was finished, he dried with a towel he found nearby. He could have re-dressed in the clothes he'd worn the day before, but it seemed a shame to do that with the bags of clothes Annie had gotten him just sitting in the kitchen. So he wrapped the towel around his waist and went to get something else to wear.

When he came in, she was standing at the sink scrubbing a pan and humming a tune to herself. Two plates—he smiled to himself—of toast and eggs waited on the table. Annie turned around. Her eyes lingered on his body just a little too long for innocence before she spoke. “Hiya. I heard you in the shower, so I made breakfast. Hope that's okay.”

“Of course, Annie.” He stooped (with some difficulty) to pick up one of the bags. Yes, there it was. He remembered one of the bags being particularly heavy. It held a clean pair of jeans. He pulled them out along with another button-up shirt and held them up for her to see. She nodded quickly.

“I'll just get dressed before we eat.”

When he came back, the front of a shirt left open to let his wound dry a bit, she was already sitting there at the table.

“Sleep well?” She asked.

“Absolutely. The bed was much better than the couch. You don't realize how bad it is when you're sitting on it, but it's not a good place to sleep. Thanks for helping me to bed, Annie.”

There she went, blushing again. She took a bite.

As they ate, he couldn't help but notice the way her gaze kept slipping down to his wound. He wondered if he should have buttoned up before joining her. But she didn't look disgusted or anything. She looked more...worried.

“Alright?” he finally asked, ducking his head to catch her eyes. She tried to smile, but it didn't make it up to her eyes.

“Just thinking. With as fast as you were healing before, I thought it would be a lot better than yesterday, but...it's not. It's practically the same.”

“Hm.” He kept his tone neutral. He knew, of course, why he wasn't improving as fast as he should, but didn't want to tell her. He was concerned that she'd open a vein for him then and there. “Bodies, you know? They're unpredictable.”

She looked at him strangely. She shouldn't see through him. It just wasn't possible. He'd been covering this up for years. Compared to him, she was like a child. He finished off his breakfast and sat back. “Where do you keep your first-aid kit? I guess I'll put some new gauze on this to keep it clean.”

“I can do it,” she said automatically.

“I don't want to trouble you. I can't pay you anything yet, so it's the least I can do.”

She looked mildly horrified at the thought of him paying her anything at all, but his tone must have been firm enough that she didn't try to argue with him. “It's all in the closet. I can show you.”

When she'd finished eating, she showed him where to find...well, nearly everything he might ever need, apologizing all the while about the overdue tour. Like yesterday, he practically had to push her out the door to work.

He spent most of the morning on edge, waiting for someone to show up at the doorstep and try to force his way in. No one came. To distract himself from the growing restlessness, he called work. It was a decent enough job, and one that he'd hate to lose over such a long disappearance. He vaguely recognized the voice on the other end: a supervisor he rarely say, and who usually couldn't be arsed to do anything. As always, she sounded unimpressed. “Just make it in soon,” she said brusquely. “We'll hold your job as long as we can.”

She probably just didn't want to have to hold interviews to replace him.

In the afternoon, he settled a bit. Hardly anyone even walked down the street, let alone came to the door. After quickly eating some of the cold pizza from the night before last, his yes fell on the dishes that Annie had left to dry on the counter. He might as well put them away for her. He stretched a little too far to put them in the cupboard. Something in his chest twinged. When he'd closed the cupboard door, he looked down at his bandage.

Blood was already blooming against the stark white. Damn. He'd opened something up again. He growled and went to the closet to get more supplies. But the bleeding wasn't going to stop.

He was getting dizzy.

Chapter Text

He'd soaked through most of her napkins by the time he finally got things under control. This was...not good. At all. He told himself that the light-headedness was just a trick of his imagination. He hadn't actually that much blood, not enough to feel it.

But when he heard Annie at the door, he didn't get up to greet her. She called his name from the doorway, but all he could really do was raise his hand above the back of the couch to let her know he was there. She came around to the front of the couch to look at him. Her face fell immediately.

“What happened? You look terrible!” She stooped to press her hand to his forehead, as though to check for a fever.

“I opened something up and it took a long time to stop the bleeding.” It was an effort just to get the words out.

“What should we do? Can I help?” She looked frightened. But he knew that if he told her what he needed, she'd be even more horrified. He looked away.

“No,” he lied. Or perhaps a wasn't a complete lie. “There's not much you can do.”

She sat carefully on the couch beside him. “Well, there's got to be something. Can I get you a drink of water? What helps you...make more blood? There's got to be a tea for that or something, right?”

He felt the demon stirring, and with it a stab of irritation. He'd already told her once. What part of that didn't she get? His whole body was jangling. His nerves were on edge. He held it back for as long as he could, but she was mumbling something about teas and the internet and all kinds of new-age bullshit, and he snapped. “I can't make new blood. My bone marrow is a hundred years dead. What I've got is all I've got until I can drink from someone. So unless you're willing to go out and find me some poor asshole to drink from, then, no, there's fucking nothing you can do except leave me alone.”

He expected her to yell at him. Or stare at him with betrayal in her eyes. Or maybe run away crying. He did not expect her to sit in silence for a long time and then finally pull her hair over one shoulder.

“What are you doing?” His voice was shaky. He knew what she was doing. He just...didn't believe it. She didn't know him. He'd just shouted at her.

“I found someone for you.” She was much calmer than she should have been. “Do you have to take it all right away?”

“No, Annie. Christ. I'm not doing this.” If he'd had the strength, he would have gotten up and left. But he was stuck there with her, and...that steady pulse that beat in her throat.

“What choice do you have? Do we have? If you don't, then...what? You'll be like this forever, won't you?”

He didn't answer. They both knew she was right. The thought of feeding from Annie, of all people, was abominable.

“Do you need to take it all?” She asked again. Was he going to kill her?

“I don't know if I could stop myself.” It was a shameful whisper. He couldn't look at her.

She was quiet for a long time. There was a clock ticking somewhere, relentless. Measuring off each second that they sat together. “Could I stop you? Or is it one of those things where you get in the zone and there's no stopping you?”

“It doesn't matter either way, Annie, because what you're talking about here, it's crazy.”

She continued on as though he hadn't even spoken. “I'll need some gauze for after, yeah? And maybe some antiseptic? I know human mouths are filthy, but has anyone ever checked a vampire's mouth? Maybe I'd better get some just to be safe.” She was up and halfway out of the room when something in him just...gave out.

“Annie,” he called out in defeat. He heard her pause. “Bring a watch with a second hand and see if you can find a long, sharp piece of wood. Anything sturdy. A table leg. Something from the garden, maybe.” He couldn't see her, but he could practically feel her protest forming. “It's just a precaution. I've killed a lot of people, but I'll be damned if you're going to let me kill you.”

Some time later, she returned and spread the items out before him on the table. Gauze. A wristwatch. A dirty, sharp stick of wood. It looked strong enough. He forced his eyes away from it and back to her. Her eyes, wide and glittering, were the only things that gave away her fear. This was damnable.

“Fifteen seconds. No longer than that.” He picked up the watch with shaking fingers and handed it to her. “Once fifteen seconds are up, push me off. If I don't stop, you have to kill me.” He pointed to the makeshift stake on the table and waited for her to pick it up. “Aim for my heart. I know you're smarter than those bloody werewolves. Don't worry about doing anything with my body. Once you get my heart, I'll turn to dust.” She made a strangled sound and tried to put the stake back on the table, but he wouldn't let her. “It's in line with the wound I already have, but more to the left. You got it?”

“I—” She was shaking her head.

“If you won't agree to that, then I won't agree to this. I will not kill you.”

He must have managed to put more strength into his voice than he had in his body, because she lowered her eyes with a quick nod. “Okay. Fifteen seconds. Stake you if I have to.”

He studied her a bit longer, trying ascertain whether she was really agreeing. She met his eyes and smiled bravely. There was something in her face—or just enough desperation in his mind. Sheer bloody lunacy. “Are you ready? Are you absolutely certain? You don't have to do this.”

She fixed her eyes on the watch. “I'm positive.”

Without thinking about it, he pressed his lips against hers. This wasn't a sex thing. He so rarely touched women without planning to kill them, but he couldn't help thinking that it might be nice to be allowed to explore her body.

He pulled away just far enough to look into her eyes. She looked...transfixed. Her eyes were dark and glazed. When she saw that he was looking at her, though, she blinked a few times, which seemed to clear out some of the confusion. “Please just do it, Mitchell. I'm not changing my mind.”

If she said so. He held her gaze for just a little bit longer before letting his eyes go black. He felt her body tense beneath him. He couldn't help but linger: yes, he was giving his monstrous side free rein right now, but he was still himself, and she was still Annie. He traced the curve of her neck with his fingertips and trailed his tongue along her skin. He could hear her heartbeat: it was racing. No surprise there. But also...no guilt. Just hunger.

She cried out when he first bit her, and he held her tightly just in case she changed her mind. Which wasn't entirely fair. Of course she would change her mind, and he should have let her. But she didn't push him away. He drank hungrily. Blood was blood: there was rarely anything fancy or distinctive from person to person, but all the while, the knowledge that she was letting him do this to her...it was a heady feeling. Maybe that, combined with the way she felt in his arms, tense and trembling, and knowing that it was, of all people, Annie made him think her blood was sweeter.

His mind wandered. What would that have been like if he'd done it the way he usually did? Would would it have been like to push her down into a mattress and plant himself solidly above her, holding her still as he kissed her? Would would it have felt like to let his hands wander? Would she have let him explore her body? God, the thought of burying himself deep inside her and draining her dry while she was in the throes of pleasure. In those last few moments, he would claim her, own her. He was the last thing his victims saw and the last thing they thought about. It was the closest a creature like him could come to becoming a god.

When he felt her pushing on him, he was sorely tempted to ignore her and keep feeding. She'd never follow through with staking him, not in a million years. But he relented, and fell back against the cushions. He heard her lean forward, probably to get something to put pressure on his bite. Somewhere inside, he knew he should sit up and help her. He'd done that to her, after all. But he kept his eyes closed instead and relished her strength as it spread through his body.

“Did it work?” Her voice was soft. He opened his eyes to look at her, but her reaction told him his eyes were still black. He closed them quickly. The numbness was settling in, but it would be easier to talk to her if she wasn't terrified of him.

“It worked.” His absence of gratitude didn't surprise him, but she looked off-balance somehow, like perhaps she'd expected him to thank her. He'd have to do it later. “I don't think I took enough to make you sick, but how do you feel?”

“Yeah, I'm okay. It's alright. I'm glad I could help.” She smiled. “Do you know what you'd like for dinner?”

As though he'd let her cook after what he'd just done to her. The thought was laughable to him, even right now.“There's a lot of food left over from last night. I'll get it.”

Maybe he had taken too much from her, because she just nodded. He checked the clock. It was as good a time as any for her to eat. His stomach was full, but as soon as it emptied, he knew he'd be ravenous. His body was repairing itself, and it'd need energy from more than just blood. So he went into the kitchen and heated two plates of last night's takeaway. He brought them into the living room and placed them on the table. The stake rolled off and onto the floor. He let it be.

“You'll be dehydrated for a bit, while your body makes new blood. Tea? Water?”

She looked shy. “Water's fine.”

If only Herrick could see him now. Waiting on a victim. Taking care of her. Right now, he was too close to a feeding to feel much guilt, but he knew it'd be there, just beneath the surface and stronger than anything else as soon as some of the magic wore off.

He brought her the water and sat beside her once again. She didn't seem quite as vibrant as she had before. She was more...subdued. And yet, when she looked at him, her eyes still sparkled.

“The bright side of this whole mess,” he began, “is that I'll heal even faster now, and be out of your hair soon.”

“That's good,” she said, not quite convincing. Surely she wasn't disappointed. “I'm sure you'd like to get back to your regular life. The sooner you're feeling well again, the better.”

She picked at her food for a while. He wasn't going to remind her to eat. She was a grown woman. She'd made the choice. She'd let him do this to her. He hadn't forced her to do anything. Hell, he hadn't even asked her to do it: he'd actively tried to dissuade her. So what did he owe her?

A lot, actually. He could feel her blood inside him. If he was capable of feeling anything like guilt, he might have felt his stomach twist, but all he felt was a renewed surge of strength. He picked up his plate and devoured several bites. Before long, she had begun to eat a bit more as well.

“I hope you weren't too bored today.” It was small talk. Maybe that was all she could manage right now. He tamped down the unkind urge to tease her.

“It was okay. Maybe bored is what I need for a while. We know what happens when I do too much to entertain myself.” He indicated his wound. Beneath the bandage, he thought he could feel the tingling and burning of his skin as it re-generated. He wondered absently if she'd be interested to know that, or disgusted. It probably wasn't happening fast enough to actually show her.

“Maybe I'll have to tie you down before I go to work tomorrow, to make sure you don't hurt yourself again.” She was teasing him, but her voice—and face—was shy.

The demon inside him chuckled and, before he could stop himself, he was leaning in close to her and grinning like the predator he was. “Maybe I'd like that.”

“God, Mitchell.” she laughed,a quick, nervous sound, and leaned away from him. “Are you always like this...after?”

“I am.” It didn't occur to him until a moment later that he should try to hide that wolfish grin. “Everything's kind of numb for a little while. I can't really feel anything.” He reached out and twisted one of her curls around his finger. She exhaled sharply. “Just hunger. Once your blood wears off, I'm going to feel incredibly guilty about doing this to you, but right now, all I can think about it how good you taste.” He released her hair and watched it spring back into place. Her eyes were wide, and her lips slightly parted. When she met his eyes, though, she snapped her mouth shut and stood up. She wasn't quite steady.

“I don't...think I like you like this,” she said. Her voice was just about as steady as her knees. If he'd really wanted to, he could have pulled her down again and continued to feed from her. Even his vampire side knew that was a bad idea. He tried to look at her as innocently as he could.

“Oh, it's just for a few hours, love. No sooner than you've gotten used to me like this, I'll start weeping over the holes in your lovely neck.” He winked at her. “But you know how to bring me back 'round.”

She shuddered. “Then I'll see you in a few hours, I guess. Try not to rip yourself open again.”

And with that, she fled from the room, likely retreating to the safety and seclusion of her bedroom. He settled back against the cushions and tried not to smile. He felt better than he had in ages. He supposed that meant that maybe he should be kinder to her, but the feeling was just too overwhelming. He'd make it up to her later.

Mitchell gave an enormous stretch and turned to lie down on the couch. He was warm and strong, but also so very dozy at the moment. He felt so good that the springs and lumps didn't even bother him. So he folded his arms up beneath his head and allowed himself to fall asleep.

For a very long time, he did not dream. But then, either a moment later or else a lifetime, he found himself in that same warehouse as before. It was completely empty: no one popped up before his eyes, even as he wandered through it. Here and there he came across a spatter of old blood on the floor, but aside from that, nothing else changed. He spun around a few times, waiting for some manifestation of his guilty conscience to appear, but the warehouse remained as silent as the grave.

He began to pace back and forth. The dream was unchanging. The sun was shining in through the windows high up in the walls, casting stark beams of light here and there. One illuminated a blood spatter. Bewildered, he watched it for as long as he could bear, waiting for Annie or Josie or Amanda or Jesse or perhaps every person he'd ever killed to spring up from the stain and set about scolding him for being so horrible, but nothing happened. Even the dust motes hung in the light as though time had frozen. He started to laugh. Nothing was funny, but the laughter poured from his chest. It began to hurt. His whole body began to seize up, muscles aching and joints locking into place, but still no one came to admonish him.

He couldn't stop.

He was alone here in this frozen place, and he was laughing so hard that his body was going to come apart, but he couldn't stop.

The walls began to drip.

The next time Mitchell opened his eyes, the morning sun was shining directly onto his face. He sat up quickly, running his hand over his eyes, but everything seemed to be in order. His head was pounding. He was thirsty. He wanted nothing more than to rip out some unsuspecting fool's throat and bathe in the blood, but he could feel again. He was ashamed. Rather than dwelling on the events of the night before, he pulled himself to his feet. He owed Annie, owed her more than he could repay in her lifetime.

He'd start with breakfast.

His whole body felt new and limber. He was strong again. There was a curious sort of buzzing just at the edges of his consciousness that told him his body still didn't have quite enough blood, but his legs were steady. When he got to the kitchen, he started cooking right away. The first time he'd woke up here, Annie had fed him a full-on fry-up, and he'd do his best to return the favor.

He didn't cook much anymore. At one point in his life, he'd been used to very rich and luxurious foods (not to mention a steady flow of blood), but as the wheel of time moved on, he had simplified his tastes a bit. For the most part, he ate cereal or cheese toasties: very easy, very low-maintenance types of food. He burnt himself a few times but managed each time to keep from shouting out.

When everything was finished and arranged on the plate in a way that made it look fairly edible, he set about looking for that tray she'd brought him. Breakfast in bed. Women liked that kind of thing. He made her a quick cup of tea (another skill which had fallen rather out o practice: as soon as coffee had become a 'thing', he'd switched right away) and brought the whole mess upstairs.

Her door was ajar, so he nudged it open slowly and peeked in the crack. Her blankets were mussed, which meant she must have slept in them, but she was nowhere to be found. He pushed the door open a bit farther. Still nothing. Then where was she? It didn't feel right to be wandering around this woman's house, but the eggs were getting cold...

A creak came from somewhere down the hall. He jerked toward the sound. It was Annie, drying her hair with a towel as she came out of the washroom. She smiled when she saw him standing there, but her eyes were wary.

“It's...me, again.” He lowered his eyes. The steam from her shower was making its way down the hallway, and he could smell something—soap, shampoo, perfume—like jasmine. He held the tray up a bit. “I thought you might be hungry. It's good to eat, after...”

“I've given blood before. I know the routine.” Her voice was gentle. “It's really...not such a big deal, you know? One time, I gave blood and when I got up to leave, I fainted. Took a tray of biscuits and one of the workers down with me. So this could have been worse. It's just that usually the people who take my blood don't get...so weird afterwards.” For a moment, she looked concerned, and seemed to be studying him. Maybe she was making sure he really was back to normal. Well, so to speak. He offered her a tiny smile and a shrug.

“Well, birds chirp, rain falls, and vampires turn into even bigger monsters after feeding.” It felt disingenuous, comparing himself to other natural aspects of the world—aspects that people admired and even wrote poetry about, but the words didn't strike him as incorrect, at least. He may not be a part of nature, but this was in his nature.

“You kissed me.” It was half-statement, half-accusation. His eyes shot up to her face as his mind reeled, trying to figure out just what she was talking about. No he hadn't. He'd made her breakfast. “Last night. Before. You licked me too, which sort of made sense to me, all things considered, but kissing me...?”

He didn't have an explanation for her. What could he say? 'Well, I was already taking liberties with your body, so I thought, why not?'

“Was that a part of it too?” She was speaking very quietly. He would sincerely have liked to push the tray closer to her body and tell her that her breakfast was getting cold. He couldn't. Instead, he shook his head.

“No, sorry. That was just run-of-the-mill, standard creepiness. I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable.” Maybe he should go find a hole somewhere and climb into it until centuries had passed and he could start over again. Leave this woman alone.

“It's not—I wasn't—” She looked at the food he'd made for her and drew in a breath. “Thank you for breakfast. Will you come downstairs and eat with me?”

That was it? He looked at her without speaking for a long time, longer than he should have. She didn't look upset. There was no sign that she harbored even the slightest bit of resentment or fear towards him. To call it crazy would be to discount her strength, but it was unbelievable at best. Her eyes narrowed slightly.

“Yeah, of course. I'll just wash up a bit first, and be right down.”

She nodded and squeezed past him to head down the stairs. In the washroom, he peeled back the tape on the gauze. His wound was mostly healed. It probably wouldn't need to be covered today. He touched it cautiously and sent another mental thanks to Annie downstairs. By tomorrow, things would be back to normal.

He turned on the tap and splashed some water on his face. Under the sound of running water, he could have sworn that he heard voices: Annie's, and then a man's. He turned off the water and strained his ears to listen. She sounded distressed. The man spoke again, and recognition stabbed through Mitchell's body. The bastard. He dried his face quickly with a towel and didn't bother to hang it back on the rod before hurrying out of the washroom and down the stairs.

Annie and Owen were standing by the front door. He had his fingers wrapped around her upper arm and was jerking her roughly. She'd dug her fingernails into the back of his hand—he could smell the blood—but Owen seemed unconcerned. He must have heard Mitchell's approach, because he'd lowered his voice and was hissing something at her. Mitchell made his way down the stairs and leaned on the railing. Annie had yet to notice him, but Owen raised his eyes to meet his.

“Is everything alright, love?” Mitchell asked in a low voice. The question was directed, obviously, towards Annie, but he didn't take his eyes off of Owen.

“It's fine,” she said. Her attempt at nonchalance was slightly offset by the way she continued to claw at Owen's hand. “He's just looking for the shirt you were wearing before. C-could you go get it so he can leave, please?”

He could have fallen upon this prick and drained him dry. It wasn't as though he hadn't given him fair warning. He was much stronger now, so he could easily have done something with the body. The way he was looking at the two of them, first at Annie and then at Mitchell, and then back again, all the while with a stupid little smirk on his face like he knew some secret, was infuriating. He felt his fangs descend.

“Please just go get the shirt,” Annie said again. It was as though she knew what he was thinking. “That's all he's here for, isn't it, Owen?”

“Yeah, sure. Run along and get it for me, and I'll be out of your hair.” He leered at Mitchell.

He relented and went into the kitchen. It was easy enough to find the shirt: it was still right there in the bin. It had been covered with egg shells and coffee grounds, but it was easy enough to shake them off. He made sure, however, that he didn't clean it completely.

Mitchell held the shirt out at arm's length as he returned to the door. Owen was hissing at Annie again—Mitchell caught the words “stupid whore” before making himself known. He chucked the shirt at Owen's face.

“There. There's a bit of rubbish on it, but I'm sure that won't bother you. Might even make you feel more comfortable, won't it?”

Owen didn't say anything, but he did let go of Annie. Mitchell started forward to push him out the door, but Annie was already there, shoving him so roughly that he had to catch himself with one hand on the door frame. “Get out,” she ordered. Her voice was fierce. Heated. “I'm not your bloody property, Owen. We're over. The next time I see you here, I'm not even going to call the police. I'm going to get a knife and carve your rotten guts out.” She smacked his hand away from the door and pushed him again. This time he stumbled over the doorstep and had to step backwards out the door. “Get out. Get out!”

Even Owen seemed shocked by Annie's fury. His eyes went wide before he caught himself and plastered that bloody smirk onto his face again. He opened his mouth to say something, but Annie cut him off with a snarl and slammed the door in his face. The two of them stood there silently, Annie with her forehead pressed to the door and Mitchell with his eyes trained on Annie. Her shoulders rose and fell quickly, like she was panting. Or crying.

“That was brilliant,” he said after a long time. She flinched at the sound of his voice and didn't turn around. “I mean it. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it.”

“Please, you've been around how long?” But she didn't sound entirely skeptical. Perhaps that was a good sign. He stepped closer and touched her shoulder gently, gratified to see that she did not flinch at the touch.

“Did he hurt you?” Her face was still mostly hidden by the curtain of her hair where it had fallen over her shoulder. He hesitated for a moment before reaching to brush it away. She did flinch this time, but just barely. She straightened and hastily brushed her hands over her cheeks. So she had been crying, then.

“It's alright. He just grabbed me. Startled me more than anything, really. Is he gone?”

Mitchell looked through the window—at an empty doorstep. “He's gone.” He turned his attention back to her and rubbed his hand up and down her back. “I think this time he'll stay gone. You're bloody terrifying.”

She laughed tearfully. “Most of the time when I was with him, I felt like I wasn't allowed to be angry because whatever I was angry about, it was probably my own fault. Now I guess it's all catching up with me.” She closed her eyes for another minute, likely gathering herself. “Right. Are you hungry?”

And that was that. They fell into a domestic routine together. They ate together. They talked. They watched the telly and bade each other goodnight. Once or twice they argued over who should cook, but the disputes were always settled amicably. It didn't take long before his wound had completely closed (“There's not even a scar!” Annie had exclaimed one morning, brushing gentle fingers over his chest.) and the dizziness, if it didn't go away completely, at least became consistent enough that it faded into the background.

The morning he woke up feeling normal was a bit of a letdown. He knew it meant he'd have to leave. They both had normal lives to be getting back to. So, the following morning, they said their goodbyes on her doorstep. She was on her way to work, he was on his way home. He should have felt fine about it. Owen hadn't been back. His craving for blood had mostly subsided once again. He was taking up space in her home and eating her food and making her feel like she still needed to take care of him. It was time to go. He just didn't like it.

Not that they didn't see each other. Her place was on the way home from work, so sometimes, if he walked past and saw her lights on, he'd drop by to check on her. He didn't always come inside, though she always invited him, When he did, things slowly started to change. She stopped treating him so much like a guest: someone she needed to entertain and feed and serve. She relaxed. That was the only explanation he could come up with. The longer she was away from Owen, the stronger she became. Her hands still fluttered nervously from time to time, it was still just as easy to make the color rise into her cheeks with gentle teasing, but the damage from Owen was healing.

One night he came by with a movie—Casablanca--and some takeaway curry. As always, she was happy to see him and invited him inside. They ate, talking and laughing all the while, and she wound up falling asleep with her head in his lap. He, in turn, fell asleep with his fingers tangled in her hair.

Sometimes she looked at him and he could see that her pupils were larger than usual. Sometimes he caught her looking at him when she thought he couldn't see her. Sometimes his eyes strayed from her face and lingered too long on her body. But nothing happened. He wouldn't let it. Sex was too inextricably linked with violence in his mind—centuries of lust and blood had resulted in habits too difficult to break and too dangerous to tempt. So he never let things go too far. Her disappointment—and his frustration—kept her safe.

It had been a nightmare of a week—he'd taken this job because he knew it'd be easy to do and easy to leave work at work, but a handful of coworkers, students mostly, had all quit at the same time, and he'd had to work way too much. When he walked past her house late one night, most of her lights were off, except for one that shone dimly through the front window. Ordinarily that would have told him to keep walking: she was already asleep, or else out with someone else, but tonight there was something in the air that crackled. He approached her door slowly.

It was slightly open: not enough to notice from the street, but enough to cause him alarm. The air smelled odd. Sharp. Metallic.

He pushed the door open, and tried not to lose himself as the scent of blood assaulted him. Something bad had happened here. He called her name from the doorway, but she didn't respond. He stepped further inside.

The smell was coming from the kitchen. As he made his way cautiously towards the source, he found himself hoping she'd just had a stupid accident and had to take herself to A & E before she could clean it up. It was a nice thought.

“Annie?” He called again and pushed the beaded curtain aside.

The first thing he noticed was the knife. It was not far from the door, gleaming with blood. For that matter, most of the floor was spattered with blood. His mind went blank. A gurgling cough drew his attention. She was there, just out of sight from the doorway, sitting propped up against the cupboards. Covered with blood.

“Jesus Christ...” He was at her side in an instant. She was clutching her stomach. Her hands and arms were covered with cuts—defensive wounds—but he knew that was hardly the worst of her injuries. He pressed his hand against her abdomen, and blood soaked his hands immediately. “What happened? Have you called for help?”

“Couldn't reach the phone...” She made a strangled sound halfway between a laugh and a whimper. “It's not all my blood.” She jerked her chin toward the back door, which was smeared with blood as well. “Owen came back. I—”

“Stop, just stop. Just focus on breathing. Christ...” He was trying—and failing—to stay calm for her. He'd seen plenty working at the hospital, not to mention his own sordid past, but there was too much blood here. Even if more than half of it was Owen's, Annie had lost a lot. Too much. He grabbed her wrist and felt for her pulse. Thready. Weak. Her heart was struggling to beat. There was no way an ambulance could get here in time. He hung his head.

“Are you hungry?” It was hardly more than a whisper. He jerked his head up to look at her, and caught the glint in her eye. It was a joke. A stupid, dark joke she made knowing perfectly well that she wasn't getting out of this. He gaped at her. She shifted a bit. “No, I mean it. You don't even have to bite me this time.”

“Annie...” His voice cracked. She leaned her head against the cupboards behind her.

“I should've known this would happen. I should've run away, but god, I was just so tired of being frightened of him.” She coughed again. He couldn't look at her face. “Sorry you had to see this. He was the last one to touch the knife. His fingerprints are still on it. As long as you don't touch it, you won't... ”

It seemed to take her ages to get the words out. She trailed off, like it was taking too much effort to speak. It probably was. A thought occurred to him. A stupid, dangerous thought. What was his alternative? Let her die here? Frightened and bleeding on her kitchen floor? He shrugged out of his jacket.

“Annie,” he began cautiously. Her eyelids fluttered, like she couldn't quite open them, but she murmured his name, which was enough for him. “I can save you. I can make you like me, and then you'll be alright.” The moments stretched eternal. He watched her chest rise and fall: too subtle, too slow. There wasn't must time. He wanted to shake her, but that would only scare her. She forced her eyes open and stared into his very being. How she had so much power even as her strength was waning, he didn't know. But she was searching him. He needed an answer. “Will you let me save you?”

She was taking too long. Just as he started to grow fearful that it was too late, that she was already gone, she nodded. “I don't want to die, Mitchell.” A tear dropped from the corner of her eye and made its way down her cheek.

Horror stories sprang to his mind: kind people turned cruel, gentle people turned vicious, innocent people ripped apart and filled with the filthy bloodlust. He dismissed them all as he tore into his wrist with his teeth. He had to try. He hadn't changed, not by much. And he could help her. If they did it carefully, she'd only have to feed the once, just to replenish the blood she'd lost, and then never again. She could be so much cleaner than he was. She didn't have to change.

His blood started to ooze, thick and black, and he pressed his wrist to her lips. She was already cold but he could feel her breath against his skin. There was still time. He pressed harder. She choked and tried to turn her head away but he was unrelenting. “You've got to drink it,” he demanded. She had to.

When it was all over, he listened carefully for signs that her body was shutting down. He heard her heart stutter to a stop, heard one last human breath leave her lungs. A sigh of relief left his own lungs, and he sat back for a moment. It was done. Whatever he'd just done, however he'd just altered her, there was no going back now.

He rose to his feet and, though he was a bit more unsteady than he would have liked, he bent over to scoop her into his arms. She wasn't going to wake up in the same place where she'd died. Fearing the worst if he tried to manage the stairs, all he could do was lay her out gently on the couch. It would be a while still. He had time to go and try to clean up the kitchen. When she woke up, he knew the smell would drive her mad. But it didn't really matter how well he cleaned it: they were both covered with her blood. She'd go mad either way.

So he just sat there, perched on the edge of the table with his eyes trained on her face. A line from that poem about the blackberries just kept repeating in his head: Once off the bush/the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. Try as he might, he couldn't force it away. This was different. She was different. She would be fine. Nothing would change.

He sat there for most of the night, a silent, constant vigil. There was no telling when she would wake up, but there was no doubt in his mind that she would. Finally he could take it no longer. He stood up and began pacing the length of the room. He would find someone and drain them into containers so she wouldn't have to remember feeling the life ebb from someone. And then they would be fine.

He was gnawing on his fingernails when he heard her sit bolt upright on the couch with a gasp of terror. He turned to smile at her.

***

So, chary and excited, 
As a thrush linked on a hawk, 
We thrilled to the March twilight
With nervous childish talk: 
Still waters running deep
Along the embankment walk.