Author's note: Many thanks to Kassandra for betaing.
Right from the start, I knew it was going to be a bad day.
It wasn't an alarm clock that woke me. I had dispensed with a morning alarm in the weeks after I had returned from the hospital. If one doesn't have an office to go to, there's little point in getting up at a set time every day. I tried to look on this as a benefit. The cold had woken me from my doze, just before light from the slowly rising sun framed in the un-curtained window would have. I raised my head off the desk, and kneaded at the resulting crick in my neck. It and the headache was the kind that only a long soak in a deep hot bath would ease.
The engraved glass plaque whose inscription I'd been trying to translate for a client had pressed its symbols into the skin of my cheek. I should have been more careful with it and put it away in the padding-lined box it had arrived in. With no paycheque from Angel Investigations, my savings were rapidly running out, and until I was well enough to look for regular employment, I was relying on the translation fee. I went into the cramped washroom, rubbing the marked spot with the heel of my hand as I avoided my reflection in the mirror, yawned, stripped and stepped into the shower. I turned the temperature control up as high as it would go - all the way to tepid.
I was starting to hate these sleepless nights with a passion. Losing consciousness at my desk for an hour or two a night, after working myself to exhaustion, just didn't cut it.
But it was better than the way I'd been when I'd just got out of hospital. Not sleeping at all, gritty-eyed and prone to hallucinations. When I did slip into dreamland for a moment, jerking awake immediately from a nightmare of being suffocated by an avenging Angel.
I shut my stinging eyes and let my head fall forward, under the flow of water.
Anything was better than that.
I worked on the translation all morning but got no further with it. How confident, no, how arrogant, I'd been when I'd first glimpsed the plaque and recognized the language - late period Aztec hieroglyphs - easily, on sight. But further study had shown that it was a dialect that I wasn't familiar with, tantalizingly close to the standard glyphs, but subtly different enough to have eluded precise translation for the best part of five decades.
Added to which, there were the problems attendant to working from such a short sample. That was the reason Etruscan and some of the Minoan languages remained a mystery. The only extant texts were short, such as from tombstones or accountancy records. The client's hefty fee for a complete and accurate translation of this piece reflected the difficulty involved.
Balling up yet another useless page of notes and firing it into the waste paper basket, I chewed the end of my pencil until the wood cracked. The only glyph I had positively identified as yet was the name of the sun god, Huitzilopochtli.
At lunchtime I went down to the chemist on the corner to get a box of painkillers, since the prescription that the doctor had given me when I was discharged from the hospital had long ago run out. I dropped into the local internet cafe, used their scanner to take a copy of the plaque's inscription, and emailed it to Giles in England. I sat watching the cursor blink for quite a while before I hit the send button. I haven't needed to ask for help with a translation since the earliest days of my training.
He emailed me back straight away, kindly agreeing to help, and asking after Angel and Cordelia. I took two of the tablets with some water, and the degree of discomfort involved in swallowing, while decreasing every day as my throat healed, persuaded me not to bother with lunch. The powdery tablets left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
Back in my flat, I sat down at my desk and started work on the translation afresh. By the time the waste paper basket was overflowing, and my back was stiffening up from long periods of sitting hunched over my notes and references, my eyes were sore from staring at the plaque. I rubbed a hand over my face. There was still time for a stroll before twilight. It seemed like a good idea to go and get some fresh air. Often exercise causes inspiration to strike, anyway. So I went out and walked for a while.
My mind was still whirring with the symbols that I was trying to understand, so I didn't really notice the first spots of drizzle. After a few minutes, it started to rain in earnest. Although in England I would rarely venture out without a raincoat or at least an umbrella, I had got out of the habit. Pulling up my jacket collar and shoving my hands in my pockets was the best I could do against the rain. I knocked a knuckle on the edge of the plaque, which I'd packed away in its protective box and stuck in my pocket before leaving the flat. I hadn't let it out of my sight since I took it from my client's claw. Not being able to translate the inscription would lose me the translation fee; but losing the plaque itself might shorten my lifespan. The client believed that the plaque's inscription held the only clue to the location of a treasure cache so large and so long lost as to have entered the realm of legend.
Night was falling faster, and the rain was starting to do the same. The streets looked different in the darkness, with the dirt hidden, and the lights glittering off the water in the gutters and on the windshields.
I wasn't lost, in the sense that I knew I was heading in the right general direction, but I didn't quite know where I was. And I was quickly becoming soaked to the skin. I passed the garish blur of a neon Budweiser advertising sign in a window, and decided to wait it out. Any bottle of port in a storm, as my Aunt Florence used to say.
I ducked inside the bar and instantly my glasses misted up, which caused me a pang of homesickness. I dug out a handkerchief to clean them, nearly dropping my mobile phone in the process. I put it down on the bar, and polished my lenses industriously. Once they were back in place, the pale oval blurs dotted around the bar resolved themselves into faces.
The bar was half empty. A woman leant forward over the pool table and made a good clean break, the balls clicking with that satisfying sound that means the game is already half won. Her silver gilt hair swung as she stood back up, and she flicked it back out of her face with a careless movement.
I instinctively took a step back, but she'd already seen me. She reached for the chalk and stroked it over the tip of her cue. "Wesley," she said, her voice cool and rather less than welcoming. She put the chalk down and her next shot knocked in two balls.
"Good evening, Kate," I said and turned to get a drink. "Scotch, please." The men propping up the bar turned to stare at me, as the barman eyed me in an unfriendly fashion and folded his arms.
"It's okay, Joe," Kate said without looking up from the felt, as she moved around the pool table to take her next shot.
The barman shrugged. "If you say so, Kate," he said, and pushed a glass against the whisky optic.
I pulled out a bar stool and sat gingerly. Frankly a long walk in the cold rain looked a more appealing prospect than a whisky in that environment, but there was no way I was going to slink away now. I paid for my Scotch and sipped it, feeling it slip its quiet burning way down my throat.
Surprisingly, the whisky was the real stuff, not watered down. I glanced around the bar, saw trophies, framed photographs of uniformed officers, and more than one medal glinting at me from cases around the walls. A police bar. Perhaps not so surprising after all.
I watched Kate play. She never once raised her eyes off the baize, and stalked around the table like it would pull a fast one if she gave it half a chance. Someone put some money in the jukebox, and it jolted into noisy life, but even that didn't distract her. Her opponent twitched a little more with every ball she potted, and considering the size of the stack of notes on the edge of the table, he had good reason. At length she hit a long angled shot with just a little too much force, and her ball bounced off the back of the pocket and spun back out onto the table again. Kate hissed softly behind her teeth, and her opponent seized his cue, and his opportunity. He made a few pots but then messed up a tricky shot off the cushion. Kate moved back in for the kill, and less than a minute later she was shaking his hand, while she pocketed his money.
She came over, and leaned a hip against the counter. The barman served her what looked like an orange juice without being asked.
I raised an eyebrow in the general direction of her glass. "Orange juice?"
"Yeah. Might be driving later. Best to be prepared."
I nodded. "You played well."
"Thanks. Do you play?" she said, having to raise her voice a little over the jukebox.
I shook my head. "Not really. Just a little snooker in university."
She looked me in the eye. "Want a game?"
After brief happiness with Virginia, and then endless months of longing for Fred, I'd forgotten how attracted I'd been to Kate's more Nordic charms when I'd first met her. Her eyes were still that perfect ice blue, although the look in them hadn't warmed any. "Thank you, no." I took a bigger sip of my drink. Part of it went down the wrong way and I coughed wetly.
Kate swirled her ice cubes and took another sip of her orange juice, making a face at the sourness. "How's your boss doing?"
She hadn't heard. I relaxed a bit. "Fine, thank you." Last time I saw him. "How's your new job going?" I'd heard that Kate's new career as a private detective was going very well. Already she had more clients on her books than Angel Investigations did. Not that it would be difficult.
Kate shrugged. "Same old, same old. I lose some, the jury convicts some..." She finished her juice, ordered another, and looked at me. "Refill?"
I swallowed the rest of my whisky, without choking this time. "Thanks, I'm going to head home. I just came in to get out of the rain." Looking for shelter, for respite, but it's colder in here than it is outside. I put my glass down on the bar. "Good to see you. See you around."
She pointed at the rear entrance. "Go out that way and turn left. It's a short cut." I didn't ask how she knew where I lived. I felt her eyes on my back as I left.
He must have been waiting for the next person to come through the back door. He punched me in the stomach as I stepped out into the alleyway. As I huffed in pain and surprise, he grabbed me by the throat, swung me round, and slammed me up against the wall. There was a crunching noise as the plaque in my jacket pocket smashed on impact. I clawed at the large hand gripping my windpipe. My feet scrabbled for purchase on the ground, but he was taller than me and I couldn't reach. He punched me in the stomach again and I gasped for air. The pallid skin of his face changed, rippled, erupted - a vampire!
I yanked my cross out of the neck of my jersey as he went to bite me. It hit his cheek and sizzled on contact as his nose brushed my neck. The vampire roared, pulling back enough for me to get some punches in, but not for long. He took my shoulders in his hands and shook me as a terrier shakes a rat between its teeth, banging my head repeatedly against the wall. The pain made me see stars. The edges of the bricks caught and tore at the back of my head with each slam. I felt warm blood trickle down my neck from my scalp tearing. The vampire's nostrils flared at the scent of it. He knocked my hand aside easily and pushed his face again into the side of my neck.
I felt his teeth pierce the skin - I had a split second to feel it sting - my father would be so ashamed at my pathetic death, helpless vampire fodder in a filthy foreign alley -
Then there was an explosion of light and a blare of music. Kate appeared behind the vampire and yelled, "Freeze!" just like in the movies. She was close enough that I could see her knuckles whiten on her gun and her finger twitch on the trigger. The vampire dropped me and whirled. He roared and lurched towards her and a shot rang out. The vampire stumbled and fell back against me.
Then Kate got her first look at my assailant's face in the dim streetlight. Her face paled. She fired again reflexively - but of course the shot hardly slowed the vampire down. As he leapt at her, I reached down, scrabbling for the first weapon - picked up the lid off a rubbish bin and clouted him across the back of the head with it. He brushed off the blow, kept going. Kate fired again, point blank at his face. I threw myself at the back of his knees in a rugby tackle, felling him to the ground. We rolled around in the alley's garbage. I got in another couple of punches but they were pretty ineffectual. He was so strong. His long dirty hair got in my eyes as he held me down and hit me again and again in the face. My lip split and the taste of copper filled my mouth. Another few wallops from him and my concussion was coming on nicely. I prayed Kate was getting away or better yet getting help.
Distantly I heard swearing and cracking noises but I was too occupied in trying to keep the vampire at arm's length to identify them. He head butted me twice in quick succession, knocking my glasses crooked and making the world blur. He came in closer, blood and matter falling into my face from the gunshot wound Kate had inflicted on him, his hands crushing my windpipe, his stinking hair clogging my mouth as I struggled to breathe. He grinned at me and went for my jugular. I tried to stop him but my arms were rubbery. In slow motion his fangs came closer, closer - Then a booted foot appeared in the corner of my diminishing vision, kicking him in the face, breaking the skin over his cheekbone, propelling him away from me. I lay there with the rain drowning me, blinking. How had that happened?
The music from the bar stopped as the jukebox changed records. Into the suddenly deafening silence, Kate shouted, "Help me!"
The vampire rolled smoothly onto all fours, growling. He jumped to his feet and Kate circled him, a pointed piece of packing crate wood in her hand. I got up, swaying and fighting down the urge to vomit. She watched him for an opening and he watched her with a big grin on his ruined face, as though he enjoyed playing with his food.
The bastard. A hot surge of rage gave me fresh energy. As he turned so his back was to me, I fought off dizziness and leapt onto his back, seized his elbows and held him with all my remaining strength. He struggled strongly, muscles straining under my grip. I clung on out of sheer desperation. Kate saw her moment and leapt forward, hitting him in the chest. He shrieked and thrashed but didn't turn to dust - she'd missed his heart - and I lost my grip on one of his arms, but as he flailed at her with his free hand, quickly she struck again. Another miss. Kate yanked back her makeshift stake, her hand red to the wrist. Stolen blood gouting from his chest, the vampire screamed and tore himself out of my grip. I yelled a warning. Over his shoulder as he lunged towards her, I saw Kate's white face contort with hatred, her eyes blazing. She drove her stake into his chest, dead on target. The stake went right through him with the force of the blow and protruded a couple of inches from his back. He exploded in a cloud of dust.
Kate raced forward and grabbed me as my knees gave out. She propped me against the alley wall by the simple method of leaning her weight against me. My heart was pounding, the sleeping aches in my throat all had woken up and were complaining, and my lungs felt raw. As the vampire's dust mingled with the rain, the back door of the bar poured forth several large men. Knights in shining badges, just a minute or two too late.
I slid down in the bath so that the near-scalding hot water came up to my nose, and sighed. Bliss. Very soon I was going to wash my hair, and scrub the alley dirt and the vampire remains off my skin, but right now, I wanted to savour this. Whatever else is not ideal about American culture, it has to be said that their plumbing is the best in the world.
When I eventually pulled back the shower curtain and got out of the tub after much lavish sluicing, I found fresh towels, a neat pile of clean clothes, and a new wrapped toothbrush waiting. My own clothes had disappeared into some laundry limbo, which was fine by me, although it worried me vaguely that I hadn't noticed Kate come in and do the swap. I must have got hit harder in the head than I thought.
I used her gifts and pulled on the tracksuit bottoms slowly, wincing. I was going to be one big bruise tomorrow, but to look on the bright side at least I would see a tomorrow. I left off the sweatshirt as the side of my neck was still bleeding a little. I limped out of the bathroom, and followed the smell of coffee towards the kitchen.
Kate, who had showered first, turned from doing something at the sink and scrutinized me. She opened a cupboard, pulled out a bottle, and poured me a sizeable tumbler of something tawny. "Cooking brandy," she said. "Drink it."
I sat down a trifle shakily at the table and did as she said, taking tiny sips. If it had any resemblance to a culinary ingredient, it was cooking brandy as featured in the meals of Lucretia Borgia. It aged my liver with every sip, but it calmed the tremors in my hands. Kate poured a good slug of the stuff into her coffee mug and put the bottle away. Then she fetched a battered metal box and started lining up packets of cotton wool, bandages and antiseptic on the table.
"Right," she said briskly, rolling up her sleeves. "I'd better take a look at you."
I looked at the supplies, selected a bottle of liquid antiseptic. "I can manage, thank you."
She took the bottle out of my hand and put it back on the table. "I know you didn't want the paramedics called back in the alley, but do you want me to take you to the Emergency Room?"
I've hated hospitals ever since I spent a lot of time in them as a child. "I'm fine." I reached stiffly for some of the cotton wool.
"Let me, you can't even see properly," Kate said.
I sat back, letting her take over. To be honest, I was grateful. The headache I'd woken up with had returned with a vengeance worthy of the legendary Anyanka and now that I was cooling down after all that hot water, I was starting to stiffen up.
Kate pulled on a pair of latex gloves. She looked at the front of my throat. Her eyes traced the line of the scar that doomed me to a future of polo neck sweaters and much wearing of scarves. She met my eye for a minute but I couldn't read her expression. Then she moved to my side and began cleaning the bite. I caught my breath as the antiseptic stung me. "Sorry," she said. Clenching my jaw, I leaned my forearms on the table, concentrating on breathing slowly and steadily.
She smeared some antibiotic cream on the wound. "There," she said at length. "Are you up to date on your tetanus shots?"
"Yes, thank you."
She applied a large bandage. "Did he get you anywhere else?"
"I think I've a few bruises on the back of my head."
Kate moved behind me, bending over to peer at my scalp, close enough that her breath stirred the strands of my hair. "Your hair's so dark, it's hard to see if you do," she said. She straightened up and I tensed as I felt her fingers slip into my hair, cool and gentle. She traced her fingers lightly over my scalp, feeling slowly and carefully for the damage. I let the weight of my head ease back a little into her hands and my eyes drifted shut. She went over every inch of my scalp and it didn't hurt at all. Too soon she stopped. I sat up and blinked. I probably shouldn't have drunk the brandy so fast, on top of a whisky, a head wound and an empty stomach.
"I think... hmm," she said, probing carefully with a fingertip at one patch of skin. "Yeah, I think you're okay. There's a bunch of grazes, and head wounds always bleed a lot, but you cleaned them pretty well in the bath, and they'll heal quicker if I don't put anything on them." She stripped off the gloves, disposed of them, and started to pack away the medical kit with quick, efficient movements. "I put your things in the washer. This box was in your pocket. I'm afraid whatever was in it was broken. Be careful, I've already cut myself on it," she said, handing me the crushed box containing the plaque. Or at least the pieces of the plaque.
I wedged the box's flaps apart to see that the plaque had broken into two pieces. Bugger. So much for the protective packaging, but then the padding was not designed to deal with getting slammed into a wall by an irate vampire. Kate had handed it to me carefully, but my own clumsiness meant that one of the jagged edges poking out of the cardboard sliced my thumb. The cut didn't hurt. I hardly realized it was a cut until I saw the blood welling up in a thin line. The Aztecs had used obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, to make their razor sharp sacrificial knives. I could see where they had got the idea. A cut wasn't the worst thing that was going to happen to me once the client found out that her precious plaque had been broken, and, worse, was still untranslated. But that was tomorrow's problem. Narrowly avoiding being a vampire's snack certainly aids perspective.
I went towards the sink, intending to rinse off the blood, but Kate caught my hand before I got there, and looked closely at the cut. "Just needs a Band-Aid," she said as she opened her kit again, cleaned the scratch and put some sticking plaster on it. "I think you'll live to see the weekend." Dropping my hand, she passed me a couple of large pills and a glass of water. I looked at them dubiously. They were the size of horse tablets. "They're painkillers. Take them; otherwise you'll have trouble sleeping. Vampire bites aren't like ordinary injuries. They heal slow, and hurt for a long time." She turned and put the medical kit away.
I swallowed the tablets with a gulp of the water and cleared my throat. "Thank you."
"No problem. Let's finish these in the living room. It's cold out here."
I put the broken plaque down on the table, carefully pulled the sweatshirt on over my head, picked up my glass, and followed her.
Her living room was just like mine, in the sense that she had very few possessions apart from shelves of books and a stereo. Kate sat down in the armchair. I sat on the only other seating, the small sofa, which was covered in cream throws. I hoped I wouldn't bleed on them. I rolled my glass between my palms, staring into the moving fluid. Kate picked up a remote and pressed a button. Music began to play. A disembodied female voice sang softly, "You say the spark is gone, let's get an electrician."
"Massive Attack," I said.
"Yes," Kate said, a tinge of surprise in her voice.
I shrugged, and then wished I hadn't. "They are a British band, and this was one of Cordy's favourite albums. I'm more of a classical man myself."
"You astonish me," she deadpanned, relaxing back in her chair and crossing her legs. She ran her fingertip around the rim of her coffee mug, her eyes starting to get heavy-lidded now that the adrenalin rush from the alley had seeped away. She looked at me over the rim. "Quite a collection of scars you have there."
I shifted a little on the sofa. "Someone 'acted out' on me, I believe you Americans call it."
"Some of them are old scars, but that one on your throat is obviously recent."
"I'm accident prone," I snapped.
"So it seems," she said quietly.
"I appreciate the loan of the clothes," I said awkwardly, after a while. "I'll launder them and get them back to you."
Kate nodded absent-mindedly, her eyes back on her mug. "There's no rush. They were my Dad's."
"I'm sorry about your father."
Kate finished her coffee in one smooth swallow. The brandy in it roughened her voice when she said, "I'm sorry too." She got up and went out of the room, coming back with a glass like mine but with only an inch of brandy in it. She sat down again, grimacing a little as she took a sip. "They can't like it," she said.
"The taste of blood," she said. "I don't even like rare steak myself."
"That's what bugged me most about it, you know," she said. "Not so much that he was killed, because, you know, obviously it wasn't the way he wanted to go, or the way I wanted him to go, but we're cops." She exhaled. "We were cops. Getting killed on the job was a risk we took. But the fact that they used my father as -" she paused, swallowed, went on "- food. Every time I thought about it, my stomach turned. I couldn't look at your boss without seeing it in my mind's eye." She paused, swirled her drink, fiery spirit in a smooth glass capsule. "Still can't, to be honest, even though I know that he's different from other vampires, has a soul and so on."
"I can understand that."
"And now you work with him," she said.
I considered a white lie but it seemed ungrateful somehow. "I did until recently, yes."
She raised an eyebrow enquiringly.
I fixed my eyes on my drink. "We had a falling out." I stole his son and if he ever sees me again, I'm as good as dead. I think that qualifies. "Angel and his ex-partner -" in crime "- had a baby, a son called Connor. There was a prophecy, which stated that Angel would kill his son. I took the boy away for his own protection, and the upshot is that Angel will never see his son again."
I risked a glance at her. She was expressionless. But then in the course of her work, she must often interview suspects without wanting to show whether she believed their stories or not.
"Hence the falling out," she said, her gaze tracing the scar at my neck.
"Yes." I was tempted to correct her assumption that it was Angel who cut my throat. But, suffocated or sliced, I would have been just as dead - and really the whole subject is painful enough as it is, without boring her with all the literally gory details. "And then it turned out that the prophecy was a clever fake. So it was all for nothing." I wish I could have kept the edge out of my tone, but I didn't even realize it was there until the words were out and the damage was done.
Her face was still without expression but her eyes were eloquent with sympathy. "But you couldn't have known that the prophecy was a fake, right?"
I swallowed, feeling the scar move as I did, a constant reminder of the most desperate and painful days of my life. "No."
Kate licked her lips, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "He said to me once, 'if you want to be enemies, try me.' I think that Angel sees the world in black and white. His attitude is, everyone is either on his side or against him. An ally or an enemy," she said.
I remembered the smothering pressure of the pillow on my face, being too weak even to fight back. Angel yelling, 'You're a dead man! Dead!' as the hospital staff struggled to pull him off me. I shivered. "I know what you mean."
"Angel can't forgive himself for the things he's done. He can't allow himself forgiveness for the things he's done. Otherwise he risks slipping back into his bad old ways." Kate paused to let that sink in. "So to his way of thinking, there's no middle ground. For him, or for anyone else."
"Maybe you just have a more forgiving nature than he has."
"Far from it." She shrugged. "I spent a lot of time hating myself, and pretty much everyone around me, for not doing more to prevent my Dad's death. But I've had plenty of time," she shook her head ruefully, "more than enough time to think the whole thing over, and I did the best I could at the time." She looked at me, a look basically as casual as a laser. "Can you honestly say that at the time you did what you thought was best for the baby, and for Angel?"
"Yes," I said without hesitation. With the information I had at the time, what else could I have done? I had gone over and over the prophecy in the days leading up to my kidnap of Connor, like an animal looking for a way out of a trap. In the end there had been no other course of action open to me. I did do my best. For what it was worth.
What Kate said next seemed as though she was reading my mind. She said, "My best wasn't good enough. I made mistakes. I'll always have regrets."
"Always?" I asked. The lamplight haloing her blonde head looked like stars forming and reforming, seen through the tears pricking my eyes.
Mercifully Kate looked away from my face. "Always," she said gently.
I blinked hard, took a few deep breaths.
"But I'm not my own enemy any more," she said. She looked back up at me, serious and solemn as a stone angel. "I don't blame myself. You shouldn't blame yourself, Wesley."
She reached out and squeezed my hand, briefly but warmly. I couldn't look at her.
"We did the best we could. We're only human," she said.
I breathed out slowly and tried to get a grip on things. After a minute, I had enough control to say, "Since I'm sitting here drinking your appalling brandy -" she smiled at that, thank God - "not bleeding due to your first aid skills, and not dead due to your timely intervention, maybe we can take it as read that I'm not your enemy either."
She inclined her head graciously. "Stipulated."
We smiled at each other and for a while there was no sound except the CD clicking off in the quiet room.
"How come there was a timely intervention, anyway?" I asked, curious now that I had had time to think about it.
"You forgot your cell phone."
"Well, that's one mistake I'm glad I made." And then I was laughing helplessly. It was hell on my sore throat and my recovering lungs but for a moment I couldn't stop. Kate smiled too but I didn't feel any mockery in it. Once I'd stopped giggling, there didn't seem to be much to say, but the silence wasn't uncomfortable. Kate got up and put on the radio. We sat there companionably, sipping brandy, listening to the music and the rain outside. It never rains in Southern California? Someone was being over-optimistic. The thought of going out in it again and back to my chilly apartment was not enticing, but I was coming to the end of my drink and probably my welcome too. I was wondering if I had enough cash left for a cab fare, when Kate stifled a yawn.
I finished the rest of my drink quickly and opened my mouth to take my leave when she said, "You can stay if you like. You'll never get a taxi in this weather."
"I don't want to impose -"
"There's a possibility that you might have a concussion. It would be better if someone's around to check on you. I'll get some sheets for the sofa," she said, getting lithely to her feet.
Over my protests, Kate took the couch. "You're wounded. You're taking the bed," she said.
"The couch is fine."
"Not for an injured person."
"I'll be perfectly comfortable here-"
"I don't think so. You'll be taking the bed."
"I'm fine," I protested feebly.
"Sure you are. Better to be on the safe side though." She was busy tucking sheets and unfolding blankets.
"I couldn't put you out of your own room."
"You'll be like a pretzel in the morning - you're too tall for the couch," she said.
"I couldn't put you out of your own bed."
"Don't argue with me. You're taking the bed," she said.
"Really, I'll be fine. I don't want to impose."
She opened a chest, took out an armful of sheets, moved purposefully towards what I assumed was her bedroom door. Over her shoulder she said, "Do not argue with me. You're taking the bed."
I followed her. "Really, you're too kind, the couch is perfectly -"
"I have martial arts training and a handgun. Don't argue with me!"
So I ended up in her bed. If they could see me now, I thought. And very comfortable it was too. The mattress was on the hard side of firm but it was topped with the fluffy coverlets the Americans aptly term 'comforters.' I lay swaddled in warmth. The various ailments of the evening had settled down to dull aches that were easy to ignore. I watched indistinct shadows move across the ceiling as cars passed on the street outside, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
My eyes snapped open. It was pitch black. Something was lying on me, breathing on my neck. I woke up already in mid-panic and shoved it away hard. There was a thump and a yelp. I staggered off the bed, tripped over my own feet, fell across the room towards the light switch. I fumbled it on with clumsy fingers and spun to face -
Her hair hid her face, and I didn't have my glasses on, but that silver blonde shade was unmistakable.
"Are you okay?" I asked cautiously, retrieving the missing eyewear from the bedside table and slipping them onto my nose. Kate pushed her hair out of her eyes, and held out a hand. I helped her to her feet. She was barefoot and wearing a huge black t-shirt that was falling off one shoulder.
"I'm fine," she said, smothering a yawn. "I must have been sleepwalking, and came in here out of habit. Um, goodnight." She had an unfocused look in her eyes that made me think she wasn't entirely awake. She smiled faintly, and disappeared in the direction of the main room. I watched her retreat with a frown, and then closed the door behind her. I got back into my comforter cocoon, and despite the adrenaline surge, fell asleep again almost immediately.
The next time I woke it was getting on for dawn. By the early light, I could see that what had been a generalized feeling of warmth and comfort was in actual fact Kate curled up against my chest. I was spooned up against her, my nose in the sweet-smelling tumble of her hair, holding her tight and dear Lord, this was going to be difficult when she woke up.
Slowly and carefully, so as not to wake her, I eased back, unwound my arm from her waist, and came to rest flat on my back on the bed. I lay there, gulping like a stranded fish, and wondering if I had sufficient stealth to get out of the bed and out into the main room without waking her. She lay still but then a shiver chased down her back, where the covers had tented up and cool air had entered since I had moved away. Before I could do anything, she rolled over and slung an arm around my neck, inadvertently pressing on the still healing knife scar. Her face ended up buried in my throat, right on top of the vampire bite. I grunted in pain before I could stop myself and she woke up.
She lifted her head and blinked at me. She jerked her arm back like she'd been burned and looked confused for a second, but then she rolled her eyes. "I'm a repeat offender," she said.
"Sorry," she said and made to pull the covers back and escape.
"Stay, I'll take the couch."
She fixed me with a steely glare. "No way. Patching you up is no problem but I don't have a crowbar to pry you out of the couch with in the morning."
"Then stay," I said. "It's nearly time to get up anyway."
She took a moment to think it over. I can't have looked like too much of a threat, what with the bandages and the various bruises. She wouldn't have let me stay in her apartment at all if she considered me any kind of risk. But she still hesitated.
"Not if you snore, though," I said.
She snorted at that and settled down again, on her back, her hands folded on her stomach like those of a medieval tomb effigy. I saw her eyes close, heard her deliberately even her breath, and, our heads close together on the pillows, heard the subtle change when the control eased into the rhythm of natural deep and slow sleep breaths. I meant to get up and go sleep on the couch as soon as she fell asleep. But lulled by the soft sound, I was out again before I could move a muscle.
The next morning, I was woken by Kate wriggling out from under my arm and getting out of bed. She padded off to the bathroom. I stretched carefully and lazily and then rolled over into the warmth she'd left, dozing off once more.
The slight dip and spring of the mattress woke me again, when she came back, laden with a breakfast tray, and sat on the edge of the bed. I fumbled for my glasses. Once they were on, I could see that the alarm she'd set last night when she was making up the bed was still a few minutes from ringing. Kate'd been busy while I was still asleep. The curtains were open, showing a sunny day beginning, her hair was damp from the shower, and she was wrapped in a bathrobe several sizes too big for her. She curled her long legs under her like a schoolgirl, poured me coffee and waited, steadying the tray, while I sat up to hand me the mug. Normally I drink tea in the mornings but it was filter coffee, rich and fragrant. She handed me some buttered toast, and spread some jam on a slice for herself.
"Thanks," I said.
"Most important meal of the day," she said, giving me a mischievous look.
I squinted suspiciously at her. "You're a morning person, aren't you?"
She grinned. "Yep. I try not to rub it in. Want another slice?"
I experimented a little and found that the best way to eat toast with a sore throat was to swallow each mouthful with plenty of coffee. I polished off the entire slice of toast in short order. And when had I last eaten anyway? "Please."
While she buttered me another slice, I took stock. The knife scar was hardly noticeable and the bite wound only announced its presence when I moved incautiously. Plus I didn't ache all over as I usually did in the morning - sleeping and waking up in a real bed, instead of passing out and coming around at my desk, probably had something to do with that. Breakfast in bed didn't hurt either. I had better not get used to this.
"What was in those pills? I haven't slept so well in ages," I said.
"They're painkillers that the doctor gave me the last time I got shot," she said matter-of-factly. "They work great but they really knock you out. If you tried driving on them, you'd be wrapped around a stop sign in no time. Strawberry jam?"
"Yes, please." There was no smog this morning, for a nice change, and the sky outside was that clear blue that seems to be unique to California. I watched Kate butter the toast as the sunlight pouring in the window turned her blonde locks into a crown of gold, sparkled off the crockery and flowed through the jam in the pot to scatter rubies on the sheets. I sighed. Before long I was going to have to get out of this bed and back to my flat and reality, and I was going to have one last bash at translating that plaque's inscription, before I checked my email for Giles's reply with, hopefully, another point of view. Kate handed me the toast and I took a bite out of it absently. Another point of view. Mmm.
I dropped the toast, and rocketed off the bed as Kate grabbed the tray to prevent the coffee pot re-enacting scenes from Noah's biography. I bolted into the kitchen and grabbed the plaque, cutting myself again in the process but I hardly noticed. With trembling fingers, I placed the plaque on the windowsill, flat against the glass, with the snapped off piece delicately balanced on top in its original position. The morning light suffused the dark glass and the glyphs incised on it were projected crystal sharp and transposed onto the clean white surface of Kate's counter top. And there it was. Clear as crystal.
The glyphs weren't a different dialect. I had just been looking at them the wrong way. No wonder the sun god glyph was prominently displayed on the piece. Kate came in, just in time to see me smack myself on the forehead.
"You okay?" she asked, in a humour-the-crazy-Englishman tone.
"Yes, fine." Giddy with joy, I impulsively gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. She squeaked like a kitten but didn't object. "When my client sees this she'll be delighted."
"Terrific," she said dryly, stepping back to straighten her robe. "Let's just mop up some of the gore first."
She pushed me into a chair, whipped out the trusty medical kit, and stood just a bit closer than she strictly speaking needed to, as she cleaned and bandaged my cut fingers. I breathed in her scent of citrus shower gel and enjoyed the feel of her cotton-clad knee brushing against my thigh. I put my good arm carefully around her waist and looked up into her sky blue eyes.
"You know, I'm starting to believe the 'accident-prone' thing," she said, her lips quirking at the grin on my face.
In the bedroom, the alarm went off.
"Brace yourself," she said, pressing the last bit of plaster on carefully. "It's the start of a new day."
A new day when all I had to do was my best. "I can tell it's going to be a good one..." I said, stretching up to kiss her softly. She tasted of strawberries. She didn't back away; in fact she looped an arm around my neck and smiled. "Right from the start."
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