Christmas Eve was cold, but at least the snow had stopped. The forecast said it would be slightly warmer on Christmas day, just above freezing. All that meant was that there'd be a few less car accidents because of frozen streets.
I'd made the phone call to Rachel Twillings, and met her at her office on Monday, December twenty-third. I had officially been hired as a columnist, though I wouldn't actually be starting until January first. On the third I'd be on a plane with Tess and Cam, on my way to Florence. While there I was to do an interview with three female scholars at a nearby university on the status of women in Italian society. They had given me a lot of leeway on this first article, and I felt excited about it, as if I was just starting a new chapter in my life.
The morning of the twenty-fourth I finally got fed up with having somebody with me constantly. Tess and Cam were the victims of my explosion, and it didn't take them long to say they'd just go stay at Jesse's apartment, and see me the next day at Nix's place. I was glad. I'd had more than enough Christmas cheer from them, and didn't think I could go one more day without starting to throw ornaments at them.
It wasn't that I was depressed, really. I just needed space, something that had been at a premium since the attack by Shelby. I was naturally a loner in many ways, and being crowded was just not what I needed.
So, they left, and I stared out the window, relishing the silence. There was a lot to do, like making dinner, sorting laundry, wrapping presents, and packing for the trip. But right at that moment all I needed was the quiet.
Which I knew I wasn't going to get, since the phone rang right then.
I answered it to find Kruise nearly hyperventilating on the other end.
"Trey? Hey, you should kno--"
The doorbell rang.
"Hang on, Kruise, someone's at the door."
"-- got a phone call -- no, Trey, wait!" I put the phone down, wondering what could have made Kruise sound so desperate, and headed for the door.
As I did, I thought about the last time I opened a door for someone, and the shock of seeing Tess there. I hesitated as a moment of almost panic swept over me, remembering all that happened that night, but I pushed it away and reached for the handle. I wondered who it was this time.
It never entered my mind that it might be Jace.
She stood there, fidgeting and shifting her weight from one foot to another.
"Hi, Trey." Her voice was soft, just above a whisper.
We just stared at each other for a few seconds. I don't know what my face showed, probably shock at seeing her. Jace was biting her lip; she looked like she wanted to either hug me or run away.
"How did you know where I was?"
She shrugged. "I called Kruise's number, but it was disconnected, so I called her at work. She said you were here, but she wouldn't give me the number."
"Oh." Then I remembered Kruise was still holding. "Oh, shit."
Leaving the door open, I ran back to the phone and picked up the handset. "Kruise?"
"Yeah. Did you open the door?" She sounded worried.
"Was it her?"
I glanced up at Jace, who had stepped inside and closed the door. "Uh-huh."
"Oh. Damn." I could hear her take a breath. "I'm sorry, Trey, I was trying to --"
"Warn me. Yeah, I got that. Thanks for trying, Kruise."
"Are you okay?"
"Sure. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have company."
"I'm fine, Kruise. I'll call you later, all right?"
"Like right after she leaves? I mean, you close the door behind her and you're on the phone with me, got it? Otherwise --" Her voice was higher than normal, like she was very anxious about something.
"I'm hanging up now, Kruise."
"Wait, you're not alone, are you? Where're --"
"Bye, Kruise." Her slightly hysterical voice was still coming from the phone when I hung it up.
Jace was still standing by the door. I sighed and waved at her.
"You might as well come in and sit down."
She looked uncertain. "Is Kruise --"
"Going to kill you? Maybe." I shrugged. "But she'll have to call Jesse, and it'll take her a while to get here, at least an hour. You and I can talk till then, right?"
At first I wasn't sure she'd take the humor the way it was intended. Then she chuckled and reached for the zipper of her coat. "Right. We can talk till Jesse shows up to kill me."
I poured coffee for each of us and we sat on the couch. Neither of us spoke for several long minutes, each of us seemingly waiting for the other to start the conversation. I used the silence to really look at her.
Her skin was darker than I remembered, probably from the California sun, and she seemed to have lost a couple of pounds. There was a sad look on her face, but the lines at the corners of her eyes had faded somewhat. She looked great, overall, and I wondered just how I looked to her.
"You look pale, Trey. Like you're not getting enough sun."
I shrugged. "It's winter in New York. Too cold to be outside much."
"Right." She nodded and looked away, embarrassment coloring her face.
"You look good, though." I pointed at her arms. "You've been working out again, huh?" She nodded, smiling a little. "Looks good."
We fell quiet again.
She nodded. "Good. Sunny, or at least it was when I left."
"Does it ever get below fifty out there?"
Jace shook her coffee spoon at me. "I'll have you know that there are nights that get as low as freezing out there."
"Wow. Freezing. Gee, that must be cold." I glanced outside. "Does it snow?"
"Ah. So, it's not so bad cause it's a dry cold?"
She glared, then laughed. "Hey, don't knock it. Just think about our sunshine when you're freezing your ass off at negative ten or fifteen."
I had to laugh with her. She was right, the weather in New York was not always the best -- but there was just so much else that made up for it.
We sipped our coffee for a couple of minutes, but at least this time I felt a little more comfortable. She may have been gone for a few months, but she was still my Jace.
"So, are you ever going to leave New York?"
I shrugged. "Probably not, or at least if I do, it'll only be for a little while."
"Why do you like it here so much?" She sounded curious, with a hint of exasperation thrown in.
"Why?" I stirred my coffee while I mused on that. "I think -- well, you know how they call it the city that never sleeps?" She nodded. "Well, it's not that. Sometimes I wish it would sleep, as a matter of fact."
She chuckled, but didn't say anything.
"The thing is, New York is like this huge -- well, like a huge rabbit warren, if you want, or a deep dark cave. There's always another turnoff to explore, another tunnel that might hold a mystery. Always something new."
"Don't you think any large city would be like that?"
"Sure, but in a different way." Leaning forward, I put my mug on the coffee table. "New York is the same size in miles as many other cities on the east coast, but it has more people, so it had to find a different way to fit them all in. Instead of building out, they built up. Look at the skyscrapers -- people now work and live half a mile above the ground. That's a different way of living, and I think it changes the mindset you have. There are also so many different cultures. Some of them blend together to create even more. It's alive. Not just the people, but the city. There's an energy here, it draws people." I knew I had slipped into my standard 'New York is a great city' spiel, and I hesitated, remembering that Jace had not only heard it, she had shared it. "You felt that draw at one time." I tilted my head. "Remember when all you talked about was wanting to work on Broadway?"
"I remember." Her face was sad.
"What changed, Jace?" I asked softly. "What made you want to leave your dream?"
Jace stood and moved to the front window. Looking out at the street, she sighed. "I don't know, Trey. One day I woke up, and it just wasn't what I wanted anymore."
"What wasn't? Broadway? New York? Or me?" I heard my voice crack on the last part, and had to swallow hard.
That made her turn to look at me. "No, Trey. My decision to leave had very little to do with you."
"Little to do with me? We'd been together for almost a year, but it had little to do with me? You just decided to leave, despite what we had?" I had risen off the couch, letting the anger carry my voice. "Did I mean that little to you?"
"No." She came to my side, her hand stroking my face. "Baby, I love you. I loved you when I left, and I love you even now."
I had to force myself to swallow. "But?"
Her gaze lowered, down to the floor. "But -- I just couldn't stay."
With a sigh she dropped to the couch. I sat next to her, really wanting to understand, if for no other reason to put this behind me.
"Jace, please. Tell me what happened. I still wake up in the middle of the night and reach for you, and it hurts when you're not there. So tell me what the fuck I did that --" My voice was breaking, my eyes threatening with tears, and I was glad that she put a finger over my lips to stop my words.
"It wasn't you, Trey," she said quietly. After taking a deep breath, she looked away and gave a little sad laugh. "It was Star."
"Star?" I repeated the name in surprise. "Star was dead by that time, what the hell do you --" But suddenly I knew what the hell she meant.
After I got out of the hospital we'd had an equal number of nightmares, Jace and I. Mine would involve the dead bodies from the warehouse, or watching Star slash and stab people, before she came over and put her hand around my throat to squeeze, the way she did the night she died.
The night we killed her.
I didn't know what Jace's nightmares were about. She never told me. I'd awake from my own bad dreams to find her already up, sitting in the living room playing solitaire on the computer, or in the kitchen making some kind of cookies. We didn't talk much about it. I figured they'd fade with time, and they did. Except, by the time mine faded completely, Jace was on a plane for Los Angeles. I never thought to wonder if hers were about the same thing mine were.
I touched Jace's face gently, turning her face to mine. "I'm sorry, Jace. I knew you were having trouble, but I never knew how much."
She nodded. "And I knew you were having just as many nightmares. I did nothing to help you either." Wiping her eyes a little, she gave me a half-smile. "I figured you wanted to deal with it yourself, just like you always do. Maybe I should have insisted."
"Maybe we both should have."
I got another smile for that, along with a nod.
We sat in silence, holding hands.
"Are you happy in California?" I knew the question was coming out of the blue, but it seemed like the right thing to ask. Jace's happiness was all I wanted right then.
Jace smiled, her eyes lighting up just a little. "Yeah. I am happy." She paused. "Are you still happy here in New York?"
I sighed. "You know, if you'd asked me that a few days ago, I would have had to say no. But --" I shrugged. "That had nothing to do with the city."
"What did it have to do with?" When I didn't answer right away, she continued in a soft voice. "Was it me?"
Shaking my head, I chuckled a little. "No. I would have loved to blame you for it, but no." I leaned back a little bit. "You know, almost dying is supposed to be kind of an enlightening thing. This is twice I've almost kicked the bucket, and you'd think I was some wise sage now." With a full blown laugh I shrugged. "I'm not. All I know is, I can live with myself now. I wasn't so sure before; every time I crawled into an empty bed or woke up to an empty apartment, I felt like I was drowning." I looked around. "I am now; sure I mean. I'll be okay."
She didn't say anything for a minute. Then she looked up at me, a worried frown on her face. "You -- um, you almost -- died, again?"
"Yeah. Short version?" She nodded. "You remember Shelby, from Jesse's vamp club?" An 'ick' face and another nod. "Well, she wanted to kill me for taking Jess away." I laughed. "Not that I did or anything -- I just brought Nix home, and Jess realized she really was in love. But, anyway -- Shelby kidnapped me and tried to pump me full of heroin." I paused. "Okay, she did pump me full of heroin, but the others, as in Jesse, Nix, Tess and Kruise, all got there in time, and I didn't die." I spread my hands in an 'oh, well' gesture. "It was close, and Jesse said I would have if they hadn't gotten lucky, but they did, I didn't, and that's all I want to think about."
Jace's face had gone pale and she blinked. "Heroin?"
Her gaze dropped, but then it came back up. "And -- Nix and Tess were there? Together?"
She swallowed, then sighed. "Doesn't even faze you, does it?"
"Of course it did! I mean, fuck, I was flat on my back for two days almost. You're damn right it fazed me."
"No, not the heroin. Them."
"Them who?" I sounded puzzled even in my own ears.
"Nix and Tess."
It was my turn to frown. "What are you talking about?"
Jace took a deep breath and looked up. "They killed her, Trey."
"Who?" She tilted her head. "You mean Star?" She nodded. "Well, what did you expect would happen, Jace? Did you think we were tracking her down to play tiddly winks? You heard what she did to Nix's lover. You know what she did to Kruise, and --"
"I know all that. I do. I just --" She raised an arm, then let it fall back down. "I just can't get it out of my head that they actually killed someone. Shot her dead. Blew her brains out." She sighed, a hint of frustration in her face. "I can intellectually understand that it was necessary, and there were reasons, and I knew it was going to happen ahead of time, but --" Another sigh, this time with a shrug. "I'm not like you, Trey. I can't just dismiss that."
I took a deep breath and nodded, finally understanding. "Your dreams weren't about Star hurting us, were they? They were about Tess pulling the trigger."
She looked miserable, but nodded back.
"It's okay, Jace." I moved forward, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Look, none of us knew exactly what to expect, and the whole thing blew up in our faces." I shook my head. "I never expected us to actually be there. I figured we'd get sent out the way we always did. From what I learned later, that was the plan, but it didn't happen."
"I know all that. But it still -- I just can't --"
"I know." I leaned forward on impulse and kissed her gently. "And you needed to get away from that. From the memory, from the nightmares -- from them." I frowned. "From me."
She nodded again. So did I.
"I understand, babe." And I did. For the first time in months, I really got it. "Look, you said you're happy in California, and that's good. New York will always be my home. So, maybe it's a good thing we split the way we did. It saved us from bigger problems in the future, and made it possible to part as friends."
"Did we what?"
"Part as friends?"
I smiled and nodded. "Always, Jace."
She leaned forward and hugged me, and I wrapped my arms around her, feeling more comfortable with everything in my life than I had since she got on the plane for California.
I heard the lock on the door and turned to see Jesse burst into the apartment.
"Trey, are you --" Her gaze landed on Jace and I with our arms wrapped around each other, and I watched her mouth drop open and her eyes go wide.
"Am I what, Jess?"
She made a motion toward us with her hand. "Um. Hi, Jace."
"Jesse." Jace let go of me and moved toward Jess to hug her. "I hear you saved Trey's life, again. Thank you."
"No problem." She hugged Jace back, this look of astonishment on her face. "You doin' okay?"
"Yeah." Jace stepped back. "I hear you're back with Nix?" Jesse nodded. "That's great." She patted Jess's arm. "Don't let her go again, okay?"
"I won't." Jesse smiled.
"I take it you heard from Kruise?" I asked with a grin.
Her smile turned sheepish. "Well, yeah. She said Jace was here and I should come over cause she couldn't get off work. Didn't want you all upset, Trey." She looked closely at me. "You don't look upset."
"Well, good. Guess my job is done then."
Jace laughed. "Still the warrior for the two of them, huh, Jesse?"
Jesse turned red, but just shrugged. They hugged again. "Be well, Jace."
"You, too, Jesse. Take care."
Jesse glanced at me. "See you tomorrow?"
"You know it. Drive carefully, Jesse."
She winked at me and left.
Jace turned to me, a smile on her face. "Looks like falling in love has been good for her. She actually smiled and joked."
I laughed. "I know. Nix and her are both doing well. Or, as well as they can be, with Nix dying and all."
Her jaw dropped and I laughed again. "Oh, I can see this is going to be a long conversation. Want something to go with the coffee?"
"Are you asking me to stay for dinner?"
"Sure. I like cooking dinner for friends."
She smiled and nodded.
My world was right again.
Christmas day was once again snow free, but we had enough piled up that I didn't think anymore was necessary. I stuffed all the presents for people into a duffle bag and called for a cab. Dinner was at one, but we were all expected to be there earlier for present opening and hot chocolate.
I had actually been to Nix's place only two other times. I almost missed it, as it was all lit up with Christmas lights and had a tree decorated outside. The cabby dropped me off in front of it, and I stood there gazing at it a little while. I was in a great mood, and watching all the little twinkling lights just made me smile. But, I figured I had to get that under control, or the gang might think I was either trying too hard, or something else was going on. So, I waited until I could get my smile dimmed down, and headed inside and up to the penthouse.
Dayle answered the door, and she kissed me, pointing up to the mistletoe.
"It was Cam's idea, so don't yell at me." She winked, and I had to bite my lip to stop from smiling again.
"Right." It sounded exactly like something Cam would do.
After taking my coat, Dayle directed me to the tree to put the presents out. "They're not in any kind of order. We just put them in where ever they seemed to fit."
"Am I the last one here?"
"Pretty much. Just waiting for Tess to get back. She forgot something at the apartment."
I sat in front of the tree and spread the presents out. At least one for each of them, all carefully picked out. Cam had helped me with ideas for Tess and Dayle, but I had made sure no one knew what they were getting. This was the first Christmas in a long time that I'd actually be in a whole 'family' type setting, so I might have gone a little overboard. But it felt good, and I wasn't going to take them back.
For a few moments I just looked at the tree, which had already, at ten-thirty in the morning, been lit up. Lights twinkled merrily while ornaments of all colors and shapes hung from green branches. I glanced at the top to see an angel gracing the uppermost bough, but as I stood, I realized it wasn't any angel I'd ever seen before.
Not only did the halo appear to have been ripped off, the angel had no wings. It did, however, have two tiny fangs that stuck out of its upper lip. Someone had carefully glued two small teeth to the figure.
I turned to find Nix watching me with a smile.
"That's very cool. Did you do that?"
"Actually, no. You remember Cindy, Chris's daughter?"
"Yeah. Did she do that?"
The vampire nodded. "When she was fourteen. A few months earlier I had finally told her my secret. She gave me that for my tree. Said I had always been an angel to her, and she wanted me to remember that." Her eyes were misty as she looked up at the reformed angel. "No matter what, that angel comes out at Christmas. My way of reminding myself of a very good time in my life."
The look on her face was one of peace, though tinged with just a touch of sadness. "Do you still keep in touch?"
She nodded and crooked a finger for me to follow her. On the mantel were several Christmas cards all strung together. Nix lifted one and handed it to me. On the inside flap was a short note, signed Cindy. The cover had an angel flying through the snow.
"That's great, Nix." I elbowed her. "See? You did something really good with that situation. Even though a little girl lost her mother, she gained a family."
Nix chuckled, her head tilting a little. "I suppose you're right. Where ever we were, we never failed to send gifts for Cindy, or neglected to call her. Often we sent a plane ticket for her to come visit for a while." She sighed. "I need to plan a trip to California. She'll never believe what I have to tell her."
We fell silent for a moment, both thinking of trips to be taken.
"I hear you had a visitor yesterday."
Smiling, I nodded.
"So, are you thinking of ditching Italy for the sunny shores?"
"Oh, no." I put a mocking tone of shock in my voice. "Out there where earth quakes replace alarm clocks and people think 'dude' is the coolest word ever? Not on your life."
"But, dude! Quakes are just the coolest things!" I glared at her and she laughed, mocking with me. "Actually, they used to scare the hell out of me, but don't you ever tell Tess that, got it?"
I grinned, already thinking of blackmail. She noticed and glared at me, but soon we were chuckling at each other.
"So, if you're not moving there, is she moving -- ?"
"No, Nix, we're not getting back together. That's not what yesterday was about."
"Uh-uh. Yesterday was -- closure. Both of us coming to understand what the other needed, and that we couldn't give it to her. Not when she left, and not now." I sighed. "I was kind of bummed when she first left last night, but -- it's what we both need. And we're friends now. That was important."
Nix nodded slightly and leaned forward to hug me. "I'm proud of you, Trey."
After hugging her back, I put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm actually glad I've got you alone, Nix. Wanted to talk to you."
"About?" She took my hand and led me to the couch.
"Your question." I sat beside her. "I finally have an answer for you."
"Yeah? 'Bout time." She winked, a smile on her face. "If I remember right, the question was 'why do you keep writing if you're not making a living at it?' Right?" The smile widened. "And if you say it's because you just got a job offer, I'm going to have to sic Cam and Kruise on you. They've been wanting details of last night."
I had to laugh at that. "No. Even if I hadn't gotten this job, I'd have kept writing."
"Why?" She put her arm against the back of the couch and looked at me curiously. "What's the answer, Trey?"
I smiled. "I'm a storyteller, Nix. It's what I do. It's who I am. All I've ever wanted was to tell people about the images, the stories that fill my mind. It's what keeps me alive. And whether the story is happy or sad, it's what lives inside of me. Kill the stories, the body will die right along with them." The smile faded. "I nearly let everyone kill my dreams. I got so caught up in the need to publish, the need to tell EVERYONE my stories, that I forgot that the person I write them for is me. Because it's what I do, and who I am. I'm a storyteller. Published, or not, or just giving people like Cam and you and Jesse printouts of my stories, what's important is the story -- not who else reads it." I shook my head. "I forgot that the dream isn't about publishing. It's about the story itself. The stories ARE the dreams. And when I lose that, I lose me."
Her smile matched mine. "And now? Do you have that dream back?"
"I went to bed at four this morning after writing for six hours straight." I raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?"
She grinned and hugged me tight. "I think you found your answer, Trey. I really think you did." Nix leaned back, looking at me. "What brought you to this realization, do you think?" Her hand brushed through my hair. "Your eyes are more clear than I've seen them since I got back from Toronto."
I shrugged. "I don't know. I think it was a combination of things. This crap with Shelby, and you guys all kicking my butt last week. The job offer, Jace coming back." My gaze dropped to the couch space between us. "It took a very long conversation with Jace to make me realize how long I'd been not writing, and how much I missed it. How many stories I had to tell yet." The smile returned. "It felt so good to just let loose and write. No editing, no search for perfection, just the story. I'd done articles in the last couple months, but not a lot of fiction." I looked right at her. "You know how you ran to Toronto? And Tess left for England, and Jesse did her own trip, and --"
"And Cam got lost and Jace left for California --"
"And Dayle and Kruise simply ran toward each other. Right." I nodded. "Well, I ran, too. I just did it in a different way. I ran away from me. I stopped writing. Until last night, I had not completed a short story since Star died."
Her jaw dropped a little at that one. "But, I thought --"
"Nope. I sold a couple that I had already written before hand, and I did a couple of reviews and articles. But I couldn't write. And even when I could, I didn't finish anything." I shook my head. "But last night, Nix, after Jace left, it was like -- I just needed to talk with my computer. And I did. I told the stories to it, and they came out. I finished one, and half finished another. And it felt like --" I took a deep breath and let it out. "It felt like coming home."
Nix was smiling again. "Damn, Trey, I am so fucking glad to hear that. I'm proud of you, you know." She hugged me, and I hugged her back.
"And now, I've discovered that sharing revelations is hard work, and I'm hungry. What time is dinner, and --" I looked around, "where is everyone? I expected Kruise to be out here giving me the third degree."
She laughed. "Oh. They're all in the kitchen teasing Jesse."
"Teasing her about what?"
"About wearing an apron."
It was time for my jaw to drop. My voice squeaked a little as I asked, "Jesse? In an apron?" She nodded, and I jumped up. "Show me. This I gotta see."
She was laughing as she headed for the kitchen.
End Part Twenty-three
Concluded in Part 24
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