Wow. Well, this is the end, the conclusion. Last part, even. I hope all of you have enjoyed it. I had a great time writing it, though a lot of other stuff got in the way. During the time this series was written, I moved, and got married. I think my life changed as much as Trey's did, though in different ways.
Thank you to all who wrote and asked about the story, who commented, and encouraged. I appreciate all the e-mails, even if I didn't get back to everyone. I would give you all hugs if I could.
I've had several people helping to edit this series, with some dropping out due to real life. I'm grateful for all their efforts. If you find typos, it's not the fault of these people, and you should send a thank you for them, 'cause for every single mistake you find, they found five or six others. To Windborn, Anne, and Ty, thank you. You've all been tremendously supportive and loving, as well as great beta readers. Many thanks and much love.
Also, a huge thanks to my partner, my Goddess, and my heart. She knows what it's like to put up with me when I'm writing, when I'm blocked, and when I'm depressed -- and she still loves me. It amazes me more every day. I love you, Rhiannon.
Have fun, and YES, I'll be working on Shadows of Justice soon. I promise.
The sight of Jesse actually wearing an apron had Kruise smiling in glee while she sat on Dayle's lap. Cam was watching from her spot at the breakfast nook, with Kelsey sitting beside her, jaw practically on the counter.
I had to admit, the whole thing made me smile as well. Jesse was wearing a black pair of men's dress slacks, with black socks and no shoes. Her polo shirt was a dark green, a color that looked wonderful on her. Over the outfit was a long blue apron, tied in back, that had a picture of a chef shaking a rolling pin with a stern look on his face. The writing on the apron said, "I'm in charge, and don't you forget it!" With the tattoos showing on Jesse's arms, the almost two inch long dagger hanging from her left ear, and the look of concentration on her face, I thought this was the epitome of contradictions. Which, of course, is exactly what Jesse is.
Jesse looked up at me and grinned as everyone else called a greeting. Cam got up and gave me a hug.
Kruise followed suit, whispering in my ear. "Details, Trey, I want details."
I grinned at Kruise. "No." And I stuck my tongue out at her.
She put her hands on my shoulders and shook me a little. "Tell me what happened."
"Trey." We both looked at Jesse. "Are you okay?" I nodded. "Is Jace okay?" I nodded again. "Are you two getting back together?" I shook my head, but smiled. She nodded and turned to Kruise. "They're fine. Leave Trey alone." Then she turned and pulled on an oven mitt.
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing, and I noticed Kruise doing the same.
"You sure you're okay, Trey?" Cam asked.
"Cam, I'm fine, honest. Jace stayed for a few hours, we talked, had dinner, I told her how everyone was doing. She says hi and sends her love. She wanted to come over today, but wasn't sure if she'd be welcome."
Dayle slipped an arm around Kruise. "As long as you say she's a friend, she's welcome."
I nodded at her and smiled my thanks.
"What the hell is that?" Tess must have just gotten back, because she was standing in the kitchen door looking at what Jesse was pulling from the oven. After glancing at the roast pan, I had to take a second look as well.
It was vaguely turkey shaped, but appeared to be a cloth of some kind.
"Um, Jesse?" Cam seemed a little doubtful. "I know that people talk about dressing the bird, but . . ."
We all laughed, all except Jesse who sent a mild glare Cam's way.
"This, for you uncivilized heathens, is a basting towel." She took a small pot from the stove and dipped a brush in it. "You wrap the bird in the towel, then baste the towel and cook it like that." After stirring the sauce for a moment, she began brushing it onto the covered bird. "Every couple of hours you baste the towel again. It keeps the meat from getting dry."
Nix moved out of the corner and stepped behind her partner. "With Jesse," she said in a sexy voice, "dry is not an option."
Jesse blushed a deep red. We all blinked, then grinned and tried to keep from laughing. Nix put her arms around Jesse's waist and smiled at all of us. Tess ducked out of the kitchen, with Dayle following, and we heard howls of laughter from the living room. Kruise and I each put a hand over our mouths to hide the face splitting grins.
Kelsey just picked up her coffee mug. "I have got to stop visiting with you people. I swear you could corrupt a saint."
Kruise, Cam and I looked at each other and burst out into laughter.
We all finally gathered around the tree to open presents. As promised, Nix had a huge pot of a really rich hot chocolate, and we all had some. Marshmallows were optional, and they were the big ones, not the little teeny things. This turned out to be a problem, though, as large marshmallows make wonderful missiles. Soon they were flying around the room, and I was batting them out of the air with a pillow, knocking more than one directly onto Jesse, who was simply trying to avoid all the flying mushballs. When I finally got her for the fifth time, she glared and started firing them back at me. Everyone followed her lead, and all I could do was dive behind a few pillows and beg for mercy.
With the marshmallow fight over, it was present time. There were so many that Jesse and Tess were both voted in as Santas and they got the job of distributing packages. They ranged in size from tiny little boxes to huge, weirdly wrapped objects. Some, like Tess's new fishing pole, were obvious. Others were harder to figure out, like the small, neatly wrapped package from Nix to Jesse. At first we thought it might be a ring, but it jingled, so that wasn't it. When Nix noticed Tess and Cam and I looking at it and shaking it, she took it away from us and glared. I saw her slip it into her pocket, but then we all started opening things, and I forgot about it.
I gave Cam a printed version of the book I'd written. It had taken me almost a full day to print it, and it had been made harder since she and Tess were still staying with me during the day. I'd then snuck it out to Kinko's and gotten it bound. It wasn't much, but she'd made such a big deal about liking it that I thought she might enjoy her very own copy. She grinned when she opened it and made me sign it for her.
Most of the gifts with my name on them were small. There were several books, and a new computer game. Nix got me a new jacket, dark blue suede leather, with a zipper front. It fit like a dream. She'd also gotten one for Jesse. Hers was black leather, though, a motorcycle jacket. It had Jesse's name on the left lapel, with a small red V on the right.
Jesse slipped it on and was modeling it as I opened my last present to find a book on human anatomy. I looked at Kelsey with a slightly quizzical expression. She laughed. "I thought it might come in handy. I hate it when writers don't know their basic biology. How can you puncture a lung by shooting someone in the stomach?"
I grinned and nodded. "I hate that too."
Most of the presents were gone, and I was sipping hot chocolate and looking through my book when I heard someone call my name. I looked up in surprise as Jesse and Tess carried this huge box over and set it down in front of me. It had a card hanging from it that had my name on it.
"What the hell?"
"Paybacks for your marshmallows, Trey. It's the Staypuft Marshmallow man." Jesse answered with a wink. "Just open the damn thing, would you?"
I stuck my tongue out at her, but pulled it in quickly when she snapped her teeth in my direction. She chuckled, and I reached for the card, still smiling.
It was from Nix, Jesse, Dayle, Kruise, and Cam. By the fact that Tess's name was not on the card, I got the feeling that they'd gotten it before she got back. I looked at Cam with a raised eyebrow.
"Why do I get the feeling you started this, Cam?"
She tried to look innocent, widening her eyes and smiling. I wasn't buying it.
Ripping off the paper didn't help. That didn't help solve the mystery, as the box was just a plain brown cardboard. Jesse pulled out one of her knives and slit the tape on top for me. I pulled back the flaps and froze.
I was looking at an Apple computer. A Macintosh laptop.
"It's not brand new," Cam said softly. "But it's a G4. I found it on E-bay, and it's in great condition." She smiled at me and made a shooing motion. "Go ahead. Pull it out and look at it."
Swallowing hard, I pulled the computer out and opened it. The titanium case was smooth and cool on my fingertips. It weighed just a few pounds, but was built with a solid feel to it. I was nearly drooling.
I noticed the room had gone silent, and when I looked up, it was to find everyone staring back at me, smiles on all their faces.
Kruise slid onto the couch beside me. "Turn it on. Let's see what it looks like."
"I will. But first," I said as I put the computer on top of the box, "hugs." I slipped my arms around her neck and held her tight. "Thanks, Kruise." She hugged me back and winked at me as I pulled away.
I hugged each of them, even the two who weren't on the card. Nix pulled away slightly and asked if she could steal the show. I remembered the little box in her pocket and nodded.
"Okay," she said. "Time for the very last present."
Everyone looked at her in confusion. Tess put her hands on her hips. "That was the last present."
"No it wasn't." Nix pulled the little jingly box out of her pocket and handed it to Jess. "Merry Christmas, baby."
Jesse took it with a look of surprise on her face. "What's this?"
Glancing around at all of us, Jesse did. After ripping off the paper, she pulled the top off the little box, and found a set of three keys.
"What are these for?" She jingled them in her hand. "You already gave me a set of keys to the penthouse."
Nix nodded. "Yeah, I did, but . . ." She moved forward and pointed to one key. "I forgot to give you the key to the storage area. It's in the basement. You need to go downstairs and look, cause that's where you'll find the last of your Christmas presents." She pointed to another key on the ring. "And this is the key that goes with your present."
Jesse stared at her for a few seconds, then turned and walked to the door. She opened it, looking around at all of us. "Anyone else wanna come see?"
Kruise and Dayle jumped up, as did Kelsey. I decided to wait in the apartment while I played with my new computer. They all trooped out, and I looked at Nix to find her with a slightly sad but very satisfied smile on her face.
Tess walked over and put an arm around her. "Is that what I think it is?"
"That's a pretty big present."
"Yeah. But she'll be able to take care of it, and in the spring she'll get to go riding with Kruise." The blonde vampire nodded again. "It'll be good for her."
"Ahem." I interrupted. "Someone wanna let me in on the secret? Or do I have to wait for everyone to get back?"
Cam came up and slipped an arm around me. "It's Nix's old Harley. Nineteen-seventy-nine, wasn't it, Nix?"
"Yes." She shrugged. "I won't bore you with the specs, but it was specially built, and it's a sweet bike. I think Jesse will love it."
I nodded, but tilted my head. "She'll only love it if you're on it with her, you know."
Nix smiled. "I know. And I will be."
It took just a few minutes for the gang to troop back into the apartment. Jesse immediately wrapped her arms around Nix. I didn't hear what she whispered in the vampire's ear, but Nix smiled and the two of them kissed. They were still kissing as Jesse backed them into the bedroom and closed the door.
Cam shook her head. "I hope Jesse doesn't forget the time or we'll be having a burnt turkey for dinner."
For all the teasing that Jesse took with her 'turkey in a towel', as it had been christened, dinner was one of the best I'd ever had. A twenty pounder, the turkey was as moist as Jesse had told us it would be, and everyone had seconds. Between that, the stuffing, the candied yams, the mashed potatoes, vegetables, and cranberry sauce, we were all stuffed. After dinner, we all lolled around in the living room, watching videos. Nix had a collection of Christmas movies that seemed perfect for the afternoon.
Whatever it is in turkey that puts people to sleep was working just fine on me. I felt myself nodding off in the middle of the first film, and by the end, I was completely gone. When I woke, it was dark out, even though the clock said it was only 5:15 in the afternoon. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs and looked around. Kelsey was crashed on the floor just a few feet away from me. Someone had put afghans over the both of us. She was still out, curled up and sleeping with a pleased smile on her face. Cam and Tess were on the sofa, with Cam wrapped in the vampire's strong embrace. I stood up and quietly moved to the couch, covering the two of them with the afghan I'd had over me. Cam awoke, just enough to look up at me sleepily. I smiled and kissed her cheek, and she smiled back, then closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
There were voices in the kitchen, so I went to see what was up. I found Dayle and Nix laughing softly. They stopped when they saw me in the doorway, but kept smiling.
"Hi, Trey. Want some ice cream? I have mint chocolate chip -- Jesse said it was your favorite."
I nodded sleepily and sat down at the table. "Where is Jesse?"
"Off with Kruise, looking at her new bike." Nix opened the freezer and pulled out a carton. "I think she liked her present."
"Really?" For a moment, she blushed as bright as the hickey on her neck. "I couldn't tell."
Dayle laughed, then took her empty bowl to the sink. "They both like it. She and Kruise were debating where they're going on their first road trip."
"Yeah? Did they make a decision?"
Nix grinned as she scooped out ice cream. "Pennsylvania. Around Gettysburg, I think."
"Wow, cool. You two going with them?"
Dayle shrugged. "Nix is, but I haven't decided yet. I know Kruise loves her bike, and she said it's the best way to get around, but -- she's so skinny, I don't know if I'd trust her to be able to handle it with both our weights on the bike."
"She's done it before. Remember, she took you home the night we met, Trey?" The blonde vampire slid the bowl in front of me. "Kruise is stronger than she looks, Dayle."
"Oh, I know." Dayle chuckled. "We were wrestling the other day, and she nearly pinned me. I had to power through the hold to break it."
I dug into my ice cream, but stopped for a second. "Aw, what's wrong? Couldn't big bad Dayle stand to lose one wrestling match?"
She shrugged. "The loser had to wash the dishes. I HATE doing dishes. So, I won, she did the dishes, and I vacuumed." Another shrug. "It worked."
I frowned. "But --you guys have a dishwasher. Why would you need to do them by hand?"
Dayle stared at me. Then she blushed and looked away. "No wonder she was done before I was."
Nix laughed, and so did I. Kruise was going to be in so much trouble.
Our laughter died off, and we all went quiet for a few minutes. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only the sound of the clock, and the occasional clink of something as we moved. I ate my ice cream while Dayle sipped a cup of coffee and Nix puttered around the kitchen.
Dayle stood to pour herself another cup from the pot. "So, Trey, are you packed?"
After swallowing a mouthful of ice cream, I nodded. "Almost. I mean, there are some clothes that I can't pack yet, and now I'll need to re-pack the carry on bags to add the laptop, but, yeah, for the most part I'm ready."
"Hell yes. I've never been out of the U.S., Dayle, at least not as an adult, or even as a child old enough to remember everything. And I'm not only going to historic Italy, but I get to meet one of the oldest vampires in Europe, plus spend time in a library that, from what I understand, rivals the ancient one of Alexandria. So -- fuck, yes, I'm excited."
Nix chuckled and sat down next to me. "I think you're going to have a ball, Trey." The corners of her mouth drooped a little. "I'm going to miss you."
"What? You mean you're going to miss the trouble I get into, and the rescues, and the --"
She threw a napkin at me just as Dayle reached over and slapped the back of my head.
"Hey!" I swatted at both of them, then put an arm around my ice cream. "You guys just want to swipe my dish. I know you."
They laughed, and pelted me with crumpled napkins till I fled the room, the dish still securely tucked in my arms.
New Year's came, and we all celebrated together, this time at a vampire club in the village. Some of the people there had heard about what happened to Cam, and she and Tess had been mobbed most of the night by well wishers and those who were apologetic. Other vampires merely raised an eyebrow and stayed away. As I watched, I knew there would be more fights in the future to get Cam accepted, but things were improving. Slowly.
I watched the countdown to midnight with mild excitement. For me, it had been a year of learning and growing. I'd started out in a relationship, and ended it alone, but happier than I'd been in a while. This New Year's Eve there was a definite wish to make myself happy, instead of letting someone else do it. As the ball began to drop in Times Square, we watched it on the tv set, and I drank an early toast to all that had been, and all the was yet to come.
Tess and Cam and I were supposed to leave at a little before four on Saturday morning. Since it was going to be such a long flight, we decided it would be best if we just stayed up, then slept on the plane. To this end, we had another party, this time at the vamp club bar that Nix was now running. She and Lista had consulted a few people and gotten to work on the place. It was agreed that it would be an underage club on the weekends, no alcohol or drugs allowed. During the week it would be a home for those members of the vamp club, and a few friends. Nix hoped it would eventually become a safe place for anyone to go if they needed help. She was checking into the rest of the building, trying to find out how many of the tiny, cramped apartments were actually occupied, and if the owner was willing to sell. My understanding was that the guy was a true slumlord, and with the city breathing down his neck, he was at least talking price instead of just stalling. I'd seen the plans Nix had, and I was impressed. Money was no object for her, and she was determined to clean up the building.
For the party, the whole building was invited. I didn't know anyone outside the usual gang, and the vamps, but it was still fun. Since it was a weekend, Friday night, it was agreed that there would be no alcohol. Nix was holding to the weekends being open for kids, and so far it was working. There were a group of teens, most of them goths with several obvious gay boys, and they all seemed happy to be out of the cold and in a safe place. Jesse spent a lot of time talking with them.
I had a great time, and around quarter past one, Cam reminded me to start making my good-byes. Tess wanted to leave for the airport at about quarter till two, so we'd have plenty of time to check in. We were flying first class, which would be a first for me, but since it was an international flight, it was pretty much assured that we'd be in for a thorough search.
I said good-bye to Dayle and got a hug. She kissed my forehead and told me to be good, then left me alone with Kruise.
My best friend put an arm over my shoulders. "You know I love you, right, Trey?"
I nodded. "I know. And I love you, Kruise."
She sighed. "Do you ever wonder what our lives would be like if Jesse hadn't met Nix?"
"All the time." I grinned. "I usually see us growing old and boring. Nothing could be exciting as being a part of this group."
Kruise smiled and nodded. "I'm happy, Trey. Can you believe that?"
"I know, and I'm glad." I paused, thinking. "You know what?"
"I'm getting there, too." With a relaxed smile, I elbowed her in the side. "And I don't need you trying to introduce me to all the single people you know. I'm okay with being by myself, Kruise."
She looked at me, her head tilted to the side. "I don't know why, but I believe you." With a smile, she hugged me. "You be careful, okay? I want my best friend back home safe and sound."
"Will do. You be careful too." I touched her cheek gently. "I'll miss you, Kruise."
"I'll miss you." Another hug. "See you in three weeks?"
"Yep." I kissed her, then stepped back a little and watched her walk away. I didn't need to see the tears to know she was wiping them from her eyes. I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying myself.
I had already said goodnight to everyone else when Jesse and Nix pulled me aside. They wrapped me up in a tight three way hug and then Jesse lifted me off the ground and kissed me. It was similar to the way she'd done it that night, so long ago, when I first met Nix. There was only one difference.
"You're wearing your fangs." I grinned at her. She nodded, then curled back her lips to show them off. "Wow. I'd forgotten how good you look in those things."
"Want to feel 'em?" She leered at me a little, and I ducked, pulling my collar up against my throat.
"Um, no, Jess, thanks anyway."
Nix laughed. "Jesse, stop terrorizing Trey." She pulled me aside a little and kissed my cheek. "You be good, you hear? Don't go causing Tess all kinds of grief by getting into trouble out there."
I smiled. "Nix, come on. What kind of trouble could I possibly get into? It's Italy, for gosh sakes."
She moaned. My smile turned into a grin.
It was going to be such a fun trip.
End of Balances
Thanks to everyone for reading.
Return to the Academy