Just a stray thought. Thanks to Amaka and Kiki for stepping up to the beta plate.
by Valerie Kessler
Henry paused at the door to his apartment, listening to the heartbeat that shouldn't be inside.
It was slow, at rest, the accompanying breathing quiet and steady. He turned the key silently in the well-maintained lock, and took his time pushing the door open. There was no reaction from his guest.
Four hours ago, she had promised she would leave as soon as she had followed up on a couple of promising references, but he wasn't really surprised that hadn't happened. An involuntary hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he circled to the front of the couch. Even youth and caffeine had their limits, and Coreen had exceeded them, her slight frame sprawled a bit awkwardly across the black leather with a book still open on her lap.
Arms crossed, he regarded her for a long moment, fully intending to present the picture of stern patience to match the tone of voice with which he would wake her. But something caught his eye, and instead he went to his drawing table for a pad and pencil. He could afford to settle into the chair opposite her for a few minutes.
At the beginning of the storyline currently unfolding in his pages, he had thought his heroine was a loner. But it wasn't as simple as that -- these things never were -- and she had rather reluctantly taken on an apprentice of sorts. The liveliest of sparks, playing ironic dressup in the garb of the Children of Death, all bright promise and borrowed sophistication and insatiable curiosity.
His pencil mimicked the line of light along the curve of her cheek and the twirl of a slightly wilted dark ringlet. Abandoned carelessly to sleep like the child that remained a greater part of her than she cared to believe, fortuitous shadows pointing up glimmers of the formidable woman she might become... if given the opportunity.
In ink on paper, her fate was in his hands. Flesh and blood and spirit were another matter. He would never fail her if he could help it -- to do so would be to fail Vicki, for a start -- but God's plan and her own choices would determine her destiny. All he could promise with certainty was to witness and remember.
The sketch was just finished when her heart rate picked up slightly and her eyes darted from side to side behind their lids. A frown deepened the crease between her brows, shifting the lines of her face nearly imperceptibly, yet enough to dispel the fragile balance he had been granted the privilege of capturing. He closed the pad and set it aside, part of his mind already absorbed with the placement of the panel on the page and the contrasting images of her mentor in the thick of danger.
Pushing aside her laptop on the floor, he crouched in front of the arm of the couch where her head rested. "Coreen." Too quiet; she stirred slightly, then settled again. "Coreen, wake up."
Her eyes flew open, unexpectedly filled with terror for two or three seconds before it gave way to confusion, then embarrassment as she remembered where she was. She sat up and hurriedly pulled her research materials into a semblance of order. "Henry! I am so sorry, I just... um..."
"Never mind," he told her, less abruptly than he might have. He folded down her computer's screen and stood up to hand it to her. "It's nearly dawn. I'll call down and ask the doorman to get you a cab."
"No, that's okay, the streetcar--"
"Might not come for another forty-five minutes at this hour." He pulled a ten-dollar bill from his clip and held it out to her. "Take the cab."
"Thanks." She accepted it with a fleeting smile and gathered her belongings. "I'll go over this stuff with Vicki, and I guess we'll fill you in on the game plan tonight."
"I'm pretty sure Vicki is expecting you to go home and get some sleep first."
"Sleep is overrated," she scoffed. Her heart rate jumped, belying her casual tone. Whatever dream he had interrupted, it seemed she was in no hurry to return. "Just ask Vicki. Trust me, as long as I come bearing coffee, she won't say a -- "
She zipped her laptop bag and turned to face him, allowing him to catch and hold her eyes.
"You should go home." The suggestion needed only the gentlest nudge to take root in her weary mind. "You're safe there. You can sleep without nightmares."
She blinked, then hefted the bag's strap over her shoulder. "On second thought, home sounds really good right now. I guess Vicki has enough on her plate for one morning, huh?"
"I'm sure," Henry agreed.
"Okay. Well, see you later. And, um, sorry again."
Minutes later, with the door closed behind her and Greg instructed to see her safely off, he picked up the pad and flipped it open to the fresh sketch. No, it was never as simple as that. His loner had brought more than he bargained for.
It was up to him to whether take that as a challenge or a gift. Maybe both.
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