Breathtaking

Cold, so cold, and heavy like the lead bib dentists use when they x-ray you. Tiny sharp grains of ice scraped my face and hands, but I couldn't lift or turn my head more than an inch. I was panting like I'd just run a mile, but I wasn't getting my breath back even though it seemed like I'd been panting for a long time.

My squirming around to get my face off the freezing grit finally managed to fill one of my nostrils with the stuff as I inhaled, and it ripped at my nasal passages like cat claws. I doubled up sneezing and snorting, and it hurt just as much coming out, but the convulsions got me over onto my side. My face was covered with gritty snot that instantly froze, but I was too busy staring up at the moon to be disgusted.

Why was I so happy to see the moon? I'd been in the dark as well as the cold, unable to breathe... I finally registered the rhythmic sound and tugging at my feet as waves. I must have been in the water, but washed up here. Where?

I smelled him before I heard him: clean sweat, mint, musk, garlic tomato sauce, and something new and warm, like essence of sunlight. "Hey! Hey, are you okay?"

I'm not sure what I tried to say, but it came out as a groan anyway.

He bent over me, blocking out the moon. His face was upside-down and in shadow, so I couldn't tell much except that he was black and wore glasses, but he sounded young and not particularly gangsta. His hand was burning hot on my cheek. "God, you're freezing! Can you stand up?" He picked me up without waiting for an answer, supporting me with an arm around me just under my armpits. My feet were so numb I had to look down to get them properly under me, but after that I was able to stumble along on his arm.

Once I could see his face, I sort of recognized him. He was a junior, in band or something. James? John? He looked like he couldn't quite place me, but I still didn't have enough breath to introduce myself, and I was too distracted by whatever it was I was smelling. It really did smell like sunlight, not like flowers or springtime or green plants. Or maybe it was what sunlight smelled like to plants, because it was delicious. If I'd had the strength, my stomach would have been growling.

Behind the beach was a cliff about twenty or thirty feet high, with a steep wooden staircase that whatsisname had to practically carry me up. Trying to help made me so dizzy that I didn't notice what happened for a while after that, but eventually I ended up sitting on a toilet while my rescuer fiddled with the shower. He was wearing tight jeans, and the view reminded me of his name: James Murphy, who Beth always went on about because she liked his butt. Even at the time, it seemed strange to be looking at guys' butts while dying of hypothermia or asphyxiation, but it was a pretty nice one, and watching it was easier than thinking.

Then he picked me up again, giving me another whiff of his sunshine breath, and pushed me into the scalding shower.

I yelled bloody murder, and kept yelling over James's reassurances until the burn started to go away and I realized the water was only just body temperature. Then I shut up and felt like an idiot until James stuck his head in to see if I was still alive.

This time I embarrassed myself by squeaking. I mean, GUY! In my SHOWER! Except I was fully dressed, and even soaking wet my sweatshirt and jeans barely showed I was a girl. "Uh. Sorry about the noise."

"'sokay. Warming up frozen feet is bad enough, never mind your whole body. Stay in until you feel warm enough. I'll leave some clothes here for when you get out." He disappeared, and I heard the bathroom door close.

My clothes were smeared with mud and seaweed and probably fish crap, so I tossed them out and luxuriated in the warm water. Not only did I feel like I might live, I felt like I might want to. Hyperventilation aside, I felt fine. It was hard to believe that five minutes ago I had barely been able to sit up straight.

Of course, now I was naked in a strange guy's house, and I wasn't sure I felt up to kicking his ass if he thought he was entitled a reward. If he did, should I? If he hadn't found me, I would have died there on the beach, and it wasn't like he was repulsive. He was actually pretty hot, and he smelled wonderful. He even sounded pretty nice, so he probably wouldn't be too rough or selfish... I realized I was getting turned on, which wasn't going to help me make a smart decision, and was pretty embarrassing besides. The disgusting ocean gunk in my hair distracted me from thinking about brown elephants until the hot water ran out, but by then my hair was mostly clean. No decent conditioner, but I doubted anyone in James's family had hair anything like mine. I wasn't going to use either of the two toothbrushes (one smelled like James's breath, the other similar but girlier -- probably a sister), but toothpaste and a finger and mouthwash got my mouth clean enough. For what, I didn't think about, and I kept not thinking about it while brushing my hair. Even I could only spend so long doing that before I had to admit I was stalling, though.

There was a knock on the door. "Giana? Are you okay?" He sounded worried, which was sort of nice.

I jumped into the sweat pants and T-shirt he'd left for me, which were way too big but the pants had a drawstring. No bra, and the shirt wasn't that baggy, but if I kept my arms folded the bouncing wasn't too obvious.

The bathroom window was too small to escape through, so I opened the door. "I'm fine."

"Uh. Okay." He looked a little upset, or maybe just taken aback. Was I too cold? (Ha ha.) He did look me up and down, though. "I'm glad you're better."

His every word was a puff of that delicious scent. I wanted to burrow into that soft-looking mouth and eat him up, or maybe just pin him down while I got a good taste of everything under his T-shirt and jeans. My expression must have scared him, because he backed off, looking worried. "Uh, let's go in the kitchen. I made some hot chocolate." Now that he mentioned it, I could smell it. It smelled awfully good, just not as supernaturally good as his breath.

We sat down at the kitchen table and I ogled him some more through the chocolate fumes. It wasn't just my hyperactive ovaries; he really was good-looking, all broad shoulders and smooth brown skin and dark eyes. He didn't look at me like I was repulsive, either, but then guys always look at boobs like that, no matter how baggy the shirt.

"I'm glad you're okay," he said again. "Phones are still out from the storm, so I couldn't call 911."

Storm? The breeze from the window did smell fresh like it had just been cleaned, but I didn't remember any rain, never mind thunder or lightning. Could I have been under water for the whole thing? People could sort of hibernate in cold water, lasting a lot longer than normal, but the ocean wasn't really cold here.

"You don't remember the storm?" Now he looked worried for me, instead of about me. "Are you sure you're really okay? I don't have the car, but we can probably get a neighbor to take you to the hospital."

"I feel fine," I said, and it was true.

"If you're sure... Let me know if you feel dizzy or get a headache or anything." He took a swig of hot chocolate to cover his obvious embarrassment, although I had no idea what he was embarrassed about. "How did you end up in the ocean?"

That was a good question, but an even better one was, why didn't I have an answer?

I remembered stinky clothes, which must have been when I got home from volleyball practice and changed. That would have been about four thirty, though, and the microwave said it was after ten. What had I been doing for six hours? Had someone phoned me? Beth, maybe, but she always called, so that didn't mean she'd been involved. Oh shit! What if someone else was out there on the beach dying?

"We have to go back down to the beach! What if someone else is out there?"

"I didn't see anyone before, but I'll go look again. You stay here and get warm."

I didn't want to be left alone, and I didn't want the yummy smells to go away, but not even I could be that selfish. I moved to the couch and wrapped up in an afghan to wait for either James or my memory to come back.

Had I been on a boat? I didn't remember anything like that, but I didn't remember being on a bridge or a beach either. Maybe a car accident? There were a couple of places that had only a flimsy safety railing between the road and a drop into the ocean.

I knew it was common for accident victims to not remember exactly what had happened and that it didn't indicate brain damage, but having my own memory fail me was a lot creepier than any of Mr Zucker's EMT stories. I could be forgetting anything! I didn't think I was -- name: Giana Kunchai, check; address: 7509 Hollis St, check; brother's middle name: Dennis, check -- but how would I tell?

The more I thought, the more creeped out I got. Part of it was the way the house smelled, like it had been full of people who weren't there any more. Part of it was that I could tell that by smell. Part of it was that I still couldn't catch my breath, even though I'd been out of the water for half an hour or more. But most of it was that I had no idea what had happened to me. Had someone attacked me? I'd been fully clothed, so not that, but there were all kinds of freaks out there. In fact, there could be any kind of freak sneaking up on me in that dark house!

I could smell that it was James as soon as I heard the door open, but before that reached my brain, I let out the most embarrassing noise I've ever made in my life. At least I did jump to my feet instead of cowering.

He was there in about two seconds, before I could possibly look like not a spaz. "Giana! Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"Sorry, you scared me." I was shaking from the adrenaline and I guess I must have looked more pitiful than I felt, because he put his arms around me, warm and strong. I must have been even more pitiful than I looked, because I was so glad to have him there that I kissed him.

I wasn't an expert, and I could tell he wasn't either, but we were good enough to keep from banging our noses together or biting each other's tongues, and the rest was all good. Better than good, because not only was James's mouth soft and hot and enthusiastic, but I could taste the sunlight in his mouth and that was a million times better than just smelling it on his breath. I started licking his tongue and the inside of his mouth, sucking in that wonderful taste. I couldn't get enough of it, but he sure didn't mind letting me try.

Maybe a million was too low. I could taste and smell and feel the sunlight filling my chest and spreading through my body, and I'd never felt anything so good. I didn't want to stop. Ever. I vaguely noticed that his hands were up under my shirt and then that we were collapsing onto the couch, but none of that mattered next to what I was getting from his mouth.

His lips and tongue were moving, like he was trying to talk, and he was shoving hard on my chest, squashing my breast painfully, but I didn't understand what he was trying to tell me, or didn't care. My whole body was heating up and I still wanted more-- not quite like that, but not too different. James pried at my arms, then actually hit me, and we toppled to the floor, but I clung to his neck for just a bit longer, because I was almost done, almost there, almost fulfilled...

Something tangled in my hair, almost yanking it out, and peeled me away from James with irresistable strength.

I fell to the floor, clutching at my scalp to keep it in place, dazed and disoriented from being dragged out of something so intense. A girl was standing over me; I could see up along her bare legs to a short skirt with black lace ruffles underneath, and black underwear. It took a minute for me to realize I shouldn't be staring, and by then she had crouched down to check on James, who was lying there limp.

The mystery woman was slender, and gave the impression of curviness although I couldn't really see. Her tiny skirt and bolero vest were just barely green in the dark living room, trimmed with black satin, over a black leotard. Her epaulets and belt were black metal, and her shoulder-length gloves and the ribbons wound around her bare feet were dark green lace. Her black hair was up in a complicated arrangement of loops pinned with emeralds, and it looked like she had even more of it than I did. A rod or scepter of some kind was slung across the small of her back.

I couldn't smell her. I could smell James's panic, and a little bit of whatever it was that had lured me in, and I could smell the other people who lived there, but not the mystery woman.

She bent down and kissed James. I had a flash of possessive anger, until he started breathing. That was CPR, not smooching, although I couldn't figure out why he needed it. I'd been in that lip-lock just as long as he had, and I felt fine. In fact, I could breathe fully for the first time since I'd woken up on the beach.

When she straightened up, I got a whiff of something like what I had been sucking out of James, but much too strong: if that had been kung pao, this was pepper spray. I flinched back and only avoided falling over because I was already on the floor. James was smelling a lot better, though.

I'm not normally that slow, but in my defense, I was having a really rough night. "Oh crap! Is he okay?"

Mystery Woman turned around and frowned at me. She was a babe, of course, with big dark eyes, big dark lips, perfect skin, and plenty of cleavage behind the laced front of her vest. The outfit and loads of eye makeup was awfully gothy, but she would have looked good in a potato sack. I should have hated her, and maybe I did.

"He'll be fine. He just needs to rest for a few hours."

I flopped back down with relief, but that didn't last long. "I'm glad. But can you tell me what I did to him, and what you are, and WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!" I was so full of energy that I was on my feet and ready to shake answers out of Mystery Babe, but she showed no fear.

"You sucked out almost all of his life force. I'm here to make sure you don't do it again."

"I didn't think I was that bad of a kisser!" What other response could there be to nearly killing someone, besides bad jokes? It's not like my brain was in any shape to consider the implications of what she was saying.

She said dryly, "He didn't seem to be objecting until he ran out of breath."

My reserves of wit had suddenly run dry. "Uh. That's good. I guess."

I didn't really believe what she was saying, but something really weird was going on. Even if James had a stuffed-up nose (which he hadn't sounded like) so that I could actually have suffocated him with too much smooching, there was no way I should have been able to hold on to someone that much bigger than me if he really wanted to get away. But... Life energy? Was she saying I was a vampire?

I automatically hated to admit it, but I had no hope of figuring out what the hell was happening on my own. "Are you saying I'm a vampire?"

"Not exactly, but very similar. You drowned and began to die of oxygen deprivation, but the death process was interrupted. Your akashic page didn't detach, so your memories are intact, but your animating principle was so damaged that you can no longer capture life energy on your own. To maintain your existence, you must gather energy from other living things, which naturally works best through the channel by which death entered you. I can't let you hurt any other children of Eve, though."

"Akashiwhat? No, never mind! So you're like the Slayer, here to drive a stake through my... lungs?" She wasn't acting like she was about to kill me, but either her, me, or the world was completely insane. Maybe all three. I backed away from her, just in case.

"Slayer? Oh, like on television? More unlike than like, but not entirely so."

"What is your job, then? Does it involve killing me?"

"That's a very good question." She moved sideways, circling around me like I was a statue she was thinking of buying. "Do you need to be killed?"

"No!" I turned around so she didn't get behind me and glared at her.

"You might be somewhat biased. Would your friend here agree?"

I looked at James lying there. Five minutes ago, he thought I was going to put out -- no, that wasn't fair. He was perfectly nice, and he hadn't had to save my life. But that was before I'd pinned him down and taken what I wanted no matter how much he struggled. I hadn't meant to, but I still felt sick.

I couldn't meet her eyes. "Maybe not. But I didn't mean to hurt him!"

"I'm sure you didn't, but there he is. He'd be even worse off if I hadn't arrived in time."

She had an awfully good point. I might be able to find people who needed the life sucked out of them, but I wouldn't want to kiss them. Slayer Woman didn't sound like she approved of killing any humans anyway, not even ones that needed it.

"So are you going to kill me?"

"I believe you didn't mean to hurt anyone, so I'm willing to let you go with only a geas. You may prefer to complete the process of your death, however."

"What's a geas? Other than a bunch of birds."

"A geas is a magical compulsion, in this case to not harm any child of Eve or servant of Heaven."

"You're an angel?!" I wasn't religious, but I hadn't believed in vampires either. If I was a vampire, maybe she really was an angel. I'd always pictured angels with less cleavage, though.

"Perhaps someday I'll reach that rank. For now, I am a humble regional Warden of the Midnight Flower Brigade of the Directorate of the Upraised Hand in the Ministry for Guidance of the Children of Eve. You may call me Warden Phaela."

"So you're a cherub or something. This is insane!"

She scowled, which still looked good. Bitch. "I am not a cherub. And I'm afraid that no matter how strange this all seems, it is nevertheless real. Here, allow me to demonstrate." She suddenly bent sideways, snatching up a pencil from the newspaper on the coffeetable, and stabbed it into my arm.

It hurt so much I couldn't even scream at first. Then I yanked my arm away, which hurt more but broke the shock. "SHIT! YOU BITCH!" I grabbed the wound instinctively, clamping down with my hand. Blood leaked all over my hand and the carpet while I stood there swearing and Warden Phaela stood there watching.

I had gotten as far as looking for something to use as a bandage when she said, "Stop being a baby, and look at your arm."

"Fuck you!" But I'd have to take my hand away to put on a bandage anyway, so I looked.

The hole in my skin was only about the size of the pencil's lead, and as I watched, a cone of graphite oozed to the surface and stuck in the blood while the wound vanished completely. It still hurt like hell, but it didn't hurt worse to wiggle my fingers or poke at the unbroken skin.

"Okay," I said after a minute. "I have to admit that's not natural."

Warden Phaela smiled. The bitch had dimples. "How's your breath?"

I hadn't noticed until she mentioned it, but I was feeling a little short of breath again. Not as badly as before I kissed James ("Oh my god", said the little voice in the back of my head. "I swapped spit with James Murphy! Beth is going to kill me!"), but like I'd been exercising. On the other hand... "Of course I'm hyperventilating, I just got STABBED!"

"But you can feel that air alone isn't enough."

"Okay, okay! I'm a breath vampire! But it's not my fault!"

She wasn't smiling any more. "I never said it was. But I am bound by oath to protect the well-being of the children of Eve."

"I didn't have to eat people until this happened! Can't you turn me back?"

"I can't. There are some who can, but it would be expensive."

"Expen--" I stopped myself from ranting. "No socialized medicine for vampires?"

"Alas, no." She watched me for a bit, then continued, "Please sit over there, while I take care of your boyfriend."

I stepped in front of James. "What do you mean, take care of?" I had to admit she was right about me being one of the Un-Dead, but that didn't mean I trusted her.

"I'm not going to hurt him. I only need to make sure that he doesn't remember any of this."

"How?"

She showed her dimples again. "Magic, of course."

"You're going to erase his memory?"

"If you stop being difficult and let me do my work, I'll only have to stop his recent experiences from being set down in his Akashic record. Otherwise, I may need to give him a geasa against remembering this night, which will not do wonders for his psychological stability."

I was tempted to let her do it; I didn't want James to remember what I'd done to him. But that wouldn't make me not have done it. "How about you leave him alone?"

"I'm afraid that's not possible. Get out of the way."

I'd never been in a real fight, and not even a scuffle since middle school, but I remembered how to throw a punch, and to hit people in the stomach, not the head. It didn't do me the slightest bit of good. Warden Phaela stepped back to just beyond my reach, grabbed my wrist, tied my arm in a knot behind my back, and pushed. "Ow. Bitch," I muttered into the carpet.

"Can I count on your cooperation now?" She wasn't even breathing hard.

Although she was pinning me down, her weight didn't seem like much, so I tried to untwist my arm and fling her off. I got enough momentum that we both went tumbling, but she got me in a half-Nelson with her other arm so we stuck together. My face ended up ground into the carpet again, but now I had a knot on my head from the corner of the coffee table and I could feel the heat of her legs straddling my ribs.

I could smell her, too. Just a tiny bit, like a crack in whatever was keeping her scent in, but enough to tell she was getting turned on. I really never imagined angels as S&M lesbians, but it didn't seem like a good idea to say that. I didn't really want to even think about it.

She was breathing a little faster now. Ew. "Let me know when you're done."

If there had been another choice I would have taken it, but the only options I could see were watching James get his brain erased while I sat in a comfy chair or watching him get his brain erased while I lay on the floor healing from multiple fractures. "I give."

"You're remarkably sensible for a breathtaker. I didn't even have to dislocate your arm." She bounced up and off me. "If your ethics permit, you should eat a little to make up for the healing. Three or four times the amount of tissue affected should be enough."

"In a minute." I sat in the chair and folded my arms. "I want to see what you're doing to James."

"It's not terribly spectacular, but all right." She picked James up like a doll and arranged him on the couch with a throw pillow under his head. "Tree with roots of ice and silver, ten thousand falling birds upon the sunless sea," she intoned. "The eighth river flows unending into the abyss of newborn stars." She put her hand flat on James's forehead. "Way of Stasis number four! Flower of Somnos, blossom here!"

Nothing happened.

Warden Phaela seemed perfectly happy with that, and started another stanza of blank verse. "White reeds whispering in the breath of phantoms, the bones of thieves crying out for their victims. In the castle of the senses, the seventh stair is too far and the eighth not far enough. Salt crystals and sheaves of wheat." Hand to forehead again. "Path of Purity number thirty-three! Wall of Memory, separate these thoughts!"

Vapor poured up from James's face, rippling in pastel sheets and bands like an aurora. Some of the wisps formed pictures before they dissipated, and most of them were pictures of me. Some of them were pictures of me naked, and my face burned. Had he snuck into the bathroom while I was showering? But then I got a good look at one, and it wasn't quite what I looked like: some bits the wrong color, some the wrong shape, no henna flower around my navel. It was just James's imagination, although he was a good guesser. How many girls had he seen naked, anyway? Maybe he wasn't as much of a gentleman as I thought!

Phaela straightened up. "Are any of your belongings still here?"

"My clothes?" I could hear the washing machine running in the back part of the house.

"Get them, and get changed. Put what you're wearing in the laundry."

"Who died and made you--" Oh, right. I did. "Okay, clothes."

The washing machine was on spin when I found it, so I sat on the floor and leaned my back against it. The vibration felt good; becoming one of the Un-Dead and getting my ass kicked had made me really tense for some reason.

What was going to happen to me? Phaela didn't seem like she was going to kill me or even arrest me, but she said she wasn't going to let me run around sucking the life out of people. I wanted to think that I wouldn't do that anyway, but I sure hadn't been in control of myself with James. It was supposed to be boys who couldn't control their urges, but if I was dead was I really a girl any more? I'd sure gotten turned on with James, but even if I could have sex, I probably couldn't have kids. Maybe that meant I wouldn't have periods any more. Being Un-Dead might not be so bad after all!

What the hell had happened between volleyball and the beach? I didn't have any wounds, but they might have healed. Had some serial killer grabbed me off the street and then dumped my body in the ocean when he was done with it? I probably didn't want to remember, then. But if that turned people into the Un-Dead, the country should be full of vampires.

No, Phaela had said I drowned, which is why I needed breath. If I'd bled to death, I'd be a regular vampire. But it had been too late in the day to go swimming, especially in the ocean, and I didn't know anyone with a boat. How had I drowned?

I tried to remember, like reconstructing a dream after the alarm goes off, but every time I came up with an image, I could tell I was just making it up.

When the washing machine shut off a clunk, I shrieked and jumped, almost coming to my feet but stumbling against the machine. Phaela appeared in the doorway before I could even catch my balance.

She sniffed. "Aren't you ready yet?"

"Bite me!" Maybe I shouldn't have said that to someone who could and would kick my ass, but she was really getting on my nerves.

"Maybe later. Hurry up, your boyfriend's family could be here any time now that the storm has blown over."

I dug my clothes out of the washing machine. The spin cycle had finished, so they were only damp, but damp jeans are about my third least-favorite thing to wear. It didn't seem right to steal James's clothes, though, even if he never missed them. Phaela was too busy leaning decoratively against the doorframe to watch me closely, but she didn't didn't turn around when I glared at her, so I changed inside my damp sweatshirt. Bitch.

"Let's go." She walked out, expecting me to follow her. I looked at the door to the garage, which was right there, but she would have just chased me down and kicked my ass again.

By the time we reached the beach where James had found me, the ocean breeze had half-dried my clothes, but also sucked every bit of heat from my body. It didn't seem to bother Phaela at all, even though she was wearing about a quarter as much clothes as me. I would have lit her on fire for warmth if I had any matches.

"Stand right there." I did, shivering and hugging myself, while she drew a circle circle in the sand around us with a stick of driftwood. She put weird curlicues at four points, including where the circle closed, and the whole thing sparkled in the moonlight.

"Hidden Road number eleven! Vault of shadows, protect our secrets!" Sand swirled up and sketched a faceted dome around us, transparently thin but impossible to miss even in the darkness. Even better than protecting whatever secrets I still had, it blocked out the wind.

"No poetry?"

"I don't need it for this one. Now, tell me how you died."

"What? I don't know! Don't you know? You're the detective angel!"

"I'm not omniscient yet." She sighed. "I should have known it wouldn't be that easy. Tell me what you remember."

"I got home from volleyball practice. Then I was lying on the beach half-frozen. And drowned, I guess."

"You don't remember anything in between?" She stalked back and force across the circle. "How you got into the ocean? Why you might have been in the ocean? Who would want to kill you?"

"No idea! Until six o'clock tonight I was a perfectly normal high school student! I'm not rich, I'm not in a gang, no one hates me enough to kill me! I don't why I got sucked into your shit!" I realized I was yelling. "I don't know!" Whining wasn't any better, but I couldn't help myself. "I didn't do anything!"

"I never said that you did. Oh, stop crying!"

I didn't want to cry, but I was dead, I could never go home again, and the only person I could talk was yelling at me. I covered my face with my hands and tried not to wail. I fell to my knees in the sand and then someone was holding me. I buried my face and sobbed. I was so screwed, and I hadn't even done anything. Couldn't do anything, wasn't anything, just a girl, couldn't even get help or Phaela would erase their brains. Already dead and I was going to die again!

I could only cry for so long, though. Eventually I hiccuped and opened my eyes. Squishy softness, round pale-- I jumped up and away, face burning.

Even with snot and tears down her cleavage, Phaela was hot. She didn't look mad or even grossed out, just watched me with one eyebrow raised. "Uh. Sorry about that." I sniffled and wiped my face with my sleeve. "I uh really don't know anything."

She wouldn't have had to even try to crush me after that humiliating breakdown, but she just waved negligently. Maybe she wasn't so bad after all, even if she was gorgeous and could kick my ass with one hand tied behind her back. "Despite its use in lurid fiction, a bit of amnesia surrounding a traumatic event is not too uncommon. We'll just have to use other methods."

That sounded bad. Was she going to use magic to pry open my brain and look inside? But she just scuffed sand over the circle she'd drawn, causing the dome to collapse and cover me with grit. None of it landed on her, most of it landed on me in a gust of icy wind. I wasn't surprised.

"Where did you wash up?" I looked around the beach, trying to recognize one patch of sand among all the rest. "Ah." She walked over to a spot just above the waterline that had three sets of footprints leading to it. She didn't leave any footprints of her own.

The sand was scattered and churned from when I'd stumbled to my feet with James's help and I couldn't tell anything from it, but Phaela circled it slowly, bent way over with her hands clasped behind her back like bird wings. When she was across from me, I could see right down her top and it was hard not to look. I'm not into girls, but she was really really hot, and I'd just had my face squished up against those. There wasn't any sign that I'd been crying all over her chest, though.

She looked up and raised one eyebrow, and I almost sprained my neck trying to pretend I'd been looking out to sea. I could feel my face burning, but she didn't say anything until she finished the circle.

"I'm afraid the ground is too disturbed to retain anything useful."

"Sorry," I muttered.

"You didn't do anything wrong. We'll just have to look elsewhere for clues." She looked around. "Bring me that stack of driftwood, please."

It wasn't a request, but I didn't want her mad at me, and anyway I wanted to see what she was going to do with it.

What she did was write something with her finger on one of the sticks and chuck it out to sea. It bobbed there, just barely visible and not doing anything strange. "What are you--"

"Shh." She peered intently at the floating stick, then wrote on another one and threw it so far out I couldn't see it at all. She could, though, and watched it for a while, then threw another one even farther. From the angle, it must have gone more than a hundred yards. The next two went farther yet.

After the fifth stick, she turned to me. "You have about four hours unaccounted for?" I nodded. "Then you probably went into the water near that point."

"Currents!" Maybe I wasn't a moron after all.

"Yes. The tide has turned, but I think the shape of the ocean hasn't changed much."

We were at the west end of town, and the point she was talking about was another mile or two past us. It didn't have so much as a streetlight and was visible only as a starless bit of horizon faintly darker than the night sky. I really got gypped on vampire night vision. "If you didn't know the currents, it might look like a good place to dump a body."

"No. Most things that float wash up sooner or later. Knowing the currents would only tell one where and when, not whether. No one with even the slightest competence would dispose of a body that way."

"I was killed by an incompetent serial killer?!" That really hurt, even though I knew it was stupid. I hadn't been the Un-Dead then, and volleyball wasn't much like combat training.

"Possible, but unlikely. I think there is something more to this. One moment." She raised one hand over her head, and glittering darkness fell down on it.

I jumped backwards and fell on my butt in the sand, and then felt like an idiot. It was just a bird, a raven or crow or something, with glossy feathers that gleamed in the starlight, sitting on Phaela's hand and looking her in the eye.

It twisted its head to look at me, tilted it the other way, and resettled its wings in what was obviously a shrug. The sound of its feathers was a chiming hiss, and when it spread them, I could dimly see stars through them.

I don't know why a bird of living glass sent a shiver down my neck when a mutant healing factor and a magic forcefield hadn't, but it did.

The bird didn't make a sound, but it was talking to Phaela in a language I didn't understand. I thought telepathy was supposed to be universal, but comic books had lied about that too.

"I must go," Phaela said. "Something has come up."

"What?!" I'd just gotten to thinking she wasn't so bad and now she was going to abandon me! "What am I going to do?"

"I should be back within a day or two. Find a place to hide out, conserve your breath, and don't make any messes I'll need to clean up."

"But..." I was already lame enough, I didn't need to add begging her to stay. But my dignity wouldn't tell me how to survive as one of the Un-Dead. "What about this investigation?"

"Your death is something that might require my attention. What Garasu brings word of definitely requires my attention. I am bound by my duties, no matter how cute you are when you cry."

She thought I was cute? I wasn't into girls, but I'd never had a girl say she thought I was cute like that. I kind of liked it, enough that I blushed.

Garasu tilted his head at me again, then the other way, then back again, like he couldn't see what she was talking about. Stupid bird.

"Uh." I had no idea how to flirt with a girl. I barely knew how to flirt with a guy! Should I be flirting anyway? She was a cop or something. Or did that just mean she shouldn't flirt with me? Did the Midnight Flower Brigade have professional ethics? "Um."

"What is your full name?"

"Giana Maartje Kunchai, why?"

"Giana Maartje Kunchai, I lay upon you this geas, that you harm no child of Eve save in direct defense of another child of Eve." She said it like it wasn't anything special, but I could feel the power of it on my skin. "Do you accept this geas?"

I couldn't look away from her black black eyes. "Do I have a choice?"

She nodded, but didn't say anything. She didn't need to, and I didn't need to guess what would happen if I said I'd eat people whenever I damn well felt like it. Anyway, I'd deserve it.

"I accept."

She stepped forward, going up on her toes so she could kiss me on the brow. Before I could do anything, the soft heat of her lips blazed like fire and I could feel the magic crawling under my skin, like worms with flamethrowers. "OW! FUCK!" I jumped back, clutching at my forehead, but the pain was already fading. "Do you do anything that doesn't hurt?"

She dimpled. "Maybe when I get back."

My face was burning again, but the rest of me was pretty warm too. It was just left over from making out with James; anyone who looked at me with eyes like that would have gotten me hot and bothered. I hoped. I didn't need to discover I was gay too. Although every vampire I'd read about was bi, so maybe I was doomed. I tried to stop looking at her legs as she moved around the beach to draw another magic circle, but they were awfully nice legs. Gah.

I must have gahed out loud, because she looked at me over her shoulder. "Yes?"

That was a surprisingly sexy pose, and I wasn't thinking about that. "Nothing. It's just cold out here." How did she show that much skin without getting goosebumps and turning blue? Magic, duh.

"Then get out of the wind. You're hardly obligated to see me off." Garasu fluttered his wings dismissively.

"Well, yeah..." Legs or no legs, though, I wasn't happy about the one person I could talk to teleporting away. "I want to see what magic you're going to do." It wasn't entirely a lie.

"You're adapting well. Many people in your situation would be waist-deep in denial."

"And then they'd go home and you'd have to mind-wipe their whole family."

"And that is the difference between adapting well and adapting poorly." She moved around to the far side of the circle and knelt down in the sand, Garasu still on her shoulder. "Queen who sits on the throne of heaven, stretch forth your unblemished fingers and scribe the patterns of fate. No joy in the candleflames, no sorrow--"

Blazing light, the eye-stabbing magenta of road flares, rained from the sky with a sound like taiko drums and blew up the beach.

I couldn't see much through the glowing clouds of sand, but a dark blot dropped onto the dark blot that was Phaela and they went flying in opposite directions. There might have been yelling, but I could barely hear it. Then the light was gone and the sand blew away, leaving the beach quiet and dark again.

Pinned against the cliff was a monster, something with the head of a demon donkey and wings like giant frog hands, wearing pinstriped suit pants and spiked leather wrist bands. It was nailed to the sandstone with dozens of pencil-thin black spikes that twisted into corkscrews at the end, but still squirming. It heaved with one wing, and one of the spikes pulled out of the stone and fell to the ground, landing as a streak of black fluid. The corkscrew at the end turned into something like the fancy icing on a birthday cake, which was the stupidest thing I could have thought of.

Another spike waggled and started to pull free. Phaela didn't appear to finish the job, so I grabbed one of the spikes that had missed the monster and took aim at its eye. It flailed viciously, but its head was bent to the side and couldn't straighten because of another missed spike, so even though I had to leap over its lashing tail, all it could really do was take the spike through the side of its head instead of the front. There was a horrible crunching sensation, and suddenly every spike stuck into the monster lit up with a bright red spark at the end and a streamer of luminescent red smoke that thrashed and coiled in the wind at the cliff face.

I yelled and fell on my butt, but the monster sagged instead of coming back to life, and the lights went out after a moment, leaving the smoke to dissipate upward. Was it dead? Where was Phaela? I looked around and then my heart almost stopped as I realized I'd broken the number two rule of horror movies and snapped my head back around. It was still there, though, although it looked like a wax sculpture left in the sun and a stench like roofing tar was starting to cut through the ozone smell of blown-up beach. I scooted away from it without taking my eyes off it until I was a good thirty feet away before I dared look around again.

Phaela was lying in a heap of black and skin at the edge of the water, motionless despite the waves sloshing over her feet.

I flung myself at her even though I had no idea what to do for a wounded angel. She was sprawled on her back, staring blindly at the sky and not breathing. Was she supposed to be breathing? I didn't see any bleeding, but her skin was covered with a network of black lines, like her veins had been filled with ink, and she smelled like overdone barbecue. She also smelled like James had, times a thousand. My brain didn't even have a chance to stop me from putting a lip-lock on her and sucking in her life's breath, which sucked because it felt like inhaling a lungful of needles.

I didn't black out, but for a minute I wished I could. Trying to heave up the shredding pain in my chest just made it worse and I collapsed face-first into the sand. All I could think about was how stupid it was to die from overeating the same night I became Un-Dead, and how much it hurt.

If the monster had come back to life, I wouldn't have been able to do a thing about it, but it didn't, and eventually the pain faded. Every breath still hurt, but not worse than Tabitha spiking a volleyball into my chest, and I could cope with that.

When I opened my eyes, Phaela's body had vanished. All that was left was something like sea foam, and a couple of scraps of black cloth. Did that mean she was dead? Did angels die? Humans died and it didn't seem to have stopped me. Oh shit, did I kill her? What I got was so strong I'd believe it was an angel's life energy, but what the hell did I know? Crap, crap, crap!

I quit trying to pull my hair out and tried to think instead. If Phaela was really dead, I couldn't do anything about it. If she wasn't, she'd turn up again. There wasn't a body, so I'd assume she was alive. I looked around, but there was no sign of Garasu, so same for him. Even the monster had collapsed into a heap of garbage and seaweed after the black spikes had disappeared (or moved into my lungs). The craters in the sand would be wiped out at the next high tide, leaving nothing I'd have to explain to anyone, but also no one to explain anything to me. Crap.

If monsters attacked from the sky every night, Phaela would have been watching out, so this had to be unusual. Did it have anything to do with whoever killed me? It hadn't been aiming for me, but if it had done better against Phaela, it could have taken me apart at its leisure. But maybe it was something from another case entirely. Too bad it hadn't yelled something about why it was here to kill her, or maybe carried a note to leave on her body. Or maybe it had, but I wasn't going to poke through that toxic-smelling garbage for clues. The mystery would just have to wait.

There was no way anyone in the houses at the top of the cliff could have missed the explosions, but I didn't hear any sirens or even see any more lights up there. It still seemed like a good idea to get away from the scene of the crime. Or was it more of a sin than a crime, since an angel was involved? Either way, I didn't want to be there if that monster had friends.

I really wanted to go HOME! But if Phaela was alive, which she had to be because I didn't have her body, she'd just go and brainwipe my family. She said it wouldn't hurt James, but I didn't want her experimenting on my mom and dad. I didn't want her experimenting on anyone I knew, so I couldn't hide out at a friend's house or anywhere I normally hung out. No money and no shoes so I couldn't go to Denny's or a coffeeshop or something like that.

On TV, Catholic churches were always open, but Phaela hadn't mentioned whether I'd burst into flame on holy ground or not. She also hadn't said anything about sunlight, but it was only midnight, so I could worry about that later. Homeless shelter? But I was a minor, so they'd get the cops involved, and I'd end up at home with my family brainwiped. Back to pulling my hair out. Crap.

But there was one place someone needed to look at, and Phaela and Garasu weren't here. It was the exact opposite of hiding out and not making a mess, but Phaela should have thought of that before getting herself killed.

The point where I had gone into the ocean was just a jumble of sandstone boulders maybe thirty feet high and sticking fifty yards out into the ocean. No lights nearer than the road a couple of hundred yards inland, no sounds above the surf, no more than the faintest scent of humans. I couldn't be sure, but compared to what I'd smelled at James's place, it seemed like no one had been there for days.

I could think of reasons why I might not have left a scent, although having to think seriously about having been wrapped in plastic or already dead showed how completely fucked up my life had become. Whoever dumped me into the ocean hadn't left a scent either, though, and the only person I'd met so far who could do that was... Phaela. Crap, crap, CRAP!

The needles in my chest stabbed every time I jumped, but with Un-Dead strength it only took three hops to get to the top of the boulders. There was enough dirt and smaller rocks and stuff on top that I could walk along the point to the very end, where a ten-foot crater was melted into the ground. I always thought obsidian was black, but the glass lining the crater was sort of pinkish. It also didn't smell of fire, smoke, ozone, or anything, which even I knew wasn't right at all. Someone must have cleaned up the place since then. Too bad the only person I knew who might know anything about forensic magic was DEAD.

The temptation to scream was almost overwhelming, but my lungs flinched at the thought. Instead I plopped down on the little bit of rock between the crater and the dropoff and tried to come up with an idea. Any idea.

It looked like more clouds were coming in off the ocean, although there were still stars right above me. I hoped they were stormclouds, not flocks of donkey-headed monsters, although rain would be bad enough with nowhere to go. Could I die of hypothermia? Probably not, I'd just suffer a lot. If I'd died of hypothermia before I came back, I guess I would have turned into a heat vampire. There was a Japanese story about that, the snow princess who left men frozen to death with smiles on their faces. What else could you die for lack of? Not enough water instead of too much would probably make me a regular vampire, like blood loss. Starvation would mean eating people, Alive. Ew. EW! What I had to do now was less messy, but was it really any better?

I had to face up to it. The increasing pleasure and urgency and tension that Phaela had interrupted hadn't just been leading up to a sexy vampire feeding orgasm. Well, maybe it had, but more importantly, it had been leading up to James's death. If she hadn't stopped me, I would have killed James. And enjoyed it. A LOT.

Sure, some monsters in movies were metaphors for The Other and died as metaphors for racism or sexism or whatever, but some just had to be killed because they ate people.

Well, crap.

Maybe I should hope those were clouds of monsters coming to kill me after all. No, wait, Phaela had put a spell on me so I couldn't harm any "child of Eve".


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