No ghosts or horrific abominations from beyond space and time haunted my wedding or my honeymoon, which was an improvement to a number of key events in my life for the past few years.
We took a solid two weeks to ourselves, my husband and I. I'm still getting used to saying it, even as I look at the ring on my hand, a small golden band that marks us as joined together in the eyes of the law. We left Florida on our personal road trip with our friends covering at us for work. We're just like any other married couple.
Except we fight monsters and help people in trouble from them plus my husband Hardestadt Delac is a ten thousand year old devil born and raised in hell, who's been living on earth for most of his life. Besides that, we're just like everyone else. Honest.
The last few months had been rough enough on us, especially Hardestadt. Me? I was chased by an angel psychopath, menaced by an ancient demon and we all barely avoided the destruction of reality with Hardestadt's mother using us like pawns on a board for 'the greater good.' He hasn't forgiven her. Hell, I sure haven't. I'm not sure if we ever will.
It's why we needed this time away. Hardestadt had said we didn't need anything elaborate after a small, private ceremony, but I insisted. I wanted to get away, to treat ourselves and focus on us for a while, to enjoy the first days of the rest of my life. My name is Erin Hasegawa, an ordinary human being who's somehow managed to survive everything thrown at me.
It took several days before we were able to begin having fun and enjoying ourselves. One of our first destinations had been a special gift to me from Hardestadt, a trip to Sleepy Hollow, New York. I'm not too proud to admit I acted like a complete fangirl there. Did I ever mention I'm a horror nerd?
I took a photo with him on the cemetery bridge, arm in arm, my head near his, grinning like an idiot. We had been together over four years now, had known one another almost seven. I had graduated MIT, gone straight into the corporate world, then quit to work with him before we got together just half a year after I saved his life. Hardestadt became one of my closest friends, then my boyfriend. Now?
It is a sobering thought that creeps up on me at times to know he's immortal and I'm not, I can't deny that. Even with him being better about being open and honest with me, I know there's a great deal from his life he's yet to tell me. That's fine, I'm taking it slow one day at a time.
"So," I said. "This really the bridge where the Headless Horseman chased down Ichabod Crane?"
"That's only a story, Erin," he returned, his arm around me. I was wearing a thick coat, the winter chill of New York murder on my Florida bones.
"Is it? Is it really? C'mon, there's gotta be a real Headless Horseman! Something riding through the night with a scary pumpkin head, on a big black horse looking for a new head?"
"Just a story."
"Killjoy," I returned, kissing his cheek. "And besides, I know this isn't the original bridge. But still, nice souvenir photo!"
My enthusiasm had cheered him immensely, the happiness so genuine in his purple eyes. Hardestadt's ring shields his true appearance of white hair and violet eyes from most people. Rather, it's that they see it and don't think much on it, but it doesn't quite work perfectly on people who know him best like me. I know him well enough to know when he's truly happy and when he's hiding something back. That night I could see the genuine joy in his eyes, on his face, the realization we were married now. I almost giggled and leaned up, kissing his lips. Mine must have been icy cold, but he didn't seem to mind, cupping my cheek and leaning in, his fingers so warm on my skin. We kissed for a few more moments before separating and I laughed.
"Making out on the ghost bridge. Maybe we should come at midnight and give the ghosts a real show," I said.
"Erin, don't tempt me."
"Tempting is what I do best, honey," I returned before I kissed him again. There had been a time when I would have had to work up a great deal of courage just to hold his hand. Now intimate gestures come so easily to us, from touches to kisses and everything else.
It was later on in our hotel room that were laying underneath warm blankets. Hardestadt was laying back, my head on his chest as I browsed my messages on my phone, his hand brushing through my hair. We had left suddenly enough that I hadn't had time to apply the usual purple and red streaks, making me grumble that I looked like a stranger when I saw myself in the mirror.
"Hey," I said as I looked at a message.
"Anything wrong?" Hardestadt seemed relaxed, but his voice was alert, his body suddenly tensed.
"No, nothing like that, honey," I said. "Just from…" The message was from Candice Allen, a name I hadn't seen in a long time. "It's an invitation."
"Invite?" Hardestadt sounded interested.
"From MIT…KPO, actually," I said. "Oh. Kappa Phi Omega?" I could envision him raising an eyebrow and I rolled my eyes to myself. "We remember I went to MIT? I was in a sorority? I just got an invite from one of my old sisters to a reunion."
I sat up, Hardestadt doing the same. I read the message out loud. "…Hell," I said. "It's been almost ten years." I put a hand to my forehead. "Time flies. No wonder they're trying a reunion."
"When is it?" Hardestadt asked curiously. He put a hand to my shoulder, rubbing it as I leaned back into him.
"A few weeks," I said, reading through the invite. "A lot of graduates are moving out so they've got guest rooms, not to mention spots nearby." I felt a sudden sense of excitement in my stomach as I recalled the old days of college. I had majored in computer sciences, a minor in English, working summer and winter semesters to graduate as early as possible before I took a job with a cyber security firm in northern Florida.
I had never been quiet or antisocial in High School, but college had brought me out of a shell I'd had no idea I was even in. I had applied to Kappa Phi Omega, gotten a boyfriend at the start of school almost instantly and for all my tendencies to double up on coursework, weekends had been for partying. How long had It been since I had spoken with Candice, Cathy, Nour or Sharice? We were friends on social media, but that hadn't been the same as the old days.
They had been good friends in school, there for me at one of the worst periods of my life, had held a secret I had only ever told Hardestadt otherwise. Now they had gone out of their way to invite me to an event back at school. I wanted to say yes, wanted to hit reply and send my affirmative right away.
I could still remember nights in the common room when Hannukah would hit, often just at the cusp of the Christmas holiday that ensured all of us were still there. Cathy would be frying up latkes, a recipe her mother had taught her, Lucy and Nicole bringing in beers as we talked about nothing in particular. I had even been able to introduce some of the sisters to tabletops.
It had taken until southern Florida before I had been able to have friends I could consider nearly as close. There was Lydia, Beth and Janet, Derek and Nick, the people I met with almost weekly. I almost grinned suddenly, remembering the night Hardestadt had lost a bet with me, resulting in him being DM for an entire campaign of Dungeons and Dragon. Hey, to his credit, he did a damn fine job after spending about ten hours reading through every rulebook and campaign guide I had at home.
"Do you want to go?" He asked quietly. I turned to him.
"Hell yes, I want to- " I stopped short as I remembered. Excitement had carried me away too quickly, and I remembered the events of the past months, everything we had gone through when Baba Yaga had brought us into her woods, when his old friend Koschei had died, hen he had discovered his sister and everything that had resulted from his mother using him as part of a scheme to save existence. He had been through a sheer nightmare while I and some of my closest friends had been pursued by a brainwashed, psychopathic angel.
The travel had been wonderful with the time we'd had together. Hardestadt loves to tell stories, to see me experience new places and foods, to grin teasingly as I shiver against the unfamiliar cold. Our wedding ceremony had been smaller and more private than I had anticipated and so little had changed. We still lived together, split up household chores and errands. He still did the cooking, we planned to do the same work. Finances were no concern of course, nor any other relationships.
But it had felt good to say it: we were husband and wife now. We were celebrating that union together, healing together. We traveled, laughed, held one another and were able to forget that deep pain together. I felt a surge of guilt as I considered leaving him. "I'll say- "
"If you want to go, then you should," he said firmly.
"Hardestadt, come on," I said. "After everything that we just went through?"
"All the more reason," he said. "It's a few weeks away. We'll be home by then."
"I don't want to leave you alone," I said it quietly. "Not after everything."
"Erin, I love you," he said. "But I don't want you to be the only thing in your life. Trust me, I don't. We've got a while life on our honeymoon, we'll have time at home. Trust me, Erin. I'll be fine, too. Some time to ourselves will do us both good."
"You're sure?" I asked. I wanted to decline now, more than a bit worried, but I wanted to go as well. Despite living together, both Hardestadt and I left time to our town pursuits at other points, and I looked forward to that Erin Time. I had barely even considered if being married would erase that, had never expected it to.
Hell, I didn't want to structure my life wholly around him and what he wanted. I bit my lip. "You're sure?" I asked. I studied him for a sign it wasn't just him talking now.
"I'm sure," he kissed me. "Erin, please go. I want you to enjoy yourself for a few days. And besides," he put his arms around her. "I can make sure you won't leave when you get back. Maybe some ropes, handcuffs…."
I laughed despite myself, looking him straight in the eye. "Oh, you think I'm going to allow that?"
"I have a feeling you may," he ran his lips over my neck, making me shiver. I can't say our intimate life was improved just by marriage, but there was something about it that made me appreciate it more now.
"Challenge accepted," I said, pulling his head back to kiss him. It was a good hour later when I remembered to take the phone and send an affirmative to the invitation.
Weeks passed in a blur. We returned home, set back to our daily routine and continued our work. Hardestadt at last took several more cases, finishing them quickly. On television, debates over legislation and the supernatural communities continued to rage. I bought a plane ticket for Massachusetts, spent time with my friends and family.
I found myself monitoring my husband's mood, ensuring to myself he was alright. Deciding this was probably unhealthy after a while, I began to take him at his word. To Hardestadt's credit, he never hid from me when he wasn't. When either of us required the other for assistance and comfort, we were both happy to provide it. That's what being a couple was all about, after all.
I was sitting down with morning hot chocolate one day and found a message from Canice. They were to have more free spots, if there were friends I wanted to invite, girls only for the House. After verifying, I called up two of my best friends, Emma West and her wife, Danielle Cortez and invited them, receiving a response nigh instantly.
"You two will be okay with travel? And diet?" I asked.
"Don't worry, we'll pack extra packs," Emma returned. She and Dani were vampires and were now largely resistant to sunlight as a result of some of our adventures. I had not had much time to spend with them ever since our last life threatening adventure, so this seemed as good a chance as ever. Plus I knew I'd love to introduce them to old friends.
"No invite for me?" Hardestadt grinned playfully as he leaned against the door when I hung up.
"Girls only, honey," I said. "Don't worry, not ashamed of you."
"You say that now," he said, holding a plate of pancakes. "Breakfast?"
"You're the best," I said. "Are those blueberry or chocolate chip?"
"Both, though I fear I'm feeding your sugar addiction too much."
"I'll hit the gym later!" I said. "Hell, I'm looking forward to this…I can't wait to catch up! Maybe I'll mention my new husband. Once or twice. When I'm neglecting some pertinent detail."
"Like sneaking into a vampire-filled prison to save my life from an insane snuff film maker?" Hardestadt asked.
"Like when I befriended the High Queen of Hell on a voyage through the Dreamlands to stop an insane god from wiping out existence, more like."
"Or when you helped kill a sociopathic werewolf mad scientist and helped save me and my daughter when we stopped the world from freezing over?"
"Yeah, stuff like that," I said. "Probably not going to mention the insane snake gods either, little as I contributed there."
"You never contribute just 'a little,'" Hardestadt kissed my cheek.
"What will you do when I'm gone?"
"Hit the supernatural clubs, watch something new on streaming?" He said. "I'll get some work done, do some reading, and await for your swift and safe return, probably while looking forward to resuming our marriage?"
"It's not being put on hold because I'm in another state! Now you're just trying to guilt trip me, you!" I said as I poked his shoulder. His look was innocent.
"Who me?" He kissed my lips just when I'm sure they must have tasted of pancake and syrup. "Don't worry about me, Erin. We'll text here and there. Just have fun, okay? That's what I want. And if you like…when you're back, I can even DM a new campaign on Saturdays? Promise I'll spend some time studying for that."
"I'd love that," I said, taking his hand and squeezing it tight. I kissed each finger before I returned to breakfast. "You'll take care of Nyx?"
As if on cue, I felt him tug at my pants leg. Nyx was our Cu Sith, a little green-furred faerie dog Hardestadt had rescued from ogres. He's an adorable, affectionate little thing. My special little buddy. "It's okay, Nyx, I won't be gone long again!" I scooped him up and set him in my lap, rubbing his head. "You'll remember he likes to be fed at six on the dot? That he likes his walks with- "
"Don't worry about Nyx," Hardestadt said, rubbing under our pal's green chin. Nyx lifted his head happily as Hardestadt scratched. "We'll be fine, Erin. Both of us. I'll even let him sleep on the couch."
"Hm, might promote a bad habit…but I'll allow it."
Time flew by until the date. I looked up the weather, seeing it would be cold but clear enough with no hazards expected. I made sure I would be dressing warmly, packed my laptop and my kindle for the plane. I did my best to stop worrying about Hardestadt, even after everything. I had a right to enjoy myself and have a life as well, we both agreed heartily on this. He had encouraged me to go without an ounce of hesitation or ill will, and I was taking two of my best friends along. Emma and her twin sister Lydia had been through too much with me not to have bonded incredibly to them. It was on the day of the flight that Emma and Dani met up at our place, Hardestadt driving us all to the airport after.
Emma and Dani are two people simply meant to be together. They've been married for several months now and I wonder if it's the same as how it feels for Hardestadt and I. The way they look at one another just makes my heart melt each time, both shining with such joy whenever their eyes meet, the little shy smile whenever their hands find one another, the way they remain close to one another...Emma and Dani have fought for us, with us and beside us. I love them more than I can say now.
It's why it's nice to have them share in this. Hardestadt's agreed to hold the fort down in Florida while we head to snowy New England. Emma, to my surprise, has never been north like that. "Well, get ready for snow."
"I should clarify I meant in the United States. I've been in the practical Tundra in Canada when we fought the Wind Walker," Emma added.
"Show off," I said. "Anyways, you'll love it. Cambridge is great, right across the river from Boston!" I must have been enthusiasm because Emma was chuckling softly. The two are pale, their faces coloring mostly when they've eaten. Emma's hair is dark, falling to her shoulders, her eyes a brilliant blue, her nails painted dark red. Dani is equally pale, with long red hair that goes past her shoulders. Both wear dark colors since, as Dani put it, if they're vampires, might as well have a bit of fun with it. Both had long since adjusted to their condition, occasionally missing the enjoyment of human food and the sunlight until recently.
"Ready to have a good time?" Dani asked as we got out of the car. After what they had been through as well, I could tell they needed a get away, too.
"Hell to the yes," Emma said. Dani walked to me and slid an arm around me.
"Promise we'll have her back safe and sound, Hardestadt. No freezing for Erin up in New England. She's not getting out of this that easy."
Hardestadt grinned in response, arms folded. "Holding you to it. Any trouble- "
"There won't be," Emma said.
"I'm counting on that, but any trouble, don't hesitate to call me. You know I'm paranoid."
"Point," I said as I kissed him. "Have a fun few days, okay? I'm just a call away if you need to talk. Send me a text any time."
"Even super late?" He asked innocently.
"You know I'm a night owl, sweetie," I kissed his cheek. "Aishiteru."
"Aishiteru," he returned, kissing me a final time. I waved as we walked through check in. We were through the gate soon, the necessary paperwork handled to ensure Emma and Dani's bags and the contents didn't raise much suspicion.
I'm not a huge fan of flying. I hate being packed in a metal tube up in the sky, so close to so many other people. I've never been too antisocial, but I always feel the nicest thing you could do on a flight is politely ignore one another. Thankfully, with two of my best friends nearby, the hours went smoothly, even with my ears popping.
Travel has grown interesting with the supernatural revealed. Some airlines make special accommodations for nonhuman beings, who are steadily becoming a facet of life now. Vampires, Emma tells me, largely avoid flights for obvious reasons. It's probably not safe for passengers if werewolves fly during full moons, and so forth. Details are being worked out, little by little.
"So," Emma said after twenty minutes, back in her seat. I don't think vampires' eardrums pop due to the air pressure. She and Dani were both sat back, hand in hand, rubbing one another's fingers, Dani's head on her wife's shoulder. "I can't imagine you as a sorority girl. I mean, I was a world class party girl before you know what, but…"
"Come on, I've been around," I said. "And it wasn't just endless drinking. We did stuff around campus and the community, too. Weren't you in one?"
"Nah, me and Lydia didn't mess with that in school. I was mostly busy with the computers," Emma said. Like me, Emma knows computers. She's hands down the single best hacker I've ever seen. Like me, she worked for a cybersecurity company in the past before a string of bad luck led to her making decisions that brought her to the attention of a sadistic vampire filmmaker who turned both her and Dani with intent of torturing them endlessly on camera. She and Dani have both since learned to be excellent fighters and investigators, but Emma's talent with a computer vastly exceeds my own. If she wanted to, she could easily get a job with the NSA.
Dani had a harder life growing up and doesn't much like to discuss it when she can help it. People she should have been able to trust were violent and she spent a number of years on the streets, bouncing from shelter to foster care again and again. She and Emma had become friends when they were human, more when they had become vampires. They're as devoted to one another as Hardestadt and I am to one another. Does my heart good to see it.
"I mean, I never went to college, but it seems fun," Dani said. She threw me a smile, just enough to show the tips of her fangs. It might have seemed disquieting to someone else, but at this point I just found it endearing how she sometimes forgot she even had them. My friends, whose friendly gestures could frighten small children. What a world.
"Thanks for inviting us," Dani added. "It's nice to get away after everything."
"Exactly what I thought," I said. "And friends who didn't mind the cold…"
"Oooh, we can have snowball fights," Emma said. "Man, we totally forgot about that in Canada, baby."
"More pressing things on our mind, Corazon," Dani giggled before she kissed Emma's neck, then her cheek and then her lips. Emma leaned into it for a moment before I rolled my eyes.
"Oh, shut it." Emma poked me. "You're worse than any of us."
"Oh, so we don't hear you through the walls when we stay over?"
"They are not that thin!"
"You're that loud."
"I am so regretting inviting you!"
"No you aren't," Emma said with a grin. I had to laugh quietly, even as packed as the plane was. I could have easily afforded first class, but I didn't always feel right using a financial advantage in every single thing in my life.
"Thanks again, guys," I said. "Also for talking me into- "
"Stop feeling guilty," Emma said. "Seriously, Erin. You're entitled to this. It's not endearing to keep beating yourself up for needing time away."
"I know, I know," I said. Dani gave me a reassuring look.
"We're here with you, too. Come on, hon. The world won't end with us out of Florida for a few days."
"Please don't jinx it," I said. "One horrific crisis every year is all I can take." What did it say about my life that some of this had become routine? We had done all we could with the catastrophe from the Serpent Conspiracy that had killed millions. The world was still reeling from it, just as it was reeling from the blizzards two years ago, where thousands had frozen to death. People were still suffering and mourning the world over, with us doing anything we could, as paltry as it was.
I told myself to stop again. Martyrdom wasn't doing anything for anyone. I couldn't just let work engulf me or I would lose my mind. Work, I reflected. This sort of thing was a job for me now, a routine. I wanted to keep from disassociating myself too much there, keep the human factors in mind when I was considering my work.
I tried to banish the thoughts, thinking of the old Sorority house in Massachusetts, thought of the snow, the city…I thought of going to Boston harbor, to the museums, to the various restaurants. Not only the clam chowder, there had been some amazing Japanese places in Cambridge. The subway had taken getting used to at first, for a girl from Florida.
But I had been so blown away by getting away, by freedom for the first time. It had been why I had thrown myself so passionately in one of the first relationships that had come along-
I caught myself when I thought of Ian. No, I thought firmly. I had barely thought of him in years, and good riddance. Especially now. Hardestadt had been married many times before me, I knew, and I knew that all of them had passed away. He kept their memories, something I knew well. He had told me of many of them, and they sounded like amazing people. This was different. I wanted Ian to be nothing more than a bad memory with everything else. Not every memory from MIT was something I treasured, I had to admit. I was over it, I reminded myself. Absolutely over it. No way would he still be there, nor anyone else associated with it. Just old friends I shouldn't have let myself lose contact with.
"So that's you in the picture?" Dani asked when I showed her my phone. "And everyone else? You had short hair then?"
"Thought it made me look more professional," I said with a nervous laugh.
"Less piercings. No dye…you look like a different person," Dani smiled, twirling a lock of red hair around a finger.
"Yeah, yeah, people change," I said as I settled back in my seat. "Least we're landing soon."
When we disembarked, we claimed our bags. I had a rental car waiting, driving to Cambridge wand to parking. I realized my heart was pounding rapidly, a nervousness I had not realized I had felt settling upon me. Come on, I told myself. It's fine, you're okay. Emma must have noticed because she gave me a sly look.
"Any more of that, and I'll either have to dance to that rhythm or try chasing you. Hunter instinct, hon."
"UV lights and crosses, Emma, I swear," I muttered. Dani giggled a bit.
"Come on, it's fine to be nervous." She put a hand to my shoulder. "It's been a while, things have changed?"
"At least someone is supportive here," I said. Emma tried to look innocent before she adopted a warmer look.
"Hey, we're right with you every step of the way, Erin. Don't worry," Her voice became soothing. "Anyone who has a problem with you has a problem with me. And I drop kicked an eight headed dragon not too long ago."
"That is giving me some comfort, I admit," I said. "Thanks, you guys."
"Anytime." The two said in sync. Dani was looking about.
"This place is different," she said. "Really different, actually."
"Welcome to Massachusetts," I said. "You know, one of the earliest colonies in the US? Boston Tea Party? Laws of- "
"You're such a history nerd."
"Bigger horror nerd," I said. "And I'm married to someone who was there for a lot of both!"
"I cant believe you're still into horror after everything we live," Dani said. "Granted, most vampire movies come off as comedies now."
"It's because it's unrealistic," I said. "I used to like it, I still do. It's escapism, and it's fun…being fake-scared, in a sense. Kind of scratches a nice itch there."
"Fair enough," Dani said.
"She likes those teen dramas and comedies." Emma said. "And the sappy romantic stuff. And period pieces. Promised I'd take her to Little Women when- "
"Fine, guilty as charged!" Dani said. "And romance novels that Emma gags at."
"You suck," Dani said. Emma grinned playfully.
"No head for culture."
"So I don't like dumb sci fi and fantasy like someone."
"And yet somehow, we make this work," Emma kissed her cheek. I could see them in the rearview and couldn't help but smile. People in love always puts a bit of a shine to my day.
"Alright…Kappa Phi Omega, coming up!" We drove past the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my alma mater. Dani and Emma hung on it, especially Emma as I described some of my old classes, Emma occasionally interjecting with questions that Dani could not begin to follow. Hell, even I could barely follow her. A lot of older vampires have a harder time with technology. Even those who get it, don't have an in depth understanding of it. It gives Emma a bit of a leg up in the supernatural society, which tends to be divided into subsets: the vampire authorities, the werewolf clan nations, the Fay Courts, the different deities, and other regional groups, such as the Japanese Yokai. There are a number of others, countless different species that live under different places, some friendlier than others. There could be a whole taxonomy in regards to this now, I realized.
I had helped deal with a lot of nastier ones, such as draugr or Pijavica. No friendliness there, not much chance of any sort of peaceful coexistence, just undead monstrosity that needed to be put down. I had a decent handle on most supernatural creatures, even a number of deities. Things had tightened immensely as a result of the exposure, many supernatural authorities watching their own members like hawks, especially in the aftermath of the Serpent Conspiracy.
But now we were at a place away from that. Not much chance for outbreaks at MIT, I thought as I pulled to the parking lot. I stepped from the car, trying to still my nerves as I saw the old House. It was large, like an old manor, almost with a strange Victorian quality to it. The windows were mostly tinted, allowing little by the way of looking in. I breathed in and out, Emma and Dani following as I walked to the door. I knocked twice, waiting.
The door opened and I found myself looking into a familiar face. A pretty woman, with a small nose and green eyes, dark curly hair falling to her shoulders. "Erin?" She said. "Erin Hasegawa?"
"Cathy Steinman," I said. We stared at each other for a few seconds and then threw our arms around one another, hugging all we could for a moment.
"It's so good to- "
"I can't believe…" I finished as we hugged close. We separated, grinning at one another.
"Who else is here?!" I asked.
"Some of the current sisters," Cathy said. "Candice made it first. Nicole and Lucy…oh my god, I can't believe…"
"I know!" I said. "You still live local!?"
"Boston born and raised," she said happily. "I'm working there. Been working there, staying here wasn't too hard for me! And the place…it feels off the beaten path, you know?"
"Oh, I know," I said. "These are my friends. Emma West and Danielle Cortez."
"West-Cortez and Cortez-West to be specific as of a few months ago," Emma said as she walked over. Cathy grinned.
"Congrats! Erin said she was bringing friends!" She took their hands, shaking vigorously. "I'm Cathy Steinman, Erin's old Sister. Kappa Phi Omega?"
"For life," I said with a grin. It was amazing how my nerves had instantly calmed, how this was coming back to me. Dani raised a red eyebrow at my demeanor.
"Well, not gonna lie. I can see Erin as a world-class party girl."
"I was not!" I protested.
"Lies," Cathy said. "Tabletop gaming on Friday night, and then drinking and dancing Saturdays."
"Cathy!" I said. "They don't need to know that!"
"We need to know this," Dani said.
"Every little detail," Emma had an arm around her wife, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes. The world had turned upside down, the supernatural world known to the human realm at large. Damage had been done, terrible things had happened. Many countries were still rebuilding and supernatural threats rose up often enough.
But this was a slice of normalcy, a time when I could just be happy with like-minded girls. Cathy looked like he was recalling a few events. "Ever seen Erin dance on a table? She could- "
"I was high as a kite!" I said. "And it was not all partying!"
"Erin, one former party girl gone steady to another?" Emma pulled Dani closer and nuzzled her wife's neck, nibbling it for a moment. Dani giggled and fended her off.
"Emma, not in front of Erin's friends, come on!"
"Cannot help myself, babe…where was I? Oh, yes. One former party girl to another? Calling bullshit, Erin honey."
"Why did I invite you two again?"
"Cuz you love us?" Emma said after pretending to think about it for a second.
"More fool me," I said.
"How did you guys meet?" Cathy asked. "And you guys…?"
"Former cybersecurity," Emma said. "I used to work for a small company in Miami before it got bought out by a bigger company….ended up working in films for a bit in the area." She told that without her expression so much as flickering. The type of films Emma had worked in did not usually come up in polite conversation. Thanks to her hacking ability, and my husband's resources, she'd had every hint of the videos she and Dani had made, as well as any of their friends on request, scrubbed from online when Rich Jacobs' snuff ring had been busted. There had also been a number of arrests related to Darkweb materials and others involved in illegal activities. Emma had never said it aloud, but she's better than me with a computer. Do not get on the bad side of a woman who can end your entire existence with her keyboard.
"And then I ended up working with Dani at a private investigation business," Emma said.
"No kidding?" Cathy asked excitedly. "I'm just, well…nothing that exciting! Run a little jewelry shop with a few employees. Nothing exciting, but it's mine," she said. "That how you and Erin met?"
"Yep!" Dani said. "Long stories, we'll tell you all about it later!" Presumably, I thought, the sanitized version. I spared a quick thought for Hardestadt back at home and checked my phone, taking a moment to text him. He sent back promptly. 'I'm fine. Love you. Have fun.'
"Erin? Everything okay?"
"Yeah," I said. "Just making sure my husband is alright."
"Husband?" Cathy's lips spread up. I held up my hand to show the wedding ring. "How long?"
"Not long, but we've been together years. He's a great guy," I said. "Little older, but…" Okay, ten thousand years or so, give or take. I had also walked into a den of hungry werewolves,been back and forth across the Dreamlands with the Queen of Hell to save existence and had rescued my husband from a vampire-controlled prison…yeah, accomplishments I couldn't exactly brag about.
"You've gotta tell us everything!" Cathy said. "I'm kinda seeing someone now…"
"Ohhh, you don't say?" I asked. "Owen?"
"We broke up how long ago, Erin? His name's Justin, Justin Felber. Nice guy...has a kid, actually. That's taking some…getting used to."
"Come on, Cath, I bet you'd do great there," I said. He pat her shoulder and Cathy gave a nervous laugh.
"Yeah, she's a sweet kid…anyways, listen to me gabbing on. So, the current Sisters haven't all left yet, but Candice, Sharice, Lucy, Nour... We can hit the common room and I can introduce your friends?"
"Hell yes!" I said. Memories were coming back as I saw the large hall, the mansion-like quality of the house, down to the creak of the floorboards. I could see pictures on the wall, girls and women from years who had come before and after us.
"Still dressing in black?"
"I'll stop when they invent a darker color," I returned as I signaled Emma and Dani. The two seemed positively giddy, arm in arm as Dani almost draped herself over Emma, sharing a kiss with her wife. "Can you two stop fawning over one another?"
"Nope, never," Dani said. "This is awesome! I mean, I never went to college like Ems here…"
"Hell, I didn't have one as nice as this!" Emma said. "This is great, Erin!" One door had opened before I could respond. I saw a few faces, young women who had emerged. Cathy glanced at them.
"Oh, Dana, Leslie, Jane…this is Erin! She's one of the ones I was telling you about."
"Little sisters," I said fondly, seeing the sudden admiration in their eyes as they saw me. The one named Dana did not smile, watching me close with dark eyes. I judged their ages as early twenties, Cathy holding my arm now.
"Most of them are taking off pretty soon…we'll have a few girls staying, plus all of us," Cathy said. "All the rooms are ready. Totally fine for Emma and Dani to split one."
"Wouldn't have it any other way." Dani said. "Anything happening later?"
"We're throwing a party," the one named Leslie said. She had pale skin, blond hair and green eyes. "Kind of a holiday farewell. Last hurrah, y'know?"
"You guys are welcome. Especially if you're legendary partiers," Jane said. She had dark skin, short hair and dark eyes, a smile on her face. Dani nudged me and I threw her a 'UV lights and crosses' look as she tried to look innocent. "We'd love to have some seniors there."
"Sounds like fun!" I said.
"Like you would miss a party," Cathy said, trying for innocence with her tone.
"Shut it," I returned. It had been a strange haze, I realized. It was almost like my life before I had begun working with Hardestadt had belonged to someone else. I had all the memories of the time before I had been hunted by the Brahmaparusha but I was staring at them from the other side of the looking glass.
I had made a decision to knock upon Hardestadt's door after he had killed the thing that had been hunting me, that had killed other people around me, that had intended to drive me insane and eat me alive. We had taken time to trust one another, years of proving ourselves to one another.
I had helped save the world. It should have reduced many of these memories to insignificance, but it didn't. I found myself treasuring them, longing for them. Mementos, I realized, of a time when I didn't bear a weight on me I loved my work, I was proud of all I had done, but I don't think I realized how much I treasured the lulls between those times.
"Erin?" I heard my name and looked past Cathy. Several women stood there; one was tally, willowy and strawberry blond, face dotted with freckles. One beside her was shorter, with dark skin, wearing a hijab, the third with long black hair and tan skin. All of them wore happy expressions as I saw them in turn.
"Candice, Nour, Sharice!" I came over and hugged each of them as tight as I could. With absolutely zero by way of social awkwardness, Emma walked over after speaking with the juniors and introduced herself and Dani.
We were soon sat in the common room, our juniors attending as we all caught up. "How's being a doctor?" I asked Nour. Nour Egale had been one of the smartest girls I had known, throwing herself into studies every weekend even when the rest of us had gone partying. She had always been there when I had needed to talk, and she had been the first person I had confided in after the breakup with Ian.
"Rewarding," Nour said, a radiant smile on her face. "It's nothing glamorous- "
"Come on, it's what you always wanted," Cathy said. "We remember, hon." Sharice had gone to law school, now working at an environmental non-profit while Candice had begun playing tennis professionally. Despite keeping up via social media, I realized there had been a great deal I didn't know.
"Erin's married," Cathy announced.
"You didn't invite us?" Sharice threw an eyebrow up. The stares turned playfully accusatory and I held my hands out.
"Formal ceremony, promise!" I said. "We…well, a lot happened with my husband's mom. Some…major problems," I finished lamely. "We decided to put it on paper, but have the ceremony proper in a few years...don't worry, wouldn't have you miss out on that."
"Guess we can forgive them," Candice added. "I mean, me?" she rubbed at her finger. "Mother-in-law issues, huh? Yeah, been through that."
"Candi, you okay?" Nour asked.
"Yeah, Rick's a good guy. Just wasn't in the cards for us," Candice said. "It was five years ago. Over it, ladies. We're not here for bad memories. We can't all be you and Idil, Nour."
Nour had been with the same boyfriend since sophomore year, I recalled. I had seen multiple pictures of them together. "You guys are still…?" I started.
"Idil and I got married a few years after graduation," she said. Of course I had known from the page, but hearing it from her voice made it sound even better. "We work in the same hospital now. He said he could hold the fort for a few days while I took a trip." Her dark eyes shone for a smile, the look of contentment on her face one that even I almost envied. "Sharice?"
"I started seeing someone a few years ago…met her through work. Her name's Maddy," Sharice Griffith had always been someone active physically. She had taken martial arts classes in college, was a passionate lover of sports and the outdoors. I liked working out, but a few outings with Sharice had left me a sweaty, melting mess.
"And also- " Candice said as the door opened. I recognized Alicia Snow instantly, freezing almost on the spot. Candice smiled. "Ally, come on in, Erin's here!"
"Yeah," Alicia said quietly after a second. The corners of her mouth tugged up. "Hey, Erin. It's…been a while. Good to see you. I mean- "
"Alicia," I said. Emma must have recognized the look in my eyes, my face suddenly neutral as I controlled my breathing. "I didn't know you were invited." There was a wintery chill in my voice, my hand on the table. Nour must have noticed something up, Cathy and Sharice likewise glancing between us. Candice paused.
"Erin?" She asked. "Erin, everything, alright?"
"Yeah," I said. "Everything's fine." Alicia and I had been friends when we had started in Kappa Phi Omega. I had helped her with her statistics homework, she had taken me to parties, even shown me tips for working out.
Granted, a lot changed when I caught her in bed with my then-boyfriend on Valentine's Day. I had never mentioned that particular bit of information to the others, even when they knew about the rest of that incident. I had broken up with Ian, avoided him as much as humanly possible for the rest of college. I had barely spoken to Alicia again. If any of the others suspected anything, they had never mentioned it in my presence.
Of course she might be here, I realized. I had never even considered the possibility. It had been nearly ten years, I had been through so much that a pathetic, toxic, fucked up relationship in college and a bad break up should have been in my rearview and long past.
'Should' was doing a lot of work in that sentence I realized. I set my drink down and stood up quickly. "Mind if I see my room? I'd like to put my stuff down."
"Uh, sure, Erin," Candice said. She noticed the tension right off. Candice was always good at seeing an issue and diffusing it early. Emma's gaze had turned instantly protective while I read the look of sudden sympathy in Dani's eyes.
"Erin?" Nour asked.
"Just a long plane ride," I said. Alicia and I made eye contact briefly and I could read genuine shame in her blue eyes. She remembered, I thought with a sour edge. I tried to analyze my feelings to get them under control. It was a long time ago. She had felt terrible about it after. It had been a mistake. We had been friends. It was wrong to keep holding a grudge years later.
Well, right now I just didn't care about being right. I let Alicia see my face, devoid of any expression, save the stab in my eyes before I turned from her, letting Candice lead me out, up the stairs and to my room. "My old one?" I asked.
"Yep," Candice said. "It's vacant now, so you can make yourself cozy. Vivian's still on housekeeping here, and-….okay, what was that?"
"Nothing to talk about," I said. "It's not going to interfere with anything else, Candice."
"Erin, what's with you and Alicia? You guys used to be close."
"'Used' to be," I said. "Candi, I don't want to talk about it."
"She's a Sister too," Candice had ever been the den mother, concerned and eager to make sure everyone got on. "You're not mad she was invited, are you?"
"No," I said. She had every right to be here. She had good memories with the others, she was their friend. "Look, I'll be back out soon, okay? Just need to be a bit antisocial, just for twenty minutes."
"Everything is okay? You promise? Last thing I want is for this to go south, Erin…"
"I promise," I said. I hugged her again. "Come on, it's me. You know I always needed space here'n there."
"Alright, take some time," Candice squeezed my shoulders. I walked into my room without another word, setting my bags down. It was as I had remembered it; small, homey, the bed made, desk and outlets, with a private bathroom. I sat back on the bed, rubbing my head. I had left Emma and Dani with the others, social butterflies that they were.
I had almost forgotten I had bad memories attached here. Most had been good, but who goes through college, their first time away from home, without some scrapes? I had met Ian Saxon early on. Handsome, smart, polite. It had been some time later when he had asked me out, after I had joined my sorority. I had found myself captivated on his every word. Just a month into it, and he had introduced me to his father.
Craig had made little secret that he had disliked me, which Ian had apologized for. Then things had shifted, with him slowly revealing that he had not been the person I had thought. Insults, arguments…things I had been able to brush off and convince myself had not been anything significant had become worse and worse. After all, he had been nice most of the time. He had been quick to apologize after fights or insults, with gifts to make up for it. I had kept it from the others, not wanting sympathy or discussions about it. I had tried to go on with my life and pretend everything was fine.
Yeah, fucking wonder how that had worked, I thought. We had fought more and more, and his behavior had gotten worse. He had practically stood me up on Valentine's Day when I went to his place, finding Alicia there with him. Ian had tried to explain later and I had made certain we were as near to public as possible when I had told him to get out of my life. I had never, I realized, accepted Alicia's apology, barely spoken to her since. Eventually, she settled to that new status quo, both of us trying to live life parallel to one another without truly interacting.
And here? I thought back to my behavior, considering what I should do. I rubbed my head, breathing in and out. Was I taking it out on her unfairly? My memory drifted to the weeks after I had split from Ian, when I had found out I was pregnant, when I had dealt with it early on. I had told few people; never my parents, my brother or my sisters. Hardestadt was one of the few who knew, and some of the girls in the room who had given me nothing but love and support.
I had never felt a trace of guilt. I still didn't. I had not been ready, I had wanted to continue studying and to continue living how I wanted. I'd had a single procedure to go on with my life. Ian had not been part of it anymore. I should have been over it, end of story. I'd had boyfriends after in college, several after school. I had bad luck with relationships, admittedly, until it had taken Hardestadt and I years to finally try one out.
I had been the one to tell him, to ask him on a date, when everything we had repressed had just come to the surface. We could hang on one another's every words, savor the time in one another's presences. He could make me smile, laugh, make me happy just to be around him, as pleased to go on a date to a club and dance as simply sitting on the couch and cuddling with a plate of some exotic dessert he'd made with Nyx sharing our laps.
I was happy, so why the hell was I troubled? Why was I holding anything resembling a grudge? I heard the knock at the door a moment later. "C'mon in," I said. Dani walked in a second later.
"Emma and I have our room. Bed's a bit small, but…so, sorority, huh?" She asked.
"Surprise," I said. Dani walked to me and put an arm around me.
"Long story," I said. Dani gave me a look of sympathy.
"You have good old friends, you know."
"Some of the best kind," I said. "Don't worry, I'll be back out. You guys okay? Not too hungry?"
"We had drinks before we came. If there's a party later, we'll be fine then." Dani said it a bit casually, and I could see the tips of her fangs. Vampire society frowns on killing in the modern age if it can be helped, but I've never seen them hunt or even really drink from anything that aren't blood packs.
"Just, uh, don't hurt anyone?"
"No need to worry," Dani said. She kissed my cheek. "You sure you're alright? I'm expecting to see you loosen up a bit later."
"Look, a party?" I said. "The weather is clear, people are here. I'm gonna have a good time. A real good time," I said it firmly, smiling now. Smiling always helped my mood. Partying was always a way to feel better, to feel alive and have fun. My friends were here, I had nothing to worry about. I had once told a cosmic horror to go fuck himself in his own place of power. This was nothing.
"If you need to talk, I'm here, okay?" Dani said. I caught the concern in her eyes.
"I'll hold you to it. Thanks for coming, Dani. Love you."