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He had been cleaning the shop until he heard the soft chime of a walk-in customer. His senses were hyperalert, his patience worn thin. He had made the sacrifice. His hands still shook. He still felt... He had tried explaining it to Eileen, once, while eating a piece of Mrs. Navarro's apple pie.
"You know that feeling when you've finished your shift, and everything's put away, and the floor is clean, and all the big things are done so you can focus on the details? You know, when everything's fresh and new? It's change, and it's completion, and it's like you're comfortable with death. You're done. You are ready to be born a-fresh, into the new project." He didn't say that being the Sun was like that, that healing was always like that. That was Apollo's job. Paul was just a tattoo artist.
Until they came, charging him with the Hunt.
"Here for ink or a piercing?"
Annalise said nothing.
Paul stood up from his chair. He examined her carefully, walking around her as he did so. That she was silent meant a lot of things. None of them good.
"I can see your marks, but I can't tell if you wish them to be made visible to the world." He paused in mid-stride, looking sharp. "You have a knife of cold steel, and I can smell the blood on you. There are connections..."
He is quiet, then.
She nodded. That would do, her countenance said. It didn't answer the question, but it identified him, as well.
Paul sighed. "To hunt the Unicorn requires virtue, as it is a beast of purity."
Annalise just smiled.
"Oh, so you know. And are you here for a taste of its blood, or to dissuade me?" The tattoo artist picked up a flÚchette that had rested in a velvet case. He wasn't looking at her, and her silence was part of the conversation, both answer and question.
"You didn't let them use you. That's the difference. Adriana, well, she let them use her, and thought she was using them. Leilani, she is being used, but without the greater knowledge. Does that make her more innocent, and you, the sweet medium?" He flipped the store sign to "CLOSED" and looked up at Annalise.
"I thought not. Can you steal innocence without it turning into something else?"
Annalise smiled again. This time, her hand was on her knife.
Trooper Arnold Akhlut hated this place. He hated his job. He hated being alone. He hated the weight of the gun at his side. It wasn't an active passion, but the culmination of several grudges, incidents that didn't add up, the wall of missing persons posters, and, well, a lot of it was plain, ordinary, epitheted fatigue. While he didn't think of himself that way, he was a good cop in a bad place, and those who shine their flame brightest against the darkness have a disturbing tendency to burn out.
It was nasty. All of it; the recent accident and what was found in the bathroom. At least it wasn't Suzie's, but the diner. Suzie's was a transient place, the fill-your-cup-loose-your-weasel place with the neon and the lurid posters, safe by being almost generic. The diner was different, full of odd smells and strange eyes and the weird had its place there. He'd buy coffee and donuts at Suzie's, but what Fat Mac cooked at the diner, well, you didn't just grab it and run. It wasn't take-out.
He rubbed his eyes and sighed. The pictures didn't go away. He could see them with his eyes closed, could smell the blood, could almost taste the tears. A fantasy of frenzy made him clutch his fists, nails piercing the flesh of his palms. He inhaled a ragged, panting breath, like that of dog or wolf.
"So, you're thinking copycat? The Midway Slasher come back?" Lena's mouth had been moving for several minutes, but Ahklut hadn't been listening until she said the words he and everyone else was dreading: a rerun. Reporters, amateur CSI, heck, the Serial Killer Express had driven a tour bus up here once. Mr. Woczak had had something to say to the state troopers about _that_ one. It had been colourful and expletive and very not printable, to the reporters' dismay and the employees' amusement.
No, this was someone else. Something else. Something that had been dredged up from the pits. Ahklut knew somewhere on the inside that there were those who cast nets for darkness, and sometimes caught more than for which they had bargained. He worried about his partner, Lena, and about the apple pierced with needles on her desk.
He looked over the parking lot. Darkness. A whole lot of darkness had been caught here, and like attracted like. Of course, just like the lights hanging overhead sometimes there were bright spots, and things similarly drawn to or shedding their own light. Was this a land of twilight or a land of dawn?
Was that the smell of baking apples? With a hint of ash, and again, the smell of fresh blood.
He didn't hate this place. It resonated too much with the sleeping beast that lay inside him.
It had started to rain.
Paul nearly flinched. He didn't even know if he had heard or said the word himself. "I'm sorry?"
"Nothing, just talking aloud to myself," Margot Tremont smiled. It was a good conversational gambit, though, and she pounced on the moment, forgetting both the neon and the darkness that called. "I was just wondering what kinds of birds were out at night. Owls, I think."
"Owls." Paul nodded. "Nighthawks, the white throated Nightjar." He sipped at his coffee. Black, the colourless night. "The frogmouth."
"You a bird watcher?"
"Sometimes." He smiled a little. She had a glow to her, if tinged slightly with blood. Of course, who here at the diner didn't have blood on their hands, literally or figuratively speaking?
"Not a big talker, though." Margot finished her pie. "I have never had a cherry pie like this before. This was amazing. If I ever come back this way," she cut herself off. She wouldn't be coming back. Hollywood or Bust!
Heck, maybe they deliver.
Paul put out a hand, resting it near her. "Cleanse yourself of this place, and be gone before dawn's light. Your sins will wash away in the healing light of the sun."
Great, a crazy. Margot smiled. "I'll do that." She pushed her water aside, and stood up, making distance between her and the strange man. She paid the cashier and her mind went back to the spotlights.
"An apple, please."
Mrs. Navarro looked up. Her expression swiftly changed into an, "Oh, it's you," and she continued peeling. Annalise fetched the apple. "You be careful now, Mr. Luceios," Sylvia said. "The balances shift against you and you're going to have to be who you were instead of who you are, and you'll never find out who you could be."
"Knowledge tastes like blood, Sylvia." Paul held the golden apple for a moment up to the light.
"Yggdrasil wasn't an apple tree, Paul."
Fat Mac leaned in the doorway. "That kind of tree," he grunted, "it picks fruit from you." He glanced around as if checking something. Finding it (or not) he went back into the kitchen.
Trooper Akhlut took a sip of the hot coffee. Lena was still putting cream in hers, polluting the pure rush of the black blood of the Earth. "This isn't over," he said.
Lena frowned. "What do you mean?"
"This place. Midway. That's where we're at. Neither at the beginning or the end. We know some of what we're looking for, and we know some of what we will find, but there's still a part missing of the story."
"I thought it was booze makes you a philosopher, Arnie. Not coffee."
How to tell her that the coffee helped hide the scent of blood? Maybe he should ask her about the apple and the pins. The smell of cherry pie wafted through, comfortingly.
Annalise sat next to the halogen. It was dry here, between the pillars.
The Djinn smiled. "Eden's changed a bit, hasn't it?" it asked.
"The gardeners have been busy," Paul said.
"Which one are you looking for?"
"They thought of him. They think they know his blood."
Annalise frowned, as if inadvertantly hurt.
"And you're going to call one of the Horned ones? With spoiled goods?" The Djinn pointed to Annalise.
"You mistake the nature of innocence." There was an undertone of, "And don't mention it again," in the growl.
There. That was...different.
It smelled like earth, like rain, like something sweet and yet sour, and it smelled like fear and pleasure all at once.
Arnold moved quickly to the door, almost upsetting the coffee cup in his wake. He rushed out towards the parking lot, into the rain.
It was both predator and prey. It was silver in the moonlight, and golden as if in day. It took the apple from the woman's outstretched hand, a hand full of knowledge, a gesture full of history. It had a single golden horn, and cloven silver hooves.
It looked at the trooper with blue eyes. Something like flame hovered above it.
He found himself moving towards it, each foot dragging across the ground as if he were being pulled into its presence.
Lena shouted something after him, but he didn't hear it. She stood in the doorway. There were tears, or maybe raindrops on her cheeks.
He saw it then, the arrow taking flight, headed straight for the beautiful impossibility.
He pulled out his gun.
Silver blood. Silver. Danger. Blood. Bullet. Silver bullet. Silver moon.
"Foolish mortal. Accursed mortal." The hovering bit of spirit flame seemed to grow larger with the words.
"They have as much to lose as we do," Paul's voice was patient.
"Even without knowledge of the truth of what goes on?"
"If their vision is not pure, it is because this happens on many levels. Do you know all?"
"No. That comes at too high a price."
"As one and many have learned. Bring your light over here. I can heal this. Annalise, finish that apple. You have a speaking role in this."
Trooper Ahklut stared at the full moon. There was no trace of fangs, or the pointed ear, just a glittery drop of silver over his heart, as if a bullet wound had healed there. He was standing in a rainy parking lot. One of the lights had gone out above him.
Paul Luceios took the glass bottle and put it in his coat. Oberst would come for this. A change in the balance, and he didn't know which way it was tilted. He remembered the ears of the beast flickering, as if in laughter, just as she turned and disappeared.
He smiled, looking at the apple seeds Annalise had left behind.