There was a bitter crispness in the air as I waited for him. I wrapped my fur-lined coat tighter around myself and tried not to shiver uncontrollably. It was easy, since I was unpleasantly distracted by the pain in my left side where I’d been shot. My once-white mittens were now dyed with my blood as I tried to staunch the flow.
Oh, and they’d ruined a perfectly good shirt. It had been my favorite shirt, actually. Light blue, to match my eyes.
I hadn’t seen who had shot me. I’d gotten a hasty glimpse, but they’d been wearing masks and fled right after they were sure I was down.
Then, miraculously, he was there, lifting me into his arms and placing me in the passenger seat of his sleek black car.
“How did this happen?” He demanded as he drove off.
“Calm down, Lucas.”
He glared at me. He was my best friend. I could see the worry in his beautiful green eyes.
“Oops, look at that.” My voice sounded distant, even to me. “I’m getting blood all over your leather seats. I’m making a mess, Lucas. Let me get out— I can walk home from here.”
Lucas’s eyes snapped at me, emerald fire. “Don’t you dare unhook that seatbelt.” Lucas locked my door from the driver’s side panel. A few minutes later he put the car in park and got out.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got a friend to meet here,” Lucas explained as he opened my door and helped me out.
“Where are we?”
Lucas half carried, half dragged me into the building.
“A mall?” I felt surprise through the haze in my mind.
Lucas didn’t seem in the mood to answer any of my questions. He walked with a certain purposeful stride, balancing my weight easily in his arms as if I weighed nothing. My side jolted with every step and I winced, locking my teeth together to keep from crying out and distressing him further.
I studied Lucas’s tense face as he walked. I wanted to trace his sharp jawline and high cheekbones. He had slight stubble on his face, a mere shadow that I liked a lot. His nose was straight and his mouth was perfection. I could spend all day dreaming about those perfectly soft, pink, full lips…
I mentally kicked myself. Through the chaos and confusion in my brain was this one single clarity: falling for your best friend only ended in pain.
Lucas seemed oblivious to my thoughts as he entered a dark, loud place. It seemed to be a bar or pub of some sort. A sign with a picture of a winking goat on it proclaimed it to be The Lying Dragon.
Some people took notice of our entry, but most were too drunk to care. All were dressed in medieval clothes.
I spotted a dragon in the corner but then I blinked and it was gone. I was seeing things. I shook my head as I watched a rainbow unicorn fart out a spray of glitter.
I knew the dragon and the unicorn were figments of my imagination, but there were people with wands and charmed medallions and wings. I couldn’t tell if they were real or not.
The floor slanted dangerously and I thought I was going to be sick. But when I looked again, the floor was stable and flat.
What in the known galaxies was that bullet laced with? Hallucinogenics? Some type of poison?
“Is your friend alright?”
The man who asked this was about thirty years of age, give or take a couple years. He had pink hair and blue skin, but I was sure I was imagining that part. He was scruffy and had the indentation in his ear that spoke of a once-pierced ear. He was directing his question to Lucas.
Lucas shook his head and said quietly. “She was shot. I’m meeting an old friend here. He can help her.”
“Come, in the back.” The man ushered us through a curtain that hid a doorway behind the bar. “My name is CJ. Short for Cleveland James, but no one calls me that besides my mother.”
CJ indicated a table in the center of the room. “What’s your friend’s name?”
“This is Ashen.”
“No, I mean the one you’re waiting for.”
“Oh, Nathaniel Grey.”
“I’ll send him back when he arrives.”
“He should already be here,” Lucas said.
CJ nodded and disappeared back through the curtains. A few minutes later a different man came through the covered doorway.
Nathaniel Grey was a young and very beautiful man, no older than twenty-two. He was clean-shaven and somehow managed to be rugged-looking at the same time, the only person in the pub who didn’t look like he’d just stepped out of the pages of a medieval history textbook. He had two piercings that I could see: a tongue ring and a nose ring. He had a dragon tattoo that snaked up his right arm. He had black hair that stood up in spikes all over his head, a black leather jacket with metal spikes on the shoulders, scuffed combat boots, tight black jeans, and a black choker with more silver spikes. He was wearing more eyeliner than I did, and eyeliner was literally my life. His fingernails were painted black and he had long, elegant fingers. He was strangely graceful in his movements, almost catlike, which matched his slitted amber eyes. He removed the leather fingerless gloves he was wearing and grinned, showing off a full set of razor-sharp teeth. “What can I do you for, Lucas Wyvern?”
“My friend. She was shot…”
Nathaniel moved to stand beside me, his boots making no sound on the mahogany floor as he moved closer. He was silent as a ghost playing the quiet game. He moved my hands, which were still clamped to my side, pulled back my coat, and slid my sticky, ruined shirt up far enough that he could see the wound. “It reeks of wolfsbane.”
“Can you do anything?” Lucas asked desperately. “Please, Nate. We’ve known each other for over a century now… Is there anything at all you can do?” I hated to hear him beg, his face washed with anguish, but it touched my heart to know he was willing to beg like that for me.
Nathaniel nodded. “I can help her. Fetch CJ. I need some supplies.”
I let my head fall back the to table and closed my eyes briefly as Lucas went to find the barkeep. My head was pounding and I saw bright lights flash across my vision. I felt dizzy and cold.
“What’s your name?” Nathaniel asked me and I figured he was just trying to keep me awake so I didn’t die before he could fix me.
“Ashen Lockwood,” I answered hoarsely. I sounded like a duck with a sore throat giving birth.
“How old are you, Ashen?”
“Stay awake for me now, please, Ashen.”
Lucas returned with CJ. Nathaniel sent them for bandages, some poultice I’d never heard of, and some kind of plant thing called vervain.
Nathaniel removed my coat and gloves, ripping my shirt farther away from the bloody area. He then located a dishrag and began applying pressure to my wound. “The good news,” he said. “The bullet passed straight through you, which means I won’t have to dig it out.”
The thought of Nathaniel sticking his fingers and other makeshift surgical instruments into me made me feel faint. I smiled weakly at him, but suddenly he had three heads and I wasn’t sure which one to smile at. Then he had one head again and I knew he hadn’t really had three heads at all.
CJ and Lucas returned with the items Nathaniel had requested.
Nathaniel placed the vervain in his mouth. Once fully chewed, Nathaniel applied it to my wound. It stung like I was simultaneously being stung by hundreds of yellow jackets and burned alive. I clenched my teeth to stop from screaming in arrant agony. It would only cause Lucas pain to know I was in pain.
“What’s that for?” Lucas asked.
“I’m drawing out the poison from the wolfsbane.”
Cool, refreshing relief flooded me once Nathaniel washed away the vervain, all the wolfsbane venom out of my system.
“Hold her down,” Nathaniel ordered Lucas and CJ. Those instructions made me instantly wary of what he’d do next. Probably bleed me to be absolutely sure my veins were free of all wolfsbane toxins.
What Nathaniel did next was dip the washcloth he had into the poultice’s jar and smear the poultice all over my side, making sure to press it into the wound.
If I’d thought the vervain was bad, I was devastatingly unprepared for the poultice. My skin and inside burned like some demon was trying to get out and drag me to Hell with him and I nearly went blind from the pain. This time I could not bite back my piercing scream. I threw my head back and shrieked like a banshee being tortured. CJ disappeared, letting go of me, presumably to assure the rambunctious patrons in his pub that everything was fine. I fought to get up so Lucas took hold of my other arm as well.
“What is that supposed to do?” Lucas asked, sounding strained. He reached out and smoothed my hair back, wiping sweat off my forehead. I bucked under him and he went back to holding me down.
“It’s knitting the wound closed. See?” Nathaniel pointed to my exposed torso. “The skin is healing as we speak.”
Lucas looked away. I thought he was going to puke, but he didn’t. If the roles were reversed, I would have vomited all over CJ’s immaculate floor and his expensive-looking scarlet-and-gold rug.
“I— hate— magic…!” I panted, wanting to claw the poultice and my repairing skin right off my body. I felt nauseous.
Lucas’s hold on me tightened.
“A couple more minutes, Ashen. It’s almost over.” Nathaniel promised.
I could barely hear him over the rushing in my ears.
Then, blissfully, cool relief.
I looked down at my bare torso. It looked as if there had been no wound at all.
An older, graying man bustled into the back room. “Who th’ hell are y’all?” He demanded gruffly.
“Friends of CJ’s,” Nathaniel lied smoothly.
“What’s the little imp doing on ma’ table?”
I assumed he meant me and wasn’t sure if I should be offended.
“We were just leaving,” Nathaniel said.
The man put an arm out to stop Nathaniel as he tried to move past. “You look familiar. Aren’t you’s a regular here?”
Nathaniel nodded. “I come here often…”
“Every day,” Lucas coughed.
Nathaniel shot Lucas a dirty look.
The man nodded. “So now the truth. Who are y’all and what are ya doin’ in my employee lounge?”
“Ashen was hurt and Lucas knew I could help her, what with my healing powers and all.”
“I assume this little troll is Ashen?”
Okay, now I was definitely offended. “Troll?”
The man squinted at me. “Blame your mama for tha’ one, little girl. Don’ get mad at me for your ugliness. You look like that creature… What’s the creepy one named? Precious? From King of the Rings or something…”
“Lord of the Rings,” I muttered. Did he just say I look like Gollum? I believe he did. I took a deep breath in to calm down, held it, and counted to fifteen. I released the breath slowly before I spoke. “At least I’m not a fat pig, you oversized oaf.”
The man frowned. Then a slow grin spread across his face and he laughed merrily.
Is he drunk? I just insulted him!
“I like her,” he announced. “She go’ spunk! She may look like a mons’er from The Descent, but she’s go’ a fire insi’e her. The name’s Ol’ Greg, by th’ way.”
“Pleasure,” I said sardonically and hopped off the table to shake the massive hand he extended towards me. He didn’t even seem fazed by my disheveled, half-naked state or the gore covering me.
Old Greg gestured back through the curtain-covered doorway. “C’mon. I’ll serve y’all a nice bev’rage. On th’ house.” He turned and lumbered his way into the pub.
“CJ isn’t very crea’ive with hi’ drinks an’ don’t a’ways mix ‘em well, but he sure can make a mean malt.”
“Is that a compliment, boss?” CJ asked as we came to the bar and sat down.
Old Greg faked indignation. “Who, me? Ne’er!”
“What can I get for you?” CJ asked us.
“Your famous. On th’ house!” Old Greg told his barkeep.
“Coming right up.” CJ began mixing drinks and sliding them to us in sparkling glasses.
I took a sip of mine that was so blue it resembled Windex. My mouth exploded with sweetness. “What is this stuff?”
“A Bloody Yeti.”
I had never heard of that. “But it’s blue,” I stated.
“Blood is red.” I gestured to my stained and tattered shirt. I pulled my fur coat tighter around myself, not liking how CJ’s eyes lingered on my midriff.
“Not a yeti’s blood.”
Since I had never met a yeti or seen one bleed, I just had to trust CJ on that. I took another sip. This one was tart.
Another sip. Sour.
Another sip. Bitter.
Another sip. Salty.
Another sip. Sweet again.
Each sip tasted different and I told CJ so, watching Lucas discover that for himself, making faces at the different tastes. Nathaniel threw his back like a pro, as if he was used to it. Then I remembered he came here so frequently he was probably more than familiar with every drink served.
CJ smiled. “Well, duh. It’d be boring if every mouthful tasted the same. What did you expect? What have you been drinking? Human beer?” He laughed as if he found that idea just ridiculous.
Nathaniel grinned. “Don’t you like it?”
“It’s delicious,” I assured him. “I’ve just never had anything so…”
“Potent?” He supplied.
“She’s never been to a magic bar before,” Lucas explained, taking another sip of his Bloody Yeti.
Nathaniel and CJ both stared at me like I was the farting unicorn from my near-death delusions.
I shrugged and took another drink of my strange blue concoction, humming along to the song that blasted from the pub’s speakers and nodding my head to the beat.
CJ noticed me jamming out to his radio picks. “You a My Chemical Romance fan?”
I nodded. “Gerard Way is life, man.”
CJ’s tone turned high-pitched and mocking. “Why? Because he’s such a hunk?”
I glared at him. “I don’t talk like that.”
“But you think he’s soooooo sexy…”
I ignored that and finished my drink. “That was delicious, CJ. Thank you.”
“No problem, buttercup. My pleasure.”
I smiled as he took my empty glass.
I turned to look at Nathaniel expectantly and was rewarded with a beautiful black rose. I took it from Nathaniel and tucked it behind my ear. “Thanks, Nate. And I don’t know if I properly thanked you for healing me. You saved my life.”
Nathaniel shrugged, smiling. “The rose matches your fingernails. And you’re welcome.”
Lucas narrowed his eyes on the back of Nathaniel’s head. He had an expression on his face I couldn’t quite read. Before the emotion he was displaying could register, his expression went blank and then he brightened.
“I think it’s time we got going,” he said and stood.
“So soon? We just got here.”
“I only brought you so you wouldn’t die. Come on, Ash. Your mother will be worried.”
“She’ll have a heart attack when she sees me.” I gestured to my bloody clothes.
“Say you got a nosebleed.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Then explain my ripped clothes.”
“Your clothes are always ripped. The gunshot went nowhere near your jeans. You bought them that way from Hot Topic She’ll just assume it’s another fashion statement from her rebellious, punk rock daughter.”
“The amount of blood, then? What’d my nose do, fall off?”
Lucas sighed. “I think you still have a pair of clean clothes at my house. We’ll stop there. It’s on the way.”
I reluctantly stood. I waved to CJ and Nathaniel.
Nathaniel stood and slipped something into the front pocket of my coat, smiled, and disappeared into the din of the pub.
“Hope y’all come back!” Old Greg called after us as we made to leave.
“What was that all about?” I asked Lucas as we headed through the food court and towards his car. It was the only one in the lot. It’s shiny black paint job reflected the light of the full moon and I was suddenly filled with sadness at its lone, melancholy image.
“What was what all about?”
“You got all antsy when your friend gave me this flower.” I touched the rose again and smiled in spite of myself.
Lucas caught my smile and huffed. “He’s not my friend,” he said flatly.
“He seemed to like you.”
“He liked you,” Lucas corrected.
So that’s what this was about. I smiled. “You’re jealous.”
“Damn right I’m jealous.” Lucas growled.
I reached out and toyed with Lucas’s lip ring and he stuck the key in the ignition and turned. The car purred to life. I leaned over and kissed him. “Don’t be, okay?” I whispered.
Lucas hesitated, then kissed me back. When he put the car in drive, he was smiling. “Okay.”
Later, showered and in a clean pair of clothes with the bloody and torn ones hidden at the bottom of my hamper, I pulled out the thing Nathaniel had snuck into my pocket. It was a napkin with my lifeline. Lucas was my best friend and I loved him, but he felt like a safe haven. I felt wild tonight, staring out my window at the full moon, and I wanted a taste of danger. I wanted to be a part of the darkness. I wanted to be a part of Nate’s world. I pulled out my phone and dialed the number.
He answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
“Feel like an adventure?”