Succubus Shadows Chapter 18

It started before I could stop it.

I stood in a kitchen, in one of those dreams where I was both watching me and feeling me.The kitchen was bright and modern, far larger than anything I could imagine a non-cook like me needing.My dream-self stood at the sink, arms elbow deep in sudsy water that smelled like oranges.

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I was hand-washing dishes and kind of doing a half-ass job at it but was too happy to notice. On the floor, an actual dishwasher lay in pieces, thus explaining the need for manual labor.

From another room, the sounds of “Sweet Home Alabama” carried to my ears. I hummed along as I washed. I was content, filled with a joy so utterly perfect, I could barely grasp it after everything else that had happened in my life – particularly after this imprisonment with the Oneroi. After humming a few more bars, I set a wet cup on the counter and turned around to peek into the living room beyond me.

A little girl sat in there, about two years old. She was on a blanket, surrounded by stuffed animals and other toys. She clutched a plush giraffe in her hands. It rattled when she shook it. As though sensing my gaze, she looked up.

She had plump cheeks that hadn’t quite lost their baby fat. Wispy, light brown curls covered her head, and her hazel eyes were large and framed with dark lashes. She was adorable. Behind her on the couch, Aubrey lay curled up in a tight little ball. Godiva lay beside her.

A delighted smile spread over the little girl’s face, creating a dimple in one cheek. A powerful wave of love and joy spread through me, emotions that my raw and aching real self barely allowed to come through. Just like the first time I’d dreamed this dream, I knew with certainty – absolute certainty – that this girl was my daughter.

After a few more moments, I returned to my dishes, though I wanted nothing more than to go back to the living room. Damned manual labor. Neither my dream self nor my waking self could get enough of the girl. I wanted to drink her in. I could have watched her forever, taking in those long-lashed eyes and wispy curls.

Unable to resist – and bored with washing dishes – I finally gave in and glanced back again. The girl was gone. I pulled my hands out of the water, just in time to hear a thump and a crash. The sound of crying followed.

I sprinted out of the kitchen. Aubrey and Godiva jerked their heads up, surprised at my sudden movement. On the other side of the living room, my daughter sat on the floor beside an end table with sharp corners, a small hand pressed to her forehead. Tears streamed down her checks as she wailed.

In a flash, I was on my knees, wrapping her up in a tight embrace. Watching and feeling this dream, I wanted to weep as well over the feel of that soft, warm body in my arms. I rocked the girl, murmuring soothing, nonsensical words as I brushed my lips against the silken hair. Eventually, her sobs stopped, and she rested her head against my chest, content to simply be loved and rocked. We sat like that for another happy minute or so, and then, distantly, I heard the sound of a car’s engine. I lifted my head.

“You hear that?” I asked. “Daddy’s home.”

Mirrored excitement showed on the girl’s face as I stood up, still holding her and balancing her on my hip. It was an act of some coordination, considering how small I was.

We walked to the front door and stepped outside onto a porch. It was nighttime, all quiet darkness save for a small light hanging overhead. It shone onto a long stretch of unbroken white snow on the lawn and the driveway. All around, more snow fell in a steady stream. I didn’t recognize the place, but it certainly wasn’t Seattle. That much snow would have sent the city into a panic, putting everyone on Armageddon alert. My daughter and I were perfectly at ease, barely noticing the snow. Wherever we were, this weather was a common occurrence.

Down the driveway, the car I had heard had already parked. My heart swelled with happiness. A man stood behind it, a nondescript dark figure in the faint lighting. He took out a rolling suitcase and slammed the trunk shut. The little girl clasped her hands in excitement, and I waved my own hand in greeting. The man returned the wave as he walked toward the house. It was too dark, and I couldn’t see him yet.

His face. I had to see his face. We were so close. This was where the dream had stopped before, denying me its conclusion. Some part of me was certain this was a trick too – that the Oneroi were going to do what Nyx had done and end the dream.

They didn’t.

The man continued walking toward us, and at last, the porch light illuminated his features.

It was Seth.

Lacy snowflakes rested in his messy hair, and I could make out some wacky T-shirt underneath his heavy woolen trench coat. He left the suitcase by the stairs and sprinted up them to get to us that much more quickly.

His arms encircled us, and both my daughter and I snuggled against him. It might have been freezing elsewhere, but our little circle held all the warmth in the world.

“My girls,” he murmured. He took one of his gloves off and ran his hand over the fine silk of our daughter’s hair. He brushed a kiss against her forehead and then leaned toward me. Our lips met in a soft kiss, and when we pulled away, I could see mist in the air from the warmth of his mouth. He hugged us tighter.

I sighed happily. “Don’t leave anymore,” I said. “Don’t do any more traveling.”

He laughed quietly and gave me another kiss, this time on my cheek. “I’ll see what I can do. If it was up to me, I’d never leave.”

But the dream left, shattering like pieces of glass that were then swept away by a broom. Whereas before I’d counted the seconds for these dreams to go away, this time I wanted to cling to it. The hands I didn’t have in this insubstantial form longed to grasp those shards, bloodying my flesh, if only to have a few more moments of that perfect, content bliss my dream-self had held.

But it was gone. I was empty.

For a long time, I simply couldn’t get over the dream’s loss. I was a tangle of emotions: hurt and anger and longing and incompleteness. It was all feeling, no thought. When coherency began to return, even it was a jumble. Seth. Seth was the man in the dream? Of course he was. Hadn’t I felt it from almost the first time we met? Hadn’t I often said he was like a piece of my soul? Hadn’t I felt like something was missing when we’d split up?

Then, all the doubt that the Oneroi had been so good at instilling in me began to descend. It couldn’t be Seth. I couldn’t be with a mortal, not in any real capacity. I certainly couldn’t have a child with one, and anyway, Seth was marrying someone else. This was a trick. Another lie. Everything here was a lie, meant to continue the torment the Oneroi thought I deserved.

“That can’t happen,” I said. The words were hard. And hadn’t I already said them earlier? Circles, circles. My life was repeating itself over and over. “None of that could ever happen.”

“No,” agreed Two. “Not anymore. Your future shifted.”

“That was never my future. You lie. Nyx lied. There’s no truth anywhere.”

“This is truth,” said One.

Another dream. A true dream? No, no. The part of me that was starting to lose it swore up and down that it couldn’t be true. There’s no truth anywhere.

I was in the mundane human world again, with Seth and Simone-as-Georgina. They were at a tuxedo shop, browsing suits, and I futilely racked my brain to figure this out. Maddie had requested they go shopping…yet, surely it hadn’t happened that day. Or had it? Was this another day? How much time had passed? I couldn’t tell if these dreams lasted a second or a lifetime. The sky outside was deepening to twilight, so maybe it was the same day.

“You don’t have to wear a bow tie,” said Simone, studying a well-dressed mannequin. She herself was dressed magnificently, in a tight dress that was an orange reminiscent of autumn leaves. It was short, of course, and emphasized my breasts as much as was decently possible – maybe more so. Bronze high heels completed the look. It was too fancy for tux shopping, but it looked great on her. Me. Us. Whatever.

Seth wandered over to stand beside her, studying the suit. If there hadn’t been a salesman straightening a display near the door, I had a feeling Seth would have made a run for it.

“It’s more traditional,” said Seth. “I think that’s what Maddie wants.”

Simone scoffed. “So? What about what you want?” She took a step toward him. “You can’t just sit by and let others tell you what to do! You have your own needs. Your own wants. You can’t be passive here.”

There was passion in her words, a conviction that even I couldn’t help but admire. It was the kind of speech that rallied people to your cause – but like everything else she’d said lately, there was this sexual subtext laced within it. He stared at her for a few seconds, as impressed as I was, but finally looked away. He also took a step back.

“Maybe. But I don’t really feel like my life currently hinges on whether I choose a bow tie or a regular tie. I think I should save my heroic moments for something a little bigger.” He wandered off to look at another suit and didn’t see the scowl on her face that I did.

Soon, she had that sweet smile on again and was back by his side – very close to his side – while they examined cuts, colors, and all the myriad details that went into planning a lifelong commitment. The salesman couldn’t stay away, of course, and finally swooped in to offer his assistance.

“This jacket would be very flattering with your build,” he told Seth. “It comes in black and gray, as well as a few others – so it would definitely complement your dress.” That last part was directed to Simone. She laughed merrily. It was nails on a chalkboard to me.

“Oh, we’re not getting married.” She patted Seth’s arm. “We’re just good friends. I’m helping out.”

Seth moved away, escaping the arm, and suddenly seemed very interested in trying on the jacket. The salesman found Seth’s size, gushed with compliments, and then left the two of them to mull it over.

“It looks great,” said Simone, coming to stand right in front of him. I couldn’t see any space between them. She casually straightened the jacket’s lapel, not that it needed it. “Fits you like a glove.”

Seth grabbed hold of her hands, pushed them away, and then backed off himself. “You need to stop this,” he said, lowering his voice so others wouldn’t hear.

“Stop what?” asked Simone.

“You know what! The innuendoes. The touching. All of it. You can’t keep doing it.”

Simone took a step closer, putting her hands on her hips. Her voice was soft as well, but it was more of a purr. What made it especially irritating was that, really, it was my voice. “Why? Because you don’t like it? Come on, Seth. How much longer are you going to keep fooling yourself? You know you still want me. This scam of a wedding isn’t going to change that. What we had…what we have is too powerful. I see the way you look at me – and you don’t look at her that way. You say I’ve got to stop? No. You’re the one that needs to stop this wedding. End it with her. Or if you don’t have the guts, then let us be together again. At the very least – just one more night. I want to feel you again, feel you in me. And I know you do too.”

I was aghast at the boldness. I couldn’t believe what that bitch had tried to do. Impersonating me was bad enough, but now blatantly trying to lure Seth into her bed? Unforgiveable. I expected Seth to be outraged as well, but his face was the picture of calm.

He took off the jacket and set it on a counter. “I don’t know who you are, but stay away from me. Do not speak to me again – or Maddie.” There was a stern, warning tone in his words, that anger I rarely ever heard from him.

For once, Simone faltered. “What are you talking about?”

“You aren’t Georgina,” he said. “I should’ve listened when my niece first told me. Georgina would never do this, no matter how she felt. Georgina wouldn’t openly try to break up her friend’s wedding. She wouldn’t betray Maddie.”

Simone’s eyes flashed with anger. “Really? Then how exactly would you classify your little spring fling?” I wasn’t surprised she knew about that. Everyone in my hellish circle had figured it out when Seth’s soul darkened.

His smile was both sad and cold. “Georgina did that…inadvertently. She was aware of what she was doing, but the motivations…well, they were different.”

“Stop trying to justify infidelity. And stop talking about me in the third person!”

“You aren’t her,” said Seth again. “I know her. I would know her in almost any form. And although you look like her, you – obviously – do not know her.”

He turned around to leave – and ran into Jerome.

Seth hadn’t seen Jerome enter or teleport into the shop. Neither had I. Yet, even if the demon had strolled in openly, I think Seth would have had the same astonished and deeply disturbed reaction. The cool attitude he’d shown with Simone vanished.

“Sorry,” said Seth, stepping back. He glanced uneasily at Simone, who was just as surprised. “I’ll – I’ll leave you two alone.”

“I’m not here for her,” growled Jerome.

“What?” she exclaimed, seeming deeply offended.

Jerome’s dark eyes bored into Seth’s. “I’m here for you. You need to come with me. Now.”

When a demon tells you to do something, it’s pretty hard to refuse it. My friends and I might joke about the silliness of Jerome’s John Cusack guise, but underneath all that, Jerome was fucking scary. And when he turned his demonic wrath on a human, it was outright terrifying.

Yet, with a remarkable show of bravery, Seth asked: “Why?”

Jerome looked displeased that Seth hadn’t instantly jumped to obey. “To get Georgie back.”

“Back?” repeated Simone. “But if she comes back – “

Jerome lifted his eyes from Seth and glared at her. “Yes, yes, I know. But you might as well give it up. You failed.”

“But I can – “

“Clearly, you can’t.” Jerome strode over to her, leaning close to her face. He pitched his voice low, but I could hear it from my observer’s view. “This is not the way. I know why you’re here now, but tell Niphon that every time he tries to fix things, he ends up fucking up more. It’s too late. I’ll deal with this. It doesn’t involve you.”

“But – “

“Enough.” The word boomed through the store. The salesman looked up, startled, but kept his distance. “I didn’t question your presence before, but now you can go.”

Ostensibly, it sounded as though he were giving her permission to leave. But both she and I could hear the underlying meaning: if she didn’t go on her own, he would “assist” her. She made no more protests.

Jerome returned to Seth. “Georgina’s been taken. We’re going to get her back. And you are going to play a role in that.”

Seth couldn’t speak for a moment, and when he did, it was to utter the most obvious response: “How?”

“To start with, you can stop wasting time here with stupid questions. Come with me, and you’ll find out.” Jerome then made a masterful play. “Every moment you delay, she’s in more danger.”

Nothing else could have spurred Seth into such action. He flinched at the words, and his face ran through a kaleidoscope of emotions. “Okay,” he said to Jerome. “Let’s go.”

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