I straightened my suit coat, studying myself in the mirror. Dark circles showed under my eyes from lack of sleep, faint but permanent fine wrinkles spreading out from the corners, and a slight redness to my sclera. My hair was growing longer and losing the occasional lighter streaks of blonde. I hadn’t shaved in a while, leaving behind an unkempt scruff over my cheeks and neck. My skin was pale, because I hadn’t seen enough daylight lately. Hell, Alucard saw more sunlight than me these days, the sparkly bastard.
“I still can’t get over how vain you are,” Callie teased gently, touching up the makeup, concealer, foundation, and whatever other magic she needed to make me look like I wasn’t stumbling out of a bar at sunrise after a three-day bender. “Use these eye drops before you go on stage. They feel like napalm, but they’re incredible.” She handed me a tiny bottle with a strange name on it, and I nodded.
“I’m not vain, just…” I trailed off, not knowing how to put it into words.
“Vain,” Callie grinned, putting the word in my mouth. But she placed a hand on my thigh and squeezed compassionately. “You just need to slow down. You’re not sleeping, running from ancient library to ancient library, sticking behind the walls of Chateau Falco. You’ve been a hermit these last weeks. It’s not good for you, and it’s making your friends nervous.”
I grunted. “Making the city nervous, you mean. Have you heard about the uptick in graffiti pieces throughout St. Louis lately? The King is Dead. #NotMyKing.” I gestured vaguely with my hand.
Callie nodded. “I heard about that. But don’t pretend they’re all negative. I’ve heard just as much about the ones praising you.”
I grunted noncommittally. “And the Regulars don’t know what to make of their local billionaire suddenly being nicknamed King Temple rather than Master Temple. Why I’m suddenly a topic of interest to the graffiti community. They think it’s all some publicity stunt on my part.”
“Well, that’s one benefit of tonight, right? To answer to the people? To feed them a comforting lie rather than admitting to being an arrogant wizard who fights monsters in the night and keeps them safe by claiming St. Louis as his own sovereign nation?” I nodded. “But don’t forget to appeal to the Freaks in the audience. You need them as allies.” She waited until I nodded again before shoving me gently back into the chair, rather than sitting on the edge like I had been, getting worked up about the speech.
I smiled faintly as she leaned closer, smudging more goop under my eye. With her so close, I couldn’t help but inhale the scent of strawberries and sunshine. I commented on it absently. “You smell nice.”
She paused, her hands cupping my face. She didn’t make eye contact, just continued staring at her applications. “Nice…” she said in an oh so gentle tone, resuming her work a little more forcefully.
I grinned. “You smell purdy,” I teased. “Like fruit and sun rays.”
This time, she did pause, the corner of her lip rising. “Well, you smell like alcohol.” I scowled at her. She gripped my chin with her thumb and forefinger, and my skin suddenly throbbed with cold. She jerked her hand away. “Sorry. I forgot about…” she moved her hand so that the ever-shifting ring of shadows over her thumb didn’t touch my skin any longer.
The ring where she had trapped an Angel.
“You know, I would really like to inspect that soon,” I told her. “Just to make sure there isn’t any risk in you wearing it.” She also wore a long, thick chain around her neck, and on it hung a large silver signet ring. The Seal of Solomon. Something just as dangerous.
Callie rolled her eyes, leaning back to the table to scoop up another tube of tan cream. “You want to weaponize it.”
I opened my mouth to argue, thought about it, and then sighed. “Well, that, too.”
She was silent for a few moments, humming to herself as she rifled through the never-ending collection of creams and powders. “It’s probably a good idea,” she finally said.
And I could tell that was as far as the topic was going to go tonight, so I dropped it.
She leaned in close, another whiff of her perfume – or maybe it was just her natural pheromones translating to a pleasant smell in my mind. “Do I really smell like booze? Because I’ll probably run into the Mayor, and that’s not the impression I’d like to give him.”
She laughed lightly. “When I said you smelled like alcohol, it was actually a compliment.”
“Oh? You’re into alcoholics?”
She gave me a stern look. “Careful, or I’ll mess up your eyelash extensions.” I stiffened in horror. She was giving me extensions? She burst out laughing, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I’m only kidding. But your scent, it’s more… earthy.”
“Now you’re talking. Boozy and dirty—”
She growled, and I saw her eyes flicker with an almost chrome sheen. “It’s an herbal thing. You smell like…” she leaned back, glancing down at her hands. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a romantic concept beyond smell. Like… anise and fennel. A musky, natural whiff.” Seeing my grin grow, she sighed, closing her eyes to think about it. She opened them after a moment, looking more committed. “It makes me feel like we’re stuck on an island, and that you know how to take care of anything. Like confidence and protection. Earthy – like you are one with the land. Musky – like the prey you hunt. Savage. A wild protector…” She sighed, setting the tube back down. “I’m fumbling here, but… it just makes me feel safe, and I’m not accustomed to looking elsewhere for safety.”
I nodded, thinking about it. “I had some absinthe earlier. Maybe your brain is just trying to translate that into an emotional response,” I suggested. “Like me saying you smell like strawberries and sunshine.”
She placed a finger over my lips. “Or, you smell like a sexy caveman, and this cavewoman likes it.”
I grinned. “Yeah, that sounds bett—”
Someone rapped on the door politely – my five-minute reminder – interrupting me. Callie burst out laughing. “That!” she giggled, pointing at my face. “That look matches the scent perfectly.” She tugged the tissue paper from between my shirt collar and skin – a precaution to not stain my white shirt – and rather than tossing it in the trash, she incinerated it with a quick flare of fire, using her magic openly.
She leaned in, adjusted my tie slightly, and locked eyes with me. “I want you to look at me three times while you’re on stage. Try to seduce me from afar.”
I grinned wolfishly. “Oh?” This was new.
Callie nodded, her white hair tickling her jaws. Her white and silver dress made it look like she was wearing chrome body-paint. Not that it was inappropriate, but more that she just owned the dress so completely it seemed a part of her, transforming her into an avenging angel. “It will keep you focused and make you appear confident to the cameras.”
My confidence deflated, ironically. “Oh.”
“And who knows, you might just catch a girl’s attention.” She shot me a wink, and pulled me to my feet, her eyes latching onto a book on the table. A Tale of Two Cities. She’d bought it for me recently, setting off all sorts of alarm bells, because I’d had a bizarre dream not too long ago, and Callie had been in it.
In the dream, I’d said the phrase Tale of Two Cities, using it to describe the strange setting of the place. Then, not long after, Callie shipped me that exact book, making me believe that it had been more than a dream, and that perhaps Callie really had been in it, or that we’d shared the same dream.
Or some other magical crap.
To be fair, the dream had happened while I was helping her out with some crazy stuff in Kansas City regarding the heavy, prominent ring now nestled between her breasts. I’d been so concerned about her that I’d kidnapped her to prove my undying loyalty. Then I’d handed her over to an Angel to be interrogated. The bill for that decision hadn’t come in the mail yet, but I was betting Callie had all sorts of opinions on it.
Callie noticed me studying the book, and suddenly looked just as hesitant. “Like the book?” she asked softly.
I nodded slowly, studying her face for clues. “Yes. It hasn’t left my sight since I got it,” I admitted.
She blushed. “Oh. I thought you might like it.” She took a deep breath, the motion doing all sorts of pleasant things to her cleavage, but I pretended not to notice. I failed, judging by her instant grin. “Remind me to tell you about a dream I had…” and she was instantly blushing again.
My heart abruptly thundered in my chest. Could it be? Was she talking about the dream I’d had? For fear of sounding like a love-sick puppy, I hadn’t wanted to bring it up, first. I could just imagine it. Hey, Callie, I had this vivid dream about you topless in a strange bedroom. Want to talk about it?
She glanced at the clock on the wall, grimacing. “Later,” she sighed. Then she frowned regretfully. “We always come back to that word, don’t we?”
I nodded woodenly, suddenly very interested, but also… nervous. Because the dream had felt so real, like a vision of the future. It had been both alarming and… exciting. “I look forward to it… later,” I told her cautiously. Was I reading too much into the comment? Or maybe she was just messing with me. Callie had a knack for mental manipulation. It wasn’t magic or anything, she was just a walking psychologist, able to read, assess, and decipher almost anyone she came across – instantly seeming to know their strengths and weaknesses, and how to exploit them all to her benefit. It was one of the reasons I enjoyed spending time around her. She kept me on my toes, always guessing if our conversations were really about something entirely different than they seemed at the time.
But if she really had shared the same dream as me… Well, I wasn’t sure if that was terrifying or exciting. Both, surely, but which trumped the other? The fact that we had been in a bedroom together half-naked, or that beyond that bedroom had been an Apocalyptic wasteland?
Being a healthy male, I told myself that the bedroom thing was the clear winner.
The land beyond the bedroom hadn’t really been that Apocalyptic, just a little war-torn around the edges…
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