TABLE OF CONTENTS!
- Chapter One
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- Chapter Seven
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- Chapter Thirteen
- Chapter Fourteen
Eli hadn’t seemed particularly desperate to message anyone when she got her phone despite the notifications that practically screamed from her lock screen. It had been a tactical decision on her part to give it to her. Technically, she should have kept it in her possession until she knew precisely what Eli was. While there were still doubts in her head, she should have been keeping her on lockdown.
But there were two voices warring between her ears. One tried to convince her that it was for the best. The other reminded her that this person wasn’t just a stranger—this person was Eli. Her first love. The woman who had stolen her heart all those years ago. The woman who still…
She shook her head, burying those thoughts before they could crawl into the cracks of her gray matter.
It didn’t matter what she felt. It didn’t matter what had happened all those years ago, either. What mattered was their present. Aria was a hunter, and Eli was… Quite likely not human. Which meant that the woman who had approached her—Yuina—was one of two things: a friend of Eli’s or an enemy. Regardless, she was likely not of the human flavor, either. From what she had seen, their kind tended to flock together. She was sure someone far wiser had once said that those with shared secrets made for the best bedfellows.
Regardless, she felt unwavering, burning desperation to know who this woman was.
She tried to convince herself that it was because she was trying to prepare herself. If she proved to be an enemy, she had a safety concern on her hands. If she was a friend…
It was growing increasingly more difficult to drown out her worries. For every unwelcome one she tamped down, several roared to life in the furthest reaches of her mind.
Her ever-racing thoughts led her to a local bar called Connor’s. It was almost kiddy-corner to Sanctuary, permitting her to see those who came and went through the over-large front windows.
Aria spent the better part of the night nursing her beer. She tapped her shortly cut fingernails against the glass, watching as familiar faces came and went. Before she knew it, she found herself in a natural rhythm with the smokers at the other bar, falling out of time with the larger crowd at Connor’s. Hours passed, and the object of her obsession was nowhere to be found.
Aria weighed her options. She could slip into Sanctuary to see if Yuina was even there. But then she’d risk exposing herself. Or, she could wait until the last call and see if the stranger materialized.
The last option was that the woman lied about getting work in town. Sure, she needed a cover story, but that didn’t mean it had to be good. Or that she had to commit fully.
If that were the case, that would have made it too clear what they were dealing with.
Even Aria couldn’t tell which she was hoping for more. An enemy might have offered her some relief. It could ease the guilt that gnawed maggot holes in her stomach lining. A sick, twisted part of her brain tried to convince her that everything she had done would have been worth it if she had protected Eli from this outsider. But even she, so capable of deluding herself, couldn’t forget what she was doing.
She was holding Eli hostage.
Or was she?
Aria downed the remainder of her drink and set it on the concrete sill of the window. She fished through her purse, producing a half-finished pack of menthol cigarettes. The first minty plume chased away the taste of hops and citrus. The familiar burn grounded her, anchoring her rapidly spiraling thoughts.
Duty and obligation to her father’s hunters meant she had no choice but to follow protocol. But Eli hadn’t made any attempt to leave. In fact, she seemed almost content to be there. Secretive and quiet, sure. She only emerged when Salena was nowhere to be found.
For that, Eli could hardly be blamed. Aria didn’t want to be in the same space as Salena half the time.
She nearly choked on a plume of smoke when the thought came. It was so sudden and forceful that it nearly knocked her onto her backside.
She now had a whole host of other things to worry about. Now about her relationship.
Aria had known for quite some time that their relationship wasn’t as strong as it once was. When they first got together, it was like the sun had begun to shine again. On some level, Aria knew that she would never love Salena like she had loved Eli. But, she had convinced herself that it was all right. After all, no love was the same as the other. Every love was different. For the time, Salena made her happy. They laughed, had fun together, and filled each other’s lives with spontaneity, appreciation, and affection. The sex had been outstanding.
But those flames had begun to die, dwindling until there was little more than starving ember in their hearth.
And then Eli returned, and she felt the volcano’s belly begin to churn. The night they had shared made her feel like she would burst.
Aria smoothed her palm over her chest, easing an ache that the thought had born.
I’m going to need another drink.
Grinding her cigarette butt beneath the toe of her boot, she twisted to pick up the abandoned glass. Then, in her peripheral, she saw a petite silhouette emerge from Sanctuary’s side door. Her long dark hair was twisted up into two top buns. Even from across the street and in the dim lighting, Aria could tell that she had done something truly elaborate with her makeup.
Is it last call already?
She squinted, half-dazed at the clock on her cell phone screen. Her brows arched when she realized how long she had been standing outside. It seemed that her thoughts were heavier than even she had believed them to be.
Hugging herself tightly, Yui started a brisk walk away from the bar, heading toward the outskirts of town. Aria’s heart rate quickened, and clarity chased away the drink’s sluggishness. She waited for a count of ten and then began her pursuit, leaving her glass to live on the window sill.
They walked through residential areas, staying on the sidewalk the entire time. It was hard not to walk the streets of Sanctuary Hills and not make a mental map of where everyone lived. There was Mrs. Cummings, and there were the Fitzgeralds. Their aging in-laws lived next door—the Kowalskis—transplants from Buffalo, New York, who were known for slapping Buffalo Bills paraphernalia on whatever they could. Every step led her deeper on the path down memory lane.
It made her wistful for a time when things were kinder. Gentler. When she didn’t live with paranoia or grief in her chest. They had been there for so long Aria was starting to worry that they had made a home there. Worse yet, she feared she might never be able to evict them.
Abruptly, Yui started acting a bit cagey. Her head darted from side to side, searching the dark for something unknown. Aria knew the look, having worn it more than a few times herself. Yuina was making sure no one was watching her. Instinctually, Aria slipped behind a nearby tree and pressed herself flat against its rough surface. She hazarded a glance around its edge at her mark, just in time to see her cut through a small patch of woods.
Aria’s fingers itched as she reached for the gun in her jacket. She was in no rush to produce it—unless she had to. But, for now, its familiar weight against her palm was enough to soothe her worries.
She took off after her, moving in too-light, rapid footfalls. There were too many dead leaves on the ground to make her stalking silent, but she timed her strides to match Yui’s perfectly.
The woman soon found herself in front of a house Aria knew to be abandoned. With one last look around, Yui slipped through a few boards and stepped inside.
Aria hurried after her, half-jogging up to the side of the house. She flattened herself against the siding and crouched beneath the window. She looked up at the flecked-off paint and the weather-rotted timber. It wasn’t long before a light flickered on in the living room. There was the lingering scent of wood smoke in the air.
A glance around revealed the telltale signs of someone having been living in the home. There was a small bucket with remnants of sudsy water. A clothesline hung limp against the side of the house. There was a pile of ash in the garden, too. So the woman had been here long enough to do her laundry—and with the slight rustling and the scent of garbage wafting up from beside the porch—long enough to take out the trash too.
Aria made a quick, careful path around the perimeter. There were several first-floor windows and two doors. The first was the primary entryway into the home and the one Yui had gone through. The back door looked like it hadn’t been opened in years. Spiderwebs adhered the door to its place, creating a thick, white, ropey façade.
She weighed the pros and cons of each entrance. Briefly, she entertained the idea of going in through the front. But she knew that was no way to sneak around. The idea was to gather information. Not to get herself into a confrontation.
She tried one of the older-looking windows and was relieved it popped open with minimal effort. It barely squeaked, though, it did make enough sound that she couldn’t help but tense. Grimacing, she closed her eyes and waited to hear Yui’s startled cry or angry approach. Nothing came.
Convinced that she hadn’t been detected, Aria hooked one leg over the window sill and forced herself through the opening. With a bit of wiggling, she managed to slip inside. She was in what appeared to be the bathroom. There were buckets and stacks of bottled water, which Aria could only assume was used for bathing and flushing the toilet.
How long has she been here?
She inched to the hallway, summoned deeper into the home by the faint orange glow of a fire.
From her vantage point, she could see Yui’s form. She sat with her knees pulled up to her chest, turning something over in her palms.
It wasn’t until she heard the line trilling that she realized Yui was holding a cell phone.
“Hey,” the woman greeted, her voice barely above a whisper. “It’s me again. I’m sorry for leaving so many messages. I just don’t know what to do when you don’t answer.” She let out a self-conscious-sounding giggle. Yui worried her lip between her teeth. “I heard from Eli, finally. She says she’s okay. Things are just complicated. And…” She trailed off, absently picking at her knee. “She’ll be coming home soon.”
Aria felt something twist in the pit of her stomach. An ugly, monstrous feeling that she couldn’t place. It felt like a blade had wedged itself into her gut.
“I guess I’m just lonely. And I feel like everyone has abandoned me. I know you don’t care,”—her voice grew thick with unshed tears—“but I do. I do, and that’s why I’m telling you about us. Even though you left. You left, and I still don’t know why. And you won’t answer my calls….”
Yui sniffled and wiped at her cheeks. “Anyway. Eli will be coming home soon. I wish you would, too.”
Aria couldn’t place what she felt. Somewhere between relief and anxiety, she withdrew into the shadows and left Yui to cry into her hands.
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