Doug needed to switch some shifts, and without his ladylove around, Cody decided to leave. I let him out the back door, not wanting to cause a panic in the store. Once the schedule was set, Doug and I bantered about the Cody and Gabrielle situation. Before long, I lost track of time, and closing announcements were being made on the intercom. Doug said his farewells - half afraid I'd put him to work if he stayed - and I set off to finish my own tasks. My meeting with Erik was getting closer, and I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension.
An hour after the doors were locked, staff began to go home. I made one last sweep of the store and found Seth still sitting in the café. No surprise. My coworkers could never bring themselves to kick him out when we closed. He'd actually gotten locked in once and accidentally set off the alarm. I walked over to his table, noting the enraptured look on his face as his fingers danced along the laptop's keys.
"Hey, Mortensen," I said. "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
It took almost thirty seconds for him to look up, and even then, he seemed surprised to see me. "Oh. Hey."
I could feel a smile playing on my lips. This was picture perfect Seth behavior. "Hey, we're all closed down. Time to go."
He glanced around, noting the dark windows and lack of people in the store. "Oh, man. Sorry. I didn't even notice."
"I take it the muse came back?"
"So you know how it's going to end now?"
"No. Not yet."
I walked Seth to the back door and armed the alarm before letting myself out. He told me good-bye, and if he'd had any dreamy affection for me earlier in the night, it was gone now. His characters now consumed his heart. It was something I'd had to accept when we were together, and watching him walk down the street, I decided that was how it should be. Seth's writing was too much of his being.
I let my own dreamy affection go and drove up north of the city to Erik's store. I still felt a little bad about him meeting me so late, but the lights in his windows gleamed out into the night. And inside, the usual music and incense were going strong, just as they would during business hours. Glancing around, I didn't see him right away. Then, I noticed him kneeling down in front of some palmistry books.
He rose to his feet, but the motions were jerky and unsteady. And when he finally turned to face me, there was a gauntness in his dark-skinned face that hadn't been there the last time I saw him. My instinct was to rush over and support him, but I had a feeling he wouldn't welcome that. Still, I asked the obvious.
"Are you okay? Have you been sick?"
He gave me a gentle smile and began moving - slowly - toward the store's main counter. "A passing cold. They seem to last longer than they used to, but I'll be fine."
I wasn't so certain. I'd known Erik for a long time.... I'd lost track of the years, actually. It wasn't an uncommon thing with mortals, one that often blindsided me. One moment they'd seem young and healthy...the next, they were old and dying. It never hurt any less, either. Part of the reason Seth had broken up with me was to spare me the pain of that loss because I began growing overly paranoid about his well-being.
Now, watching Erik, I felt even worse for keeping him out so late. I also felt bad because I realized I never visited except when I needed something. When had I last seen him? Months ago, when Jerome had been summoned. I'd sought Erik's help then and hadn't been by since.
"Tea?" he offered, just like always.
"No, no. I don't want to delay you," I said. I leaned against the counter and felt relieved when he settled down on a stool. "I just wanted to ask you a couple things. Something weird happened." I almost laughed as the words left my mouth. That was such a typical opening statement for me. Again, that earlier thought returned: my life was one big circle, repeating and repeating.
I gave him the rundown on my weird encounters with the unknown and - for the large part - indescribable force. He listened carefully, bushy gray eyebrows knit into a frown.
"I hate to tell you this," he said when I finished, "but there are probably a number of things that could describe."
"Surprise, surprise," I murmured. That was more a commentary on my life, not his abilities.
"The fact that your...uh, friend couldn't identify it is intriguing." Erik was one of the handful of people who knew Roman was in Seattle. Erik had no interest in Heaven and Hell's policies and wouldn't be tattling anytime soon. "Of course, he lacks the full skill set his relatives have. I don't suppose you've spoken to any greater immortals?"
I shook my head. "No. They're notoriously absent, as usual. I think I'll be seeing Jerome soon." He'd probably want to check in with Roman. "So we'll see then."
"I'm sorry I don't have any ready answers. I never seem to."
"Not in the beginning," I said. "But you always come through in the end. More patterns."
"Nothing," I said with a small sigh. "Sometimes I just feel like the same things are happening to me over and over. Like, even this siren thing. Why me? In the last year, I've been targeted over and over. What are the odds? Why does this keep happening?"
Erik's eyes studied me for several moments. "There are some people around whom the powers and supernatural beings of the world will always circle. You appear to be one of them."
"But why?" I asked, surprised at the childish tone in my voice. "I'm just another succubus. There are tons of us out there. And why recently? Why only in the last year?" It had to be the cruelest joke in the world that all these paranormal mishaps had started happening right when my romantic ones had. Apparently, one source of pain just wasn't enough.
"I don't know," Erik admitted. "Things change. Forces move that we can't see." He paused and coughed, making me wince. How sick was he? "Again, I feel like I'm useless to you."
I reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder. "No, no. You're invaluable to me. I don't know how I would have gotten by all these years without you." This earned me a smile.
Wanting him to go to bed, I picked up my purse to leave. As I was heading to the door, he suddenly said, "Miss Kincaid?"
I glanced back. "Yeah?"
"Do you still talk to Mr. Mortensen?"
The question caught me by surprise. Erik had been intrigued when Seth and I were dating, marveling at the connection between a human and a succubus, though he didn't have the crazy obsession that Carter used to.
"Sure. Sometimes." My earlier conversation with Seth came back to me, the ease and warmth that had surrounded us.
"And things are amicable?"
"More or less." Aside from his impending marriage, of course.
"That's good. It doesn't always happen in these situations."
"Yeah, I know. Although - " I bit off my words.
Erik tilted his head, studying me curiously. "Although what?"
"It's amicable, except sometimes...sometimes this whole situation with him. It's like having my soul split in two."
"Understandable," he said. Those eyes burned with compassion, and I felt tears spring up in my own. "I'm sorry I brought it up. I was just curious."
I assured him it was okay and said good-bye again. The mention of Seth and the recollection of being with him earlier had made my mood go melancholy. I drove back to West Seattle, miserable that I'd be helping with his wedding tomorrow and worried over Erik's sickly state. As heavily as those thoughts weighed on me, they immediately flew from my mind as soon as I walked into my living room.
He sat on the couch as he had last time, now eating a microwavable chicken pot pie. The TV was on, but he didn't seem to be watching it. When he looked up at me, he didn't wear that amused, teasing look. His expression was dark. Troubled, even.
"I've been waiting for you to get home," I exclaimed, tossing my purse and keys to the floor. "You won't believe what happened."
Roman sighed. "No, you won't believe what happened."
"Yeah, but this is - "
He held up a hand to interrupt me. "Let me get this out first. It's been driving me crazy."
I swallowed my impatience. "Okay. I'll bite. Does it have something to do with Simone?"
He nodded. "Yeah. I followed her tonight to this twenty-four-hour coffee shop called Bird of Paradise." He eyed me carefully. "Do you know it?"