Chapter 1

In Which Our Main Characters and Some Foreshadowing Are Introduced

Stalking was much the same in the twenty-first century as it had been in the fourteenth. No matter the advances in security systems and inventions of light, the darkness was always there for one who was willing to use it; to conceal secrets, to provide a cloaking of disguise, to allow the devoted watcher his chance to observe and increase his knowledge of the subject unhindered from the suspicions of even the most paranoid mortals.

He sat isolated on a shadowed bench before the apartments, head lowered, eyes raised, pretending now and then to focus on a tattered volume in hand. He had no thought for the words spread before him. When he returned to his room at the approach of dawn, when she would finally put her tired thoughts and hands to rest for the morning, he would leave the book on the seat and walk away without the slightest care of who picked it up. What he desired now was a glimpse of the enticing young woman inhabiting Suite 246. He knew she was there, singing to herself, communicating over the wireless device with that lively friend of hers as they harmonized in tones so strange they became beautiful, or writing her novel with the concentrated madness of a Belleview inmate.

If only she would come to the window, pass by way of the lamplight to display her silhouette through the drapes, or even better, lean halfway over the sill to grasp some mysterious revelation from the city scene outside.

She was in there, and in his mind's eye he could see her as clearly as if she sat before him.

He knew she was there, but she did not know that he was, and certainly not that he watched. Kira impatiently pushed a piece of hair away from her irritated cheek, interrupting the rhythmic flow of her typing. The only thought distracting her from the story on the screen was: Time to get a haircut.

She sighed and took an eye-swipe of the sparsely furnished apartment she rented out for her writing sprees—the red futon couch that doubled as a bed and small horde of thrift store finds that made the mismatched space look almost cozy. The walls were plastered with musical posters she got as birthday and Christmas gifts, the dresser that was old the day it was bought hid under a pile of costumes she kept stashed in her "office" for convenience's sake. By now they most likely outnumbered the few normal outfits she kept in her actual living space; the apartment she shared with Katen whenever she wasn't focusing on the last five chapters of a novel.

If only a haircut was in the budget. Even if she didn't go all out this time with the dark auburn dye and red-orange highlights, a cut and style were about the same price as a week's worth of food.

Well, maybe half a week in Kira's case.

She sat staring at the next blank page before her. She had to write this; to converge chapters forty-two and forty-three in some epically exciting way so she could wrap the story up and finish it off like a soul pleasing pastry. And apparently some new analogies were in order, too. The beginning was perfect, the ending was smashing, but why did everything in between have to be so hard to come up with?

Focus, her voice shouted. If you don't get this done, you won't eat!

That wasn't too far from the truth. Writing was never on the top list of ways to earn an actual living. In fact, it probably wasn't on a single list with the words 'good money' running under it. Kira had been sending stories in to publishers ever since her first book received its final punctuation point, but not many of them had been accepted, and of the few that had, none made enough for her to afford all the necessities of life. That's why the usual economic plan was splitting rent and utilities with Katen, and each length of time she took to hide away in her writer's room just made her appreciate Kat and her living quarters more.

Even with splitting costs, and after denying herself frequent pop tarts and blended coffees, Kira couldn't survive on the weak trickle of money that came in from her stories. Her answer to this problem was to get another job that barely paid anything: freelance photography. That way she had two unreliable and highly sporadic sources of income. Some weeks she'd be so busy with clients that she'd have no time to write so much as a euphemism before preparing for another shoot, and some weeks—or months—could pass in which she got to wondering if having all her power shut off again would actually be beneficial to sparking inspiration for the next great novel. She could have given up the tiny space consisting of mostly futon, desk, and dresser, but that would mean discarding her best chance at completing her projects—Kat was not unwelcome with her distractions, but the problem was that Kira did welcome those distractions a bit too much—and that would cut the profits even more. It was a vicious cycle, but she made it work by the miracle of willpower driven by desperation.

Kira closed her laptop and passed a hand over the lid, thinking how nice it would be to get some extra memory for all the photos she collected on the hard drive. Maybe watching a movie would help me get in the writing mood. I'll call Katen and see if she has any suggestions.

"Kira," Katen answered almost as a question after the initial dial tones, "how many times have I told you not to call me when I'm in the middle of being romanced?"

"Are you watching Phantom of the Opera or Howl's Moving Castle?"

Katen sighed happily, "Howl. I was stressing and needed someone to make it better. I have a play tomorrow and one of the other makeup artists is bailing on me to be a bridesmaid in her sister's wedding. I have about a hundred cast members to do hair and makeup for with zero help, and I probably won't get enough sleep tonight for even a normal human to function."

"Wow, a hundred! You must have really mastered the art—Oh, yeah, the play! I totally forgot about that. I guess I have to call and order tickets tomorrow before they're sold out."

"You shouldn't be spending your money on a play. You were saving up for an external hard drive, remember?"

"But I really want to see your handiwork. Don't' worry; I have three clients lined up for next week, so I'll be good. I'll call Anya; see if she wants to come with."

"Okay, if you're sure." Kira said she was. "You want me to hang up after you initiated contact so you can talk to blondie, instead?"

"Don't pretend like you'll miss me at all. Howl will see to that."

"Well… you have a point, there. See you after the performance then. And hurry up with that story! I'm tired of having to write things down so I don't forget to tell you."

Kira said she was trying, and pressed the End Call button with a short sigh that hung between self-disgust and brain exhaustion. She could still call Anya tonight. Anya wouldn't be in bed yet. Bedtimes were unheard of when you lived on a trust fund and didn't need to get up at ungodly hours of the morning to get to work. Lucky twerp. She didn't even have to drive—which she hated doing—now that she had a boyfriend to take her anywhere her girlish little heart desired to go. She was just barely shy of fulfilling her greatest and pretty much only aspiration in life; marrying a man in love with her and having tons of his babies.

Kira didn't stop to wonder at her own boyfriend-less-ness. She didn't have to. Boyfriends were too ordinary, too normal and bland for her. Guys didn't understand how her wildly creative and sometimes slightly unhinged mind worked. They couldn't appreciate it. Or maybe that was the excuse she made when none of them had the desperate, selfless, all-consuming love that managed to slip into each of her stories, despite attempts to banish it from her mind as an unrealistic life-blinder.

"Anya, pick up," she said to the low beep in her ear, elongating her vowels for emphasis. If Anya failed her tonight, she was going to buy another fish, just so she had something live to talk to.

"Hello?"

"Hey Ann. Kat's play is tomorrow and I was wondering if you wanted to see it. I'm ordering tickets in the morning, so I can't get any better than the crappy left over seats, but I thought it'd be fun to go with you."

"Oh, I'm sorry hon… James already got us tickets. You want to see if you can get one by us?"

"Uh, sure. Give me your numbers."

Anya didn't know them. But she was pretty sure they were somewhere up high—and close. Naturally they had the expensive seats.

"Well, I'll get what I can and look for you afterward, okay?"

"Yeah, come and find us. I think the funniest thing is going to be Three Little Maids. I'm probably going to start laughing, and James's not going to get why."

"He'll probably think it's just the play that's funny. If he suspects it has anything to do with a certain sleep over production we made years ago, I will have to kill him." Kira smiled to herself at the private joke, chuckling when she said goodbye.

Kira rushed to her seat just as the lights were dimming in the theater. She arrived on time, but her ticket had suddenly decided to make friends with the bottom of her purse; a setback that required the removal of almost all the other contents within.

She smoothed the tight fitted turquoise skirt over her lap, glad that her wild dash through every thrift store in town had turned out so successful. She'd found three Asian inspired dresses that she liked, but there was something eye-catching about the shiny blue one that was offset so well by its black button trimmings.

As the play went on, Kira took special note of the cast's creamed and powdered faces. She wasn't sure which ones were Katen's, so every blackened eyebrow, plumped lip, and twisted wig had to be carefully observed for future reference.

She went looking for Anya during the intermission. Climbing the stairs would have been easy in a leg-clenching dress if it weren't for the constant human obstacles. She had finally got the hang of taking tiny weaving steps to avoid collisions with other people when the back of a heel got caught on the carpet and she fell in a twist of legs onto the floor.

The fall wasn't given time to be humiliating as a pair of robust arms had lifted her back up on her feet before the thud had quite affected her. The faint smell of musk met her nose. These arms were firm.

"Oh, wow… I… thank you!" She anxiously checked the back of her gown for any tearing in the slit. As tense as it was she found it miraculous that it hadn't ripped up to her middle thighs.

"It was my pleasure," said a man's voice, bold as innuendo. A faint rustle swept through her hair, and when she mustered the guts to look up, there was the same swarm of people she'd been attempting to make her way through before. No handsome youth stood by with concern; no one even looked like they'd noticed her fall.

He had come from the side and swooped in to the rescue without waiting for a prize of recognition. How very Victorian. Of course he'd disappear. That was just Kira's luck, and by now she was standing in front of Anya and her boyfriend with no chance of running after the mysterious stranger. Dash it all to the depths of the underworld.

James smiled at Kira's approach and raised an eyebrow over her ensemble, not even bothering to hide his amusement.

"Hey Kira," he grinned.

Oh, what are you looking at? She so wanted to say. My dress isn't half as absurd as that pathetic stubble you have on your face. Is that black marker, or are you actually trying to grow something there?

"Hi James," is what she said. "I'm sorry I couldn't sit with you guys," sincerely sorry I couldn't sit between you, "but I spent my month's wages on this three dollar dress that I just couldn't live without." She reached to give Anya a hug, who giggled at her.

"Oh my gosh, I can see why! It's so cute!"

"You look pretty adorable yourself."

Anya was decked in an elegant silk and lace gown that was just the right shade of pink for her. A lighter tone would have washed her out, and made her face disappear somewhere in those blonde tresses, but this salmon color looked wondrously flattering. Kira noted that her long hair was curled properly, too. Funny how she wouldn't listen to the incessant pleas from her best friends to forsake the Goldilocks ringlets for a wave less phony and more attractive, but the minute James made a suggestion towards change, it was like a revelation from the angels.

"Try to slip away before the crowds accumulate," Kira told her, "Otherwise you'll have to force your way through a mob to get out, and you won't be happy about it."

"Okay. See you afterward, sweetie.

"Three little maids…" she whispered.

"Three little maids," Kira repeated, smirking.

"Kira," James was smiling again, "Nice dress."

"Thank you," she replied brightly, hoping it wasn't an encouragement to sarcasm. She could never tell if he was mocking, serious, or being a repulsive flirt.

Kira didn't trust Anya to leave James early. She left her seat before the curtain had finished closing and dragged her friend out by the arm.

"Don't worry," she turned back to taunt James, "We won't get her drunk… much."

Kat was loading cases of her art materials into her trunk when Kira attacked her with a hug.

"Make yourselves useful; help me pack this stuff."

"I have something to tell you guys," Anya chirped while scooting boxes over to make room for more.

Kat and Kira exchanged ominous glances. Whenever Anya had news that induced high pitched exclamations, the two of them were expected to respond with absolute glee, and the majority of the time they felt likely to explode in a manner quite contrary.

"Are you pregnant?" Kat asked a little too loudly for Ann's taste, receiving for her query a heavy smack from a bejeweled clutch.

"No! That's kind of impossible, silly. You know James and I are very careful."

Katen let out a snort. "We've heard that before."

"I'm sure that's what his parents thought before he was conceived."

"Kira, you're very verbal tonight. And that would explain his lack of upbringing." Kira nodded in agreement with her.

"Girls," Anya said in her mothering voice, "The things we do together couldn't possibly create a child, okay? So let's not assume things we know nothing about."

Katen looked knowingly at Kira, but she was staring blank-faced at the pavement.

"Kira, that means it's an 'everything but' scenario."

"I know what it means. I was trying not to dwell on it." She visibly shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

"Not everyone is as set against boyfriends as you are."

"Well, excuse us for having standards," Katen quipped. "I think the key word in that phrase is boy. "

"I did have a boyfriend, remember?" She sent a menacing glare Anya's way. "It didn't work out."

Anya refused to meet her glare. "Oh, come on. Nothing happened."

"Nothing happened because I have excellent timing and wonderful punching instincts."

"Thank you, Katen."

"I still think you overreacted." Anya used barely more emotion than when she tripled checked her hair for fallen pieces.

Kira huffed. "We're never going to be able to talk about this; can we just drop it, please?"

Katen mouthed words to Kira that made her smile.

"No, she might go brain dead. I can't go to jail for an accomplice to murder; I have a novel to write."

"Ugh. Are you girls going to listen to my news?"

Katen knew they wouldn't be leaving until they'd had it. "Lay it on us. Gently, if you can."

"Okay, so… you know James and I have been going out for a while, but I've been a little nervous since he hasn't seemed interested in anything more committed."

Kira made what she hoped sounded like a halfway sincere noise of interest.

"Well, last week I said to James that if we weren't engaged by the end of the month, I was going to stop payments on his bike. Totally joking, of course, but I think he took the hint, because…"

What Anya pulled out of her clutch was not a diamond so much as a crystalized golf ball on a gold ring. The other girls had to admit it was impressive, if not to their tastes.

"You don't wear it on your finger?"

"It's kind of flashy, and I don't want it getting ruined."

"You should be more afraid of accidentally backhanding someone into the past with that thing."

"Aha Kira, you're so funny. Oh, I see James!" She waved her hand in the air before Kira could grab it back down, gaining his attention enough to cause him to saunter towards their general direction.

"Now look; he's coming over here."

"Honestly girls, I have no idea why you have such a hard time accepting James. I think you're being petty."

"I'd rather be petty than a pushover." Kira retorted.

Anya froze. She set her jaw defensively and mumbled three words under her breath before walking quickly away.

"Get over it."

The two were left standing slack from the last remark. Kira hadn't expected anything different. It was just as well Anya was moody enough to be shooed away by conflict tonight. Kira wasn't mentally prepared to take on pre-wedding discussions and the possibility of being a bridesmaid. The thought was, at best, physically draining.

Katen was bemoaning the fact that punching was unladylike. "I could have done without the knowledge of their mutual activities."

Kira shook her head hopelessly. "It's not that they're being 'careful,' it's that they shouldn't be doing things at all. I'm not crazy. I'm not a prude. Why does everyone else think screwing around through your early adult years is natural? I need to go home. I'm getting mopey."

"Poor mopey Ki."

"I just wish she was a little bit more sympathetic about… never mind. She's clearly blind."

"Clearly. She's dating James of all people."

"I'll see you later."

"Wait, Ki. When are you coming home?"

Kira let her eyes wander in the direction of the parking lot where the happy couple had traipsed off. It was getting late, and Anya's interruption of sick nostalgia had given her an idea for story filler.

"Soon. Shortly after I avenge myself through fiction."

Maybe she wouldn't go hungry after all.


A/N: So there's the first chapter, dear readers. I hope you all review with your thoughts instead of lurk around like the mysterious man on the bench. If you think it's a slow start, have no fear. We have some action in the very next chapter.

Many thanks to my relentless and masterful Beta Kitty Pimms without whom this story would still be hiding in a Word document as a crap draft.