Annabeth Billis Proctor's life is routine. Smooth as precision German clockwork. Breakfast and coffee with her husband Brian every morning while their four-year-old daughter Elspeth eats cereal and chatters on about what she's going to do in pre-school. Kiss Brian goodbye, get Ellie dressed, and head out the door. Drop Ellie off at pre-school and open up Time's Treasures, her antique shop.
Every Wednesday she has lunch with her older brother Sam before she picks Ellie up from school. Afternoons are spent with Ellie in the shop. Close the shop at five, rush home, cook dinner, and then t.v. on the couch with Brian and Ellie before bedtime.
Routine. Boring. Normal.
It is everything she wanted when she was growing up. The dream she clung to during the dark days, which were more common than happy days. She defied the odds and walked away, more or less, from a life that was slowly killing her.
She has the life she wanted with a man she adores and a daughter she worships. If it is a little boring at times, if her feet sometimes itch with the need to run, she pushes the feelings aside and bakes cupcakes.
"Red velvet," she says, setting a white-frosted cupcake in front of her brother. She agreed to pick up sandwiches from the deli across from her store for their weekly lunch. It's April and as a tax accountant he has little time to spare.
"Thanks, Annie." He sets the sugary treasure on the corner of his desk and unwraps his turkey-and-provolone-on-rye. "Saw your new car outside. You finally got your suburban soccer mom pledge card, didn't you?"
"It's a nice car."
"It's a minivan."
"No. It's a luxury crossover vehicle."
Sam arches a fair eyebrow. "It's a minivan." He pops a salt-and-vinegar chip into his mouth. "I can't wait to send a picture to Skye."
Annabeth groans, buries her face in her hands. Their baby sister Skye will undoubtedly give her hell about minivans and mom jeans and frilly aprons. "I'll pay you ten bucks not to tell Skye."
"Make it a dozen German chocolate cupcakes, and I'll keep my mouth shut."
Lunches with Sam are always bittersweet. He moved on, too. He did a better job of putting the past behind him. The only reminders he keeps are his sisters. He never talks about their childhood or those horrible years just before everything fell apart.
The past hurts, gives her nightmares that have her screaming in her sleep and waking in a cold sweat, but she can't completely forget it. Doesn't want to completely forget it. Sometimes she wishes for someone she can talk with about it.
Skye isn't a good choice because she refuses to give up the lifestyle. Sam steadfastly refuses to even acknowledge the past. She cut ties with her old friends and associates. Brian knows nothing about what she did, who she'd been, before they met at a singles mixer.
And there is no way in hell she's ever going to tell him.
From the carseat in the backseat of the new minivan, Elspeth excitedly recounts everything that had happened at school. Annabeth peers at her daughter in the rearview mirror and the restlessness that has been plaguing her all day dissipates like smoke.
Ellie has the Billis blonde, curly hair and blue eyes. The elfin face with its slightly pointed chin and delicate features is the same face Annabeth sees when she looks at her baby sister. Fortunately, Ellie inherited her father's ears. The slightly pointed tip all three Billis siblings got from their mother would be a little too hard to explain to Brian.
Ellie loves the shop as much as Annabeth does. She plays with antique dolls and toy cars in a small section behind the counter. She greets customers with a sunny smile and boisterous 'Hi!' She doesn't even bat an eyelash when some of the customers have an extra appendage or horns or neon green skin.
Twenty minutes to closing, a tall man in a tan trench coat and blue baseball cap steps into the store. Annabeth's hackles rise when his eyes linger a moment too long on Ellie. She pastes on a polite smile and rounds the corner of the counter to put herself between the stranger and her daughter.
"Good afternoon," she says cooly, "I'm Annabeth. How can I help you?"
"I was informed that you were the woman I needed to see for a… special… appraisal." The man's voice is gruff, hoarse. She tries to place the accent but can't. He holds out a small paper bag.
"Treat?" Ellie asks, toddling out from behind the counter.
The man's dark eyes fall, once again, on Ellie. Annabeth snatches the bag out of his hands. Normally she does her special appraisals in her back office where she has safeguards in place. She doesn't want to leave the man alone in her shop, though, and she doesn't want to have him around Ellie any longer than necessary.
She sticks a hand in the bag. Her fingers close around cold, smooth metal. She holds it up to the light. It's a brass ball. There are swirling lines etched around the ball. Near the base of the ball is an engraving, but the language is unfamiliar. The red gemstones circling the top of the sphere are dirty and of mediocre quality. She closes her eyes for a moment and lets the energy of the ball seep into her palm.
The energy is weak. Too weak to trace. "It looks like something from Cataris IV. Perhaps a toy or something for a religious ceremony. It's lighter than it looks, which means it's hollow inside. The stones aren't worth much. I don't feel any magic in it." She holds the ball out for him.
The man sketches a short bow. He closes a hand over the ball. Something pricks Annabeth's palm. Before the pain fully registers, he returns the ball to the bag. "Thank you for your time."
Her palm stings. There is a tiny bead of blood on her pale skin. Was there a raw spot near the engraving? A chip? "I can take a picture of your sphere and show it to a few of my associates. Perhaps one of them has seen a similar object."
"That is unnecessary." The man's attention is back on Ellie. "Your ruthpa is very beautiful."
Annabeth freezes. Her stomach does a slow roll. Her heart leaps to her throat. Before she can reach the nearest weapon, the man strolls out of the store. Whistling.
Palms damp, Annabeth quickly locks the shop's front door and lowers the metal curtain that protects the windows. She bundles Ellie up while reciting every protection rite she ever learned. Before leaving, she sets the alarm and triple-checks the wards around the building.
It takes every foot of space between the shop and her quiet, ranch-style house for her to calm down. Listening to Ellie sing along with her Disney Princess CD helps. That there is no one tailing them does, too. By the time she pulls in the driveway, her pulse is back to normal and her stomach has stopped churning.
It's Wednesday night, which means meatloaf night. She plops Ellie in front of the television with an animated movie before she washes her hands and digs a package of ground beef out of the refrigerator. As she dumps spices in the bowl of meat and breadcrumbs, she tries to call her baby sister. She gets voicemail, as usual.
"Skye, it's Annabeth. Call me. It's an emergency."
The phone ring while Annabeth is tossing a salad. She's been checking the clock every few minutes. Her nerves are stretched paper thin, and she feels like she's going to jump out of her skin. In her haste to reach the phone, she knocks over her glass of iced tea. "Shit, shit, shit," she grouses, cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder while hunting for a rag to mop up the mess.
"Is that anyway to talk around impressionable children?" Skye teases, voice light as air.
"Ellie's in the other room."
"I didn't mean her, sis."
Annabeth tosses the wet rag in the sink. She collapses onto a barstool, props her elbows on the counter, and cradles her chin in her hand. "Where are you, Skye?"
There is a pause, the crackle of static. The background voices fade away. When Skye speaks again, all traces of the laughing, playful girl are gone. "How soon do you need me there?"
Annabeth breathes a small sigh of relief. She's a crappy sister. When she put the worst of the past behind her, she pushed Skye away. The secrets she keeps from her husband mean that she has to lie to him, has to force her sister to lie to him. She gets caught up with her perfect life and forgets to check in with Skye as often as she should. She doesn't even know if Sam and Skye, who have a more complicated relationship than she dares understand, speak to each other more than once a month. The Billis siblings are more than a little screwed up, but if there's a problem Annabeth knows she can count on them.
"Tomorrow morning. Brian'll be home soon, and…,"
"You don't want to have to explain why baby sis is rushing in like the cavalry. I get it."
"You wanna give me a heads up on why I am rushing in like the cavalry? Sorta need to know what to pack."
"A man came in to the shop and asked for an appraisal on a brass ball. It was light, hollow inside. There were letters engraved, but I didn't recognize the language. There were rubies, at least I think they were rubies, on the top of the ball. The gems weren't fantastic quality and the ball looked tarnished. Faint energy. No magic that I could feel."
"Spheres and rubies are popular on Cataris VI. Brass is a big thing on Seliad." Skye hums contemplatively. "You didn't get a picture of it, did you?"
"He left before I could get a chance." Annabeth slaps her forehead. There are security cameras inside the store. She can pull up the footage and print off pictures of both the sphere and the strange customer. "Never mind. We'll go over the security footage tomorrow."
"Do you want me to go after this guy? Get the ball? Do research?"
Annabeth rubs her throbbing temples. She's glad Skye's taking charge, but she feels that she, as the older sister and Ellie's mother, should have the answers to all the questions. "I don't know yet. I just want you to check out Ellie. Make sure everything we put in place is still holding up."
"Ellie? What the hell is wrong with Ellie, and why the fuck didn't you lead with that, Annie?" Just like that, Skye's voice drops ten degrees and grows firm as granite. Annabeth isn't talking to her kid sister anymore. She's talking to the thing that gives nightmares to her nightmares.
"He called her ruthpa."
"Shit." There's a slam from Skye's end of the call followed by the sound of glass breaking. "I'm coming tonight."
Annabeth bites back a sigh. That is why she hadn't mentioned it first. Sam and Skye tend to get a tad irrational whenever there is a perceived threat to Ellie. She appreciates her siblings' concern for her daughter, but they have the subtlety of a wrecking ball. "Skye, it could be nothing. She wasn't upset by it, and I don't want to freak her out. She's getting old enough to start understanding what's going on, but I'm not ready to give her answers to the inevitable questions."
"You mean you're not ready to answer Brian's inevitable questions."
Annabeth forgot that her sister doesn't approve of keeping Brian in the dark. None of Annabeth's justifications about how it is safer for Brian, how she just wants to be normal, matter to Skye. Skye can't be normal, or safe, if she tried.
"Yes. That's what I mean," Annabeth snaps. She braces for the explosion from her volatile sister.
It never comes.
"Fine. Whatever. Play Susie Homemaker. I'm still coming tonight. I'll stay in the treehouse."
The treehouse outside Ellie's bedroom window is a leftover from the previous owners. Ellie is too young to climb trees, but more than once Skye has kept watch over her niece from the wooden perch. Annabeth makes sure the plastic totes inside are stocked with canned fruit, water bottles, and old quilts.
"Thank you, Skye."
There are traces of worry and anger in Skye's sarcastic farewell. "See ya tomorrow, Annie."
If Brian notices any tension during dinner, he doesn't mention it. He praises her meatloaf and washes dishes while she wraps up leftovers for his lunch. He doesn't say anything about the knife missing from the butcher block. He doesn't complain about the sharp, pungent incense she burns while they snuggle on the couch and watch sitcoms.
Part of her wants him to notice. She wants him to ask why she is on edge, why she nearly bites his head off when he offers to bathe Ellie and put her to bed. She wants him to question the faint light in the tree outside Ellie's window.
She has no one but herself to blame for the pang of guilt she feels when she glances down at the man sleeping so peacefully beside her. He loves her, but he doesn't know her. All of her. He loves the woman who argues over college football with him, who knows just how to duplicate his mother's marinara recipe, who watches cheesy rom-coms, and raises their daughter, and drives a frickin' minivan. He married an antique shop owner with a passion for medieval history and cupcakes.
He didn't sign on for happily-ever-after with the woman who performs appraisals on ancient weapons and items from other dimensions. He's never truly met the woman who is an expert in on-the-fly triage and banishing soul-stealers. He doesn't know the woman who has enough blood on her hands to make a serial killer sick.
He doesn't love the woman who knows what a strange man means when he calls her, their, daughter ruthpa.