The door was sealed with magic.
Each time one of the twins tried to close his fingers around the handle, cold metal seared deeply into the palm of his hand. Kian was scowling while he stared at the mechanism suspiciously, almost as if he expected it to swallow him whole where he stood. Kieran merely contemplated the heavy oak and stroked his fingers thoughtfully along the edge of his jaw.
Jessa was just as stumped as the twins were. Nothing she -- or they -- could think of would make it open. "We're wasting time," she muttered angrily, turning away. She spun to a halt, immediately on guard.
A witch stared back at her calmly, her violet eyes holding just a touch of cynicism and a hint of distrust. "Who are you?"
"Who are you?" Jessa countered coolly, her own expression wary.
The witch's reply was mocking. "The Tooth Fairy. Anything you'd like to donate?" Something fierce lit her eyes, dancing merrily, almost as if she wanted to fight.
Jessa bared her sharp, slender fangs, only too happy to oblige her. "Smile and we'll find out."
"Enough," Kieran said crisply. "She's trying to distract you, Jessa. Trying to buy Giacinta time." He fingered the glinting silver knife he'd taken from his pocket lovingly, his gaze even and cruel.
Outrage washed over the witch's face, stunning and defiant, and she was angrily unaware of the threat in Kieran's every movement. "Trying to help Giacinta?" she asked coldly. "The only help I would give that bitch is into an early grave."
Jessa looked at her swiftly. "Then why are you trying to stop us?"
The witch looked suddenly uncertain. "I thought you were here to help her."
"You're lying," Kieran said tonelessly, pushing past Jessa until he stood on the step above the witch. "If you can get this far, you've been helping her all along." One hand wrapped around her slender throat. His other hand raised that wickedly sharp knife.
Rebellion shone hotly on her face. "I am not helping her." Something hard slammed into Kieran's stomach, but he didn't loosen his grip. "If you don't let me go, she's going to kill Cameron!"
The desperation in her voice must have finally convinced him, because he removed his hand, although not before a few moments of suspicious hesitation. "If you're lying," he said as a final warning, "not a drop of blood will be left in your body when I'm done with you."
She sniffed haughtily, absently rubbing a hand over her aching throat. "If I were lying, I wouldn't blame you." She coughed lightly, glaring through thick copper lashes, her hand lingering over bruised flesh.
He stepped back and gave her room to breathe, but his measuring gaze never left her face.
Kian glanced back and forth between them, watching as emotions scorched hauntingly across both their faces. "Do you know why we can't get in?" he asked the witch quietly. "Or at least how we can get it?"
With one last belligerent look at Kieran, she turned her attention to his twin. "She made me put a spell on the door." A quick pause and a hastily drawn breath, during which she cleared her rasping throat. "I was coming upstairs to remove it." She hesitated slightly, then continued, "A witch called Erin sent me to protect her, since I owed Giacinta a debt anyway."
Suspicion wavered across Kieran's face. "What debt?"
"She saved my brother's life," she answered coolly, dislike for him as natural as breathing, "and Cameron promised to help me get it back."
Jessa's reevaluation of the girl was swift and encompassing. "We're ready whenever you are."
"My name is Calista," she said grimly, motioning Kian aside. Kieran stood stubbornly where he was. "Stand back, unless you want to become the world's largest shish kabob. That door isn't going to stay in one piece."
Kieran reluctantly moved.
Orange witch fire sprang to life in her cupped hands, jumping and crackling like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
It exploded from her palms in a rush of hot air.
"While I have your attention," Giacinta started, the knife flicking to deepen already painful cuts, "I should let you know I'm going to kill you."
"Please, forgive my surprise," Cameron retorted. She bit back a gasp of pain. "And here I thought you were just helping me augment my pain tolerance."
"Don't try to be cute," the vampire replied, her voice cold and hollow and somehow sharp. Empty black eyes contemplated the bloody mess in front of her. She shifted the knife to her left hand and fingered the ornate handle thoughtfully. "I can promise it will only make your death slower."
Cameron grimaced as Giacinta prodded at a bruise on her forearm, but everything ached anyway, so she barely felt it. "You really should work on your motivational techniques. I heard there's a great class at the University. Just remember: positive is always better."
"Positivity is relative, rather like normalcy." Giacinta dropped her hand, turning away from her. She walked slowly to the window and her hand hovered at the edge of the curtain, but then she paused, turning back.
"I used to be normal once," she said softly, her voice wistful. "I used to have hopes and dreams and--" She smiled. "I was in love once."
"Forgive me for my tenacity," Cameron snapped, staring hard at the ceiling, "but did he wake up one day and realize he'd be safer dating a rabid elephant?"
The pain numbed if she focused on something other than where she was or what was occurring. If she pretended she wasn't slowly dying -- not from loss of blood, not from pain, but from Giacinta's determination to destroy -- and that this was simply a bad trip or an awful nightmare, breathing was a little easier.
So she concentrated on the swirling lines of plaster, searching for a pattern, and let her mind wand far from this suffocating room.
The sun set and died in Giacinta's eyes, leaving them empty, without that brief spark of life that for one second almost made her look human. But Cameron didn't see this. "No, he woke up and realized that if he didn't give himself, if he kept himself locked inside, any sort of love was worthless, and so he was worthless as well." The bone deep chill crept back into the depths of those fathomless black pools.
Cameron couldn't think of anything to say and wasn't sure she wanted to comment.
"Aren't you even curious to know what happened to him?" Giacinta prodded impatiently. "Whether he's still festering away somewhere?"
Cameron suddenly concluded it might be a good idea to keep her talking and to buy herself just a little more time. She nodded slowly.
The lethal smile stretching across the vampire's face was not quite sane. "I killed him. He was just an empty shell and not of much use."
The hunger that lurked in the stark lines of her face was terrifying.
"He was my soulmate," she admitted, "but I wanted something more." Her smile flashed again, quick and secretive. "I wanted excitement instead of coldness; hope instead of emptiness. Kian gave me that."
"It's a shame he didn't give you a terminal disease instead."
"No, just terminal hatred," Giacinta acknowledged, "but then, perhaps even that was wasted on you. I know everything else has been."
Cameron's expression turned skeptical. "Everything else? I'm not sure what that includes. The torture, perhaps? Or was it the repeated homicide?"
Giacinta sighed, fidgeting unhappily with nothing to occupy her hands. "You are the most disturbingly ungrateful waste of humanity I have ever met. I tried to warn you."
"Perhaps you should look into taking some classes at the university. Your comprehension of human psychology is sorely lacking." Cameron finally turned her head to meet the vampire's eyes. "You tried to warn me? Was that before or after you tried to convince me what bastards the twins are?"
"Oh, they are that," Giacinta answered. "I shouldn't have had to convince you."
Cameron smiled. "Don't worry. You didn't, at least not about the twins." She let that statement hang suspended in the air, dangling between them unclaimed.
Sneering, Giacinta turned back to the window, this time lifting the curtain slowly so she could observe the twins fighting on the street.
Except they weren't there.
She whirled around. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" she hissed. She picked a porcelain figure from the decorative table standing beside her -- standing precariously on two legs, no less -- which was miraculously untouched. For about two seconds.
It shattered against the wall with a sharp crack.
"It was a distraction, wasn't it?" Her piercing black eyes were furious. "You knew they were coming and you were trying to keep me occupied!" Her normally low voice gained fury quickly, the tones rising to a shriek.
Cameron reminded herself to stay calm. "What are you talking about?" she asked, stalling. It wasn't hard to guess that the twins were no longer outside.
"You know what I'm talking about," she snapped. She strode over to where Cameron was tied helplessly to a destroyed but still heavy dresser. Her breathing came harsh and rapid as she stared down at the witch's placid features. Then she kicked her.
Doubling over in pain -- as best as she could with her hands strapped over her head -- Cameron gasped, "What was that for?"
But Giacinta wasn't paying attention to her. Her eyes were focused on a gleaming hint of silver across the room. She retraced her steps purposefully, wrapping her fingers almost lovingly over the handle. Walking back, almost humbly now, she smiled. "Well, this just hastens the process a bit."
Relatively certain that she didn't want to know, Cameron didn't bother to ask what that process was. She remained quiet as Giacinta kicked her way through the rubble in the room to where she lay.
The vampire leaned cautiously over her, not certain what to expect. Her hands and her movements were no less careful when she began sawing at the rope binding Cameron's wrists. Not the ones that connected them, but the ones that kept her fastened to the leg of the heavy Colonial dresser.
"Are you crazy?" Cameron's voice rose despite her conscious effort to remain calm. The vampire jerked her roughly to her feet.
Giacinta slapped her. "Shut up!" She cocked her head, listening intently for some noise or some warning. No sound echoed through the silence.
The vampire relaxed. "If you make one sound," she warned, the whisper so soft that Cameron strained to hear, "I will make sure you watch both of your soulmates die before I hurt you. And I might show you mercy when I'm done."
Cameron wisely kept her mouth shut.
Refusing to loosen her guard, Giacinta stepped behind her, the knife rising threateningly to her throat. She yanked her backwards, away from the door, away from where she could be taken by surprise.
Still the dead silence held, broken not even by the sound of their anticipatory breathing. Cameron was sure she should be able to hear the pounding of her pulse against the slick silver blade, beating as loudly as a nuclear explosion. Sluggish. Waiting. Terrified.
The door crashed inward.
Jessa and the twins stood framed in that doorway, their expressions furious and cold. It was Kian who stepped forward first, but then Kieran exploded past him, only a blur moving surreally fast in the grotesque silence.
He was only ten feet away when Giacinta dug the knife into Cameron's flesh so hard she screamed. The twins skidded to a halt at the same time, almost as if two images had been paused in the exact same frame. "Stop," she commanded, although it wasn't necessary. Although the twins had already done so. "Don't make me kill her," she murmured softly. The threat in her voice was hard to miss.
Kian's response came coolly through the quiet. "We're not going to make you do anything."
"And you can't blame what you do on us," Kieran added. Then he glared, dangerous and irrepressible. "Nor can you blame us for what we do in retaliation."
Jessa supported them silently, a shadow hovering behind the twins, simply watching and waiting for her chance.
"You're assuming you get a chance to retaliate," Giacinta noted. She smiled without humor. "Sorry, boys, but the rules have changed. You can walk away now and you can live or you can stay and die. I can't make you play, but I can make sure that you play by the rules. Oh, and don't move or I'll kill her."
Then Kieran did the last thing any of them expected -- he took a step forward.
Giacinta turned suddenly wary, tightening her grip and pressing the knife more firmly against Cameron's soft white throat, so shocked that she forgot to carry out her threat. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
His deep violet eyes sparkled, warm flecks shifting and sliding secretively. "I have something I want to share with you," he murmured, and came just a little closer.
Her voice lowered, just a shade more seductive. "I've got something I'd like to share as well."
Cameron bucked, intentionally elbowing her hard in the stomach. She could suffer through the pain, through the bleeding, through the taunting… but she would be damned if Giacinta would seduce her soulmate in front of her. Some things were just not polite, mortal enemy or no.
The vampire grimaced, but she did not loosen her grip -- which both knew was not why the witch had suddenly started fighting back. Giacinta took immense pleasure in yanking a tuft of silky black hair from the back of Cameron's scalp. Holding her head at a fiercely painful angle, she exposed that pale throat. "Are you sure you don't want a bite?"
And to his horror, Kieran felt his canines lengthen painfully.
He forced his thoughts away from that smooth, pulsing skin, drawing on inner strength to focus on the vampire's carefully blank face. "Maybe later," he answered, his voice neutral.
His expression molded to match. "Now," he said, "about the thing I'd like to share--"
"Don't bother. I'm not interested."
Cracks slipped into that glossy, sleek mask and threatened to destroy. "You're never interested, Giacinta dear, which is why we never worked in the first place." He smiled, but it looked more like a threat. "Now be a good girl and keep your mouth shut."
Giacinta only returned his smile and dug the cold silver blade into Cameron's throat. "Perhaps you should remember who exactly has the upper hand here," she advised dryly. "It's not exactly smart on your part, when your lovely little soulmate is already bleeding from the pressure."
"Oh, is it the pressure that causes that? I thought it was the knife."
"You learn something new everyday," Kian added, from his safe position at the other end of the room. Or maybe not so safe. Kieran had hurriedly and silently commanded him to keep Jessa as far from the actual fray as he possibly could -- and if it wasn't possible, then he was to protect her at all costs.
He hadn't thought, however, that he would be protecting himself from her or her from herself. That made things just a little bit harder.
The look Kieran bestowed on him was scathing and he suddenly realized he wasn't helping the situation. He opened his mouth to atone for this mistake, but his twin cut him off. "You have the right to remain silent, Kian," he purred. "Why don't you take advantage of it?"
Sulking, Kian subsided.
"Now let her go, 'Cinta, and we can talk about this reasonably." Kieran's voice was soft and convincing, the sensual undertones rubbing roughly over Cameron's senses. She wondered how Giacinta could resist that persuasive purr pulling and pushing toward the depths of her soul.
And then she had her answer. "You don't fool me, cher. Tell your lies and weave your illusions, but remember how easily I can see through you."
She shoved Cameron to the floor behind her, stepping back lightly on her hair to keep her from moving. Kieran sprang toward her. She caught him easily, shifting his weight so that his body fell into her, but did not cause them to fall.
His eyes met hers, startled, questions swimming within those violet depths, and tried to pull back. She shook her head lightly and gripped the soft material of his shirt even tighter. And something sparkled in the depths of those eyes, something promising and something sad. He was bewildered at the emotions he saw there.
She leaned forward, her mouth raising to catch his lips. Just before that first brush of flesh against flesh, there was a loud crash. "'Cinta?" a loud voice wailed from the doorway.
Kieran blinked, as if released from a sorcerer's spell. "Talk about ruining the moment," he quipped, horrified at what had almost happened.
The vampire's eyes narrowed and Cameron whimpered as she slid her foot, yanking the hair. "Not now, Morgan," she answered. Her voice was calm. "Go to bed."
"But--" Morgan protested. Giacinta could almost hear the tears welling in her eyes.
"No, she said firmly. "Bed."
Soft footsteps padded away, but Giacinta didn't look back to make sure Morgan had followed orders. All her attention was concentrated on the twin before her. She smiled and it was cruel.
She swayed toward him again, her black eyes sucking him in. He tried to look away. He tried to think of Cameron, think of anything other than what was in front of him. But her eyes drew him like two giant black holes and then he felt her lips brush softly against his.
The kiss was poignant, or would have been if they hadn't stopped caring for each other long ago. And instead it became a symbol, but of what, Kieran wasn't sure. He pulled back when she blinked, those hypnotic eyes losing whatever draw they'd held. Furious, he jerked his head away.
Giacinta brushed the pad of her thumb lightly over that full lower lip, absently, as though she didn't notice that anger. "Cher," she said, "you know I'll always care about you."
Then the stake slid smoothly into his heart.