Walking into Shadow - Chapter Two

An old REO Speedwagon song blared from oversized speakers, and for the first time that night, Janus Trelane wanted to be somewhere else. He was sitting on a folding chair in the main ballroom of the Thunderbird Hotel, dressed in a completely black ensemble of slacks, turtleneck sweater and a blazer watching the bride and groom twirl to the song "Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore." The night had been great up until this song, which he had hated when it was popular. When REO became an oldies band, he thought he wouldn't have to put up with it anymore. Sadly, he was wrong, and tonight hammered that home

The Thunderbird was Janus's favorite hotel because it was the tackiest place he'd ever seen. Even though it was in Minneapolis, right across from the Mall of America, it was more tasteless than the worst tourist trap in the worst Southern backwater he'd ever seen. On the walls were stuffed rabbits (which he knew were real), buffalo heads (which he hoped weren't real) and fully swaddled papooses (which he knew weren't real). Around the light fixtures were sets of wooden bars bolting them to the ceiling with totem heads inside the bars and above the lights. It gave the room an aura of being in a 50's cowboy movie's idea of an Indian lodge.

His date for the evening, Lynn Michaels, was over getting another cup of the punch (Seven-Up and Hawaiian Punch). He watched as she walked back to him, two plastic glasses in her hands, mouthing the words as she walked. She was in a bright yellow dress covered with ruffles that just screamed "I was a bridesmaid!" He still thought she looked incredible. Her long, normally straight chestnut brown hair was done up elaborately. For someone who never wore makeup, she had the skill of a teenaged girl at using it to highlight her dark brown eyes and high cheekbones.

When she sat down, she put a glass in front of him and flashed a dazzling smile. She pointed toward the little girl spinning around on the dance floor in a blue crushed velvet dress and said, "I think Rachael Jean is going to be quite a dancer when she grows up."

Janus watched as a couple of other little girls were on the dance floor with her, while the boys of the same general age were sitting in chairs around the dance floor, either talking to each other or playing with hand held video games. He motioned to the boys and said, "And it looks like they are getting ready for all of their High School dances to come, trying very hard not to be involved in anything that involves moving in time to the music."

She smiled at him and took a quick drink of punch, "Just because you don't like to dance, doesn't mean that every little boy doesn't like to dance."

"Hey," Janus said, feigning hurt, "It's not that I don't like to dance, it's that I don't know how to dance."

She grabbed his hand and pulled, "I'm not going to accept that excuse any more. You are my date for the evening, and I want to dance with my date."

He resisted half-heartedly, "Can't we wait until they play a song that doesn't make me sick?"

She led him out to the dance floor, pulling him behind, "If we did that, I'd have to wait all night, and I'm not doing that. You'll just going to have to tough it out."

As they got to the dance floor, the REO song was finishing up, and a slower tempo song started. Thankfully, it was one that Janus actually did like, "Janine" by Soul Coughing, yet another band that Lynn had introduced him to. The melody itself was a simple refrain, but the music made the song sound like a haunting call across a foggy lake in the middle of the night. Janus closed his eyes and drew Lynn close to him, listening to her sing quietly along to the music. The rest of the dance floor melted away from his thoughts, and for the rest of the song, he just swayed slowly, listening to her voice.

The moment passed all too soon, and a faster paced song started that he didn't recognize. Lynn pulled back a bit, and started doing a simple two step that Janus tried to keep up with and hoped he didn't look too foolish. Their eyes locked, and he was transfixed by them, just as he had been when they had met three years previously. She got a slightly goofy smile on her face as she realized what he was doing and came in a little closer.

"Maybe we should do this more often," she said over the music.

"You want me to scan the paper, looking for a wedding to crash next weekend?"

"As long as it's not one of your friends who feels they need to have me as a Bridesmaid. I hate these dresses."

He laughed, "Wendy picked you because she really likes you. You have made a good impression on people. Better than I did when I moved here."

"I've lived here six months, and already I have social obligations. Can you imagine our social calendar five years from now?"

Janus smiled and tried to give her a spin. Thankfully, she was a good enough dancer so she made his clumsy move look good, with the dress billowing out and then back in around her ankles. He saw her do a quick check of her daughter, who was now sitting on a chair with a small group of little girls sharing a paper plate full of mints and nuts. He looked around the room quickly, and saw that most of the people had called it a night, and most of the people left were either family or members of the wedding party. As the song ended, he pulled her close and said, "Let's go wish the Bride and Groom well. I didn't get a chance to chat earlier."

"That's your excuse to stop dancing after two songs, isn't it?" she said.

"Why, yes it is, Ms. Michaels," he said in what he called his radio announcer voice. It seemed a little too deep and loud, as he said it right as the music stopped. He and Lynn looked at each other and giggled over that. When they regained their compusure, they walked up to the head table. As Lynn chatted with Wendy, Janus watched Rachael Jean playing with one of the other children. She looked like a miniature version of her mother, the same hair color, the same hand gestures when she talked, and the same smile. The whole situation was odd, but Janus was used to odd in his life.

Being a self-described weirdness magnet, he would be amazed if anything in his life was close to the Leave It To Beaver fantasy that TV and old, fat, white politicians tried to hammer into people's heads as being a normal life. He'd met Lynn while he was in California, and she was going through a divorce. She had lost custody of her daughter, in the divorce, and now was able to have her for the summers. When she moved to Minneapolis to be with Janus at the beginning of the year, her ex-husband had tried to renegotiate that part of the divorce. He dropped it when Lynn reminded him that she was the child's mother,which California judges tend to favor. In a second court battle, he wouldn't be able to push through the custody while she was in the hospital, like he'd done the first time.

That was another thing he liked about Lynn, since she got her head together, she was tough, and didn't take crap from anyone. As a result, Janus had gotten a crash course in parenting over the summer. He half-listened to Lynn and Wendy's conversation about houses and dresses and other estrogen inspired subjects for a minute or two, and excused himself.

He moved over to Rachael Jean and said, "Can I have this dance?"

She looked up at Janus and said, "I'm too short to dance with you."

He scooped her up in his arms and said, "Not now you aren't," twirling her out to the dance floor. He set her on his hip and began to sway in time to the music. "I bet you didn't know you were such a good dancer," Janus said.

"I'm not dancing," she said,, burying her face in his shoulder with a hail of giggles.

"Yes, you are. I'm just helping you keep time to the music."

Janus swung her around and started counting quietly to keep the beat. Rachael peeked up and said, "I have to go back to my Dad's tomorrow."

"I know. Isn't it nice that we're able to have a big party before you go? A airplane ride to California takes a long time, and you'll have a lot of memories about the party to talk about with your mom."

"Yeah," she said, "I get to fly on a plane. Why aren't you going on the plane with me?"

"Because my job is right here at the bookstore," Janus said, repeating what Lynn had wanted him to say. She was going back with Rachael for a few days to smooth the transition. Lynn had also lined up a couple of freelance photo assignments to help pay for the trip. She would be staying out there for two weeks, one where she and her ex would share time with Rachael Jean, and then one week where she would just visit a few times. "and your mom's going to have a job out there. If I went, who would watch my bookstore?"

"Jilly-bean," Rachael said.

"Jilly-bean is in school, and only works at the store a couple of times a week," Janus said, referring to the girl who helped him out at his bookstore, Journey Books and Magic. He remembered when Rachael Jean first came to Minnesota a couple of years ago, when Lynn was visiting him. They'd stopped by the bookstore and Rachael had fallen in love with the place. Jill was still in high school back then, and when Janus came in carrying a three year old, Jill had taken it upon herself to show her every magic trick she knew. When Janus had opened the place up seven years ago it was just a big magic store. When he started selling off his used books, the place took off and actually became a viable business.

At first the place was known because of Janus's minor celebrity status. He was featured in the Midnight Star tabloid for highly sensationalized accounts of his non-bookstore related work. Janus smiled when he thought about how, people would come in to the store, hoping to see some sort of proof about the stories they'd read. Janus was disappointing to most of them, since he didn't have any sort of vampire memorabilia, or wolvesbane hanging around the windows. Janus had dealt with things that the paper had written about, from flash eating creatures of bizarre origin, to classic vampires. It wasn't because he wanted to or sought them out, but because he had no other choice.

Eight years ago, his fiancée had been killed by a vampire. That had started a chain reaction of events that had led him to where he was today. While he had tracked down her killer, he found that he had talents, either mystic or psychic, that he still did not fully understand. All he knew was that he had chosen them to use them to try and keep any more people from losing people that they loved, as best he could.

Back when it started, it was as if floodgate opened, and his life was washed away. It was nearly impossible for him to be around people without knowing what they were feeling and having it influencing his own emotions. Janus could pick up an object and know everything about the last person who held it or any other important things about it.

Since then, Janus had learned to move energy around, to "see" energy in his minds eye and otherwise manipulate the natural energy inherent in the world. Lynn always called it "The Force" because the way Janus talked about it was much like the stuff from the Star Wars movies. It was more complicated than that, though, and Janus didn't really know how to describe it. He'd only met a limited number of other people who had similar abilities, but they could only do bits and pieces of what Janus could do. In the past years, Janus had learned how to control and manipulate it for the most part.

That was, except when he lost control of himself. In the back of his mind, in a way he still didn't understand, there was a hidden reserve of power. He could only visualize it as a Dragon that slept most of the time. However, whenever he lost control of his anger, or the danger had hit a point where he didn't think he would survive the Dragon would break free.

When the Dragon was in control, he was like an observer to his own life. The dragon's abilities were far beyond his own, and had in the past blown walls apart, erased a person's entire mind, and in one case, scorched a 100 yards circle with fire, incinerating everything in the circle except for himself. He didn't like thinking about the dragon, and in all of his research, he'd never found a decent explanation for it. Since he could do nothing about it, he would just do everything he could to keep the Dragon from coming out.

To the rest of the world, he was a mystic adventurer, but around his store, he was just a guy who loved slight of hand magic tricks and old books. Both of which were now making his store seem so crowded that he was thinking about trying to find a bigger space.

As the song ended, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head, and Lynn was there, smiling. "May I cut in," she said to Rachael.

"I'm thinking...no. Janus is my date," Rachael said.

Lynn then grabbed Rachael from Janus's arms and began to tickle her, "Do I have to put up with you trying to take my boyfriend? I'm not going to put with some hussy dancing with my boyfriend." Rachael giggled and squirmed until Lynn lowered her to the floor. Rachael hugged Lynn, and then took off to go play with her friends.

"So," Janus said, taking Lynn in his arms as a slow song started, "getting a little jealous, are we?"

"I have to look out for her. I think she really likes you."

"I like her too. Problem is, she's too young for me. Guess I'll just have to be a..." Janus paused, "what am I anyway? I don't think step-father is a good term, and uncle has too many creepy connotations."

"You're her mom's main squeeze. How's that?"

"Good enough for me," Janus said and drew Lynn close. He took a quick glance at Rachael who was giggling with her friends and pointing at him and Lynn. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. He caught the scent of Lynn's hair, and felt his hands on her hips. He smiled and thought that this has to be as good as it gets.

* * *

The fog was so thick that he could only see a few feet in front of him, but he knew he had to run. He'd just seen something horrible that he couldn't remember, but he knew he had to run. It was night, and the fog made the dim light from the gas lights seem far away. He ran down the brick street, hoping that he could see someone, anyone who could help. He turned to look at what was chasing him, but he couldn't see anything. It was still behind him, and he knew it was gaining, but he couldn't see anything through the fog.

He wanted to scream, to cry for help, but he knew that none was coming. Death was behind him, gaining, and smiling as it approached.

So he kept running, his breath coming fast and painful, his legs aching and protesting each step, and his mind racing, trying to make sense of what was going on around him. He turned to look behind again, to see if he could see what was gaining on him. The next thing he knew, he slammed into something solid, and was knocked to the ground. By the time he figured out that he wasn't running anymore, a form came out of the mist. He stared up at it, knowing he had to get up, knowing that to sit there was the same as committing suicide. He watched in horror as he finally saw the face of what had been chasing him.

He saw John Wyddian's face and form move toward him, smoothly and relentlessly.

And then he woke up.

Janus saw that he'd kicked all of the blankets off of himself, and even though the house was chilly, he was drenched in night sweat. His pulse was racing, and his body ached as if he had actually been running as he had been in his dream. He closed his eyes and began to slow his breathing. He focused on his breathing, slowing it, taking it deep into his lungs and then holding it for a couple of beats, making his body calm down. His pulse rate slowed, his breathing became stronger, and the aching in his joints slowly went away. He slowly opened his eyes and looked over at the alarm clock which glared 2:30 AM at him. Janus knew he wouldn't be going back to sleep.

He looked over at Lynn, who was sleeping quietly. She was facing him, her right arm under her pillow and her long, brown hair almost completely covering her face in a tangled mess. He got out of bed as quickly and quietly as he could, so as not to wake her up. She had a long flight later that morning, so she needed all the sleep she could get. The street light allowed a small amount of blue light to come into the room, so that he could see well enough so as not to trip over anything in the room.

He saw that Lynn had left the closet doors open, her suitcase lay on the floor in front of it, and Janus knew that she would pack in the morning by grabbing a big mass of clothes, still on hangers, and putting them into the suitcase. She'd then stuff the front compartment with underwear and socks and be ready to go in less than five minutes. He had no idea how her clothes didn't look like she'd gotten them out of a paper bag when got to her destination, but she always looked sharp when she needed to. He opened the bedroom door, and it was much lighter in the hallway. Lynn had put in a small nightlight when Rachael came out so that she could find the bathroom, which was conveniently between the two bedrooms of the house.

Janus went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. His hair wasn't a horrible mess (it was easier to deal with when he woke up since Lynn had convinced him to cut it really short), and there were dark circles under his eyes. He looked as if he hadn't gone to sleep at all, and he guessed that the three hours he'd gotten wasn't nearly enough. He wanted to crawl back into bed and try to get some more sleep, but knew that if it did come, the dreams would return.

The dream he'd had wasn't the kind that went away. It was the kind that told him his life was about to get weird again.

He went out to the kitchen and pulled a clean coffee cup from the dish drainer. He filled it with tap water and popped it in the microwave, setting it for two minutes. As the microwave hummed, he pulled out his tea bags and a cube of sugar. He had always like sugar in cube form, and he knew he would want to watch it dissolve in the brewing tea so as to have something meaningless to concentrate on as he sat. It was an old ritual with him, doing small things with care to keep his mind off of the big things.

He sat down at one of the kitchen chairs and waited for the water to get done. He looked around the kitchen and found that he was still surprised at how different it look from before Lynn moving in. Before her, he didn't really use the kitchen much, eating on the run, or grabbing something that he could eat in the living room while watching TV or reading a book. The kitchen table was now cleared off every night (he'd had to find a new place for unread mail), there were enough dishes that they needed to be washed and put away every night, and he had more in the fridge than vegetables, bread, milk and cheese.

There were pot holders and other things on the wall around the stove and sink, another of Lynn's additions, and she'd installed a bizarre metal rack where the pots and pans hung above their heads. Janus didn't like it at first, since it made him think that they would fall onto the floor at any time, but she'd talked him into allowing her to put it up. Luckily for both of them, the incidences of falling metal had been few and always due to human error rather than faulty construction. There was an older phone on the wall, which Janus much preferred to the cordless that Lynn always seemed to have in an inconvenient.

The microwave beeped, announcing that his water was ready, and he opened a bag of chamomile tea and popped it into the steaming water. He put it on the table, grabbed a clean spoon, and paused, wondering if he should get some kind of food to munch, like crackers or celery. He turned around to see what kind of crackers were in the cupboard and saw that Lynn was standing there.

She didn't look completely awake, but her eyes were open. He'd seen her have worse hair days, but couldn't remember when. He instantly felt bad, since he knew that despite being as careful as he could be, he'd woken her up. The first thing he said when he saw her was, "Sorry. I tried to be quiet."

"You were," she said, "I reached over for you and you weren't there. That always wakes me up."

Janus began the steps for making coffee, getting out the filters, the good coffee that they bought from the coffee house they frequented and the filtered water from the refrigerator. Lynn sat down on the chair opposite his, giving him a quick squeeze to say "thank you" as she passed by him. She took the tea bag out of his cup and held it on the spoon, so as not to drop as she tossed it in the garbage bag. As Janus went about making coffee, she asked, "Was it a bad one?"

She'd been around him long enough to know that his dreams were more than just subconscious bubblings, and he felt bad about that as well. When she moved in, he told her that he would do everything he could to keep from involving her in his weirdness. They both knew that he meant it, but they also both knew that he would fail. He turned on the coffee pot and sat down, dropping his sugar cube in the tea and said, "It wasn't a bad one, but it had John Wyddian in it."

Lynn visibly shuddered, "How can you have a dream with him in it that isn't horrible?"

Janus described the dream, and when he was done, the coffee was ready. Lynn started to get up, but he put his hand on her knee, motioning her to stay put. He grabbed her favorite cup and added the precise amount of sugar and cream that she liked. "I don't know what it means, but I do know that if he's involved, it's not going to be easy. I almost think that he knows that things have been calm for the last six months," he said, "or that I turn thirty next week, and I'm not ready for it."

He closed his eyes and chased away the dark thoughts that were gathering. Of all the things he'd had to deal with, John Wyddian was the one he wanted to avoid most. He was the Lord of the Vampires, and every time Janus dealt with him, he felt that he was just a puppet on Wyddian's strings. Even a victory over Wyddian could never be called a clean win. For the longest time, Janus thought that it was because his entire adult life had been put into motion by Wyddian.

Back when Janus was a senior in college, his carefully planned life had all fallen apart. He was a couple of months from graduation with a degree in accounting, and mulling over a couple of early job offers. He had decided to use Spring Break to go to Chicago with his fiancée, Belinda. While they were there, Wyddian killed her. Her death triggered something in Janus that he later found out had been there all along. When it was all done, his life had been ripped apart, and he never went back to school. He'd worked with a reporter, Harry Winters, who now worked for the tabloid Janus worked with, to track Wyddian down to make him pay for her death. He failed.

Whenever he had to deal with Wyddian, he reverted back to the young man who wasn't able to keep out the thoughts of others. He could remember with painful clarity the entire experience, which was his personal curse. He could remember everything, not just through the fuzzy haze of human memory fallibility, but as if it had just happened to him mere seconds ago. Some people would say that such perfect, precise and photographic memory would be a great gift, but Janus saw it as a curse. It meant that no matter how long ago something had happened, the pain could still be as fresh as when it happened.

All of this ran through his mind is less time that it took from Lynn to take a drink of her coffee and remark, "You can call it a calm six months, but I seem to remember a couple of haunted houses, that weird Amish crap and our vacation turning into something out of a bad episode of Fantasy Island. Just because you haven't had to go to a hospital and be taped up does not mean it's been calm."

"Calm for me," Janus said, "calm on the Wyddian front. I don't think I've had to deal with him at all since that short time in Memphis when he came to warn me about the 200 year old child molester I was tracking down."

"God," Lynn said, "the conversations we have. If I didn't know better, I would think that maybe I haven't gotten out of the mental hospital. Are you sure that this is reality and not a bad reaction to psychotropic drugs?"

"It's a real as it gets," Janus said. He felt guilty about having her in his life all over again. When they had started seeing each other, Janus had tried to keep his distance from her, not because he didn't love her, but because he knew that his life was insane. How do you date someone when you might have to fly across the country and deal with someone who has the power to wipe away someone's memories or a person who turned into an animal whenever there was a full moon?

Lynn had been wonderful both in her acceptance of Janus's life (even though she didn't quite believe all the stuff that happened was as mystic as Janus thought it was) and in her having the patience and perseverance to burst through his personal boundaries. It had taken a year and a half after they declared their feelings for each other for her to finally convince him to let her move in. Six months later, Janus still felt uncomfortable at times. Part of it was the fact that he lived by himself for nearly eight years and part of it was the natural process of bringing someone into his life. He still felt guilty when he had to take off, or things got out of control. He didn't bring up his feelings about it, partly because he thought that if he brought it up to Lynn, she might think that it was a bad choice as well.

"You know," she said, looking deep into Janus's eyes, "I don't have to stay for two weeks. If you need me to, I could be back in a couple of days."

"I..." Janus started and then came to a halt. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, so he chose his words carefully, "I don't want you to change your plans because of this. For all I know, it could be another of Wyddian's mind games to try and trick me into using up one of the favors he owes me. He hasn't tried that for while. It could also be that he wants to play with the mystic. It could be nothing."

"It could also be something big."

"That's a possibility, but I'm not going to be consumed by it. I'll stay around here, see if there's anything I can dig up, and just wait. I'm sure if Wyddian is planning something, I'll hear about it."

Lynn was about to say something when Janus's hand reached out and grabbed the phone on the kitchen wall. It hadn't rung, but he knew that someone was calling him anyway. "Hello?" he said quietly.

"Dammit, I hate when you do that," Harry Winters was on the other end of the phone, "it didn't even ring before you picked it up."

"Rachael's still asleep and I think I've made enough noise to wake her," Janus said, he put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, "it's Harry," sotto voce to Lynn.


"That's right, you've got a rug rat running around the place. I wouldn't call you this late, but I thought you'd want to hear this."

"It's about Wyddian isn't it," it wasn't a questions, but a statement of fact.

"You've got it," Harry said, no longer amazed when Janus did things like that. Janus got a wistful grin when he though of how many times Harry would get upset that Janus already knew what he was calling to tell him. For a while now, they'd settled into a comfortable routine, where neither of them made a big deal about Janus's insights, "they found a body in Chicago, all ripped to pieces, drained of blood. One of my friends at the Chicago Tribune sent the story to me along with a note about how they weren't going to do anything with it. They still must be mad about my vampire story."

Harry was referring to his writing a story for the Tribune about John Wyddian back when Janus's fiancée was killed. He fought for the story and it got him fired. Janus knew that Harry took a little satisfaction when legitimate newspapers had to kill stories that had to do with the weird underbelly of the world. Anytime the Trib had to spike a vampire story gave Harry just a little more satisfaction that he'd done the right thing. It got him fired, but he did the right thing.

"So Johnny-boy been sloppy with his victims. Why is that big news, he's left a body or two around before."

"Not in the alley behind the Frusen Glazen in Hyde Park."

Harry's words hit Janus right between the shoulder blades. The exact same place where John Wyddian had killed his fiancée, Belinda. There was no way that this didn't have anything to do with him. In his mind he flashed back to that dingy alley, seeing her crumpled body lying there next to a dumpster. He tried to block out the memory of holding her as she breathed her last few shallow breaths. He closed his eyes, trying not to remember how his powers had manifested at the exact moment, holding her and seeing what had happened to her as if it were happening to him. The first experience of knowing another person's thought were when Janus held her and was pulled inside her mind as she died. Once again, he wished he could forget that feeling, but he couldn't. It was there forever.

He was shocked out of this memory by a touch on his shoulder. He jumped, and saw that he was still in his kitchen, the phone was on the floor and Lynn's hand was on his shoulder. "Are you OK?" she said.

"No," Janus said, picking the phone up off of the floor, "I don't think things are going to be OK for a while."

* * *

After Janus had dropped Lynn and Rachael off at the airport (and staying at the window watching their plane leave until he could no longer make it out in the sky) he walked to the parking lot and got into his car. It was a Geo Storm, and a newer model than he'd ever owned. Part of the reason was because Lynn came with him when he had to buy the car, and she had fallen in love with it. She'd had to sell her old hunk of junk when she moved to St. Paul, and had never gotten over the fact that she didn't need a car much any more.

Her photography work had her travelling a lot. When she was in a new city, either the people she was working for would have a huge budget and a driver for her, or it would be a smaller organization and she would have to rent a car. By the time she got back home, she wouldn't want anything to do with travelling for a few days. She would just stay around the house, putting away all the things that Janus had gotten out and left in bizarre, yet organized, piles. By the time she wanted to drive again, Janus would just let her drop him off at his bookstore. If the weather was good, he would run the 10 miles back to his house, and if it wasn't, she'd drop by and they would go out for a quiet night at a diner or bar.

She'd gotten him hooked on a place down by the Cathedral called Fabulous Ferns. It seemed like a non-descript sports bar, but Janus had grown to know the patrons and staff in all of their visits there, and there was an eclectic group of people who would be there. There were local or state politicians, blue collar workers, young professionals consumed with their careers and just about every type of combination of those groups who would be there on a normal weeknight. Lynn had been the outgoing one of the two, chatting up the waitresses first and then getting to know the regulars. Janus took a lot longer to know people, since he wasn't a very outgoing person by nature. He'd even gotten the nickname "Silent J" in the course of their visits.

He pulled the car out of the airport terminal slowly, and on a whim, he pulled off onto the cross-town highway. He wanted to stop by Minnehaha Falls before he went home. He saw that the traffic was light, even for being after rush hour, and he kept the radio off, just enjoying the drive. The car handled like a dream, and he remembered how much of a pain in his neck it was buying the thing. Before the Storm, he had always bought older, used cars from private individuals. Partly because his money was limited, but mostly because he just didn't like car dealers.

One of the rules Janus had set in his life was that he wouldn't use his abilities to peer into other people's thought. He wouldn't have looked into their diaries, and he wouldn't force his way into their minds either. The only exceptions were the surface emotions that he still wasn't able to block out, or when someone's life was in danger if he didn't dig into their minds. There were times when he couldn't control it as well as he would like. If he was around someone who was mentally strong, he would have trouble filtering out their thoughts, or sometimes he would touch someone (via handshake, pat on the back, etc...) and he wouldn't be able to control their thoughts that came rushing into his head. He was better at it now that he was even a month before, and he would conduct mental exercises to strengthen his internal barriers. He still remembered than even a couple of years before, he couldn't go to shopping malls or large performances, because he would literally get lost in all the thoughts around him.

Salesmen in general and car salesmen in particular were still hard for Janus to deal with, though. Their thoughts were so powerful and on the surface that it would take immense effort to shut them out. When they had gone to the car dealer, Janus could tell before the man even walked up and shook his hand that he was going to try and sell him a truck. He could also tell that he really wanted a better look at Lynn's ass.

By the time they left, they had bought a sharp, green, Geo Storm, and had gotten it for a price that gave the dealer less than two hundred dollars profit. He had even unloaded his old clunker and gotten more than it was worth, because he let Lynn do the talking, and the sales guy was doing everything he could to make a good impression on her. Janus could have really put the guy through a wringer, bringing the price down even more, but at a certain point, his ethics kicked in. Even scum-bag weasels had to make a living.

Janus pulled off the cross-town right by the Veterans Administration building, and quickly made it to the park the falls were in. He parked as close as he could get to the falls and saw that there were only a few other cars around. It wasn't fall yet, and none of the schools were in session, but it was still early. He couldn't see any other people around as he walked down the sidewalk to the river. The park itself had a few buildings where he was, but where he was there were a few old trees.

The water ran fast, almost to point of being completely white to the observer, mostly because of all the rocks under the surface. It wasn't very deep, but deep enough that a fall into it could be dangerous. There were nice wooden benches every few yards, and before the river turned toward the falls themselves and then out to the Mississippi there was a wooden bridge over the rushing water. The sun was out in full force, and Janus was unable to see any more than the lightest of high clouds. Certainly nothing close to rain. It was also still warm, for Minnesota. He saw birds dart past him as he walked, too fast to know for sure, but he thought they were wrens of some kind.

The grass was immaculate, a deep rich green, and perfectly even. The only things marring the lush, green carpet were a few fallen leaves and papers that had blown out of garbage cans overnight. Since it was early, the garbage cans along the route were empty, so there weren't small swarms of insects yet gathered around them. When a jogger passed him, he saw that except for a few people down on the walkway by the falls, he was alone.

He made it to his favorite spot, a bench far enough away from the falls that he couldn't see them, yet close enough he could hear the water. It wasn't a tall waterfall, but it was surrounded by trees, vines and other vegetation. The fact that it was in the heart of Minneapolis made it all the more special. He sat on the bench, and looked around for what felt like the first time. The trees were unmoving, even though their leaves moved in harmony with the light breeze. He closed his eyes and breathed deep the smell of freshly mown grass and churning water. When he exhaled, he felt almost light headed. The water itself looked like it had been tamed, with a neatly manicured lawn of grass nearly to its banks, and a few smooth rocks sticking out from the speeding water.

It didn't matter that he knew this was one of the most powerful areas in the upper Midwest, or that he'd had to face a vampire here. All he could think of was the time when he brought Lynn here to ask if she would pick up her life and move from California to St. Paul so that they could be together.

Their relationship has started out oddly, but Janus knew that everything in his life started out oddly. They had met when Janus was in a hospital suffering from amnesia. She was there after having a breakdown when her marriage collapsed. She had given up everything to be with the man she married, and when he told her that it was over, he had already set up so that he got everything, including their daughter. She was left with an apartment she couldn't afford and a child who was less than two years old that she couldn't see. While they had been there, Janus got his memory back, and helped her pull out of her depression.

Over the next year, they kept in touch over the phone, both denying what they felt toward each other. Lynn because she didn't want to let anyone have the power to destroy her life again, and Janus because he didn't think he would be able to have a relationship. Not after how the one with Belinda ended. Then, one night when Lynn had come to visit Janus, she confessed her feelings for him. Luckily for her, he realized that he had felt the same way. However, Lynn still lived in California and Janus in St. Paul and she was just starting out on her career of being a photographer. For the next few months, they ran up huge phone bills, and both had to buy computers to send e-mail. Janus even wrote letters to her longhand during slow times in the bookstore, and there wasn't a day that went by that they didn't communicate in some way.

It was a few months later when Lynn was able to get freelance assignments that she moved in with him. She would travel a lot, and Minneapolis had a surprising amount of photography work for small magazines and catalogs. It was on this bench, one night when he was driving her back to the airport where he asked her to move in with him. He was going to ask her to get married, but two things stopped him. One was pure, abject fear. He'd never been close to being married in his mind. Since he and Belinda were going to get married when she finished school, it was still far enough away when they went to Chicago that it didn't feel real. The second reason was that she had spoken so despairingly about marriage in her letters. Her divorce had been a "gut-wrenching nightmare" (in her words), and she often talked about she would never allow herself to go through that sort of nightmare again.

When he asked her, it couldn't have been a more perfect night. It was an oddly warm February evening, so there was still a slight chill in the night air, and there was only the light of distant street lamps and the moon as he asked. He'd spent the previous three days going through what he would say in his mind, so as not to screw it up when he finally asked her. She later told him that she was going to ask him if she could move in when they got to the terminal.

She took a photo shoot that she didn't want to do in order to afford to have movers pack all of her things and send them out. She'd sold her car to buy the plane ticket to Minneapolis, and Janus met her in an actual limousine to bring her home. They'd spent that night with her figuring out where to put her things when they finally arrived, and Janus moved most of his books to the second floor. When Lynn moved in, it was hard for Janus to adjust. He'd lived by himself since he moved away to college, and having someone else in the house, moving things around and adding more stuff felt like an invasion of his life.

Their third week living together, they both realized that some ground rules had to be set. Janus didn't like not being the one to do the cleaning, so Lynn happily gave up that responsibility, and Lynn wanted to know where all of the money was going, so Janus let her take over paying the bills. There were other little things that took a while to iron out (Janus was a vegetarian, Lynn lived for a good steak and the like) but after a month, Janus felt like they had worked out a very nice groove.

Luckily, neither of them had any big secrets that would have caused trouble, like snoring, keeping snakes as pets, or bizarre bathroom habits. Since they had already spent a lot of time together on Lynn's visits to the Twin Cities and Janus's visits to California, they had a good idea of what to expect. What Janus didn't expect as that his feelings toward Lynn would get deeper and more intense. Before she moved in, when she would leave, it was bad but he could tolerate it because he knew that their time was limited. Now, when she left, it was worse, because he expected her to be home when he got there. He expected her to be a part of his life in almost every way, instead of filling her in on the phone.

For the first time in his life, he understood what his married friends meant when they talked about the kind of intimacy that only living with someone can bring. He also leaned that when you move to this level, you had better really love the other person, because anything they did that slightly annoyed you would be repeated on a regular daily basis. Janus had always had a little trouble with the way Lynn would run her finger around the rim of her glass, and after a month he decided that he'd better get over it, because if he didn't, it would drive him nuts.

The only thing they hadn't discussed was his second job, his having to go off with Harry Winters and face the weirdness. It was like a leak in the ceiling that everyone ignored, hoping that if they didn't talk about it, it would someday go away. It would start with either a phone call from Harry, or a dream where Janus would know that he would have to leave. This time, it was a dream. Even though Janus didn't want to deal with it, he knew better. If he didn't do what he could, the dreams and the guilt would get worse. Sometyimes, if it didn't seem like a dangerous mission, she would come along and take pictures for the Midnight Star story. She never had her own byline on those pictures, though, since Harry didn't want the paper to think he could be replaced.

He knew that he would have to face John Wyddian. And he had no idea how he would. He had come to this spot, where he'd made the best decision of his life, in order to find answers. As he looked at the river, and listened to the wind through the leaves, he could find none. John Wyddian was the only man who had ever defeated him, and defeated him easily. Janus didn't take defeat lightly, because when he lost, people died, and after Chicago, he had vowed that no one would die if he could prevent it.

He could hear the cars rushing by on Minehaha Parkway, and watched as a small group of birds rapidly flew over the river in tight formation. Another jogger went by on the blacktop path, headphones on, oblivious to the world around her. Janus closed his eyes and sought to block out all of the sounds around him. He slowly turned down his awareness of everything around him, imagining all sensory input to be on a radio that he was turning down a notch at a time. He then focused on clearing his thoughts and stilling his constant inner voice. He'd done it innumerable times, but here, at the place where two ley lines crossed, it was harder. Everything around him seemed so much more alive here.

Slowly, he became one with his own thoughts, and the outside world melted away. He focused on the energies that flowed around him, letting them form patterns in his mind. As he usually did, he imagined that the forces of positive energy that flowed through and around him as a river of green light. As he did so it slowly came into being in his mind's eye. It flowed around him, with different hues of the same color in differing currents. He let himself sink into it so that all he could see was a shifting, changing green flow. With his thoughts he surrendered to it, becoming one with it, not knowing where the green ended and where he began.

As he relaxed, he felt a familiar tingle at the back of his thoughts. Knowing that it was something that he had to keep control, he reasserted enough mental control so as to stop the tingle. The dragon was still there, still waiting for him to let his guard down. He slowly allowed himself to come out of the trance he had put himself into and opened his eyes.

Enough time had passed that the shade he was sitting in had moved to a different bench. He squinted in the brighter light and looked around again. Looking at his watch, he saw that he had been in the trance for at least a half hour. While he felt refreshed, he was no closer to an idea of what to do. He watched the river for a short time afterward. Once he had been told that life was a river, but that analogy had never quiet set right with him. The water in a river was ever changing, but the banks were slow to move. In his life, the banks were always moving, and the only thing that remained constant was his inner voice. Dealing with the horrors he had seen, all he could cling to was his sense of what was right and what was wrong.

He couldn't even count on having the same sense of reality as other people. Most sane people would listen to his talk of reading emotional imprints, fighting vampires and dealing with entities that can travel to other planes of existence and wonder what institution Janus has escaped from. He wished with all of his heart that he was one of them at times. He didn't have that luxury, because once he had seen the other side, he couldn't not see it. It was a part of his life because the other choice was denial and madness.

As he got up to go, his thoughts turned to Lynn again. She knew that things were about to get bad, but he wondered if either of them knew just how bad it could be.

He got up at walked to the edge of the river, and picked up a small, smooth rock. He stared at it for a minute, marveling at how it had been worn smooth over time, and how it felt in his hand. It was completely dry, even though it had been right next to the water, and had probably spent years in the river before somehow coming to shore. For second, he thought about throwing it in, but then stopped. He rubbed it with his fingers for a beat, and then slid it into his pants pocket. It might be a good idea to have a remind of the calm of this place, since calm was going to be a scarce commodity in the near future.

He took one last long look before going to his car and driving back to St. Paul to open his bookstore. He looked off in the west to see if a storm was coming, but the sky was clear. It was going to be the kind of day where he would stare out the windows and wish he could be outside instead of waiting for someone to show up and buy something.

Interlude One

Eight Years Before

John Wyddian put the phone down and closed his eyes. One of the agents he had in Moline, Illinois told him that the kid he's been tracking for the last few years was going to be going to Chicago. It was Trelane's last year in college, and John knew that he was running out of time. John was sitting in a large wooden chair, in a large dark house in one of the suburbs or Chicago. The house was barren except for the chair, a pair of phones and file cabinets. In the file cabinets were files on people that he and The Family had been watching for years. He couldn't tell anyone why they were watching them, or what the purpose of the hidden house was, because if he did, they would have turned on him.

He had been worried that he something to trigger Trelane's powers before he turned 22, they would never manifest. Trelane was only a couple of months from graduating. According to all the information he had been able to dig up, Trelane would be able to slip into a quiet job, marry his college sweetheart and never have the major stressor he needed to release the power he had inside of him. John had studied him enough to know that he could be the most powerful mage in a long time, but the powers remained latent.

He thought that the death of Trelane's father and brother in a car accident would be enough to start the process, but it didn't work. He had watched Janus's life since he was a little boy and knew that the relationship he had with his father and brother were the only strong family ties he had. He'd seen people give in to the darkness of life with less of a push, and thought that it would enough. The beauty of it was that he wouldn't have to get involved at all.

Instead of allowing his rage and pain to consume him, Janus's girlfriend had kept him on an even keel. He had been at the funeral, and saw Janus's mother turn it into a confrontation. He waited, watched and wanted to be there as Janus would start down the path that might lead to him becoming one of the most powerful mages to walk the Earth. He watched as the redhead Janus was with got him to leave.

That night, John eavesdropped on the two of them as Janus poured out his whole life story to the girl. During that session, John learned not only about Janus, but about his girlfriend, Belinda. She was everything that she needed to be to get him through that dark night of his soul. She was firm and strong when she needed to be, yet caring and compassionate enough to ease his mind. By the time they went to sleep, John knew two things. First, that Janus had done well in finding someone to share his life with and second, as long as she was in the picture, it would be impossible to tear him down.

In any other person, John would almost think it were sweet. Back when he was human, he would have even asked one of the poets of the Royal Court to enshrine such love in verse. He wasn't human any more, and that love stood in the way of his plans.

So, he hoped to kill two birds with one stone. He waited until the perfect opportunity presented itself.

Finally it had. His agent told him that Janus and Belinda were planning on going to Chicago over spring break, since it would be Janus's last one before leaving college. His agent had even been able to get Janus into one of the hotels on Michigan Avenue that The Family owned. While The Family only used it as a source of easy income, this time, John was going to use it for a much more useful purpose.

That night, John planned everything out in the most meticulous detail, from what the concierge would suggest to them for entertainment to how long he would allow them to enjoy their last trip together. It was all about to come together.

Many members of The Family who still lived in Chicago had given up asking him why he would take such interest in a mortal. Unlike the newer members of The Family, John usually took no notice of humans. All he seemed to care about human affairs were ones that would benefit The Family financially, or when someone came too close to discovering their dark secret. It hadn't happened in ages, but whenever a human came close to discovering that vampires were real, John would take care of the situation himself.

Usually in such a way that members of The Family wouldn't talk about it at all, even in the hushed tones they used for things they wanted to keep from him.

His interest in Janus Trelane had sparked hidden conversation that John didn't care to correct. There were a number of factions of thought. Some felt that he was toying with Janus's life to relieve his boredom. Others felt that he was grooming Janus to become a member of The Family, one as powerful as many of The Old Ones who John had created hundreds of years ago. There were even a few who thought that John was seeing his own life through this mortal's life, and wanted to remember what it had been like if he would have remained alive.

All of them were wrong. None of them had the foresight enough to guess the real purpose behind John's watching the young man grow. He would unleash the mage within this young man, watch as he grew in power, and when we was young enough to still be manipulated yet powerful to fulfill his purpose, use him for his grand plan. Over 500 years had gone by since John had come upon his plan, and nothing could be left to chance.

All was prepared on this chilly spring night, with fog rolling in off the lake. John Wyddian stood and waited, feeling impatience for the first time since the printing press.

* * *

Janus awoke and nearly jumped out of bed when he saw the alarm clock. It showed that it was almost 10 am, and he was almost an hour late for his first class. He threw the blankets off and was hit by how cold the room was. He was sleeping in just his briefs, and his dorm room had only been warm with it was below freezing outside. Now that spring was starting to make a stab at warming things up, the dorm's temperature had dropped.

He grabbed the pair of blue jeans that had been tossed on his chair the night before and opened his closet, looking for a shirt that was relatively clean. He was able to find a T-shirt on a hanger, and one of his flannel shirts on the floor, and tossed them on, all the while looking for his socks and shoes. He remembered kicking them off the night before, but not where they had ended up.

"What are you doing," came the sleepy voice buried under the covers he had tossed off.

"I'm late!" he said, "I've already missed my 9 o'clock, and if I don't get moving I'll miss by 10 o'clock too."

The blankets moved, and a hand finally came into view, pushing them back onto Janus's side of the bed. There was a short, shoulder-length mop of thick red hair, and a face that made Janus melt every time he saw it as Belinda tried to open one sleepy blue eye. "You've lost your mind, you know," she said. Her voice was thick with sleep, but still had that husky quality that had caused him to waste hours on the phone listening to her talk about any and everything.

"Maybe so, but if I miss any more classes, I'm going to fall so far behind that I'll be in the library for spring break," Janus said, starting to get frantic about finding a pair of socks, "Where is everything? I only have one shirt and no socks!"

"They're in your suitcase. Remember? We put them there last night after you did laundry," she said, and Janus could tell she was trying to say more.

Why did they pack everything up when he still had to get ready and go to...

Then it hit him. He was rushing around on a day when they didn't have to do anything. He stopped searching and looked at Belinda, who now had both eyes open and a big grin on her pale, freckled face. "I don't have class today, do I?" he said, wanting to make sure that the second conclusion he was jumping to was the first correct one of the day.

"That's right," she said, restraining a giggle, "we stayed up late last night because we knew we were sleeping in today. Now, you've ruined that."

Janus sat on the chair and bit his lip, "I did wake us up early, and all last night I kept saying, 'It's no big deal, we can sleep until noon.' didn't I?"

She nodded her head, and in so doing, caused the blanket to sag a little further. Janus was able to see her bare shoulders now, and all of the panic that had gripped him mere seconds ago was gone. They'd been seeing each other for almost three years now, and he still felt that stirring that made his knees weak when he saw her skin. The way she looked in the bed was enough to make his lose all rational thought.

She patted the bed next to her where he'd been sleeping just a few minutes before, and he took off the flannel shirt and nestled next to her. He was close enough the could feel her breath on his face as he slid under the covers as well. It was warm and made the rest of the tension he's been feeling melt away. He moved closer to her, and she was warm, soft, and felt like sleep. He kissed her, tasting her lips as if the were fresh strawberries and she returned the kiss wrapping her hands around him and pulling him closer. When he pulled back, he looked at her face, taking it all in. He knew everything about it, but he still studied it as if it were new to him.

He took his hand and gently bushed a few stray stands of hair away from he face. It felt like electricity, and he didn't want to disturb the feeling he had. It was a feeling of total connectedness and bliss. No matter what was going on in the world, they were both here, and everything was right with their world.

"You know," he said, kind of surprised by the sound of his own voice, "we don't have to go to Chicago. I could be completely happy staying like this for the next week."

She kissed him again, and with one of her hands, intertwined her fingers with his. "We tried that for a weekend, remember? We eventually had to go out and find provisions. You can live on love for a while, but I need water and food after a while."

He brought their connected hands up to his face and kissed her fingers, "Ok, we'll go, but only because you insisted."

"There'll be a bed in our hotel room, so we can still do this. We just won't have to worry about making the bed."

Janus smiled and kissed her again, losing himself in the feeling. His hands moved over her body and he kept them in motion until he heard the sharp intake of air that let him know he'd found the right place. As he continued to feel her, his mouth slowly moved down her body until it met his hand. They made love slowly and tenderly, not having to worry about the noisy people in adjoining rooms or getting a decent amount of sleep for class. They took their time, and when they were done, they slipped easily into each other's arms.

Janus wanted to close his eyes and get a little more rest, but couldn't take his eyes off of her face. At first, when she caught him gazing at her, she was a little embarrassed and couldn't meet his eyes. He gently put his thumb and forefinger on her chin and drew her face upward until they eyes locked. Janus wanted to express all that he was feeling, but there weren't any words.

They stayed that way until the alarm finally went off at noon. After Janus turned the alarm off, Belinda grabbed his face and give him a big, exaggerated kiss and said, "Come on, we're burning daylight."

* * *

They had both packed the previous night, so all they had to do was carry the two suitcases down three flights of stairs. Janus had put on the jeans and shirt that he'd rushed around the room to find. He had on a light blue jean jacket against the spring chill. Belinda was dressed better than him, with a big fuzzy sweater peeking out from her black coat that she wore until it was above 60 degrees. She wore a pair of black jeans, and when Janus watched her walk, he was entranced. Knowing they had to get going if they wanted to be out of the dorms before they locked up for spring break, he made sure that he led the way. Too many times he had stopped dead in his tracks as he watched her walking away. She teased him about it, but he always told her, "It's been three years and I'm still ever so much the smitten kitten. Enjoy it now, because when we get old and slow, I might not ogle you so much and you'll miss it. Mark my words, you'll miss it."

Belinda, for her part, did like the attention, not in and of itself, but because she knew that Janus had only gotten more attracted to her as they'd been together. Most guys would lose interest in her after a few months, and oddly, they would quit watching her closely after she'd slept with them. If anything, it had gotten Janus more interested in her. When she knew that Janus was watching her walk away, she would put just the slightest bit more hip action into her walk, just because she knew it drove him nuts.

It felt good to have a lover who was also someone who she liked as a friend. It was the first time in her life those two things had ever combined. When she was in high school, she would have a boyfriend, and then a best friend on the side. Almost as if the best friend was to make up for the deficiencies in whomever she was going out with on Saturday night. This was different. Time with Janus actually felt like a mature relationship. He would get goofy once in a while, but she would too. They were in college, and it might just be their last chance to ever really be goofy. After they were done, they would both get jobs, and, if she could talk him into it, have children. There wouldn't be time for laying by a pond and deciding what animal each cloud that went by looked like, going to the mall just so she could try on tons of clothes that she had no intention of buying, having water gun fights, or any of the other things they would do that she couldn't imagine doing as a married adult.

A nice way to describe Janus's car was vintage. The accurate way to describe it was old. It was a 1971 Buick Skylark with an engine big enough that it would go through a twenty gallon tank of gas after less than 300 miles. It was a faded gold color, and had a black vinyl top that was chipping and flaking with age. The tires were as close as they could be to being bald without being something Janus could get a ticket for. The car was huge, but only a two door, with a back seat big enough to hold all of their luggage, and a space chair or two if Janus had wanted to carry them.

The day was sunny, and when Janus opened up the car, it was nice and warm, despite being just this side of cold outside. He grabbed the sunglasses he kept on the sun visor and slid them on. Belinda had unlocked the trunk and put her two suitcases in ("one for clothes and one for everything else I'll need" she'd said while Janus watched her pack). When she slammed the trunk closed, she checked to make sure it had latched automatically (there had been trouble with that in the past, leading to a few things flying out of the car at 70 miles per hour). As she came around to get in the driver's seat, Janus said, "I guess that the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades!"

She rolled her eyes at that while Janus got in and sat down in the driver's seat. He put the key in the ignition and his other hand on the dash. "OK, girl," he whispered to the car, "you know I love you. Give me some sugar." They both crossed their fingers and Janus turned the key. The car sputtered to life, and when it was running smoothly, Janus slid over to the passenger seat while Belinda hopped over him into the driver's seat. She revved the engine a couple of times, making sure that the engine wouldn't die, and slipped it into drive.

She was the one who drove, since she loved driving and Janus hated it. The trip was only a four hour drive, but with the car burning a gallon of gas about every fifteen miles, they were going to have to stop at least once and fill the tank. There was no trouble as they left the parking lot, even though the car would usually die the first time they would stop. This time, however, it just sputtered a bit and kept running. Once the engine got warmed up (usually about five city blocks), that would stop, and it would run like a top. It was just getting the old beastie running that was the problem. They both hoped that the car would last at least until they were out of college.

As it was for all college students, money was tight for them. Janus had gotten a scholarship and worked a part-time job to pay his living expenses, but unlike most of the other people at school, he didn't have folks at home who were helping out with his schooling. His father and older brother had been killed a little over a year after he started school, and had not spoken to his mother since their funeral. Belinda still got along with her mother, but couldn't count on any money from her and also worked part-time as an editor at the student newspaper.

They were both hoping that Janus could land a good accounting job when he finished his studies so that they could get an apartment close to the school the next year, and then when Belinda finished up school, they would both be working, and could get a car that didn't need constant babying to run.

As they pulled out onto the interstate, Janus pulled out the letter that had set this trip into motion. It was from a prominent accounting firm that wanted Janus to come to Chicago for a week-long interview/seminar. They only asked for a couple hours of his mornings, and in return they would pay for his hotel room and meals. The letter said it was part of a program they had for people who were putting themselves through school, as they made better workers. The letter had been a bolt from the blue, and Janus took a total of 30 seconds before calling the firm to agree to come up. They sent him the reservation information, and he thought it would be a Motel Six or some other place that gave you a bed and a bathroom. Belinda was the one who'd gotten the reservation letter from his mailbox, and was blown away when she saw that it was a week at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue.

When that arrived, she got very suspicious, since her parents had fallen for a lot of the mail scams where you get a free hotel room if you listen to a hard sell seminar. The last few vacations she'd taken with her parents had been to Florida, where she had to sit in a hotel meeting room until late into the night, hearing about how to turn real estate into your own personal fortune. By the time the seminar would let out, the beaches would be deserted and they would be so tired, they would just trudge up to their room and sleep for the next mandatory seminar.

Before she showed Janus the letter, she check out the firm, got all the information she could, and double checked everything. She knew that if she just showed Janus the letter, he'd be so excited about it, he wouldn't even think to look into it. Luckily, she was able to determine that it was all on the up and up within two days. From there, it was just a matter of waiting the two months until spring break.

Janus started talking about the things he wanted to do in Chicago while she drove. It was odd how they had developed a partnership over time. She was the practical one who did all the nuts and bolts stuff, and Janus did all the big overall stuff. There were times they disagreed over things, but for the most part, they worked as a team. She looked over at him, and for the first time, saw him as he would be after he got out of college. He was still dressed like a college student, but she could see him going about the role of an adult. He actually looked older to her as she drove. The slight peppering of a gray hair here and there in his dark brown hair might have added to that, but also the fact that he was going to find out about a job that would pay more than minimum wage in return for easy hours and a discount on some sort of merchandise.

They only had five days, and they both saw this as their last hurrah. When they got back, Janus would be finishing up classes and setting up job interviews and time would be hard to come by. She would be gearing up to start her Senior year, and this summer, she had decided that she wasn't going to move back to her mom's house. She hadn't broken it to them yet, but she and Janus had decided to get an apartment together. She didn't want to move back to Peoria, and they had figured that if they had their own place, they would save money over her living in the dorms and Janus having a small apartment.

They were practically living together now, with her staying at his dorm room all but a couple nights a month. She'd talked to her roommate in person about five times the entire semester, and she didn't think it would be much of change, just a different address.

Janus talked about hitting a couple of a museums after his interview sessions, but the main reason they were going for the nightlife. One night they wanted to hit Second City to see sketch improvisation comedy, another night they wanted to go to the House of Blues, and the other two nights were open for whatever popped into their heads.

Belinda, of course, wanted to spend at least one day shopping on Michigan Avenue, even though neither of them had much money for shopping. It didn't matter though. She didn't go shopping to buy things, since she was happy with what she had. She liked looking at all the things for sale, of course, but it was also fun to just go around with Janus. There was one time they were in Sharper Image store, and had to leave after a half hour because she was laughing so hard at Janus goofing on the different merchandise.

Even before they had gotten in the car, they had found a way around their only major conflict. In all the time they had known each other, they had not grown to like each other's music. Janus was hooked on blues and early 80's pop-punk rock. His cassette case was full of The Clash, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and B. B. King. Belinda, on the other hand, was heavily devoted to pop music and didn't bring a cassette case, wanting instead to listen to whatever top 40 radio station they could find on the way there. The compromise they had agreed to was that whoever was driving would be in charge of the music.

The problem was, Janus hated driving, it was only four hours, and after about two, Janus couldn't take it any more. "It's all a bunch of pre-programmed crap, designed to separate teenagers from their lunch money," he would say after about an hour, usually when a song they had heard earlier in the drive was repeated.

"I don't complain about your music being so old that most of it isn't even on CDs, do it?" she said, lightly teasing.

"Yes, you do," Janus said.

"Then you are going to have to think of some way to keep me occupied for the rest of the way into Chicago then," Belinda said, a smile on her face.

She watched as Janus looked out the window, and thought about it. There were mounds of snow beside the road in the fields that had once been huge snow drifts. They were just small, dirty mounds of ice chunks, fighting against spring. They passed a large house which had a "For Sale" sign in the yard, and she saw Janus's face light up.

"How about you tell me what a typical day will be like for you in five years," he said, "tell me about the house you are living in, what you do for a living, everything. Don't leave out any details."

"I'm no good at that," she protested.

"Too bad, because I'm not turning the radio back on. The alarm has just gone off, where are you?"

She thought for a minute and after a long pause, finally said, "OK, I live far away from here. Someplace warm, like California. The alarm has gone off at about noon, and Brad Pitt is sleeping beside me. He swept me off my feet during my senior year of college and..."

"So I guess I do get my shot at Winona Ryder. Good, I was wondering if that little dream would come true."

She looked over and frowned, "I didn't say what your life would be like, this is my life." She smiled and went on with her story, stopping only to laugh when she'd thought up something particularly outrageous. They both carried on like that until they made it to Chicago.

When they entered some of the outlying suburbs, she got nervous. Like Janus, she'd never really been around a big city. Of course, he grew up in a town of 2,000 people and she had grown up in Peoria, so there was a difference there. Chicago was different though. Peoria would barely make a decent sized suburb of Chicago, and driving in the big city traffic made her nervous. Janus knew that she didn't like that part of the trip, but they both knew that if drove, they would get lost quickly. She had at least dealt with learning to drive in a city, Janus was used to two lane roads that didn't have divider lines.

She concentrated on the traffic around her, and Janus gave navigation directions, telling her how long she had to go until their next exit, if she was clear to switch lanes, and twice, how to use a different exit to get what they wanted. By the time they got to the hotel, her arms were tired from gripping the steering wheel too tight. They drove around the block the hotel was on, looking for a place to park, but all they could find was a place in front of the hotel where cars much nicer than theirs were pulling up.

"I think we should go up there, and I'll pop in to see where we can park," Janus said. She nodded in agreement, and pulled over behind a black BMW with vanity plates that read MTLFUND. When the car in front of them left, a person who obviously worked for the hotel came over to the car before she could pull forward.

She rolled her window down and said, "Where would be a good place to park?"

The man looked to be in his mid-20's, and had a round face. He was wearing a burgundy jacket with the hotel's name engraved on the right breast pocket, and he smiled and said, "Do you have a reservation?"

As she usually did, Belinda took control of the situation. She grabbed the letter they had been sent by the hotel from Janus's visor and said, "Yes, here's our letter confirming our reservation."

He looked at the letter and said, "I'll get your car parked, just go in to the front desk, and they'll take care of you."

"I don't think anyone's taken care of me since I was 12," Belinda said before getting out.

* * *

Their first day in Chicago was spent in the hotel. They were both amazed at how nice it was. The bed was huge, and the bedspread was the first one Janus had seen in a hotel that wasn't a nightmarish configuration of discordant colors. When he flopped onto the bed, it was so comfortable, he wanted to spend the whole six days laying there on his back. The room was huge, with a large wooden armoire instead of the standard two squat chests of drawers that stood in for furniture for a hotel.

There was even a remote control that would open the armoire when the TV was turned on, and close it when it was turned off if they didn't want to get out of bed. Belinda was entranced by the bathroom, which was bigger than the one in her mom's house. It actually had the sink inside instead of outside of the bathroom in a little alcove. They spent nearly an hour in the room, just looking around, unpacking and looking out the window at Lake Michigan.

They later went downstairs and found the pool (which was bigger than the one on campus) and ate dinner in the hotel dining room, since all meals they would eat in the hotel would be charged to the room. After dinner, they went down to the lobby for people watching. Janus would make up stories about the more interesting people as they came and went. They toyed with the idea of heading out to a nightclub, but the drive had worn both of them out. Instead, they swam in the pool for a while, and then went back to the room to watch a movie on cable. By the end of it, Belinda had fallen asleep, her head resting on Janus's chest.

The next morning, Janus had to be up relatively early so that he could be picked up by a cab and driven to the accounting firm he would be interviewing with. He made it downstairs just as the cab arrived, and actually looked like someone who would be working at a accounting firm. He was in a crisp black suit with a bland white shirt and a black and white tie. His hair was under control (after Belinda has worked on it with a big bottle of hair gel), his face was clean shaven, and he felt like he was going to court. Thankfully, the interview portion was very informal, with one of the team leaders showing him around the office and running him through what most of the people on his team did on a regular day.

There was a lot of rework that Janus could already see, and he mentioned that a lot of the computer entry could be done with adjustable macro programs. The team leader told him that it was that kind of new thinking they were looking for and they were looking forward to him getting out of college and joining the team.

The rest of the morning was taken up with Janus doing some sample reports, trying to see if he could find the errors and fix them. It took him less than a half hour to find the fifty different mistakes, and when he was done, the team leader told him he should have stretched it out longer, since they didn't have anything more for him to do that day.

He was put into a cab, and made it back to the hotel by noon. When he got back to the room, Belinda was sitting in one of the easy chairs, reading a trashy romance novel by the window. Janus filled her in on his day, and she carefully put the book down so as not to lose her place. She stayed in her seat, too comfortable to move and Janus sat on the edge of the bed next to her.

"So," she said after attentively listening to every boring detail Janus wanted to fill her in on, "does that mean you have the job?"

"I don't know. It almost sounds like they've already hired me."

She frowned slightly, and Janus picked up on it immediately, "I'm not going to move here without you, you know."

"I don't know if that's such a good idea, baby," she said.

"What do you mean? I can't move until you are done with college. That's the plan."

"That's just it," she said, her green eyes looking directly into his, "it's only a plan. If this place is big enough to pay for this, and wants you so much they've practically hired you sight unseen, it might be a better decision for you to jump on it, and for me to move up when I'm done."

Janus felt odd, almost as if he felt something slipping out of his grasp. The idea that she would want him to move away was so alien to him, he really couldn't process it in his own mind. Since his father and brother had died in his sophomore year, Belinda had really been his only family. "Are you saying you want to take some time off?" he said, trying to make some sense of it all.

"No, silly," she said, getting off her chair and climbing into his lap, "I don't want you to go away. I don't like it when you have to go to work and I have to spend my night alone in the dorm. But I'm also smart enough to know that a job like this isn't going to get thrown at you every day. Think how great it would be if you got out of college and didn't have to worry about money, like you do now. Or knowing you could afford a car you don't have to adjust the choke every other morning. Or knowing that when I got out of college, we'd already have a place to call our own."

She kissed him before he could voice any more doubts, and as he felt her lips on his, and her hands running through his hair, all of his doubts melted away. She pulled back slightly, and made eye contact with him. Janus stared into her eyes, drinking in every detail. He'd done it before, thousands of times and every color was indelibly imprinted on his soul, but the color and life were never as vivid in his memory.

The were dark green around the outside of the iris, and the rest was like stacks of different green crystals radiating outward from the pupil. Her eyes seemed bigger than most people's (and in school she'd been teased for having Disney Eyes), and no matter what he did, he couldn't stop staring into them.

She pulled him close again, and their lips met. Softer this time, and it felt as if he were kissing a cloud, or a memory of her. She kissed him along his jaw line, and paused when she got to his ear, "I won't let you go, Janus. I won't ever let you go."

He held her close, returning her faint kisses with his own. They took each other's clothes off, gently, and with kisses on every inch of newly exposed skin. They made love slowly, whispering promises with each touch, making vows with each kiss. When they were done, they drew each other close, not wanting to lose the feeling of intimacy that they had shared.

They stayed like that for a time, neither wanting to move. They watched the shadows fall on their side of the building as the sun passed from the east to the west. They whispered the same things they had said before about how much they loved each other, but it wasn't something repeated. It sounded new and filled with passion as if it were the first time they had ever said the words.

They had idea how much time had passed, when Belinda finally said, "As much as I would like to stay here for the rest of my life, I am going to need to get lunch eventually."

Janus looked over at the alarm clock and then turned back to her, "I think we're moving into the dinner hour."

She frowned and slowly got out of bed. She started gathering up her clothes and said, "I know you only did that to keep my mind off of going to lunch and save some money."

"If that's how I can save money, I much prefer it to coupons."

She threw her shirt at him, smiling, "Silly."

They got dressed, slowly, still teasing each other over whatever little thing they could. They had planned on going to the Museum of Science and Industry, so they asked the concierge to hail them a cab. On the way there, they decided to grab something quick in the snack bar and then walk back to the hotel when they were done. They had looked at their Chicago map, they knew that they would be able to walk back through Hyde Park, which had a lot of restaurants.

They planned on finding a nice restaurant in that neighborhood on their way back and call it a night.

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