Merit observed the chaos that was her walk-in closet and tried her best to not despair at the sight. It was the age-old problem of "What do I wear?" paired with "I don't have anything to wear.”
And she did have a lot of clothes, it was just somewhat difficult to pick out the perfect outfit from a sea of black. Vampires sure did like black.
But tonight wasn't a night to impress other vampires or supernaturals, tonight she only wanted to impress her husband and herself. It had been a while since she and Ethan had had time to themselves, both because of being first time parents and because of the busy lives they led as Master and Sentinel, respectively.
But Lindsey had basically coerced them into a night out with her and Luc and neither of them had the foresight to say no. Jeff and Fallon had offered to babysit Elisa for the night so they could enjoy some downtime for once. She'd still keep her phone close to her. Trouble was never far from their door after all, even though the last few years had been relatively quiet in terms of supernatural problems.
Merit rummaged through clothes hangers, shoving them back and forth, until her gaze fell upon a navy blue dress with an off-shoulder neckline and pearl details on the skirt.
Ethan walked out of the bathroom with nothing but a towel slung around his hips. "Are you still picking out a dress?"
"Easy for you to say when you wear nothing but suits," she said. For emphasis, she gestured at all the very same suits hanging on the racks surrounding them.
"Are you complaining?" Ethan raised an eyebrow.
"No, just stating the facts."
He came up to her, cupped her face with his hands and drew her in for a long kiss.
"We could just stay in tonight instead," Ethan suggested after he had let go of her.
Merit took a step back and shook her head with a wide-toothed grin on her face. "Nice try, but Lindsey is not going to let that happen. It's date night."
"It was worth a try, Sentinel."
Lindsey was already waiting at the bottom of the staircase when Merit walked down. She had forgone the usual vampire black as well and dressed in a skin-tight red dress.
It was a mesmerising sight.
She turned around, gesturing at Merit. "That dress is very Duchess Catherine, suits you," Lindsey said.
"Thank you. Your dress is very..." Merit struggled for words for a second, "wow," she settled on.
Lindsey smiled brightly. "Thanks. That's exactly the reaction I was going for. Left Luc speechless when he saw me just now."
Well yes, Merit could easily believe it. Luc still had a schoolboy-like crush and Lindsey and he had been dating for years now. It was adorable. "It's that V-neckline. Really highlights your boobs."
"As it should. My boobs are one of my top three body parts."
Merit almost choked a little. She didn't want to ask, but she had to. "What are the other two?"
"Legs and ass," Lindsey replied quickly and easily.
"Good to know."
"I bet I can guess yours."
Merit didn't think she had a list at hand, but nodded regardless. "Do your worst."
"Legs, eyes, brain," Lindsey said. "Because you're a nerd like that."
She swatted her on the arm good-naturedly. "You're unbelievable."
"But am I wrong?"
"No," Merit admitted begrudgingly.
"See? It's my very special talent. Comes free with the empathy."
"You should have your own show," Merit deadpanned.
"I really should." Lindsey put on her coat. "Next time we do a girls’ night out again. Get the whole gang and Mallory and maybe your sister together... like your bridal shower, that was fun."
She nodded. "Definitely. Though Mallory's currently dealing with so many students she wishes she could clone herself."
Ever since Sorcha had released all the excessive magic into the city years ago, new sorcerers were springing up like mushrooms and basically flooding the city.
And it wasn’t only the sorcerers. Almost every species had gotten a power boost of different intensity. For them personally it had been Elisa's birth, but the shifters, too, felt a powerful change coming. Time would tell where it would lead them from here on out.
"Doesn't sound like much fun," Lindey remarked.
"It's not, I presume."
Merit was about to make a bad joke about their respective partners’ blatant disregard for punctuality; when both Ethan and Luc finally joined them.
"About time," Lindsey said to Luc, ruffling his tousled blond hair with her manicured hands.
"We're aren't late. You're just early."
"Lucas, you're such a diva," Lindsey said.
"What's your excuse?" Merit asked Ethan.
In his typical fashion, he did nothing but raise an eyebrow at her. "I'm the master vampire," he said, as if that answered everything. For him, it probably did.
"Boys," Lindsey and Merit said in unison.
They made their way to the garage and to Ethan's newest toy - a brand-new Audi in a sleek black, with every tech gadget known to humankind. Even Merit could admit that it was a very beautiful car and she still cared very little for it. But every time he got to drive it, his eyes lit up a little, and it really warmed her heart.
"Where are we going?" Ethan asked, looking back into the rear-view mirror at Luc, right as he pulled out of his parking spot in the House garage.
"Girl & The Goat. Randolph Street. They offer various kinds of meat," Luc answered. "I thought it would please Merit."
Merit laughed out loud. "I am in fact pleased with your line of reasoning, thank you."
The city was decked out in festive decorations, getting ready for Christmas. The trees were covered in a thin layer of ice and snow, sparkling like diamonds in the shine of the headlights and street lamps.
The drive to the restaurant was mercifully quick, with minimal construction zones on Lake Shore Drive.
The restaurant itself looked very homey and inviting. Most of the interior was made of wood, including the ceilings beams and the floors. The old-school black lamps emitted warm light. Every now and then a pot of flowers brought colour into the room.
Merit loved it at first sight.
Ethan quietly whistled, "Nice place." Luc nodded, taking it as the compliment it was meant to be.
A waiter brought them to their table and they let Ethan order a bottle of wine for them since he was the one with the most experience. Merit drank wine mostly because it was, well, wine.
The menu was a nice surprise.
"They have bread called 'apple of my rye'," Merit said. Word puns delighted the former English lit student in her. The others just groaned.
"Look at the last dessert," Lindsey told them. Merit grimaced at the sight of it. There were limits to her love for all things culinary.
"Seems interesting," Ethan said neutrally. Luc said nothing at all, but his face spoke volumes.
"I don't trust a dessert that includes both sweet potatoes and sour cream ice cream. It's godless," Merit declared.
"Please, you're just a coward," Lindsey retorted.
Merit pointed her fork at her. "You take that back right now."
"I dare you to eat the yummy cake later."
"How old are you two again?" Luc asked after following their verbal ping-pong match.
"Young at heart," Lindsey answered and kissed him demonstratively.
They enjoyed their food in companionable silence. Merit tried to steal some side dishes from Ethan, but was only partly successful.
Suddenly a loud scream resounded from a table in the front of the restaurant. All of their heads turned towards the noise, their hands instinctively grasping for the Katanas that were not strapped to their hips tonight.
The shout came from a woman at one of the tables by window facing the street. A cluster of people formed around her, some already leaving the restaurant to check on whatever was going on outside.
The four of them shared a collective look of resignation and a deep-drawn sigh. Couldn't even spend one quiet night out together, Merit thought to herself.
"I wanted another glass of wine," Lindsey muttered under her breath and spoke for all of them.
"I wanted to win the dessert dare," Merit told her as they all got up to see what caused the turmoil.
More and more people gathered on the sidewalk in a circle around something lying on the ground. Merit couldn't see what it was, but there tell-tale signs of magic were in the air.
Something ancient and powerful.
And there was this specific scent, something familiar, something that had burned itself into her memory.
Lemon and sugar.
Only then did she see the body of the woman on the ground.
Her ebony hair covered part of her face. Her body was dressed in a just a thin nightgown. A pool of blood had formed next to her head. Right between her shoulder blades, a set of lily-white wings arose from her skin.
It had been years since Seth had stood in front of her, with his wings extended. The woman's were smaller in size, tailored to her smaller frame, and they were missing chunks of feathers.
It was a terrible sight, the falling of an angel, so graphically and gruesomely in front of her.
Ethan was the first one of them to recover. "Somebody needs to call Catcher," he said. Luc already pulled out his phone and dialled his number.
Merit turned around and looked up. The building was three stories high. Angels were supernatural creatures, with different genetics. The fall shouldn't have harmed her this badly, even if she couldn't fly due to the damage the wings had sustained.
"Guys," Luc whispered under his breath.
She spun towards him and saw him hold a small slip of crumpled paper in his hand, he'd just picked it up from the ground. Luc straightened it and showed them the note as inconspicuously as possible.
Ask for me rits number
Three pairs of eyes landed on her, but Merit didn't have a single clue as to why the unfamiliar woman should have a note with her name on it. Snow had washed out the ink and left a dark stains, making the second word illegible.
"Have you ever seen her before?" Ethan asked.
Merit only shook her head. "I haven’t." Her face didn't ring any bells, there was no name or any memory attached to it. She was a stranger in the cold streets of Chicago, and something unspeakable had happened to her.
A plan formed in her head. They shouldn't do it, but it wouldn't leave her alone until she did. There was a connection somehow, as minuscule as it seemed, and she had to find out what it was.
“Sentinel ,” Ethan warned telepathically.
She started talking before anyone could stop her. "Wait here until Catcher arrives and inform him of what happened. Then go back home and make sure nobody blames us for anything. Maybe Juliet can find out more information about the woman."
"And what are you going to do?" Luc asked.
"Merit and I are going to investigate this right on site," Lindsey said.
Merit nodded in agreement. "There must be more clues around here somewhere. Winged girls don’t just fall from the sky out of nowhere. We will keep a low profile so the mayor won't know we're investigating anything we shouldn't. Tell Catcher to have our backs."
"Technically we shouldn't be part of any kind of supernatural investigation anymore," Ethan reminded them.
The contract the houses had signed with the city was very specific when it came to their involvement in any crime investigations. Meaning, they were not to involve themselves in any way.
But certain rules were made to be broken and this was one of them. And what the mayor didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
"Technically we aren't," Lindsey said. 'Technically' was a very broad term here, Merit thought, and they all knew it.
"We'll be quiet," she said.
The restaurant had no means to climb the roof, but the veterinary clinic next to it had a black fire escape ladder. Merit eyed it with intent.
"Ready to get dirty?" she asked.
The chilling wind whipped Merit’s hair around her face. A few snowflakes fell from the sky. Goosebumps rose all over her body and Merit wished she had more to keep her warm than her flimsy coat. Lindsey didn't fare much better.
Their evening had taken an unexpected turn for the worse and their clothing situation was not appropriate for this case.
"Let's see if we can find anything. The police will swarm the roof soon and we have to be gone by then," Lindsey said.
Merit agreed with her. Catcher couldn't stop the cavalry forever.
The roof wasn't big and it took them very little time to search the ground for any evidence. Cobblestones were spread everywhere. Here and there Merit found a single feather, but if there had been more, the wind had taken care of them.
In one spot, black burn marks covered the concrete, ashes all around it. It didn't look like a fire, but she couldn't make out the source of it.
"I've been thinking," Lindsey said.
"About what exactly?"
"The one common denominator between you and a random angel."
Merit knew exactly where her train of thought had led her. "Seth."
Lindsey nodded. "Please tell me you still have his number."
"Thankfully, I do."
Seth Tate still tried to atone for the sins he had committed, or more specifically, his twin Dominic had, and helped his daughter/niece Reagan do the same.
And he always picked up the phone when Merit had any questions about the older supernaturals. Ethan was quite old, even for vampire standards, but the messengers had existed for what seemed like an eternity—a lot of time to assemble a knowledge of many things and meet an endless stream of people.
Luckily for them, Seth answered immediately. "Merit, to what do I owe the honour of your call?"
She shared a look with Lindsey, who nodded at her encouragingly, put the call on speaker and got straight to the details. "There's a dead messenger on Randolph Street. If I sent you a picture, would you be able to recognise her?"
"Maybe." His voice sounded distant. "Show me."
She hated to have to do this and had been careful to only capture her face and nothing else when she had taken a picture earlier. She sent it to Seth and waited for an answer.
He swallowed hard on the other line of the phone. "Yes, I know her. Her name is Nahla. She was young, as far as our kind is concerned. Younger than the rest of us. Kinder than most of us too."
"You have to find out what happened to her."
Seth gave them her address as another starting point and more details about her current job and personality.
Down on the sidewalk the scene was crawling with police officers and bystanders. Merit could make out Catcher, who rapidly talked to a detective. He shot a glance towards the rooftop they were standing, urging her to hurry.
She got the hint.
She and Lindsey made sure the coast was clear, then jumped down the building on the opposite end and hastened to get away. They walked a few blocks to get away from the restaurant and hailed a cab.
"Let's hope we don't encounter any angels," Lindsey said. Merit's expression must've been one of confusion, because she continued. "My powers don't work on them, they are like blank pages waiting to be written with words. Their mental barriers are so powerful, even my psych can't breach them. Remember Tate?"
A long buried memory resurfaced somewhere in the back of her mind. "I thought it was because of the spell that had split Dominic from him?"
"No, I have found that it's a trait all angels possess. If there's a blind spot, there's a good chance we're dealing with one."
"We can use it as reverse navigation then."
"Yeah, but what if it isn't angels?"
"Then we'll find out."
The neighbourhood Nahla had lived in was a little run-down. Dogs barked at each other from open windows and at least two TVs were set to the highest volume.
Nahla's apartment was a mess. Books were strewn all over the floor. There was a different takeout container in every corner and the place smelled like a weird mixture of garbage and incense.
Based on what they knew about Nahla thus far, something didn’t add up.
"Somebody should read a book about leading a minimalist lifestyle," Lindsey whispered.
"Or general hygiene."
They moved forwards on tiptoes, not making any noises. Something was off. The rooms should be empty, Nahla had lived alone according to Seth.
Quiet breathing noises came from a behind a door. Lindsey gave her a sign and they approached the door in unison, having each other’s back. But before they could get any closer, the door opened and a bright light attacked Merit at fast speed.
Merit jumped back on instinct.
Another energy ball hit her left upper arm and left an angry red mark behind. For the first time Merit could make out their attacker. He was a young man, in his twenties maybe, with shaggy brown hair and thick glasses. And he was very obviously a sorcerer.
Another sizzling blue energy ball took shape between his palms. She reacted on instinct, grabbing Lindsey by the shoulders and pulling her down. The ball hit the wall behind them and left a huge hole.
Merit pulled two daggers from her thigh holster and handed one to Lindsey.
"You always carry so many weapons?"
"Better safe than sorry."
"Unless you develop any useful magic skills in the next five seconds, we're still fucked."
"Not helpful, Linds."
Merit crouched low on the floor, crawling behind a chair for some cover. She raised her head into the line of fire, but as soon as she saw the sorcerer, he released another energy burst.
"She was so powerful, like diamonds," the man murmured. Physically his body was here, but his mind seemed far far away. "I just wanted her wings."
Lindsey and she looked at each other. "On three," Merit said.
"One, two, THREE!"
They both aimed their daggers at the man and threw them simultaneously. Throwing stars would've been more effective, but they had to make do. Her own dagger landed in his shoulder, while Lindsey's hit his thigh.
His attacks stopped, as he crouched down to remove the daggers. They didn't waste time. Both ran towards him and before the sorcerer could regain his composure, they tackled him to the ground.
Merit held him in place and kept his wrists together so he wouldn't have another chance to throw energy balls at them. He squirmed, but she was stronger than him. Lindsey already had taken out her phone to call backup.
"Should we steal the Declaration of Independence for our next date night?" she asked, after putting her cell phone away.
"You spend too much time with Luc."
Eventually, after Catcher had arrived and taken the wayward sorcerer into the facility, they ended up in Ethan's office with a glass of his best whiskey in their hands. Their dresses had holes and burn marks in them, an unfortunate case for the recycling bin.
"His name is Shawn Cartwright. He's one of the new sorcerers, incredibly powerful, but unguided. The Order didn't care for him," Merit informed Luc and Ethan, just as Catcher had explained to her.
"He lives next door. When he found out Nahla was an angel, he took her hostage in her own apartment and tried to experiment with her powers. When she died, he opened a portal to get rid of her, but somehow she ended up at the restaurant."
"It's unbelievable," Ethan said.
"You did a great job," Luc said, his voice filled with pride.
"And the mayor will never find out," Ethan added.
Merit hummed noncommittally. Her gaze strayed out of the window, fixed on some invisible spot in the air. The alcohol burned warm in her throat.
They had found the culprits, but Nahla was still dead. It still felt like they had lost, even though she hadn't known they were playing.
Ethan clasped their hands together reassuringly.
“We can't save everybody ,” his voice told her in her head, so only she could hear. “We did what we could .”
“ know. I just wish we could've done more. She wanted to ask for our help ,” Merit responded in kind.
“The Order will have to answer for this .”
She forced a small smile on her lips, but she knew Ethan could see right through it. They both knew the truth and neither of them could change anything about it.
The Order hadn't helped Mallory when she'd struggled with her powers and they'd wash their hands of any responsibility now, too.
Nobody could win this.
As if wanting to break the somber mood, Lindsey clapped her hands. "I think it's time for a toast. Let's drink to Nahla. And to not-so-quiet date nights."
They all raised their glasses in the air.
Even if it was a hollow victory, they had brought some justice tonight and it was the best they could've done. Another sunrise was waiting right around the corner, painting the sky in flaming orange.
Just another night in Chicago coming to an end, with eternally more to follow.