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heart's a mess

Chapter Text

In the crawling, thick heat of Louisiana, nearly everything went bump in the night. In the backwater town of Mystic, there were stories of terrible, terrible things lurking in the dark, waiting to snatch up the innocent and unaware. The bayou called out to those with hearts to be swayed, singing its syrupy song through the twisted bodies of cypress trees and shifting curtains of hanging moss.

Mystic sat deep in the lush hands of Louisiana’s wetlands. It was a small town—the kind where everyone knew each other like a relative and tradition was taken a little too seriously. Superstition was king in Mystic and it bled forth into the stories people told their children at night. Be careful of the dark, they said, the Devil’s out there.

The blue and red neon sign of Blue Moody’s burned through the dark. The bar was about hundred yards off the main road, surrounded by a stretch of dirt moonlighting as a parking lot. It was a large wooden building with a wide back porch that hung over one of the bayou’s small waterways, providing an expansive view of marsh rushes and murky water. Forest encroached around the parking lot, but the trees had seemingly made a truce with the circle of dirt and allowed it to look up at the deep blue of the southern sky unimpeded.

On a warm night like this, trucks and cars were piled up almost to the road. People spilled from the interior onto the porch and music battled with the din of voices as the regulars of Blue Moody’s gathered at their favorite watering hole.

Penelope Park leaned against the wall in the very back corner, noticed by few and given wide berth by most. The back of the bar was far quieter than the front or the porch, but the wall of noise over the whole place pressed up against her. It wasn’t just voices; it was a thrum of heartbeats and hushed breaths, the simple music of human beings being alive. Penelope felt the pull in her throat and took a sip of her bourbon instead. She focused on the sound of Kaleb holding court behind the bar with his easy-going charm and quick hands slinging drinks. Or, she would have, had the sound of the front door opening not caught her attention. No, not the door, a sound underneath that. Heartbeats.

Penelope leaned forward unconsciously, her lips parting as the sound drew closer. The first person to walk through the door was a young man with curly dark hair. The next was a similarly young, tall blonde woman, who’s lip curled the second she crossed the threshold. She turned back to the door and said something, but whatever it was was lost to Penelope as her eyes fell on the woman trailing behind the blonde. She was long-legged and dark-haired, with the kind of full lips that starlets sold their souls for. She walked into the bar with a slightly nervous set to her shoulders and wary expression on her face.

The three milled in front of the door for a second before sliding into the nearest booth. Penelope felt herself leaning closer towards them. The dark-haired woman’s heartbeat thumped in her ears, drowning out everything else in Blue Moody’s. For a second, she thought she could smell her—like old paper and lit matches.

“Hey,” said a voice, startling Penelope out of her stupor. Hope ducked out from behind the bar, wiping her hands on a rag. “Are you—”

Hope froze mid-step. Penelope watched her nose twitch and head whip directly to the newcomers. Shock flitted across her face as her fingers bunched into a fist around the rag.

Penelope jerked her head towards the table, “Do you know them?”

“Uh, yeah,” Hope said. She shook her head, blinking furiously. “I know them.”

“Care to do some introductions?”

Hope followed the line of Penelope’s gaze to the dark-haired woman. “Nope,” she said. “Nuh-uh. Do not go over there.”

“Why not?” Penelope asked, swirling her bourbon. She grinned at Hope over the rim of the glass, “Worried I’ll bite her?”

“Yes, actually,” Hope snorted, but it lacked the usually punch their barbs did. She was still staring at the newcomers and for a second Penelope felt unreasonably jealous that someone else was looking at the dark-haired one. It was pointless, however— there was no use in feeling territorial over a random stranger. Still, the dark-haired woman’s heartbeat thumped like a song in Penelope’s ears.

“Are you gonna explain why you’ve gone all pointer dog on me or do I have to decipher that for myself?”

“I’m not—shut up!” Hope stuttered, though she relaxed her posture a little bit. She bit her lip, deliberating, then hucked her rag into a nearby bin. “Stay here,” Hope said, her finger an inch from Penelope’s chest. “I’ll handle this.”

Penelope held up her hands and stepped back. Hope gave her one more glare before turning and taking a deep breath. If the tense stomp she started walking over with was any indication, these weren’t any old visitors to Blue Moody’s. And that sort of information made a curious mind wonder.

Penelope let Hope ‘handle it’ for half a second before pushing off the wall and following at a meandering pace. She didn’t put herself in Hope’s back pocket, but she made a very good show of staying a few steps behind, acting like she was simply another patron at the bar. Hope could definitely smell her, but she seemed too focused on her guests to deal with Penelope’s personal brand of frustrating.

All three people looked up when Hope made it to their booth. The man’s expression lit up happily, his eyes widing and his palms flattening on the table. Penelope could hear the way his pulse picked up under his skin. The dark-haired woman smiled and shot up out of her seat with her arms open as Hope arrived, her face as bright as the sun. The blonde woman stayed seated, but she watched Hope intently with a smaller, calmer smile pulling on her lips.

“Hope!” The dark-haired woman gushed. “This place looks amazing!”

“Thanks, Josie,” Hope said, letting herself be pulled into the hug. “I honestly can’t believe you guys are here.”

Josie. Well, it definitely fit. You couldn’t have that kind of All-American sweetheart look with a name like Edith.

“We’re back, baby,” the man said, in perhaps the most awkward way possible. He stood to hug Hope too, faltered midway, and ended up half-hugging her and half-patting her on the back. “It’s, uh, it’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Landon,” Hope said and, damn! Penelope had never experienced such a skin-scraping level of awkward energy. Who were these people?

The blonde woman slid out from the booth to hug Hope. There was an uneasiness in Hope that there hadn’t been with the other two, but Penelope caught the way Hope breathed “Hey, Lizzie” into the woman’s hair. Then the two broke apart like in-laws at a wedding, quick and professional, leaving room for Landon and Josie’s grinning faces.

“We came back for Dad’s Hall of Fame induction at the high school. Figures they wait until he goes back to teaching at Tulane to give him any credit,” Josie said.

Lizzie inclined her head, “To be fair, he did spend a few years totally not doing his job.”

“Well…” Josie began, and Penelope got the sense that this was a frequently debated  subject. “We didn’t come here to talk about Dad. I mean, you probably talk to him even more than we do, Hope.”

“Just business stuff, sometimes,” Hope shrugged. “He does own a stake in the bar.”

Well, that explained who ‘Dad’ was. The only other person that Penelope knew who own stake in the bar besides Hope was Alaric Saltzman, who came in on occasion to discuss the bar and…other business with Hope. If these were his children, then that made them Lizzie and Josie Saltzman, high school friends of Hope and nearly everyone she employed. Glancing over her shoulder, Penelope caught Kaleb waving at Landon over the heads of his customers.

“Landon,” Hope said, pulling his attention back, “you came all this way for the induction?”

“Oh, yeah!” Landon nodded. “Also, I haven’t seen Raph in a while, so when Josie asked me—”

“What he’s trying to say is that Josie couldn’t resist inviting her favorite little hobbit,” Lizzie said, sinking back down into the booth with the air of a queen making a grand declaration. That got Hope’s eyes jumping between Landon and Josie, both of whom flushed deep red under the scrutiny. Penelope hunched over one of the high top tables, desperately trying to hold in a laugh at the scene playing out in front of her.

“Oh,” Hope coughed. “So, are you guys still…?”

“Sort of,” Landon said, at the same time that Josie said, “No.”

Oh, God. It was like a soap opera.

“As the only one not involved in this tragic love triangle,” Lizzie continued, waving her hand at the three of them and looking immensely bored. “I suggest we get some drinks.”

Rather than stew in their uncomfortable little three-way, Hope was quick to agree and urge everyone to the bar. Penelope turned as they passed, propping her chin on her hand and catching Josie’s eye as she brushed by. She smiled at her, delighted by the way Josie gave her a genuine, if confused, smile back. That scent, old books and matches, followed behind her as Hope ushered them forward. Hope shot a threating glance Penelope’s way, who simply shrugged and pushed off the table. Who was she to deny herself the pleasures of a front row seat to Hope’s high school drama?

Unfortunately, she didn’t get much more free entertainment, as a tide of old friends came to sweep the Saltzmans and Landon up in a wave of free drinks and laughter. Kaleb served on the house as Raph came thundering in from outside to crush Landon in a loving chokehold. MG appeared from the back room with a grin so wide it nearly split his face in two. A few others gave passing hellos and it seemed like the very heart of the bar had been picked up and dropped in center of their little group. Even Hope seemed to relax once she got on the other side of the bar with Kaleb. Penelope watched the group turn inward as they tossed around old memories and suddenly found it a lot less fun to be the objective observer. It felt like a cold reminder that despite nearly two years in Mystic, she was still very much the outsider.

Penelope finished her bourbon and slunk back into her corner. She’d stashed a bottle behind a bin earlier in the night and took no time in pouring herself another glass. It wouldn’t get her drunk, but it gave her enough of a buzz to be worth it. She studied Hope’s friends—at least, she called it ‘studying’ in her head. Really, it was brief seconds of looking at someone else before her eyes drifted back to Josie and the wonderful sculpture of the curve of her neck. Again, hunger beat in her throat. It was intense, but Penelope swallowed it down. This was no place to lose control of herself.

Four bourbons later and just past buzzed, Penelope watched Josie break away from the group. The woman waved off Landon’s concerned hand, saying, “I just need some air.”

One less bourbon and Penelope probably would have stayed in her corner. Two less and she would have cared how bad of an idea it was to given in to her temptations. Too bad Hope let her drink for free. Between one breath and the next, Penelope was at the door, following Josie Saltzman into the humid night.

Moths flitted around the lamps hanging off the side of the bar. Penelope could smell the peaty earth and the rotting wet of the trees mingled with the warm air. It would probably rain later that night and the whole world was fat with the potential of it, teetering on the heady brink like big storms did. Josie’s scent flitted around the dense smells of nature, but Penelope would have found her anyways. She was standing in the parking lot with her arms crossed, looking up at the moon where it pushed through the gathering clouds.

“So, you’re the Josie Saltzman everyone has been telling me about.”

Josie jumped at Penelope’s voice. She turned with a hand over her heart, the quick beat of it jumping in her chest.

“That’s me,” Josie said. She gave Penelope a long look—likely to decide whether or not she was a creep come to bother her. “Nice to meet you.”

Penelope kept her hands in her jacket pockets as she sauntered closer. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. I haven’t lived here in a few years. I forgot how quiet it can be.”

“It’s a loud quiet,” Penelope said, looking skyward and listening to the constant drone of cicadas, crickets, and frogs. Their combined sounds filled the night like white noise, so familiar it made a shiver run down her neck. “I like this sort of noise, though. It keeps things private, I think.”

“About as private as a dirt parking lot can be.”

“Maybe not right here,” Penelope said, nodding towards the darkened treeline. “But out there, it’s intimate. You don’t get that in a city or in town.”

A grin pulled at Josie’s lips, “Why not?”

“People are loud for no reason. At least the bugs are talking to each other.”

“You don’t seem like somebody who’d be interested in bugs.”

Penelope had to give her that. Her leather jacket and black boot combo didn’t exactly scream ‘bug enthusiast’, which was probably a good thing seeing as she wasn’t one. It was Mystic that she liked; it’s swamps and woods and insufferable resistance to leaving 1986. The bugs were part of it all, so she was willing to put up with them during her temporary layover in town. Eventually, she’d move on to someplace else. But, for now, she could enjoy Mystic’s personal brand of eerie.

“Are you?” Penelope asked, unable to keep the amusement out of her voice. “Someone interested in bugs, I mean.”

“No,” Josie laughed, a beautiful sound that made her eyes crinkle up at the corners. “Do you pull out the bug talk to charm every stranger you meet?”

Penelope grinned, “Only the pretty ones.”

“I hate to say it, but you might need some new material.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to take that into account next time I meet somebody pretty.”

Josie laughed again and Penelope’s chest constricted at the sight of her neck when she pushed her hair back. She almost said something—almost moved closer, almost lost her mind—when a thump from the direction of the bar startled them both. It was Landon, halfway out the door, who caught himself on one of the wooden poles with an embarrassed look on his face. “I’m fine,” he called to no one in particular. “I just tripped!”

Josie’s attention abandoned Penelope, turning instead to her clumsy…friend. Man boy. Pet, maybe. She shifted away, giving Penelope one last smile that distinctly lacked the same bright edge as before. She walked over to Landon, who brightened up instantly when he noticed her.

“Hey, I was just looking for you!” he said. “Lizzie is getting tired, so I was thinking we might head back to your mom’s house.”

“That’s fine,” Josie said, placing an easy hand on his shoulder. “Just let me go say goodbye to everyone.”

Penelope stared at the way Josie’s fingers brushed Landon’s neck a little, like a habit. Hm. Maybe ‘boyfriend’ was a better word.

A hot lick of jealousy rolled through her stomach and it made Penelope take a few confused steps away from the light, closer to the edge of the woods. It really wasn’t like her to get jealous over a total stranger, no matter how pretty they might be. Sure, objectively, she was a little sore having to watch such a beautiful woman walk away from her, but you couldn’t win them all. Landon and Josie didn’t seem like an item, but she could see how they might work. Stunning, smart Josie with clumsy, nice Landon looked great on paper even though the thought rolled like a ball of nails through Penelope’s head.

I’m just hungry, she thought to herself. I haven’t fed in a week.

As Josie moved to head back inside the bar, Penelope melted into the shadows of the treeline. The press of the woods around her made her feel better, or at the very least less exposed. She started running, intent on finding a deer or a hog, drinking her fill, and forgetting about whatever weird hangriness was making her feel so off-balance. The trees swallowed her up, leaving behind Blue Moody’s and everyone in it.

She was already a mile away when Josie Saltzman paused in the bar’s doorway and looked over her shoulder, disappointed to see nothing but the parking lot and the trails of fireflies.

 

****

           

Hope Mikaelson, Alpha of the Crescent Moon Pack, loved her bar during the day. She loved the way light streamed through the windows and lit up the dust motes floating in the rafters. She loved the wood-y smell of it, and the way she could walk out onto the porch and stare out over the water. The terrible, southern décor of mounted deer heads and neon signs had come with the place, but they’d become a part of everything she loved too. The bar in daylight was her place to think, to plan, to center herself.

Centering herself was going to be a very difficult task today.

Hope sat at one of the high tables by the back window, the open porch door letting in a warm breeze off the water. Paperwork was spread out before her and she stared sightlessly down at the same four lines. The night before played out in her mind, specifically the moment she had seen the three of them—Josie, Landon, and Lizzie—in her bar. Not one of them had been home in the three years since she opened the bar. She and Landon texted sometimes, and Josie was religious about checking in over video call, but it was still strange to see them in a space that was so completely hers. And, Lizzie…

Hope blinked and tried to refocus on her paperwork. She hadn’t spoken to Lizzie in three years, maybe longer. After graduation, Lizzie had kicked off in search of new horizons, and after college…well, Hope only had the offhand information Josie mentioned in their occasional calls. A stranger might as well have walked in the bar wearing Lizzie’s face.

 But she hadn’t been a stranger, had she? It was the same old Lizzie last night, shining bright as the sun. Maturity had smoothed some of her harsher edges, but that sharp intelligence was still there and Hope had found herself smiling at Lizzie’s barbs like not a day had gone by. Hindsight only made it hurt more, because the warmth in Lizzie’s eyes that had once accompanied those barbs was there, but it wasn’t there for Hope. Lizzie had barely looked at her, not said more than a few words to her, over the course of the evening. She had talked about her job consulting for a law firm in Atlanta, how much she enjoyed the freedom of it, but hadn’t once looked Hope’s way in memory of the times they’d stayed up late wondering what they might do when high school ended. Hope was just another person in a crowd of old friends.

Whenever Hope had moved away from the bar, away from Lizzie, Landon had tried to corner her and exercise his bad habit of getting into other peoples’ business. Hope dodged him with practiced grace, but she could feel his concerned eyes on her all night. He felt guilty, and a guilty Landon became a compulsive Landon trying to fix things that weren’t broken.

He had nothing to apologize for in Hope’s eyes. Things had happened the way they happened and that was how life went, for better or worse. No story to tell, no grief or regret. The End.

Hope scratched her signature on one of the papers. Obsessing over Landon, Josie, and Lizzie was a waste of time. They would be in and out of town soon enough and then she could go back to her peaceful existence in Mystic, without all the high school love triangle bullshit. Dealing with the pack and running the bar was more than enough work to keep her busy.

As if summoned by her stormy thoughts, Jed came stomping through the screen door. He was pulling a cut-off over his bare chest, complimented by jorts and bare feet—perhaps the most classic form of rushed werewolf fashion. Hope could smell the excitement rolling off of him as he crossed the bar.

“Have you been out since yesterday?” he asked, his hands coming to rest flat on her table.

“Nope,” Hope said. “What, did you catch a hog?”

“No, no hog. A scent,” Jed said. “Something else. Near the border line.”

“Which section? Penelope went out last night to feed.”

“It wasn’t Penelope. I know what she smells like,” Jed insisted. “This was toward the northern border, almost on top of it. I could only track it through that one area before I lost on the water.”

This got Hope’s attention. She leaned forward, paperwork and high school drama both forgotten. “Do you think it hit the water intentionally?” she asked. Crossing water was a good way to avoid being tracked by a werewolf. Even the best of trackers struggled to pick up a trail over water.

“I don’t know,” Jed shrugged.

“Vampire?”

“Smelled like it.”

“Where are Kaleb and Raph?”

“Raph’s down on the dock and Kaleb’s in town. He took my truck.”

“Okay, go get Raph and then go grab MG from the back room,” Hope said, nodding across the bar. “MG’s nose isn’t as good as ours, but I don’t want you guys going out there with less than three people.”

Jed’s brow furrowed, “You think it’s bad?”

“I think two vampires and a pack of werewolves are enough to deter any sane creature from entering this town. But, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

“Okay,” Jed said, pushing off the table. “What are you gonna do?”

“Call Ethan and Maya and have them come in,” Hope said. “They weren’t here last night, so maybe they caught something. Then, I’m going to talk to Penelope.”

“You rang?”

Sometime during their conversation, Penelope had materialized in the bar. Her skin glowed with the vitality of a fresh feed and she’d apparently used her blood-bolstered sun resistance to go into town and get a smoothie. She took a loud rattling sip through her straw and pulled her sunglass down her nose, “What’s up, alpha?”

“Possible visitor,” Hope said. Hungry for action, Jed excused himself to gather up the boys.

“More than we’ve already had?” Penelope asked. “Don’t tell me you have another high school flame coming to visit?”

“No,” Hope growled, her jaw tightening. Leave it to Penelope to poke a bruise. “A vampire, Jed thinks.”

“They didn’t declare themselves?”

“No, but we don’t have as strict rules about that down here. The bayou and the woods are big enough that somebody could cross through without necessarily encroaching on our territory.”

“But you wouldn’t be sending the boys out if you thought it was just somebody passing through.”

“It’s just a precaution,” Hope said, not liking how unsure she sounded to herself. “Jed lost the scent on the water and couldn’t pick it up, so we just need to check it out.”

Penelope’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s interesting,” she said. “Do you think they went into the water to feed on a hog or something?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s Mikaelson for ‘definitely not’.”

Hope snorted, “I’m not jumping to any conclusions. We would have torn you to shreds when you showed up if I was all about jumping to conclusions.”

“Hm, fair enough. I guess I owe you a thank you.”

“Save it,” Hope said. “I have no problem housing you, MG, or any other vampire who doesn’t feed on people.”

“You grew up with MG, so he doesn’t count. You just like the way I brighten up the bar.”

Hope snorted, “Sure.”

Penelope pulled herself into the chair opposite Hope and dragged her finger through the condensation on the outside of her smoothie. “Something is bothering you, though,” she said. “Has been since those three showed up last night—Ah, ah, ah, no,” Penelope held up a hand before Hope could protest. “You might be the alpha, but I’m not one of your wolves. You might as well be honest with me.”

“It’s nothing.”

“Just like how the unknown vampire in your territory is ‘nothing’?”

“I could kill you on the spot, you know that right?”

Penelope laughed and Hope found herself appreciating what it felt like to talk to somebody who didn’t have memories of why Mikaelson was such an infamous name in the South. True, sometimes Penelope’s utter lack of respect drove her up a wall, but other times, especially when the pack looked to her to lead them, it was nice to be able to threaten to kill somebody and have them know it was a joke.

“You could try,” Penelope chuckled. “And you’d probably win. But then I wouldn’t be able to get with that beautiful little brunette who ganked your boyfriend.”

At this, Hope stiffened. “Penelope, I meant what I said. Don’t go after Josie.”

“Oh,” Penelope’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that what’s got you so riled up? I thought you were pining over the Cabbage Patch Kid, but really this about Josie?”

I almost wish it was, Hope thought.

“No,” she said. “I love Josie, but not like that.”

“So why can’t I have a little fun?”

“Because I know you, and you’ll break her heart,” Hope sighed. Penelope’s expression flickered for a second and then settled into a smug smirk. For a small town, Penelope had already done some damage to the young women and men of Mystic. “I’m serious. Josie’s been through a lot with me and Landon, she doesn’t need you…doing what you do. Landon cares about her and…”

“…barely paid attention to her last night.” Penelope finished.

Helplessly, Hope threw up her hands and bit her lip. She loved Landon and she loved Josie, and when they’d gotten together after high school, things had seemed…good. But only good. As much as she knew they cared for each other, Hope had always wondered if they used each other a bit like a safety blanket away from Mystic. “They aren’t exactly together anymore, no,” Hope said finally, because she wasn’t about to give Penelope any more ammunition. “But that doesn’t mean you should butt your head in.”

“Fine,” Penelope said. “I’ll keep my devious intentions to myself.”

“Thank you.”

Outside, a warm breeze rustled the trees. The rising heat of the day was starting to creep into the bar and Hope had to unstick a few pieces of paperwork from her damp hand as she leaned back in her chair. Penelope did the same, the mischievous smirk planted on her face making her look like a cat about to knock something off a shelf.

“So, is Cabbage Patch Kid your one true love or—"

“Oh my God, Penelope!”

“What? Come on, I’m dying to know what’s got Hope Mikaelson’s tail between her legs! It’s fascinating.”

“Nope, no, we’re not doing this,” Hope said, quickly gathering up her papers and shuffling them into a rough pile. With a small burst of strength, she kicked Penelope’s chair out from underneath her and laughed out loud when Penelope’s vampire reflexes barely saved her from falling on her ass. “Come on, I need you to come into town with me.”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Penelope snorted, picking herself up from her defensive crouch. “Anybody ever tell you you’re an ass?”

“Not before they’ve told you.”

Chapter Text

Penelope stuck her feet out the window of Hope’s Jeep as they cruised down the road into town.

“Did you ride with me just to do that?” Hope asked, cutting a glance at Penelope’s dangling shoes.  “You would already be there if you ran.”

“I prefer not to engage in excess physical activity if I don’t have to, Hope.”

“You run places all the time.”

“It’s hot out.”

“Hmph,” Hope muttered.

Truthfully, Penelope didn’t mind running places, but it was genuinely hot outside and running from Blue Moody’s into town might have actually made her break a sweat. Louisiana took no prisoners in its soupy blanket of heat, even against a vampire’s ability to stay cool. Honestly, she felt worse for the wolves. At least she could still rock a leather jacket in June; they were all stuck in a fur coat whenever they went out into the woods.

“Do you think they’re going to find anything?”

Hope’s fingers drummed along the steering wheel. As far as Penelope knew, it had been a long time since an unidentified trespasser had crossed Crescent territory. Actually, the last one had been Penelope herself, when she’d been aimlessly wandering away from New Orleans. Hope and the pack had found her pretty quickly and only some very quick negotiating had stopped Jed from biting off her arm. The sheer reputation of the Crescent pack and Hope’s family was enough to keep most people away, but Penelope hadn’t taken the crash course on ‘Deadly Southern Wolf Packs to Avoid’.

 Reputation only lasted for so long, though. Penelope knew that in the years since Hope’s parents and family died, their memories were becoming a less effective deterrent. Hope’s own reputation was formidable, but one Mikaelson was not the same as a family of them, nor did Hope command the same fearful respect from the regional packs that her mother had. With most of the remaining pack elders having moved away in the aftermath, Hope’s pack was young and strong, but untested. Territories as large and plentiful as Mystic’s forests and bayou were bound to attract trouble eventually.

“I don’t know,” Hope said, after a moment. “But that’s why we have to go see Alaric.”

Eventually, the wall of trees gave way to the spattering of homes that marked the halfway point between the town center and Blue Moody’s. They gradually grew in number until both the woods and the bayou started to fall away, replaced by quaint houses that had a wealth of charm despite how badly many of them needed a paint job.

The town center came upon them quickly, the houses suddenly transforming into two-story buildings with awnings and screened porches. People congregated in the pools of shade they provided, darting through patches of sunlight to their next oasis. This part of town was old in a dignified way, but it still astounded Penelope how the only piece of outside world to make it across the town line was the Dairy Queen next to the post office. Penelope pulled her feet back inside the car—not as a gesture of respect, but simply so that she didn’t kick some poor old lady in the head as they rounded the turn onto Argent St.

Alaric Saltzman’s apartment sat over an old bookstore. Instead of parking on the curb, Hope wrestled the Jeep into the thin alleyway that ran between the bookstore and the deli next to it. She leapt out and directed Penelope toward a rickety wrought-iron staircase that ran up the side of the building. The door at the top was painted a deep red. Hope skipped the courtesy of knocking in favor of just shouldering through the door, Penelope following a lazy step behind with her hands in her pockets.

All the blinds were drawn inside of the apartment, leaving it pleasantly cool. Hope strode in with familiarity, weaving around the living room furniture to a door at the back of the space, which she threw open. Penelope, paying more attention the décor around her than Hope, crashed into the latter’s back as Hope stuttered to a halt in the doorway.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know—” Hope coughed. Over her shoulder, Penelope spotted Alaric seated at a beautiful mahogany desk, clearly having just been in conversation with none other than Josie Saltzman.

“Hey, Hope,” Josie said, not surprised in the slightest at the interruption. She looked back to her father, “Sorry, do you guys have a meeting?”

“Hope and I have a couple of things to discuss, yeah,” Alaric nodded. “But don’t go anywhere. I haven’t seen you in six months! You can’t leave your old man hanging like that.”

“Oh, cut it out,” Josie chuckled. “You haven’t seen Lizzie in just as long.”

Alaric grimaced, “No, actually, your sister stopped by this morning on her run to harass me about eating better and helping your mother fix her porch, despite the fact that she and Stefan have a repair guy scheduled for when they get back from Italy.”

 “Has she forgotten the last time you tried home improvement?”

“Apparently,” Alaric shrugged.

“I wouldn’t let you near my porch,” Hope said, walking further into the room. “Health and Safety would be on my ass in a second.”

“Jeez,” Alaric sighed. “You’re both so kind to me.”

It was all very familial and it made Penelope feel like an interloper for the second time in 24 hours. Hope was nearly as much of daughter to Alaric as his own kids were. He had been there when everything had all gone down with Hope’s family and he was there for her in the aftermath. The hefty crossbow mounted on the wall of the office was telling of just how helpful he’d been.

Penelope shifted in the doorway, just enough to catch Alaric’s eye. “Penelope,” he said, with a look of surprise. He looked back at Hope, “If you’ve brought her I guess this is more serious than a new coat of paint on the bar.”

“We’re not sure,” Hope said. “Jed caught a scent on the northern border.”

And just like that, it was all business. Alaric shifted all the papers and books from his desk and reached for a large roll of paper. He spread it out over the desk and used books and paperweights to hold down the corners. It was a map of Mystic, but instead of just roads and landmarks, it had other things noted in red marker. The boundary line of Crescent territory was drawn in along where it followed the bayou, the river, and the interstate. Penelope stepped closer to try and read some of the other scratchy notes, but Hope and Alaric were already jumping into their old routine.

“Did he give you an exact location?” Alaric asked.

“Up here, where the river feeds the bayou,” Hope pointed.

“Any identifiers?”

“None.”                                                                                                   

“Direction?”

“Can’t tell, it hit the water.”

“Ah,” Alaric huffed and stood up. “Do you think that was intentional?”

“It’s hard to tell, it’s not like someone would leave a note if they were trying to go undetected.”

“Fair enough. Let’s map out some possible trajectories…”

As the two of them went through their dog and pony show, Penelope’s attention shifted to Josie, who had taken a seat in one of Alaric’s leather desk chairs and was watching their work with interest. From the way she had settled in, she was clearly used to her father and Hope’s two-man band. Being the daughter of the local monster hunter probably came with a crash course in supernatural turf wars, but from the curious glint in her eye, Penelope got the sense that maybe Josie wasn’t quite as much of an insider as she had assumed. It almost made her feel better, not being the only one waiting on the sidelines while Hope and Alaric bonded over a map.

Every once in a while, Penelope felt Josie’s eyes land on her. The midday sunlight streamed through the office blinds and hit Josie’s eyelashes, turning them gold. Penelope bit back a smirk and tried to listen to the conversation being had over the map, but she couldn’t help the private thrill it gave her to realize Josie might be just as curious as her. There was something undeniably satisfying about being the mysterious vampire in the room, even if it was a little shallow. Actually, what the hell, it was incredibly shallow, but Penelope really couldn’t care less.

“Okay, Penelope,” Alaric said, breaking her from her thoughts. “You are probably the most up to date on vampire movements in this area. Think you could lend a hand?”

Penelope shrugged, “You get out of this town more than I do. I think this one’s all you.”

“That may be true, but I don’t chat with many vampires at Tulane,” he said. “Most vampires avoid me on account of my reputation for shooting them in the chest.”

Well, when he put it that way…

Penelope sighed and stepped up to the desk. Sometime in the past few minutes, Hope and Alaric had pulled out a larger map depicting the Southeast of the good ol’ USA.  She could immediately recognize where vampiric hotspots were circled in red, mostly around major cities.

“Alright, so I do know that the Baton Rouge clan just had a shake-up in leadership. As far as I know, they made it pretty clear how displeased they were with their former management,” she said, and then, when Hope and Alaric stared at her, continued, “aka, they killed him.”

“Is there any chance he could have escaped and come this way looking for shelter?”

“Not likely, since that was almost five months ago. He would have made it here by now and he would have known to declare himself.”

Alaric crossed his arms, “How can you be sure?”

“I can’t, but I’ve met the guy a few times,” Penelope shrugged. “He’s a city type. There’s no way he dodges a death sentence and then comes to kick it way out here in the backwoods. No offense.”

“Could you call in to the clan and confirm that?”

Penelope rocked back on her heels and ran a hand down her neck. “Look,” she said. “They won’t like that I’m asking on behalf of a pack. I can if it comes down to it, but we don’t even know if this intruder is a threat yet. I’d rather keep my cards close to my chest.”

“I guess you have a point,” Hope sighed. She threw an annoyed hand out over the map, “We’re getting all worked up over a loner who might be in another state right now.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Alaric said. “But, I agree with Penelope. We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves…”

“There’s a ‘but’ coming,” Hope said.

But,” Alaric said, “just in case, I think we should be on high alert. There’s been peace in this town for a long while, we don’t want to get complacent.”

“I think,” Josie piped up, standing from her chair and looking directly at her father, “that you are looking for any excuse to avoid your Hall of Fame induction, Dad. A rogue vampire is the perfect out.”

“Josie…”

“Dad, you deserve it. You helped a lot of kids while you worked at the school, human and not,” Josie said. “Even though I was in the dark on why you missed all of our field hockey games back then, I can appreciate what you did now. I know you don’t feel like you deserve it, but you did more for this town that anybody will ever know.”

Penelope had heard about that, too. First-hand accounts of how Alaric had stood with Hope’s family, how he had helped the new generation of werewolves who had lost a true alpha to guide them. He and Hope had protected Mystic from a few cocky vampires and wolves trying to take over the seemingly undefended territory. He wasn’t perfect, but he sure tried to be.

“And you even taught a few classes too,” Hope chimed in, chuckling when Josie slapped her arm.

“You were a good teacher, Dad.”

“When I was around,” Alaric nodded, content to take the jab. He smiled sadly at Josie and said, “You give me way too much credit, sweetheart.”

“Yeah, well…”

Sensing an uncomfortable silence coming on, Penelope clapped her hands together and turned on her heel. “Okay, so if that’s all you need from me—”

“Whoa, hang on. Are you sure that you don’t know anything else?”

“Listen, Fred, Velma,” Penelope said, looking to Alaric and Hope respectively. “Scooby needs a snack.” She waved an uninterested hand over the map, “I’m going to go down to that coffee place next door and then come back and watch you wring your hands for another hour.”

“Penelope—”

“I’ll go with her,” Josie said, suddenly. She stood and offered a small smile to Penelope. “I could use a glass of tea.”

Hope grimaced and then threw her hands up. “Fine,” she sighed. “Just make sure she comes back.”

“Which one of us are you talking to?” Penelope smirked, prancing out of the room with Hope’s murderous gaze stapled to her back. An unintentional coffee date with the one girl in town she’d been told to stay away from was too juicy of an opportunity to give up. As she led Josie towards the door, Penelope decided that maybe it wasn’t such a waste of time to have come all the way in to town after all.

A few minutes later, she sat across from Josie in the café next door. Their table was inlaid with pieces of colorful, broken pottery, the signature of the artist carved into the wood. Penelope dug into a powdery beignet while Josie was sipping on a glass of sweet tea, drawing shapes in the condensation on her glass and stealing glances at Penelope when she thought she wasn’t looking. Around them, the quaint little café bustled with low conversation and the scratchy first notes of Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’.

“So…” Josie began, her fingers shifting to tap on the different pieces of pottery in the table.  “You’re a vampire?”

“What gave it away?” Penelope asked, licking powder off her finger.

“Um,” Josie coughed, averting her eyes from the motion. “I put two and two together.”

Penelope barked out a laugh and leaned forward. “And does that scare you?” she asked, feeling a punch of nervousness in her gut as she did. Hanging around Hope, MG, and the wolves made it so easy to forget where she stood in the order of things. She was, before anything else, a predator. A creature designed to kill. Her heart didn’t beat in her chest the way Josie’s did; she was only walking in the sun because she’d leeched the life out of something else. Her time with Josie had been bought in blood.

“No, I’m not afraid of you,” Josie said.

“Why not?”

“Hope and my Dad seem to like you,” she shrugged.

“Oh, yeah?” Penelope said. “And that’s enough for you?”

“Of course,” Josie nodded. “Hope wouldn’t keep you around if she didn’t like you.”

Penelope snorted, “That’s not what she says.”

Josie laughed and twirled her red and white paper straw in her tea. Penelope watched, transfixed, as she bent down to sip from it. “Hope can be a little prickly, but she is a good friend to have,” Josie continued. “One of the best, actually.”

“She’s not too bad, I guess.”

Penelope fixated on Josie’s heartbeat, blocking out the rest of the café. It was definitely a little fast, but she didn’t seem scared. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise to her that the girl who was friends with a bunch of other supernatural creatures wasn’t afraid of her, but Penelope was still a little taken aback. Add that to the list of things that made Josie Saltzman more interesting than just about any other person in town.

“So, how old are you?” Josie asked around another sip. “Vampire-wise.”

“Hear this song?” Penelope asked, swirling a finger to ‘Stand By Me’s beat. “I was there when it was written.”

Josie’s eyes bulged, “Are you serious?”

Penelope let her sit with it for a minute before yielding. “No, but I wish I was,” she said. “This is quite a song.”

They sat quietly for a moment as the final few croons of the song played out. “Oh, darling, darling…” Penelope sang softly, beaming when Josie started to smile. The last few notes of the song were lost as the tune changed, but a light flutter still filled Penelope’s chest. “They don’t make music like this anymore.”

“You like old music?”

“Some of it. I like a lot of different music, but I spend most of my time listening to Hope and the boys’ rock and country stations. It’s not bad, but sometimes I need a break from songs about whiskey and driving down a dirt road.”

“Hope likes to pretend she doesn’t like that stuff, but I’ve seen her jamming to a few Sam Hunt songs when she thinks no one’s looking.”

“She’s really not as slick as she thinks she is,” Penelope chuckled. She balanced her chair up on its back legs and regarded Josie for a moment, rocking slowly as she did. “It was about six years ago,” she said, some sort of decision settling in her mind. “When I was turned.”

 “What hap—”

“What about you?” Penelope continued quickly. “When were you inducted into supernatural crazy town?”

“Oh,” Josie blinked. “It feels like we’ve always known, honestly. But for the longest time, everyone kept me and Lizzie in the dark. But when…when Hope’s family was…when all of that went down, things got kind of crazy. Almost all of the boys transformed for the first time a few months after that, too, so we would have figured it eventually.”

“I guess we’ve both been at this a similar amount of time, then.”

“Yeah,” Josie nodded. Her eyes dropped to the tabletop, the easy cheer draining from them. “I really hope this is just a false alarm,” she said, ripping Penelope out of their sweet tea-scented daydream. “The situation with Hope’s family was awful. Like, really awful. I just…I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“Hey,” Penelope said, dipping her head to catch Josie’s eye. She put on her cockiest grin, eyes twinkling as she said, “Nobody’s getting hurt on my watch. Especially not the prettiest girl in town.” Josie’s cheeks flushed a wonderful pink at her words and Penelope had to bite back a laugh, “I’m talking about your dad, by the way. That beard really works for him.”

“Wow. Do all vampires have such a stunning sense of humor?”

“I’ve cornered the market on that one, unfortunately.”

“What a shame,” Josie sighed. Her tea was down to just ice, melting quick in the warm sunshine streaming through the windows. “Come on,” Josie said, standing an collecting her things. “Let’s go check on them before they work themselves into a frenzy.”

 

****

 

As it happened, Hope and Alaric were unable to make any more progress. MG had called with bad news—the boys had only been able to find a part of the intruder’s trail. The traces they did pick up indicated that whoever it was was headed in Mystic’s general direction, but there was no way to tell if they’d stuck around. The lack of concrete information had Hope’s hackles up. It was a good thing Blue Moody’s was closed on Sunday nights because its owner was brooding on a bar stool and giving off enough frustrated energy that even Penelope had elected to sit on the opposite end of the room.

Penelope was passing the time playing cards with Ethan, Maya, and MG. Ethan’s elderly coonhound, Colonel, laid over their feet under the table. Kaleb and Jed were playing beer pong on the deck and their loud yells carried through the screen door.

“Knock,” Maya said, flipping a card onto their deck.

“Fuck,” Penelope groaned, laying her cards down. “How do you do that so fast?”

“Talent.”

“Alright, MG, time to pull through for our team,” Penelope turned to her partner, peeking over his shoulder to check his cards. She winced. They were terrible.

“I’m doing my best, Peez.”

“I know you are, buddy,” Penelope said, patting his shoulder. “It’s the luck of the draw.”

Ethan called ‘knock’ on his next draw and MG slumped in his seat. Colonel licked at his hand, hoping for food and letting out a disappointed huff when he found none. “It’s really not fair that you two partnered up,” MG said, morosely scratching Colonel’s head. “You probably have twin telepathy or something.”

“Nope,” Maya said. “We’re just better than you guys.”

“Look at this! Cockiness from the werewolf version of Mary Kate and Ashley,” Penelope groaned. “I can’t believe we lost to these clowns.”

“Can I be Mary Kate?” Ethan asked his sister.

Maya looked him up and down, “You don’t really look like an Ashley.”

“Nah, I didn’t think so.”

The table conversation dissolved into a discussion on the best Mary Kate and Ashley film—which was, objectively, It Takes Two—at which point Penelope decided to excuse herself for some booze. She wandered over to the bar, passing behind Hope as she did. Over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of Hope toying with a leather bracelet. It looked like ones each member of the pack wore on their wrists, save for a cord of bleached white running through the middle of it. Curious, Penelope looped around the bar, coming to stand in front of Hope.

“Whatcha got there?” Penelope asked.

In a flash, the bracelet was gone, but not so fast that Penelope didn’t catch Hope the guilt look on Hope’s face as she shoved it in her pocket. “Come on,” Penelope said. Casually, she reached back and grabbed a bottle of bourbon and two glasses. “Drinks on me if you spill.”

“It’s literally my bar.”

“Not from where I’m standing.”

“Penelope,” Hope sighed, dropping her head onto her arms. “I really don’t want to get into this right now…”

Outside, the sun had dipped below the horizon, lighting the water up in a brilliant, bloody red. Sundays at the bar always had an endless feeling to them, even when the sun was setting at nearly 8pm. Privately, it was one of Penelope’s favorite times of the week; the closest thing to true relaxation she’d experienced in a long time, welcomed into the lazy nighttime wind-down of a bunch of werewolves who spent the first half of their weekend either getting rowdily drunk or helping other people get rowdily drunk. It was like some weird wolf bonding thing where they all hung around the bar and did absolutely nothing productive. If she was going to get Hope to talk about whatever was bothering her, it would be now, while they were cocooned by the sluggish comfort of a summer sunset.

“Look, clearly something is—”

Penelope’s scheme fell apart at the seams as Raph came barging through the front door with a nervous Landon trailing him. The muscles in Raph’s jaw were jumping as he zeroed in on Hope. Penelope felt her own muscles tense at the anxious look plain in his eyes.

“Raph,” Hope said, pushing off her stool. “What’s wrong?”

At the tight sound of Hope’s voice, the rest of the pack swarmed in. Kaleb and Jed dashed in from outside, and Ethan and Maya circled around them, the whole group of them flowing together unconsciously. Penelope took a step back and shared a look with MG, who came and joined her behind the bar. Natural vampire instinct didn’t like a pack of werewolves on high alert.  

“Something’s wrong,” Raph said. “Me and Landon were coming back from fishing and I smelled something out the window of the truck.”

“The intruder?”

“Yes,” Raph nodded, staring straight at Hope, “but there were more.”

The tension in the room jumped from a spark to a forest fire. Penelope heard Colonel whine from under the table as the pack grew more agitated around Hope and Raph, alternating between pacing and stopping stock still and tense.

 “Vampires?” Kaleb asked.

“How many?” Jeb snapped.

“Vampires. Four, I think.”

The bubble of lazy Sunday comfort died an ugly death. Everyone began shouting, demanding more information from Raph. Colonel stood up and started howling at the noise and Penelope felt the sudden wave of sound pierce her ears like a knife. Jed’s eyes were flashing orange as the telltale sheen of sweat burst across his skin. He began to growl low in his throat, followed by Maya, whose eyes began burning orange too. Raph paced a tight circle under scrutiny of his packmates, growing visibly antsier with every passing second. The noise grew and grew as Colonel’s baying howl pierced the air like a siren. Eardrums screaming, Penelope was about to smash a bottle of bourbon on Jed’s head when Hope’s voice rose above them all.

Enough!

The word carried like a shockwave, quieting the room instantly. Colonel stopped howling and slunk back under the table.

“Jed, Maya, get it together,” Hope barked. “I need you focused right now.”

A change had come over Hope. She seemed to have doubled in size, like her sheer presence was filling up the whole room. Her face was as flat as a sheet of ice; as chillingly calm as it was brutal. She started to speak, a general in the place of the girl they knew, “Maya and Kaleb, you two outside right now. Do a tight sweep of this area, no further than a hundred yards off the bar.” Kaleb and Maya were gone in a second. “Jed, get the go bags. Ethan, go call your mom and tell her to be on alert. Raph, I need you with me, so Landon…”

Landon, who Penelope had honestly forgotten about in the whirlwind. Hope had clearly forgotten about him, too, because she faltered on his name. “Stay here,” she said, locking him in a heavy stare. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“You want me to stay here, alone?” Landon said, slapping a hand to his chest. “Me, the human? This is Horror Movie 101! I’m gonna get murdered!”

“You’re not going to get murdered. You know you can’t come with us.”

“Okay, but what if I could help? I could drive the truck around and look for signs of anything,” Landon said. “If there’s a threat—"

“We don’t know if this is a real threat yet.”

“You’re all acting like it’s a real threat!”

“Landon, just—!” Hope growled, taking a frustrated step towards Landon. “Stay here, please. You won’t be alone. MG and Penelope will be here.”

“Uh, no, wrong on that one,” Penelope said. Gracefully, she vaulted over the bar and came to stand beside Hope. “I’m coming with you.”

Hope shook her head, “I can’t ask you to do that.”

You’re not asking, I’m telling,” Penelope said, crossing her arms. “What are you going to do if you find them? Bark at them?”

Hope opened her mouth to answer and Penelope cut her off, “You need me. Even if it does end up in a fight, it wouldn’t hurt to have a vampire on your side.” Penelope waved a finger between herself and MG. “And I’m the better fighter of the two of us.”

“Ouch,” MG mumbled. “But true.”

“Penelope—”

“Look, Mikaelson,” Penelope said, grabbing Hope’s shoulder. She leaned in an inch, hoping to find a crack in the Alpha mask. “I live in this shitty town, too.”

Hope studied her for long moment. What she saw Penelope couldn’t begin to guess, but it was obviously enough for her to relent. She nodded, turning to MG and saying, “Alright, fine. You’re in charge until we get back.”

“You got it, boss.”

“And you,” Hope turned to Landon. “You’re going to call Alaric and tell him what’s going on. Then you’re going to call the Sheriff’s Department and have Sheriff Fell call you with any updates. And you will do all of that from this,” Hope plopped a stool from the bar in front of Landon, “stool.”

“You know I’m a grown man, right? I can follow directions.”

“Landon, I’ve known you half my life,” Hope sighed. “Sit on the goddamn stool.”

Grudgingly, Landon took the stool from Hope. “Just…be careful, okay?” he said, the rebellion slowly bleeding out of him. Gently, he wrapped his fingers around Hope’s wrist. “Seriously, I didn’t come back to town just to see you get hurt.”

A small smile flickered over Hope’s face. “We’ll be fine,” she said. Then, more gently, “Thank you.”

“Hey, what are ex-boyfriends for?”

Everyone else was already outside. From the parking lot, Penelope heard the sound of human hearts tripling in speed, doubling in size, and kicking into a frenzy as one by one the pack turned. Howls rose up into the first shadows of twilight, deep and ancient in their tones. She could hear them breathing, just beyond the door, and she was Little Red Riding Hood, in bed with wolves. Hope, nearly vibrating with energy, started running to the door, only to stop and look over her shoulder at Landon one more time.

“And Landon,” she called, her intensity doubling. Each word dripped out like lava, sizzling in the air as they fell. “Do not bring Lizzie and Josie into this.”

They shared on final look and then Hope was out the door, Penelope on her heels.

The hunt was on.

Chapter Text

The wolves moved through the woods like wraiths. Hope ran at the lead, her massive white form standing taller than even Raph’s imposing, dark build. Each wolf flashed between trees, through undergrowth, their eyes flashing in the faint moonlight. The scent drew them forward; a thick, cloying smell like tainted blood, weaving and turning back on itself.

Forwardforwardforwardforwardforward

As a wolf, the trappings of the human mind fell away. When Hope altered her steps by a fraction, Kaleb, on her left, adjusted like ocean did to the moon, followed by the rest. It was an unspoken push and pull, tingling in the air. They spoke to each other in a way they never could with words, moved by most ancient of languages. Behind them, Penelope trailed, barred from their perfect understanding by her need to think.

Bloodvampirebloodvampirebloodvampire—

The scent grew stronger, headed toward the bayou. Hope increased her speed. The vegetation around her blurred, but her path was clear. This was her territory, and she knew every inch within it.

Eventually, the woods began to fall away to the damp peat and cypress trees of the swamp. The change in terrain slowed their progress some as they bounded between patches of solid ground. The water in this section of the swamp barely reached their paws but covered most of the ground, stretching out under the raised roots of the cypress. Hope heard Penelope leap into the canopy and momentarily tracked the shadow of her movement above them before settling back into the flow of the scent.

The scent was fading the deeper the water became; with less vegetation to pick up the smell, it became a challenge of jumping between pockets of it, trying not to lose the trail. Then, a change.

Scentherescentherescentherescenthere

Maya, short and long-bodied, changed direction on the far left of the pack. Ethan moved with her, the two of them identical streaks of pale brown. The rest of the pack shifted alongside them and as they did, Hope saw a dark flash rushing toward them. Before any of them could react, the dark shape tore through the center of the group, moving at unparalleled speeds past them. Hope wheeled around, snarling as the sickly, bloody scent overwhelmed her nose. Jed was already running, Ethan and Maya falling in behind him. Kaleb and Raph followed on Hope’s heels as they all took off after the intruder.

Bloodvampirebloodvampirebloodvampire— 

The pack fell into a frenzy, baying and snapping as they tore through the woods after their prey. Hope quickly caught up to the front, keeping pace with Ethan and Maya, who were the fastest of them all.

Fan out—Hope said, as much as such a thing could be said. Raph and Jed immediately split to the left, while Kaleb and Maya went right. Hope and Ethan charged straight ahead, the grace of their earlier path abandoned in favor of flying through the undergrowth.

So focused on the single target was the pack that Hope only caught the additional scents on the air when it was too late. Three more shapes burst out from the trees, one to each group of wolves. To the left, Jed tripped up over his own paws as he tried to snap at the vampire closest to himself. His body thudded into the ground, leaving behind a crater of disturbed earth as he scrambled to his feet.

Kaleb was running close to Maya, using his larger size to shield her from their attacker as it crashed into them. Maya used a fallen tree trunk to springboard over his back and tear into the arm of the vampire trying to get its arms around Kaleb’s body. She knocked it away, only for it to fall in step with them again a second later.

The one behind Hope was grabbing for Ethan. Hope reared up on her hind legs, stopping so abruptly she dug twin divots into the ground as she bit down toward the vampire. It was a man, large and well-built. He dodged out of the way of her teeth, dealing an agonizing punch to her shoulder. Hope stumbled—even at double the man’s size, she felt the strength of his punch push her another inch into the ground. Ethan knocked him out of the way, tearing through his jacket with his claws.

The sounds of fighting echoed all around them. The vampires were working together, pushing the pack further apart. Hope lunged forward, her teeth sinking into the frigid flesh of the man’s arm. Acrid blood burst in her mouth as she tore, but the flesh didn’t give how a human’s would. To vampire tried to shake her off and she clamped down harder, given Ethan a chance to bite into his thigh. The vampire screamed, calling out a name as he roared in pain.

A second later, a force slammed into Hope’s side, sending her flying backward. Her body slammed into a tree, splintering the trunk on impact. Hope jerked to her feet in the shower of splinters, already running back towards the male vampire.

Bloodbloodbloodbloodblood

The wolves were rabid trying to hunt down their assailants, but the vampires had used the element of surprise to their advantage. They had further separated the pack from each other and, in the chaos, Hope’s control over the situation was dissolving. Raph and Jed were thrashing around each other trying to get at a particularly lithe vampire who leapt from tree to tree avoiding them. Kaleb and Maya were fair slightly better with theirs, but the first vampire, the one they had been tracking, had changed directions.

Snarling, Hope diverted her path, running head-on for the first vampire. She dove from a tangle of cypress roots, teeth bared, only to be knocked away by the one that had been chasing her and Ethan. Hope landed in a dip between trees. Above her, the two vampires circled her, looking for a weak point. Hope whirled, trying to keep them both in front of her, but they were too quick. The first, another man, dove at her head, followed by the other going for her haunches. They hit simultaneously, driving her to the ground. She barked in pain as the first’s arms tightened around her neck, all the air being choked from her.

Then, the pressure was gone. Penelope’s bourbon and sage scent drifted past her as she tackled the first vampire in a blur of speed. Hope bucked the second off of her back, turned and drove her teeth into the meaty part where his neck met his shoulder. Ethan appeared next to her, this time biting for the vampire’s hip. Hope put all of her weight on the vampire, pushing him into the ground as he writhed.

Before she could go for the kill, Penelope’s tense voice came from behind her, “Hope!”

Penelope was locked in a flurry of attacks against the other vampire. Their bodies moved almost faster than Hope could track, the close combat more of a dance than the brutality of the wolves. Regardless of grace, Penelope was struggling. Hope snarled around a mouthful of her vampire’s blood, panic rising as she heard the roars and whines of pain elsewhere in the woods. Blind with fury, Hope released her vampire and thundered towards Penelope, bulldozing into her attacker and using her massive paws to crush the man into the roots of a tree. His fingers slashed through the skin of her forelegs as they fell, but she held him down as Penelope stumbled away, a terrible gash knitting back together on her collarbone.

The man froze under Hope’s claws. He stared up at Hope, a mixture of fear and insane amusement in his eyes. “Got me,” he chuckled in an accented voice. He looked past Hope, bloody spittle dotting his shirt as he laughed, “But you missed him.”

A sickening crunch rang in Hope’s ears, followed by a keening whine. She turned and saw Ethan, front paws off the ground and back arched in a frozen moment of agony as the other male vampire held him up with one hand, while the other was buried nearly up to the elbow in the flesh of Ethan’s shoulder. He ripped it out, bringing with it a spray of blood and jagged shards of bone. Ethan fell to the ground, howling and blind with pain.

Penelope reacted first. She jumped over Ethan’s body, using her momentum to knock the other vampire flying out of the clearing. Her next step faltered as she looked down at Ethan in the dirt.

“I think that’s my cue,” said the one under Hope. Distracted as she was, he managed to wriggle out from underneath her, vanishing in a blur after his companion. Penelope made to follow him, but Hope’s bark of warning kept her in place. Almost as quickly as it had begun, the noise of fighting disappeared. Distantly, Hope heard the quiet ‘whoosh’ of the remaining two vampires escaping.

Terror for her pack sent her bounding out of the clearing.

To me—Hope called to them. Humanity was starting to bleed back into her brain, driven by the scent of her friends’ blood scattered around the woods. One by one they appeared—Jed and Kaleb limping slightly, but otherwise okay—similar fear rolling off of them in waves.

Maya ran right past Hope, ignoring even her Alpha’s presence at the pained sounds of her brother. Hope followed her back into the clearing where Penelope was crouched near Ethan, hand outstretched but not touching as he twisted, gnashing teeth and wild eyes.

“Hope,” Penelope said, as she backed away to make room for Maya. “I’m calling Alaric.”

Perimeter—Hope said. Kaleb, Jed, and Raph spread out to encircle Ethan and Maya, their nervous whining bristling the fur around Hope’s neck.

“Alaric,” Penelope said into the phone. “We need you at the bar, now. Ethan’s hurt.”

A few moments of tense conversation passed as Penelope relayed what had happened to Alaric. Hope stalked around the edge of the clearing on high alert for any signs of a second attack. The pack needed her to be strong. They needed a leader.

“Hope,” Penelope called. She was crouched by Ethan again, who had settled down to the point of labored, panting breaths. “I need you to get him to turn back. Hey,” she held up her hands when Hope growled angrily. “I know it’s gonna hurt him. I know. But I can’t move him like this, you know that. If he turns back, I can carry him.”

She was right. There was no way to get Ethan back to the bar like this. If Penelope picked him up at this size, she would risk hurting him even more. The alternative, however, was not much better; Ethan turning back would shift his already damaged bones. From the look of it, the vampire had punched straight through his collar bone and torn out most of his shoulder blade and part of his upper leg bone, leaving behind a gaping, bloody hole filled with bone fragments.

Growling, Hope stepped up to Ethan. His eyes rolled up to meet hers, glazed over with the effort of staying conscious. His ears went back against his head—an apology. Anguished, Hope bent her head in front of his.

Turnturnturnturnturn—

Ethan convulsed as the rest of the pack stepped up behind Hope, echoing the command. A long, agonized howl tore out of him as his from began to shift, bones and muscle folding in on themselves, until his howl became just the sound of a young man screaming.

Hope felt a phantom pain in herself as he thrashed in the dirt. The rest of the pack pressed closer around her as Ethan dragged himself back to his human form. As the last of transformation completed, his shoulder and upper arm were still mutilated to the point of near non-existence—just a red, white, and pink mass of torn flesh. The pain of the turn made him pass out and Penelope was quick to hoist his naked body into her arms. She folded the wounded arm over his chest as gently as she could, sending an unsure glance to Hope.

“I’ll go as fast as I can.”

With that, Penelope was gone.

Hope let out a furious howl into the night air. Around her, the pack followed suit, sending their rage and frustration to rise above the woods and to the ears of their enemies.

As Hope took off in Penelope’s wake, she watched the shadows of the woods blink past her, the taste of vampire blood on her tongue.

 

****

 

                    

Penelope had left them the go bag at the edge of the woods. Hope barely felt the blistering heat of her turn as came back to herself, blindly grabbing a familiar pair of soft shorts, a sports bra, and a cut-off while her eyes and ears focused on Blue Moody’s. The others moved just ask quickly; Maya was already inside by the time Hope got her shirt over her head.

Hope ran across the parking lot in bare feet, barely registering both a blue Camaro and dinged up green Land Rover that hadn’t been there before. She rushed inside, followed by the rest of the pack.

Penelope was near the door, Ethan’s blood staining her clothes and hands. Her eyes were hooded with seeming indifference, but worry thrummed through her posture. Her arms were crossed tightly against herself and she stepped back to let Hope pass.

Further in, Alaric had repurposed one of the longer tables as a work station. Ethan was laid out on top of it, completely unconscious as Alaric used a closed fist to dribble a green paste over his wounds. Maya clutched her brother’s uninjured hand, kneel so that she was level with his head. Landon stood next to Alaric, nervously holding several bags of supplies.

And, seated at the bar—as if the night couldn’t get any worse—were Josie and Lizzie, watching in mute shock as their father treated Ethan.

Hope moved to crouch near Maya, nervously placing a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Maya barely reacted, her eyes focused on the mess of Ethan’s shoulder. The green paste smelled of pine and damp earth, and it clung to the bloody scrapes of muscle hanging off of Ethan. His body twitched, sweat covering every inch of it, as slowly fragments of muscle fiber began to drag pieces of shattered bone back into place. It was something Hope had seen once before—the already accelerated healing of a werewolf pushed to an unnatural speed. What Alaric was doing was dangerous; the sweat beading across his forehead as he kept a steady dribble was telling enough.

“What’s happening?” whispered Maya.

“This is a mixture of mugwort and skullcap,” Alaric said, through gritted teeth. “In concentrated quantities, they increase a werewolf’s natural ability to numb pain.”

“Morphine from a real goddamn hospital would do the same thing, wouldn’t it?”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Alaric said, letting the last of the mixture fall from his fingers. “You can’t apply morphine topically. This can be applied directly to the wound so that the body no longer thinks it’s in pain.”

“Why?”

On the table, Ethan’s eyes fluttered open. His back arched as he let out a strangled moan. Alaric placed a strong hand on Ethan’s clean shoulder to hold him down, beckoning for Hope to do the same at his legs. “Ethan is in shock. The pain of fixing this injury at an accelerated pace is immense and his body is resisting it,” he said. “I needed to numb the site so that his healing would trigger.”

Ethan began to thrash like he had in the clearing. Hope put all of her strength in to holding him down and swiped an urgent hand at Alaric and Landon to get out of the way. Maya replaced Alaric and together they kept him secure as the poultice did its job.

Inch by inch, Ethan’s shoulder reformed. Over a grueling fifteen minutes, Hope watched individual strands of muscle wrap themselves around restructured bone, followed by tendons and ligaments, and finally skin. Ethan’s movement gradually declined through it all, until he once again passed out on the table, sporting a shoulder that looked like it was covered in blistering road rash, but was blessedly whole.

Alaric, who had fallen into a chair nearby, wiped a hand over his face. “It won’t work properly for a few days, maybe a week. He’s going to need time for the nerves to fully heal.”

Maya nodded, her eyes bright with unshed tears. She stood up, still keeping a hand on her brother, and opened her free arm to Alaric. “Thank you,” she said, as he stood and wrapped her in an uncertain hug. “Thank you.”

Hope released her hold on Ethan’s legs and stumbled away. Landon moved to follow her.

“Hey,” he said, as over his shoulder she caught sight of Josie and Lizzie staring at her.

Mindless fury rushed through her, replacing the last, shaky gasps of adrenaline. She grabbed him by the front of the shirt and pulled him towards the porch doors, out of sight of the front bar.

“What did I say, Landon?” she growled at him. “What did I fucking say!”

“Hope, hold on—”

“Why are they here?” Hope snapped, her voice barely above a whisper but brittle with barely-restrained anger. “I told you to keep them out of it!”

“Look, Josie called and asked where I was and I—I’m a terrible liar, Hope! You know that.” Landon said. “I told them I was at the bar and then they wanted to come hang out and I didn’t know what to say!”

“How about ‘No’? Did that ever fucking occur to you—”

“Hope,” Landon said, wrapping his hands around her wrists. His eyes searched hers, seeing straight through, even after all these years, the uncompromising fury at the surface. Gently, patiently, he pried Hope’s hands off his shirt and pulled her closer. “What happened out there?”

A strangled sound slithered out from between Hope’s teeth. She pulled her wrists free from his grasp. “Come on,” she muttered. “Since everyone is here, we might as well share with the class.”

The news went down to stunned silence. Only the Saltzmans, Landon, and MG hadn’t seen it firsthand, but their dazed reactions were shared by the pack hearing Hope recount the ambush. Everyone in the room, save for an unconscious Ethan, felt the presence of unknown attackers pushing in on the walls of the bar. It was like there were there again, in the woods, wary of every movement and sound. Raph and Jed paced along the perimeter of the room, checking the windows and doors as they went.

“Four vampires?” Alaric repeated.

“Yes, but incredibly organized.”

“We could have taken them,” Raph said.

“Ethan literally got half his arm ripped off, Raph!”

“They caught us by surprise!”

“That doesn’t mean shit!”

From the shadows, Penelope stepped forward, miraculously clean and changed out of her bloody clothes. Hope hadn’t even noticed her go upstairs. “Actually,” said Penelope. “They didn’t have as much of an upper hand as you think.” She looped around the bar and pulled a bottle of bourbon from under the counter. Casually pouring herself a glass, she continued, “I had a birds-eye view for a little while. They’re good fighters, but I think they underestimated how strong you would be. Especially Hope.” She downed the glass, grimacing, “And they weren’t expecting you to have a vampire on your side either.”

Alaric frowned. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because me and Hope almost killed one,” Penelope said, and she had a point. Without the distraction of Ethan, the vampire Hope caught would be a mangled corpse. “Pretty sure Raph and Jed came pretty close, too. The surprise is what let them get close, but I think they realized they were outgunned.”

“Why attack at all then?”

“Fuck if I know,” said Penelope. She slumped a little on the bar top. “Can we save the interrogation until tomorrow? I legitimately carried Golden Boy over there about seven miles.”

Hope looked out over the group of drawn, tired faces, dodging nervously over the Saltzman twins as she did. “Fine,” she said. “We’ll continue this tomorrow. Alaric—”

“I’ll stay,” he said, nodding his head at Ethan. “We can take shifts watching him.”

“I’ll go home with Landon,” Raph said. When Hope opened her mouth to argue, he cut her off, “Penelope is right. We nearly killed two of them. They won’t attack us weakened, not now that we know they’re coming.”

Jed seconded, “I’ll go with you.”

Raph was right; there was a low chance the vampires would attack again after nearly losing the upper hand. Most likely, they would disappear back into the woods to feed and get their strength back before trying anything. As long as the pack stayed in groups, they would reduce the risk of an individual ambush. Plus, it didn’t hurt to have somebody watching Landon and the Saltzmans.

“Alright,” Hope said. “But I want you both back here in the morning. We need a plan.”

“Understood.”

Raph and Jed set about gathering their things while Maya and Alaric retreated to Ethan. MG rushed upstairs to retrieve pillows and blankets from the storage closet. He passed them off to Maya on his way back down and then took a weary Penelope by the shoulder, leading her towards the basement, where they kept an emergency supply of bagged blood.

Hope ran an exhausted hand over her face. She leaned against the bar, eyes closed, listening to the quiet voices of her friends and the steadying thump of Ethan’s heartbeat. She heard Landon’s mumbled words to Josie and the brush of their feet as they moved toward the door under the watchful eyes of Raph and Jed. And, she heard purposeful steps coming her way, tangled up in the heady scent of honeysuckle.

Gentle fingers wrapped around her wrist. The hand tugged her away from the bar, as a voice drifted through the haze.

“Hope.”

Hope’s eyes fluttered open. Lizzie stood in front of her, blocking out the rest of the world. She pulled Hope away from the rest of the group, out onto the porch. Hope’s skin prickled in the warm night air and she shook her head, scanning the dark water and beyond for movement.

“Lizzie…”

“There is nothing out here right now,” Lizzie said. “You wouldn’t be letting anyone leave if you thought they were in danger.”

“We’re all in danger.”

“Yeah, but not right this second. Look at me.” Suddenly, Lizzie’s hands were on Hope’s jaw, battling with her as Hope tried to look anywhere but at the girl in front of her. “Hope, look at me.”

Hope, stronger by ten times than any human, caved under Lizzie’s touch. She let her head be moved and gazed up into stern blue eyes. “I can’t believe I’m being the rational one right now,” Lizzie chuckled. “It’s really not my style.”

“It is when you want it to be,” Hope said, trying not to let her eyes fall closed again at the sensation of Lizzie’s fingers dancing near her pulse.

“I guess I really can pull anything off,” Lizzie said. Hope reached up and tried to pull her hands away, but Lizzie held fast, eyebrow raised at the fact that Hope wasn’t exerting any of her real strength. “Hope, I can see what’s going on with you.”

For a moment, Hope wanted to scream with laughter. No, she thought, you really can’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be talking to me like this. The leather bracelet, retrieved from the go bag, burned in Hope’s pocket.

“I’m fine,” she said instead.

“No, you’re not.”

“Lizzie, this isn’t my first fight—”

“I know it’s not,” Lizzie sighed. Her hands dropped away and Hope sagged away from her. Lizzie looked out beyond the porch, past Hope and into the swamp. “But I remember the last one like it was yesterday—”

“Except it wasn’t yesterday,” Hope bit out. “It was years ago. Years that you haven’t been here. I’m stronger than I was, Lizzie. I can handle this.”

There was a flash of iron in Lizzie’s eyes, the kind that used to drop over her gaze when she would coil up like a snake and strike at whatever poor soul had irritated her that day. Hope knew her comment wasn’t fair. Lizzie had been away actually living her life in the past few years. She had carved a path away from Mystic Falls, unlike Hope, and thrived. She had done something Hope could never have imagined—let go of the past.

Then, to Hope’s surprise, the anger cleared from Lizzie’s eyes. “You’re right,” she said, side-stepping Hope and settling both hands on the porch railing. They were pressed shoulder to shoulder; Hope looking inward, to the bar, and Lizzie looking out at the rest of the world. “I haven’t been here. Getting away actually made me miss this backwater little town, if you’ll believe it.” Leaning forward, she continued, “But I haven’t been gone long enough to forget your massive hero complex.”

Hope snorted, “Excuse me?”

“You heard me, Mikaelson,” Lizzie said. “Hero. Complex. As in, you’re going to blame yourself for every tiny scratch on one of your packmates. You’re already blaming yourself for Ethan.”

“Ethan getting hurt was my fault, Lizzie. I didn’t have his back.”

“But you did,” Lizzie said. “You made sure he got back here in one piece and got everyone else out alive.”

Hope gripped her forearms, still splotched with the of Ethan’s blood, “He could’ve died.”

“But he didn’t. No one did.”

“Maybe today, but there’s always tomorrow,” Hope said. Nervous heat traced up her back. The sounds of the swamp and the woods multiplied, followed by the rumble of car engines miles away and the hum of Blue Moody’s neon sign. Everything was so loud; the sounds swirling into a tidal wave, rising up and up until they scraped the moon, threatening to bear down on her. “I need to keep them safe, Lizzie. I can’t—I can’t do it again. I need to keep everyone safe, I need to keep you safe—”

“Hey,” Lizzie’s hand gingerly pried Hope’s hands away from her forearms. “Breathe.”

Hope blinked, looking down to where she’d clawed long, bloody gashes into her own skin. Shakily, she lifted her fingers away, and seconds later the skin began to close, fusing together into thin white lines that faded and disappeared. Lizzie’s fingers tangled with her bloody ones, pulling Hope’s hand in between the two of them.

Gently, Lizzie murmured, “It’s okay to be afraid, Hope. It’s just you and me out here.”

“Why are you being so nice to me?” Hope asked, letting out a shaky breath.

Lizzie's fingers tightened against hers. “With the amount of therapy I’ve paid for, I had better be able to help someone avoid a panic attack,” she said. “And…I remember the last time you let your emotions get the best of you.”

Hope’s heart skipped a beat. Hot shame washed over her, but Lizzie just tightened her grip, watching Hope carefully. The memory of that night was burned into Hope’s mind like a brand; a constant reminder of why being this close to Lizzie Saltzman was a bad idea.

                    

***

 

Her parents’ funeral had been three weeks before. School was out and Hope had been running; running away from the responsibility thrown on her shoulders. The death of so many wolves had triggered the younger generations’ first transformations and she had been left to guide a bunch of teenagers through months of painful, brutal turns before they got a handle on themselves.

Barely any time to grieve, let alone think. So, she ran—through the woods, across the swamp, and away from every reminder of what had happened.

Her footsteps had brought her to the Caroline Forbes’ backyard. She could smell smoke and, wreathed within it, honeysuckle. A small fire burned in a metal fire pit near the shed. One person sat hunkered next to it in a wicker chair.

Slowly, Hope stepped out of the woods, doing her very best to give herself away. Lizzie Saltzman looked up, tensing for a moment before she recognized who it was.

“Hope Mikaelson,” Lizzie drawled. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Hope trotted across the grass. A full moon lit her path, but she tread carefully anyways.

Lizzie stayed in her seat. “Josie’s not here,” she said. “Neither is my dad.”

Hope stepped around the fire, her large body dwarfing Lizzie. As she looked at the other girl, a strange sensation rose in her chest. It expanded like a balloon, filling up until she felt like it would burst and then flattening out. It wasn’t calm—Hope hadn’t felt truly calm in weeks—but it was a peaceful sort of realization. She looked up at the moon and remembered, years ago, her mother telling her a story.

“Wolves are very loyal creatures,” Hayley had said. “We love like the world that surrounds us. Strong like the trees, deep like their roots, and forever, like the moon. We love our pack and we love our family. But, for us, there’s one more kind of love. We only get one. You’ll know it when you feel it, sweetheart. You’ll just know.”

One person, her mother had said. The single person on Earth who the wolf inside Hope would decide it couldn’t live without. Back then, Hope had thought she’d known who it would be. Now, she knew she’d been wrong.

“Hey, Mikaelson, is everything okay?” Lizzie asked. She looked so small and so tired, wrapped in a knit blanket with mismatched socks on her feet. The fighting hadn’t been easy on her either. Still, Lizzie rose from her seat, concern plain on her face.

Hope took a confused step back. She shut her eyes and saw her father, his keen eyes always falling on Caroline Forbes’ house when they melted through the dark of the woods. Her mother’s soft smile when her Uncle Elijah would offer her a flower he found while walking in the woods, or open a door for her to walk through. The rending, inhuman scream that had ripped out of Elijah’s jaws when her mother had fallen, her throat torn open by invaders from another pack.

That scream echoed in Hope’s head as she whined, lurching backwards another step. Her mother’s blood spilled all over again, followed by Elijah’s when he threw himself at her attackers, slaughtering them all before falling himself. Her father, not long after, falling to the river of blood.

The stench of their blood was so sickly sweet; the overwhelming silence too much to bear without the voices of her family to fill her mind. It was too much. Too much.

Something brushed Hope’s neck and, in her blind grief, she spun and snapped at it, tasting fresh blood on her teeth. Someone screamed, real and human, and the memories of her family shattered. Hope’s eyes burst open to the sight of Lizzie clutching her arm. Blood streamed through her fingers as she stumbled backward, face white as a ghost.

Lizzie stared at her for a moment, speechless, before turning and running into the house, the sickening scent of fear and confusion rolling off her in waves. Hope heard Caroline rush into the kitchen, the muffled shouts as she and Stefan saw the wound. She skittered back, shaking her large head back and forth, nauseous over the horrifying taste of Lizzie’s blood.

Guilt-stricken, Hope did the only thing she could think of—she ran.

 

***

 

“Hey,” Lizzie said, her free hand coming to rest on Hope’s wrist. “I forgave you for that a long time ago.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

“And yet, I did,” Lizzie said. She released her grip on Hope’s fingers and guided her hand to the spot on her bicep where three uneven scars still lay. “I’ve never blamed you for these. Just like your pack doesn’t blame you for today.”

Hope sighed, feeling the ridges of Lizzie’s scars under her palm. Lizzie watched her hopefully and Hope wanted so much just to give in to her, to what her whole body was asking her to do. To admit she was afraid. To admit she couldn’t bear the thought of losing another part of her family. To tell Lizzie the truth.

But that wasn’t an option, not after the promise she had made to herself. Lizzie Saltzman was safest at a distance, no matter how much Hope’s selfish heart begged to pull her close.

“If I start forgiving my mistakes, I’ll only make more,” Hope said. She pulled her hand away from Lizzie’s skin, the very core of her being cursing herself for doing so. “This is my responsibility.”

Lizzie straightened up, frustration clear on her face. “That little martyr complex you have stopped being cute five years ago. It isn’t going to keep anybody safe, Hope,” she growled. “It’s just gonna get you killed.”

“If that’s what has to happen, so be it.”

“You—ugh!” Lizzie slapped her hands against the railing. “You dying is not going to solve anyone’s problems, you idiot.” She shook her head, “Please resist whatever genetic defect makes werewolves so goddamn fatalistic and get your shit together.”

“I will,” Hope said. “I promise you I will figure this out.”

Lizzie pointed a menacing finger at her, “Not by dying.”

“Not if I can avoid it.”

“Fine,” Lizzie sighed. “I guess that’s the best I can hope for with you.”

Lizzie turned back toward the bar and watched Josie and Landon mill around the front door. It was late, so late the grey light of dawn was pushing at the edge of the treetops.

“Go home, Lizzie,” Hope said. “Raph and Jed will keep an eye on you guys.”

“We don’t need protecting.”

“Maybe not, but you’re getting it anyways.”

“Does the bossy Alpha thing work? Do you order protection on every girl who talks you down from the ledge or is that just me? I’m sure some people are into that sort of thing.”

“Lizzie,” Hope groaned. “Go home. Get some sleep.”

Lizzie laughed quietly, patting Hope’s shoulder once before heading back into the bar, “Goodnight, Hope.”

Well past the point of exhaustion, Hope sagged against the railing and watched her leave. Her nerves felt like they were buzzing in each place Lizzie had touched. She listened to the twins’ car and Raph’s truck start up, then the crunch of gravel under their tires, and tried to pull her focus back to the current situation. Ethan was still laying on a table, comforted by blankets and pillows, but still unconscious. Alaric and Maya sat in chairs beside him, talking quietly.

Hope stepped back inside the bar. “I’ll be down in a second,” she told Alaric and Maya, heading up the steps to the smaller second floor. There were only two rooms on the second floor, her’s and Penelope’s. MG slept in the basement where it was harder for them to hear him playing Xbox late at night.

Hope’s room had one wide window that looked out over the water and a sloped ceiling from the slant of the roof. It was surprisingly spacious; there was just a bed, a dresser, and a standing easel in one corner. A few of her own paintings hung on the walls, mixed in with pictures of her friends and family. The only other decoration was a dreamcatcher her mother had given her hanging over her bed.

There was nothing Hope wanted to do more than fall into bed and sleep off the mounting migraine growing behind her eyes. Maya and Alaric needed rest too, though, and there would be no way that Hope would let them sit up watching Ethan when he was her responsibility. She could sleep in the morning, hopefully after Ethan’s condition had improved.

Quickly, Hope pulled on an oversized Tulane sweatshirt Alaric had given her as a gift and marched back out into the hallway. As she closed her door behind her, Penelope appeared from the staircase. The hallway was tiny, so Hope was forced under the microscope of Penelope’s curious stare.

“You alright?” Hope asked, leaning back against her door.

Penelope nodded, “I just blasted through three blood bags, so, yeah, I’m good.”

“I, uh…” Hope started, absolutely abandoned by her ability to express gratitude. “You didn’t have to—it was dangerous. I, um, appreciate—”

“Oh my God, Mikaelson, please don’t give yourself a stroke,” Penelope chuckled. “You don’t need to thank me for the help. I’d rather not have any of you die.”

“Yeah, but...thank you,” Hope said. “For real. If you weren’t there for Ethan, that could have been—”

“Guess it’s a good thing I was there then, huh?” Penelope chuckled again, but this time Hope could see the strain behind it. Penelope and Ethan weren’t especially close, but the attack had rocked all of them. Seeing the normally unflappable Penelope shaken only solidified Hope’s resolution to fix this problem before it got any worse. “At least I got to play the hero. I get that’s usually your job.”

“Not tonight.”

“Yeah, well, don’t beat yourself up over it. Whoever those guys were had to have some serious coordination to surprise all of us.”

Hope frowned. “They had a plan. We’re gonna have to talk about that.”

“In the morning, right?” Penelope yawned. “I haven’t been this tired in, like, a decade.”

“Yeah, in the morning.”

Hope turned to go back downstairs, only to be caught by Penelope’s parting words.

“You should rest, too, Hope,” she said. “This might be the last night you’ll get the chance.”

As Penelope disappeared into the darkness of her room, Hope couldn’t help but think that she was right.