It starts, as they always seem to do, at a costume party. It will end at a carnival that was not there the week before, and would not be there the week after.
Casey was standing at the edge of the party, loitering awkwardly near the refreshments table. The red solo cup made her hand feel clammy, holding onto it with a stiff grip even as the sweat collected in her palm. She felt as though that plastic cup filled with spiked punch was the only thing keeping her tethered.
She shifted. The cheap velvet of her black dress brushed against her skin, the plastic fangs in her mouth made her lips push out.
She swallowed and ran her tongue over them.
Casey was not a party person by nature. She was certainly not a "Halloween in summer party out in the woods where I don't know anyone except my annoying step-brother who ditched me as soon as we got here" kind of person.
But here she was, and Derek had the keys to the car.
It was her fault, in a way. Derek had been trying to bargain for the car, as this was her weekend with it. Under scrutiny, he'd let slip there was going to be a bonfire before senior year started on Monday. Casey had been feeling proud of herself for successfully coercing him into taking her with him in exchange for car privileges.
Not only did he have to drive, as he was the only one of them who knew where this thing even was, but now Casey was stuck here, alone, killing time while Derek had fun. She resisted the urge to check her watch again.
She drifted away from the drink table, making sure her cup was appropriately full in case anyone tried to offer her more. She felt drawn to the tree line that surrounded the clearing, something pulling her towards the woods.
She really hoped she wasn’t going to walk into somebody’s makeout session.
She really, really hoped she wasn’t going to walk into Derek’s.
As she drifted further away from the light of the bonfire and chatter of the party, she felt a calmness settle over her. It wasn’t that she was an introvert- far from it- but there was something chaotic in the nature of her peers that Casey could just never relate to. She tried to fit in, tried to let loose and have fun, break the rules and sneak out.
Yet it always felt like playacting, something she was doing more for everyone else than herself. As if the only way to live her life was the way she was expected to.
It made things easier, in a way. She always knew the expectations, always knew the rules.
She took a small sip from her own cup, the sickly sweet nature of the punch doing a fantastic job of covering the bitterness of the alcohol. It was easy to see how kids could down multiple cups of this stuff without realizing.
She felt something bump into her from behind. She spun, startled.
“Sorry! Oh, hey Casey.”
The voice belonged to a tall boy with a smooth grin she vaguely recognized from earlier in the night. He was wearing a varsity letter jacket. His costume was, apparently, a football player.
Casey smiled politely. “Hi! I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you.”
He stuck his hand out forcefully. Casey took a small step back before accepting it, gingerly shaking it. “Adam. You don’t go to school around here, do you?”
“Uh, no.” Casey scanned behind him for the only person she knew here, looking to make an escape from this conversation. “Thompson High. In London.”
Adam smiled. “Nice. I like the costume by the way.”
Casey brightened. “Thanks! I know vampires are way overdone, but I had a big Stevie Nicks phase when I was thirteen, so I already had the dress and everything.”
“Uh huh.” His eyes glazed over as they roamed over her. “Sexy.”
Her smile dimmed.
“Hey, uh, you didn’t happen to come here with anyone, did you?”
She stifled a sigh of relief. “I did, actually! You know Derek Venturi? Hockey player?”
Adam’s face twisted in disgust. “What, he your boyfriend or something?”
“No!” She cringed. “Ew, no. Step-brother, actually.”
The look on Adam’s face made her want to take it back, damn the consequences. She finally realized the slight sway of his stance. He wasn’t sober.
She felt a buzzing in her head begin to crescendo. She wasn’t either.
She risked a look around.
They were completely alone.
Casey tried taking a step back, but Adam had already snaked a hand around her wrist. He was saying something about the rest of the party, or about how beautiful she looked while she just kept a polite smile on her face, attempting to subtly extricate her hand from his grip.
Suddenly, a shadow descended over them both.
Adam dropped her hand and Casey turned. Before her was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen.
Tall and willowy, holding himself as though he wore a crown atop his head. Eyes as dark as the night sky above them, with softly swept hair to match.
He smiled at her, a slow crawl that felt almost menacing, like a wolf baring its teeth.
She let out a small gasp.
His clothing was ornate and perfectly tailored. He had all the grace and charm exuding from him that Casey would expect from a dancer.
She knew, somehow though, that this was someone who preferred to watch from the audience, catching the moments others missed.
Casey smiled back at him, tucking into herself shyly.
“Can I help you, man?” Adam’s voice jolted her from her thoughts. The newcomer tilted his head, peering down at Adam even though they must’ve been about the same height.
Casey noticed Adam shift uncomfortably.
The boy smiled. “A costume party, I see. And you come as a football star. How original.”
Casey bit her lip to hold in a laugh.
Adam’s chest puffed out. “I said,” he took a step forward, “can I help you?”
There was a moment where something passed between them, where Adam evidently noticed this was not a bear worth poking. His stance became defensive, and he stepped back.
The boy looked towards Casey. “Is he bothering you, my lady?”
Adam snorted, but Casey paid him no attention.
“Just Casey is fine. And a little, actually.”
Adam raised his voice in protest, but was cut off by a glare from the boy. She heard Adam slink away back to the bonfire, where there were plenty more tipsy girls to latch on to.
Casey let out a breath. “Thank you.” She paused. “Who are you, anyway?”
He smiled victoriously, gesturing to himself. “A prince.”
Casey giggled. “Very fitting. Your behavior has been quite princely tonight.”
“Quite?” His eyes twinkled. “I don’t usually make it a habit of rescuing damsels, I must say.”
“Oh?” Casey risked a small step forward. “Then what does bring you to occasions like these?”
He leaned towards her conspiratorially. “Excitement. Amusement.” He leaned back, smirking. “Tragedies.”
Casey hummed. “Well, those are certainly all things you find at a high school party.” For the first time, she squinted at her would be rescuer. “How old are you, exactly?”
He paused. “Millenia more than anyone in this realm.”
A laugh burst out of her. “Ugh. Me too.” She pointed at her fangs, which earned her another smile from the dark-eyed boy.
“Not all vampires are ancient, from what I understand.”
“That’s true. Everyone around me certainly makes me feel that way.” Casey wrapped her arms around herself, still holding onto her drink. She was aware that she was confessing deep insecurities to a total stranger while buzzed, but in a way it made it easier. He wasn’t someone she expected she was going to see again before she went to college. So what if he knew how old she felt at seventeen?
“You must understand them, to some extent? All vampires were once human. For us fae folk though,” he paused dramatically, “our realm is very different. Food, time, mortality. Humans are not necessarily our food source as much as they are entertainment.”
Casey nodded, playing along. “Vampires don’t have to prey on humans, though. Louis sucked the blood of rats for years.”
The boy’s smile brightened. “Ah! A fan of literature. You impress me more by the second.”
Casey blushed under the compliment.
He took a strand of her hair, twirling it gently between his fingers. “So tell me,” he asked softly, “how does it feel to be more than human?”
Casey thought back to all of her English classes, questions like these she had pondered hundreds of times when she was sick of being seen as just a silly teenage girl.
“Lonely.” She answered finally. “Frustrating.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“How’s your Greek mythology?” She ventured.
“I’ve read much about it.”
She sighed. “You know how everyone thinks of the myth of Midas as though his powers were incredible? Turning everything he touched, everyone he loved, into gold? No one seems to remember it was meant to be a tragedy.”
The boy cocked his head. “Is physical affection a necessary component of love?”
“No,” she said slowly. “Midas thought he was doing everyone a favor, that his powers were helpful, right? But all anyone he cared about wanted was him.”
It wasn’t a perfect interpretation, but the boy seemed impressed nonetheless. He rubbed his forefinger across his bottom lip, as though lost in thought. He looked back up at her. “You are fascinating, for one so young and inexperienced.”
She felt part of herself deflate. “That’s what everyone seems to think. It’s always how impressive I am, for a girl. How mature I am, for a teenager. You know?”
He smiled wryly. “I confess to not knowing the intimate nature of being a young maiden, myself.”
She felt her cheeks heat again. “Of course,” she stammered out.
“You seem keen on impressing me.”
“It’s kind of my thing,” she admitted glumly. “Keener number one. People pleaser. Neurotic extraordinaire. My classmates are absolutely hilarious.”
He gazed at her with the kind of sympathy she was used to getting from teachers when she told them she had a hard time making friends with people her own age. His expression quickly shifted into something she couldn’t read.
“You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are captivating, and brilliant, yet so gentle and quiet,” he said with finality. “It’s a shame. I can only imagine how magnificent you’d be if you’d allow yourself to be vicious.”
“Vicious?” She repeated. She huffed out a laugh. “Please. If I’m not nice enough to somebody, they call me a bitch. If I’m too nice, I get called a slut. I can’t ever win. I just have to do the best that I can with what I have.”
She got the distinct sense she was disappointing him.
“And I have a lot!” She defended herself.
“You do,” he agreed. “Yet you are weighed down by those around you. Why do you insist on muzzling yourself for them?” He stepped closer to her, so their faces were inches apart. “Don’t you understand the power you hold?”
“Power?” she repeated weakly.
He slid his fingers under her chin, stroking her skin. “Why shouldn’t they fear you?” He whispered.
The last person she wanted to envision at this moment was Derek, but she did. He had a habit of butting into spaces of hers where he was unwanted.
“Guys don’t like girls that are bitchy,” she mumbled.
The boy hissed with displeasure. “A statement I presume you were told by one such of the species. Their weakness should be your strength. Your victory should be their undoing.”
She gazed up at him, confused. The cup still clutched in her hand was warm.
"Tired of letting boys take your heart, getting nothing in return?"
Despite herself, Casey felt her eyes traveling to the direction she'd last seen Derek, arm slung around a pretty girl. She didn't like those thoughts, didn't like thinking about him at all.
The boy- the prince, she corrected herself wryly- turned her face back to his with a slender index finger pressed against her cheek.
"What if you could take theirs instead?" He crooned. "Take me into your heart, darling. Let me see the darkness you fear will keep you alone forever. I will give you the strength you need to be free from your pain."
Casey's heart swirled at the implication. Free from pain? From heartbreak? She was so tired of giving her all to people who did nothing but let her down. Still, she hesitated. Who was this if not another pretty boy making false promises, toying with her emotions?
She raised her chin defiantly. "If you are what you say you are, who you say you are, then we both know you can't lie to me. So what's the catch, your highness?"
He chuckled, placing a hand against his heart. "Ah, please, no such formalities with me, Cassandra."
Casey blinked. Had she told him that? No, he must've just assumed Casey was a nickname.
“You’ve never even told me your name.”
He looked at her severely. “Names have power, love. As do you. You would do best to not give things that belong to you away so freely.”
She bristled. “If what I have is mine, then I am free to do with it as I please.”
He inclined his head. “Correct, but we both must understand the restrictions placed on you are not all self-imposed, hmm?” He leaned in closer once more. She fought the urge to shiver. “You want what I have, don’t you, Cassandra? You want the power to walk among strangers unafraid. Among those you know.”
“I’m not afraid,” she insisted. He gave her that sympathetic look again, and she felt the pull to keep spilling all her darkest secrets to him. “Not all the time. Not consciously. It’s just-” She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath in. “It’s just one of those fears you get used to playing in the background. You know you’re supposed to be afraid of men, but it’s so exhausting.” She closed her eyes again. “And you know no matter how afraid or careful you are, nothing will save you.”
The prince’s voice was silken. “There are many kinds of heartbreak. Some take things from you. Aspects of yourself you never meant to give.”
She opened her eyes to find herself staring into the night sky, the swirls of constellations against the utter blackness of his irises. “I don’t want you taking anything from me,” she exhaled.
He raised a palm up. “Nothing taken. Only freely given. Those are the terms.”
“What do you take?” she whispered.
His brow furrowed slightly. After a long moment he answered, “your fears.”
“What will you leave behind?”
He smiled, a fearsome sight. Casey realized she had the overwhelming urge to be like him.
“Just a piece,” he said simply. “A vanguard, if you will. To ensure your safety, whatever you wish to do with it.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you want from me?”
“In exchange for power? Excitement. When that fails, I’ll take it back.”
Casey felt that crescendo in her head again. Instead of fear, this time she felt a thrill.
“A dangerous proposition,” she got out.
“You admitted it yourself, women live their lives in danger. There are benefits to being your own nightmare, I assure you.”
She hadn’t meant anything as brazen as making a statement for all women, but it was kind of true, wasn’t it? She would like to believe Adam had meant her no harm, but that was never a guarantee until the moment was over. She couldn’t speak for any other girl he had ever talked to or would ever talk to. And there were probably a dozen boys just like him at this party alone, stalking through the tree line for a girl to boost their ego.
Casey could’ve been with one such boy right now, but she understood that who stood in front of her was much more than a soft-faced boy.
Freely given. Those are the terms.
She straightened, her resolve hardening. “I want it.”
The prince smirked. “I know. How much are you willing to sacrifice?”
She hesitated. “Every boy like Adam?” she ventured.
“A noble goal. I accept. In my unending generosity, I will allow for flexibility in your hunts.”
He held a champagne flute out to her. She wondered, distantly, why she hadn’t noticed that in his hands before.
“The deal is the deal,” he said.
Cautiously, she clicked the side of her plastic cup against his glass. The resounding crack rang around the clearing, resonating in her ears, verberating down her spine like a thunderclap. She shivered.
Out of the corner of her eye, Casey saw shadows begin to dance. The prince's smile stretched into a leer, horns like antlers expanding from his head, his eyes like the fires in hell-
She blinked, and the image was gone. He was just a normal boy again.
Or close enough.
She inhaled shakily, wondering what she had just done.
"Casey!" She turned to see who the annoying voice belonged to emerging from the trees. "Come on, time to go." Derek stopped just short of her, looking quizzical. "What are you doing out here?"
Casey turned her head. The prince was nowhere to be found. She didn’t expect to see him again.
She looked back at Derek. "Stargazing?" She said lamely.
Derek briefly raised his eyes to look at the stars above them. "Oh-kay," he said slowly, still looking at her suspiciously. "Whatever you say, Space Case."
He started walking backwards, in the direction of where they’d entered the party from, spinning the car keys around his fingers. Casey hurried after him.
"Hey! Slow down!" She called. He gave no sign he'd heard her. "Derek!" She whined.
She saw the slight shake of his shoulders as he laughed, but he did slow his pace. Casey let out a huff as she caught up to him, wobbling slightly as her heels struggled to make traction against the forest floor. "What's the deal, anyway? Why are we leaving? It hasn't even been that long."
He shot another curious glance at her. She shrugged in response, confused. "Casey, we've been here for hours."
She sucked in a breath and checked her watch.
It was several minutes after midnight.
"Oh," was all she had.
After a long moment Derek, mercifully, shifted his gaze ahead of them. "Anyway, I pissed some girl off. Time to go before she starts asking about me."
"Derek! What did you do?" Casey demanded.
Derek gave a sly grin. "She was talking about how much she liked football players, so I might've made up a thing or two." He put on a serious expression. "For your information, I'm a football star from Vancouver now. Being scouted by pros and everything."
Casey frowned. “You’re literally wearing a hockey uniform.”
Derek raised his hands in defense. “Hey, I didn’t say she was a genius.”
“Did you at least try to have fun?” He asked as he opened the driver’s side door for himself.
“Yup, plenty,” she replied dismissively. She felt exhausted. She just wanted to get home and fall asleep, a classic Henry James book tucked in her hands.
Derek shook his head as he started up the engine. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to live a little, Casey.”
She relaxed into the passenger’s seat, oddly grateful to be stuck with someone annoying but familiar for the next three hours. “Don’t jinx me.” She rested her head back, closing her eyes.
She heard Derek laugh softly, and a small smile curled her lips.