She should feel guiltier, she thinks.
Life in the Quarter has been…eventful to say the least since the first of the sire lines had broken, what with Niklaus out for everyone’s blood, an ancient society of vampires out for his, and all the witches and werewolves taking front row seats. Business per usual, really.
Another drink won’t hurt anything.
The way she sees it, she’s still a few centuries behind the rest of her siblings, as far as regrets and hangovers and bad decisions are concerned. Besides, her brothers will be fine. Despite their mutually destructive tendencies, they’ve managed to make it this far without her help; they can handle themselves for one more night.
Famous last words, of course.
Still, can’t blame a girl for having other things on her mind at the moment. Things of the non-prophetic variety. Things that aren’t threatening to bring about the ruination of her family, or make a mockery of their always and forever.
You see, there’s a guy over in the corner booth who just so happens to be her type (tall, terribly easy on the eyes), and he’s been checking her out long enough to give her ideas.
Niklaus had not been terribly accommodating the last time she tried to bring company home, but her brother is otherwise engaged for the evening (he’d shouted something about so-called friends and unforgivable acts of betrayal before storming out of the compound, presumably on his way to Marcel’s). And wasn’t there a song she’d recently found amongst her sister’s collection of vinyls, from some not-so-distant decade ago, about how girls just want to have fun now and then?
This bar’s current music of choice – one of those “Disney princess power ballads,” as Rebekah had called them – is not exactly her idea of getting started, but give it another shot of tequila or two and then maybe –
“Well if it isn’t Freya Mikaelson.”
Her good mood flattens considerably at the sound of her name. The familiar, swaggering lilt to the way he’s said it. The overpowering stench of his truly bad cologne.
Well if isn’t the last person alive – or dead, as the case may be – she’d like to play nice with tonight.
She sighs. She turns.
“Lucien,” she greets him tonelessly. “Strange, seeing you here.” She tilts her head, pretends to look thoughtful. “Isn’t a brothel more your style?”
He smirks (always smirking, with her) and leans into her space, recklessly so, as if she hadn’t just snapped his neck two days ago and used him as her magical punching bag. “You wound me, darling. I'll have you know that I’m far more flexible than you give me credit for.”
He seems to mistake her frown of disgust for an invitation, helping himself to the barstool beside her while she resists the urge to sidle away from him. His forearm grazes hers as he signals imperiously at the bartender, not at all unlike how one might summon for a servant.
Trust any offspring of Niklaus’ not to know how to wait his turn.
The bartender, looking understandably annoyed with his mouth set deep in a scowl, meets Lucien’s eye for a brief instant.
“Two vodka tonics,” Lucien drawls to him, “if you may.”
Freya tries to look embarrassed on his behalf, but the bartender’s expression slackens inexplicably, and then he’s abruptly abandoning the pint he’d been pulling for another patron to retrieve twin tumblers from below the counter, pupils blown wide, his movements oddly trance-like.
No. Lucien didn’t.
Oh but of course he did, Freya realizes with a mixture of alarm and something like exasperation as she turns to find him looking inordinately pleased with himself.
“Not planning on drinking alone, were we?” he inquires, feigning innocence and doing an altogether horrible job of it.
“Certainly not with you,” sighs Freya, and she thinks regretfully of that cute guy in the corner booth. By now, he’ll have taken one look at her present company – this thousand-year-old playboy, with his fancy suit and his self-entitlement, the hair he’d likely spent hours on before leaving the penthouse – and decided to cut his losses, perhaps move on to some other blonde at the bar.
So much for having that little bit of fun tonight.
“So you’d still prefer to have me knocked out and tied to a chair, then,” Lucien muses, savoring the idea with a satisfaction that she finds unsettling, and his gaze darkens a shade as he slides an elbow toward hers on the countertop. “All you had to do was ask, love.”
“I’d prefer you to be not talking,” she corrects him, with an indulgent smile that he is only too happy to return. “If you need to be unconscious in order for that to happen, well, then I consider that an extra bonus.”
Her disdain does little to dissuade him from inching deliberately closer, a glint of the hunter in him beginning to show through his easy grin, those darkly hooded eyes, and she takes it for the challenge it is, refusing to back away from him.
Lucien is the first to break contact when the bartender makes his approach. The man gravely sets two glasses in front of them before standing aside, staring vacantly ahead at some point past the shoulder Lucien’s all but pressed into hers.
“Do me a favor and spice one of those up a bit, would you?” Lucien asks, gesturing lazily at the drink nearest him. “But please spare the lady’s, if you don’t mind.”
Freya watches with badly concealed disgust as the bartender reaches for the knife he’d used for their lime wedges and dutifully slices up his forefinger next, dribbling the blood into Lucien’s vodka tonic as casually as he might have a splash of grenadine.
“You, sir, have just received a very handsome tip,” Lucien informs him magnanimously, with an ingratiating wink for Freya’s benefit, and the man blankly nods his agreement before returning to his post empty-handed.
She sees the compulsion fall from his face like a mask midway through pouring a second beer, and then his subsequent horror at the sight of his palm, the trail of his blood all over the glassware.
“I suppose you don’t care how unsanitary, not to mention repulsive, that little party trick of yours was,” Freya comments drily, watching the bartender fumble around for a dish towel to cover the mess he’d made, then hastily gather the ruined drinks and disappear through a set of double doors.
“Oh, on the contrary, love.” Lucien tips his drink toward her, then tosses half of it back with one long swallow. His tongue drags over the corners of his mouth before running along the sharpest edge of his smile, clearly relishing the hint of blood there.
She looks firmly elsewhere.
“As it so happens,” continues Lucien, “I rather enjoy bartenders. They’re never sober on the job, you see. I could practically smell the bourbon on this one, and I can certainly taste it in his blood right now. It’s like getting two drinks for the price of – well.” He smirks. “None, actually.”
Rolling her eyes, Freya wonders whether all her brother’s sired kin are this willfully juvenile. “Are you saying you’re a cheap date?”
Not to be outdone, Lucien’s smile takes a wicked turn. “Are you saying you’d like to find out?”
“I wouldn’t flatter yourself.” If she had known this would be the side of Lucien (delusional, somehow smarmier than ever) that she unleashed into the world after failing to stop Davina’s unlinking spell, she would have sought to incapacitate him in a more permanent fashion.
Briefly, Freya entertains the idea that he’s only killing time until his real date arrives – something young, silly and with questionable taste in men – but then he’s sliding the untouched vodka tonic over to her.
He actually has the audacity to look put out when she makes no move to accept it from him.
“Not your cup of tea, so to speak, I take it? Let me guess.” Lucien leans slightly back to allow room for his scrutiny, gaze crawling up and down her profile, shamelessly appraising. “What are you hiding beneath all the black and leather and that charmingly prickly demeanor of yours, I wonder.”
She raises a brow while he tilts his chin in mocking contemplation. “Ah, I’ve got it. You’re secretly more the sorority type, aren’t you? Sickeningly sweet – and pink, preferably – with bits of fruit and one of those miniature umbrellas on top?”
He’s far too smug for his own good.
Irritation thinning her lips together, Freya mutters an incantation, one that she’s always found useful when trapped in close quarters with unwelcome guests – digitorum igni, digitorum igni –
Fire pools to her fingertips as she closes a hand over his on the glass, skin meeting skin with an audible sizzle of flesh. Lucien hisses and shifts in his seat, looking genuinely startled for half a second before relinquishing her drink along with another damn smile of his, this one somehow even more crooked than the last.
“There’s a good girl.” He flexes his fingers, turning his hand over and idly examining the state of his knuckles as the burns there slowly begin to heal. “It appears I’m not the only one with a few tricks up my sleeve.”
Saying a silent farewell to the nice, normal night that is clearly not in the cards for her, she takes her first sip and suppresses a grimace. She never had been a fan of vodka, and in the time she’s spent with her brothers her tastes have changed, for better or worse, with a greater appreciation for Cabernets and brandy, the finer points of Scotch. Not so much blood, of course, but certainly not anything that resembles hand sanitizer either.
“Good girls don’t spend their evenings in bars with vampires,” she points out resignedly, forcing down the rest of the vodka, and at least it feels more pleasant than it tastes, liquid heat from throat to belly that finally starts to loosen up something inside her. Excellent. Maybe her present company will feel just a touch less intolerable now.
“Likely not,” Lucien agrees. “So what kind of girl does that make you, Freya Mikaelson?”
“Remember that time I killed you for getting too chatty?” she asks in a conversational tone, glancing coyly up through a curtain of lashes at him. “That’s the kind of girl I am.”
“My kind of girl, then,” he surmises, looking like nothing short of the devil himself with that rakish half-grin he’s giving her now, the dangerous glimmer to his gaze as it settles, warm and honey-like, over her own.
She schools her expression into one of distaste before turning stonily away from him.
“Oh, love.” He chuckles and finishes off the rest of his glass, his tongue slipping out to casually toy with the tip of his straw. His voice drops to something low and terribly pitying. “Don’t tell me you’re still holding out hope that Romeo over there is on the lookout for a dance partner.”
“Why, do you think you’re more his type?” Freya wonders, snapping back around to engage him with an innocent, wide-eyed stare. “Because I’d be more than happy for him to take you off my hands for a while.”
“Your hands are regrettably occupied at the moment,” he observes, smoothly reverting back to his ruse of ever-the-gentleman as he relieves her of what’s left of her drink. The bartender has reemerged with his wounds thoroughly bandaged by now, and Lucien, flagging him down with a careless flick of a finger, indicates their two empty glasses.
“Make it bourbon this time,” Freya interjects when the man looks to him expectantly, and she doesn’t miss the way Lucien’s brow arches as she goes on, “Four Roses. Neat, please.”
“I’ll have mine on the rocks, thank you,” is all that Lucien has to add, and the bartender jerks a nod at them before reaching gingerly for the top shelf with his uninjured hand.
“What, not going to ask for a little something extra?” she can’t resist goading him, batting her lashes when he favors her with a mildly withering side-eye. “At the very least I’d have thought you’d compel the guy to freeze some of his blood in an ice tray for you.”
“Are you quite finished?”
But the vodka, dreadful as it was, is finally starting to work wonders with the tequila she’d had, filling her mind and limbs with a blissful weightlessness, and maybe there’s room yet to have some fun here after all. Lucien had come to her under some pretense of camaraderie, and she’s curious to see where he might have drawn the line between friend and not-so-much.
“I mean, really, what’s stopping you from turning this place into your own private bar and blood bank?”
Lucien releases a long-suffering sigh. “You mean aside from the reputation I have to uphold with the locals? I’m a vampire, Freya, not a barbarian. I know when to exercise a certain amount of restraint, and when…” He pauses, savoring his next words with a rather suggestive smirk, “…a little less control is in order.”
“Right,” she muses. “Like compelling your way out of paying for something. Or eating your realtor, perhaps?”
“A routine business transaction,” he argues, somewhat stiffly, and the fact that she has him feeling defensive pleases her more than it might have under different, slightly more sober circumstances. “Can’t be blamed if she didn’t read the fine print on dealing with a—”
“Vicious, murdering psychopath?” Freya supplies with a perfectly straight face, and he actually deigns to roll his eyes at her. “Or would you prefer something a little more general audience-friendly? Let me think…”
Brightening in a way that has him looking reasonably circumspect, she retrieves her phone and angles the camera to capture his scowl. “I hope you’re not already on one of those dating apps.” What had Rebekah called it? Kindle? Something flammable, at any rate. “I’ve just thought of the perfect bio line for you.”
It’s her turn to size him up, while making a show of typing furiously away at the touch screen. Apps begin to pop open at random – an unused email account, something called a Facebook that Rebekah had installed with no clear functional purpose Freya’s been able to work out yet – but her put-upon efforts despite the technological setbacks still seem to have their desired effect on him.
There’s a near-imperceptible clench to his jaw, and she wonders how much it’s aggrieving him to refrain from breaking her phone, or the hand that’s holding it.
“Lucien Castle,” she begins formally, though she can’t resist the saucy wink she sends his way, “philanthropist and business tycoon. Ages like fine wine, especially if said wine is older than your great-great-grandfather.”
“Oh how you flatter me,” says Lucien, the words as dry as Elijah’s favorite Merlot. “Do please carry on.”
“Hobbies include sarcasm, holding grudges, shifting loyalties and pinching pennies wherever he can.” She pauses, resumes. “Also likes to be tied up on occasion. Would love to have you for breakfast, literally that is, followed by all your girlfriends too.” With a triumphant flourish, she powers off and pockets her phone.
“Darling, with that sense of humor, it’s no wonder your Aunt Dahlia kept you asleep for the better part of each century.”
“I suppose I’ll take that as a no, then,” Freya shrugs, unfazed, and she cranes her neck to monitor the bartender’s halting one-handed progress. If Lucien’s so intent on monopolizing the rest of her evening, with his mercurial moods and his hidden agendas, she needs that next drink as of twenty minutes ago.
“You seem to have mistaken me for someone desperate enough to employ such tactics in order to secure the companionship of others.”
“Aren’t you, though?” She trails an idle finger where the wood veneer has cracked and split before hazarding another glance at him, her lashes growing heavy. “Why else did you come here, if not out of desperation?”
Lucien pivots his barstool, brushing a leg against her bare thigh as he faces her fully. That smug, unwavering smile of his has begun to tighten at the corners, the darkness in him peering out at her in bolder and bolder increments, and she feels the anticipation like a creeping vine up and down her spine at the thought. Finally, they might be getting somewhere.
He leans an elbow onto the bar ledge, tracing a thumb along his lower lip as he speaks from somewhere deep in his throat, eyes never leaving hers. “You’ve lost me, I’m afraid.”
The bartender returns with their bourbon, but neither of them can be bothered to look away from the other this time as glasses clink on the countertop. The man must sense the thickening air between them, their intimate posturing for all that they look inches away from murdering each other, and he sidles carefully out of their periphery, muttering something about leaving a tab open.
That burning sensation in her blood – from the alcohol she plans to regret later, Freya tells herself, nothing more – pulls her steadily forward, drawn to Lucien by some dark impulse, an intense interest in learning how tame, exactly, he’s willing to play for her benefit, and she’s only half-cognizant (half-uncaring) of the knee she’s slipped just between his.
He moves accommodatingly, dropping a hand where she’s rested hers just by his elbow, fiddling with her bracelets and grazing knuckles over her wrist, clearly intent on testing her own boundaries as far as he’s concerned. “As you were saying?”
“I couldn’t help but notice that for a thousand-year-old guy, you’re running pretty short on friends these days.”
He watches her wordlessly while she continues.
“Your cipher’s dead, for one,” she points out, bluntly, unsympathetic. “And with Tristan drowning for all eternity, I doubt the Strix will be letting you crash any more of their black-tie events. As for Aurora…well…” She smirks, gently, knowing she’ll have uncovered a sore spot with this one. “Friends don’t lock friends up in cabinets and leave them to desiccate out of hunger.”
His touch has grown more daring, trailing from forearm to elbow now, his voice deceptively casual. “You know, love, despite your determined hostility, you and I would do well to get along with one another.”
“Mmm.” She sips on her neglected bourbon, the warmth going straight to her head this time. “Is that a warning or a proposition? It can be so hard to tell with you vampires.”
“Says the girl who’s sworn her allegiance to the two remaining Originals,” he remarks, tone entirely unreadable now.
Three, actually, but she and Elijah alone are privy to that one vital fact.
Freya thinks of her sister again, cursed, daggered, safe from the Strix – and from guys like Lucien, sometimes friendly but a foe all the same, she’d hazard to guess, when push really comes to shove. Her dear Rebekah, unable to fight or live or even die alongside their brothers until the year has passed and they can finally be rid of this goddamn prophecy. The treachery, the threats. The not knowing who they can or can’t trust.
“I know where I stand with my family,” she tells Lucien, fingering the blue pendant around her neck and wondering, for the first time, where it is that he stands, now that he’s no longer bound to her brother. Now that he’s beholden to no one at all, apart from his own inscrutable whims and pursuits, and therein perhaps lies the true danger, with him. “And you didn’t answer my question.”
“And which question was that, love?”
She slides to the edge of her seat, unblinking, and he responds in kind, his gaze growing hooded, any lingering notion of amusement between them fading slowly into something else.
“Are you friend?” The words tumble loose, rough, in a half-murmur, and she’s hazily aware of the way his hand’s begun to curl, almost tenderly, at her elbow, fingertips finding her pulse along the inner part of her upper arm. “Or are you foe?”
Their gazes have caught, locked in a standstill, a tension gripping them both that neither seems willing to break first. Her entire body thrums, the predatory – dare she say wolfish – look about him tightening her insides, every line of her now just waiting to snap.
Somewhere in the midst of all this whatever it is, she’s let Lucien come too close, his face hardly an inch from hers, each exhale a heated caress on her skin. He could bite her, drain her from this distance far quicker than she could break his neck or spine, and she might have considered herself at a disadvantage if not for the way his eyes keep darting down to her mouth, or the single curl from his perfect coif that’s escaped and fallen across his forehead.
She finds herself thinking just how easy it would be to make even more of a mess out of him.
Her brothers would be very, very cross with her.
Lucien licks his lips before speaking at last. “Which would you prefer me to be, darling?”
Freya’s considering her options when his mood suddenly shifts, lightening, his features smoothed over with a perfectly pleasant, good-natured smile that can’t mean anything good at all. Seconds later, the silhouette of someone tall and masculine is hovering over her shoulder, inquiring kindly but firmly, “Excuse me, miss, but is this fellow bothering you?”
A fog seems to lift at his words.
Her guy in the corner booth has taken it upon himself to be her knight in shining armor, and she might have been flattered if she hadn’t been so distracted by the expression on Lucien’s face, which she could only describe as one of pure satisfaction, as though he’d been waiting for just this moment to present itself.
"As a matter of fact,” Lucien starts in, too-brightly, looking delighted at the prospect of a late-night snack, perhaps a bit of violence, or at the very least finding some way to make things exceedingly awkward for the three of them.
Freya, murmuring a hasty incantation, lays a careful hand on Lucien’s wrist. She keeps her touch generously shy of scalding this time now that they’ve a captive audience, her grip just tight enough not to give him any ideas. He bites a lip and lifts an eyebrow at her, somehow managing to look even more pleased than before, though to his credit he falls blessedly silent and lets her do the rest of the talking.
“No more than usual,” she tells the guy, with a show of rolling her eyes. “You know how family can be sometimes.”
“Do enlighten me,” Lucien is starting to say, aggravatingly, and Freya raises the heat a few degrees in warning. He smirks at her.
“Family?” the guy is wondering at the same time, sounding both relieved and apologetic. He relaxes his stance a bit, turning to regard Lucien as though he were something harmless, not at all the threat he’d originally taken him for.
“Cousin,” Freya explains.
“Once removed, if you want to be technical about it,” Lucien clarifies helpfully, while she endeavors not to look too exasperated with him.
“Right,” says the guy, regarding Freya again with hopeful eyes and a shy, lopsided grin. “Well, uh, in that case, would you maybe…want to grab a drink with me? I mean, whenever you’re free?”
“That didn’t take long,” remarks Lucien as he picks up his bourbon, dimples flashing insolently at her over the rim of the glass.
“Please forgive my…cousin,” Freya tells her handsome and increasingly perplexed-looking suitor, “he’s occasionally lacking in social graces.”
Corner booth guy appears adorably unsure how to respond (Lucien, meanwhile, has set his drink back down with an unduly measured calm, his patience beginning to wear at the edges), but then he seems to find a welcome sight in the nearby bartender and angles another bashful glance at Freya, too polite yet to press her for a decision.
On the one hand, she could have that nice, normal night with a nice, normal guy, just as she’d originally wanted. Share a drink without motive, or the need to read into things that aren’t there. Dance until her body starts to have other ideas. Bring him home in time for protective little brother to shoo him away, under the guise of requiring her magic for yet another no doubt nefarious plot of his.
On the other hand…
Lucien is making a thorough study of her, his own expression inscrutable now but for the unapologetic darkness she knows to be in every inch of him, sweet and seductive as it calls to her, wanting to come out and play, and she feels something inside her longing, impossibly, to answer.
Maybe nice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Her fingers relax on Lucien’s arm, the fire in them receding to a gentle warmth, but something in his smile hardens, misunderstanding, and he removes himself from her grasp.
There’s a quickening sensation in her chest, and she tells herself it’s relief that she feels when he makes to stand, hardly sparing a single glance for her now. He lazily stretches his shoulders back, ridding them of some unknown burden, then works his way to his neck, rolling it, savoring each crack with a theatrical groan, as though he’s just suffered a thousand years of ennui in the single hour he spent in her company.
The shift in him, the abruptly blasé attitude, rankles her more than she knows it should, festering deep like an unreachable itch in her skin, and she wonders what had possessed her to even think about ditching nice in favor of this.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt anything,” she hears the guy saying now, rueful.
“I was just about to head out, mate,” Lucien shrugs, and reaches for his wallet, thumbing out several bills and tossing them carelessly onto the counter. No fewer than three late Benjamin Franklins gaze solemnly up at them. “Might I suggest a good Pinot? And do leave some of that for the bartender once you’ve finished here, would you?”
“Nice to know chivalry isn’t dead,” Freya comments, voice chilled, as he faces her again.
Lucien cocks his head to the side and favors her with a patronizing smile, as though she’s gravely misread the situation. “Not my style, love.”
He’s turned before she can find the right retort, all leisurely arrogance as he strolls toward the exit, and then a blurred flash of movement and a breeze is suddenly touching her hair, strands of it unsettling to tickle her cheek for seconds after he’s gone.
Her guy from the corner booth slides eagerly onto the stool Lucien had vacated, the grin he gives her open and easy, so easy, and Freya politely returns it while he asks if she’d like a strawberry daiquiri, or maybe a grapefruit and vodka next.
She never quite learns his name that night, at least not long enough to remember – the curse of the nice guy, to be unmemorable, predictable even (just as Niklaus is in that regard, tossing him out with the next day’s garbage) – but some days following, Freya finds she can never forget it.
It’s plastered all over news programs, sensationalized beside a photograph of him in the papers, looking almost unrecognizable now for the way he’s no longer smiling (at least, not in the way she’d remembered), and the yellow tape cutting across a red-brick alleyway, pushing his image out of focus.
The killer had almost certainly done so for the sport of it, taking nothing, leaving little by way of evidence save for a cryptic, hand-penned note, carefully tucked into one of the guy’s jean pockets.
It baffles the New Orleans police department and their detectives, who are currently short a psychological profiler and, it would seem, any and all memory of other, fairly recent cases that had presented themselves in a similarly macabre fashion.
Even Niklaus does a double take at the vaguely familiar face in the photos, the too-familiar handiwork that had bled it fatally dry, and he chastises Freya with a single look, for there is no such thing as coincidence, not in this city, and certainly not for them.
There’s a great deal of public speculation surrounding the contents of the note, which bears three words in some sardonic form of a toast – “To family, then” – though no one can quite work out what sort of familial loyalty would inspire so grisly an offering, with the innocent strung up like a puppet in someone else’s play, cheeks carved from mouth to ear in a gruesome charade of a smile.