Author's Note: This was written years and years back, and I believe was never posted back then because I felt like it was a little rambling. Having re-found it, though, I've decided it's cohesive enough that I'd rather post it then leave it forgotten forever.

Johnny had gotten in his fair share of scrapes-or so he thought. He'd wrestled with other boys his age and been jumped a few times, which is why he'd started carrying a dagger. He was still getting the hang of fighting with a knife, but hey, he could hold his own against a couple thugs with a convenient crest in his pocket. So he was pretty tough, right?

But he still wanted to run when the first group of monsters charged at them. They looked like men, but they had more muscle than Natan, and four arms. There was no way he could fight these things! His feet followed his thoughts as he backed away from the monsters-but then Shania charged past him, tomahawks in hand, and Natan squeezed off a shot from each of his guns. They'd saved his life last night; he couldn't just leave them alone against three of these things. Johnny took a deep breath and held his ground, drawing out his stellar chart. He doubted he could get close enough to use his dagger without getting thrashed, but maybe a spell would work.

He drew out his stellar chart with shaking fingers, not even glancing at the crest as he murmured the words for the spell. He waited until Shania had just cleared the way to pronounce the final syllable and the ice shot out towards the furthest beast, also injuring one in its path.

When the fight was over and all three of the creatures were dead, Shania looked back at him with a little smile and said, "Much better this time." For all of five seconds Johnny's chest puffed up with pride-then he remembered that last time he'd fainted, and couldn't tell if Shania honestly meant to compliment him or if she was teasing him again. Well, either way, Johnny was determined to show her that he could be brave.

But Johnny soon learned there were things more frightening than fighting monsters-namely, fighting Shania. She'd scream when she charged him and even though he knew they were just sparring, it still creeped him out every time. That was one habit he really wished she hadn't picked up from Ta Tanka.

It was more than that, though: Shania was a big believer in Not Holding Back. "The monsters won't pity you," she'd told him, and sure, it made sense, and he knew she wouldn't hurt him on purpose, but when her ax would come down and stop just a hair's breadth from his neck, well, he started getting used to seeing his life flash before his eyes.

Still, he liked the spars because he could see himself improving. He figured out how to use his fast feet and crest spells to get an edge on Shania, who had the advantage in just about everything else. He learned more about how she moved, so that when they fought side-by-side he could predict where she'd go and cast larger spells without worrying about her getting caught in his range. Sure, the lessons cost him a bit of pride (he learned to keep a tighter grip on his dagger after she once knocked it out of his hand in a single blow), but he knew he was getting better, so he kept doing it, every time she asked. Sometimes he even won, though the victories were few and far between.

Their matches took a bit of a turn after their trip to Las Vegas. For the first time, she asked him to use his Malice against her. He lost that match, and the one after that, and the one after that, for three straight weeks because whenever she got too close to him, he froze up. What if one of them moved the wrong way? All it would take was one false step for the Malice to rip into her.

The others were watching their fights, too. Before Natan had watched quite frequently, and Frank had sometimes stepped in as an overenthusiastic referee, but now even Mao took an interest, and the others were frequent spectators. Ricardo's presence bothered Johnny most of all. He felt like Ricardo was watching him all throughout the fight, trying to figure out why he was still alive, why he was still sane, why he could control his Malice when Edna wasn't able to. And Johnny had no answer to offer. That was just the way it was. So he said nothing, and tried not to feel Ricardo's stare. But sparring never felt right anymore, and he started making up excuses whenever Shania asked him to fight. Shania wasn't slow on the uptake, and after a while she stopped asking all together.

They did have one more match though. After being defeated in Chichen Itza, everyone had needed time to recover, but he and Shania were up and around faster than everyone else. In his case, it was no surprise-everyone knew by now that his injuries had a habit of disappearing overnight-but he was kind of startled how light Shania's injuries were. He could have sworn that she'd been hurt more badly, but why question blessings? At any rate, it meant that after a day or two they were both bored of lounging around Capone's house, waiting for the others to heal. And Shania always seemed tense when he saw her, so he figured he should give her a chance to blow off some steam.

In hindsight, he wanted to smack his forehead (and sometimes did) at the fact that he'd challenged Shania, at the time outwardly annoyed but inwardly seething with years-old hatred and days-old Malice, to a fight with bladed weapons. Little wonder the fight had ended disastrously: she'd asked him to use his Malice and he'd-hesitantly-obliged, which he'd regretted as soon as she went on the offense because he couldn't stop using the Malice or the sheer force of her attacks would leave him flat on the ground, injured or worse.

Every ounce of strength she had went into the thrust of her twin axes. She didn't even scream at him; her breath came out fast and hot, sometimes choked in her throat, and he realized quickly that he was in over his head. He remembered asking her to stop, and repeating himself, louder, when she didn't-and suddenly he decided that fuck it, even if this was part of Not Holding Back, this was ridiculous-

He shouted at her once more, and this time when she brought the ax down he grabbed for the handle with his left hand. The flesh between his thumb and forefinger caught on the blade, but even as hot blood dripped on his hair and face, he brought the dagger to her throat. It stopped a breath too late, and Shania froze as the cut opened and oozed blood.

He was too focused on the pain in his hand. He felt a tendril of pride at the look on her face-hadn't realized he could do that, had she?-and then when he realized the reality of what he had done, when he realized he had wanted to hurt her, he felt sick to the pit of his stomach. The Malice around his dagger unraveled and dissipated as he let go of the ax. It slowly lowered, not so much by Shania's power than gravity's force, and she murmured, "Good job."

"No," he protested-there was nothing good about it- "Shania, I didn't, I, let me heal-" but when he reached for his stellar chart, blood smeared the parchment.

"I can heal myself now," she said. "Take care of your hand."

After she walked away, he could only stare at the stain on the chart and its crests, magic still shining through the red.

He made sure not to get in a fight with Shania after that. Maybe he took it a little overboard-Hilda started calling him a doormat-but he just didn't want to argue with Shania at all. He made sure to always greet her with a smile, which wasn't hard, and he tried to remain as calm as possible when he did disagree with her, which didn't always work out so well. Still, he didn't experience that impulse to hurt her again, so he figured things were fine, up till the moment he got stabbed in the heart. Because right after he kicked the damned bastard across the chamber, he heard Shania whisper, her voice weak with astonishment: "Johnny? Is that you?"

Her words hardened his heart, gave him resolve. This was him. The real him. He knew with dead certainty, because never before had he felt so alive, so wonderfully comfortable in his body. But if Shania realized that, she'd kill him, so he had to make the first and final strike. No answer passed his lips. He walked to her, salt gritting beneath his bare feet, and towered over her as she lay on the floor. Her blue eyes grew wide. She did not move. He raised his arm to-he could not tell. Injure? Kill?

Ricardo's punch wasn't painful, but it was a shock. It reminded Awaker that Shania was the strongest and deadliest, but there were five others he needed to deal with. He could kill them all, but it was easier to simply incapacitate...for the moment. So after he lashed out at both Ricardo and Natan, he turned back to the woman on the floor-asking him not to hurt anyone, asking if he was the same as Lady, she really hadn't understood yet, had she?-and struck. The slap stung his hand. He knew it must have hurt her far worse.

Next there was Frank to take care of, and then Mao and Hilda. It was absurd how quickly they fell. Had they really expected to defeat Lady? Had they really thought there was anything they could do against the Malice? He only had to use a little more of his strength, and he could crush their windpipes, stop their breath, end their lives-

A soft clink of metal sounded through the chamber, and he turned to see Shania staring at him as the altar started glowing with blue light. He'd forgotten the ring, and she'd used the brief distraction to place it on the altar, unleashing Uyuni's power. As the blue light washed over him and sapped his strength, he could only think, I really should have killed you.

When Johnny woke up in his own bed, he stared at the ceiling for several long minutes, wishing in vain that when he went downstairs, he'd find Lenny making breakfast, and Mrs. Smith would call about poor Timmy having gotten out of the house again and would he please find her cat? He wanted the past few months to just disappear. He didn't want to remember Lady, didn't want to remember her killing his father, didn't want to remember being killed himself.

Most of all, he didn't want to remember the moment when he would have gladly murdered his friends.

Gradually, though, he picked up on the voices downstairs; for the most part, they were all talking quietly, as though afraid to disturb his sleep, but Frank and Hilda's voices tended to get a little loud. They really had gone to Uyuni. But why had they brought him back to his home? They saw what he is; he tried to kill them! Why hadn't they...?

He got out of bed and went downstairs, knowing he wouldn't figure anything out from lying in bed. At the first creak of the staircase, the conversation downstairs hushed, and when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was all too aware that everyone was staring at him.

"Master," Lenny said, "how do you feel? Are you hungry?"

"No, I'm fine," he answered; Lenny's questions seemed weirdly normal given the circumstances, and he wondered what the others had told him, if they'd told him anything at all. "Look, you guys, I'm sorry." The words were pathetic, and he knew it; he just didn't know what else he could say or do.

"It's all right," Shania said coolly, her eyes fixed on his, "but you should eat. You've been unconscious for over a week."

It made sense to him when he thought about it; after all, they couldn't exactly have traveled from Uyuni to New York in a matter of hours. But it didn't feel like any time had passed at all. "I'm fine," he said again, and then he wondered if that was yet another thing that made him different from normal people. "I guess I could use some food. Maybe a sandwich."

Lenny immediately headed to the kitchen, and for a moment there was awkward silence before Ricardo said, "Well, we're trying to figure out what we should do now. Any ideas, kid?"

"Yeah," Johnny said hesitantly, turning away from Shania. He paused, wondering how to say it-he didn't want to be too specific; maybe he was just mistaken. "I think I might know Lady from somewhere..."

He wasn't mistaken. When he passed the picture to Shania and she realized the truth-that he is Lady's brother-the glass of the frame cracked under her thumbs and she looked at him, wild-eyed and open-mouthed. He thought that was the last straw; now, she would surely kill him.

Except she didn't, even after Bacon told the entire story, that it was his father's decision to use forbidden magic, that his sister became Lady and he became-something smack in between a person and a monster-that it's his family's fault Shania's entire tribe was massacred.

She had all the reason in the world to want to kill him. But she didn't, and Johnny found himself growing more and more impatient; they both knew the inevitable conclusion, so why wouldn't she just do it?

One night, as they were making their way back to New York, Johnny found himself awake during the middle of the night. He arose from his sleeping bag and stepped over Frank to get out of the tent-and immediately regretted it when he saw Shania sitting by the fireside, facing the night's darkness. He hadn't realized it was her turn to keep watch. They'd gone out of order to skip him. He hesitated, wondering if he should just go back in the tent; but she'd already seen him, so he sat down on the opposite side of the fire.

"Having trouble sleeping?" she asked.

"No," he fibbed, "just feeling a little restless."

"Natan said you've been having nightmares."

Natan was normally the last person to talk about other people's private matters, so why on earth would he tell Shania if he was having nightmares, Johnny wondered. Did Natan think he was going to crack in his sleep? "They're no big deal."

She looked over her shoulder at him, then sighed and stood to face him. "Johnny-"

"Why are you acting nice to me?" he asked.

She froze, looking at him curiously. "What, should I punch you instead?" She laughed and sat down again, picking up a stick. "I don't think you'd like that."

"You know what I'm talking about," he said. Shania didn't answer, but her eyes flickered up and then back down. "After what I did, after what my dad and my sister did, I-I don't even get how you can stand being around me. You must hate it."

Shania leaned forward and prodded the fire, stirring up bits of ash. "You're right," she said slowly, and Johnny sucked in his breath. "I do hate this."

There it was. Everything out in the open now, just as he'd wanted. Except they were supposed to be yelling at each other now, but she was far too calm and he couldn't start an argument with his breath stoppered up in his lungs.

A few seconds passed before she looked up at him, fatigue showing through her bleary eyes. "I haven't seen you smile since we went to Uyuni. Don't think anyone has." She looked down again, prodding the fire one more before she tossed the stick into the flames. "I hate that."

"What is there to smile about?" he asked. "You can't just ignore that I'm the same as Lady-"

"Go to sleep, Johnny," she snapped. He felt some pleasure at the anger in her voice; at least they were getting somewhere, now.

"Why haven't you killed me yet?" he asked, and noted with curiosity how her right hand suddenly wrenched her left wrist. "You know I'll be your enemy one day."

She was silent for a long time as her right hand continually twisted and pinched her left arm, leaving little marks all over. "You're tired," she said finally, and it sounded like she was talking more to herself than to him. "You're tired, and you've had a long week-hell, a long month-and you're not thinking straight. But if I ever," and when she looked up at him, her eyes gleamed orange and red in the firelight, "ever hear something that stupid out of your mouth again, I will pound some sense into that thick skull of yours. Understand?"

Shania wasn't going to give him the fight he wanted, he understood that. He didn't really feel like upsetting her more, anyways, so he nodded.

"Then stop being an idiot and go back to sleep," she ground out, and turned away from him. He wondered if maybe he should ask how she was feeling-just why had she been picking at her arm?-but it'd probably annoy her, so he decided not to and turned towards the tent.

"I want to apologize," Shania said suddenly. Johnny stopped and looked over his shoulder at her; her eyes held his.

"For what?"

"I used to think that, yes...that maybe one day, we'd be enemies. I never should have believed that. So-I just wanted to tell you that. I'm sorry." She broke eye contact with him, instead staring out into the darkness.

Did she really mean that? Johnny could hardly believe that she wasn't angry with him for what his family had done to her entire life. But he'd never known Shania to lie, so he took her statement at face value and said, "Thanks."

Shania snorted. "Idiot. You don't thank someone for apologizing."

His cheeks flushed with heat. She was just brushing it off as nothing, but it really was important to him that at least one person-her especially, the person who had the most reason to hate him-would still consider him a friend, knowing what he was. "Still, thanks," he said, hoping she'd understand.

This time, she seemed to take his point. She nodded her head slightly. "Don't mention it," she murmured. "After all, we're..."

He waited to hear her finish, but as the seconds stretched into minutes, he realized she wasn't going to. She seemed to have forgotten the incomplete statement altogether; she simply stared into the dark of the night, as though he had already left. He ducked into the tent and went back to bed.

Maybe, he realized, she'd meant to say that they were the same. It was a day later and they were back in New York; everyone else was set on stopping Lady from opening the Gate, but he was still uncertain-could he fight Lady, now that he knew she had once been Grace? And he couldn't help but think of what might happen if he died yet again. He might very well end up killing the others for Lady. Even after talking to everyone else, he was still confused. Maybe Shania would give him some insight...or maybe he'd say something stupid and she'd make good on her threat to pound sense into him. Either way it'd be better than this mental fog he was stuck in.

But when he sought her out at the Brooklyn Bridge, she told him about the kiss of Malice she'd received from Lady. "What?" he demanded; he'd thought Shania was the last person in the world who would fall victim to the curse.

She nodded. "I could lose my mind at any time, like Edna...Which is why, before something happens..."

He looked down and focused on the water lapping at the bridge's supports. "So, even if we defeat Lady, you could still..." Though he tried to think of Lady as completely unrelated to him, he still couldn't help but feel like he was partially responsible for Shania's situation. He knew, too, given how closed Shania usually was, she wouldn't tell him something like this unless she felt desperate. But what could he possibly do to help her?

"To be honest, I don't really know," she admitted.

She would hate herself if she lost control to the Malice. Johnny had already experienced that whirlwind of emotion and could easily remember how he'd wanted to hurt someone he loved. He would never let Shania hurt what she cherished most. "But say you do go crazy," he said, "I promise if you don't know what you're doing, I'll stop you," and his hand slammed down on the cement as he turned to her. "I will! No matter what, I'll stop you! Just like Ricardo did."

That really was the only thing he could do for her. He watched her face anxiously, wondering how she would take this, and was relieved to see her smile.

"I'm glad you feel that way," she said. "I'd do the same for you."

"Yeah?" he said, wondering about the way she'd phrased it...did that mean she felt the same as him, too?

But whatever her feelings, he felt more sure of the decision he had to make now. Even if there was some part of Lady that was still Grace, that was just another reason he had to stop her; his sister would never have wanted to hurt so many people, would never want to destroy the world. If Lady was in some way Grace, it was time to set her free from the grip of Malice.

And even if he did turn into that being again, he trusted Shania to be prepared next time to do what was necessary.

He still lost his head the second time he turned into Awaker.

He didn't lose control of himself, not completely. The change had felt so natural to him that he didn't remember exactly when he had done it, although he would bet it was when the ananka stomped on its two legs towards Frank, its grey, scaly tail flicking with excitement. The ninja had been knocked out and the Johnny was closest to him but not close enough; his injuries were slowing him down. But just as the monster tilted its head back, prepared to crush Frank with the thick head bone jutting from the back of its skull, Johnny lifted his dagger even though he knew and hated the fact that the monster was still out of his blade's reach-and slashed the monster's throat open with startling ease. A weak, gurgling cry escaped the ananka's mouth before the beast fell on its side. That was when Johnny realized something was wrong: everyone was staring at him and he was eye-level with Shania, which didn't make sense unless he'd had a five-second growth spurt. At the moment she was fused with Ta Tanka, the spirit's yellow eyes staring at him.

Johnny already knew what he'd see when he looked down, but he still felt like he'd been kicked in the gut when he saw the oddly colored skin and the gold that snaked around his body. Once again the Malice had swallowed him whole and transformed him, but this time there was no altar of Will to change him back. He felt like he was still in control of himself-but how long would that last? Especially when, looking back at the others, he saw their fearful expressions. Johnny could feel his heart thundering in his chest; his hands wouldn't stop shaking. His head throbbed at the thought of the only two possible outcomes to this situation-either he died, or they did.

So when Ta Tanka took a step towards him, he bolted. He trusted her to try to stop him from doing anything he'd regret; but now he realized how foolish he'd been to think that she'd succeed. He had to get away from her.

He could hear her feet of rock pounding on the ground behind him and her voice calling his name over and over as he barreled through the rain forest of the Guiana highlands. He used his blade of Malice to hack through the dense vegetation, but he knew it was slowing him down. As fast as he could run, he couldn't clear a path quickly enough, and within three minutes Ta Tanka's stone arms had wrapped around him. He panicked and lashed out, sinking his elbow into her gut. She grunted in pain but didn't release him, instead tightening her grip and binding his arms fast.

"Damn it, Johnny," she muttered in his ear. "Calm down!"

"Let go!" He hated just saying the words, because in them he could hear the changes to his voice; he didn't even sound the same anymore. The pain in his head was building, making it hard to think. "Let go before I hurt you!"

"I'm not letting go until you calm down," she answered.

"I can't, don't you get it? The Malice, I can't control it-"

"Shh," she whispered, her hot, quickened breath hitting his ear. "Shh. Deep breaths. Relax." The blunt side of one of Ta Tanka's horns pressed against his head as she called, "I've got him, Natan. We're fine."

She sounded so sure of herself, and Ta Tanka's power gave strength to Shania's arms, making her hold more secure than Natan's had been the other time. Slowly Johnny relaxed in her grip, no longer so acutely afraid that he would hurt her.

"Try to change back," she told him. "You helped Frank, didn't you? So you're still in control of it. But you've got to calm down. Push the Malice out of your mind, you don't need it. I'm not going to let you hurt anyone, and I'm not going to let anyone hurt you."

It seemed to Johnny like they stayed like that forever, with Shania restraining and reassuring him at the same time, slowly calming him down; and then, suddenly, he slumped in her arms as all the strength flowed out of him.

"Well done," she said. Her voice was no longer near his ear, and he craned his neck to see her smiling at him, which looked a little odd with Ta Tanka's fierce features. But the important thing was that she had to look down at him, because now he was shorter-his left cheek, in fact, was now right next to her breasts, and the sudden revelation of just how close they were made him tense up before he moved out of her now loose embrace. He prayed his face wasn't as red as it felt.

Over the next few days, he learned how to control the newly-unleashed Malice within himself and turn into "Awaker", as they'd decided to call his new form, at will. He'd been uncomfortable with it at first, and when Shania tentatively suggested sparring, he'd refused outright-he didn't want to risk both of them going too far in a fight again. Strangely enough, Hilda had the best idea for helping him make the adjustment; her suggestion of playing tag seemed absurd to everyone at first, but after the others reluctantly agreed, Johnny found that not only did it help him figure out his new body's endurance, but he was also able to easily tune out the violent impulses from the Malice, knowing that it was only a game.

Plus, he loved the moment when Shania, during her turn as "it", finally got into the game and used Thunderbird to dive-tackle Ricardo. The two of them went down in a cloud of dust and though Ricardo got up quickly, with rumpled clothes and a dirty hat, Shania just released the fusion and laughed at the disgruntled look on the mariachi's face. "You are a nut, you know that?" he told her, and she laughed even louder. It was probably the first time Johnny had seen Shania so relaxed.

Johnny found himself distracted by that memory when they entered the valley of the Garvoy tribe. Looking around the ruined dwellings, he could picture Shania as a little girl, running around with other children and playing games like tag or hide-and-seek. She'd probably laughed a lot more often then.

When they found the second altar at the highest point in the village, Shania's dad of all people showed up, taking the form of an orb of light, and told them about the sun spirit that dwelt within, its power capable of eradicating Malice. Shania showed interest, asking if she could avenge the tribe by borrowing its strength, and her father immediately retaliated, accusing the Malice of making her venomous and bitter. Johnny stayed focused on her, but he could see some of the others' reactions as they realized that Shania was, like him, also tainted by the Malice; even Natan was startled, edging closer to Shania while staring at the brilliant orb.

Johnny hoped that Shania would refuse the trial when her father stated that she'd be burned to ash if she failed; but true to form, Shania still wanted to go forward with it. He'd hated watching her trials with Ta Tanka and La Sirene, knowing there was nothing he could do to help; and now she wanted to fight alone again, with this death threat hanging over her head? When she started walking forward, he couldn't stop himself from grabbing her wrist to halt her. "We promised we would fight Lady together," he reminded her. "But if you die here, we can't do that!" Even if this spirit was more powerful, it wasn't worth the risk. They already had enough power-they had each other.

Yet, when she looked at him, he knew that he wouldn't change her mind. She looked sad, but still determined. "Johnny..."

"Who is this boy?" her father demanded. Johnny turned to face him, wondering if the beating of an afterlife was coming; there was no way, if her father had perceived the Malice in Shania so quickly, that he didn't already know what Johnny was.

Instead, her father asked if he was willing to risk his life alongside Shania. Johnny nodded readily; he'd already been doing that. And then to both his and Shania's surprise, her father said he would allow Johnny to help in her trial. He could feel Shania's eyes on him-she was probably hoping he'd back out, but she had protected him so many times, and he wanted to do the same for her.

He knew immediately that he'd made the right choice when Tirawa emerged and began its assault. The spirit's attacks were powerful and the lick of heat on its blades made each strike more excruciating; Johnny found himself changing into Awaker to withstand its heavy blows. There was a very brief argument between them about who would go toe-to-toe with Tirawa and who would have the relatively safer and less painful role of healer, resolved when Shania told Johnny where he could stick his chivalry (she was really furious at him for forcing his way into the fight, he realized), fused with Ta Tanka, and practically launched herself at the sun spirit. Johnny frantically started casting healing spells. It took a long time, but eventually they wore the spirit down and the pieces of armor collapsed to the ground with a loud clanging.

After the battle and after they left the valley, Shania told Johnny just why she hadn't needed his help-and Johnny responded by telling her just why she had, and they had a pretty good shouting match over who could and should protect who before Hilda hollered she was going to eat both their dinners. Johnny started heading in the campsite's direction, because knowing the vampire, she'd actually do it. Besides, Shania didn't seem to be as upset as she claimed. "I just want to make sure you're safe," he told Shania over his shoulder. "We're friends, right? So I can do that."

After Lady died and the Gate started to collapse, Shania stood still, and when Johnny asked her why, she only apologized. "I was thinking about what I should do now. Revenge has been my only reason for living," she confessed. "So I was... thinking maybe I should just stay here."

With the ground under their feet starting to shudder, everyone knew that 'staying here' meant dying. "Don't say that," Johnny said quickly. "You'll have time to think about that outside. Come on!" He grabbed Shania's hand and tugged her off-balance, hoping to break her out of her melancholy. She looked at him with wide blue eyes and his heart lurched at just how vulnerable she looked-she really didn't know what to do. "Let's go," he told her and ran, praying she'd let him pull her along and not insist on being left to die. Thankfully, she kept a hold on his hand and soon pulled out of her daze to sprint beside him.

"There's so many things you can do," Johnny found himself saying later, when they were safely aboard Roger's aircraft, headed north. "Like, uh," what did Shania like to do? "Like, you could travel to England, or France-"

"Not England, the food's disgusting," Hilda chipped in.

"You could write a book, or learn how to paint or draw-photography is pretty fun, you know-uh," why didn't he know what Shania liked to do? "Or sing or dance or-movies! Movies! I mean, you're definitely pretty enough, maybe you could talk to Mao," and the cat arched her eyebrow behind Shania's back, but at least she had the prudence to not mention that Shania typically portrayed the emotional range of a shark. "There's just, just tons of things to do! See the circus, go to a fair-"

"Johnny," Shania said finally, "those all sound nice, but I'm not really interested."

"Well, okay," he said, "then tell me what you'd like to do, because I don't know," and how pathetic was that? He loved her and he'd been traveling with her for a year and he did not know what she liked. See the great detective Johnny, Mr. Clueless.

She smiled at him, but her eyes were too tired to give the expression any sincerity. "I don't really know, myself."

"Okay, then, that's what you do now. Figure out what you like. Just, you know, live." She didn't reply at first and he couldn't help himself from blurting, "Please."

"I'm just not really sure of anything, right now," she said. "Is it all right..." She hesitated for a long time, glancing at Natan. "Could I stay at the detective agency for a little while? Until I figure things out?"

"Of course," Johnny answered immediately.

The first few days at the agency were a little awkward. Even though Johnny had specifically asked Shania to help with the cases at the agency, he had to admit that that wasn't what he'd been aiming for (he'd meant to ask her out on a date, but then chickened out), and he was actually pretty embarrassed about the trivial nature of the detective agency's cases. So he figured there was no need to bother Shania about a lost cat or one of the local scandals, and went off on his own to take care of things whenever a call came.

But after a week and a half, he learned that though he'd taken Shania on a tour of the city, she was hesitant to explore and had only left the house without him once. When Lenny first told him, Johnny was astounded; he thought Shania would have been anxious to escape the confines of the house. But instead she seemed to be withdrawing not just emotionally but physically, and Johnny realized he needed to change tactics.

So he told Shania all about the range of cases he received, his regular clients and his regular "targets" (basically, all the neighborhood pets and many of the little kids, plus some older rascals) and took her along on every case, even the ones it'd be quicker to do alone. At the very least, it was a chance to introduce Shania to some of the neighbors.

From the very first day her mood improved, as the hours they spent working kept her mind off other matters. He was pleasantly surprised to find she liked children; she enjoyed distracting the little ones from their parents' absence with games and activities when the two of them had been asked to babysit, and she had even more patience than him when it came to dealing with the worst of the pranksters (then again, he really shouldn't have been surprised; she'd gotten along with Anne Lafitte, after all).

And after she'd been introduced to a few of the moms, the neighborhood wives decided as a group that she should be invited along with Lenny to their meetings. Johnny thought this would be a great chance for her to maybe make some friends with the younger women. And everything seemed to go swimmingly until one Mrs. Davidson had commented on the skimpiness of Shania's clothes in front of everyone. For some strange reason, her words sparked a war in the neighborhood. Not that there was any fighting; Johnny at least would have known how to deal with that. No, apparently this war was to be won by clothing, with those on Mrs. Davidson's side dressing with a strong, even overbearing, emphasis on primness and modesty, and those who thought Mrs. Davidson was being a snob borrowing aspects of Shania's clothing in their attire, even tailoring their clothes specifically to make them more revealing. The husbands started getting into the action, too, although Lenny chose to remain neutral in the argument, much to Johnny's relief. For her part, Shania was baffled but amused by the conflict-very highly amused, in fact, by its climax, when eighty-year-old Mrs. Smith showed up to one of the meetings in a disturbingly accurate recreation of Shania's favorite outfit. (Johnny happened to pass Mrs. Smith on the street the same day, and afterward didn't know whether to laugh or pluck out his eyeballs.) Luckily the fashion war drew to an end in late October, when the cold climate forced Shania-and everyone else-to wear more layers.

But aside from Johnny learning that his entire neighborhood was clinically insane, things were great. Many of the neighbors had accepted Shania into the community, he had a lot of fun working with Shania on cases, and she was starting to open up more.

"You know what we haven't done in forever?" she asked suddenly one day.


"We haven't sparred in a while. And it'd be a bad idea to get rusty."

"It'd be kind of hard to have a fight in here," Johnny said, looking over the living room and office.

"No, I was thinking of those woods nearby," she said, gesturing vaguely to the door.

"Shania, have you been outside?" he asked. "It's snowing!"


"Six inches!"

"Good. We can learn how to fight in the snow."

Johnny furrowed his eyebrows at her, but wasn't sure if he should refuse or not. She was right, it had been a while since they'd sparred-a long while-and if there was one thing he knew Shania liked, it was fighting. "Fine," he said, figuring that since she wasn't used to the northern climate, she'd get cold soon enough and they'd head back.

It turned out that Shania's fusions didn't get cold very easily, despite their bared skin. Also, La Sirene's water attacks stung like hell when combined with the chill of early December. From the very first barrage of the water spirit's attacks, Johnny was left sputtering with outrage. He briefly wondered if Awaker would fare well in the winter weather, but decided not to try it; if he was wrong, he'd feel all the rawness of standing barefoot and exposed in snow. He didn't want to go through that for a second. Instead he focused on using fire spells to attack La Sirene-and it certainly didn't hurt that they gave him a brief thrill of warmth too.

Eventually, though, he got tired of using magic, and charged at La Sirene, dodging as many of the slushballs of doom as he could. But just as he reached her, he tripped over something buried beneath the snow. Immediately he flung his knife away from both of them, but he couldn't keep himself from falling and ended up lying on the ground, La Sirene pinned beneath him.

The fusion looked at him with amusement in her carmine eyes, and then Shania released the spirit and burst out laughing, great puffs of white in the cold air. Johnny could feel the vibrations of her laughter through their layers of clothing, a sensation both novel and pleasant, and she looked so pretty with her eyes crinkled with humor, her lips curved into a grin, and his hormones decided without him that just as she said "good job," he should cut her off at "jo-" by kissing her.

She pushed him away from her immediately and his face turned bright red. "Sorry," he muttered, starting to move away. Shania grabbed his coat through her mittens as best as she could and kept him in place.

"You startled me," she said, and pulled him back down for another kiss.

Her lips were a little cold, but the inside of her mouth was warm, and this time the kiss lasted longer, breaking when the wind whipped over them and sent a shiver up both their bodies.

"It's too cold for this, at least," Shania said, wiping aside snowflakes that had just landed on her cheeks. "Let's go back home."

Johnny smiled and moved off of her. "Sounds like a great idea," he said.