*It goes without saying that The Originals – the story and all related characters – belong to the writers, cast and crew of the show. I claim no ownership or association to the TV series titled The Originals. This was written by a fan solely for the enjoyment of other fans.*

Prologue
THE BLACK CUBE


"When you came to a crossroads, by definition, you had to pick a course, because going straight on the path you were on was no longer an option."

Jim Heron
Covet, by J.R. Ward


"Do you know the deepest desire of your heart?"

A boy asked me this, over cappuccino and almond cream éclairs at a chic café in the city.

I was sixteen and thinking back on that evening I found it telling how close he'd come to getting me into bed on the strength of a good line and my own inexperience. How terribly impressed I'd been by him. I thought it was love.

Two years later, I couldn't even tell you his name.

But I remembered the question.

Did I know – did I? No.

I couldn't have known, then, the significance of that evening or that things . . . invisible, intangible, but still very real things had already been set in motion.

There were too many coincidences to allow for chance, and in those periods of calm almost lost to me, a new question would surface. Why?

Why me?

Why . . . him?

XxXxXx

White votive candles floated in crystal glass bowls.

Each flame a perfect little spade of light. Orange faded to yellow, and brilliant blue at the base where they were hottest.

How my parents managed to score an invitation to the political fundraising dinner masquerading as a Christmas party I might never know, but I'd bet I was the only guest wondering how close I could get to the fire before it burned me.

I'd done my part.

I danced with the mayor's son. Made conversation with the people at our table, ate the catered turkey dinner . . . and did not embarrass my parents. At seventeen, I was the youngest person here – by quite a lot, in most cases.

My parents, shameless social climbers, were not above using their only daughter to buy their way into those esteemed circles and I was only nine the first time they brought me to a party.

Still too young to realize that I'd been blessed with my father's golden crown, my mother's sparkling turquoise eyes; I looked so much like an angel that it couldn't have been more perfect if they'd designed me.

Their precious blue-eyed blond.

I remembered that evening and how I'd felt so grown up, so beautiful in my brand new dress sparkling under the crystal lights of a hotel ballroom. Like a princess in a fairytale. To me it was magical and more than a little naughty, being allowed to stay up so far past my bedtime.

That party had been my first; this one was my last . . .

I stood from the table as if yanked by my shoulders, the sharp flavors of heavily seasoned turkey and stuffing souring on my tongue. My last. The thought elicited a clutch of panic that surprised even me. I smoothed damp palms over the skirts of my festive dress.

Crushed velvet in cranberry red; my mother approved the dress for this evening. Curls of hair swept my neck, stiff with spray but glistening in the soft lamplight. No need to catch my own reflection to know that I was a vision.

Men stared when I stood. Women stared. Upstairs, the deep, ponderous dong of a grandfather clock chimed once. I pretended not to notice the eyes following after me as I left the dining room.

The Governor General's house was huge. Not a mansion but a far cry from our two-story with a yard in the 'burbs. Fresh green pine boughs were hung like mistletoe in doorways, their spiciness mixing with the perfume of cinnamon-scented candles.

Warm light spilled from the spacious sitting room.

A crackling fire in a wide hearth, the ambience enhanced by the sparkle of a blue-green spruce decorated for the season. The wink of colorful lights on shiny wrapping paper. Those were empty wrapped boxes, not presents.

And of course that's where I found my mom; standing with our host and his wife, her polite laugh rising over the melody of holiday classics crooning through discrete speakers. She held the flute of a champagne glass in one delicate hand, the small diamond of her wedding ring catching in the firelight.

Frustration smoldered as I watched her there. She was a queen holding court, beautiful, her smile as decorative as those gifts under the tree. It was already one in the morning and she didn't look ready to leave . . . ever.

I slid off the doorframe, leaving smudges on the dark lacquered wood. The intimately lit hall seemed to sway a little. I didn't rush.

As late as it was, the party had died down to a few dozen people milling about. In the dining room, in the foyer, at the front door where I retrieved my coat –

Nobody stopped me from slipping out.

I always expect someone will, even though no one ever does. The instant bite of freezing air on sweaty skin acted as a balm to frazzled nerves, and I sucked in the first breath of clear air I'd taken all night.

The sheer, dizzying relief I felt to be away – just away – reinforced the idea that I was doing the right thing. My last. But even as I thought it, I couldn't shake my father's influence . . . that I was making a selfish decision.

My parents would be so hurt. My family needed me.

Most especially after what my brother did.

Fat, heavy flakes kicked into flurries swept the yard, shooting like glittering meteors through the glow of decorative lanterns. My life had become a carousel of images; dinners, fundraisers, ladies lunches . . . each memory melting into the next, blurring into a collage of sameness.

I pressed a hand to my stomach, forcing back the sting of sick crawling into my throat. The needling of sweat on my face. Not fear. Anxiety. Mild, but poignant. Things were changing. Too fast, maybe, and it would have been so much easier to leave it alone –

And there it was.

The wheels I'd set in motion, and it was too late to change my mind now. I already put a deposit down on an apartment in the city. Landed a job, secured my own bank account, walked the neighborhood to learn where to buy food, laundry, bus stop.

I was leaving.

My parents had no idea.

And I would have to tell them. Not tonight, but soon.

I sucked in a cleansing breath and maybe it was that I knew how late it was, or the bobbing of wind-tossed lights in the dark, weighed by caked on snow, but for just a second I was struck by the most incredible sense of surrealism. A bit of holiday magic.

Freedom. Of a sort.

If they let me, if they forgave me, I still wanted to be a part of my parents' lives . . .

Something changed. The hairs on my neck lifted.

I scanned the yard, what I could see of it mostly curtained by the whipping snowfall so thick that I could hardly make out the glow of windows from the house across the street. There was a car coming. Headlights cut through the storm.

I edged into the heavy door at my back, one bare hand closing around the frozen handle. If it pulled into the drive, I'd duck back inside . . . my breath caught. Not a car. A limousine. Presidential black, cruising smoothly past on near-silent tires. I watched it, braced for that tell-tale flare of red break lights. Nothing.

Of course nothing. What did I think ours was the only Christmas party?

My heart beat like a drum in my head, fast and too heavy. I let go of the door handle and stepped carefully down one step. What scared me? There was nothing out there. I blinked the clear the flakes caught on the ends of my eyelashes.

The silence. That's what was different, what changed. Eerily quiet, in spite of the wind, I could hear the snow settling in my hair. The crunch of boots on ice-slicked brick –

My breath came in plumes of steam.

"Ethan."

He appeared like a ghost from the storm; the icy dark wind whipping his hair dramatically around his face. Even from a distance, it was a handsome face. Sculpted high cheekbones, the straight lone of a jaw only lightly dusted with stubble a shade darker than our mother's chestnut locks.

This would go down as the most surreal moment of my life – my brother gliding from the snow as if he were dragging the blizzard with him, to the faint thrum of Feliz Navidad through the door at my back.

Ethan moved into the light, coming to stand at the foot of the wide brick step decorated with holly and tinsel. He was gaunter than I remembered; the leanness of hard muscle under a heavy gray coat that flapped around his legs.

It was him.

My brother.

"W-what are you . . . how are you even here?"

"How long have I been back in town?" Ethan's gaze tipped up, scanning the red-brick face of the house with its multitude of warm-lit windows webbed with frost and holiday greenery. His lip quirked, "Or what am I doing here, at the Governor General's house?"

Right. Because it's not like we would have left him a note on the counter.

I didn't move from my top step and Ethan . . . my brother didn't come any closer, though he wouldn't have needed to. I could feel the heat coming off his jacket. My jaw ached with tension. Without thinking I bit out, "Pick one."

Two years. I hadn't seen him in two . . . years . . .

He had such a careful smile. Since we were kids, subdued. "I made you a promise."

Out of everything he might have said . . . hurt struck like a match and then anger so profound it staggered me.

"You made me a what? A promise means nothing when you lose faith in the one who made it."

I meant to hurt him. The accusation couldn't have been clearer; his response was a little harder to pin down. No apology. No fumbled attempt to explain himself, to justify . . . the wind tore at my clothes, but Ethan didn't move a muscle. Didn't even seem to feel the cold.

"Do you know what mom and dad did when you left?" I gripped the banister with one hand, fingers flexing. "Told everyone how proud they were of you," and was furiously happy at the flicker of suspicion in my brother's eyes. "How they were all so proud that their oldest had gone off to university . . . in France."

His lip quirked. "Did they really?"

"A socially acceptable explanation for what happened to you. You were in Europe. Yes, of course they did."

And I was left to weather the fallout of my parents' lie. They were so worried of what would happen if he ever came back; it became my job to do justice to my brother's imaginary success.

He wasn't in France.

Hadn't gone off to school.

The embarrassment of having to confess to all their important friends that their son had himself emancipated, because he couldn't stand to live in our house anymore. In the lengthening silence I searched my beloved brother's face for what he thought of what I just said . . .

"You're right," – softly. "I waited too long."

The admission did nothing to take the edge off my hurt. "You left me."

"I was seventeen," Ethan countered. "God, 'manda, what did you think I'd fight our parents for custody?"

From inside the house, right on the other side of the heavy wooden door with its pretty green wreath, I could just make out the low croon of Silent Night; when had Feliz Navidad ended? I ran numb fingers through my hair, dislodging the ice that'd caked on.

"You know you can't . . . come inside."

My brother had the nerve to snort. "I didn't intend to."

"So what do you want?"

"I told you."

"Other than to keep some benign promise, Ethan, why are you here?" I asked because it mattered to me, but I also expected evasiveness, some non-answer, which is why it surprised me to catch a shadow almost like vulnerability in his eyes. Our father's eyes. Brown, where mine were blue.

Ethan climbed up onto the first step.

"Would you believe, I missed you?"

"Ethan."

"I did," he said. "You know I meant to leave –"

"Yes you did."

"I never meant to hurt you," he amended, and that, at least, I believed.

The music changed again. A whisper of nostalgia diffused through the door at my back, like listening to it from my bed. Distance softening the notes.

I'll be home for Christmas . . .

. . . you can count on me.

The huge decorated tree was framed in the window to the left of the foyer, the color from its twinkling lights spilling out onto the snow in the yard. Caught by falling flakes, glittering red and green and silver bright.

Our mom was in that room.

Had she noticed I left the house? No. I was trusted.

"I have something for you," Ethan's voice, darkly resonate in the storm, broke though the needling pangs of fresh guilt. My family trusted me. "An early birthday present, given I missed the last two I thought . . ."

Only then did I notice what he was holding down by his hip, partially hidden in the folds of his coat. I stepped down one more step, bringing myself daringly closer. Drawn by the strangeness of the thing in his hand.

"What is that?"

Ethan held it up. "I have no idea."

A dense black block, about the size of a square tissue box. Undecorated, not particularly pretty but the block – a perfect cube – was undeniably striking. Without waiting for him to hand it to me, I took the Cube from my brother's hands.

"Then why did you get it?"

It was heavy. The sides ultra smooth.

I ran my hands over the sides, feeling the rounded edges where one face turned into another. The thing was much, much heavier than its size accounted for. I could feel the weight of it tugging at my wrists.

"I'm not sure." Ethan stepped up next to me, and I let him. Welcoming the warmth from his body, and the reassuring scent of detergent, of all things. "When I saw it I couldn't put it down, couldn't walk away."

No. No, I could see why not.

I held the Cube lightly with both hands, my palms pressed to the flat face on either side. I stared into the depthless black surface and there, faint but undeniable, a spray of silver lights. Soft, sharp, like champagne bubbles bursting before they surfaced.

What happened next was . . . sudden.

As if hurtling from the very centre, tiny bright lights like stars.

Millions upon millions. I could feel their light on my face. See their glow on my fingers. All at once I couldn't feel the cold. Something else was happening.

They surfaced as if from an impossible depth, lines in the glass-like surface of the Cube. Their color at first indistinct – blue, green, white. Electric purple. I watched, enthralled, as those lines coalesced into recognizable numbers.

0-0-15

I looked at my brother.

The shine from those glowing numbers lighting in his eyes.

0-0-13

"What is this?"

He shook his head.

0-0-7

By every right I should have let go of that box. Dropped it in the snow, put it down or . . . or . . . I might never know why I did it. Why apprehension had me tightening my grip, locking my fingers in place.

Maybe the universe has ways of making things happen.

Fate. Destiny.

A higher power.

0-0-02

"Ethan?"

0-0-01 . . .