Two

The entire next week Cass spent humiliated and terrified. At every shadow or creak she jumped and whirled, whole body tense and her heart practically vibrating it pulsed so quickly. And then she’d realize it was nothing, and scoff at her own paranoia.

Saturday night was a freak. Just some crazy guy, who probably only kept functioning after being stabbed in the neck on pure adrenaline. That could happen, there have been weirder cases. Hell, there are whole TV shows dedicated to weird, nature-defying moments.

Cass refused to acknowledge the tiny thought wriggling in the back of her mind. It was the miniscule, unnatural part that every human had: the thrill at surviving an experience that easily could have killed her, and the curiosity and awe that she had survived. But this felt different, it felt stronger and more tempting than any urge-to-jump-at-the-edge feeling. Look at the impact he had had on her—shock, shaking, constant attention and fear. It had definitely changed that night from being yet another boring, unfulfilling party.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she locked her apartment door behind her at two AM that Saturday. Then, she fell onto her bed face-up, clothing and boots still on, and breathed another sigh. This one couldn’t really be called relief. A full week of being jumpy and nervous and practically electric with adrenaline, and nothing else even slightly unusual happened. There wasn’t even a report of any theft or assault in the news.

So imagine her mixed feelings—the primary being surprise at the presence of any emotions at all—when a hand curls around her shoulder at barely ten on a Tuesday night. Twisting out of the grip, somewhat easily if she had bothered to take notice, Cass’s fingers tugged clumsily at her pocket. She threw her feet behind her to put space between the man and herself.

He looked exactly the same. And it was him, most definitely. Dark hair in short, glimmering spikes, strong jawline through the shadows, and dark but definitely nice clothing. This time there was no casual talk or stance first; Cass could see from the few feet of distance that his entire being was taut and pulsing with energy.

The man was back in her face before she blinked, snarling, and Cass yelped as her arm moved automatically to block her face and head from him. The penknife was finally open in her fingers.

Cass felt her pulse thud dully in her ears, and she could have sworn she heard his too, as both figures froze and processed the last half-second. The liquid staining his neck and seeping onto his shirt was darker than anything else in Cass’s vision, and moved deceptively slowly. Her eyes were glued to the pool with rapt fascination, then slid up to the slightly slanted slit on skin that was pale in the moonlight and in comparison to the blood.

Part of her wanted to apologize. But the larger part just wanted to keep looking at it.

Especially when the stain stopped growing and a deep chuckle rumbled from the cut-open throat.

“You have impressive reflexes,” he spoke, voice low but not cracked or shaky. There was no indication, even in his stance, that he should be dying on the ground right now. Cass felt the shock running like liquid nitrogen through her veins, freezing every inch of the underside of her skin until even the air moving in her throat felt cold.

“You…” she breathed, not entirely sure where she was going with it. She recognized him—but was it particularly smart to remind a crazy serial attacker that this is the second time he’s attacked her? Maybe she could point out that he should be dying. But she didn’t think any man would respond too warmly to that. “How are you not dead yet?” Well, guess she was going with a mixture of the two.

Teeth glinted in the dim light, making his smile seem crueler than it already was. “You ask decent questions.”

Against her survival instincts, Cass felt annoyance trickle between the cracks in the ice in her veins. He continued to laugh, and exasperation followed the annoyance, warming and twisting her spine until her features dipped into a scowl. Adrenaline shot through her suddenly—delayed, much?—and she was hurtling forward to land an inch from his face before she’d even processed—or he’d stopped laughing at her.

“I’m starting to wonder if you really ever do get hurt,” she snarled, effectively cutting off his laughter by swiping the knife at him again. This time, the blade and handle were already wet and she wasn’t as lucky with her arm. She hit his neck still, but even she knew it wasn’t enough to be lethal. And she wasn’t entirely sure if she was content or disappointed.

At least the damn laughter had stopped. But she would have preferred the manic laughter to the scowl and narrowed eyes that silently burned into her. Cass literally felt her skin blistering from the fury on his face. It didn’t break even as his lips twitched into a sardonic grin.

“You’ll find it’s rather close to impossible to fell me.”

******

The next time she saw who seemed to be her personal attacker, Cass only had to wait four days. As (what was becoming) usual, it was late at night only a block or two from her apartment.

She still had the slim little knife with her, though she didn’t reach for it this time. It went against every survival instinct, every cell of her body screamed at her to run or fight or grab it or just do something when one moment she was walking down between faint pools of crappy streetlights and the next a man was standing imposingly in her face.

“Hello,” his face was stone, and his voice completely even. Cass had to bite back laughter at the sheer confusion and unreality of the situation. She stood face-to-face with a man who had attacked her—snarling and scratching, like an animal—twice in the last month, and right now her only defensiveness was a rigid spine and narrowed eyes.

“Can I help you?” Sass. The foolproof way to stand up to a psycho and not entice him to rip your throat out. Guaranteed.

One corner of his mouth curled up. “I am rather intrigued by you, actually. May I inquire your name?” Cass blinked.

“Cass,” she answered automatically, clearly not even thinking. Surprise held her body, and paralyzed her mind despite the storm in her stomach. The unusual emotion muddled her mind. People weren’t complicated. Especially at her age of early twenties, people were incredibly, mind-numbingly, simple. And yet, she couldn’t even react properly to this man for the life of her—quite literally, at the moment.

“Your proper name, if you will,” he said a bit stiffer, and his arms swung to clasp loosely behind his back. Right then. Strange or not, he was still a person. And Cass didn’t like people much, so she reverted to her usual self.

She scoffed and crossed her arms, her hip cocking. She shuffled her feet, trying to subtly plant them shoulder-width apart in the beginning of a defensive stance. She’d probably need it. “You first, if you please.”

He chuckled. Quite lightly, too, and actually not manically as he had the last time. Finally catching up with the fact that she was standing there conversing with a guy who had attacked her at night twice, Cass whirled on her heel and began walking, enough purpose and power in her step that the soles of her feet whined after barely half the block. She grit her teeth. Priorities.

“Call me Lars,” the masculine, smooth voice called easily. From fairly close to her too. Great, he was going to follow and talk at her again. Cass rolled her eyes at the absurdity of the situation—she was annoyed at a violent man’s pattern, not angry or, more appropriately, scared.

Then she blinked and he was inches from her face. Stopping short, this time her survival instincts won and the slim penknife was in her fingers as her breath shook and she took him in. This close, and in this angle of the streetlamp, she could see his face entirely. Strong jaw, dark gelled hair, bold cheekbones, elegant brows, and dark brown eyes that were only slightly narrowed as he studied her equally. Not bad, a voice in the back of Cass’s mind snickered darkly. Neither of them made any movements, however, both just looking at each other. There was something oddly familiar about him…as if she didn’t know him, but should, or had noticed him in some crowded, public place some time ago.

“I would urge you not to fear, but I already know you are not afraid of me,” the corners of his mouth quirked, eyes crinkling. The smile was small, and not at all crazy. Actually—and Cass did raise an eyebrow at this and did not suddenly become trusting, mind you—it looked almost affectionate, or pleasant.

He was right though. The realization rang through her, like the church bells and bright, “heavenly” light that played at the end scenes of tragic movies. She wasn’t scared. Surprised—yes. Annoyed? Hell yes. Confused, edgy, agitated, jumpy? Absolutely. Scared? Not even a little.

“It is rather intriguing,” he said, voice sounding like a teacher congratulating a toddler for noticing that cats and dogs were different.

“I’m glad,” she drawled, voice saturated with sarcasm. Then, she internally slapped herself. Why was she being sarcastic to a random stranger, with whom all of her interactions had been violent up to this point?! Honestly. She gave a long-suffering sigh at herself. “What do you want?”

Maybe if he got to the attacking part faster, this could be over faster. Maybe he was really eager to be stabbed. Again. In the interest of being focused and not breaking down in confusion, Cass tried not to think too hard about that.

“I simply wish to talk with you,” he answered, inclining his head. “I also wish to apologize for my behavior, I keep finding you when I am…not in a pleasant state of mind.”

To put it mildly.

Lovely, a psycho with manners.

Cass inhaled through her nose, her lips pressed together as she thought long and hard before saying something. His manners were impeccable, she had to note, as well as very old-fashioned. She opted for silence, studying him intently. His face and body were completely at ease, his eyes staying on hers.

“What did you say your name was?” she blurted, and his lips quirked again.

“Lars,” he responded, the name rolling off his tongue, and Cass picked up on the slight lilt. “It is a version of the original French name, Lorens.”

His gaze became a bit more intense as his eyes narrowed and he seemed to focus on her even more. Cass didn’t blame him, as she felt a twinge of interest herself.

“Well, it was nice to meet you,” she nodded, never forgetting her manners, and then stepped around him. She congratulated herself on how well she hid his unexpected step aside to let her pass. “Good night.” And please leave me alone.

“A bit rude to dismiss a threat to you, and turn your back.” And there was the creeping, low voice we all know and love. Cass didn’t even flinch, her fingers tightening around the penknife, the reminder comforting. Yet, she didn’t really feel threatened. He probably was a psycho serial killer, so her theory probably made no sense and was not at all a failsafe, but some part of her rationalized that if he really was going to kill her, he would have already. Or he would have at least done something—broken into her house, kidnapped her, left her creepy messages written in blood, et cetera.

Yet, some part of her almost felt accepting of his presence now.

“Cassille,” she admitted over her shoulder, giving him her full name. A rather rare treat, since she didn’t always like how unusual it sounded. But that wasn’t the detail she was thinking of, or that he was probably looking for. That would be her full name, surname included: Cassille Laurent. A family name with a long history, originating from the Gallic times and meaning laurel in old French. Happy history.

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