Laila stood before the fountain, her fingers lightly tracing the cracks in the old stone. The night around her was peaceful, the stars in the sky above seeming to twinkle in tune with the night creatures’s song. The fountain was surrounded by trees that had no business growing in the midst of the Arizona desert, and yet here they flourished. She knew all of them, had grown up learning about the trees that had been home to her people for so many centuries, trees that had meaning and power. Yet it was not the trees that drew her gaze. Nor was it the flowers that bloomed so beautifully in the night air, flowers that, in the heat of the sun less than eight hours before had been wilted and brown.
It was the fountain that held her fascination, the stones humming to her and pulsing with an unfamiliar magic. She dipped her fingers into the water that hadn’t been there earlier and was surprised to find it refreshingly cool, even chill. The vines that had been dead crawled up the stone and drank hungrily from the water. Their brilliant, soft leaves brushed against Laila’s skin and she shivered, a chill going up her back. The crickets around her hushed and she shut her eyes briefly, a slight smile crossing her lips before she turned to the man now standing behind her.
“So this is a dream,” Laila sighed. The man chuckled softly as he walked towards her. He was too tall, too thin to be truly attractive; his face full of angles that added a bit of cruelty to his stare. But, having once been called a “skeleton with clothes” herself, Laila found that she was intrigued by him, if not outright attracted.
His long fingers reached for hers, skating gently across her knuckles as he lifted her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across the back of it before slowly releasing it. “Why do you think this is a dream, my dear?”
“Because that’s all you ever are.” Laila felt strange, as if she wanted to clutch the hand he had kissed to her chest, but stubbornly stopped herself from doing so. Despite his frequent appearances in her dreams since she was a child, this was the first time he had ever touched her, and the idea of liking it scared her. As a defense, she started humming the lullaby her mother used to sing to her every night, whispering the words to herself.
Mo ghrá geal,
may the Night Wolf never shadow your steps,
may your dreams be ever free of him.
A rún mo chroí,
let my arms keep you safe
and my words keep you warm
and may the Night Wolf never bring you harm.
“Am I the dreaded Night Wolf now, Laila?” The little smile playing across his face softened the accusation in his words. “Surely if I were going to take young, innocent maidens and devour them, I would have done so long ago.”
Laila tucked the lock of black hair that had escaped her ponytail and fallen over her face behind her ear. “No, you’re not the Night Wolf. I just…” she trailed off as her fingers drummed nervously against the stone fountain. Why was she feeling like this? He had never inspired such…passion before. “I have to go.” With that, her tiny body pushed quickly past him and she disappeared around the corner of the trellis that blocked the house from the garden.
Aeron watched Laila flee with a smile. After watching over her dreams for seventeen long years, he was finally close to his goal. One more year, and everything he had hoped for, everything he had planned would come to fruition. He touched his lips gently, the warmth of her flesh still lingering. It had been so long since he had felt that warmth.
Laila awoke in the strange bed, her arms automatically covering her face as the sunlight streamed through the newly opened curtains.
"Upsy-daisy, missy!" Laila's mother sang cheerfully. "Your father was able to call the rental company and they are sending someone with a replacement car within the hour. As wonderful as it was that our car broke down so close to this house, it also puts us behind schedule, so we need to be ready to go when the replacement car shows up."
"Fine, fine, Mama! Argh! Just, close the curtains. It's way too bright."
Sylvie Nissim smiled at her daughter as she pulled the curtains shut. "I'm not leaving this room until I see you out of bed and heading to the shower. And the longer you take, the more tempted I am to reopen these curtains." She hummed softly as Laila groaned and rolled over, just managing to save herself from falling off the bed.
As Laila stumbled to the bathroom, eyes still closed, mumbling under her breath, Sylvie swiftly remade the bed. As kind as the owner of the house had been last night when the four of them had shown up out of the blue, Sylvie didn't want to repay him by leaving their rooms messy. After the bed was made, she quickly picked up and repacked the clothes Laila had managed to strew all about the room, traded the pajamas Laila had stripped off in the bathroom for a clean outfit, and took her daughter's suitcase down the hall to the entranceway before heading off to the kitchen, where she was surprised to find a meal already prepared.
Laila got out of the shower, dressed, and followed her nose to the kitchen door, where she stood for a moment, watching her family. Her father, Emery Nissim, tall and light, the very definition of beautiful in Laila's eyes, was laughing as he put his arm around her mother's shoulders. Sylvie seemed the perfect counterpart to Emery's light - she was short with long, dark hair and tanned skin. Laila's brother, Ranen, was already seated at the table and on what appeared to be his second plate of food. Ranen was taller than his father, and, like his father, the light seemed to pour out of him. In another time, he could have been a warrior prince, but in the present, he was, or rather had been, an All-American and one of the most popular kids at their high school.
Next to her incredible family, Laila often felt like the odd one out. She was short, like her mother, but that was where the similarities ended. Her mother's long, wavy, black hair shone next to Laila's frizzy mud-colored locks. When she was fifteen, she had chopped her hair into a pixie cut, but the afro she woke up with every morning for months afterward convinced her to never let it get that short again. So she kept it long enough to keep in a ponytail or braid, and that was it. And, unlike her mother's 1940's pin-up girl figure, Laila was mostly skin and bones. Her father's mother, Italian to the core, could barely look at her without shoving food into her mouth and chastising her mother for not feeding her enough. Laila's father would laugh and swing her up into his arms, joking that she had to stay small so she could follow the fairies into their groves, but Laila could always hear the worry underneath.
Ranen lifted his eyes from his half-finished plate and caught sight of Laila in the doorway. "Hey mouse," he said, smiling broadly. "I see you finally managed to join the living."
Emery turned to his daughter. "Come and have something to eat before Ranen inhales everything. The car will be here shortly." His arm dropped from around Sylvie's shoulders as she turned to fix Laila a plate.
"I'm not really hungry, Papa, but-"
"No buts, missy, we're going to be busy most of the day and probably won't be eating again until tonight. You sit yourself down and eat a good breakfast. Your father was just about to hunt down Mr. Wyndham and thank him again for allowing us to stay last night. I expect both of you to be ready to go in twenty minutes." Sylvie expanded her gaze to include her son for the last. Emery walked out of the kitchen, his typical good mood unspoiled by the delay in their plans.
In twenty minutes the entire brood, suitcases and all, were assembled at the front door. Emery was still puzzled by the decided absence of their host, but, as the new rental car pulled up, he shook his head and laid the note of thanks Sylvie had written on the side table before picking up his and his wife's suitcases and heading out the door. Ranen, mimicking his father, picked up his and Laila's suitcases and followed. Laila brought up the rear, shutting the door softly behind her. As she walked through the garden to the driveway, she glanced around the side of the house, where she could just see the fountain. Unlike in her dream, it was crumbling and covered, not in green, leafy vines, but brown, dead ones. She started to turn her head back toward her family when, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the man next to the fountain. Gasping, she stopped dead in her tracks and whipped her head around, her blue eyes locking with the dark brown eyes that haunted her. Aeron lifted his hand to his lips and blew her a kiss as Sylvie came up and put her hand on Laila's hair.
"Everything ok, sweetie?"
Laila turned her head to her mother for a moment, but when she looked back, Aeron had disappeared. She shook her head, trying to clear the fog from her mind. "Fine, Mama. I'm just fine. Sorry." And with that, Laila strode to the car and plopped into the back seat, pulling her headphones from her pocket and turning her music on so she wouldn't have to talk. As they drove away, she watched the house grow smaller and smaller and felt an emptiness she had never noticed before.
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