As it started, so it continued; the two ate their meal in silence. Nicole was too busy to try to quip, making meals for the goblins in their “quarters”, leaving the two to enjoy their “quality time”. Eve was on her phone, too lost to her own devices, while Francis devoured his food with as much grace as a starving crocodile. And just as dangerous. He even devoured three-quarters of the goblins’ rations, but that was the price they paid for allowing Nicole to do what she did.
Francis ate so fast, tempered first by school then on the street when on a job. He lost track of how many times he was mid-meal and needed to leave a half-finished lunch platter or even taken a single bite of an extravagant dinner from a fancy restaurant just so he could eke away from the feds. It became a bit easier as age took its toll, as he started to lose his baby-face, his meek demeanor, and became the behemoth he was now. By sixteen, no one even believed he dropped out of school.
Lax did not mean safe, though, nor content. His growth came with a new set of problems, especially the jagged edges of his chin... and, of course, his height. He ditched the backpack and satchel and started to simply bootleg the goods. It helped some in keeping a lower profile, but then his paths became routine, a constant cycle. One of his clients was caught along it, but it seemed NARCOS didn’t get a name out of him. Instead, they simply hounded all the people they interacted with. Wouldn’t you know? The big, burly guy with the chin growths visited quite often.
There were weeks, months where he didn’t know a bed. Where he slept out on the cold stone or dirt. He didn’t dare the bridges, the usual roosts for the homeless who didn’t want to deal with the others, so he kept moving. It was a wonder (at the time) he never got sick; now that he knew what he was, it didn’t shock him. Turned out dragons (even half-breeds like him) were immune to most human diseases. Didn’t stop him from getting them, unlike Fangs, but he wouldn’t feel their ill effects.
Then the situation at the cafe happened... and he was let go. It only became harder to hide after that- but he was finally finished eating. Like any other time, he then departed, returned to his room, until it was time to be called out again, while leaving Eve to continue to do her business. A tradition well established, understood, and held between the two; why would he sully it now? He didn’t even bother to “compliment” the meals. Nicole might not have been the best cook, but she would give such a stern lecture if you called her food anything close to crap. She was vehement of that comparison, and would not relent until such an utterance was well and truly understood.
Just thinking about her sent a chill down his spine, laying in the bed. He could still feel her eyes as she chances glances at him as he ate, as if she was anticipating him to finish, waiting for him – which only made him savor it longer. As hungry as he was, the glint in her eyes, the way they sparkled when he ate too fast or slipped a loud slurp made him physically sick. When he finished, he almost threw the plate, with the knives and fork, her way as he tore towards his quarters. Instead, it was a simple lob, the pewter cutlery jingling away on the round marble surface. Taking her attention away-
He clenched every muscle as much as he possibly could... YET EVEN THEN he could feel her gaze the entire way, on his shoulders, on his back, and, of course, on his ass.
Francis kept himself from slamming the door behind him. But only just, ringing loud and true in its frame all the same. He heaved a weary, needed sigh, and every part of him relaxed with that exhale, melting into the bed. Into bliss. It wouldn’t be for too long-
Or would it?
The thought had crossed his mind as he made his way to the bed, returned as he laid upon those (now) blue sheets. This would be the last time in a while that he would be able to do That. Hell, this might be the last time in a while before he saw these four cracked walls, the beautiful women above his bed, the entirety of this condo. If not Eve. He will be living at the “dorms”, far and away from all of this. And Nicole. Though that thought came before... it was still worth mentioning again.
He wondered if he would have to visit during holidays -if he had a choice in that regard- when the door to his room opened. His heart plunged, tensing... only to relax, seeing it was simply, and only, Eve. He could hear the sink running in the kitchen, along with the soft, almost scintillating scrapes of the cleaning pad against the items. Eve stayed in the doorway, still looking down at her phone while her other hand waggled a finger around the room.
“Alright. Start packing a bag,” she said.
“What? Already?” He said.
“Yes. We have to get you settled in at the dorm as well as introduce and establish who you are carpooling with before you return to Vereor Nox. This was supposed to happen after orientation, but we saw how well that turned out.”
He groaned, sitting up. “Fine... What do I need again?”
“A few changes of clothes -and not just pants and shirts; new underwear and socks as well, regardless of how often you actually wear them- and that’s about it. The dorm-”
She shot a dirty look up from her phone, shaking her head.
“It is already furnished. The fridge is stocked for the rest of the week, and you’ll get your meal vouchers next Monday to refill it. It has a TV, and the entire dorm-”
“Whatever. You have satellite TV and wifi. If you want anything else, however, you will have to consider a job –of which I have already found twelve listings for part-time work in Paradise while explaining this to you.” He moaned, shooting him a dirty look. “Are we going to go through this again? Already!”
“Oh come on... Do I really need a job with you around?”
“We really are... wonderful.”
He cooed, and raised his pitch, pursing his lips as he cradled his hands under his chin. “Can’t I just ask for something special and be really good to get it? Please, mommy Eve?”
Eve... huffed. She tried to hide, she really did, but it only deepened her brow when she knew Francis caught it. Her face flitted, held a hint of a a wry smirk. It was fleeting, faster than a speeding bullet or a shade after its goal, but it was there. She raised her phone higher, hiding her face as best she could while the fire gushed from her arms.
“Tell you what: you never do that again and I won’t kill you... That sound special enough for you? Besides, if I didn’t coddle my actual children, what makes you think I will do you any better?”
“Because you love me more.”
Her fire flared, those blue flames scorching the stone, but Francis couldn’t hold back his laugh. It was only one, a single bark, but it was enough to make her lower her phone, glaring at him fully.
“True as that may be... no. You have to earn it. I can lay you down a basic path, but it’s up to you to continue it... Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am... Do I need shoes?”
“No, actually. Given how many other species can’t, those are entirely optional.
“But socks aren’t?”
“We both know you are taking your boots. They look good on you.”
With that, he packed. It didn’t take him long. In fact, it took longer to find a bag than it took to toss in a few change. The khaki cargo carrier was in the one place he would have never looked. If Eve didn’t offer guidance, he would have been there for an eternity. Instead, she pointed him to the one clean area behind the door. There, hung up on a nail through the bulwark, was the bag, weathered and worn far more than Francis could ever truly know. However, it would now endure him, hold his scant belongings, tossed in with fervent abandon. Since it was found as the sink was shut off. Clean, dirty, cut, torn; it did not matter. Not at that point. Not anymore.
He didn’t even bother clasping it shut. The metal dongles were left to clack together as he charged towards the door. His heart raced, skin beaded with sweat, contrasting Eve’s cool, if not bored, demeanor. She swayed to the side as he approached, and matched step with such ease, still looking down at her phone as they made their way through the entry and to the door.
The shuttle car was already there. Thank. God! Francis reached then reached for the car first, opening the back door for Eve. As her walks seemed to do, she simply slid in. Francis was about to climb in.
When he felt that familiar leer on his backside.
He looked back the briefest of moments, the tiniest of chances, and all color faded, seeing Nicole standing in the doorway. She blew him a kiss, twiddled her fingers goodbye, and stole enough of his thoughts to forget that the car was started.
“Don’t get too disenchanted with young puss,” she sung. “No lassie could ever know how to work your knobber like I could. And don’t be breakin’ too many. You don’t want me to babysit ye, do ye?”
The engine revved. The tires crunched on the stone. On his foot. He was pulled back and away from his stupor to that sedan, running, hobbling beside to keep up. All the while the older goblin’s titters chased after, as did her gaze. He clung to the frame, clawed at it, nails sparking and crunching into the metal as the engine went from a purr to a shriek, starting its way up the long corridor.
He managed to pull himself in just before the door was slammed shut, hitting the side as it passed... He heaved another, needed sigh, this time not only because of that goblin, and melted into the seat, welcoming the darkness. What light there was came from Eve’s phone.
Clicked off at last.
“Your carpool is awake and knows we are on our way.” She stated, putting her phone in the purse. Francis didn’t realize it, but she left it in the center of the backseat last night. The snakeskin bag accepted that lofty item, replacing it with a thick tome, handled so easily in her dainty digits. Her finger glided along the side of the pages until opening about halfway in, to a horsehair-topped leather bookmark... with the leather probably also made of the same steed. “Margaret Grimm knows we are coming, as well, and is turning the power on to your dorm. She’s leaving the key in your mailbox on the first floor. Number 312.”
“You couldn’t get me 123? Really... Hell, any room on the first floor? Is there an elevator, at least?”
“We already discussed this...”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I pissing you off with repeating things?”
“More like trying to weasel your way.”
“Damn. You caught me. Guess you should? Huh?”
She snorted, shaking her head. “Regardless, there isn’t a first floor, per say. All of the dorms were converted to shops since students started staying there, as well... Must say, a smart move on Lilith’s behalf. It’s bringing in a bit of life to the town... And, also, financial opportunities for the students in the town, since they can work there-”
“I get it I get it! I’ll get a freakin’ job... Just... not at those shops. I don’t want to shit and eat in the same place- er, sorry.”
“I’ll forgive it. This time... and not a bad mentality to have. A shame Lilith didn’t have the same.”
“So are there elevators or not?”
She shook her head again, and tapped her book, his only cue. Francis always wondered why she would do everything else on her phone... but refused to read on it. When he did ask, it was the most asinine reason she could give. “The feeling of flipping a page can never be replicated nor replaced.” He didn’t push it, though. He didn’t really care enough to. He wasn’t exactly a bookworm... In fact, book-burner was probably closer, but he didn’t exactly hate reading, either. He was book Switzerland, he supposed... except with (marginally) less firepower and an even harrier trigger finger.
The car wrenched. The brakes squalled, bounding back through the tunnel. They reached its end, and turned onto the main stretch, going at an acceptable eighty towards the highway-
“Wait,” Francis exclaimed. “We’re not changing cars?”
“Not today,” Eve grumbled. “I don’t plan to stay out long.”
Francis groaned- then winced, squinting his eye as the vile yellow orb in the sky made its presence known once again. It washed the fields of soft yellow grass around, the beasts that plodded their way through it; to him, though, at that moment, it was as if in he was seeing a world on fire.
They were whisked away from it, and the serene scene was replaced by rushing streets and carved mountainsides before, once again, coming to a shuddering, wrenching creep, slipping onto the old dirt road down into Paradise. They crossed the bridge, the water far, far below shimmering and casting colors onto the wild growth, as if they were skimming across a sea of crystal into the town that time forgot. The Academy, though, loomed over all, its turrets casting long shadows, eclipsing the midday sun on its needle-like tops, but that wasn’t their destination. Not yet.
The car grumbled, as if indignant at having to go below thirty, and pulled into the parking lot of “the dorms”. As Francis stated the other day, it really wasn’t anything special. Not even enough to be considered a dorm. In fact, it was the most recent-looking building, almost modern in design with echoes of its Victorian inspiration peeking through higher one looked. It was separated into two sides by a stairwell, made from thick, well-kept concrete, going up four floors in concise, rectangular pivots. As Eve said, the bottom of the apartments were now bastardized, defiled with signs for what they contained. There was a yogurt store and an alcohol shop in the two closest to the stairs, and the rest were just as jarring, clashing, just as ill-suited as they went along. However, there was one that preserved the building’s dignity, that kept itself from being dolled up and treated as a whore, and that was the furthest right corner. Where the car pulled up.
The car spat out one last curse at them as the goblin in the driver’s seat pulled the key out. Heard through the separator. Eve put her book away, picked up the purse, and opened the door, stepping out into the soft sunlight. Francis followed, lumbering behind that gliding matron towards that dingy little corner. He could see now that it was mostly tinted amber glass, to the point it was almost black even in direct light. He could have been fooled into believing it was one solid slat, but, as they drew closer, he saw one of the walls had a golden bar attached, which Eve grabbed and pulled open, holding it for him. It was just as dark inside, but the light that managed to punch through gave a rippling sensation, as if they were in a large bottle of beer.
Francis started to feel a bit drunk as he ventured inside. Most of the entry was empty save for a few, simple metal chairs, sat along the glass. As his eyes adjusted, though, he could see that, against the far wall, there were golden boxes set into it, forty or so, each with a keyhole and a number denoting it. The bottom ten had the names of the shops on them- which he deduced what that meant and looked at the third row, finding his name there.
“Third floor. Left side. Second,” he mumbled, jumping as Eve responded.
“Close, but it’s the right side,” she said, and strode towards those boxes, reaching for 312. He could see that the lip of it was just jutting out, hissing as she pulled it open, swinging to the left. Inside there was a manila folder, as well as a simple, copper key, placed on top. She handed him the folder, holding onto the edge of it, and turned him around as they made their way out of the amber enclosure and down the block. “That’s your lease packet, along with loan information, bank account disclosure -both savings and checking- your new credit line, and all the papers you need to sign for Vereor Nox Academy, including but not limited to health, dental, vision, life, afterlife, organ, and identity theft insurance.”
“Which one is theft?”
“Yes... You will need to look through the entire packet and sign it all before you return to the Academy –don’t worry. I had the packet made foolproof: everywhere you need to sign and date is highlighted. You can easily ignore the rest.”
“I mean, I was going to do that anyways. If I was willing to hit the accept button on every other terms of service, I owe my life and soul to, like, a hundred different entities by now. What’s one more?” God, I miss that phone, though... Wonder if Sebastian or Ariel or, hell, even Flounder are enjoying it as much.
Even hummed, her answer, and the lead the way, continuing on. Each store had their own genre of music blaring inside, rising and clashing, as if they were meant to fight on every front. Sight, hearing, smell-
Francis passed one of the shops. And knew, distinctly, that it was a hobby store. A card shop. There was no doubting that; the malodorous concoction that seeped through its (sealed) doors... yet... it was ...strangely enticing. He was a poor boy growing up, though. He couldn’t afford cardboard crack then... now, however... They passed by the alcohol store, my true crack, and into the tiny alcove where the stairs were, climbing to the third floor. There were two sets of stairs, each one given wide berth. They had enough room to accommodate the pair of them, walking side-by-side, and still have enough room for four more. Each one made a resolute clack as they ascended.
They stepped off on a metal grate, clanging with their footfalls, and followed the right path two doors down. Eve put the key in the lock, and pushed... then pushed again... and again- shoved it open right into the entry and into the wall. Not against. Into.
Eve huffed, shaking her head. “Dammit. I have to send her a text on that. Really should have had this fixed right... Anyways, make yourself at home. I’m going to get a key ring and lanyard for you. I should be back before you meet with Penny.”
“Penny?” Francis said, snorting. “Who the hell has that name? Oh wait! Don’t tell me. Is her name Penny Dreadful?”
“Funny, but no. The name is Penny Blackstone Copperfield Dresden.”
“Well, that was my second guess, b-”
It took him a moment, but he realized that wasn’t Eve that said it. They weren’t alone in that apartment.
The smell of burning wood filled it. Runes smoked on a black staff further inside, smoldering, brightening to reveal a woman in a black leather duster. She had curly, brown hair, bounding around an oiled black hat, shimmering not from the heat of the staff but the fire in her bright, blue eyes. Not much could be told of her figure, hidden under the duster, but she was taller, bulkier than Eve, and moved with certainty and power as she strode towards them.
She tapped her staff onto the ground, which was almost as tall as Francis. It rested just under his nose, and the runes cooled, taking with it the fire in her eyes. But not the ire.
“You must be Francis,” she said. Her voice was cold, blunt, as if trying to strike him down with mere words alone.
“And you must be a witch,” he said, chuckling, trying to sound braver than he truly was. “I heard there were a couple here at VNA-”
“And I’m not one of them. I’m a wizard.”
“The difference being...”
She growled, the runes flashed, and shot a glare at Eve. “I thought you taught him all of this!”
“I taught him enough,” she said, giving Penny a dour look as she gestured to the door. “And now I know what to tell Marge.”
“Don’t look at me. That wood was swollen before I arrived.” She shook her head again, clacked her staff on the ground, and aimed her attention (and intentions) towards Francis again. “The main difference between a witch and a wizard are actually incredibly simple: Witches are predisposed of their power. Wizards are born with it.”
“She means witches have limited utility while wizards have the gift,” Eve said, still tapping away on her phone. “That being said, witches will always be more powerful than wizards.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can take my power for granted.” The runes lit on her staff again, the true fire returned to her eyes. “I have more than enough power to turn a drachen like you to ash, so best be on your best around me. Comprende?”
“Yup. Perfectly. I will soon see you on the base of my deck,” he said, trying to bait her (he was a master of it, after all)... but stepped aside as Penny shoved her staff in between the two, storming out of the apartment. Not even offering a fight. Her thick, black boots could be heard clonking down the steps to the floor below and all the way to the end of the left-hand side, ended with the softest pair of clicks.
Francis took a deep breath, still smelling the burning oak- or was it sycamore? It was a hearty wood, he could tell that, and that made him a bit uneasy. However, that didn’t stop who he was, smirking at Eve.
“So where’s my key ring and lanyard?”
“Ordered and ready for pickup at the store in town.” She stated, and turned around, heading out the door. It started to shut, hissing on its hinges, and bounced against the frame. Or, as Penny put it, swollen too much for proper penetration... But Francis didn’t pay that any (more) mind, instead turning his thoughts and self towards the rest of the apartment.
There was a light switch off to the right, which struck him with such light as he flipped it up. The walls were a soft yellow, allowing the faint lights above to carry such a glow down onto the navy blue couch and loveseat set before a modest-sized television, taking up most of the living room straight ahead of him. The top of the couch was dented from where Penny had been sitting, as well as a bit of soot from where her staff rested. The rest was spotless, not even a speck of dust to be had. In between the TV, placed upon a thick, black stand, and the couch was a coffee table, with a long, oval, wooden top, and on top of it was a bright, festive card stating Welcome to Vereor Nox Academy!
He rolled his eyes, and pushed that aside as he began to work on the paperwork. Though he said he was simply going to sign it, he still took some time to read the finer prints. He was dense, not stupid, and he didn’t forget she said, “afterlife insurance”. Or any of them with “theft”... He wanted to make sure what, exactly, he was dealing with, and so most of the day was spent studying the packet, keeping the dread of the actual week away for that much longer. After all, Penny the Wizard and the vamp gang was only a taste of what was to come. In more ways than one.