Of all the ways I wanted to come face-to-face with Claire again ... this wasn't the one I'd preferred. I knew that there was a slim chance we might accidentally meet, but this wasn't any accident; I was showing up on purpose on her doorstep, and there was no way to pretend that I hadn't been here, hadn't been interfering in her life, hadn't been keeping eyes on her.

Because I was about to confess all that.

Jesse's anti-sun disguise was pretty good; once her oversized sunglasses were on and her hands were in her pockets, most of her pale skin was protected from accidental sun exposure. It helped that today was cloudy and a little rainy. Claire locked the house's front door and followed Jesse into the street, where I was waiting for them under a tree (that was polite of me, I thought, look at me being all vampire-sensitive). I nodded to both of them and led the way at a brisk walk a couple of blocks, then turned the corner. There was a cafe there with an awning. I sat down at one of the fragile-looking tables, and Claire and Jesse took seats on the other side of me. Jesse didn't look pleased.

Claire - actually, I was too scared to look at her directly to tell what she might be feeling. She hadn't jumped into my arms and declared her eternal love, so I was going to assume that I was in trouble. Big trouble.

Didn't matter right now, given the situation.

Jesse's gaze flicked from me to Claire, then back again, and I saw her making the connections. 'Shane, just to be sure I've got this all right: you followed her from Morganville, but didn't tell her about it. And you, Claire, you didn't know he was here.'

'That's right,' Claire said. I didn't say anything, but then again, I didn't have to; just being here was silent agreement. 'I didn't know he was coming.'

'That's on me. I didn't want you to know.'

I could tell that she checked herself right then, and because I knew her, I also knew that she was thinking that our personal relationship issues weren't the worst thing happening today. 'Then tell me what happened today.'

'Okay, here's the truth,' I said. 'I pass by the house every once in a while - it's kind of on the way to work, okay? And last time I was by here, I saw this big guy trying to jimmy your front door. I warned him off and asked the cops to step up patrols.'

'The attempted break-in card,' Claire said. 'Was it Derrick who was trying to break in?'

I nodded. 'Yeah, he introduced himself. He's a real douche bag.'

'He's Liz's stalker.'

'Well, that fits. He had the vibe.'

'So it was Derrick who went in to get her.'

'No,' I said, and leant forward to lower my voice. 'It was four guys in a very slick military manoeuvre - one in a delivery van with a sliding door that blocked the view of the front, and three who went inside. They had master keys, because they opened it up fast and went in quietly. Then, about a minute later, they came out with a girl with a black hood over her face - like some kind of CIA rendition from the movies. She wasn't protesting too much; I think she was too scared. I was going to move, because I honestly thought it might be you, Claire, until I saw her getting into the van; she didn't move like you, and she was as tall as Eve, so I thought it must be your friend. One of the men went back inside, and then all of a sudden, Derrick showed up. I don't think he knew what was going on - he was across the street in his usual spot, holding up the lamp post. All he knew was that the door was open, so he bolted inside; he didn't even know they'd taken the girl out.'

'Liz,' Claire said softly. 'Her name is Liz.'

'I know. Sorry. I would have done something, except I'm not in the best shape right now.'

She paused, biting her lip, studying my face. 'God, Shane. You weren't kidding, were you? You really got beat up.'

I had, and I felt it. The aches and pains were bad enough, but half my face was throbbing, and I knew the bruising was going to darken into a spectacular tie-dye pattern. Plus, my damn arm hurt as if I'd cracked a bone, though I knew I hadn't, or at least the X-rays hadn't showed it. The skin itched something crazy, as if I'd fallen into a bunch of poison ivy. Not too likely, even if we were Ivy League-adjacent.

I really didn't want to look at Claire directly, because despite the apparent concern in her words, her voice had a fragile, hard tone I didn't like. I don't know what would have been worse, seeing pity from her, or seeing ... something else. Instead, I stared at a discoloured spot on the table and scraped at it with my thumbnail as I continued my story. 'Derrick and the other guy came stumbling out less than a minute later, and Derrick looked hurt. They tossed him in the van too, and took off.

'Do you know where they took them?'

'Not a clue,' I said, 'but I got a picture of the van and the plate, plus at least one of the guys.' I dug out my phone and passed it to Jesse, who navigated the menus with an impressive amount of ease, considering she was an ancient bloodsucker; I'd already worked out that she had to be pretty old, because she wasn't particularly worried about the sun. Even with the hoodie and hat, most vampires would have been scared, but Jesse seemed cool and calm and not the least bit flammable. 'Maybe you've got some contacts who can use that?'

'Likely,' Jesse said. 'All right, Claire, you obviously can't go back home. Whether this was some separate event related to your friend - and I'm going to have her background and family checked - or whether this had to do with you and your work with Dr Anderson, it's not safe for you there, and it's our fault you stayed as long as you did in a difficult situation. When you reported the first event to Irene, I should have insisted you get out of that house immediately, but she was convinced that they were only looking for the device, and since it had been moved ...'

'Wait,' I said. 'What event are we talking about?' Because it seemed to me that I'd missed something important. Something Claire should have told me.

It was probably wrong for me to be upset about that, considering how much I'd kept from her, though. Didn't stop me.

When she didn't immediately start talking, though, Jesse spilt it for her. 'Two spy types let themselves into the house the other night,' she said. 'While Claire was there. She hid, and they searched the place. Nobody got hurt.'

I felt my jaw go tight, and I tried really hard not to clench my teeth too much. 'Until now, you mean. Unless you don't count humans getting abducted as hurt.'

'Down, boy. I'm not your enemy. Claire called me to help.' Jesse flashed a brief, biting smile at me. 'After she asked me if I had gone munchies on her friend, of course. But that's a sensible and sane question, for someone who's lived where you've lived. I would have asked it, too, in your shoes. Relax.' She moved her fingers on his phone's keypad, lightning fast, and then handed it back. 'I've forwarded the pictures on to a friend who can do the footwork. Quick thinking, getting the shot. And not rushing in. You'd have ended up taken just like Derrick, I think. No offence, but it's likely these are men trained in quick, quiet abduction. It's not like fighting vampires.'

'Nothing here is like fighting vampires,' I said. 'It's more like fighting smoke. I think I like it when I had an actual enemy to face.'

'Oh, don't worry, you have some. We just haven't seen them yet,' Jesse said. 'But we will. And when we do ...' She showed fang, just for a moment; anybody who happened to catch a glimpse would have doubted their sanity, especially since the teeth disappeared in a flash. 'When we do, we'll settle this Morganville style.'

'What'll we do about Liz, and Derrick?' Claire asked. 'They don't have anything to do with this, if it's about me and Professor Anderson and vampires. They're just caught in the middle.'

'You know what generally happens to people in the middle, Claire?' Jesse asked, as she got to her feet. 'Crossfire.' She speared me with a long look, and I threw it right back at her. 'Shane, get her someplace safe. I'm holding you responsible. I have your phone number now, and I'll be in touch when I have something. Until then, lay low.'

'What about the police?' Claire asked. 'Shouldn't I call them?'

'Call them if you like,' Jesse said, 'but when you do, they're going to ask you to explain why you dumped a fresh pizza on the floor inside the house, found blood in your housemate's room, and didn't call 911 immediately. They'll match the store receipt to your route and the time you were seen entering the house. And the first person they'll detain is you. You had the keys. There was no forced entry. And in the police's experience, generally the person who lives in the house is the first person to suspect.'

It was all pretty damn logical. Brutally logical. Claire swallowed hard and nodded. 'No police then.'

'Smart girl.'

I watched Jesse as she walked away, hood up, hands in her pockets. She didn't even hurry. Yeah, that was some scary confidence, considering she was essentially vulnerable out here, alone. 'Sorry,' I said. Not to Jesse, but to Claire. I was still trying not to look her in the eye. 'I'd rather talk about all this someplace safer. Can we go?'

'I'd rather talk about it here,' she said, 'because at least if I'm here, I can order coffee, and I probably won't scream in frustration out loud. Think of it as a public buffer zone.'

Oh, great. I winced, but I asked the question. 'So, do you feel like screaming? Specifically, at me?'

'A little bit,' she said. 'But God, this doesn't matter right now, does it? What about Liz? What's going to happen to her? I mean, even Derrick doesn't deserve ... Jesse didn't mean it about crossfires, did she?'

'I don't know,' I said. 'Claire, this is not a good place to stay. Jesse said to keep you safe, and in my opinion an open table on the sidewalk isn't exactly the textbook definition of secure ...'

'Do you have an apartment?'

'I've got a room at Florey's. It's not spacious. Or clean. But it's cheap, and the work's solid. It'll do until things settle down, if you're, ah, not too picky.'

'Well, it couldn't be much worse than where I was living,' Claire sighed. 'All my stuff is back there, though. All my clothes, anyway. I've got my computer and books, and that's what's important. Hey ... did you know Jesse was ...' Claire gave the universal Morganville sign for teeth in the neck, and I smiled, just a little. Carefully. Not just because it hurt like a son of a bitch.

'Hey, it's me,' I said. 'I can spot 'em a mile away.' I only wished that was true; it would have avoided so many problems over the years. My dad was the one with the nose for the Nosferatu ... not me. 'Pete's human, by the way. In case you were wondering. He cut himself on a bottle the other day, and I helped him dress the wound. Didn't heal immediately.'

Claire nodded, because it was a good piece of proof, at that, because vampires couldn't control the speed at which they healed, not without putting something on the wound that held it open or continued to burn, like silver. 'Is Jesse the only one you've spotted?'

'Yeah, so far. Though it's pretty rare to find one on her own out here, isn't it? Vampires like safety in numbers, because they're so rare, especially these days. If she feels confident enough to be out here on her own, I'm pretty sure she's nobody we want to cross.' I shifted, because my arm was hurting again, bone-deep throbs as if I'd just slammed it hard into a brick wall. And it itched like mad. I clenched and released my fist, and then shook it out, hoping that it'd get better. It didn't.

'What's wrong?' Claire asked. She still sounded distant, and a little unwilling to ask, but she was asking. Which was encouraging.

'Well, when you get a major-league ass-kicking from a bunch of guys, even if they generally suck at it, you do feel it later,' I said. 'No big thing. I'll live.' Yes, I was trying to be a tough guy. I didn't feel like it, right at that moment; I wanted to curl up against her, feel those wonderful soft hands touching my face and tracing lightly over the hurts. She always, always made it better. There was something so healing in being with her; it felt like standing in the sunlight when I'd spent my whole life in the dark.

But the best I could feel from her right now was ... shade.

We sat in silence for a long, painful moment, and then a waiter came up and asked us if we wanted anything, in that annoyed voice that waiters develop in college towns when they figure you're only marginally good for the cheque in the first place, and tips are out of the question. I tried to order a plain coffee, Claire tried to order a mocha, we talked over each other, and we both looked up at the same moment, and ...

... And we stopped, just staring at each other. Because all of a sudden it was real. The moment was real, and there was no avoiding it any more. The waiter's annoyed sighs finally sparked me to say, flatly, 'Beat it,' and he did, muttering under his breath the whole time. I didn't care. I didn't care if Jesse descended on us, fangs out, and the entire zombie horde from Dead Rising suddenly started shambling through the restaurant. They could wait.

Claire said, 'I really thought you were back in Morganville. You got Michael and Eve to lie to me.'

'I just asked them not to volunteer where I was, that's all. I know it was the wrong thing to do, but sometimes - sometimes it doesn't matter. Right, wrong, it's just the thing you have to do. And I had to see you. I had to know you were okay. I'll apologise for basically hovering, but I can't be sorry for being worried about you. I didn't crash your door and demand to see you. I just ... stayed close.'

'Watching me from a distance,' she said. 'You didn't trust me enough to let go.'

I felt a surge of panic, followed by a confused bolt of realisation. Was she right? Was it a trust thing, and not a worry thing? How did it look from her side ... like I'd been following her, spying on her, judging her? Yeah, it probably did look that way, horribly enough. It wasn't what I'd been doing, or at least I didn't think it was.

I leant forward, elbows on the table, and I held her gaze as I said, 'Claire, I don't want to let you go. But that has nothing to do with not trusting you. I trust you with my life. Always have.'

I didn't keep talking, because that pretty much said everything I meant to say. She blinked slowly, thinking about it, and then sighed, shook her head, and said, 'You're an idiot, but I know you mean that. And you're not angry, I know that too. You just ...'

'Wanted you,' I said. 'Needed you. That's why I'm here. Maybe it's a bad thing, I don't know; if you look me in the eyes and tell me to go back to Morganville, I'll go. I won't like it, but-'

She suddenly sat straight up, eyes growing wide, as if someone had jabbed a pin in her, and she lunged forward and caught hold of my hands. I was surprised, but not too surprised to wrap mine around hers. Touching her stilled some voice inside me I hadn't even known was screaming.

'Michael and Eve,' she said. 'Did they call you?'

'Not for a couple of days - wait.' I checked the phone's call log, and there it was, a missed call from Eve. No voicemail. 'What's happening?'

'Even if you went back there, you'd end up here again,' she said. 'Michael and Eve are on their way. Amelie sent them after Myrnin.'

'Myrnin is coming here? By himself?' I admit it, that gave me a surge of tired frustration so strong I wanted to stake him myself. 'What the hell is he doing?'

'I've got no idea, and neither did Eve, but they're following. They're supposed to get him to come home.'

'I am not driving back home in a car with Bipolar Man,' I said, and I meant it. 'Seriously. I've got weapons.'

She hadn't let go of my hands, after the rush subsided, and I thought that was a good sign. I tried to think what I was going to do if she tried to pull away and sit back. Let her go, I guessed, even though my instinct was to try to hold on.

But she didn't pull back this time.

'You screwed up,' she told me. 'I can't believe you stalked me like this.'

'If I'd been stalking you, I'd have been bumming cigarettes from Derrick across the street,' I pointed out. 'I was working independently in the same town, not calling and not talking to you. If you want to call that stalking, I have to ask for an on-the-field review of the play by the ref.'

'Too bad for you that relationships don't have referees.'

'You're right, that does suck. I could use a slow-motion replay right now.'

'You're an idiot,' Claire said, and I went cold inside, and very still. Here it was, the moment I'd been trying so hard to avoid thinking about, when Claire wised up, realised that I wasn't the smart guy with prospects she needed to be with ... but then she smiled, just a little, and the ice freezing my lungs and heart started to thaw a little. 'You're an idiot, but I know why you came. You're conditioned to think that everything is a threat, and you were afraid that I was going to be in trouble here on my own. You were trying to save me. But Shane, I don't always need saving. Understand?'

'Oh yeah,' I said. 'You've saved me plenty of times. I got the point. But nobody from Morganville ought to be out there alone. It isn't safe, and you know it.'

'Nothing's safe,' Claire told me then, with the conviction of someone a lot older. 'Nobody's ever safe. But that doesn't mean you don't respect what I want, Shane.'

'I'm sorry I let you down,' I said. 'But I couldn't stay there while you were here. Not without making sure you'd be okay. Like you said, Morganville conditioning. If you want me to go, I'll go. Just tell me. Right now.'

I'd startled her, and worried her, and forced her to stop analysing, and she blinked slowly and said, 'I don't want you to go. I missed you, Shane. I missed you so much.'

Her voice broke on the last word, and I saw the shimmer of tears in her eyes. Tension unwound from a coil inside me, and I wanted to put my arms around her and hold her ... but then the waiter appeared near our table again and pointedly cleared his throat, and I resisted the urge to throw a sharp, illegal elbow into his midsection.

'We're going,' I told him, and stood up without letting go of Claire's hand. I pulled her to her feet. 'Come on. I'll make you coffee at Florey's.'

We made it only half a block before I couldn't stand it any more. I stopped, pressed her against the brick side of a building, and leant in. I managed to stop myself just short of kissing her, and said, 'Is this okay?'

'Shut up,' Claire said, and grabbed me by the collar to pull me into her.

It was like falling into summer ... warm and sweet and hot. I'd needed to touch her, and I had; I'd needed to kiss her, and the damp, soft feel of her warm mouth did all kinds of things to me. Sweet relief, and desperate tension, all at the same time. It went on for a while, lips and tongues meeting and merging, and I was the one who stepped away first, because damn, I'd forgotten the power of that between us. How she made me feel. How I made her feel. My sweet little Claire's lips had gone red and flushed, and her cheeks were pink, and her eyes very bright. She looked drunk with pleasure and delight, and I imagined how she would look in the morning light, the way I loved to see her best.

I squeezed her hand and said, 'I need to get you home. Right now.'

She nodded and slipped her arm through mine, and we walked quickly the short distance to Florey's.

When we turned the corner, though, there was a police car sitting in front, light bar flashing, and the manager Mick was in the door talking to two cops and looking very serious. I pulled Claire to a halt, and saw Mick spot me.

He gave me a slow tilt of the head to the side. Get out of here. I picked up the signal and backed Claire up. 'Change of plans,' I said. 'Florey's is out. Do you have some place else we can go?'

'Not really - what's going on?'

'Not a clue, but whatever it is, remember that I'm from Morganville.'

She didn't get it for a second, and then she looked sharply at me. 'Oh God, Shane, did you bring weapons?'

'Only my favourites,' I said. 'But they're kinda illegal.'

She shook her head and tugged at my hand. 'Come on.'