The billboard at the edge of the border of Morganville hadn't changed since Claire had first driven past it on the way into town at the tender age of sixteen. It seemed a lifetime ago, but here was the same old sign, faded and creaking in the dry desert wind. It had a 1950s-era couple (white, of course) next to a finned car as big as a boat, looking into the sunset. WELCOME TO MORGANVILLE. YOU'LL NEVER WANT TO LEAVE.

Yet here she was. Leaving. Actually leaving.

The weight of it felt suddenly unbearable, and the billboard dissolved into impressionistic swirls as tears formed hot in her eyes. She was finding it hard to catch her breath. I don't have to go, she thought. I can turn around, go home, go back where it's safe ... because as crazy and dangerous as Morganville was, at least she'd learnt how to live in it. How to adapt, and survive, and even thrive. It had become, well, home. Comfortable.

Out there ... she wasn't sure what she'd be any more, out there.

It's time to find out, the more adult part of her said. You have to see the world before you can give it up to be here. She supposed that was right. Didn't the Amish send their kids out on rumspringa, to find out what life was like outside and make a real decision on whether or not to stay in their community? So, maybe she was on a kind of vampire rumspringa.

Because that was what she was leaving, even though she definitely was not one of the plasma-challenged ... a vampire community, with almost everything in some way related to them: to protecting them, making them money, giving them blood. In turn, at least theoretically, the vampires protected the town and the people in it. Didn't always work, of course. But the surprising thing was that it did work, more often than not. And she thought, from the way things were settling down now, that it might work lots better this time around, now that the town's founder Amelie was back in charge. And sane. Sane was a plus.


The voice made her gasp and turn, blinking away tears, because she'd actually forgotten that he was standing there. Not Shane. She'd left early, before her boyfriend was awake; she'd actually sneaked away before dawn, so that she could be off without goodbyes that she knew would rip her heart in pieces. Here she stood with her suitcases and her stuffed backpack, and Myrnin.

Her vampire boss - if you could call being a mad scientist a profession - was standing next to the big black sedan he occasionally - very occasionally, thankfully - drove. (He was not a good driver. Understatement.) He wasn't dressed crazily this morning, for a change. He'd left the Hawaiian shirts and floppy hats at home, and instead he looked as if he'd stepped out of an eighteenth-century drama - breeches that tucked into shiny black boots, a gold-coloured satin waistcoat, a coat over it that had tails. He'd even tied his normally wild shoulder-length hair back in a sleek black ponytail.

Vampires, unlike humans, could stand perfectly still, and just now he looked like a carved statue ... alabaster and ebony and gold.

'No, I'm not troubled,' she said, aware she'd hesitated way too long to answer him. She shivered a little. Here in the desert, at night, it was icy cold, though it would warm up nicely by midday. I won't be here then, she realised. But Morganville would go on without her. That seemed ... weird.

'I am surprised you did not bring your friends to say goodbye,' Myrnin offered. He sounded cautious, as if he was far from sure what the etiquette of this situation might be. 'Surely it's customary that they see you off on such a journey?'

'I don't care if it is,' she said. A tumbleweed - a thorny, skeletal ball of nasty scratching branches - rolled toward her, and she sidestepped it. It ploughed into a tangle of its fellows that had piled up against the base of the billboard. 'I don't want them to cry. I don't want to cry, either. I just - look, it's hard enough, okay? Please don't.'

Myrnin's shoulders lifted in a minute shrug. For the first time, as he turned his head away, she saw that he'd secured his ponytail with a big black bow. It fit what he was wearing, and it was weird that it didn't look out of place on him. He looks like Mozart, she thought - or at least, how Mozart had been dressed in the paintings she'd seen.

'It must have been easier when people dressed like that,' she said. 'Being a vampire. People made their faces white with powder, didn't they? So you didn't stand out so much.'

'Not just their faces,' he said. 'They powdered their wigs, too. One could choke on the arsenic and talcum. I can't imagine it was good for the lungs of living, but one does what one must for fashion. At least the women weren't tottering around on five-inch heels, constantly in peril of breaking bones.' He paused a moment, then said, 'What made it easier for vampires was that we lived by candlelight, lamplight - it makes everyone look healthier, even the sick. These harsh lights you favour now ... well. Difficult. I heard that a few vampires have taken to those spray-tanning salons, to get the proper skin tones.'

She almost laughed at that, at the image of a badass vampire like Oliver - ferocious and fearless - standing around in a Speedo to get himself painted. But Oliver had left Morganville, too ... banished, now, from Amelie's side, where he'd been ever since Claire had first come to town. That was probably the right thing to do, but Claire felt bad for him, a little. He'd betrayed the Founder, but he hadn't meant it - and he hadn't had a choice.

If any vampire could survive in the human world, though, it would be Oliver. He was clever, ruthless, and mostly without a conscience. Mostly.

'You can still change your mind,' Myrnin said. He stood perfectly still, except for the wind ruffling his clothes and the bow on his ponytail; he didn't try to meet her eyes. 'You know you don't have to leave. No one wants you to go, truly.'

'I know.' That was all she'd been thinking about, for hours. She hadn't slept, and her whole body ached with nervous tension. 'You're not the only one to tell me so.' Shane, for instance. Though he'd been quiet about it, and gentle. It wasn't that she was angry with him - God, no - but she needed, desperately, to make sure that he trusted her as much as she trusted him. She loved him, that was what made it so, so hard to do this. She needed him. But he'd screwed up, big time, in believing a big lie about her told by one of their enemies. He'd actually believed that she'd been sneaking around behind his back, with his best friend, Michael.

She needed to think about how she felt about that disappointment on her own, but all she could really think right at this moment was how much she wanted to feel his warm, strong arms wrapped around her, his body shielding her from the cold. How much she wanted one more kiss, one more whisper, one more ... everything.

'The world out there isn't like it is here,' Myrnin said. 'I know it hasn't been easy for you here - and I've been a significant part of your challenges, as well. But Claire, I do know something of the world - I have been in it for hundreds of years, and although technology changes, people are little different, then or now. They are afraid, and they use that fear to excuse their own actions - whether it is theft or hatred, violence or murder. People bond themselves into families and groups for protection, and strangers ... strangers are always at risk.'

He was right. She'd come into Morganville a stranger, and she'd been at risk ... until she'd found her group, her family, her place.

Claire took in a deep breath. She kicked sand with her sneaker toe, and said, 'Then I'll find my group there, where I'm going. You know I can do it. I did it here.'

'Here, you are exceptional,' he said. 'There, who knows? They might not value you as much as we do.'

He'd put his finger on her greatest fear ... the fear of not being the best. Of being just ... average, like everybody else. She'd always worked so hard to excel, worked at it with a passion that was close to fear; going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the Holy Grail of that quest, but it also came with a double-edged risk. What if she wasn't good enough? What if everybody else was faster, better, smarter, stronger? She couldn't fail. She couldn't. 'I'll be fine,' she said, and forced a confident smile. 'I can do this.'

He sighed, then, and shrugged. 'Yes. Yes, I imagine that you can,' he said. 'I wish it was otherwise. I'd rather you stayed here, safe.'

'Safe!' She burst out laughing, which made him give her a hurt look ... but really, it was ridiculous. Nothing about Morganville, Texas was truly safe ... it took a vampire to even suggest that. 'I - never mind. Maybe being safe isn't the best thing all the time. I need to be sure who I am out there, Myrnin. I need to be Claire, for a while, and find out who I am, deep down. Not part of something else that's so much more - confident than I am.' Or someone else. Because it wasn't just Shane, it was Myrnin as well.

He looked at her directly, then, with those warm dark eyes that seemed so human and yet, at the same time, were so very not. He'd seen so much - ages, generations, all kinds of horror and death, brilliance and beauty. And it showed. 'I will miss you, Claire. You know that.'

'I know,' she said, and couldn't look away. She wanted to, but Myrnin's gaze held hers like a magnet. 'I'll miss you too.'

He flew at her and embraced her, a sudden and awkward kind of thing; he was too strong, and too fast, and it drew a startled little squeak from her as her body remembered all too well how it felt to have fangs sinking into her neck ... but then he was gone again, stepping away, turning toward the horizon where pink was painting the hills and scrub brush of the desert. The wind was cold, and picking up speed.

'You should go,' Claire said, and got control of her pounding heart, somehow. 'My parents are on the way. They'll be here any minute.'

'A very poor escort I'd be to leave you out here in the dark, prey for anything,' he said. 'Highwaymen, and all that.'

'Myrnin, there haven't been highwaymen in at least a hundred years. Probably more.'

'Robbers, then. Serial killers. The modern bogeyman under the bed, yes? Bad men skulking in the darkness have always been there, and always will.' He flashed a smile at her, which was made unsettling by the extra-long eyeteeth, but he was still glancing uneasily at the horizon. Myrnin was old; he wouldn't burst into flames with the rise of the sun, but he'd be uncomfortably scorched. 'I'm sure you're familiar with the concept.'

'More than a little,' she sighed, and caught sight of car headlights speeding over the crest of the far hill. Mom and Dad. She felt a little surge of excitement, but it was quickly overwhelmed with a huge wave of sadness and longing. It felt different from what she expected, leaving Morganville ... leaving her friends behind. Leaving Shane. 'They're coming. You should go.'

'Should I not see you off?'

'In that get-up?'

Myrnin looked down at himself, baffled. 'It's most elegant!'

'When you were partying down with Beethoven, maybe, but today you look like you're on your way to a fancy dress ball.'

'So I ought to have worn the casual shirt with it, then?'

Claire almost smiled at the idea of one of his loud Hawaiian shirts thrown on over breeches and boots. 'God, no. You look great. Just not ... period appropriate. So go on, I'll be fine, okay?'

He looked at the car, coming fast toward them, and finally nodded. 'All right,' he said. 'Professor Anderson will be expecting you. Don't forget, you can use the telephone to call me.'

He seemed proud he'd remembered that - modern tech not being his strongest skill - and Claire struggled not to roll her eyes. 'I won't forget,' she said. 'You'd better get in your car. Sun's coming up, I don't want you to get burnt.'

It was. She could see the hot gold edge of it just cresting the hill to the east, and the sky above had turned a dark indigo blue. In minutes, it'd be full daylight, and Myrnin needed to be under cover.

He nodded to her, and gave her a formal, antique bow, which looked weirdly perfect in that outfit. 'Be careful,' he said. 'Not all dangers have a vampire's fangs. Or a vampire's predictability.' He moved fast to the driver's side of his car, opened the door, and then hesitated for one second more to say, 'I will miss you very much, Claire.'

He slammed the door and turned the engine on before she could say, 'I'll miss you too, Myrnin.' And then he was gone, roaring back into Morganville's town limits ...

... He rocketed past yet another car that was going way too fast out of Morganville. Claire's ride was still a couple of miles away, heading in ... this car was heading out, toward her.

And she knew that car very well.

The big black hearse skidded to a halt just at the border of the billboard. In fact, it fishtailed sideways as it stopped, and the passenger door flew open so hard Claire was surprised it didn't break off ... and then her boyfriend Shane was hurtling out of it, heading for her at a run.

'No,' he blurted, and threw his arms around her. 'You don't get to go like that.'

She felt stiff for a moment, with shock and fear of the pain that was coming, but then the familiar lines and planes of his body made her relax against him. Two halves, fitting as if they'd been moulded that way, despite the fact he towered over her. And then she was kissing him, or he was kissing her, and it was wild and hot and desperate and agonising and heartbreaking, and when they finally broke with a gasp she rested her forehead against his chest. She could feel him breathing too fast, hear his heartbeat pounding too loudly. I'm doing this to him, she thought. He's hurting and it's my fault.

But she knew she wasn't wrong about this. She loved Shane, loved him with so much certainty it was like sunrise, but she also knew that he had to see her differently - and she needed to see herself differently, if they were going to last. When he'd met her she'd been helpless, defenceless, and now she needed to prove she was not just his equal, but his independent equal.

Whether he - or she - liked it or not.

Over at the car, Michael had gotten out of the driver's side and was leaning against the fender; he seemed content to wait, but he was also eyeing the horizon, where the sun was rising fast. In minutes, he'd be bathed in light, and at his very young vampire age, that was not good.

Claire put her hand on Shane's cheek, a silent promise, and then dashed over to Michael to throw her arms around him. In the thin dawn light, he looked human again - skin tinted pink, eyes the endless clear blue of a summer sky. He kissed her cheek and hugged her with careful strength. 'You didn't really think we'd let you get away with no goodbyes, did you?'

'No,' she said.

He kissed her forehead, very gently. 'Come back safe, and come back soon,' he whispered to her. 'We love you.'

'Love you too, Michael,' she said, and stepped back. 'You'd better get inside.'

He nodded and retreated to the car's blacked-out back bench seats - vampire tinting was way better than anything on human cars, and it would keep him safe from the fierce Texas day - and then it was Eve's turn.

Michael's wife hadn't taken time to get properly dressed; she looked exactly as if she'd bounced out of bed in her cartoon bat pyjama bottoms and tank top, with her dyed-black hair in a messy scraped-together knot at the back of her head. She still had sleep wrinkles on her cheek, and without her Goth make-up, she looked ridiculously young. She was also wearing vampire bunny slippers. Myrnin had given them each a pair for Christmas, since they'd all found his so hilarious, and as Eve marched toward Claire, the rabbit slippers' mouths flapped up and down, their red tongues flashing and plush teeth biting the ground.

Not outdoor wear, but Eve clearly didn't give a crap.

'Hey,' she said, stopping a couple of feet away and crossing her arms. 'So. There's this, then.'

'Yeah,' Claire said. 'I just - I couldn't-'

'Couldn't woman up and say goodbye? Jesus, Claire Bear, you didn't even leave a note! How could you do that?'

There was no defence to that. It was true. She'd figured that the goodnights they'd said were also goodbyes, but now ... now she knew that they weren't. Shane's twisted anguish had told her that, and so did Eve's tears, shining unshed in her eyes.

Claire moved forward, and Eve uncrossed her arms just in time to receive the embrace. 'Idiot,' Eve said. 'Dork. Loser. So, you're just going to run off in the dark and ... and leave us ... and ...' She was crying now, and Claire felt the hot tears on her shoulder soaking through her sweater. 'And we might never see you again, and I love you, Claire, you're like my little sister, and-'

'I'm coming back,' Claire said. She hung on fiercely, while Eve bawled and let it all out. 'I swear, I'm coming back. You can't get rid of me like that.'

'I don't want to get rid of you!' Eve's balled-up fists hit her back, but softly, lacking any force. 'God!'

There was only one thing to do, and that was let her cry it out, and Claire did, fighting back a rising tide of tears herself. This was why she'd tried to sneak away ... not because she didn't love all of them, but because the goodbyes were so, so painful.

Her parents' minivan rolled up to the sign, pulled to the shoulder, and Claire heard the engine shut off. She patted Eve's back a few more times until her best friend gave a shuddering nod and stepped away.

'Hello, pumpkin,' Claire's father said, and smiled at her from the driver's side window. He looked tired, she thought, and it shocked her how much more grey there was in his hair. He didn't look well, though her mother had assured her he was doing much better. 'Ready to go?'

'Almost,' she said. 'Couple of minutes?'

'Take your time.' He looked as if he understood, but it was definitely the Dad Look that he levelled at Shane - the disapproving, not-good-enough up and down assessment.

Shane didn't notice, and even if he had, he probably wouldn't have much cared at the moment. He closed the distance between them as Claire came back, and although he didn't put his arms around her, the feeling of an embrace settled around her.

Safe. Safe, with him.

'I don't like this,' he said. 'I don't like knowing you can't forgive me, Claire. Please, I said I was sorry, what do you want me to do? Beg? I will. I'll get on my knees right here if you want, in front of your dad-'

'No!' she blurted. 'No, it's - I'm not angry, really, I'm not. But I need this. I need it. I don't ask for anything for myself, but this is mine, Shane. It won't be for long, but it gives us time to - to see if we're really strong apart, like we are together.'

She also needed him to understand that he'd screwed up, and she couldn't be one of those doormat girls ... ready to forgive him when he did unforgivable things. He hadn't trusted her word. He'd believed - despite what he knew about her - that she'd been sneaking around behind his back, with Michael, which, well, never.

And so she couldn't fall for the fast, easy apology. Not even here, on his knees, in front of her father, which was about as extreme as it could get.

Tears clogged her throat again, and when she saw he was serious about it, she reached out and grabbed his hands. Big hands, scarred over the knuckles from fights; gentle hands, too, when it counted. Hands she loved, especially when, like now, they rose up and touched her burning cheeks, cradled them in coolness. His thumbs traced her cheekbones softly, and he bent closer to whisper, 'I am so sorry, Claire. Please. Please don't go away.'

'I-' She closed her eyes because she felt dizzy, pulled by the force of his wanting, and even a deep breath didn't set that right. 'Shane, I have to go. I have to. That doesn't mean I don't love you, or that I won't come back.' She opened her eyes and met his fierce, desperate gaze. 'I said I'd marry you someday. I still mean it, if you mean it.'

That woke an equally fierce grin. 'Oh, I mean it. I'd do it tomorrow if-'

'I know,' she said. 'But I can't. Not yet.'

He let go of her, but he didn't step back; he took her hands and raised them to his lips to kiss them, one at a time. She shivered at the heat of his lips, and the longing on his face that he didn't give a voice.

'If you need me ...' he said, and then stopped himself with a bitter little smile. 'But you probably won't.'

She silently held up her cell phone. 'Speed dial.'

'Call me today,' he said. 'Call me every day.'

'I will,' she promised. 'Shane-'

'I know,' he said. 'Look, I hate goodbyes, too. But sometimes, we need them just to survive.'

He meant that, and it left her wordless and stunned, and all she could think to do was kiss him one more time, gently. It was a promise, and she meant it with everything in her heart and soul.

And then she walked over to where her suitcases lay, and helped her dad load them into the back of the minivan. Shane moved to help but she discouraged that with a shake of her head; she needed to do this herself. She was afraid she'd break down and run back home to Morganville, to the house they all shared, if she didn't go now, on her own.

It didn't take long to change her life. Ten minutes, maybe. With the morning sun washing golden over the billboard, over Shane standing with his arm around Eve next to the hearse, with Michael safely behind tinting in the back, she tossed her backpack in, closed the door, and waved. They waved back.

And then somehow she was in the passenger seat, buckled in, though she didn't remember doing it, and the minivan was accelerating north, away from Morganville.

Away from everything she'd left behind.

She twisted in the seat to watch Shane and Eve disappear into the distance. Once she couldn't even see the billboard any more, she turned face front and took in a deep, trembling breath. I will not cry, she told herself. I will not.

It finally occurred to her to ask the obvious question of her father. 'Where's Mom?'

'She said she'll meet us at the airport. You okay, kiddo?' her dad asked. He kept his eyes on the road, and his voice was neutral, but he held out his right hand, and she took it. 'That's my girl. You're okay. I remember driving you here, you know, to school. You seemed so much smaller then, honey, and so much more vulnerable. Look at you now - you're a lovely, confident young woman. I'm very proud of you. And I know that was hard for you.'

She didn't feel lovely, or confident, or a woman. The only thing she felt was young, and right now, very raw with loss. But she smiled anyway, and gulped back the tears, and when her voice was steady she asked him how his job was going, and what the doctor was saying about his heart condition, and a thousand little things that made up love.

They talked all the way to Midland.

It wasn't just Mom waiting at the airport, to Claire's astonishment. It was a party. When she came inside with Dad, wheeling her two suitcases, she immediately saw a giant bright pink banner that said CONGRATULATIONS!, with giant clusters of balloons lifting either end. And a crowd. A cheering crowd.

She didn't know what she was seeing, honestly ... and then faces started to come into focus. Her teachers from high school - Mrs Street, Mrs East, Mr Popp, Mr Shelton ... her favourites. And then classmates, at least ten of them. Some had been friends, but casual friends; most of them would have just graduated from high school, she guessed, since they were all about her age. She'd been two or three years ahead of them, thanks to testing out of most core subjects.

She hadn't missed them, but it was nice to see them, anyway - and strange, too, like having a dream where everything from the past was suddenly in the present, throwing everything out of whack. It was weird and funny and wonderful, and as she got hugs and backslaps, passed in a dizzying dance from person to person, she felt as if everybody in the airport was staring at her and wondering what the hell was going on.

When she caught her breath, she felt a sudden, acute sense of those who were missing: Shane. Eve. Michael. Myrnin. Maybe even Amelie and Oliver and a half-dozen others she knew - however unexpectedly - she would regret not being here to see this. Myrnin would have been delighted. He'd have been grabbing a pile of cupcakes from the tray, and punch from the cooler, and remarking on how the red colour of the sugary liquid looked remarkably like diluted blood ... and Shane would have wearily threatened to stake him. Eve would have voted in favour. Michael would have laughed.

It suddenly all seemed both too much, and too little.

The Midland airport was not exactly used to celebrations, but it seemed to put smiles on the faces of the security people, and even the jaded, weary business travellers with their battered, sturdy suitcases. Claire's were new, and polka-dotted, lime green and purple. She wasn't sure if they were too weird or not, but at least she wouldn't lose them.

The party was short - fifteen minutes, and then Claire's dad began to cheerfully remind people that she had a plane to catch. Her mom hugged her tight as the first of the visitors began to leave, and said, 'It's so good to see you, sweetie. Even just for this.' She pushed Claire back to arm's length and gave her the mom inspection, up and down. 'You look a little thin, sweetie. Are you eating?'

'Yes, Mom, I'm eating. Don't worry. Once I get to Boston, it's all the snacks and cafeteria food and pizza, so I'll probably gain ten pounds the first week.'

'Well, you could do with another ten pounds, anyway.' She nervously brushed at Claire's hair, rearranging it around her face. 'Oh, dear, you could use a haircut too. Well. Promise me - do you think you've got everything you'll need? Do you need sheets, or towels, or-'

'I'll be okay, Mom,' Claire said, and caught her mother's hands in her own. 'I'll be fine.'

Mom took a deep, convulsive breath and let it out before she nodded. 'I know,' she said. 'You probably need clothes, though. You always do.'

It was an old refrain. Mom had her hair fixed nicely, and she had make-up on, and the sweater and pants she was wearing fit her well. Her mother had always had much more fashion sense than Claire possessed, and it had always been something Mom had seen as a social shortcoming. Claire didn't. She figured when she was ready to care about those things, she would. But right now, the comfortable geek-girl tee, loose jacket and jeans were all she really needed.

'I've got enough clothes,' Claire said. Half of them had been given to her by Eve, who'd rolled her eyes at the destitute nature of Claire's closet and donated things that were - by Eve's standards, anyway - conservative enough.

'And money? You've got enough money?'

'Yes.' She did. She'd gotten a salary from Morganville as Myrnin's assistant, and she even had a credit card, one that Amelie had assured her would be accepted anywhere in the world. It was very shiny. 'Honest, Mom, I'm fine.'

'I know you are, you always are.' Her mother sighed, and folded her in a suddenly fierce embrace that smelt of powder and perfume. 'Are you looking forward to seeing Elizabeth again?'

Claire's friend Elizabeth from high school had moved to Cambridge as well, though she was attending a different school from MIT. But honestly, beyond exchanging e-mails and phone calls, and the flurry of sudden plans in the past few days, she didn't really know Elizabeth any more. Two years apart was a lifetime these days.

She still remembered the rush of excitement and consternation she'd felt opening the first e-mail. Your parents told me you were moving to town, Elizabeth had written. You CANNOT live in a dorm!!!! I'm renting a place. Share? PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE? That was Elizabeth, all right; she probably had been bouncing up and down, unable to stand still while she wrote the pleases. And there was no reason not to accept.

Except now, Claire felt a little sick to her stomach. Maybe I should have just stayed in the dorm. But she hadn't had such good luck with that before at Texas Prairie University.

Mom noticed her silence. 'Oh, sweetie. I hate you going so far away, but I'm so proud of what you've accomplished. I know it's just the beginning of such great things for you.'

That was a very odd thought, suddenly. She'd done so much these past few years in Morganville that the idea there was more ... well. It just seemed strange.

Like the thought that she was about to get on a plane and fly to Dallas, and then on another flight off to Boston. She'd been in Dallas only once before ... with Michael and Eve. With Shane. And she remembered every second of that sweet, beautiful, wild weekend, where the two of them had just begun to discover each other in new and personal ways. It was ... it was magical, in her memory.

Going back to Dallas without him seemed just the opposite of magical. It seemed like the ominous sign of a curse.

Dad helped her check her suitcases through to Boston, and she got through the nervous excitement of showing her ID for the tickets, and then it was - all of a sudden - time for goodbyes again. Hard ones. She threw her arms around her dad's neck and hugged him breathless, and kissed him on both cheeks, which made him surprised and happy; she was usually more reserved than that. Her mom got the same, and they both pretended not to notice how unsteady each other's voices were as they said all the usual things, all the loving things.

And then she was in the security line, and leaving her past behind her with a finality that was more than a little terrifying. I'm alone. Funny. She'd faced so much these past few years - life and death and all the stages in between. Loss and love. Heartache and joy. Most of all, danger, constant and unremitting danger ...

... Yet, she was shaking all over as she handed the TSA agent her ID card and her ticket, and frantically wondering if she'd scrubbed her backpack clean of all the usual Morganville survival aids - silver nitrate, stakes, blades, the works. What if she'd overlooked something? What if ...

'Miss? What's this supposed to be?' The uniformed officer frowned at her and held out her ID card.

Oh. Her Morganville ID card. She'd grabbed the wrong one, and quickly blushed and fished out the Texas driver's licence instead. 'Sorry,' she said. 'Uh - library card.'

He hadn't read the text, luckily, and he just shrugged, scrutinised her face long enough to make her even more nervous, then waved her through.

Shoes were hard to get off - she hadn't planned for that - and her hoodie had to come off, too. Her backpack passed through scanners without trouble, thankfully, and then she was clutching all her stuff, breathless with relief, on the other side of the barriers. Claire walked barefoot to some seats, donned her hoodie and her Skechers, put her ID back in her wallet (moving the Morganville ID safely to the back to avoid confusion with legit state-issued stuff) and then, finally, took a moment to let the enormity of it hit her.

She was committed. Checked in. Bags headed for the plane. Her dad was shipping the rest of the boxes to her directly to her new apartment.

She was on her own. Completely, utterly, totally on her own, going into a new world without Shane, without parents. Without enemies, even.

Nobody cared. People walked past her, and ignored her existence.

Claire sat for a moment in silence, taking that in and adjusting herself to the reality that outside of Morganville, she was just some mildly pretty eighteen-year-old girl headed up to college, like ten thousand other girls she'd see along the way. Not someone special at all.

It was, she thought as she picked up her backpack and headed toward her departure gate, the scariest thing she'd ever done, and the most freedom she'd ever had.