The first thing I felt over Linda’s suggestion was a surge of relief. Her ‘obvious’ solution wasn’t something that depended on me, and wasn’t something I’d been neglecting to do. I immediately felt guilty, though, because I’d already been relying on Hans for so much. It just wasn’t fair to ask for more.
I felt those two things in almost an instant. In that same instant, Hans’ hands struck the table hard enough to make the dishes rattle as he pushed himself to his feet. “No,” he said — and a flat anger clipped the word. “You, of all people, should know better than to ask that of me.” Linda didn’t reply. She regarded him impassively while I stared in shock. Emma blinked sleepily and started to sit up.
Hans practically trembled with anger. Then he straightened. I could see him take hold of himself and will his clenched muscles to relax. “I won’t be responsible for dragging anyone into my nightmare, anymore than you’re willing to be responsible for sending your students into a fight.” His accent seemed thicker when spoke. When he was done, he looked away from Linda and addressed me with a more even voice.
“Abigail,” he said, “I’m sorry, but we should go. Apparently circumstances have made this a less helpful idea than I’d originally thought.”
I nodded jerkily, afraid to make any other response. Emma slid her legs off of my lap. “We’re going?” she asked blearily.
I reached back and squeezed her hand. “Yes,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s only six days until the full moon,” Linda said — but she spoke so softly only those of us with supernatural senses could hear. Hans stiffened. “As it stands, the wolf will take you in five. I doubt it will release you in less than four after that. If you continue to sacrifice yourself so freely, it will only get worse, Hans. And if you cannot overcome the beast, and will not rely on others of your pack, who will care for her in your absence? Will you abandon the Whitehall name and open the city to other packs? Will you be able to tolerate it if she feeds from wolves who are your rivals?”
Hans’ hands slid off the edge of the table and curled into fists. I saw his nostrils flare briefly at the mention of other wolves, and caught his gaze when it flicked to me and then away. I felt cold. I knew Linda’s words weren’t for me, but I couldn’t help hearing them and my heart raced as I watched Hans reacting to them.
Hans’ nightmare. He seemed so well adjusted, I hadn’t given much thought to what it must be like for him. I’d been too wrapped up in my own problems. And I hadn’t realized just how selfish I was being. If Linda was right… five days before Hans turned into that beast whose emotions I’d felt raging when I fed from him. Four more before he became a man again. And that was only if I didn’t feed from him before then. Four days, trapped as a monster that was the antithesis of the kind, considerate, controlled man I knew Hans strove to be.
“Yes,” Hans answered Emma. “We are. Linda…” I could see the conflicting emotions turning behind his eyes as he tried to decide on his farewell, even though his stance didn’t shift a millimeter. “…thank you. I’ll settle the bill with our hostess. I’m sorry we can’t stay to reminisce about old times, but enjoy your meal. Goodbye.”
I hastily slid out of the booth to join him, but paused to help Emma to her feet. Hans stalked off toward the front of the restaurant without waiting. I turned to follow, but this time Linda’s quiet words were clearly meant for me.
“Abigail,” the quisling said — so softly that only I, and perhaps Hans, could hear. I gave Emma a little push to start her after Hans, and pretended to adjust my cloak. “Take care of Emma,” Linda said. “I understand that you have thus far acted in ignorance, but that excuse can only be accepted for so long. It will be at least two days before her aura is refreshed. Do not drink from her before then. Do not let her dwell in sadness or anger or upset. Do not drink from her after unless a witch has pronounced her aura healthy. Attend to her needs, pamper her, give her sweets. Sugar will help, oddly enough.”
I swallowed and turned. “I actually knew that last one,” I said. “Emma told me.” Then I kicked myself for being rude. “Thank you,” I managed to stammer.
“Oh, don’t say that,” Linda replied — this time not so quietly that only the supernatural could hear. However, since Emma had followed Hans, Linda’s statement was still meant just for me. “An open ended expression of gratitude implies a debt, and you owe me nothing for telling you what Emma needs. She may have dropped out of college over Salvatore’s abuse, but Emma is still one of my girls. And now you’ve spent ignorance as an excuse. If any lasting harm comes to her while she is in your care, I assure you that I will avenge it.”
I swallowed despite myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about how scared I’d always been of Megan’s landlady, Mrs. Butterson. And now I was being threatened by someone who actually could curse me, and clearly had no compunction against it if she felt it was necessary. I nodded, but didn’t trust myself to say anything. I turned and started to rejoin Hans and Emma, who were talking with the hostess while our waitress fetched him the check.
“And Abigail,” Linda’s sub-audible whisper found my ear as I walked away, “Hans is my friend. Harm him, and my response will be far worse than simple vengeance.”
Don’t run, I reminded myself. Do not run. I felt my heart pounding, but all I could hear from our booth was the soft clink of silverware as Linda returned to her meal. I shuffled hastily after Hans and Emma, doing my best to keep my cloak closed and hood low as I approached the windows at the front of the restaurant.
Linda terrified me.
When I reached Hans and Emma, Hans was just returning his wallet to his coat pocket. The soft light coming through the tinted windows hurt my eyes as badly as the glare of direct sunlight, so I kept my eyes down. “Are we ready to go?” I asked.
“Yes,” answered Hans.
“Oh, thank goodness,” I said. I didn’t want to push Hans’ buttons when he’d been so obviously upset by what Linda had said, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Fortunately, I guess, that happened to put me in the position my auto pilot liked best. “I really appreciate Fumiko for helping me out, but I kind of feel like this cloak makes me look like some sort of cult leader. I keep expecting people to wander up to me and ask if we’re on for the ritual sacrifice tonight, or how many goats they need to bring, or whatever. And then I’d just have to make stuff up to get them to go away, and they’d end up sacrificing thirteen watermelons to the divine potato while dancing naked with goats, and then instead of the dark god of shadowy evil, they’d accidentally summon the grumpy god of excessive nose hair.” I couldn’t tell if Hans was amused or not, but at that point it no longer mattered.
“Well, wouldn’t you be grumpy if you were divinely in charge of nose hair?” Emma snickered.
“Exactly!” I agreed while Hans and Emma escorted me out. “I mean, he’d be thrilled to have somehow acquired so many followers — but then someone would realize they’d gotten the wrong deity, and it would just be so awkward. And I don’t want to be responsible for that!”
I clambered into the back seat of Hans’ Hummer and willed myself to shut up before I could start speculating on how the grumpy god of excessive nose hair would wreak his vengeance. Hans got into the front seat and let Emma get into the back on her own. I frowned. I wanted to say something to him. Don’t worry, seemed like a good one. Or: you don’t have to do anything you aren’t comfortable with. We’ll figure something else out.
I knew from experience, though, that if I opened my mouth now the only thing that would come out would be a detailed accounting of how the nose hair god would destroy the porn industry by turning all of the men in it into mind controlled vengeful murder puppets. Sure, the porn-stache was technically lip hair and not nose hair, but you know what? Close enough. Plus, I imagined the nose hair deity would love to stick it to the facial hair deity like that. I figured Mr. Grumpy Nose was probably bitter that Mr. Mustache had gotten such a better divine domain.
I had almost gotten up the courage to try and say something anyway when Hans started the car. The rumble of the engine startled me, and I had to regather my determination while he started backing out of our parking spot. I felt myself twitch from nerves, but determined that I would soldier on for Hans’ sake.
Fortunately, despite my best effort to speak up, I was saved from the embarrassment of inappropriately rambling when I should’ve been comforting my boyfriend by my phone starting to ring before I could start babbling more. I fished it out and checked the number — I’d learned not to ignore that this morning, when my Mom had surprised me. Which reminded me: I still needed to block hers. “Well, speak of the devil,” I said.
“You have the grumpy god of excessive nose hair on your phone?” Emma asked incredulously. “You are a cult leader!” she accused.
I sputtered, but I heard Hans suppress a chuckle so I didn’t have much heart to turn on Emma for teasing me. Besides, I was supposed to be spoiling her. It was weird to have someone play along with my madness, though. Megan never batted an eye at my stories, and Fumiko typically put deliberate effort into ignoring them. “What? No!” I said. “It’s Fumiko.” I paused as though considering. “Well, maybe. But probably not.”
Emma laughed at me and I flipped open the phone. As long as I kept hunched over, while I held it to my ear, I could keep out of the sun. “Hello?”
“Abby?” answered Fumiko. “I’m at Megan’s and, well, things are getting weird.”
“What?” I yelped — I couldn’t help it, now that I had an alternative outlet for my panic, it was going for it. It probably didn’t help that so far it had been a ‘weird’ week, where ‘weird’ equated to terrifying.
“Yeah,” Fumiko said. “Look, this guy in a top hat showed up and swore his allegiance to Megan, except I’m not really sure if he’s actually your guy in a top hat or not, you know?”
“Melvin?” I asked incredulously.
Abruptly, Fumiko laughed. “Okay, I guess that answers that. He just jumped like someone had goosed him. Do that again.”
For a second my mind boggled. “Melvin,” I said, and Fumiko laughed again, “is not a good guy,” I said over her. “Be careful! I’ll…” I hesitated. I couldn’t bring Emma anywhere near Melvin — or Megan, for that matter. Not while her aura was so weak it could be stripped away. Hans would probably be just as bad: I had no idea what all he was packing under his jacket, but the mental image of him shooting up Mrs. Butterson’s house and getting arrested just wouldn’t go away.
“I’ll be over with John as soon as I get Emma home safe,” I said.
“Okay,” Fumiko said. “If you want. You probably don’t need to rush, though. I don’t think we’re in trouble right now, but I wanted to keep you in the loop, you know? And… Holy crap, Megan!” Fumiko said away from the phone. “What did you just do?”
I heard Megan laughing in the background. “Pretty cool, huh?” she asked. Then: “Is that Abby?”
“Yes,” Fumiko answered, and Megan’s voice came closer to the phone.
“Abby,” she shouted — I guessed Fumiko hadn’t actually handed the phone over. “You should come over! Jack has had me practicing, and I won’t accidentally draw any magic off of you with out permission now, I promise!”
I blinked and looked around in confusion. Emma and Hans were both clearly listening to me — I could see Hans glance at the rearview mirror when I looked up — but I knew neither of them would be able to clear that one up for me. “Jack?” I asked.
“Mr. Tophat,” Megan hollered. Then I heard a loud thump and Megan say, not to me: “Owwww, dammit. Lost focus.”
What the hell is…?
Fumiko laughed. “Look, just come over when you can, okay Abby? I told you that you needed some time with friends, without the weight of all the secrets you’ve been keeping to hold you down. And since Jack showed Megan how to handle her… er, diet, you don’t have to wait for the weekend.”
“O…okay,” I stammered.
“Good,” Fumiko said. “We’ll see you in a bit, then.”
“Bye!” Megan shouted at the phone. She sounded so happy it just about broke my brain.
“Um, bye?” I said uncertainly. Fumiko hung up on her end. After a moment I tucked my phone away and readjusted my cloak. For a moment more I just stared into space. I wasn’t even bothered by all the road noise and near fatal auto accidents Hans was barely avoiding, because I wasn’t paying attention.
What the hell is going on over there? I wondered.
Scarily enough, Fumiko’s phone call had left me so flabbergasted that my imagination just responded by drawing a blank.