“Fuck me,” I said again. Melvin is a doppelganger. Suddenly I wondered if, instead of quietly cursing to myself, I should be screaming for Hans. Except, of course, I didn’t want to put Hans — with his damaged aura — in jeopardy. And wasn’t Melvin supposed to technically be on our side, anyway?
Before I could make up my mind about the screaming thing, I heard Fumiko’s shoe scuff as she turned around. “Hey, what’s taking so long?” she called from her car.
Melvin turned to face her. “Nothing!” he called out. “I’m just a klutz. I was going to give Abby my arm and I clocked my elbow on the doorjamb.”
I blinked. Couldn’t Fumiko see that Zane was a completely different person now? Or was it just that I could see through his illusion since I’d figured it out?
“You’re holding your nose,” Fumiko pointed out dryly.
“Yes, well, I jumped when I hit my elbow and ended up walking into the door. I said I was a klutz,” Melvin said in exasperation. “Look, it’s been a very bad day for me, so can we just drop it? I’d like to head back to the house before Auntie burns it down.”
I gawked, but then I heard Melvin hiss under his breath: “Play along, dammit. Her belief that I don’t believe in fae is the best protection we have right now, because it translates into a disbelief that any fae could show up around us.”
I hesitated, but only for a second. I think what decided it for me was realizing that Melvin hadn’t abandoned Megan when John had shown up — he’d just gone downstairs. I was going to trust him for now. “Does that work?” I whispered.
“Not very well,” Melvin grudgingly subvocalized. Even with my vampire hearing he was barely audible, and his lips didn’t move at all. “And less well now that you’ve seen through it, so we really should get moving before Archarel’s minions get their act together.”
I stepped outside and let ‘Zane’ take my arm. All of the effort I’d put into realizing that Zane and Melvin were the same person was now spinning in circles trying to sort out the implications that could be derived from it. Most of them, I thought, were positive: Zane had tried to keep Megan from going out on New Year’s Eve by inviting her to spend it with himself and his ‘Auntie,’ I remembered. And when that had failed? Evidentally he’d gone down to Megan’s car, turned invisible, and tagged along with us the rest of the night.
Maybe he hadn’t been stalking me specifically.
On the other hand, Linda had said that a doppelganger was a fae who had replaced a normal human. And that begged the question: how long had Melvin been Zane, and what had happened to the real one?
“What the hell?” I whispered instead of a more coherent question. “Seriously, just: what the hell, Melvin?”
Melvin didn’t stop smiling. “Let’s talk later,” he subvocalized. “Preferably where we won’t blow my identity in front of one of your friends, alright? I know you can’t help throwing a wrench in any works you find, Abigail, but this really is not the time.”
I forced myself not to blurt out another reply, and just smiled at Fumiko instead. She arched her eyebrows in a way that I knew meant she knew something was going on — but that she didn’t really care as long as it wasn’t going to get in her way and we got our asses in gear. I felt like my smile was a pretty sickly confirmation that it wasn’t anything she needed to be bothered with.
Melvin escorted me to the back seat and got the door for me. While I sat down my mind continued to spin in circles. Fumiko had already gotten in and buckled up while we’d been walking over; she started the car almost as soon as Melvin sat down.
I didn’t like being told to wait, but I already knew I didn’t have a choice. My senses were ramped up from the shock of catching Melvin’s alter ego, and while the sounds of the city at night were less numerous, they were also significantly more nerve wracking. Every rustle of leaves turned into goblins lurking in ambush, while every hiss of wind down an alley was one of Archarel’s spies watching for us. I put on Hans’ noise canceling headphones and clamped them down over my ears. Even with that, I could still hear a little. I did my very best to ignore it, but between that and my new basket of worries the drive to Megan’s apartment was almost as bad as the drive home from lunch had been.
Just for different reasons.
When we finally arrived at Mrs. Butterson’s house, Fumiko parked along the curb behind John’s car. I looked around anxiously, but there was no sign that all the things I’d heard had actually been fae following us, so I reluctantly got out of the car. Fumiko and Melvin followed suit.
“Well,” Melvin said, “we’re here and my duty is done. Catch ya both later.” He gave us a jaunty wave and started to walk toward the downstairs entrance.
I made time hiccup so I could get him before he went inside. I had to let time flow normally before I could actually grab him because of whatever that resistance was when I approached people in ‘vampire time,’ but I got close enough that he couldn’t escape when I made my lunge. I caught him by the wrist and he jumped.
“Actually, why don’t you come upstairs with us?” I asked. I squeezed his wrist just enough to make sure he understood that wasn’t a request. Fumiko’s eyes darted back and forth between us, and then she shrugged. I guessed she figured I wanted a little buffer of disbelief to put between myself and Megan when we were together again for the first time since she’d drained me to undeath. I pulled Melvin along behind me as I followed Fumiko up the exterior stairs to Megan’s apartment.
At the top of the stairs, Fumiko knocked. We all clustered around the door’s eyepiece, although I didn’t let go of Melvin since I was pretty sure if I did he’d bolt. I suspected he suspected what I was up to, and I wasn’t going to let him run off before I was done. Especially since I was still torn about whether or not I should beg to feed from him, but after making time freeze for a couple of seconds it was that much more imperative I figure out what I was doing about dinner.
From inside, I heard someone come forward to check the door, and then John called “It’s them,” back into the apartment. Then there were more rushing footsteps and Megan threw open the door.
“Come in!” Megan said, barely containing herself. “Come on in, please. Thanks for picking up Abby, Fumiko. Abby!” She hurled herself at me as I came through the door, and I had just a second to panic about the last time she’d hugged me before I was being glomped.
I felt a jolt of sensation and a wild surge of emotions. I was just as anxious as I always was from physical touch, but this time it was worse because last time Megan’s touch had ripped away my humanity. I felt relieved, like I was receiving something I had been missing desperately. I felt awkward, because I knew I was going to have to tell her about Emma and crush her — and I felt an entirely separate surge of relief and joy and love from Megan.
She and I were still connected.
I wriggled and managed to extricate myself from the hug without letting go of Melvin. “Sorry,” I hastily apologized, and then I turned and pulled the door shut. “Sorry,” I said again. I took a deep breath and stared at the door. I kind of wanted to run away through it, but that really wasn’t an option. I was going to have to suck it up and talk to Megan. Or, at least, suck it up and freak out at Megan. Hopefully she’d understand what I meant behind whatever I ended up babbling.
But first: I had to make sure Megan was okay. That was the entire point of my coming over. I turned around slowly and braced myself.
“Hi,” I said quietly. “Um. Yeah. Hi.”
“Hi,” Megan breathily replied. She started to step forward like she was going to hug me again and I unconsciously stepped back. I saw a flash of hurt cross her expression before she could calm it into her normal serenity — but that didn’t matter, because I could feel the disappointment and hurt that my knee jerk rejection caused her.
I cleared my throat and let my autopilot take over, I was so desperate for something to distract me from that corner of my mind that now encompassed Megan’s. “So,” I said, “Are you okay? Everything is safe here?”
Megan glanced at Melvin and then at me. “Of course,” she said. She nodded at Melvin. “Jack set up an obfuscation to mislead any of the fae who might be hunting us, and he didn’t leave until John was here to keep an eye on us,” Megan explained.
My head snapped up, and then swung over to Melvin. “You can see him?” I asked. “I mean, as Melvin?”
Megan frowned. “Well, yeah. Who else would I see?”
“Megan,” said Fumiko, “That’s Zane.”
Melvin’s shoulders slumped. “Well, blast,” he muttered. “I knew I couldn’t keep it up forever — but really, Abigail? Did you have to ruin my fun so soon?”
Megan’s frown deepened as she looked around between Melvin, Fumiko and I. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What’s going on?”
I scowled at Melvin. “Look,” I said, “you had me in a spot when Fumiko’s belief that you didn’t believe in magic was acting as a ward for us, but you can’t seriously believe I was going to let you mislead my friends like this.” I looked back at Megan. “Zane is Melvin. Or rather, Melvin is Zane. I don’t know how long Melvin’s been taking Zane’s place, but it’s been at least since New Year’s. I don’t know why you could see him as he is, though, when Fumiko can’t. I mean: I can only see through the illusion because I figured him out when he came to pick me up but didn’t come inside with Fumiko.”
Melvin laughed. “Megan can see who I am because I’ve sworn my allegiance to her,” he answered me. “She’ll always know who I am, whatever guise I may wear.”
“Wait,” said Fumiko. “Seriously? This guy is Jack?”
Melvin twisted around and bowed to Fumiko, doffing his hat as he did. From the way she gasped and jumped back a step, I could only assume he’d dropped his illusion at the same time. Disgusted with him, I let go of his wrist.
Actually, it might have been more accurate to say I shoved it away from me.
“In the flesh,” Melvin answered Fumiko. “I am truly sorry you had to find out like this, but you really were providing a bit of a protection to us by believing no fae could show up while the mortal disbeliever Zane was with you.”
“That’s not actually an apology that’s worth anything,” John suddenly interjected from the sidelines. I turned to look at him — and then jumped back.
John had his gun out and he was casually pointing it at Melvin.
“He basically just said he’s sorry you found out that he was tricking you,” John continued, “not that he’d had any intention of stopping if you hadn’t.”
Fumiko’s eyes went to John and then to Melvin and back, and she too stepped away — though her movement was more measured than my impulsive leap to get out of the general line of a gun. Megan, however, immediately stepped in front of Melvin with her arms spread.
“John!” Megan exclaimed. “What are you doing? Jack is on our side.”
“Yes,” Melvin chimed in from behind Megan. “Really, John, how rude of you!”
John scowled angrily. He looked at me, then at Fumiko on the sidelines; then back to Megan. “I’m sorry, Megan,” he said bluntly — but the gun didn’t lower. “But will you please step aside? I know you think he’s a trustworthy soul, but in my experience doppelgangers never are.”
“Doppelgangers?” Megan asked.
I swallowed. I knew the answer to that one, and found myself replying before John or Melvin could. “A fae who has taken the place of a normal mortal, and pretends to live their life in order to stay in this world despite not belonging here,” I said.
“Exactly,” said John. “With an emphasis on taken the place of. Of all the fae out there, doppelgangers can be trusted the least because when you meet one you know they’ve already duped some poor bastard out of their life.”
“Come now,” Melvin sniffed. “Like you’ve never done anything unsavory in your unlife, ghoul.”
I saw John flinch as the insult struck home. “Of necessity, yes,” he growled, “and I don’t pretend otherwise.” I swallowed: John’s teeth had all turned sharp, like they’d been filed. I remembered that they’d done that the first time I’d met him, too. It had to be similar to my fangs, which meant that right now John was pissed. “But you’re here by your own choice, Jack, and I won’t let you pretend otherwise. Whatever you did to the poor son of a bitch whose life you stole,” John continued, “you did it with intent, premeditation, and nothing stopping you from just not doing it instead.”
I could feel Megan growing uncertain, but at the same time I could feel myself getting wound up from the tension of the situation. The tension had a lot more of my attention than Megan’s uncertainty. “Melvin,” I said, “I kind of think you should leave now.”
Melvin opened his mouth to protest, then shut it. He blinked a half dozen times — as though he were processing something. Then he opened his mouth again. “Yes, I think I will concur.” He bowed low. “Ladies, it has been a pleasure to share your company, briefly though it has been. John, it has been something that happened to share yours.”
John scowled at the less than subtle dig, but still didn’t lower his gun. Melvin straightened. “Remember, Megan, you can call me whenever you like. I am your vassal, and will serve accordingly. Until then, I shall keep myself scarce.”
Then Melvin backed away, opened the door, and stepped out onto the balcony for the outside stairs. John’s gun followed his every step.
Once outside, Melvin turned. He gave John a shit-eating grin, and then shifted his gaze to me. “Oh, and by the way, Abigail… you and I really do need to have that talk.” Melvin’s eyes glinted dangerously, and there was something dark in his tone — something that made me shrink back behind John. Before I could reply, though, Melvin disappeared, dissolving into rivulets of shadow that poured off the balcony like a mist of darkness. Fumiko hastily closed and bolted the door.
Even so, and even though I no longer felt the cold like I had when I was alive, I couldn’t stop myself from shivering.