After the veteran’s startled pronouncement, we continued to stare at each other for a few seconds. I could feel his confusion, which confused me. Then I figured it out: I had fed on Pipsqueak, and Pips had been feeding on him. Some of the life force I had taken from Pips had belonged to his victim, and hadn’t been subsumed into the goblin’s own aura yet.
“I’m not a kid!” I protested. Well, my autopilot protested. I was actually focusing on gathering up every scrap of emotion I could identify as belonging to the man and shoving it back at him through our shared link, like I’d tried to give life back to Emma at lunch. I had no idea if it worked because I was so bloated with energy I couldn’t tell if any of it actually depleted. But at least I managed to get his thoughts out of my head. Or to ignore them, shove them out of my consciousness. I’d sort-of come to terms with the fact that I was going to see my victim’s emotions when I’d decided to turn evil, but I hadn’t anticipated seeing my victim’s victim’s emotions, and that just felt… wrong. Like I’d unintentionally violated him somehow.
The man tilted his head. Appraising eyes zipped up and down me, which made me yank the cloak shut tighter around myself. There wasn’t lust or anything in his expression though, and he snorted at my reaction. “My nephew’s a freshman at the college. You can’t be older than him,” he said.
I sputtered. Is this really what we’re talking about? I wondered. Seriously? I was okay with the fact that he hadn’t mentioned my breakdown — but disturbed that he seemed content to overlook the fact that I’d ripped the throat of another living being out in front of him. “Seriously?” I asked. “That’s what we’re talking about? How old I am?”
He laughed and started picking up the spilled contents of his backpack. “Rude of me, I know, but it just sorta came out. Sorry ’bout that, miss. I know better than to ask a lady about her age, but: Jesus, it’s like they just keep getting younger.”
“They?” I asked.
He looked up from gathering his belongings to answer. “Kids.” Then he hesitated. “Aw, hell: I’m being rude again aren’t I?” He held a can in his right hand, so he thrust out his left. “Daniel Stuessy, and I’d say I’m at your service but I reckon you just did me one, instead.”
I looked at the proffered hand and then back up at Daniel. I blinked a couple of times and tried to work up the courage to shake it. I mean: it wasn’t like it was dirty. Or, at least, dirtier than mine. At least Daniel’s hand didn’t have invisible evaporating faerie gore all over it.
Daniel seemed to sense my unease, which made me wonder if he was used to people shying away from him. Probably. That made me feel worse. Was I being a bad person? I mean, other than the whole terrifying helpless fae and ripping the life force out of people bit? In any case, before I could do anything about it Daniel turned the offered hand into a gesture toward the ground.
“Have a seat,” he offered. “Me puente es su puente and all that rot. It’s public land. So what’s your story?”
I looked at him blankly. Was he unhinged? That would explain the lack of fleeing madly from the vampire standing across from him. Or maybe Pips had drained him so far that he just couldn’t feel fear because he was too busy feeling curiosity. “Story?”
Daniel grinned crookedly. I noticed that his teeth were in pretty good shape. I wondered if he hadn’t been homeless long. That probably made sense. Given his age, I thought he probably wasn’t likely to last long without a proper shelter or healthcare. “Nobody winds up under a bridge in a park unless they’ve got a story,” he said bluntly. “And I bet yours is a doozy, what with all the killin’ demons and shit.”
I gawked at him, not believing what I was hearing. “Demons?” I asked incredulously. “Just what exactly do you think was going on here?” I narrowed my eyes at him. “What do you think I am?” If anyone around here deserved the appellation ‘demon…’ Well, Pips probably did. But he was gone now, and I knew I did, too.
“Well,” Daniel said slowly, “It seems pretty obvious, don’t you think? I mean, you appeared in front of me while I was having one of my wakin’ nightmares, right? And then the next thing I know the nightmare’s ended and you’re tearing into this little imp-shit for being a douche, pardon my language. So I gotta figure: Pretty lady stepping out of a dream, and she’s got fangs and sucks the life out of people? Well, hell, I’ve gone to church and I played DnD with my cousin, and that’s straight up succubus right there.”
I stared, unable to form a response. Daniel’s theory was just so… wrong.
“Except you don’t look like the sort to screw people willy nilly, pardon me for saying so,” Daniel continued, oblivious. “And you definitely did me a turn for the better by breaking up that night terror. Was that imp the one stirring those up? ’cause shit: if so, I don’t think I can ever thank you enough. But anyway, everyone knows that demons are just fallen angels, so you gotta expect angels to have fangs and tails and hooves and shit, too. And if you’re not a demon — and I reckon you aren’t — then you gotta be the other one, right?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it.
Daniel beamed at me like I’d just confirmed his theory. “I don’t know what a fucked up shit like me did to deserve a guardian angel,” he said. “But you were talkin’ like you were in charge of the whole city, so I guess I was just the most fucked up of a shit out there tonight? Anyway, I owe you.” He looked down and seemed to realize he’d just been standing there with a can in his hand the whole time he laid out his logic. “Say, you hungry?”
I immediately recoiled. I felt like puking again — and then the sensation passed as I realized it was inappropriate. My instinctual nausea had been based on a misconception: This was the first time in days that someone had asked if I was hungry and hadn’t been talking about blood. I felt a little light-headed at the thought.
“I… I don’t really eat normal food,” I said. “I mean, I can, but I think it’s pretty much just for pleasure.”
Daniel snorted. “Well then, shit,” he said. “Have a seat and I’ll fix something up, right? And if it isn’t to your liking, I got no problem with leftovers.”
I blinked at him. I felt… overwhelmed, and a little befuddled, by how different Daniel was from what I would have expected, just looking at him. But more than that: he was treating me like I was normal. Well, as normal as anyone could be, given the circumstances. If inviting a demon-killing angelic succubus to dinner under a bridge could be considered ‘normal.’ “I… yeah, sure,” I answered to my surprise. I folded the lower half of Fumiko’s cloak under my legs and sat down.
Daniel grinned, and then went to scurrying around the campsite after the rest of his stuff. In short order he’d started a small fire in a little sheltered pit that I’d overlooked — and would have assumed was an animal burrow if I’d noticed it at all. Then he produce a very frightening looking knife and stabbed it into the lid of a can of sliced potatoes. Thankfully the knife disappeared after that, and Daniel sat the can in among the flames to cook. Or heat up, or whatever: a quick glance at the can informed me that they were pre-cooked. Sometimes being able to see in the dark and read at a distance was nice.
Apparently that was the meal Daniel had in mind, because once he’d set up that he gathered up his ‘bedroll’ and turned it into a seat for himself. “So, young lady, spill it. Story time.”
I looked at him askance, unsure how I wanted to answer. On the one hand, he was already being plagued by fae, so it wasn’t like I’d be taking away any of the protection of disbelief. On the other hand, well: what the hell? He was clearly out of the supernatural loop or he wouldn’t have thought I was some kind of guardian angel. Ultimately, I decided that gave him the worst of both worlds. He was vulnerable, and he was ignorant. Knowing more could only help him protect himself.
“Okay,” I heard myself saying. “Well, first off, I’m not an angel. I’m a vampire.”
Daniel didn’t react negatively to my statement, so I continued to talk. A lot. He didn’t scream and run away when I explained that I was undead, or that I ate people’s souls, or any of that. He nodded along and didn’t ask questions. Occasionally he would motion for me to stop, then get up and prowl around the perimeter of his camp. Then he would sit back down, apologize, and ask me to continue. I don’t know what he thought he heard out there when he did it, since I wasn’t catching anything weird with my super hearing — but it did freak me out enough that I started stopping time and doing a quick check around the bridge whenever he did, too. I never saw anything, and if Daniel ever noticed that I’d shifted slightly from where I was when he got up, he didn’t comment on it.
By the end, though, I’d told him pretty damn near everything. I’d told him about Megan and Mr. Salvatore, and about Hans, and Emma, and Katherine. I’d told him about Melvin, and everything I’d figured out about the fae. I’d explained how I couldn’t keep hurting my friends, and how I’d tracked down Pipsqueak. And I told him that I didn’t think I could do that again; that I’d thought I could but I just couldn’t be that person.
Daniel just nodded and soaked it all in.
When I was finally done I was startled by how much I’d opened up with him. He was remarkably easy to talk to: completely nonjudgmental and an avid listener. At the same time, I barely knew him and I was intensely embarrassed by the realization that I’d just unloaded on someone who was, basically, a complete stranger. Except, of course, for the fact that I’d had his emotions in my brain. And even if I’d done my best to ignore them and push them back to him, they’d still been there, so I couldn’t really call him a stranger. Maybe I was to him, but he wasn’t to me. After all, most people don’t get that intimate a connection with someone else, no matter how long they’ve known each other.
My tongue got tied at that point, and I bashfully looked down at the cup of potatoes he’d given me while I was going on about Emma and Megan and my relationship drama. It wasn’t so much a cup as it was an old soda can he’d sawn in half at some point, and I hadn’t eaten any of the potato slices in it — I hadn’t wanted to take any of Daniel’s food — but I had enjoyed the way it kept my fingers toasty after it cooled enough to touch.
Daniel picked up on the awkwardness of my silence and took over the conversation for me. “Well, that’s a hell of a tale,” he said. If he was at all put off, he didn’t show it.
I glanced up. “You’re really easygoing about all this,” I observed.
Daniel snorted. “Miss Abigail, it’s like my dad always said: ‘There’s more things in life than were dreamt of in your philosophy, you whiny little bastard, so don’t major in navel lint studies like your uncle did ’cause you’ll still never figure that shit out.’ You just gotta take what life hands you and roll with it, right?” Then he grinned and rubbed his hands together malevolently. “Besides, knowing those wakin’ terrors weren’t just because I was cracked? I don’t know if you can realize what a relief that is. Next time it happens, I’ll be ready.”
Being crazy myself, I knew exactly how big a relief being proven sane could be. Or at least I had an idea, since I never actually had been. But I just nodded. Daniel’s eyes sparkled in the dim light — they almost looked young, despite the age etched in his face.
“Now I just got to take care of my shit, you know?” Daniel asked. “Just like you’ve got to take care of yours.”
I looked back down. “I know,” I said. “I just hope the Director arrives soon. I can’t keep doing this, but I don’t know how long I can hold out without them to lock me up.”
“What?” Daniel asked. “Aw, hell no, pardon my blasphemy. Miss Abigail, that isn’t what I mean at all. I think you’re making this more complicated than it has to be. And yeah, that’s to be expected when you’ve got fifty bajillion things to worry about. But I don’t. So, you want some advice from an old guy who’s seen some shit and has an outside perspective?”
I looked up, then hastily nodded. I wasn’t actually sure that I did, but I was pretty confident that I was about to get it one way or another.
“Thing is,” Daniel said, “I’ve dealt with plenty of youngsters who think they’re big and bad and never gonna die. But each and every one of them knows, deep down in their hindbrain, that the next bullet could be theirs, right?”
“Um, the fae actually are immortal,” I interrupted. Daniel laughed and shook his head.
“Nope,” he said. “Not even remotely. You said it yourself: vampires can put them down, permanently. And that means that each and every one of them can die, and I guarantee you, they know it. What’s more: us regular folks, we have to face death every day. Is it gonna be a car wreck? A bullet? Cancer? Some dick with a knife in an alley? A rock from space fallin’ from the sky? We got so much to worry about, any given thing isn’t even gonna faze us, most of the time. But those fae folks? They’ve got one thing. One thing, for all their fears to focus on. And you,” Daniel pointed a finger at me for emphasis, “are the whatsis, the embodiment of that thing, not to bring a lady’s body into the conversation. Anyway, point is: you don’t need to act all scary and go overboard like you did with my personal faerie douchebag to scare the lot of them. You just gotta exist.”
My cheeks heated with embarrassed shame. “I really did go too far, didn’t I?”
Daniel snorted. “Maybe yep, maybe nope. In my personal opinion the fucker deserved it. But regardless: kid or not, you’re young. I’m not gonna hold it against you that you don’t know how to pull your punches yet.” He shrugged. “But that wasn’t my point. My point was: you don’t have to go around terrifying the fae. They’re already terrified of you, and everyone like you. What you’ve gotta do is hunt them down and give them a choice. On the one hand,” he gestured with his left, “they can swear to live life by your rules — which’ll include stuff like not hurting the innocent and givin’ a modest donation of blood when you need it. Or…” this time he gestured with his right. “They can choose option two. And you should smile big with the fangs when you mention option two.”
I paled. The first part, making them swear to follow my rules: that was a good idea. I could do that. But the second?” “No,” I said. I shook my head. “I can’t destroy someone, and if one of them calls my bluff, it’d all fall apart. I can’t do that.”
Daniel pulled back. “What?” He asked in surprise. “Well of course you can’t,” Daniel exclaimed. “You’re not a murderer. No, what option two is, you see, it’s that you get that pretty witch you’re keen on — or maybe some of her college friends — and you drag that sorry sonnuva a bitch faerie off to some basement. Then you have your friends draw a nice tight circle in salt and angry ‘don’t you fuckin’ cross this line’ thoughts, and you put the fucker in that, and you tell him you’ll be back in a couple decades to see if he’s changed his mind.”
I stared. I gawked. I briefly wished I was Megan, because she would’ve thrown herself at Daniel, enveloped him in a hug, and kissed his cheek. Well, actually, since she was Megan she would probably have planted it on his lips. I could do that. I mean: Not the hugging and kissing. But acting as a faerie jailer? Not having to murder anyone? I could do that! “Daniel,” I said, “As soon as you get your life back together and have taken a shower, you need to call me. Because I so owe you a hug.”
Daniel barked with laughter and held up his hands. “Hey, I won’t protest a hug from a pretty gal, but it isn’t owed. Pointing out the obvious is the least I can do after you saved my sorry ass.” He grinned. “And I’ll be on my feet right quick, I promise you. I’ve got five dollars and access to the public library system. The next sunnova bitch who tries to throw my nightmares in my face while I’m awake is gonna get a fist full of rock salt in his, and then I’m going to follow up with every rhyme for banishing baddies that I — or my friends the reference librarians — can dig out of the folklore section of the finest institution our government ever funded.”
I laughed back with him, feeling a vicarious surge of optimism. For the first time in what felt like a long time I was optimistic about my own straits, too. I wasn’t going to have to keep feeding off of Emma. Or Hans. I reached out with my mind and brushed the bundle of threads I’d identified as Archarel’s fae — the ones who had failed to defeat Mr. Salvatore and accidentally indebted themselves to me. I could track them down. I could take blood as a penalty for their tormenting normal, innocent people — and I could make them stop. And I didn’t have to destroy them to do it.
When my mirth faded I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. I wasn’t going to cry. I didn’t care how relieved I was, I wasn’t going to start crying again. I handed the cup of potatoes back to Daniel and tried to smile. “I should get going back to the house,” I said. We were still having longer nights than days, but sunrise couldn’t have been more than a few hours off. “Thank you,” I added. Then I hesitated. “Um. Is there anything you need, to help you get back on your feet? I mean, I don’t have much, but…”
Daniel took the potatoes and shook his head. “No,” he said sternly. “Miss Abigail, you told me your story. You’re homeless, too. You focus on your feet, and I’ll focus on mine.” He smiled gently. “Besides, my cousin — he’s more like my brother, you know, after Dad passed — runs a construction business. He’s offered me a place on one of his crews, but I couldn’t accept it when I didn’t know when I’d flip out around people, you know? Now, well, it seems like that might change. So I’ll be fine, like I said. You just keep track of your own feet and make sure they end up under the rest of you.”
I laughed, blushed, and ducked my head. “Okay,” I agreed. He probably would be fine, I told myself. God knew, Daniel had his head on straighter than I did. I mean, other than talking to me instead of freaking out, anyway. Pipsqueak must have done a serious number on Daniel’s aura. But then, Pips had been feeding the entire time I’d been tracking him down. And possibly longer — I didn’t know when he’d started.
Maybe if I had any energy left after I got Megan to restore Emma, we should swing back here and check on Daniel?
I picked up my purse and started rummaging through it for a scrap of paper I could put my number on. After everything I’d told Daniel, he didn’t count as a stranger anymore. Even if I didn’t swing back by before sunrise — or if he relocated before I got a chance to, whenever that wound up being — I wanted him to be able to get a hold of me once he got his life on track again. I figured he owed me his story, next time.
I was interrupted in my search when my phone rang. It startled me, and I dropped my purse. Then I snatched the phone out of it before it could ring again, leaving the purse on the ground, and hastily flipped the phone open. It was Hans, and he was talking before I even got it to my ear. That didn’t matter, though, because I could still hear him perfectly.
“Abigail,” Hans said. “Get home now. It’s the Director. He’s here.”
END OF BOOK 3