While following Lewellan down to the basement, I tried desperately to marshal the defense I would lay out. It should’ve been pretty straightforward: I’d over-fed on Hans because of my heightened need for energy, since my first blood wasn’t a regular mortal. But my aura was bloated now because I’d managed to hunt down a fae and drain him, which had to be a good thing, right? From the Center’s point of view, the fae were the enemy.
Should I mention being attacked before going on the hunt, too? Or would trying to explain that I’d gotten blood from Melvin twice just confuse the issue? Come to think of it, trying to explain that I had a bunch of fae who owed me favors because I’d dared them to kill Mr. Salvatore might not go over that well, either. Just stick to the truth, I scolded myself. You didn’t do anything wrong. It doesn’t matter how it sounds because if he actually listens, you were just acting in self-defense.
When we got to the basement, Director Lewellan went to the bar and then meandered behind it. “I hope you don’t mind?” he asked rhetorically. “Salvatore always kept a good stock, and I imagine this is a conversation where we might need the fortification.”
Adrian sat on a stool at the far end of the bar, away from the wall. I sat on the other end. It made me uncomfortably aware that Director Lewellan was near a gun and there were already bullet holes in the wall behind me. Hans followed at my side, but didn’t sit.
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “But I don’t drink.” Hadn’t Salvatore gone berserk on Katherine and almost drained her to death because he was drunk? That had been the official story, at least. I knew Katherine had claimed it was deliberate, but I wasn’t sure how much I trusted her version of events anymore. “I mean, other than blood, you know. And water and stuff. Nonalcoholic stuff.”
“Ah,” said Lewellan. He paused to smile at me, and then began to rummage beneath the bar for something. “That’s not a bad habit to choose, in this day and age. I hail from an era when wine was a more trustworthy drink than water, however.” He finally pulled out a bottle of some sort of amber liquid, and poured himself a couple inches in the bottom of a glass. Then he put the larger bottle aside. “Though I must say, not starting does make not developing a taste for stronger beverages simpler. Particularly with how modern science ascribes a tendency toward addiction as a genetic trait — tell me, if it isn’t prying, is that why you choose not to imbibe?”
I shook my head. “No. I just don’t want to. Dad didn’t drink, and neither did mom. Mom once told me that my grandpa — on Dad’s side — was a mean drunk, which is why Dad swore away from it. Then they ground it pretty hard into my head that I shouldn’t drink, or do drugs, or anything like that.” I didn’t even like taking medicine. Every time I thought about ingesting something chemical, I just got this mental image of an egg being cracked into a hot skillet. Dad had told me those old public service announcements had only gotten it half right. Then he’d proceeded to make scrambled eggs to demonstrate a more accurate analogy.
“I see,” Lewellan said. “That’s both a wise decision on your part, and something of a shame. Your family has a history of alcoholism through your grandfather, but you’ve no idea if you, yourself, have a penchant for addictive behaviors.”
“I would think that not being addicted to anything would indicate I don’t,” I said crossly. The conversation had derailed my earlier thoughts, and I was anxious to get it back on track before I forgot how I’d meant to present my case. “Look, I…” I trailed off and my eyes widened. This wasn’t just the Director making some kind of small talk while he poured himself a drink, was it? No. It wasn’t. I looked him in the eye. “Do you think I’m addicted to blood?”
Director Lewellan sipped from his glass. “So you are familiar with the phenomenon? ‘Blood Addiction’ is such a misleading term, though. The actuality is much simpler, and an addiction shared by all things with a survival instinct: an addiction to life. Tell me, Abigail, how often do you feed?”
My mind scrambled with the numbers. “Uh, maybe twice a day. More if I’ve been burned alive recently,” I added in a babble. “But I’m not a blood addict! Mr. Salvatore was the blood addict, not me! I don’t even like blood. Have you seen me when I’m alive? I’m a mess! The only reason I don’t try to straddle the line between life and death is that I saw what happened when Mr. Salvatore tried it — that’s why he went all psycho stalker murderer on us!”
“Abigail,” Lewellan said calmly, “This isn’t about Salvatore. He will be granted a trial and sentenced to appropriate rehabilitation for his actions, but until that comes about our concern must be with you. A vampire your age shouldn’t need blood more than once, twice a week at most. That’s if their primary donor was a particularly potent witch or warlock.”
“The first step to letting us help you,” Adrian added from the far end of the bar, “is admitting you have a problem.” His voice wasn’t as deep as Lewellan’s, but it was tempered with patience and kindness. It was almost pitying, and that just made me more snappish.
I shoved myself up from my seat and took a step back from the bar. “No,” I said. “No! You want me to admit to having a problem? Okay: my problem is that I was fucking murdered, and now you guys are being assholes about it!”
Some part of me realized that yelling at them wasn’t going to help my case any. That part of me was screaming for me to stop — but it was also a surprisingly small, distant part of me. I felt like all the stress I’d been under had finally caught up, and now it was spilling out whether I wanted it to or not.
“Abigail,” Director Lewellan said again — and this time he said it more firmly, to get my attention. “With any other addiction, we could let you have the time to realize you were in trouble on your own if interventions didn’t help — but this is the sort of problem where if it is allowed to fester, other people will pay the price. A more experienced vampire would be interred immediately if the Center discovered one of their donors had suffered abuse like that evident in your prime’s aura, and then held until that donor had moved on before being awoken for rehabilitation. That we are trying to explain this is already a courtesy, and a concession to how much the Center wishes to help you adapt to life within our modern society.”
While I recoiled in disbelief — didn’t they realize I already knew how much Hans and Emma and anyone else I got hold of could suffer at my fangs? — Hans stepped up to defend me. “Now hold up,” he said sharply. “Abigail has been doing her utmost to take care of not just herself, but also everyone around her. There’s no need to be throwing around words like ‘abuse.’ She is a kind-hearted, dedicated woman and everything I have seen of her shows that she would much rather sacrifice of herself than allow harm to come to those she cares about. She hasn’t done anything wrong, Director.”
Director Lewellan sighed. Adrian spoke for him.
“Hans, we appreciate your loyalty to your mistress — and your testimony has been heard,” Adrian assured him kindly. “But the fact is that you are known for your loyalty — Salvatore commented on it more than once in his reports to the Center. And that is a good thing. But when it is combined with the fact that your aura is in such tatters as to render your judgment suspect — well, that means we can’t act on just your assurance. Please understand, this is nothing against you. But we have to rely on the evidence in front of us.”
“And the facts are,” Director Lewellan interrupted, “that Abigail’s aura is bloated with energy while yours has been ravaged.” He refocused his attention back on me. “You have confessed to drinking blood far more often than you should need to, and you very obviously have a problem. And Abigail, refusing to work with us is not helping your situation.”
My jaw dropped. I struggled with discordant emotions, but outrage won out. “I… You… But…” I felt my hands clenching into impotent fists. “But you aren’t even listening to me! Maybe once or twice a week would do it if my ‘prime’ were a really powerful warlock, but my first blood was more potent than that, dammit! And as soon as I realized what my feeding was doing to my donors, I started looking for other means to take care of my thirst. Yes, my aura is really full right now, but that’s because I had a couple of meals tonight that had nothing to do with Hans. I am not out of control, I swear!” I took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on my frustration.
Unfortunately, that let the silence which answered my declaration sink in.
The director was the one who broke it.
“You’ve been hunting?” Director Lewellan asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Child, we don’t hunt in this day and age. And for good reason. It is dangerous to us, to those around us, and to the secret that keeps our enemies at bay. That you feel the need to despite the amount of life available to you from your primary — and the amount you have taken from your primary — is very disturbing.”
Fuck, I’ve been demoted from ‘Abigail’ to ‘child.’ That can’t be good. All of my optimism from earlier was gone: how was this going so wrong, so fast? Did he think I’d been hunting innocent humans? I hadn’t even been hunting innocent fae!
“Not just her primary,” Adrian pointed out to Lewellan. “She said donors, plural.” He turned his attention back to me. “Who else have you been feeding from, and how did you find another wolf so quickly? There hasn’t been a full moon since your transition, so it can’t be a new member of your primary’s pack.”
I gawked at them. Mr. Salvatore’s addiction to blood had been pretty much the first thing Hans had explained to me, before I even was a vampire. And now they seemed pretty damned convinced I was an addict, too. Suddenly it came crashing back to me: the Director might be here to help me adapt, but he was also here to see if I could cope with being a vampire or if I was a threat to the secret society they’d built. It didn’t matter if I didn’t turn myself in: if he thought I was a threat and decided I should be interred, he probably wasn’t going to give me a choice in the matter. In fact, he’d already said most vampires would be interred just for the state I’d left Hans’ aura in. I didn’t want to be staked and shoved in a box, especially now that I finally had a solution to my life needs problem! Oh, fuck me. I was probably going to have to talk really fast to convince him I was okay to run around unsupervised. Or, hell: even just okay to run around supervised.
Those thoughts flashed through my brain almost too quickly to be processed. My autopilot was already on task before I’d gotten through them. This was all going so fucking wrong. I needed to get back on track and explain what was going on before I panicked worse and they decided I really was some kind of rogue, criminal vampire who stalked the innocent and abused her donors! “Wait!” I blurted in a panic. “I wasn’t hunting, you know, people,” I babbled. “Well, I mean, I was. But not humans. Or witches! Or anything like that! It was fae, I swear!”
Adrian and Director Lewellan shared an unreadable look. It scared me. It scared me more when Director Lewellan returned his gaze to me, and I saw a coldness in it. A resignation. He had decided something, and I didn’t know what it was — but I knew it wouldn’t be good for me. “Child, you may wish to reconsider that statement. Hunting the fae requires considerable resources. Without potent support from witches and warlocks, the fae cannot even be found if they do not desire it. And I can assure you that they pay attention to our movements. If you had the magical support necessary to find them, then they would retreat before you could move on it.”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. Panic was rapidly taking over. What the… But I was doing so good! I’d managed to hunt down a fae and take care of my hunger on my own and somehow the Director had decided I was incompetent? I looked at Hans for support, and he looked excruciatingly uncomfortable. He wants to be on your side, I told myself, but he doesn’t know about Pipsqueak.
“But it’s true,” I blurted. “I tracked down a faerie that was tormenting this homeless guy under a bridge and I caught him and drained him — the faerie, not the homeless guy! His name is Pipsqueak! Why don’t you believe me?”
Again, the unreadable look passed between Adrian and Director Lewellan. This time, Adrian answered. “You were a complete unknown when you transitioned,” he said. “Not on the Center’s radar at all. The possibility that you were a fae agent had to be considered. So while we were on our way here other assets — allies already within the city — were investigating you.” He sounded almost apologetic. “Nothing too intrusive,” he assured me — as though that were any reassurance. “We went through Salvatore’s employee records, had some divinations cast, a few subtle conversations with people who knew you. It didn’t provide much: your friends and family had disappeared by then.”
“Megan and Fumiko were hiding from Mr. Salvatore. Katherine probably had wards on them, too,” I said. “And Mom and Dad didn’t disappear — they came here to check on me.”
“Yes,” Adrian accepted my explanations, “Fine. The point is: what we could dig up from those we could talk to indicated that you have a…” He paused to consider his words. “A tendency to, um, exaggerate the truth.”
The expression on Director Lewellan’s face darkened. “‘Pathological Liar’ was the term quoted on one of the agents’ reports,” he said. “And while I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt since our agents could only interview acquaintances, you are beginning to test my patience. In fact, I think a demonstration is in order,” he said, “before you find yourself persisting in something I will take offense to.”
I swallowed. Oh fuck, he doesn’t believe me and he doesn’t even want to. “What… what kind of demonstration?” I stammered.
“You are young,” Lewellan said. “Because of the potency of your prime, you are much stronger than others your age, I am sure. But I am ancient in comparison, and I think you need to realize that I do not need to put up with lies from you.”
Then the Director’s eyes bored into me. I’d gotten familiar with the sensation of spiritual connections in the past couple of days, and I felt the Director’s mind pierce mine, and the geas that stabbed down through that connection.
It was a crude thing compared to Melvin’s leash. Lewellan’s geas was a spike driven into my mind, intended to pin me down and prevent anything other than compliance, while Melvin’s had left me the freedom to act so long as it wasn’t in defiance. There was a fuzziness to it, too: as though it was trying to be subsumed into my life force; to tangle itself around some integral part of me.
I threw all the energy I’d pulled from Pipsqueak — energy that had not yet been subsumed fully into my own life force since I was still working on Melvin’s aura — at Lewellan’s geas, hoping it would hook into that instead of into me. I remembered what Melvin had said about how geases worked — that they wrapped themselves around a part of a person’s soul so that breaking the geas meant breaking their self. The thought was even more terrifying now that I could actually sense it happening.
“Now,” Lewellan said, “You may attempt to resist this. I will even ask you a harmless question, just in case you wish to try. Should I ask you a question I actually care about the answer to, both the difficulty to resist and the penalty for the attempt will be proportionately higher. Now, let us see. How about: What is your favorite color?”
I braced myself to resist the urge to answer, but it was over in an instant. “Red,” I blurted without thinking.
The spike withdrew from my mind, and Director Lewellan smiled. “There,” he said. “Do you see how easy that was? For me, that is. I know it is taxing on you, so I do ask that you simply tell me the truth henceforth and not force me to compel it.”
I swallowed. My limbs were shaking and I sank down on my heels, almost falling because my knees didn’t want to support my weight anymore. Hans bolted to catch me. He crouched and wrapped his arms around me protectively. I knew it was supposed to be supportive, but I wanted to scream at him and shove him away. My paranoia was screaming. My mind had just been invaded. I didn’t need anyone near me — I needed everyone to be far, far the fuck away. I managed not to scream, though. It wasn’t even hard: I could barely talk, let alone talk loudly. “How, how do you know that I didn’t resist it?” I stammered.
The Director tilted his head. The pitying expression on his face clearly said: ‘please, you’re trying to make me doubt my spell with a bluff? Like no one has ever tried that before when I’ve compelled them.’ “Because you are not unconscious with a hole in your soul where the connection to your mind should be,” he said, “waiting for it to mend before your life can resume. Now, admit that you have a problem so we can begin working forward from it.”
Oh yeah, I thought. I have a problem. I managed to keep my emotions out of my voice. I was still shaking, and I felt utterly violated in a way that I hadn’t even felt when I’d known Melvin had been sniffing over my aura like it was a baker’s wares. Even Melvin’s geas hadn’t affected me like this: I’d been pissed at him, yes, but his geas had at least been built on our relationship and my own foolish consent. It had grown from within me rather than being forced upon me from without. Lewellan’s on the other hand, had been a matter of sheer brute force. And maybe it was that I’d been spending so much more time getting used to searching through my aura for emotions that weren’t mine or identifying my connections with other people, but I thought I could actually feel the hole in my soul that had been left when Lewellan’s geas withdrew. A hole that was slowly — far too slowly — closing as more of Melvin’s aura was subsumed by my curse.
It made me nauseous. It made my panic and paranoia almost impossible to handle. I was still alive, but there was a fucking hole in my soul.
I looked down. It was easy not to meet Director Lewellan’s eyes, since he was standing on the other side of the bar. “Yeah,” I whispered. “I do. I have a problem.” I blinked away tears. I wasn’t going to cry. I couldn’t break down. Not here, not now: not in front of Lewellan. I reached down deep, trying to find any part of me that wasn’t terrified; that could help me hold myself together. I found my connection to Hans: emphasized by his proximity to me, and I grasped at it for support, needing his calmness and strength.
His wolf howled through my mind instead, infuriated that one of its own had been attacked by this interloper. I shuddered in shock. I felt Hans tremble as well: he was putting his all into keeping his wolf under control, and there was nothing to be spared to me despite his arms around my shoulders. I forced the wolf down, pushed it away; made myself release my grip on Hans’ thread.
But in the process, I had brushed against another connection. It wasn’t to Hans. It wasn’t to anyone. It was a thread, wound tight and wrapped in energy that I recognized as mine. But the thread was mine, too. It was a connection to myself, partitioned away by all of the life I still had to subsume. A connection to the vampire instincts my curse had buried within me. The vampire part of me that wasn’t afraid of anything, and that got shit done.
Sealed away as it was, it couldn’t course over me like Hans’ wolf had. But I could still feel the outrage, and anger and fury and violent intent roiling behind the barrier of Melvin’s and Pipsqueak’s life force. And even though the curse had partitioned them and amplified them and twisted them until my vampire persona was almost an entirely different self, I could still recognize that those emotions were mine. And they weren’t afraid. And they got shit done.
I held on to them.
“I have a problem,” I said more firmly. I looked up; stood up. I rose to my feet so I could meet the Director’s eyes. Hans rose with me, but didn’t let me go. I ignored him. For all I knew, I would need him to catch me in another moment. Especially if Lewellan pulled another stunt with a geas. I still felt sick, and I thought that probably wouldn’t go away even after the hole Lewellan had left behind healed.
“I’m sorry,” I said — and I was absolutely sincere. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, but you’re right.” Director Lewellan smiled at me. It almost made me puke, but I didn’t. “I have a problem,” I repeated instead, “and I admit it, and I’ll do whatever I have to in order to take care of it.”
And the last time I had a problem with a Director, the thought came unbidden from the cold and ruthless part of me I clutched for support, I had to kill him.