Before I could say or do anything about the stranger with fangs behind him, Ben spoke up and stole my attention. “Abigail,” he gasped, and my name seemed to be imbued with one part relief to one part worry. “Are you alright? What happened?”
“I’m fine,” I said guardedly. I wasn’t terribly worried about Thomas, but my logic-centers were still ringing from the alarm bells stranger-vampire had set off. I didn’t want to say anything around him that might be construed as a weakness, and that included explaining about my newfound hangup with stepping out of the natural time stream.
Valerie, on the other hand, had no such trouble. “You freaked her out when you accelerated and pulled her along,” she said. “She’s fine now, but don’t do that again. She’s had some bad experiences with it and it will take real time for her to get over them. May we come in?”
Real time and a therapist and probably lots and lots of drugs, I thought. My more pessimistic nature chimed in with: Or one good stroll in the sun and an absence of anyone willing or able to give blood. I shivered and hoped no one noticed.
“Of course,” Benjamin hastily said. He stepped aside and waved for us to enter the room. “Come on in.” Valerie stepped past me and into the room. Significantly more reluctantly, I followed her.
Valerie turned a desk chair around and sat in it. I wasn’t certain where I should go, so I sidled up to the wall between her and the door. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the stranger. I watched him warily and he glared back at me openly.
He had short, curly red hair and a hawkish face. He wasn’t incredibly tall or very bulky, but he wasn’t thin. He did have a very well defined musculature under his grey tee-shirt. He was also wearing black cargo pants, and there was a pistol holstered on his belt, with a large knife that reminded me of Daniel’s sheathed opposite it. He had a second gun in a shoulder holster above the knife. And I could tell he was a vampire because of the fang that was just barely visible among his other teeth as he sneered angrily my way.
“So,” he said — and his voice immediately started poking at my memory. “This is the upstart? She doesn’t look as impressive as I was led to expect.”
Off to my side, I caught Valerie rolling her eyes in my peripheral vision. Now that I was inside the wards my super senses seemed to be capable of picking up all the little details that I hadn’t noticed from the hallway. Thomas, on the other hand, looked nervous. But then again, wasn’t he the youngest? Other than me?
I could certainly understand not wanting to be around belligerent older vampires. That had never worked out well for me. Actually, the thought of this guy intimidating Thomas pinged my overprotective pitbull side. Probably because it had been way too overactive for the past few days, and hadn’t really settled down even though Archarel and Lewellan were dead now. But also probably because it was a lot easier for me to get angry on Thomas’ behalf than my own, and I had a feeling that I was going to need to be angry in response to this vampire or I was going to get beat into the ground. Verbally and emotionally, if not physically.
“And you’re Mr. Fiore,” My autopilot observed, having placed his voice. “Funny. I wasn’t told to expect anything from you. But hey: if you’re upset with me for failing to meet your expectations, you should be happy to know that you totally lived up to mine.” Fiore hadn’t helped against Director Lewellan, and he hadn’t sent any of his men — all trained, military warlocks — to help secure the second portal in Katherine’s house. Everyone else in the room was ostensibly my ally, but Mr. Fiore was very much not.
Mr. Fiore’s lips thinned angrily. Fuck fuck fuck, I scolded myself. Do not piss off the crazy ass militia-leading open-carry gun nut vampire, Abigail! Especially when he’s already going to be pissed off about….
“You drained one of my men,” Mr. Fiore snapped. “Enthralled him,” he added. “I was entirely obligated to keep your fangs away from the rest of my people, and had no reason to listen to your propaganda — and every reason to keep to my post at the college grounds faerie gate.”
Part of me quailed inside. ‘Angry guy’ has that effect on me. I know the statistics and ‘angry guy’ usually ends with bad things happening, particularly to women. I mean, I couldn’t quote the statistics or anything, but I’d heard them often enough to internalize the message. But part of me surged angrily, as well. Because… what the fuck was he going to do to me? Kill me? And also, because it never went well when I tried not to rile up the people who intimidated me. Mr. Salvatore had killed me. Director Lewellan had geased me. Hans had fucking kissed me all over and made me come in a shower.
Intimidating guys were just a huge amount of trouble once they got going. And trying to let them be only gave them the time to ramp up whatever their intimidating behaviors were.
But also, also: What the fuck did Mr. Fiore mean by my ‘propaganda?’ Director Lewellan was a lying, shriveled up corpse and I’d just been telling people the truth! Minus a few things I omitted, but I didn’t just make shit up. I only did that when I was freaked out in social situations. You know: when the shit I made up was less plausible than the shit that was actually happening to me.
“And I drained the other one,” Benjamin said, levering himself into the conversation. “I thought we’d already agreed that there were some extenuating circumstances there, and you’d let bygones be.”
Mr. Fiore’s teeth grit in response, but I didn’t let him say anything. I stepped away from the wall, putting myself between Ben and Fiore. If there was one thing I’d learned in the past week, it was that no one could fight my battles better than me. Anyone who tried got fucked up or geased or fucked up and geased or dead. Or undead. Whatever.
“Yeah,” I interjected dryly. “I would apologize for that, except your guy fucking shot me in the head first.” I tapped my skull where the bullet had blasted into it for emphasis. “Really, if one of us is going to be pissed, I think it gets to be me. After all, you had no problem listening to Director Lewellan’s propaganda when you tried to have me assassinated.” I took another step toward Mr. Fiore, although now I was freaking out inside because I had two vampires behind me in addition to the very angry one in front of me. At least I could still see Thomas out of the corner of my eye.
Other than that, the only silver lining I could see with the situation was that vampires weren’t empaths like faeries were. I let my autopilot keep rolling because at least it could pretend I wasn’t scared to re-death.
“I followed orders,” Mr. Fiore said, “and acted to contain a threat. You’ve enthralled someone. You took away their free will, without their consent — and they are someone under my aegis,” he seethed. “I assure you that I am appropriately concerned.” He said the word ‘appropriately’ with emphasis, though the word ‘concerned’ came out with a sneer that probably meant ‘infuriated.’
“Oh,” I said. I said it like I was surprised. Like what he’d said made perfect sense and had just revealed to me how terribly wrong I’d been. “I didn’t realize! Well, that is a problem. Gee.” I took another step forward and glared up at Mr. Fiore. “Maybe,” I said and I let my voice sharpen to emphasize the sarcasm I hadn’t shared in my earlier proclamation, “that means you should’ve been more responsible than to send your people out to murder someone who was innocent of any wrong doing, who was just trying to help her friends. Fuck! I’m glad I enthralled Derrick. I might be messed up but at least I won’t fuck him over by telling him to risk his life and his ability to see himself as a decent human being by murdering innocents. Not even the extremely dangerous ones.”
Mr. Fiore opened his mouth to say something, but I stepped entirely into his space and got up in his face.
“Shut it,” I snapped. “If you want to play fucking ‘I care more about the mortals than you’ with me, I’ll play. But first let’s tally our scores so far, shall we? You sent your people, without backup, to risk their lives trying to ‘contain’ a supposedly out-of-control vampire.” I raised my left fist up next to my face and shook it to catch his attention, but didn’t raise any fingers before continuing. “I personally intervened and took out two Directors who’d actually gone off the deep end and killed or plotted to kill more innocent mortals.” I lifted my other fist to mirror my left, but this time I raised two fingers. Because, fuck it: I deserved two points for two psycho vampires.
“You stood guard over a heavily warded, well-known gate,” I continued. No points for Mr. Fiore. “I found the actual avenue Archarel meant to move through, secured it, went through it and fucking killed the faerie king on the other side.” Three points total for me, and I wasn’t even done yet.
I smiled at Mr. Fiore, and there was nothing friendly about it. I was genuinely pissed, now, to the point that I’d managed to shunt aside everything that was telling me to freak out and run away. “You spent yesterday with your hands in your pockets, twiddling your thumbs. I got shit done that will keep people in this city safe.” That was probably worth more than one point, but I just gave myself the one, anyway.
“Gee,” I snarled. “I think I’m winning.” I was trembling, but I hoped he thought I was just quivering with rage. The moment had passed already: part of me was angry enough that I could almost convince myself that I was trembling with fury. The rest of me knew better: I was terrified. But I was also close enough to Mr. Fiore — and focused on him, and had him focused on me — that even though I didn’t know him that well, I could get a grip on Fiore’s leyline. I was hoping that would give me forewarning if he tried to do anything stupid, so I could just kill him before he could try to ‘accelerate’ or engage in any other fuckery.
However, the vantage into Mr. Fiore’s soul actually gave me a lot more.
This close, I could almost see down Mr. Fiore’s leyline as well as I would have if I’d been dormant. And while I didn’t know what to do with that, my autopilot did. I grabbed a handful of his tee-shirt and yanked him down so that his face was even with mine. “I get it,” I growled. “You’re pissed. You fucked up, and you made bad decisions — because not doing anything is a fucking decision, and you know it — and you don’t want to have to admit that to anyone, including yourself. It’s a lot fucking easier to be angry at me for upsetting your whole world view of ‘Center good, not-Center bad’ than it is to say ‘Oh shit, I was duped into following the orders of a criminal psychopath.’ You’re at least as pissed with yourself as you are with me, and you don’t know what to do about that — but you sure as hell don’t know how to back down when you know that’ll mean losing face.” Mr. Fiore’s eyes widened. I wanted to apologize and run away, but I just kept twisting the screws instead. “And it’s just that much fucking worse because your Family put their faith in you when they sent you here, and you screwed up.”
I shoved Fiore away, unable — or at least unwilling — to keep watching his disheveled emotions respond to the accusations I was throwing at him. That last one had been the kicker. I almost thought I could have started to drain him by latching onto his fear of failing his Family. At least, maybe while I’d had a physical hold on him.
Mr. Fiore stumbled back and caught himself against the wall. My autopilot kept on riding him, even without any supernatural insight to back it up. Own it, I told myself. Do not freak out about reading his soul. Do not lose momentum now or he will eat you for lunch. I did what I could not to break down from the stress of being this belligerent to someone I knew could break me in half and literally eat me alive in the woods. Mostly, that meant letting my autopilot keep calling the shots.
“You want to know what to do?” I asked. I didn’t wait for an answer. “Get over it. People fuck up. Don’t compound it by being a jackass. And until you do? Get the fuck out of my face. Because I have serious shit to do, and dealing with your insecurity isn’t on that list.”
I let my glare transfix Mr. Fiore; dared him to say something. God knew: if he did, my autopilot would just get worse with the accusations. Without the insight into his soul to fuel it, it would have to start making things up — and not even god knew where that would end up. Mr. Fiore took a half breath in and then forced himself to just stop breathing. I had already forced my heart to stop beating before it could pound its way out of my chest. I am not terrified, I lied to myself. I kept my eyes pinning Mr. Fiore down. Even though he wasn’t a faerie and we weren’t close enough for me to have a good link through our leyline anymore, I threw thoughts at him with my glare. I tried to make it say: ‘I killed two Directors and destroyed a faerie King. Do not start a pissing contest with me, or you will be soaked in gasoline and lit on fire.’
I don’t know how long we stood like that, exactly. It wasn’t even really a contest of wills. Mr. Fiore was cowed, and the only conflict I was dealing with was between my fury at him and my desire to hide under Benjamin’s bed until everyone went away. Finally, I forced myself to step to the side. I jerked my hand toward the door. I didn’t trust my autopilot not to take over if I started talking, so I just forced out one word.
“Go.” I put every shred of disdain and dismissal I could muster into that one syllable. If he didn’t go I was pretty much fucked, because I was only seconds away from a nervous collapse and I knew it.
Mr. Fiore went. He straightened jerkily, almost sullenly, and then slunk toward the door. He took a wide arc to keep away from me as he went. I didn’t watch him go. I didn’t trust my knees to keep holding me up if I turned. Oh god, oh shit shit shit shit fuck me, I thought as Mr. Fiore slipped out of my peripheral vision. My super-hearing tracked his progress by the whisper-light sound of his footsteps on the carpet. Don’t look, don’t look; looking shows that you’re nervous — nervous means weak; weak means vulnerable means prey don’t look.
I fought hard with my phobia of people behind me. Especially angry people. Especially angry people with big fucking knives who could probably hack my head off in one blow. Especially angry men with big fucking knives who could probably hack my head off with one blow and then cart my corpse off to their creepy ass basement lair to wait for me to reanimate before doing sick, sick stuff with me. Crap! I couldn’t decide if Mr. Fiore was a murdering rapist or a raping murderer. Ultimately, I guess it didn’t matter: either way he was a necrophiliac since I was already dead. Sick, sick bastard.
No, I mentally yelled at my imagination before it could follow that path down a rabbit hole. I was already imagining Mr. Fiore stepping up behind me, jabbing his blade through my neck and then twisting it until my head tore free. Even though I could hear that he wasn’t coming toward me. I did not need any details that started off with waking up in pieces in a trash bag in his basement.
The hallway door opened, and then closed. I couldn’t hear Mr. Fiore anymore as the wards cut me off from him. Only then did I turn around.
Trembling, I backed into the bed and sat down so that I could see all three of the room’s remaining occupants. Thomas was staring at me with huge eyes. I couldn’t tell what Valerie was thinking from her expression. Ben’s was openly admiring. Oh god, my brain kept running in circles. Oh god, oh god, oh god…
From where he stood — just a couple of steps behind where I’d started advancing on Mr. Fiore — Ben cleared his throat. “Holy crap,” he said appreciatively. “That was awesome.”
“Oh god,” I said back — giving voice to the refrain in my head.
“Abigail?” Thomas asked to my right. I twisted just slightly to face him more fully. “Are you alright?”
I nodded jerkily. Oh god oh god oh god… “I’m fine,” I mumbled. Oh, fuck me. “I’ll be fine,” I corrected myself. “I…” Oh god, oh god, oh holy shit. I swallowed. Then I shifted my gaze from Thomas, to Valerie, to Ben. Then I opened my mouth again.
“Actually,” I confessed weakly, “I think I’m going to puke.”