Of course, I couldn’t actually sleep. Not with two vampires in the room. Or with overactive super-senses that refused to stop focusing on them when they started talking.
“Seriously,” Benjamin finally said. “How did you know about Abigail and me? I didn’t say anything about it last night.”
Valerie snickered. “Well,” she said. “First: you aren’t subtle. Second, the donors gossip. And third: I was joking.” I opened one eye to peek at them. Valerie had paused to take in Ben’s expression. “You know,” Valerie said, “joking. Because you two were holed up together and I was bringing her father by to interrupt. It was funny.”
Ben looked slightly poleaxed. Valerie grinned at him, then turned to me. I squeezed my eye back shut, but it was too late: she’d already caught me. “You can do better than him,” she told me matter-of-factly. “He’s kind of a dork. And I know dorks.”
Benjamin sputtered a protest, but snapped his mouth shut when Valerie rounded on him again. “Nope,” she said. “That’s what you get for not telling me her dad was going to keep running decoy when you went back to the city. You got me shot up, so I got you embarrassed in front of your girlfriend. Dem’s da breaks, buddy.”
My eyes widened in a sudden realization, and I gave up the pretense of trying to nap. Wait! I thought. I’m not Ben’s girlfriend! “Wait,” I blurted. “You never did explain how my dad ended up being your juice box.”
Valerie glanced sideways at me. Then she snorted and jerked her thumb to point at Ben. “When this dork turned around to help you with Lewellan, your dad kept running decoy. I was keeping Lewellan’s last ghoul distracted, so I was there for the whole thing.” She shook her head ruefully. “Masterful acting. I didn’t see it coming. Patrick certainly didn’t.” I guessed that Patrick was the ghoul in question. “Your dad shot him in the back of the head,” Valarie continued. “Really slick move. Fast, too. Of course, then we both got gunned down, but that’s just because Patrick is an ass who doesn’t really care about friendly fire or civilian casualties, and his guys were under orders to be very aggressive in taking out hostiles.”
I gawked at Valerie, trying to picture my dad executing a ghoul. She grinned back at me.
“Why does everyone have to call me a dork?” Ben bemoaned to himself. Valerie and I ignored him.
“Say,” Valerie added, “I don’t suppose you come with a tragic back story? Raised by a single father, perhaps?” Her eyebrows lifted and a sparkle glimmered in her eyes.
“I-bu…” Was she thinking of hitting on my dad?! “No!” I yelped. “My mom is still alive. They’re still married! My back story is not tragic!”
Valerie shrugged. “Too bad. You’re already running around vanquishing big-bads, so clearly you’re classic heroine material. But tragic backgrounds make it easier for the GM to come up with fun side plots and mini-arcs.” She grinned at my flabbergasted expression.
What? Side plots? Mini-arcs?! Is she comparing my life to a manga?!
Not that I’d never done that, myself.
Valerie stood up and gave an exaggerated shrug. “Okay, okay,” she said. “I’m teasing and you didn’t do anything to deserve it. Sorry.”
I closed my mouth and tried to come up with a response. I may have blinked a few times.
“Except about the part implying your dad was hot,” Valerie added when I didn’t say anything. “It’s not every day I meet a mortal who cares about his family enough to stand up to those odds and pulls through in the end. Your mom is a lucky woman.”
I felt like my ears were going to combust from embarrassment. “Can we please stop talking about this?” I barely managed to ask. I did not want to imagine Valerie and Dad… Or Mom and Dad… Or Mom and Valerie and Da…. Ew! Ew ew ew ew dammit Valerie!
Valerie laughed again and Ben gave her a disapproving glare. Before he could say anything, though, his phone went off again. This time, however, after he snatched it out of his pocket he didn’t discard it. “I’ll just get this,” he said. “Val, be good,” he added. It sounded more like a plea than an order. Then he thumbed the screen of his phone and brought it up to his ear.
“Benjamin Dolcet speaking,” Ben said as he walked for the hallway door. “May I ask who’s calling?” The door closed behind him and the wards isolated me from his conversation before I could hear whoever was on the other side answer him back.
“So,” Valerie said once Ben had left. “It’s just us girls again, huh?” She came over to the bed, then sat down cross-legged on the corner diagonal from me. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I didn’t answer her. Instead, I sat up a little bit more. “I don’t understand something,” I said. I didn’t think Valerie would understand if I tried to explain how hard it was to tell people about the ways I was messed up. Not to mention the whole encounter with Mr. Fiore. Valerie seemed to be way too easygoing and confident to be able to get a grip on the ways social anxiety made my life hell. And I didn’t think anyone could understand… I didn’t want to think about it. But I didn’t think anyone could really understand it without taking my blood like Ben had.
“Whatever it is,” Valerie told me, “ask away and I’ll see if I can answer. That’s probably a mentor-mentee thing, right?”
“Um,” I agreed with all the eloquence in the world. “It’s just… Lewellan said he was going to have you and Ben and Thomas and Fiore compete for who was in charge of the city. And you’re all from different Families. But you and Ben joke around and pick on each other like… friends?”
Valerie laughed. “That would be because we are,” she said. “Tom, too. And Matt, when he isn’t being a pretentious ass.”
“Matt?” I asked.
“Matteo Fiore,” Valerie answered. “You know, the brooding redhead with a fondness for firepower?” She grinned. “We’re all relatively close together in age. That’s ‘relatively’ in vampire terms, anyway. So, yeah: even though we belong to different Families, we’ve always sort of gravitated together if two or more of us are in the same city. This isn’t even the first time we’ve all been sent to the same place to represent our families or get some un-life experience, though it was the first time one of us might’ve wound up getting stuck with that kind of ongoing responsibility.”
“Oh,” I said. “How often does that kind of running into each other happen?” Truth be told… now that I’d seen them together, I felt a little uneasy about Valerie’s and Ben’s casual torment of each other. No: of their friendship in general, maybe? Stop it, I scolded myself. Ben isn’t yours, even if you’re the possessive type. And him being friends with other vampires isn’t a big deal, anyway.
Valerie shrugged. “Not very,” she admitted. “But over the decades it adds up. And there’s the bigger gatherings, too: whenever a new ghoul or vampire is raised successfully there’s generally a pretty big party in town, and most Families use it as an excuse to network. And sometimes there’s a wedding or just a holiday fling or whatever. We might all be dead but we aren’t all doom and gloom, you know?”
I stared back at Valerie and tried to wrap my head around the idea of a very undead Christmas. How would that even work? No, she probably meant Halloween or something. They could go bobbing for Adam’s apples.
“Anyway,” Valerie said when I didn’t ask anything else, “my turn. What is Megan like?” I gawked at her over the non sequitur, and she shrugged. “You know,” she explained, “the changeling? I heard you two were friends, and if I’m going to be here for however long it takes the Center to get its act together and figure out what it’s going to do about all this, I’d kind of like to know what the person in charge of the faeries around here is like.”
“She’s…” I frowned. “She’s my best friend, actually,” I said defensively. “No past tense about it. She still is.”
Valerie’s eyebrows flew up. “Oh,” she said. “I didn’t mean to imply there was. Sorry.”
I froze, suddenly extremely self-conscious. “No,” I protested. “It’s okay. I’m just touchy. Too touchy.” Especially since only a couple days ago I’d thought I was going to have to cut Megan and Fumiko both out of my life. I swallowed. “Megan is a good person,” I said. “She cares about people. We’re going to hang out this weekend,” I added. “Tomorrow. With our friend Fumiko.”
Valerie chuckled. “With a super-vampire and a faerie queen as guests, that’s going to be one heck of a party.”
I blushed self-consciously. It was just supposed to be us old friends hanging out. Well, the three of us and Emma. So: those of us who’d known each other before the world went sideways and I wound up dead and Megan turned out to be supernatural royalty. And Bonbon would probably be there, I guessed. But Bonbon had nudged Emma into propositioning me the night before I died, so even if we hadn’t known we knew her… him… gah. So, even if we hadn’t known we’d known Bonbon, Bonbon had known us. So it still all held together, right? It was going to be those of us who’d known each other before I’d died, hanging out.
Then a sudden thought distracted me. “Would you like to meet her?” I asked. If Valerie would, and I arrange it, maybe that would be enough of a return favor to unhook the geas I set up when I thanked Valerie earlier. Megan would be safe, too, because I would insist on being there — along with, no doubt, an army of invisible guards.
Valerie perked up. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “That would be… I would really like the kind of insight I could get from that,” she added. “Most faeries run the hell away from us vampires. Even the ones that are bound down to a mortal because they’re familiars — and those ones are usually so laid over with geases they don’t have anything interesting to say about faerie society and politics, anyway.”
“Oh,” I said. That faeries typically avoided vampires was, of course, obvious. Even though there seemed to always be swarms of them hanging around me. No, what I was really surprised into wondering about was: Should I tell her that Megan is Emma’s familiar? Or would that ruin it?
Actually, I realized, that would probably be dangerous for entirely different reasons. Valerie might be being nice to me, but she was still an agent of the Center. I didn’t like the idea that the Center might find out that Megan was bound to a mortal. It seemed like it might endanger Emma and Megan, both.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll see what I can do, you know?” I’d have to talk about this with Megan tonight, when I got together with her and Emma. They needed to know that the Center was leaving the scions in town while the Directors figured out how to react to me. I chewed my lower lip. Megan would probably come up with more — and more logical — things to be concerned about in regards to that, anyway.
Valerie didn’t seem to notice my sudden nervousness. She bounced in place, shaking the bed. “That would be incredible! I always figured I’d only get a secondhand look at anything faerie.”
I forced myself to smile, but didn’t get to say anything back. Before I could, the hallway door opened and Ben came back in, interrupting our conversation. I turned to face him and a chill ran down my spine as soon as his face came into focus. His lips were tight, his brow furrowed, his head slightly bowed. Something was wrong.
“Ben?” I asked.
“That was John,” Ben answered. My stomach did a little flip flop. If John was calling, it was probably about Hans.
Ben turned toward the desk and picked up another phone from it. He turned toward Valerie and myself, but didn’t look at us. Instead, he started tapping something into the second phone while referencing the first.
“He found your donor — Hans,” Ben said while he worked. He glanced at Valerie and added: “The werewolf,” for her benefit. Then he turned back to me. “Or… John talked to him, anyway.” Ben looked back down at the phones. “Hans is okay, but there’s a problem. He did attack someone, and the wolf was in control, and Hans can’t remember much about the guy.” Ben finished whatever it was that he was doing and slipped his phone into his pocket. He tossed the second one to me. Catching it was surprisingly easy, with supernatural reflexes and perception to rely on.
Oh. Is this one supposed to be mine? I glanced down at it. It was still open to the contacts page, which now had listings for Ben and John.
“Anyway,” Ben said, “your guy is heading to the last place he can remember smelling whoever got attacked. He’s going to try to hunt him down before the moon rises. John was pretty firm that they don’t need or want you to risk being caught out in the sunlight helping them, but he did say that they’re pretty sure Daniel knows the guy who was attacked. So if you can get a hold of him, or if he gets in contact with you… Well, John is meeting up with Hans to help with the search, so you can call him to get in touch with Hans.”
I looked back and forth between Valerie and Ben. Ben looked a little stiff, like he was keeping what he was thinking clamped down. Valerie looked sympathetic. I wasn’t sure how dire this was, exactly, except… Hans attacked someone, and the wolf was in control. Hans didn’t want to be a part of a pack, not after what had happened to his previous packmates. And that was my fault. And…
“When’s the full moon?” I asked, grasping for any kind of a silver lining. It wasn’t for a few days yet, right? That’s what Linda had said when she had been looking over Hans’ aura. “At least they have a little while to find the guy, right?”
Valerie smiled like she was momentarily relieved, but Ben remained just as grim. “No,” he said. “Apparently, the urge to shift grows as the moon waxes. According to John, a new werewolf — one who’s had an entire month to prepare for their first full moon — usually can’t help themselves from shifting as early as three nights before the full moon.”
Ben blew out a breath, and his expression finally changed to something else: sympathy, I thought. Of course, sympathy, I thought inanely. He saw me break down about it being my fault if Hans lost control and made a new werewolf. I stared up at Ben. My mind — my emotions, anyway — felt blank. After all the turmoil I’d been through already, I wasn’t letting myself feel anything for fear I’d let whatever it was cripple me again.
“If they don’t find whoever it is before sunset,” Ben finally said, “there’s probably going to be a feral wolf on the loose by midnight.”