Melvin placed both hands on the head of his cane and leaned against it. Using it as a pivot point he swung idly back and forth, letting his eyes run swiftly up Megan and then far more slowly down me. I think he did it that way because even though I was more thoroughly covered in my flannel bodysuit, I was also a lot more bothered by it.
Jackass. How would he like it if I…
Okay. So staring at Melvin’s boxers while he swayed back and forth, partially bent over from leaning on his cane just made me start blushing — which made him start leering harder. Dammit! Worse, the twinkle in Megan’s eye — which Melvin missed out on, since he was too busy eyeing me like my flannels were some sort of form fitting transparent spandex — made me think she was enjoying the show, too. And possibly recollecting back to her accusations that I was jealous when Melvin was with Orlina.
That thought made my face heat up worse, which made Melvin give me what were clearly his bedroom eyes. Which made me scream HELP! at Megan with my mind.
Fortunately, that got Megan to come to my rescue.
“Unfortunately, this is a private slumber party,” Megan said sharply. Melvin jerked like a puppy who’d been bopped on the nose and spun around to face her and only her. A suit coalesced over him, and I wasn’t entirely sure if he was the one who put it there or if Megan was. “Not that I would mind under other circumstances,” Megan allowed in a tone that was both regal and flirtatious — and guaranteed to keep his attention on her, “but right now your assistance is needed for something else.”
I winced. Megan and Melvin? Ew. Just… Ew. No. I didn’t like thinking of her being subjected to that much smarm. I braced myself to stab him with something if he went all inappropriate on her. It was kind of like when I’d braced myself to protect that waitress from Hans after telling him to check her out: I was glad Megan was providing a distraction, but it also meant it would be my fault if Melvin got creepy on her. Sebastian, I psychically asked, would you be so kind as to glamour up a fork for me?
Melvin bowed to Megan again. “Of course,” he agreed. “Please, forgive my presumptuousness. How may I serve, my lady?”
A fork appeared in the air in front of me. It was clearly a literal interpretation of the term ‘silverware’ as it was, in fact, sparkling silver. It had a long stem that was fancified with delicate, decorative whirls and ivory inlays. It looked like something that someone obscenely wealthy would eat salad with, and only salad, on account of probably having another such fork for every other forkable food in existence — because, obviously: that’s what you do when you’re obscenely wealthy. You invent reasons to buy more silverware, to show off just how obscenely wealthy you are at dinner parties.
But that didn’t matter, since I wasn’t wealthy at all. What mattered was that the tines were long enough for stabbing purposes, so I plucked the fork out of the air. Since Melvin was between Megan and I, I don’t think she noticed. Since Melvin was focused on Megan, he didn’t either.
“There is a problem in the mortal world that I have determined we will assist with,” Megan answered. “A werewolf is currently hidden away behind wards, and those searching for him have been unable to turn up where those wards are — and they are running out of time before nightfall.”
Melvin nodded. “I am aware,” he said. “Abigail brought up the issue with me earlier today. However, it seemed then that I would not be suitable to assist in finding him. Have circumstances changed?”
“A mortal with a closer link to the werewolf in question has been found and joined the search,” Sebastian answered for her. Melvin turned to look over his shoulder at Sebas. I hastily whipped my hands behind my back so he wouldn’t see that I was armed and come up with some way to use that against me.
“However,” Sebastian continued, “No one of sufficient strength is currently present in the mortal realm to follow that connection through the wards and return with word of the werewolf’s location — and the state of the available gateways between our worlds are such that anyone not linked to the Earth would also not be able to arrive in time to render aid.”
Melvin was nodding before Sebastian finished talking. “And while Queen Megan would be able to do it herself, she must stay with Lady Emma for now — and our lessons in magic have not progressed to opening new gateways as of yet. I see, that does make me a logical candidate.”
“Can you do what we need?” Megan asked. Her regal tone of voice slipped ever so slightly and I realized that she needed an assurance that she was doing the right thing by staying behind and sending Melvin in her place. I started to marshal myself to hug her and promise that whatever happened it would be okay, but Melvin beat me to it.
He turned back to Megan. “Of this, I am more than capable,” he said. “I have ties enough to Earth that so long as a gate is available for my travel that world will not resist my stepping across the gulf between this one and it. Moreover, I have made something of a specialty of finding people over the years.” He smiled broadly at her, then turned to fix that smile on me.
“I assure you,” Melvin promised, “In this I am your fae.” The leer was back in his eyes.
He’s looking forward to my being stuck with him, I realized. Aw, crap. Then I felt the leyline we shared pulse slightly in prominence — and then Melvin took a half-step back. He gave a sputtering, shocked laugh as his attempt to peer into how I felt about his accompaniment ran headlong into the message I’d left for him. But instead of being discouraged, he just grinned more wildly.
“I genuinely look forward,” he said with gusto, “to meeting this new challenge!”
Somehow, I didn’t think he was talking about finding Hans’ accidental victim. The sparkle in his eye told me I was right.
“Jack,” Megan interrupted, “would you go and wait at the campus gate for a moment? Abigail will join you shortly.”
Melvin tipped his hat to her. “Of course,” he said. He left, a jaunty skip in his step. Fucker was probably already plotting what he was going to do to me once I was out from under Megan’s supervision.
Well… Well… Well, fork him! I thought angrily. “I need clothes,” I said. “Sebastian?” I don’t know if he took over Megan’s glamour, or if she gave it to him — or if she just removed hers as he placed his — but as soon as I asked, Sebas delivered. I was immediately dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, with ankle boots, a choker, and a light jacket. I looked over myself as well as I could. “And will you bind this so that it won’t unravel until I want it to, like before?”
“Of course,” Sebastian promised.
“Oh,” Megan said a moment later. “I see what you did there. That’s clever.”
I frowned. I wished I could see auras and leylines properly without being dormant. No: actually, I wish I were really wearing clothes. Dammit, this was awkward. But I wasn’t going to get changed in front of Sebas, and I didn’t want to waste time when I knew we didn’t have much to begin with — and I felt guilty as fuck, because if I could just make myself freeze time that wouldn’t even be a problem, but just thinking about it made me want to run away again.
“I need to get going,” I forced myself to say instead. If I didn’t, I really would run away and hide. “Sebas, can you give me a backpack, too?” One materialized instantly in front of me. I grabbed it and then scooped up my real clothes and stuffed them in. Maybe I would get a chance to really put on clothes after we found Hans’ future pack mate. Until then I would just have to do my absolute very damn best not to think about it.
And if Melvin got fresh anyway? I tucked the fork Sebas had provided me surreptitiously in a pocket.
“Megan,” I started to say… but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to go about it, and I didn’t have time to fumble stupidly for words right now. Hans and Daniel and anyone else they may have cursed didn’t have time. “I’m sorry,” I said. I wasn’t even sure what for.
“Don’t worry,” Megan replied. “Just come back when you’re done, okay? Emma and I will be waiting.” She offered a grin that was only sort of forced. “After all, it’s a slumber party sort of a night.”
I nodded. I still hadn’t entirely come to terms with the idea of Megan as a girlfriend, and I felt bad about running out and doing stuff when Emma had just told me how frustrated she’d been with not having been able to go out and do stuff while I was, but… Yeah. “Sebastian,” I said, “Let’s go.”
I let Sebas lead me through the gateway back to the campus portal. I still wasn’t entirely certain how those worked, but I’d gotten the impression that a single archway could lead to multiple locations. As such, letting Sebas handle connecting it to our destination just seemed safer.
Melvin was waiting just outside the ring that marked the gateway from faerie land to the college campus. He offered me his hand as I approached. “Shall we?” he asked. “If we travel together, since you are firmly connected to earth it will speed my journey that much more.”
I hesitated. If it were just me, I would have worried that he was preparing to mess with me somehow: maybe do something like trade off speeding up his trip with slowing down mine, so that I wouldn’t arrive back on Earth in time to do anything. Except, no: he had said he was capable of helping, and that implied that there was enough time for him to get to Earth in order to do so.
And, honestly? I knew Melvin got a kick out of seeing just how far he could get away with tormenting me, but I really didn’t think he would openly act against Megan’s wishes after voluntarily taking an oath of service to her.
Melvin’s cool fingers closed around mine and he smiled. I yelped as he tugged me closer. Our leyline surged wider from the physical proximity and the focus he was giving me: I caught myself against him and found myself staring up at him in a sort of horrified shock as the opening of our leyline grew wide enough that the mental construct I’d put in front of it no longer seemed to be enough to block it fully.
Splendid, Melvin thought at me. Although this particular challenge has so far turned out to be easier than I had hoped.
I tried to form some sort of a protest, but at that point Melvin circled his other hand around my waist and stepped backward, into the gateway circle. And then I stumbled into empty air. Melvin was gone, and I was back in the basement of the college campus’ library overflow and archives building.
Two solocks immediately pointed guns at me. I didn’t even notice, because I was too freaked out about the absence of Melvin. If he wasn’t there, then the whole plan I’d put together to help Hans sort of fell apart. I scrambled for his leyline and focused on it as hard as I could, attuning myself to it the way I had Pipsqueak’s and Bonbon’s when I’d tracked them.
The connection was still there. And it was growing stronger by the second. I focused as intensely as I could, and then breathed out a breath I hadn’t realized I had taken. Melvin was there: he just wasn’t all the way there yet. My vision strayed into that border realm where I had been able to see ghosts and faeries alike, and I could discern Melvin’s presence there, out of sync with the rest of reality, gradually becoming more real as he shifted from the faerie realm to Earth.
Reassured that Melvin was on his way and making decent enough time — it seemed like he wasn’t far off from being able to manifest, even though he was currently a far fuzzier presence than other fae I’d been able to see in their in between worlds state — I finally noticed the men with guns pointed at me.
My immediate thought was: oh fuck I’m gonna die. Fortunately, my autopilot had adapted to the fact of people pointing guns at me a lot faster than my fight or flight or stand around paralyzed with fear instincts had. “Really?” I asked them. “I mean: seriously?” These weren’t the same guys who’d pointed guns vaguely in Emma’s direction not to long ago, but still.
“Stand down,” I heard Matteo Fiore call from the doorway. I looked toward him and saw him frowning at me. So: still no love lost between us. Not that I could imagine what might have changed since I saw him last.
Well, I could deal with one grumpy vampire scion. After all: I already knew Mister Fiore’s weakness. Apparently, as long as I was sufficiently in his face, he would back down.
“Is Ben’s limo still here?” I asked Fiore, thus seizing the conversational initiative. “I need to borrow a car again.”
“It is,” he answered. “May I ask where we’re going?”
I started crossing the room, but paused when he asked his question. “We?” I protested.
“We,” he replied. “Someone has to keep an eye on you.” He smiled in a way that wasn’t actually terribly friendly, but seemed to grudgingly admit that he didn’t have a reason to be a jerk. “If only to make up for The Center’s previous failings, as Miss Grenz would put it.”
“Right,” I said. I started walking again and shouldered past him.
Pleasant fellow, Melvin opined. He was sufficiently in tune with reality to manifest himself, but had apparently chosen not to: when I checked, he was walking along beside me. Just a little out of step with the rest of reality, like Reid had been at the hospital.
Yeah, I thought at him. It was weirdly comforting to know that I wasn’t actually on my own — even though it was distinctly discomforting to know that my ‘backup’ was Melvin Tophat. If shit went crazy somehow, he would probably stay safely out of reach of reality and just point and laugh.
“We need to get to the pack holdings,” I told Mister Fiore. “Wherever those are.” I scowled to myself. “Do you know? I don’t. But there have been developments regarding the werewolf population of the city, and Hans needs my help.” If Mister Fiore didn’t know where we had to go, I could always call John. Or Hans. Or Ben, since he should be with them.
Ben and Hans. I hadn’t thought about it earlier, but something made me realize that had to be awkward as hell. Oh, yeah: Hans had been able to smell Emma on me when I’d run into him after dancing with her at Club Luminesence. Hans had probably picked up on the proximity I’d spent with Ben right off the bat. I winced.
Something else to ignore until you can properly freak out, I told myself. That queue was getting dangerously long, though. I did my best not to think about that, too.
“Yes,” Mister Fiore said. “Even though the pack’s apartment complex hasn’t been in active use, there were details on it in my brief, along with all the major covens and supernatural hot spots in the city. I’m sure Benjamin received similar reports from his family before he was dispatched; his driver should be able to take you there.”
I nodded to show I was listening, even though I didn’t look back at Fiore while he spoke. I was too busy making my way back up the stairs. Fiore followed me.
“And how long do we have before nightfall?” I asked. I was starting to feel weirdly restless, and I was pretty sure that meant the sun was going to be setting soon.
“About an hour,” Fiore answered.
I almost cursed out loud. An hour would be more than enough if I… My shoulders tensed and I grunted in pain as the sudden anxiety-driven spasm of muscles induced a cramp right where they went to my neck. I focused on that pain: it made my vision fuzz briefly — so that for a second it looked like I was walking down a tunnel made of television static. But at the same time, I knew it was so much more bearable than what happened when I froze time that it was laughable. And yet, it was still enough to distract me from thinking about how much further I could stretch an hour if I weren’t too scared to do what had to be done.
I steeled myself. If something went wrong because I didn’t get there in time, it was going to be all my fault. But I wasn’t steeling myself to take on that blame. I already knew it was coming. No, I was steeling my reserves to keep ignoring the fact that I had a way to find Hans, and then find the person he’d cursed, and have time to spare.
“Then let’s hurry,” I said. And I prayed to whatever force drove the universe that ‘just hurrying’ would be enough.
Because I was a coward.
And I already knew, deep down in my gut, that Hans was going to pay for it.