The limo ride was awkward. This time I was accompanied by Valerie and two of her donors. Pretty much everyone else other than our driver had either left with Matteo or been left behind to take care of Cassie and Curtis — including Reid and Thaddeus, who were supposed to watch Hans’ and Daniel’s auras and let us know if Jeremy’s wolf left the church he was apparently holed up in.
I really hoped that he didn’t leave it with a bunch of holes in him: I still remembered how Matteo’s solocks had decided to deal with me the first time I’d met any. I really didn’t like that the first response of Matteo — and his people — seemed to consistently be ‘shoot it in the head; sort it out after.’
Worse, feeding on Curtis had been about as effective as feeding on Hans. So I was feeling ‘normal’ rather than ‘bloated’ — and that meant I didn’t have complete control over my supernatural senses like I did when my aura was at its fullest.
My hearing skipped along, abruptly focusing in on random car engines, distant sirens, loud televisions and bits of road noise seemingly at random. I knew it was trying to identify the source of my rising anxiety so that I could eliminate the threat — but that didn’t do me much good, since in the absence of an actual threat to deal with, the random bits of noise were the source of my rising vehicular anxiety.
I really, really needed to invest in warded earplugs. That would’ve been awesome.
Instead, I spent the start of the drive with my eyes closed and my head leaned back, trying to focus on doing Megan’s meditation breathing. In, two, three, and hold… out, two, three, four. It wasn’t very effective this time. It was too easy to get distracted by the thought of how many bullets a crack team of solocks could put through a werewolf’s head before he finished shifting — or, heck, before I finished counting.
That thought made the bits of aura I was holding on to from Hans and Curtis resonate. Protect Jeremy. Don’t let the wolves hurt anyone. This is my responsibility. That part was the same in both of them. But in Curtis’ aura, there was an undertone of: if I do this, maybe they’ll accept me. Maybe I’ll belong. While in Hans’ aura the undertone was: don’t let everyone die again. If they die, you’re the one to blame.
Even though I was experiencing those emotions as though they were my own, I could still determine where they originated from. And thinking about it like that, instead of focusing on how they were making me feel, was more than a little heartbreaking.
“It isn’t always like this,” Valerie suddenly said. “I hope you realize that.” I snapped my head forward again so I could look at her. How had she realized I was feeling overwhelmed? Had she been reading my mind? No, she’s not fae. Or fae-esque, like me. It’s just a comment.
“In my experience, it has been,” I said.
Valerie gave me a wry grin. “In mine it hasn’t,” she countered, “and I think I’m a touch older than you. So please don’t think your second life will always be crisis after crisis like this. I, personally, have found that pseudo immortality yields frequent opportunities for fun or tranquility — you know, depending on how you prefer to spend your time. So do remember that it will get better than this last week has been. If you’re just exhausted and stressed, that’s fine… but as your mentor I’m going to have to advise you to not give into despair.”
Her dry tone injected a shameless and blameless humor in her words — especially the bit about her age — that actually startled a laugh out of me. And I had been on the verge of a despairing anxiety spiral. “What gave me away?” I asked.
Valerie shrugged. “Body language. Also, you told me about the past week back at the hotel, and I just heard you sniffle.”
Had I? If I had, it had been imperceptible. Or it would have been if Valerie’s senses weren’t at least as unnaturally acute as mine. So I probably had.
“Plus,” Valerie added with a waggle of her eyebrows, “My last tabletop RPG character was a steampunk detective. So I’m clearly highly qualified to apply my powers of observation and deductive reasoning to situations in real life.”
That startled me into another laugh.
“Wait,” I said. “Roleplaying? Like, with the dice and make believe dragons and stuff?” And I had thought Benjamin was a dork! Although, Fumiko and I had played some co-op fantasy games that probably sort of counted after I started to refuse to play her versus first person shooters. Besides, I was a total fujoshi, which was a subset of otaku, which made me way too big of a dork to really be pointing fingers. Even if my poor manga collection had gone up in smoke. “Doesn’t having to deal with real dragons sort of make that less fun?”
Note to self, I noted and added to my mental to-do list. Do not let Benjamin know you are also a dork. It might encourage him, and he was a little too good at getting my veins bared as it was. At the very least, I wouldn’t be able to fluster him by calling him a dork anymore. Not if he could just call me out as the same.
Addendum to self: Are dragons real? How freaked out about that should I be, now?
“Nope!” Valerie cheerfully opined. “It’s actually pretty fun to hang out with regular people and see what they’re getting wrong about how the supernatural world would work ‘if it were real.’ Although, I do usually prefer to go for steampunk, cyberpunk, or space opera games — but it’s all fun.” She grinned. “Also, I’ve been LARPing, lately, rather than doing the tabletop stuff.”
I stared at her and tried to remember what I knew about LARPing — which wasn’t much since I’d only heard about it tangentially when Fumiko had been going on about people she’d picked up costuming tips for working with her cosplays. I frowned. Wasn’t that the game where people dressed up and pretended they were…
My jaw slowly dropped. I noticed that one of Valerie’s donors was grinning. The other one looked vaguely mortified that he associated with the two of them. “Wait,” I said. “Are you telling me that you spend your free time dressing up in costumes, hanging out with regular mortals, and pretending to be a vampire?!”
“Well,” Valerie said slowly. “Yes and no. I mean, not all of the players are ignorant of the supernatural world. I make sure to go with a donor, just in case things get a little too real. Also, I don’t pretend to be a vampire.”
Well, obviously not since you actually are one, I thought — but then the grinning donor spoke up. “Yep, that would be me. I’m a level twenty-two spider vampire of the midnight eclipse clan.” I stared at him. That entire second sentence made absolutely no sense. The other donor groaned to himself.
“And I’m a level twelve unholy thrall,” Valerie chimed in. She frowned self-deprecatingly. “Currently, anyway. I’d be higher up there, but I keep overcompensating when I hold back my actual abilities, getting killed and having to re-roll when Dan ‘raises’ a new minion.”
I looked back and forth between my mentor and her donor. The donor patted Valerie in consolation. “But that’s part of why it’s so funny — and why I put those points in necromancy to begin with,” he said with a grin. I guessed that he was Dan, then? The whole thing was… was… was… I was too flabbergasted to figure out what it was.
“Thanks,” Valerie cheerfully said to Dan. The other donor glanced up and gave me a long suffering look that conveyed he felt my pain. I wasn’t sure how to take that, either.
“What… how… No,” I said. I valiantly pulled myself out of the quagmire of What? and pushed on. “No, wait: why are we talking about this?”
Valerie shrugged again. She leaned back and looked at her two donors. No, hadn’t she said she preferred to call them partners? She looked at her partners and smiled. “Because we can’t really plan for anything without knowing what we’ll run into. And while I did text Fiore, I haven’t gotten a reply. So… we may as well talk while we wait to arrive, and this was as good a subject as any. Especially since it illustrates my point that there will be time for you to just relax and enjoy yourself over the course of your next eternity.”
I frowned. She had… oh, right. Touchscreen phones. I had probably been too busy wondering if that screech my ears had just picked out from three blocks away meant a truck had lost control and was going to barrel into us to have heard her fingers tapping on the screen. Stupid super-senses! Focus, Abby!
Not that they listened. I mean, other than the fact that one of them was hearing, so literally all it did was listen. I mean… oh, fuck it.
While I was utterly failing to focus, I kept the conversation going on autopilot. “Shouldn’t you try calling him, then?”
Valerie shook her head. “Too many supernatural beings have heightened senses. If our wolf Jeremy has already shifted, a phone suddenly ringing could be… well, not good.”
I blinked. Oh. Right. How often in the movies did the bad guys find the hiding good guys because of an errant phone call? I should’ve realized that one. “Okay,” I continued. “But still, aren’t there more important things we could be talking about? I mean, if not what we need to do when we get to the church, then: Megan’s plans to integrate faeries into the city! Why were you so eager to pursue that? I would’ve expected everyone to react more like Matteo.”
Valerie frowned. The levity left her face, and I felt my anxiety start cranking up again. Why had I just called her motivations into question? Oh god, were her motivations actually questionable? It wasn’t like vampires with dubious intentions were unprecedented! Just look at my track record with the undead so far: Salvatore wanted to kill Megan. Lewellan wanted to frame and kill me. Thomas hadn’t shown up in the city in order to be made the vampire boss of it at all: he’d had an ulterior motive from the beginning with his orders to network with the other families. Whatever he said, I was pretty sure Fiore thought I should be rendered dormant and shipped to The Center. John wanted to adopt me, Daniel wanted to steal my pack of werewolves, and Benjamin wanted to bite me. Or Ben wanted to go out with me. Or both. Or one and then the other and then the one again. Or maybe just screw around and nibble.
Honestly, I was still kind of conflicted about Benjamin. But the point was: the only really surprising thing was that it had taken me this long to wonder what Valerie was up to, at all!
“Alright,” Valerie said. “I figured someone would ask eventually — I just thought it would be Prudence.” She gave me a wry grin.
“So,” Valerie continued. “I came to this city expecting to be appointed as its Guardian. I was the eldest of the scions sent here, and it seemed like a very likely prospect. But somehow? Everything went off the rails. I don’t think that anyone expected anything that happened in this past week.”
Valerie gave me a half — almost apologetic — smile. “I was looking forward to a new challenge in my life,” she said. “But somehow I expect that liaising between Benjamin, Matteo, Thomas, and yourself — to say nothing of yourself and The Center! — will be much, much more difficult than a simple Guardianship. And I know that a lot of other people are upset because this is something new, and different, and your relationship with Megan flips conventional wisdom on its head. Some vampires in my position — yes, Matteo for one — would probably be angry. They would see this as dangerous, and you as a rival or usurper or worse, a rogue and hostile.”
Valerie shook her head. “But, Abigail? I don’t. Oh, you are dangerous, yes. And so is this experiment with Megan’s kingdom and this city and all the talk of allowing faeries to roam our wold freely. I’ll have my work cut out for me if I’m going to keep the hawks among the vampires held in check long enough to see any of this turn out well in the end. But ultimately? If I’m going to live forever, I have to believe that we can have peace and coexistence between the mortal, supernatural, and faerie worlds. Otherwise, I’m just passing the time, waiting until something comes along that I can’t handle — and I get killed and scattered. And I won’t do that. I spent most of my life in a bed, waiting to die. I’m not going to throw my eternity away waiting to die again.”
Valerie’s eyes pierced mine with their intensity. “And that means that I will always campaign for the wars to end, and do whatever I can to support that cause, even though I know that in many cases they do still have to be fought. But I will take the risks, like gambling on Megan and her kingdom, that others won’t accept because they feel a fight is a more certain thing — something they understand, the evil they know. But even if those risks I’ll have to take include the chance that everyone else sees of it backfiring and costing me my second life, I’ll still take them. Because the only other option is more war, and the certainty of eventual, violent death — and I have no desire to have further experience with either of those travesties of reality.”
I couldn’t think of how to respond to that earnestness. “Oh,” I said dumbly. From the intensity in Valerie’s gaze — and the agreement mirrored in her donor’s faces — I formed a realization. Among the vampires, Valerie is some kind of an idealist, I thought. And so are her partners. I didn’t know what to do with that, but I could tell from how she’d spoken that if there were other vampires in The Center that felt the same way, they were the minority faction.
And one way or another that, an uneasiness in my gut told me, wasn’t going to end well for them, or the faction of supernatural warmongers, or the fae, or me, or anyone.