It took only a second for Pipsqueak’s offhand comment to start my heart rate climbing, because that’s how long it took for my brain to start spinning up in speculation. Before Pips’ announcement I’d wondered about whether or not we might run into the vampire that had attacked the house — or his donors — at Mister Kallaher’s funeral home. Now that I knew he’d gone back to the scene of Mister Kallaher’s abduction, my paranoia got to join in on the fun.
I shoved Pipsqueak off of me, so he’d be less distracting. Somehow he managed to perch on the dashboard. I could still feel his laughter in my head, but I did my damndest to ignore it.
Why? That was the question: why the fuck would the bad guy be retreating to Mister Kallaher’s, when Mister Kallaher himself was dead? Was it because he’d stashed Linda’s body there? The building his people had ambushed us from had been meant to go up in flames — was he going to torch the funeral home next, to remove more evidence? If he burned down the funeral home with Linda’s corpse in it, what were the chances that I’d be able to dredge up her ghost and ask it what exactly the fuck was going on?!
Although, if he was going back to the funeral home to torch it, why didn’t he just burn the place down when he abducted Mister Kallaher to begin with? Was this not about destroying more evidence? Did he have more abducted people there, so he could revive the Directors in a more secure location than across the street from a torched house that was crawling with first responders and clandestine members of The Center? Was that what this was about?!
“He’s going to torch the place,” Elaine said flatly.
I looked over at her. For some reason, she was pulling the car over to the side of the road. “What?” I blurted. “No, he would’ve done that already. I think he’s got that place set up as a secure location to try and revive the directors.”
Elaine shook her head. “No, he wouldn’t have. Remember, The Center recruits agents heavily from first responders and emergency management, to help maintain the coverup over supernatural events and keep faeries from getting a stronger foothold in the world. If a prominent warlock’s home had burnt down, The Center would have known about it almost immediately. He probably planned on destroying any remaining evidence there on his way out of town — I can’t imagine he would have intended to stay in the city after doing something so audacious as attacking you and kidnapping two Directors. Especially since he would have had to have known that The Center would be sending in another Director to follow up on what happened to Salvatore and Lewellyn.”
She shrugged. “Maybe he’s just regrouping there before fleeing, but I think we have to assume that since he knew where The Directors were being kept, he also has access to other inside information — he may very well be just as knowledgeable of our plan to consult Linda’s ghost as Director Estevez is. In which case, I would think eliminating that possibility would have abruptly become a priority for him, even if he originally didn’t plan to do anything with her body other than abandon it where it wouldn’t be found for a while.”
“Oh,” I said, stunned. Yeah, that made a disturbing amount of sense — especially since I already knew that Salvatore and Lewellyn had been up to something crooked. Of course anyone who tried to break them out would be an accomplice to their fuckery, which meant they could probably get access to the same people that the Directors had for information. Why the fuck did I keep forgetting to account for The Center’s network of informants and agents? Especially right after Director Estevez had demonstrated how up to date they’d managed to keep him?
My eyes widened. “Oh, fuck,” I said. “We need to have Valerie contact all of the emergency management officials working for The Center. We already know that this guy kidnapped Mister Kallaher: it stands to reason he’d have no trouble with forcing someone else to work for him under threat of death, too.” Assuming that his informant wasn’t in on it like Directors Lewellyn and Salvatore, whatever ‘it’ was.
Maybe it was just the fact that I was an over imaginative paranoid psycho, but I was well past thinking that Director Lewellyn had just been trying to cover up for ‘his friend’ Director Salvatore. Especially since Reid claimed Salvatore had been lying about something as freaking huge as an entire Faerie invasion of the city, from the beginning!
“I’ll have those calls made,” Director Estevez interjected — somehow I’d forgotten that he was still on speaker phone, and I jumped when he suddenly made himself heard again.
“Thank you,” Elaine said to the Director. She looked at me. “We need to make certain that whoever this is, he doesn’t get to cover his tracks further.”
I nodded emphatically. I didn’t know how we were supposed to…. Oh. “Pips,” I said, redirecting my attention to the slender Canadian elf who loomed forward from Elaine’s dashboard.
“Yes, my lady?” He purred.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Fucking cute Canadian slavers with their fucking accents! “I need you to go back to the funeral home. Stay between worlds. If the person we’re after leaves, follow him. Don’t let him know you’re there.” That would keep him from getting away!
“I can’t follow his leyline once he’s in the warded vehicle again,” Pips pointed out in the exact opposite of his helpful tone.
I gave him a cross glare. “You don’t have to follow his leyline in order to follow him. That’s why you’re going back there in person, Pipsqueak.”
Pipsqueak stared at me, abruptly aghast. “Follow him.” He repeated. Then, as though I’d asked him to do something so demeaning he was shocked and offended: “On foot?!”
I snorted. Maybe I was a sadist, too, but it made me kind of happier to know I’d thrown Pips out of his ongoing amusement. At least until I noticed that it wasn’t actually reflected in his leyline. He was still highly entertained by everyone else’s stress. “Riiiight,” I drawled sarcastically, no longer buying his act. “Like the chupracabracorn can’t outrun a car.”
Pipsqueak gave me a blank stare. Even his leyline went still, as though he didn’t know what I was talking about. I almost bought it. And then he laughed.
“As you wish, my lady,” he drawled — and then vanished again in a swish of dark mist.
Suddenly, I was speechless. Even my autopilot was shut down. Oh, fuck me: he really is the chupacabracorn.
“Good thought,” Elaine said. “But we should still try to get to the funeral home before those thugs have a chance to do whatever they want and run.”
I stared at her. Obviously that would be ideal, but how the hell did she expect us to get there in time to do anything when she’d gone and parked on the side of the road?
“I concur.” Director Estevez’s voice was dry and hard. “Elaine, as I said: for tonight I am leaving the matter in your hands. However, if you determine that you do require support after you reach the funeral home, it is available. I want this resolved, and will accelerate to the site personally if you make that call.”
Oh, fuck me.
Maybe it was just my brain going to apeshit crazyville, but the click of the line being hung up on his end resonated in my ears with a subtext of: don’t fuck it up by deciding not to call or I’ll be pissed when I show up tomorrow. Or maybe: Don’t bother me if it isn’t serious, because if I have to stop time and run all that way I’m going to be thirsty when I get there.
Or perhaps the click didn’t actually mean anything, and that was just my subconcious latching onto anything that it could use to provide a more intelligible idea than the oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck she wants us to stop time and run there and he wants us to stop time and run there and oh fuck that never ends well shit shit shit shit fuck that was running rampant through the rest of my thoughts.
Elaine unbuckled and reached over to touch my wrist. “Megan, Emma, I am sorry but time is pressing and we can travel faster on foot. I’ll leave the keys so you can follow.”
“On foot,” I squeaked in unconscious mimicry of Pipsqueak — and then, suddenly, it hit me that I couldn’t hear either Emma or Megan’s heartbeats. Elaine had stopped time for herself, and since she was touching my wrist….
“This should keep us in sync,” Elaine said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had to…”
Elaine didn’t get to finish her thought, though. Or at least, she didn’t get to finish it at a speed that I could process. I screamed and wrenched my arm away from her: I scrambled madly to pull myself as far away from her as I possibly could.
In my blind, panicked flight I slammed against the car door; my seatbelt twisted and snagged around me as it tried to lock up because of the speed I was moving at — and I ripped it through whatever mechanism was supposed to hold it tight around me, instead. Elaine was still moving, and somehow I could still see her moving, even though I had gotten far enough away to drop into normal time. I heard Emma yelp, and her wolf suddenly leapt in front of me: it snarled viciously at Elaine.
“Abigail! Abigail, look at me,” Elaine demanded. She completely ignored Emma’s wolf — or more likely was completely unaware of it. It snapped at her, but Elaine reached through it and caught my shoulders. I yelled and thrashed, but she was unnaturally — supernaturally — strong.
“Let go of her!” Emma yelled, but Elaine ignored her.
“Look at me,” Elaine insisted again. I complied, more out of knee-jerk response to a voice of authority than anything else. I’d heard Emma shouting. I could hear Emma and Megan’s hearts beating again: they were sped up from alarm, but not racing like mine.
“I’ve stopped,” Elaine told me firmly. “You aren’t accelerated.”
“What just happened?” Megan gasped from somewhere behind me. She sounded panicked — I had to wonder just how wildly erratic my emotions must have looked to her, since she would have seen all of what I felt while time was stopped as compressed into an instant’s rush of terror. When it was clear that I was too busy trembling uncontrollably to try and run away again, Elaine held a hand up to quiet her — and maybe Emma as well — then used it to turn my head back away from them and toward herself.
“You were having a panic attack,” Elaine told me. As though I didn’t know. Or maybe she was saying it for Megan’s benefit, or Emma’s. Her voice was very soft; soothing. Absolute calm in the face of my absolute panic. “Why?”
I swallowed. Then I blurted: “It hurts. Stopping time hurts. Every time I… They attack me! And then I’m pulling essence from someone, and they can’t stop and I can’t stop and it’s too much and it hurts,” I babbled. My arms started to tremble, even though Elaine was holding me steady by my shoulders. Remembering was making me panic again; panic more, even though time wasn’t holding still.
“Abigail!” Elaine interrupted — still calm, but her words spoken sharply enough to cut through my own and snap me out of the start of that spiral. “Stop. Focus. You aren’t being attacked. You aren’t accelerated. You’re safe. Listen to me.” I stared at her. I was starting to hyperventilate. What did she know? I’d been attacked less than a half hour ago, at Hans’ house! I was on my way to the funeral home where the guy who attacked me was still at!
“Abigail,” Elaine repeated, distracting me again from that line of thought. “I want you to pay attention and focus,” she said. Didn’t she know how crazy that was? My senses wanted to run rampant: they were hyped up on supernatural acuity and desperate to locate the source of the danger that I was responding to. Pay attention and focus?! I was listening to and hearing everything, everywhere, all at once. And people thought I was the crazy one?!
“Breathe, Abigail,” Elaine instructed me. “Take a deep breath in and hold it. Then breathe out and count. Count out loud, Abigail. One.”
“One,” I repeated dully.
Elaine nodded. “Now breathe this time. Hold it. Breathe out. Two.”
I sucked in a lungful of air and then let it out again. “Two,” I repeated. Elaine kept my gaze fixed with hers. Whenever I started to look away, her expression hardened just enough to catch my attention before I could get distracted.
“Again,” Elaine insisted.
“Three,” I said after another breath, and Elaine nodded at me. She didn’t let me stop after the next one, either. Megan kept broadcasting her concern and reassurance to me, too. I tried to accept it when I could: whenever my panic slackened a little more, I drew from what Megan offered. Eventually, at about ten, I stopped shaking. At sixteen, Elaine let me stop counting.
“Good,” Elaine said. “Now, I can hear that your heart rate is steady again, so we’re going to move on. Close your eyes. Your supernatural senses are trying to overwhelm you. You’re overstimulated, so shut them down. Ignore the need to see. Don’t listen to anything accept my voice. We’re going to start small; focused. Start with touch. Start at your extremities. Focus on what you feel with your hands. The temperature of the air. Your fingers curled against your palms. Follow that up. The weight of your clothes on your arms. The texture of them against your skin. Then your feet. The pinch of your shoe across your toes. The tightness of the strap around your ankle. The hardness of the heel supporting your own. Follow that up. The tension in your legs from being held at tiptoe. The coolness of the night air. The texture of the seat beneath them; of your skirt around them.”
Elaine’s voice remained insistent, but also seemed to fade into an almost hypnotic drone as I focused on following her instructions — but more importantly, her instructions were working. Every time she mentioned something, my hyperactive senses were all too happy to leap at it. Was this the threat? No. Then… oh! Perhaps this next thing she’d said? No…
I was breathing slowly. Steadily. With each shift in my focus I felt like I’d crossed off another potential threat, even though I was just paying attention to myself and not the world around me. Like I was tricking my paranoia into letting me direct my senses; letting me calm down.
My heart rate was under control, and my mind wasn’t scrambling. I felt… Clear headed. I didn’t have thoughts running every which way: I was just following along with what Elaine was saying. It had gotten easier to do the longer I was kept at it.
“Alright,” Elaine said. “Open your eyes. Just look at me. Don’t look anywhere else yet. Take things in one at a time, Abigail. Digest the details before moving on. Take it slowly.”
I tried to do what Elaine said. The first thing I really noticed were Elaine’s eyes. They were intense. Focused. Crinkled slightly on the inner edge, where her brow was just barely furrowed. She was concerned. Her expression was calm, but her eyes were concerned — concerned, not worried. That was reflected in her voice, too, when I let myself focus on it. I swallowed again and nodded, still not looking away.
“Good,” said Elaine. “Now, I want you to answer some questions for me. Pay attention to yourself before you do. Focus like we just did, and listen to what your senses tell you. Okay?”
I nodded again. “Okay,” I stammered, though the word came out reluctantly: I mostly just mumbled it instead of my usual blurting.
“Good,” Elaine replied. “Now. Where are you sitting?”
Too easy a question, but I did like Elaine had told me — if only because I was afraid that trying to think about anything more serious — anything other than the question right in front of me — would lead me back into my panic attack. I focused again on the physical sensations of the seat beneath me and against my back, and the belt across my torso, before answering. “In your car,” I told her. She nodded.
“And where are we?”
I hesitated, then looked around. I took a moment to really look, though. “Parked at the side of the road,” I said. This time I couldn’t keep my thoughts entirely leashed. “What is the point of…” I started to ask, but then I interrupted myself to read the address off of a mailbox I had started to focus in on. “273 west crescent avenue,” I said.
“Very good,” Elaine answered me. “And we’re helping you learn not to let your senses overwhelm you, Abigail. So listen to them, but make them give you the details before moving on to something new. Is anyone else here?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes again. Looking wouldn’t really help with that, except when it came to the layer of reality between earth and Faerie. “Megan,” I said. “Emma. You. Me.” Pipsqueak had already left, but I opened my eyes again to make sure he was gone. He was. “Mister Kallaher’s ghost,” I added. “And there are people in the houses nearby, but I think they’re sleeping.” Their heartbeats were slow and steady. So were their breaths, except the one that kept stopping and starting again in a snore. “And animals. Mice, I think. Two dogs. A… cat? It’s sort of purring, but I think it’s sleeping too.” Did cats pur in their sleep? Or was that what it sounded like when one snored? “The houses aren’t warded, so I can hear them all pretty clearly.” But it was easier when my senses were only telling me about them one at a time. It felt…
…actually, it felt a lot like how my senses worked when my aura was bloated and my emotions were steadier from all that excess essence maintaining them.
Elaine’s eyes widened, just slightly. I think she was surprised at how keen my supernatural senses actually were. She confirmed it by saying: “That’s good. That’s very good. Now, then: How do you feel? How is your breathing going? Is your heart rate steady? Are you warm, or cold?” She paused a moment for me to answer.
I took stock of myself. “I’m… good,” I said. I knew she could hear my breathing and my heartbeat, but I answered anyway. “I’m not hyperventilating. I’m breathing normal, and my heart isn’t racing. It’s steady.”
“Good,” Elaine said. “And are you hurting? At all?”
I froze. Suddenly, I thought I might know where all of this was heading. That suspicion was placated by a rush of reassurance from Megan before it could take root in paranoia, though. I sent back a mental surge of gratitude. I didn’t want to be paranoid. “No,” I said. “I mean: my toes are a little pinched. But that’s all.”
“And is anyone attacking us?”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t help by give Elaine a flat stare, even without a paranoic impulse behind it. My glare seemed to slide right off of her.
“Even though you were accelerated?,” she asked.
“Even though,” I begrudgingly allowed. I had to focus on my breathing not to let it start speeding up again. I didn’t count out loud, but I did do Megan’s meditation breathing. It seemed to me that it was really similar to what Elaine had been having me do, anyway.
“So,” Elaine said, “right now: are you aware of the differences between now and when you were hurt? That accelerating now would not be like accelerating then?”
About two thirds of me screamed in instinctive denial, but the rest of me nodded. And when I thought about it, I realized that the reason I had started panicking to begin with had been that my brain hadn’t been able to make that distinction on its own. Not in the moment; not once fight or flight took over.
“And do you think, if we took it slowly, you’d be able to accelerate without panicking again? I’ll go alone if I have to, but with two of us we have a much better chance of stopping this bastard.”
I looked away from her. At Megan, who was clearly worried — and Emma, who was watching me with wide eyes over a tightly clenched jaw. Her wolf had flowed back over to her lap, and its fur was bristled with aggression, fed from some mixture of fear and worry. My mouth felt dry, so I forced myself to swallow.
If I made Elaine go it alone, she would probably be forced to call on Director Estevez for help. The longer it was before another Director showed up in my city, the happier I would be. But more importantly: If I didn’t take the shortcut and we all drove to the funeral home, Megan and Emma would be with me. When we arrived they would be in danger, if there was any danger to be in by then, too.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. My heart sped up a little before I could force myself to calm down again. Megan, I sent to her, I love you, but you need to stop sending your essence to me. I need you to stop. I could feel confusion mixed with her worry, and just the slightest hint of hurt, for just an instant before she withdrew: leaving our leyline just as open as ever but with nothing being sent either way through it. I could see that she understood; that she was busy chastising herself for even feeling that instant of hurt when I asked her to withdraw.
I swallowed and looked back at Elaine. My aura was calm. Not because I was calm, although I was, even if I was teetering at the edge between it and panic. No, my aura was calm in the important way: it was calm because no one was pushing essence to me, and I wasn’t pulling essence from anyone.
“But I’m willing to try,” I told Elaine.
She let go of my shoulders and took my hands. “Okay,” Elaine said. “Good.”
And then the world slowed to a stop around us.