When Elaine’s car turned onto the same road as us it was moving way too fast. Megan wasn’t the one driving, either: that position was taken by Shantaya, who was staring forward and gripping the wheel with a focused, grim expression. Her wolf was on the dashboard between her and Megan, with it’s head sticking through the windshield. I couldn’t tell if it’s fangs were bared or if that was just the metaphysical wind blowing back it’s chops, but it’s head pivoted to track my position regardless of the way the car swerved into the street and screeched to a stop near us.
Emma’s and Shantaya’s wolves were the first two out of the vehicle, since they didn’t have to bother with opening doors. Shantaya’s wolf ran up to me with Emma’s at it’s heels. It sniffed me once, then seemed mollified that I was okay. At which point it growled at Elaine and ran in a brief circle around me as though checking for anyone else it might have to growl at. Shantaya bolted out next, without bothering to do more than put the car in park. She didn’t even close the driver’s side door behind her, I noticed, which made me feel an odd pang for Hans.
Oh, right. He’d done something similar once when picking me up. What was it with werewolves and bad driving and hasty parking on the wrong side of the street, anyway?
Shantaya was on me in an instant. She grabbed me by the arms and looked over me quickly. “Don’t you run off like that!” She shouted at me. “I was worried sick. I…” She abruptly seemed to realize that she was being a lot more familiar with me than she had been — particularly since she’d spent most of the evening kind of afraid of me. She let go of me and scrambled back a couple steps, kind of shrinking in on herself as though regretting having made a scene or something.
Having made a few myself, I totally knew how someone shrinking back like that looks. I also know that she hadn’t done anything of the sort. At least, not compared to the things I’ve occasionally gone on about in public.
“We were worried,” Megan said smoothly, drawing attention to herself and away from the proto-wolf, who spared her a thankful glance. “Dashing off like that — all we had was my ley line to let us know how you were doing, and that was changing too fast for me to even keep up with.” She hesitated, and I felt her concern through our leyline, as well as a gentle reaching to ascertain the condition of my aura.
“Yeah,” Emma agreed. She had gotten out of the car, but not walked over. She just stood by her door, probably expecting us all to pile back in momentarily. “And having the two of you just vanish like that was pretty freaky. You almost gave poor ‘Taya a heart attack.”
The girl in question shrank back further, embarrassed at being brought into the conversation’s limelight again. “‘m supposed to be taking care of you, like Jacob did,” she mumbled under her breath. Of course, I could hear it perfectly well even though I wasn’t really meant to. It made me want to kick myself: her wolf was enthralled by me, and the borders between her and it were thinned because I’d fed on her to heal her injuries earlier. Of course she was going to have an anxiety attack if I ran off! The whole reason I’d agreed to let her and Jacob come along tonight was that their wolves were making them throw fits at the thought of me running around without a pack watching my back.
I bit back the almost automatic apology. “I didn’t mean for that,” I said instead. It was going to have to do, until I could find a better way to deal with the whole faerie apologies being binding geases thing. Which, honestly, made me think maybe I needed to expand my circle of donors. Apologies hadn’t seemed to be a problem back when my aura wasn’t made up so much of faerie essence. “It wasn’t my intention. Hopefully I won’t have to run off like that again. The arsonist got away, and Director Estevez is taking over the hunt now.”
“Did you manage to find Mrs. Fleisher’s ghost?” Kallaher’s ghost asked. Megan echoed his question for the benefit of everyone else who couldn’t perceive him.
I turned back toward him. “Not exactly,” I admitted. “Um. Can we head back to Cassie’s apartment? I’d like to be secure behind some wards, and maybe bring in Valerie and Benjamin before going into the details.” I didn’t want to blurt out that Linda was still alive here where absolutely anyone with supernatural hearing could overhear. I was already mentally kicking myself for being so open about it back in the alley with Director Estevez.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Megan agreed. “Emma, would you mind riding up front to give directions?”
“Yeah, sure,” Emma said. She moved up to the front seat — but before the rest of us could turn back toward the car, i realized that Shantaya had snuck away. I glanced around and saw Elaine nod toward an alley — apparently she’d noticed, too, and had been keeping track of the proto-wolf. That was confirmed when we all heard a startled “What the fuck?!” come from the alley. Seconds later, Shantaya appeared at the alley’s entrance. She looked completely freaked, and was carrying a severed arm. Her wolf was beside her, snarling violently at it.
“Oh!” Elaine said. “That belongs to the arsonist,” she explained. “I did manage to at least wound him before he and his ghouls ran off.
Shantaya looked incredibly queasy as she held the arm out away from herself. Her wolf kept leaping at the appendage like he — she? — wanted to gnaw on it, which I guessed was what possessed Shantaya to pick the thing up with to begin with.
“Belonged,” I corrected Elaine. “I have a ghoul who’s going to wake up hungry. I think we can at least give him part of that, so tonight isn’t a total waste. And give the hand or something to some witches to see if they can make a tracking amulet out of it?”
Elaine nodded. “Yes. I’ll be sure to pass along enough of it that Estevez will be able to work out some talismans. I’m relatively certain he won’t object to the rest being put to good use.” She walked over to Shantaya and took the arm from her, though the younger woman looked both relieved and as though she’d been stolen from. The wolf growled and followed Elaine all the way back to the trunk of her car, snapping occasionally as though she was taking away its favorite toy and/or putting a snake in the vehicle with us.
The rest of us followed them back to the car. Elaine took the driver’s seat again, and somehow I wound up between Shantaya and Megan in the back. Kallaher’s ghost resumed being wedged in between the two front seats.
I’m really glad you’re okay, Megan thought at me. Please give us more warning next time, sweetie. I was afraid for a second after you disappeared that Shantaya was going to turn wolf on us, and I might’ve been able to head that off with a moment or two of forewarning. For a heartbeat my stomach seemed to drop, but Megan responded just as fast as my emotions pivoted. No! Don’t worry. I managed to keep her calm. I don’t know if I could have had something happened to you, but… Anyway. You might want to give her some reassurance, Abby.
I glanced at the girl sitting next to me. She was studiously looking out her window; scanning up and down the street and trying to keep herself small. Her wolf was in her lap, looking up at me with a woeful expression like it thought it was in trouble for something. It didn’t escape my attention that the shuffling of seats had moved Emma — the only one theoretically still vulnerable to the werewolf curse — to the front seat and effectively put me between Shantaya and anyone else. Right, I thought back at Megan. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.
And I really hadn’t been. Transfer of the werewolf curse aside, if Shantaya had shifted in a confined space and Emma and Megan had been trapped with her, they might have been killed. Megan would have recovered. Emma wouldn’t. From the way Shantaya was biting her lip and clutching her hands in fists, I got the impression that she was aware that she’d had a close call, too. It was confirmed when I checked her leyline and saw she was struggling with entirely undeserved guilt over what might have happened.
“Um,” I said. “Shantaya?”
She looked at me, and her hands unclenched. She looked calm, except I thought I could see her uncertainty through her eyes — or maybe that was just that I knew what she was feeling because I was still peeking down our shared leyline. “Yeah?” Shantaya asked. There was just a hint of defensiveness in her tone. In her head, she was already beating herself up in line with the scolding she thought she was going to get, though.
“You did good,” I said. I winced, because it sounded condescending. “I mean: I didn’t expect tonight to go like… I didn’t expect any of this to happen,” I clarified. “I didn’t think there would be fighting and chasing undead arsonists and all this insanity. I didn’t think Jacob would get hurt and be forced to shift, and I didn’t think you would be put in as precarious a position as you have been. I appreciate the self control you’ve shown. And I’ll try to make sure that I’m not putting you in taxing positions like this again. I know it has to be hard enough just adjusting to being a werewolf, now.” I really wished I hadn’t drained Hans so far that he’d shifted already. I sincerely hoped that he’d be able to do some good for the kids when he was human again and could talk to them.
It took a few seconds for Shantaya to respond. When she did, it wasn’t with what I was expecting. “So… what are we doing next?” She asked. “I mean… Jacob’s a dick. But that guy who hurt him? I want that guy.” She shivered, but her wolf gave a low growl of agreement. “He hurt my people, and he’s…” She looked up at me. “I don’t… I’m not violent. But that guy needs to pay.”
I looked back at her, at the confusion in her eyes as she tried to correlate the wolf’s very simple territoriality with whatever her own sense of justice was. I felt my heart break a little. She was going to end up as conflicted as Hans — as torn between personas as I was, when my buffer was thin, and for a moment she seemed so much younger than I was, even though we were probably only separated by a handful of years.
At least, as long as I wasn’t counting the relative time I spent in my own little time stream, slowly consuming vampire Directors and Faerie Lords.
“For now,” Elaine answered for me, “we let Director Estevez do the leg work. He came here with the express purpose of calming the supernatural elements of this city. He has far more experience with hunting monsters than we do. So we let him, and when he brings these bastards down, we line up for their trial and make sure they stay down.”
Shantaya’s eyes flicked to the front of the car and then back to me. I nodded. “Yeah. You don’t need for your first week on the supernatural side of reality to be like mine, Shantaya. We’re going to drop you off at the hotel with the others, and all you’re going to have to focus on is coming to grips with your own…”
Shantaya shook her head violently. “Hell no,” she protested. “I’m not letting you run around — or sit still — without me. If Jacob and I hadn’t been there at that first house, you’d have been roasted. Ditching me is: Not. Going. To. Happen.”
I hesitated, then glanced at Megan. We could both feel the young woman’s determination, even though she didn’t realize where her protectiveness was coming from, herself. Or maybe she did — but because of the magical compulsion behind the feelings, just didn’t care. Whatever. I caved.
“Okay,” I said. “But you aren’t hanging out with me by yourself. I tried to do the ‘by myself’ stuff on my day one, and it didn’t go so well.” I bit the inside of my cheek and tried to think. “Okay,” I said. “Confab time. Megan, have you gotten Valerie’s number yet?”
“Yep,” Megan answered cheerfully. “Although I’m thinking of setting up Prudence as her liaison, too, since I think they’ll be working together a lot anyway.”
That struck me as a good idea. It would add redundancy to the communication network — my own phone had gotten busted up enough that I could really appreciate that. “Good. Call her and the people at the hotel, please. I want them to relocate all of the new wolves and their people out to Cassie’s apartment community.”
“That’s a lot of people to invite into one witch’s home,” Emma noted — though she didn’t really sound like she was protesting, just curious where I was going with it. “Want me to call her and tell her to expect more guests?”
“Um,” I said. “Yes, but I’m not throwing a big meeting at her place without her permission,” I said. “Most of those apartments were empty. Totally empty, I mean — not even warded, because I could hear the little noises that crop up in an unoccupied home. So, between the werewolves and the faeries and Hans’ house burning down, I want to commandeer some of those apartments.” I looked back at Shantaya. “That way you can stay nearby — I won’t be going anywhere without you…” until this compulsion to protect me wears off, I mentally added, “…but you can also have your friends on hand to help you cope. And Hans will be right there to help in the morning.”
“Right,” Shantaya said. “Good.” She seemed to be relieved. “I mean, I know vampires don’t go out in the sun. Right? But I was worried it would be just me keeping an eye on you until you woke up.” She glanced at Emma when Emma’s wolf yip-barked in protest — responding to her own wolf’s awareness, I guessed — and then back at me. “I mean: Me and maybe a couple other people I don’t know,” she said quietly.
I nodded in understanding, but didn’t know what to say really. Next to me, Megan had already called Valerie to update her on the new plan. Meanwhile, Emma’s wolf slipped through her seat and scrambled onto my lap. It stretched it’s head out toward Shantaya’s wolf, which hunched down slightly and growled. I put a soothing hand on Emma’s wolf, but that turned out not to be necessary: it just wuffled at Shantaya’s, then settled down in my lap and closed it’s eyes. I stroked its fur and wondered if I looked insane to everyone who couldn’t see it.
“It’ll be okay,” I finally tried to reassure Shantaya. My transition to ‘supernatural being’ hadn’t been, but I was determined to make sure hers would be better. Hers and all the other new werewolves. And it wasn’t even just because I knew Hans held himself responcible for their well being, and I cared about him. Or because I was sympathetic due to the shit I’d already been through, and I felt guilty that I’d already dragged two of them into my mess — and, hell, their being infected was kinda sorta my fault anyway.
No. I chewed the inside of my lip and looked away, letting my hand rest beside the head of Emma’s wolf and trying to ignore the tentative way Shantaya’s stretched it’s muzzle out to sniff the spirit entity snoozing on my lap. No, I was going to take care of Shantaya and her friends and everyone else because…
I swallowed. Because: Director Estevez had acknowledged that I wasn’t some kind of rogue bad guy, thus taking me off The Center’s shit list. Hopefully. Because: Valerie had sort of surrendered her bid to control the city over to me, even though she was still doing all the managing, really. Because: Melvin thought I was some kind of super Machiavellian shadow queen, since I’d accidentally worked a compulsion into every fae to swear allegience to Megan.
And because if I don’t start doing something I’m going to be stuck thinking. And then I’m going to wind up thinking about what Dopplinda told me, and I can’t deal with that. So I need something else to think about, and the only thing I can think of that’s big enough to eclipse… everything she dropped on me …is literally everything else that’s been dropped on me.
This was my city now. And if I had to choose between dealing with that, or dealing with having been told that my dad wasn’t really my dad and my mom had been psychologically tortured my whole life by the same faerie that replaced my grandma and murdered my grandpa…
…then fuck it. This was my city, and I was going to fucking own it. I shoved Dopplinda out of my head. Crammed everything she’d said down to the very bottom, and refused to listen to the thoughts that tried to whisper up reminders of that conversation. I fucking fed the emotions those thoughts tried to stir into my curse. I couldn’t deal with that shit. Not right now. I had important things on my mind.
This was my city, and so far tonight I’d seen two parts of it burn down, a warlock murdered and the attempted murder of a witch, and fuck that noise.
I stared forward, but didn’t really see the scenery as it flickered by. My city. I held onto that idea. My people. I invested it with energy, securing it into my aura as I had the need to protect my friends from The Center and myself. I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on that task until I was confident that I wouldn’t break down over trivial personal shit until my people in my city were safe from undead arsonists or psycho faerie lords or whatever else.
And when I finally opened my eyes, I smiled. My aura had been damaged. I didn’t have the depth to deal with too many emotions at once. And with the work I’d just done in place: I was calm. Focused.
This was my city, filled with my people, who were under my protection. And that meant: no more reacting. I wasn’t going to let people keep getting hurt or killed because of whatever bullshit secrets Mister Salvatore and Director Lewellyn had been trying to conceal.
Director Estevez could do his part with taking over the investigation of the vampire arsonist and his ghoul hit squad. It was dawning on me that I had bigger things to tackle. Or rather: current events were a symptom of the problem, at best. And I could let Estevez try to corral that, because it would give me the time and space to go after the root.
I was going to uncover whatever conspiracy Salvatore and Lewellyn were part of — because there had to be a conspiracy of some sort, if there were multiple Directors involved and more supernaturals engaging in a concerted ‘rescue’ effort, still. But I was going to figure out what the fuck it had to do with the conflicting stories surrounding Lord Archarel’s invasion — if there’d even been one. And I was going to find everyone who was involved in whatever this shit was.
And I was going to expose them — and if necessary, kill them — until there wasn’t anyone or any reason left to hurt any of my people.
And now all I had to do was figure out how.