We arrived at the apartments before Valerie or any of the others we’d invited. That, I decided, was probably a good thing — because I was still trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do with my new goals. Determination was one thing, and thanks to my ability to manipulate my own aura — and the lack of distractions, since my aura was too shallow to support a plurality of emotions at the moment — I had that part down. Ideas that weren’t crazy bullshit? Not so much.
I went down my mental list once more. So far the practical steps were very few — and really vague. Consolidate my support. Expand my pool of donors, since I was still going through them way too damn fast. Make sure there were enough non-fae among them that I didn’t have to worry about accidentally geasing myself by feeding on faerie auras unnecessarily.
After that, though, the list started to fall apart a little.
Getting all of my immediate friends and allies together for mutual protection, that made sense. But how the heck was I supposed to keep everyone else safe, too? How was I going to prevent people like Kallaher from being targeted and killed by enemies I didn’t even know the identities of? And with Linda’s ghost off the table, her actual location an unknown, and Dopplinda out of my hands, how exactly was I supposed to follow up on getting an eye witness account of what had happened back when Salvatore claimed he’d stopped a faerie invasion?
It was frustrating as hell. Especially since I had to keep throwing out the obvious, impossible, answers — like taking over The Center and subjecting every unliving vampire in the states to intensive questioning while under compulsions to reveal their secrets. Sure, that might work in a manga. But in real life? Yeah, right. Right? Hmmmmm….
Emma directed Elaine to one of the parking spots by Cassie’s house, and my musings were interrupted when we all piled out. I took the lead on knocking at Cassandra’s door. When she answered the poor girl looked weary, with noticeable bags under her eyes. I felt horribly guilty for continuing to impose on her like I was.
“We’ll be out of your hair soon,” I promised right off the bat. “I’m going to look into getting us somewhere else for all of these late night gatherings, I promise.” The weave twinged, twisting my words into a bit of a geas, but that unwound almost as quickly: I already was looking into finding another place for us to use as our home base. It just happened to be a vague ‘one of these abandoned apartment-houses’ sort of an idea. For now though, as long as Hans and Daniel were in Cassandra’s basement, I was just going to have to keep imposing.
“It’s okay,” Cassie quickly told me. “I don’t mind. I mean, yeah: these aren’t my normal hours and when next semester starts up I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with all this, but for now it’s fine. Really. And I prefer knowing what’s going on with everything to just getting the occasional notification through the grapevine.”
“Okay,” I said in relief. “Right. Well, you already know Megan and Emma. This is Elaine. She’s a vampire, too.”
“Come in,” Cassandra said perfunctorily. “You’re all welcome.”
I stepped aside to let the others start filing past. “And this is Shantaya,” I said when she started to pass me. “She’s one of the new werewolves.”
“I see,” Cassie said — and she really did. I mentally face palmed myself for forgetting that Cassie could see spirit wolves as well as ghosts.
“Shantaya,” I said to conclude the introduction, “this is Cassandra. She’s friends with Curtis.”
Shantaya, who had frozen when I started talking about her, took a step back when I mentioned Curtis. She scowled, and her wolf growled. I looked back at her in surprise. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
Shantaya jumped a little as though the question startled her. “Nothing,” she hastily said. “I mean… nothing.” She frowned at herself. “It’s just: I didn’t really like that Curtis guy. I don’t even know why. I mean, he seemed nice, but his whole ‘I know better than you’ attitude just pissed me off. Janiqua and Jacob, too, I think.”
Cassandra looked away from Shantaya’s wolf with a lopsided grin. “It’s probably a werewolf thing,” she opined. “If the three of you were friends before being turned, your wolves probably already have a shared pack mentality. That would make Curtis an obvious interloper, since Silver has been a loner for as long as I’ve known them. Add to that the fact that he was probably trying to tell you what to expect with your lycanthropy… well, being in a position of knowledge is a lot like being in a position of power. But Curtis is a total pushover and Silver just wants to play with people: they are not your stereotypical alpha material. I can imagine it being really disconcerting to have him trying to impress the severity of your condition on you while his wolf was probably being submissive and trying to make friends.”
“Yeah,” Shantaya agreed. “Yeah: there was this total dissonance with what he was saying and the vibe he was giving off. Made me not want to trust the guy.”
Cassie smiled sadly and gestured toward her couch. “Give him a chance,” she suggested. “I bet that dissonance goes away as soon as one of the more seriously ‘alpha’ wolves is around to be ‘in charge’ and he gets to just be himself around you.”
Shantaya followed Cassie’s gesture and they walked over to the couch. “I’ll try,” Shantaya agreed. “You know, you seem to be on the up with all this and I’m not getting any weird vibes off you,” she said as she sat.
Cassie chuckled. “I have a bit of an advantage,” she admitted. “I can see spirits — including the spirits of the wolves that possess you and others like you.” She sat down, but reached out and offered her hand to Shantaya’s wolf, who scuttled back in surprise and then stretched forward to sniff at it. “But I don’t have a wolf of my own,” Cassie continued to explain to Shantaya, “so all that territoriality and pack mentality doesn’t come into play quite so much. You only have to reconcile the one impression of me, and not one of me and of a spiritual symbiote that you can’t directly interact with and I can’t directly control.”
“Huh,” Shantaya said. “So… you can see her?”
“Yep,” Cassie agreed as she reached out a finger to scratch the muzzle of Shantaya’s wolf. It jerked back in surprise — but then hesitated and finally leaned forward again to accept Cassie’s touch. “Something about me seems to be comforting to ghosts in general. Maybe just that I’m obviously aware of them? I can interact with them, sort of, too.”
Shantaya stared fixedly at where Cassie’s fingers scritched what she could only see as open air. “What’s she like?” Shantaya asked softly.
I bit the inside of my lip and turned away from their conversation. Listening in was starting to feel intrusive — I was just glad that Shantaya’s coming to terms with her supernatural identity seemed to be going better than mine had. And, hell, why wouldn’t it be? Cassandra was definately a better mentor figure than Lewellyn.
“So,” Elaine interrupted the silence around Megan, Emma and myself. “What now?”
I bit my lip. “I should, um, probably check on Hans and Daniel,” I said. I looked to Megan, who was watching me with concern. “Will you wait up here for Fumiko and the others?” I asked to head off whatever attempt at comfort she was about to make.
I’d gotten through the car ride by focusing on my determination to do something. But I was running out of ideas as to what, and I could feel all of the fear and anxiety about the bomb Dopplinda had dropped on me rising up to replace it. I didn’t want to break down in front of Megan and Emma. Again. Not about that. It was still too new, and too personal, and maybe it was just lies, anyway.
Except I didn’t think it was. Dopplinda’s story explained too much for me to be able to cherry pick what I believed of it. The stuff that was obviously true lent credence to the parts that I wanted to scream in denial of.
“Sure,” Megan said. After a second she looped and arm around Emma’s waist. “We can do some planning, too.” She smiled over at Elaine. “And I’m sure you have some good ideas about things we need to address, right?”
Elaine snorted. “Yes. But first is one I need to. If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’m going to call my donors and make sure they know where I am and that there’s not so much of a reason for them to keep their watchful distance. I want to deal with this pesky thirst before the next crisis hits and it becomes something actively dangerous.”
“Okay,” I agreed — more to grab control of the conversation so I could excuse myself than because I thought anyone needed me to tell them to go do what they were going to go do. “Great. I’ll be downstairs if anyone needs me.” I hastily backed away from the group, then fled into Cassie’s hallway.
I opened the door across from Cassie’s bathroom and peered down. The trap door was closed. It’s lock was still ruined, but someone had put a laundry basket full of books, papers, and at least one cinder block on top of it. I tugged the weight aside effortlessly, popped the trap door open, and looked into the darkness of the basement.
Wolf-Hans was hunkered down morosely next to Daniel’s corpse. He lifted his head and swiveled to look my direction, then slowly stood. His tail remained down cast: he just looked sad. I could sympathize: the smell in the basement was god awful, even though Daniel’s corpse seemed to have skipped the stages of ‘freshly-decomposing’ in favor of jumping straight to ‘dried out and dessicated.’
I dropped down into the basement, and the trap down clattered shut above me.
“Hey boy,” I greeted Hans’ wolf. The animal seemed to perk up just a little and moved a bit more quickly to reach me. I knelt down, eager to bury my hands in that soft fur again, and got licked in the face for my efforts.
“Hey!” I protested, but not angrily. I wrapped the wolf up in a hug that kept it from slobbering on my further and let me press my cheek against his fur. He was warm and soft and strong and loyal and I knew full well that he would chew the face off anyone who tried to get me — he was enthralled, after all. I found myself blinking at that thought, and then tearing up despite myself. After a moment all the stuff I’d been forcing myself to ignore during the car ride home started ganging up on me, and pretty soon I was crying.
Hans’ wolf couldn’t have understood why I was leaking on him like that, but he sat stoically, letting me use his fur as a glorified handkerchief. I managed to refrain from sobbing, but I couldn’t help the tears that kept coming: damn my vampiric regeneration for keeping my face always ready fora cry. And damn Dopplinda for telling me I wasn’t dad’s daughter, and mom for being a big enough bitch that it was easy to believe the changeling’s allegations.
Dad isn’t my dad. I didn’t know what to do with that. I sniffled and sucked in a breath that ended up being mostly fur, but I didn’t need to breathe anyway. I started crying again. This time I hugged the Hans’ poor, confused wolf so hard he made a little whining noise.
I hastily let go and backed away. Not having something to hold made me feel more alone, and I started crying harder. Hans’ wolf pursued me despite my retreat and nuzzled at me worriedly. Enthralled, I reminded myself. He had no more reason to care about me than anyone did. Megan liked my aura. Emma liked being bit. Hans… Hans was enthralled now, too, wasn’t he? I’d bit his wolf in order to heal him after Fiore’s people had shot him. Mom never loved me to begin with, and Dad wouldn’t have a reason to if I told him the truth — and how could I keep something like that from him? He deserved to know about Dopplegrandma. He might want to try to find his real mom.
I shivered and backed away from another attempted nuzzle on behalf of Hans’ wolf. “No,” I told it. “I… I need a hug,” I mumbled. I wouldn’t have minded hugging onto someone, instead, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone. My screwups always hurt people, and I was impossibly strong these days. “You can’t do that,” I told it. I doubted it understood. I mean: it was a wolf, right? Even if it’s spirit had been blending across with Hans’ for the past few days. I still couldn’t keep myself from trying to explain myself to those solemn, worried eyes.
I could’ve gone back upstairs. I could’ve asked for Emma or Megan — or both! — to hold me. But I couldn’t stomach having to explain to them that I was some bastard daughter who’s mother was a cheater and who didn’t even know her own father. And… and… and what did any of that even matter, right? My personal issues were so small and stupid in comparison to the bigger picture, and here I was bawling my eyes out about them because I was small and stupid and…
I was interrupted in my despair spiral by Hans’ wolf. It didn’t whine — the noise it gave to distract me was something like a howl being mangled in a lawnmower. I caught my breathe and jerked my attention down to it, but it was curled up in a ball of snarling, writhing flesh. I jumped when the snarls were punctuated by splintering bone — just for a few seconds — before the whole, glowing mass collapsed.
Only it wasn’t really glowing. It just seemed like it was, because the translucent, shimmering ghost of Hans’ wolf was standing over his vacated, human body.
Hans’ wolf stretched its spectral muzzle to give a plaintive whine, as though begging to know if it had done good. I stared, not quite grasping the change. the wolf’s tail — now a phantom limb — swished in and out of the body it had left behind.
I continued to stare in shock. “I… you… Hans?” He was lay where the wolf had been, slowly uncurling as his muscles relaxed from the torment they’d been through. He looked exactly as he had before he’d lost control earlier in the night. Even his clothes were intact: apparently his wolf was better at shape shifting than he was. The ghost of Hans’ wolf whined for approval again, and this time I nodded stupidly.
Hans rolled over, pushed himself up, and then rose on unsteady legs. His wolf rubbed against them; seemed to try to turn him around and nudge him forward. Almost mechanically, Hans followed the wolf’s urgings and wound up stepping toward me. Then, with more life to it, his arms folded me into the hug I’d asked for. I found myself crushed against his very, very physical chest. His thin tee-shirt utterly failed to insulate him, and his body heat radiated against my chilled skin.
“Abigail,” Hans breathed out hoarsely. “Is it morning?” His tone was awash with confusion: he already knew the answer to that.
“No,” I squeaked anyway. I was too busy being overwhelmed by my rampant senses and the realization that I was trapped and secure in his arms to bother with attempting intelligent conversation. I breathed in deeply and tried to center myself; tried to limit my supernatural awareness to just one or two things.
Hans was so solid, and so very warm. I didn’t want to freak out about being trapped and break free and run away — I wanted to burrow against him and hide form the world.
So of course Hans thrust me away. His hands tightened around my shoulders as he held me at arms length. His voice cracked with uncertainty bordering on panic.
“Abigail?” Hans croaked. “What did you do? What just… How did you… How am I human before sunrise?!”