It took me a second to process what Fumiko had just said. once I was pretty sure I hadn’t just misheard, I blurted it back out for confirmation.
“You got a date?”
Fumiko snorted. “Don’t act so surprised,” she told me. “You hooked us up.”
What? My eyes widened as I tried to figure out who she was talking about. Hans? It had to be. But hadn’t she said she wasn’t in to big, muscly guys? And when did she even get a chance to talk to him? He’s been a wolf almost all day!
Fumiko laughed at the expression on my face. “What, did you think I wouldn’t catch on? The order of events is pretty clear.” She held up a finger. “First you tried to hook me up with Hans,” she said. A second finger uncurled. “So I then explain that I like my beefcake on the bishounen side of pretty.”
Fumiko raised a third third finger. “So then you decide ‘for some reason’ to send John and I off alone together at Salvatore’s house?” Fumiko wiggled her fingers before lowering her hand again. “Come on, Abby. I’m not that dense. And I’ll admit: he does take after his dad for looks.”
I snapped my mouth shut before it became too obvious that it had fallen open in surprise. “Wait,” I said while wrapping my head around that. “You asked out John?” And she thought I’d set her up to do it?
Fumiko chuckled. “Yeah,” she said. “I figured we could at least hang out as friends for moral support. But he handled himself well when bullets started flying, so… Who knows? I always figured I would, but I’ve recently confirmed that I really like that in a guy. Plus, I’ve always been a fan of the whole ‘badass bishie’ vibe.”
I stared at Fumiko and started reassembling the bits of my blown mind. In retrospect, I could see it: John didn’t so much ‘take after’ his dad as he was a spitting image. And part of Mister Salvatore’s freakiness had always been that he was sickeningly handsome and he knew it. So, if Fumiko really did go for pretty boys… And as a ghoul, John was extra durable. Which had to be a bonus, given Fumiko’s proclivities….
Oh, great. Now I was picturing Fumiko and John having sex. Which was just… wrong. I mean: hot! But… Okay, John’s not really my brother. I know that.
But it was still weird.
Fortunately, the sudden reappearance of Jamie saved me from having to put together a reply. Fumiko’s familiar burst into existence, wobbled, and then sat on the ground so she could lean against the edge of the bench.
“Megan and Emma are fine,” Jammie announced. She looked — and sounded — exhausted. “They’ve transfered through the gate at the college and have all of Megan’s kingdom to draw from now.”
I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding — which had become a lot more common since I’d stopped needing to breath. But still, that was a relief.
“What about you?” Fumiko asked. “You seem worn out.”
Jamie waved her hand. “No, I’m fine,” she said. “I gave a lot of essence away to help Megan before they reached the gate, like you told me to. But I still have some to burn before I have to worry about straining myself. I should be able to find some mortal emotions to recharge with before it becomes a serious problem.”
Fumiko frowned slightly. I did, too, but that was because my headache was making it hard to think and something Jamie had said was tickling my brain.
“That’s good,” Fumiko said, “but… Look, I didn’t mean for you to exhaust yourself. I don’t need you here right now, so if you want to go somewhere and… do whatever, that’s cool by me.”
“Really,” Jamie asked in surprise. She leveraged herself back to her feet. “That’s a lot of freedom to be giving a familiar,” she commented.
“Meh,” Fumiko said back. “You offered to be one out of gratitude. I don’t think I have to worry that letting you take care of yourself will change your willingness not to take advantage of my goodwill, do I?”
Jamie chuckled and shook her head. And then she disappeared in a swirl of darkness.
I scowled. Why couldn’t I have a faerie who didn’t need constant supervision? Although, I guess Reid wasn’t so bad. I should contact him. Maybe he’s had some luck figuring out what Mister Salvatore was up to during Archarel’s ‘invasion’ on his end. Maybe if my head didn’t hurt so much I would’ve thought to go with Megan and Emma so I could catch up with Reid and then rest.
Even if the headache hadn’t come until after they’d left. I was blaming it anyway because it fucking hurt.
“Let’s go inside,” I said.
Fumiko looked at me askance. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. I could probably have some Thaddeus contact Reid for me, since my head was still splitting. “I want to make sure someone remembers to throw that arm in the basement for Daniel.” And after that… “And then maybe we can see if someone can give us a ride to the campus gate. If you’re interested in girls night at Megan’s?” Honestly, all I wanted was to spend the rest of the night — the rest of the morning, probably by now — in a cuddle pile with Megan and Emma, like we had the last time I’d been in Megan’s kingdom.
I felt safe with Megan and Emma. Sometimes even aggressive. I was only ever scared when I was with Hans, or Ben, or… men. Did that make me sexist? Or a misandrist? But I liked Hans and Ben, too. Hell… was I only worrying about this because I’d been freaking out about maybe being a racist, earlier? Were there other -ists I hadn’t ever thought about that I needed to make sure I wasn’t being?! I was already a nudist, but that wasn’t my fault! And it wasn’t like anyone could tell, what with the illusionary clothes. Right?
“Alright,” Fumiko agreed.
I breathed out in relief, momentarily thinking, Fumiko was agreeing with my internal monologue. For some reason my face started heating up anyway, though.
And it really started burning when I realized that Fumiko was actually agreeing to go spend time with Megan and Emma. I got up and started walking so Fumiko wouldn’t see, even though the dark was probably enough to ensure that on it’s own. Well, maybe we won’t have a cuddle pile exactly like last time if Fumiko is coming along.
But given that Megan’s realm was in perpetual daylight, going there myself was actually a really good idea. It would probably be safe from arsonist vampires. And Fumiko was right: Between Elaine and the Scions, there really wasn’t anything that I had to contribute to whatever The Center was doing about said arsonist.
I didn’t really want to think about that, just in case the answer happened to be “set Abigail on fire.”
What? That was their fucking answer last time. Or close enough. Besides: I’d had an idea, and it had turned into Dopplinda, instead. Dead freaking end.
I didn’t want to think about that, either. What was I going to tell Dad?
Since the ward still hadn’t been restored around Cassie’s house, I could hear the conversations coming from it well before we reached it. I tried to let that distract me. Enough of a crowd had apparently accumulated that I started to get antsy at the idea of going in to reach Thaddeus, or to remind Elaine about tossing that arm in the basement. If my head wasn’t under assault by gnomes trying to fight their way out with sledgehammers, I probably would’ve just called Thaddeus outside and then sent him back in with to deliver the reminder to Elaine for me.
Among all the other voices, it sounded like the werepups and maybe their friends had insisted on accompanying Valerie, too. I could hear Shantaya and a couple of others asking Hans questions. I could also hear Elaine bringing Valerie up to speed on her side of what had happened after we’d left Salvatore’s house. It was a jumble, so I tried doing my breathing exercises while we walked closer and to focus on just one thing at a time in hopes that it would lessen the anxiety spike. Maybe I could trick myself into thinking there were fewer people that way.
“That we’re ‘wild’ by nature is a stereotype, too,” Hans was explaining to someone. “Yes, there’s bleed over as the moon approaches fullness. But if we have sufficient sense of self we can manage that — and nothing prevents us from being completely civilized the rest of the time. You are still yourself, you just have an extra voice urging you on in the background.”
“So how are we supposed to tell the difference between our ideas and its ideas?” Someone else asked. Not Shantaya, so she had to be the other girl.
“You have to practice,” Hans said. “Regularly ask yourself: what am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling it? If you have to, set some daily alarms to build the habit. It doesn’t take long to develop if you keep at it, and the difference between your emotions and your wolf’s will become very apparent in time. They feel different, but at first the most obvious difference will be when you look for the reasons behind them. The instincts underlying the wolf’s emotions are very different than those you’ve developed in your life as a human.”
I blanched and abandoned focus on that conversation. Alarms? Multiple, daily alarms? All the more reason to fix whatever that blockage in Shantaya and Hans’ leylines were: I didn’t want a pack of beeping phones and watches following me around. No. Just: no.
That brought me to the door of the apartment, and my attention swinging to the other conversation. I was going to need to knock and be invited in, but I also didn’t want to be rude and interrupt — especially since it was Cassie’s house and she was speaking.
“That wasn’t a bad idea,” Cassie said, “but it wouldn’t have worked as well as she’d hoped. Most spirits aren’t tied to their body — either they’re free, or they’re shades that are bound to their place of death. But maybe a more experienced witch would have been able to use Linda’s remains to find her place of death?”
Oh. So: I’d had an idea, it had been a dead end — and stupid to boot. I was an idiot. Fiore was saying something in response, but I ignored him because he’s a jerk and my thoughts were spiraling inward under the pressure of my headache. I am an idiot. I’d been told so often enough, growing up. Was that true, or was it just Dopplinda’s influence? Of all the things to find in that damn casket. I would’ve had better luck if I’d….
“Oh my god I’m a fucking idiot!” I exclaimed.
Fumiko paused in the act of knocking on the door. She turned to look at me, but I didn’t look at her. My brow was furrowed with concentration, aggravating my headache as I tried to pull my scattered idea together. Was it an idea? A good one? Not another Dopplinda chase?
My thought had been horrifyingly simple. I would’ve had better luck if I’d gone to the Campus Gate and asked the ghosts of Hans’ pack wat the fuck had gone down that night.
Except I hadn’t seen any ghosts when I’d been at the Gate before, and I’d been looking between worlds because of Melvin. But no, no: that made sense because originally the Gate had been much larger, hadn’t it? Linda and Salvatore’s people had used wards to restrict it’s focus down to something they could guard, after the fact. The actual battle — or whatever the fuck had gone down — had taken place in the woods off campus.
But Linda and Salvatore were in on it. So, assuming duplicitous motives: Why contain the size of the gate and place it on campus? Sure, the campus location was convenient: but it also meant that anyone who had any kind of magical ability would have to be there to guard it, and not anywhere near the evidence.
I didn’t know what the evidence was, but I could make a guess as to what evidence would still remain. Ghosts. Bound to their place of death. Hans’ pack. The local wizards and witches who’d been fighting on their side.
“Abby?” Fumiko asked me, and I finally looked up at her.
“All of this — Lewellyn, the arsonist, all of it — seems to be connected to covering up what Mister Salvatore did the night that Hans’ pack died. What happened during the battle in the woods that Reid says didn’t even happen.” I didn’t want to just say it. “I thought we had to ask someone who was alive about it, but I couldn’t find anyone. So I thought: ghosts. We should ask Linda’s, since she would know, except that didn’t work out, so now everyone is here, twiddling their thumbs and not knowing what to do because no one knows what Lewellyn, the arsonist, or Mister Salvatore were up to, to begin with. We can’t even guess.”
Fumiko nodded in agreement. Her expression was worried. Worried for my sake, I had to guess. I probably sounded like I was a ranting undead nutcase. I didn’t really think ghosts would phase Fumiko. Probably not even ghost zombies, like the ones that had attacked me at the hospital. But how do you break the arms of a ghost zombie?
Fumiko probably would’ve figured it out.
“Don’t you see?” Somehow my voice was steady, but my mind was reeling with horror at the words that came out. I didn’t even blink when the door to Cassie’s apartment opened. Elaine was at the door; everyone else with supernatural hearing seemed to be somewhere behind her, listening in.
I swallowed. “Linda’s ghost was a dead end, but the idea itself wasn’t. We need to go to the woods outside the campus. Where it all went down to begin with.” Where Hans’ pack and all those people died. Some of them had to still be around. “And then we ask those ghosts what the fuck is going on.”
“Abby,” Elaine said quietly. “I think I have to disagree with you. You’re a genius. Cassandra, how likely is it that we would find ghosts at the scene of a battle?”
Cassie looked exhausted and more worried than enthusiastic. “I know there are some there,” she said. “I couldn’t join the other witches on campus, so I got most of my mentoring from a ghost I know on campus. He was the apprentice of one of the wizards who died in the woods. He told me the woods were haunted, because after he’d died he’d gone to see if his master had left behind a shade and he’d found the battlefield.”
I think everyone was staring at Cassie. “And?” Shantaya prompted.
“And he saw the shades there,” Cassie said, “but he didn’t get to talk to them. He couldn’t get past the old wards they’d set up to keep spiritual beings from moving — to keep the attacking faeries from just traveling through the spirit world to bypass them. And I… I never went into the woods to talk to them because I had no reason to, and because I’d been told….” She trailed off, and then looked up as though discovering a betrayal. “Because Linda had told me that some of the faeries and goblins and such that lived in the city were known to lurk there, trying to break through the wards her coven had placed to keep the Gate confined to the archival building’s basement.”
“I don’t think that was true,” I said. “I think she made that up to keep you from seeing anything she and Mister Salvatore didn’t want you to. In fact, I bet that’s why she didn’t let you into the coven, too. Your ability was too much of a risk, and you would’ve found out that the wards weren’t under attack, too.”
“But…” Cassie said weakly. “But I can’t see auras. Only ghosts. You need to be able to….”
“You don’t,” Valerie interrupted. Her voice was gentle. “Plenty of wizards and witches work off of feeling magic instead of seeing it. Some even just rely on their knowledge of symbolism and faith that their rituals will affect the magic flowing through the world. Being able to see it isn’t necessary at all.”
Exhausted from the long night, the news seemed too much. Cassie’s eyes batted back tears, and my heart broke for her. How rejected had she felt, being the one witch not allowed in the coven? It had been enough for her to seek mentor ship with a ghost. Her best friend seemed to be a werewolf and his ghost wolf. She’d even moved off camp….
“Hans,” I asked, “you said that these apartments used to be your pack’s. Who was in charge of them while you were gone?”
“Salvatore,” Hans answered grimly — I suspected he’d already concluded the same thing I had. “And it wouldn’t have been difficult for him and Linda to arrange some kind of special housing deal to ‘happen’ to fall in Cassandra’s lap, to keep her off campus.”
“I… I had problems with my roommates,” Cassie said. “They thought I was creepy, and people started talking… eventually my resident advisor told me about these apartments. It was kind of an ‘inside deal’ because they were supposed to be being renovated, but the owner was okay with a student living in one of the ones that was finished early. They told me it was because he was an alumni, and was planning on eventually opening them up as senior housing. I thought it was a little weird, but I couldn’t afford anything else and I couldn’t stay on campus with all the rumors that kept cropping up.”
“It was all bullshit, wasn’t it?” Cassie asked the floor. “Linda, or Director Salvatore, or someone dug all that up and spread it around to drive me out.”
I could hear the scowl when Fiore answered. “It’s speculation,” he said. “Why go through all that trouble to provide off campus housing for her? They could have just as easily gotten Cassandra kicked out of the college entirely.”
“Guilt,” I said flatly. “Yes, all of this shit has been because of whatever Linda, Salvatore and Lewellyn were up to back then. But it all started unraveling because Mister Salvatore couldn’t handle the guilt. He’d started deliberately starving himself to kill the emotions, and he lost control. That got him sent to The Center for rehabilitation. Rehabilitation that didn’t stick. Because it didn’t deal with the guilt. And that’s why he went out of his way to not fuck up Cassie’s future by just getting her kicked out of college. Because when he was human he was crushed by the guilt, and when he wasn’t he didn’t fucking care about what he’d done while he was.”
Fiore wasn’t the only vampire that looked uneasy at that. They all did. It made too much sense to them for my theory not to be discomforting.
“Cassie, come here,” I said. I hadn’t been invited in or I would’ve gone to her. As it was, I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. My head hurt. my soul hurt, and seeing someone trying to hold back tears the way I always did was too much on top of it. Or maybe I was just extra sympathetic because some psycho bitch had been manipulating the people around me, too.
Cassie shuffled past Elaine and through the door. I guess I was still thinking about being with Megan and Emma, because I wrapped her up in a hug the way they would have hugged me. “It’ll be alright,” I said. I said it low: meant it just for her, even if almost everyone else could hear, anyway. “Forget the bullshit they put you through. Let’s go to a haunted woods after midnight and find a supernatural battlefield so we can talk to some probably vengeful ghosts and expose all the lies the local Vampire Boss and campus Head Witch have been telling everyone.”
I felt a little steel firm up in Cassie’s spine. “Vengeful?” she asked me.
I stepped back and let her go. “I figure I would be, if I were murdered and it was lied about and covered up and….” I trailed off. Okay, so that had sort of happened to me. But I was only vengeful when I was thirsty. -ish.
“Funny.” Cassie said. Her voice was cold and steady. When I looked at her face, there was still dampness on her cheeks but no more pooling from her eyes. “I’m not even dead, and I’m feeling pretty vengeful, too.” She spat the word like it might stab someone. Probably one of those people who’d spread whatever rumors she’d had to deal with. “Let’s go.”