Slime. Or so close to it that the description fit. It was everywhere. In my hair. Covering my body. Oozing from my shoes with every step. I grimaced as my skin pulled and a patch started to itch. The only thing worse than slime was slime as it hardened.
I held my bike at arm’s length, with as few fingers as possible, to prevent the slime from adhering to it. Bad enough that it was going to take me hours to get this stuff off me. At least I could stand in a shower to loosen it up. No way was I subjecting my bike to the same treatment. Bikes were expensive. Good bikes even more so. Mine may not have been top of the line, but I had no intention of letting a hundred-dollar job destroy it. If it meant I had to walk four miles home rather than risk getting this stuff all over my bike seat, then so be it.
This was the last time I accepted a run for a kappa. I didn't turn down paying work often, but I think I had finally found my line in the sand. The damn thing had thought it was funny when its pet covered me in this sticky gunk after I startled it.
A creature straight out of Japanese folklore, the kappa was about the size of a child and had made the sewers under the city its home. It wasn't on my normal route so I'd never dealt with one before—much less known how easy it would be to freak out its pet, which was the size of a small truck and had teeth as long as my arm. Evidently, that over-sized worm had a thing about phones. The sight of which sent it into a sliming, vomiting tizzy.
Normally, Tom, a gnome and my arch nemesis at Hermes Courier Service, was the one responsible for running messages for the kappa and others in the Fey community, but since his involvement in trying to fix the vampire selection he had been MIA. That left the rest of the Hermes couriers to pick up his slack.
No more. Jerry could find someone else to deal with the kappas. I was done. Those aquatic pranksters could go pick on someone else from now on. I didn't need the headache.
I turned the corner onto my street and frowned. Something was different.
It took me a moment before I realized what it was. The lights. Someone had gotten all of the street lamps working, making the small stretch almost seem like a legitimate neighborhood for once. It was a nice change since all the lights had been out since I moved in several years ago. The city got around to replacing them every once in a while, but they were always broken again before the night was through, leaving the street in shadows until the next time the city's budget accommodated new bulbs or someone’s parents complained.
It was almost more surprising that they were still working. It might be the wee hours of the morning, but college kids never slept. At least in my experience. Most nights someone would have knocked them out by now.
A street without light didn’t really bother me. As a vampire, my night vision was better than anything technology could create. Even on a moonless, cloudy night, I could see as clearly as I had during the day when I’d been human.
The only sound in the night was the whirring of my bicycle wheels as I headed for my apartment building. An old duplex just outside of campus, it had seen better days. The new lights cast sharp shadows on my home, giving it an almost sinister look and highlighting the fact that it was one step above a slum. It looked like it had been built around the turn of the nineteenth century, but not in a cute, 'look at how historical this is' way. It was more of a 'please don't fall down on my head'.
The stoops tilted at odd angles and drooped forward like a drunken sailor on shore leave. All of the windows were slightly off kilter, a side effect of settling that had never been mitigated.
My place was a second-floor walk-up. I was ninety percent sure the wooden stairs on the outside of the building leading up to my apartment weren't up to code. They always shook and trembled like they were in the midst of an earthquake when anything bigger than a cat stepped onto them. One of these days they were going to collapse. Knowing my luck, I'd be standing on them at the time.
The postage stamp parking lot was looking a little rougher than usual. The weeds that had grown through the numerous cracks were gone. The pavement itself looked like someone had taken a jackhammer to it and huge chunks were now missing or had been pulverized into a million pieces. The only untouched spot surrounded the black Escalade sitting on the far side. Maybe someone had finally decided to demolish the old lot.
The urge to stop and make sure the vehicle remained unmarked was brief. I waved it away almost as soon as it occurred. Though I was technically the owner, I had not decided whether to accept it. There were strings attached to anything vampire related, and since it was a gift from my sire, the man who turned me into what I am today and then subsequently abandoned me, I was pretty determined to steer clear of those strings. It didn't matter if he didn't remember changing me because of some curse. His problems had destroyed the life I'd planned. A fifty-thousand-dollar SUV wasn't going to make up for that.
I continued past the Escalade toward the stairs that would take me to my apartment and the wonderfully hot shower waiting for me there.
Stepping onto the rickety stairs, I froze as a figure moved at the top of the landing.
Her jaw had a pugnacious tilt to it that practically dared me to give her grief. At odds with the defiance in her expression was the uncertainty and hint of fear hiding in her eyes. It was that uncertainty and fear that kept my first reaction locked inside. It had been months since I'd last seen her. Months since her life had been upended when she was kidnapped by a demon and bitten by a werewolf. She’d cut me out of her life after that. Turns out lying, even by omission, pretty much kills a relationship—especially when the part of your life you tried to keep secret tears her life apart. We hadn't been on good turns before the unveiling of my new condition and that had worsened when Caroline found herself donning a coat of fur every month.
Besides the lack of the black rimmed glasses she'd worn since we were kids, Caroline looked normal. Maybe with more of a glow than usual, but anyone looking at her would never guess she was werewolf. She was the typical girl next door. Pretty, with wavy blond hair and blue eyes.
After a moment of hesitation, I continued up the steps.
Her expression turned uncertain before her mask slid into place and she watched me with a cool sense of poise.
"Aileen, I've been waiting for hours."
I paused my ascent as I processed that statement. "I'm sorry. I had a job to finish before I could quit for the night. Had I known you were waiting, I would have perhaps expedited things."
Her expression flickered. She seemed to just take note of the state of me, her nose crinkling. “What happened to you?”
“Kappa’s pet. We had a bit of a disagreement over a phone. I lost.”
“That’s a myth from Japanese folklore, right?” she asked.
I made a sound of agreement as I gained the top of the stairs and set my bike down on the narrow landing. Caroline stepped to the side, giving me room. Her eyes were searching as they examined my face. I kept my expression neutral. It hurt when she cut me out and refused to talk to me. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a small, petty part of me that held onto a heaping dose of anger. The rest of me understood.
She’d just been trying to do an old friend a favor, no knowing all the shit that friend was going through, and that simple act of kindness destroyed life as she knew it. That kindness had reached back to destroy everything she thought she knew. I understood. I'd faced some of the same anger and played a similar blame game when I'd been turned. I didn't blame her for her reaction, but it had still hurt to be told my best friend since childhood didn't want to speak to me.
"I forgot you worked nights," Caroline said, her voice stilted.
I nodded and looked at my door and then back to her. Did I invite her in? Send her on her way? I hated this awkwardness between us.
I decided to be direct. Caroline had never been good with subtext. I doubted that had changed now that she was a werewolf. At least, I assumed she was a werewolf. I didn't really know since Brax had stopped providing me with updates when she made it clear she wanted nothing to do with me. As the alpha of the wolves, Brax’s loyalty was to them first. It meant he did what was best for her, my feelings be damned. It was the right call, but it still stung.
"What are you doing here?"
She fiddled with a rubber band on her wrist, snapping it against her skin three times before her hands dropped to her side. Caroline had never been fidgety. Now, she looked like she was sitting on a rocket blaster of energy and barely keeping it contained.
She took a deep breath, her eyes coming up to meet mine before wandering away again as she looked anywhere but at me. Another difference from the old Caroline who could stare down even hardened criminals.
"I need your help." Her shoulders slumped as if a great weight had been added to them.
I studied her for a long moment. Caroline had never been one to ask for help, even when she so clearly needed it. It was a trait both of us shared. I fished my keys out of my pocket and turned to my door.
"Aileen, please. I have nowhere else to go."
I unlocked the door and stepped inside, holding it open. "Come in. I have a feeling that whatever this is, I'm going to need alcohol."
"You don't want to know what I need first?"
I snorted, the sound containing little in the way of humor. "You've only ever had to ask. You know that."
Her eyes softened as they held mine for the first time since I'd stepped onto the landing. She gave a small nod, stepping past me and into my home.
While the outside might suggest a drug dealer lived here—or a college student without much money—the inside was a different story. It said I cared. Sourced from garage sales and thrift stores, the furniture looked well-loved and cozy. It invited you to sit down and put your feet up after a hard day's work. It was bright and cheery and everything my life was not. It'd never be featured in a magazine—unless that magazine was Thrifter's Anonymous—but it suited my personality, which was as tattered and cobbled together as the place I called home.
"Can vampires even drink alcohol?" Caroline asked.
I propped my bike against the wall, tossed my keys onto my kitchen table—really just a catch-all table—and headed to the kitchen.
"This vampire does," I said, pulling open the fridge and reaching for a bottle of red wine. Real wine. Not the stuff I hid my blood in to prevent nosey family members from figuring out my secret.
I took another look at the bottle. At least I thought it was the real stuff. I tilted the top towards me. Yup. It was unopened. Should be safe enough.
I pulled the bottle from the fridge, grabbed some wine glasses from the upper cabinets and fished around in one of the drawers for the bottle opener. I came up empty. Those damn pixies had better not be fucking with me again. We had a deal. They didn't play pranks on me, and I didn't figure out a way to evict them from my apartment.
Ah, found it. The opener had been wedged at the very back under a pair of tongs and a mallet, neither of which I knew I owned.
Popping the cork off the bottle, I poured both of us a generous glass. I had a feeling I was going to need it for this conversation.
"So, what brings you to my part of the city. I thought for sure Brax would have you sequestered in some remote part of the wilderness for a few more months."
Caroline accepted the glass I handed her and took two big gulps of the wine. I watched her chug it before taking a small sip of mine.
"You're closer than you think," Caroline said when she had finished draining the wine. She held her glass out for more. So, it was going to be that kind of conversation. I set mine down and retrieved the bottle, pouring her an even larger portion than I had last time. "He has a piece of property down in Kentucky. Over one hundred acres of untouched land that his pack has owned for several decades. It's where they send their pups."
"It's what they call the newly bitten." This time she sipped her wine.
"Ah, the vampires call the newly fanged yearlings." I started to lean against the cabinets at my back before straightening at the last minute when I remembered what I was covered in.
"Sounds better than pups. As if we're children needing to be told what to do."
"They expected me to stay there a year. Longer if I couldn't control my wolf." She set the glass down hard. I winced as the glass stem cracked, not all the way. Just enough that I suspected it would be going into the garbage once she was done. "I have a life. I have a career—one I worked my ass off for. Do you have any idea what it's like to deal with an entirely male teaching staff? The comments? The snide jabs at my gender or intelligence?"
I took another sip of my wine. "I may have some idea."
Being in the military meant getting used to being one of the few females in any unit I joined. For combat camera, whose specialty oftentimes demanded we go out on patrol with the infantry, it meant even less women. During a mission outside the wire, it was relatively normal to be the only American female around. Sometimes for weeks.
Caroline's shoulders relaxed and her lips loosened, some of the anger that had been brewing sliding away. "I imagine you would. I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to get back, to remind myself that everything wasn't about this." She waved her hand in the air as if to indicate everything. I could only assume she meant the supernatural detour her life had taken.
"How did Brax and Sondra feel about that?"
Caroline's face darkened at the mention of the woman who'd turned her. At the time Sondra was being controlled by a demon, but that didn't change the fact that Caroline's entire existence had been upturned as a result. I'd guess that even though Brax had made Sondra Caroline's mentor the relationship was off to a rocky start. I didn't blame Caroline. My own relationship with my sire could be categorized as nonexistent—not for lack of trying on his part.
"They don't know."
I blinked. Then I blinked again.
Caroline’s expression was set.
"Wait. What do you mean they don't know?" I set my glass of wine down hard, barely flinching at the sound of a crack.
Caroline drummed her fingers against the chipped counter and looked away. "I may not have had permission to leave."
My mouth dropped open. The sound that escaped was closer to sputtering then actual words. "Explain."
"I found a way off the farm and then stole a car."
"Please stop explaining."
Caroline watched me as I ran through all of the awful scenarios that could result from what she'd just revealed. It didn't really surprise me she had stolen a car. We'd done that a time or two in our misspent youth, and Caroline had never been one to let pesky details like ownership get in the way when she needed something.
“What did you do with the car?” I asked. I hadn’t seen it when I came in.
“I ditched it on the other side of the city and then caught a ride here.”
Smart. This way she wasn’t leading them directly to my doorstep once they figured out she had stolen a car.
Brax and the wolves were not going to take this well. If there was one thing my experiences have taught me, it was that they took one of the newly turned bucking the system very personally.
"We need to call Brax and explain," I told her, heading for my phone.
"No, you said you'd help!"
"I am helping. He’s going to show up looking for you, angry and ready to blow my house down. It's best to take care of this now. Manage expectations and head it off before it gets blown out of proportion. We'll just tell him you don't want to stay on the farm and get him to work with us."
"That won't work," Caroline snapped.
"Did you already try?"
Her expression made it clear she had.
"Perhaps it'll go over better coming from me." Caroline wasn't good at arguing with people. She was too autocratic and given Brax was an alpha, unused to doing as other people ordered, that probably hadn't gone over well.
She huffed. "I'm not as bad at communicating as you make it sound."
I arched one eyebrow. Did she not remember the time when we got detention in high school because she pissed off the chemistry teacher while trying to convince him to let us perform an advanced experiment? Caroline was a great liar. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but when it comes to persuasion or the truth, it's better when she isn't involved.
"I've somehow managed to stumble through the last few years without you," she said.
What lingered in the air was the thought that she would probably have continued to be just fine if I hadn't involved her in my problems.
"Caroline, I understand your frustration and the instinct to hide. Believe me, I went through many of the same things when I was first turned. Hiding just makes things worse. It's better to meet this head on. Eventually, he'll catch up to you, and you'll lose all leverage. It's best to be proactive so you can control the agenda."
"I said no!" Caroline shouted, her voice deepening by several decibels and carrying distinct notes of a growl. Her eyes flashed amber and for just a minute I saw a weird overlay of a wolf's head through one of my eyes.
I went very still, my instincts telling me this was no longer my friend but a predator seconds from ripping out my throat.
"Okay, Caroline. If that's what you want," I soothed.
Jeweled wings fluttered in my periphery and one of my pixie roommates landed on the far end of the counter, watching Caroline with thoughtful eyes. Inara had wings of iridescent green and yellow that had a spidery network of veins made of every color green imaginable. When she fluttered her wings, it looked like a tree rustling in the wind.
Caroline's growls continued as she remained focused on me, not noticing the pixie.
"I need you to calm down, Caroline. This isn't helping matters." I took a step back and made myself look away from her eyes. Meeting a wolf's eyes in the wild meant you were challenging their dominance. Werewolves should have some of the same instincts. Right?
The growl grew in volume, and she took a small step forward. A burnt umber light, tangled with inky blackness, coalesced around her. It was only visible with my left eye, the one the sorcerer had taken from me so he could use it as an ingredient in a spell. Ever since it grew back, I could see things. At first I thought I was crazy, before I realized what I was seeing was magic. Or something close to it.
She took another step forward. A blur of green and yellow darted toward her eyes.
"Bad dog." Inara fluttered around Caroline's head, evading the swats aimed her way.
The growling stopped and the light faded bit by bit. The pixie's distraction worked.
Caroline looked shaken and upset. "Aileen."
"It's fine. I had more than one episode myself when I was first turned. I even almost chowed down on Jenna once."
"I'm so sorry. You've got to know I would never hurt you."
My smile was sad. "That's just it. You don't know what you're capable of anymore. It's like being a teenager only about a thousand times worse. You've got all these hormones and new urges running roughshod through your body, only it won't just be shouting matches when you lose it. People will get hurt. Best case, you change them into what you are. Worst case, they die."
"How did you do this? Alone? Without help?"
I lifted one shoulder. "Very carefully. I had some help in the beginning, but every day is an exercise in self-restraint. You'll get there; it'll just take time."
She nodded even though she didn't look convinced. The loss of control seemed to have taken the wind out of her sails. "I know you're probably right, but please don't call him just yet."
I hesitated, knowing the best thing would be to take care of this while we had the chance. It would have taken her hours to drive from Kentucky. Longer if she had to walk out of the farm. If they hadn't already, they would learn of her disappearing act very shortly, and it wouldn't take much of a leap to guess she'd head here.
She didn't say anything else, just looked at me as if her entire world was falling down around her. She was begging me for a respite, even if it was for just a few hours. I knew that feeling. I knew it intimately.
I sighed, the sound heavy and resigned. "How 'bout you go get a shower. You can have my bed for the night; I'll sleep out here on the couch."
She started to turn and then looked me over. “Shouldn’t you get a shower first? I can’t imagine it’s comfortable covered in whatever that is.”
I looked down at myself and grimaced. No, it wasn’t. I was afraid to move for fear of getting more of it all over my kitchen.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just maybe don’t take all night.”
She looked unsure but accepted the offer. "Thank you, Aileen."
I nodded. I doubt she'd be thanking me when Brax broke down my door in the middle of the day to drag her away with me lying dead to the world on the couch.
Inara landed next to my hand on the counter as we watched Caroline head for my room to get a change of clothes for the night. “You look and smell disgusting.”
I drained my glass of wine. “I do try.”
Inara waited until the water had turned on before she said, "It was a mistake to let her stay here."
"They sequester their pups for a reason. A newly turned wolf is stronger than normal and has little control of the change." She flicked a look my way. "She could probably tear apart a baby vamp very easily."
Inara wasn't telling me anything I didn't know or suspect.
"I'll call him when I wake. That should give her time to calm down." And for me to think of an excuse for why I hadn't called him sooner.
"And if she flips out again?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
I collected Caroline's glass and deposited it in the sink. While Inara kept an eye on the hallway, I opened the fridge and pulled out another bottle of wine, this time one created for me and my needs. Anybody taking a sip out of it would find themselves in for an unpleasant surprise.
I tilted it over my glass, watching the dark red liquid collect in the bottom. The smell of death and rot reached me, and I curled a lip. Ever since I'd tapped Liam's vein earlier in the year, my stored blood hasn't tasted quite the same—the flavors lackluster and nasty, like a powdered protein shake and not the good kind. Whereas before I couldn't get enough of it, now I could barely stomach gulping it down. Worse, I could feel the difference between it and live blood. Now that I'd had the premium, grade A stuff from tall, dark and handsome, I could tell how inadequate it was in meeting my needs, barely abating the hunger these days.
I turned to find Inara regarding me with a dour look. "What?"
"I forgot. Your friend isn't the only one with troubles."
"I don't know what you're talking about." My voice was defensive despite my best efforts.
For such a small being, Inara could throw skepticism better than anyone I knew. Including my mother. She shook her head and leapt off the encounter. "This should end well. It's like the blind leading the blind."
"You don't know what you're talking about," I called after her retreating figure. I grumbled into my glass, "I'm perfectly fine with bagged blood."
Finishing a sip, I held the glass away from me and grimaced. It was like drinking that fermented stuff that was the newest fad. The kombucha or whatever. I'd tried it once as a human and had sworn never to step near the nasty drink ever again.
"Inara is just looking out for you," a tiny voice said near my ear.
I started and then turned my head, careful not to disrupt the pixie's perch. I'd done that once; it had not ended well. Lowen sat on my shoulder, having found one small spot unmarred by the gunk covering me. His tiny little feet kicked back and forth as he looked up at me. His purple and blue wings glittered as the light caught them. Unlike Inara, who was pale with a slight green tinge, his skin was a burnished copper. He wore tiny trousers that ended at his knees and a sleeveless white tunic.
"I'm pretty sure Inara only tolerates me," I told him.
He leaned back on his hands and peered up at me. "True, but she doesn't want you to die. We'd have to find a new home then."
"You could always just remain to torment the next inhabitants."
His face was thoughtful before he gave a noncommittal shrug. "There's something odd about your friend."
I snorted. "Yeah, she was just turned into a werewolf after learning there's a whole supernatural world out there. Anybody is bound to be a little off after that."
He shook his head, his large eyes looking reserved. "No, it's more than that. Something’s wrong with her. You should be careful not to get torn apart."With that he took off, leaving me to stare after him in frustration.