We need to find a house.” Quin perched on the long counter, holding open a newspaper. One foot tapped against the decorated façade; the other served as a stand for the flimsy paper.
Drew sprawled over the floor, a short, brown-haired girl beside him. Matheus recognized her from the battle. She’d saved him from being shot, with her flashlight. She had one of those touchy-feely hippie names. Blossom or Skye or something like that. They had the comics spread open in front of them, sharing whispers and snickering. At Quin’s words, Drew glanced up, smile slipping away.
“Yes,” said Matheus, without turning. He stared at the back of Milo’s head, willing him to work faster. Four monitors had been set up, each running a different section of surveillance footage. Milo had gathered, or more likely, coerced some volunteers. They sat in front of the monitors, diligently taking notes on all possible candidates. Two days had passed since the battle, one since they’d laid Freddie to rest.
“Faust knows a broker,” said Quin. “I’ll contact him.”
“Fine.” Matheus drummed his fingers on his thigh. The videos zipped forward, grainy figures scrambling around the screens like actors in an old-timey slapstick. Every few seconds, one of the volunteers stopped the tape, and leaned in, peering at the flickering image.
“What’s wrong with this place?” Drew asked, his voice squeaking.
The newspaper rustled. Drew ducked his head, blinking down at Snoopy, et al.
“Aside from the lack of showers, beds, and privacy?” Quin asked. He raised his eyebrows at Drew.
Drew squirmed. “Yeah, but―”
“Not to mention the outrageous rent for such a palace.” Quin waved at the dilapidated majesty of the theater. Plaster drifted down from the ceiling, marring the deep blue of Quin’s jeans. With a noise of irritation, he brushed away the white dust.
“Yeah, but―we’ll all here and―”
“Buy your own house,” said Quin. “You can certainly afford it.” He disappeared into his newspaper.
“I suppose,” said Drew, sounding like a kid promised candy, then presented with a Werther’s.
Matheus turned. He looked at Drew, then Quin’s newspaper. He cleared his throat.
Quin raised his head, meeting Matheus’ gaze, shaking his head a fraction.
Matheus scowled. He nodded toward Drew, and shrugged his shoulders.
The newspaper rustled in distinctly annoyed manner.
Crossing his arms, Matheus glared at Quin.
Quin narrowed his eyes. Matheus tilted his chin up.
“Uh,” said Drew. “Are you guys, like, fighting telepathically or something.” He paused. “‘Cause you look like you’re fighting.”
“We’re not telepathic,” said Matheus. “Thank fucking Christ.”
“We’re not fighting, either,” said Quin.
“Yes, we are,” said Matheus.
Drew and Hippie-Girl looked from Matheus to Quin and back again. They inched closer together.
“No,” said Quin, the edges of his voice taking on a sharp sheen. “We’re not.”
“Yes,” Matheus said, mimicking Quin. “We are.”
“Do you want us to leave?” Drew asked. “We can leave.” He looked at Hippie-Girl. “Should we leave?”
“You’re just coddling them,” Quin said. The newspaper flapped through the air.
“You don’t have to live with us,” said Matheus.
Quin leaned forward, setting the newspaper on the counter next to him. He lowered his feet to the ground.
On the floor, Drew let out a strangled chirp.
Pausing, Quin tilted his head to the side, studying Drew.
“We will talk about this later,” Quin said, after a moment.
“When you say talk, you really mean fight, right?” Matheus asked. “Why not fight now and get it over with?”
“Please,” said Quin with a nod toward Drew and Hippie-Girl. “Not in front of the children.”
“Hey,” said Drew. “I’m almost twenty. That’s like, a hundred and forty in dog years.”
Matheus and Quin exchanged a glance. Matheus raised his eyebrows, rolling his eyes toward Drew. He held his hands out, palms up. Quin sighed.
“I want my own personal quarters,” he said. “With a private entrance.”
“We can discuss it,” said Matheus. He smirked in response to Quin’s glower. “Drew, and, uh, Meadow―”
“Melody,” said Hippie-Girl.
“Right. Melody. Can the two of you go around and find out who plans on sticking around?”
“Sure.” Drew scrambled to his feet, all gawky limbs and energy. He’d have been squashed to pulp if he’d fallen in with Apollonia. Matheus wondered how he’d been turned. Drew had to have a strong streak of stubbornness to survive the change. Quin had said the process didn’t work every time.
“Excuse me.” Alistair jumped out of the path of Drew’s jubilant rush.
“Sorry,” Melody said, following more sedately, her eyes fixed on the floor in front of her. She always gave the impression of a blush, even though Matheus knew the physical process no longer worked.
Alistair shook his head after the teenagers, a wistful smile on his face. “Matheus, have you considered―?”
“Boss man!” Joan’s voice echoed down the long hallway that led to the side door. Rapid-fire footsteps shook the plaster from the ceiling. She leapt over the stairs to the lobby, and skidded to a halt in front of Matheus. “There’s people here.”
“Okay,” said Matheus slowly. “And?”
“Apollonia’s kind of people.”
“Oh.” Matheus’ brain dove straight onto the Tilt-a-Whirl. They didn’t have any explosives made, but Joan’s crew still had their chainsaws and―
“Wait,” said Matheus. “Did they just show up at the door? And just, stop?”
“Oh, lord.” Alistair gnawed on his lower lip, his fingers twisting together. When he caught Quin’s gaze over the newspaper, he shoved his hands into his pockets. His lip continued to suffer, however.
“What are they doing here?” Matheus asked.
“How the fuck should I know?” asked Joan.
“Well, did you ask them?”
“Yeah,” said Joan. “That’s the first fucking thing I did. Then I offered them some cookies and fucking milk.”
The newspaper shook. “I believe Joan is employing a technique known as sarcasm,” Quin said, without looking up. “I’m not sure you’re familiar with it, sunshine.”
From his station amidst the monitors, Milo snorted.
“Were they armed?” Alistair asked.
“Maybe.” Joan shrugged. “I didn’t see anything. Maybe they’re hiding them.”
“Really?” Matheus asked. “You think that they have crossbows stuffed down their pants?”
“It’s not hard to hide a gun,” said Alistair, a tiny wrinkle appearing between his eyebrows.
“They make pocket crossbows,” Milo said. He managed to be heard halfway across the room without raising his voice a decibel. The notes just slipped into the gaps between other sound waves.
“Joan,” said Quin. “Did you lock the door after your mad dash to warn us of the impending threat of miniaturized crossbows?”
“Uh,” said Joan. She rubbed her knuckles along her jawline. “Maybe?”
“So there is a possibly murderous, possibly armed horde lurking just outside with only an unlocked door to protect us?” Quin tucked his newspaper under his arm, and hopped off the counter. “I suppose we should go see what they want.”
“You don’t seem very concerned,” Matheus said to Quin as they, Alistair, and Joan trooped outside. Milo and the volunteers elected to remain with his computers.
“I know why they’re here, sunshine,” said Quin. He opened the door to the side alley. “It’s not for revenge.”
The group outside redefined “horde.” Redefined in the sense that Matheus had never used the word “horde” to describe a half-dozen people standing in a fidgeting bunch. He stopped just in front of the doorway, Alistair and Joan stepping into place on either side of him, Quin at his back.
“Hi,” said Matheus after a long stretch of staring and silence. “Are you guys packing in your trousers?”
“Lord above,” sighed Alistair, as Quin snickered.
The redefined horde shifted, discreetly shoving one another toward Matheus. Finally, one of them gave in, and stepped forward.
“My lord,” he said. “We have come to swear loyalty.”
Matheus choked, because the air suddenly seemed to be made of lima beans. “What? I mean―what?”
The man, short and slim, with a large amount of shockingly red hair, glanced over his shoulder at his companions. A moment of wordless communication passed.
“We have no intentions of challenging your rule of the city,” said the redhead, speaking at half-speed. “We are requesting amnesty.”
“You got to be fucking kidding me,” said Joan. “I remember you!” She pointed at a tall, Nordic blond slouching at the back of the horde. “You tried to knife me!”
“There are others,” continued the redhead, raising his voice to be heard over Joan. “Some are too young to understand, but we can―”
“Wait.” Matheus held up a hand. “Just wait a second.” He twisted, looking at Quin. “You knew this was going to happen?”
“I assumed.” Quin shrugged.
“And you didn’t think it was important to warn me?”
“The opportunity never arose,” said Quin.
“We were alone for ages yesterday!”
“I had other things on my mind.” Quin grinned. “Do you need a reminder?”
Matheus ground his teeth together. “We spent three hours in the car. You were literally a foot away from me.”
“You seemed preoccupied.”
“I would have paid attention to this.” Matheus poked Quin’s chest, punctuating his words. “Discovering you’ve been thrust back into the Middle Ages tends to focus the mind.”
The redhead coughed. “If I may, what do you plan to do with us?”
Matheus spun around. He glared at the horde, a tiny spring of joy pinging in his stomach as they quivered.
“I don’t plan to do anything,” he said. “I’m not a damned lord.”
“Well,” said Quin. “Actually―”
“Oh, shut up.” Matheus turned to Alistair for some measure of sanity.
His head bowed, Alistair stared at the cracked pavement, his hands in trembling fists at his sides.
“Alistair,” said Matheus quietly. “What―?”
“You did kill the hell bitch.” Joan said, in a tone that, for her, bordered on philosophical. “What’d you expect to happen?”
“Not this!” Matheus whirled toward the horde, waving his hands. “Two days ago, we were all trying to kill each other. Now, they’re pledging fealty like it’s the goddamned time of Charlemagne.” His hands picked up speed, fingering blurring together. “This is not normal behavior. This is not what people do.”
“Don’t call me that!” Matheus shouted. “What is wrong with all of you?”
“Sir,” said the redhead, plowing ahead as best as possible. “We will accept whatever orders you decide are best.”
“Matheus.” Quin leaned in, the vibrations of his voice tickling Matheus’ ear. He wrapped his hand around Matheus’ elbow, and squeezed. “This isn’t something you can fight.”
“You did.” Matheus turned his face toward Quin, pitching his voice low. “You could have been a lord.”
“If I had fought for it, yes,” Quin said. “I didn’t. You did.”
“No,” said Matheus. “That’s not― That wasn’t why―”
“Whys don’t matter. Results do. Natura abhorret a vacuo. Make sure the right one fills it.” Quin released Matheus’ arm, and stepped back. “Don’t worry, sunshine. Responsibility suits you.”
He patted Matheus on the back.
Matheus pressed his fingertips to his forehead, rubbing in overlapping circles. He closed his eyes and exhaled. He wanted to grab Quin and run. Jump in the Jeep and drive until they reached the Panama Canal. The muscles in the small of his back twanged, bringing back memories of the ride to the forest. On second thought, maybe staying had its upsides.
“Fine,” said Matheus, lowering his hands. “Fine. You get your amnesty―”
The waiting horde visibly relaxed. From Matheus’ left came a half-strangled noise.
“―but there are going to be some changes, understand?”
The redhead nodded with the faint air of resignation. Matheus got the impression the redhead had heard similar things before.
“Of course, my lo―sir,” said the redhead. “If you would care to negotiate the terms―”
“Oh, for Lord’s sake.” With a sharp jerk, Alistair spun around, and walked stiff-kneed into the theater. The door slammed shut after him. Vibrations of the bang lingered in the air. As they faded, Matheus turned, reaching for the handle.
Quin caught his wrist. “You can’t.” His gaze flicked to the horde, then back to Matheus.
“Right,” said Matheus. He shook free of Quin’s grasp, and turned to the redhead. “Right. My…” Assistant? Vice-lord? “…second-in-command will take over. It’s, um,” Matheus surveyed his to possible choices. “Joan.”
“Seriously?” asked Quin, his mouth hanging open. He flapped not just his hand, but his entire right side of his body at Joan. “Seriously?”
“Ha!” Joan fist-pumped the air. “In your face!”
“Assisted by Quin,” said Matheus. He reached behind him, pulling Joan out of Quin’s arm’s length. “Joan, don’t let him bully you. Quin, don’t let her declare war on anybody.” He paused. “And keep her away from any chainsaws.”
“I don’t start shit,” said Joan. “I just finish it.”
“Super,” said Matheus. “Seriously, no chainsaws. No power tools of any kind.” He started for the door, but Quin laid his hand on Matheus’ chest, giving him a push back.
“Matheus,” he said. “This is important.”
“He’s my friend,” Matheus said.
“I know,” said Quin. He gripped Matheus’ shoulders, and rotated him to face the redhead. “Sometimes, you have to prioritize.”
“Dammit.” Matheus shoved aside the urge to chase after Alistair. He knew Quin had a point. He didn’t know what the horde planned if he didn’t negotiate with them, but he knew he didn’t want any more fighting. Knowing that didn’t help the writhing in his gut, however.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Matheus’ temples pounded. Words had ceased to have any meaning. A low, constant droning filled his ears. Vague shapes shifted in front of his eyes, without form or context, only a haze of color. People got Hell wrong. Not unending torment in brimstone and flame, but instead an overwhelming fog of boredom obscuring the entire span of eternity.
Matheus would never understand what possessed anyone to go into a career in politics.
“My lor―sir?” Loren, the redhead, waved his hand in front of Matheus’ face. “Do you have any further―?”
“No,” said Matheus, the word trying its best to prove Einstein wrong.
“Then I think we are do―”
“Yup. Good job. See you later.” Matheus shook Loren’s hand, waved at the rest of the horde, then walked into the theater at a speed that just barely avoided breaking the sound barrier. He heard the door open after him, and sped up. Footsteps pounded after him.
“Hey,” said Joan, falling into step next to him. “So am I still second-in-command?”
Matheus stopped at the end of the hall. To his right, the steps led down to the lobby. To his left, the wide row of theaters.
“Do you want to be?” Matheus asked.
“What’s the pay?”
“Joan, you’re a millionaire.”
“Yeah, for now,” said Joan. “But how long is that going to last?”
“Years,” said Matheus. “Decades.”
Joan didn’t look convinced.
“You’ll got to shout at people, and you can live rent-free in the mansion I’m going to be stuck buying.”
“Can I knee-cap people?”
“Only if the situation calls for it,” said Matheus. “You can’t go around knee-capping people because they looked at you funny.”
“Obviously,” said Joan. “I’m not a fucking whack job.”
Matheus stared at her. “No, of course not.”
“I’d give them a warning first.”
Matheus wondered what Joan considered a fair warning. He doubted her line of thinking coincided with the majority opinion.
“Are you taking the job?” he asked.
“Fuck yeah.” Joan let out a whoop. “So, I’m like, what? An enforcer?”
“Or a cop,” said Matheus.
“A cop.” Joan’s expression collapsed like house of cards in a hurricane. “A fucking cop?”
“Yup.” Matheus forced his lips straight.
“Fuck.” Joan’s shoulders slumped. “Do I get Tracey back?”
“I’ll think about it,” said Matheus.
Joan rocked her knuckles over her forehead.
“Fuck,” she repeated.
Matheus left Joan to her existential crisis. He pushed open the door to one theater after another, calling out to Alistair. The negotiations had taken over an hour, even with Matheus demanding everyone drop the formal language. More still needed to be worked out, but at least Loren’s group agreed to convince the stragglers to accept the amnesty.
“Alistair? Are you in here?” Matheus listened for a moment. Amid the echoing silence came the sound of cloth rustling. Matheus stepped inside, setting the door gently against the door jamb. He walked down the ramp to the open space beneath the tattered screen. Puffs of dust sprang up around his feet; footsteps marked his path.
“Hello.” Alistair sat against the wall. He held a small spring, his fingers clenching as he tried to pull the metal straight.
“Hi,” said Matheus. He sank down beside Alistair. “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want there to be any more fighting.”
“I know.” Alistair frowned down at the spring. “You don’t go around killing your enemy after you’ve won. At least, not now.” He fiddled with the spring, wincing as it snapped against his fingers.
“Oh. Good.” Matheus traced circles in the dust with the toe of his sneaker. “So, um―”
“I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” Alistair tossed away the spring. The metal pinged as it struck one of the seats. He drew his knees up, resting his forehead on his kneecaps. His back rose and fell with deep, forced breath. Inhale, hold, exhale, repeat. “I just…I just want it to stop.”
“Alistair.” Matheus reached over, then paused, his hand hovering over Alistair’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay.”
He grimaced, hating the sound of his own voice, the pathetic inadequacy of his words. Scooting closer to Alistair, he wrapped his arm around Alistair’s shoulders.
Alistair dropped his knees to the floor. He leaned into Matheus, turning his face toward Matheus’ throat. “Please,” he whispered, placing his hand on Matheus’ thigh. “Matheus, I can’t…I need…something else. Anything else.”
“Alistair.” Matheus froze as Alistair slid his hand higher. “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
“I don’t care,” said Alistair. His lips brushed the soft skin of Matheus’ neck. “Please, just this once.” He shifted, straddling Matheus’ lap and winding his hands into Matheus’ hair.
Matheus grabbed Alistair’s wrists, trying to dislodge him without hurting him. Desolation etched deep lines onto Alistair’s face. Dark shadows circled his eyes. He looked at Matheus with the gaze of a drowning victim, calling out for help, and fearing no one existed to hear him. Matheus’ chest ached. He wished to hell and back he knew the right words, or gestures, or magic spell to patch Alistair back together.
“Please,” said Alistair.
“I really don’t think―oophf!” The back of Matheus’ head smacked against the wall. Alistair kissed him with a violent desperation that left bruises of Matheus’ lips. “Fuck, Alistair!” Matheus gasped for air.
“Shut up.” Alistair yanked his wrists free. He grabbed at Matheus’ shirt, clawing the buttons. With a cry of pure frustration, he gave up, moving onto Matheus’ zipper instead.
“This is a bad idea.” Matheus pushed Alistair away.
Alistair fell onto his back. He looked up at Matheus, a wild cast to his face, his eyes so wide the irises drowned in pools of white.
“Please,” he said in a hoarse, cracked voice.
“Jesus Christ.” Matheus closed his eyes, counted to ten. When he opened them, Alistair hadn’t blinked. “Dammit.” Sliding forward, Matheus kissed Alistair, soft and slow. He dragged the tip of his tongue along Alistair’s neck, his hands slipping underneath Alistair’s shirt. He stroked Alistair’s skin, the hard lines of his ribs, the supple valley of his stomach. Alistair shook with each gentle touch, tiny noises escaping his mouth. Matheus nudged Alistair’s legs apart, moving between them. Pushing up Alistair’s shirt, he travelled down his stomach, alternating nips and long, wet drags of his tongue.
What the hell are you doing? Matheus thought, as he flicked open the button on Alistair’s pants. He shoved the thought away. He’d happily take on the guilt, if it meant removing the bleakness in Alistair’s face. He’d brood about what happened later, when he had time to work things over in his mind ad nauseum. Right now, he only wanted make that expression of Alistair’s disappear.’
Matheus bit his lip as Alistair grabbed his hand, squeezing until his bones creaked.
“Do you want me to stop?” Matheus asked.
“N-no.” Alistair’s voice hitched in his throat. He threw his other arm over his eyes, his entire body shaking as he gulped for air.
“N-n-no! D-don’t stop!”
Matheus bent his head, resuming his downward path. The sounds of repressed sobs bounced off walls, obscenely loud in the empty air.
This is the worst thing I’ve ever done. Matheus stopped, resting his forehead on Alistair’s stomach. He listened to Alistair swallow back the tears, choking out pleading words.
“Alistair,” Matheus said, finally looking up. “I―”
The sounds dried in his mouth. Quin stood at the end of the aisle, one hand braced against the back of a chair. He looked like a statue, his face blank, even as Matheus met his gaze. A dozen excuses flickered through Matheus’ mind, ranging from ridiculous to massively stupid. This isn’t what it looks like? What else could it be? Matheus wasn’t about to insult Quin further by demeaning his intelligence. So they stared at each other, waiting for something to break the moment.
Alistair jerked, rolling over onto his side, dragging Matheus with him. Matheus’ hand had gone numb, the best thing he had going for him at the minute. Maneuvering into a reasonably comfortable position, he stroked Alistair’s hair, making a low murmuring hum. He craned his neck, looking up the aisle. No Quin. With a sigh, Matheus let his head hit the floor. He didn’t know how much time passed before Alistair quieted, falling into an exhausted trance. His hand finally free, Matheus fixed Alistair’s clothes, then sat up. He rubbed circles over Alistair’s back.
“I’m sorry,” said Alistair. He spoke into the floor, his breath disturbing the thick layer of dust.
“It’s okay,” said Matheus.
“It was stupid. I’m stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“You don’t have to stay.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You’re lying,” said Alistair. “It’s very sweet, you trying to be comforting, but you’ve been rubbing that same spot for about fifteen minutes now, and it’s starting to get annoying.”
“Well, sorry,” said Matheus. “Next time, I’ll tell you to grow some balls and stop being such a pussy.”
“I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been better.” Alistair sat up, wrinkling his nose at the dust clinging to his skin. “At least I wouldn’t have to wash my hair again.”
He wiped his face on the inside of his shirt.
Matheus raised his thumb to his mouth, nibbling on the nail. “Are you okay? You sound better?”
A wry smile flashed over Alistair’s lips. “What about you? Are you okay?”
“Not really,” Matheus said.
“Right.” Matheus braced himself. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Can you ask that again, this time without looking like you’re having the worst colonoscopy ever?” Alistair asked.
“I didn’t think so.” Alistair let the back of his head rest against the theater wall. “Matheus? Promise me you won’t tell Quin. We didn’t actually do anything, so there’s really nothing to tell, right?”
“Uh, that is technically true,” said Matheus. “And if he hadn’t walked in about halfway through, my lips would be sealed.”
“Oh, lord.” Alistair covered his face with his hands, letting out a long groan. “He saw us? He saw us and he didn’t say anything? Nothing?”
“He wasn’t all happy smiles.” Matheus transferred his attention to his index finger. “But yeah.”
“I’m going to die,” Alistair said. “Please be kind and see that what remains of my mortal body is buried in a Protestant cemetery. Oh, and if you could find a rabbi to say Kaddish for me, that would be nice.”
“Quin isn’t going to—wait, you want a Protestant cemetery and a rabbi?”
“My father was Jewish. The only way my mother’s parents would agree to the marriage was if he agreed that their children would be raised in the church,” Alistair said. “It was 1905. Mixed marriages weren’t exactly common.”
“I never realized,” said Matheus.
“My last name is Cohen.”
“It’s the most common Jewish name there is.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“How do you not know that?” Alistair asked. “Sometime I wonder about you.”
“I’m not the one who can’t decide on a religion.”
“No, I’m Protestant, but it would make my father happy if someone said Kaddish for his son.”
“Your father’s dead,” said Matheus.
“So am I,” said Alistair. “Why are you arguing with me about this? If you die, I promise to do whatever it is that atheists do.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway, because Quin is not going to kill you.”
“A plot under an oak tree if possible,” Alistair said. “Somewhere not too crowded. And if you feel like buying me a monument, that would be acceptable. A tasteful one, of course. Nothing tacky.”
“Alistair, he’s not going to kill you!”
“White marble. A weeping angel, perhaps.”
The story continues in...Real Vampires Don’t Sparkle, Episode 86: