Matheus let the door swing shut behind him. Joan waited in the hall, leaning against the wall, frowning down at her shoes. At the slam of the door, she looked up. Her gaze focused on Matheus.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hi,” said Matheus, scanning Joan for concealed weapons. He approached her slowly. The manic fire in her expression had dimmed, which made him oddly nervous.
“So, Heaven left, huh?”
Matheus nodded. “Did she tell you? What she was planning?”
Joan pushed herself upright. “Nah. I knew it was coming. She’s been around a long fucking time, you know? Gets tiring. I’ll let the others know.”
“They won’t―” Matheus stopped, unsure of what he wanted to say.
“They’ll understand,” said Joan. “It happens. You get to that point when you’re just fucking done.” Joan gave Matheus a slap on the back that knocked him sideways. “Takes some people longer than others to get there, but we all do sooner or later.” She grinned.
“Um,” said Matheus. His head felt like a helium balloon, bounced around by the wind. He blinked, trying to clear his vision. The hallway around Joan blurred. “Are you sure? Really sure Heaven won’t be back?”
“Yeah.” Joan’s grin faded. “Hey, you okay? Boss?”
“I just need to…sit down.” Matheus staggered backward, groping for the wall. He sank into a crouch. Joan’s shoes turned into an Impressionist painting. With a choked inhale, Matheus ducked his head, resting his forehead on his knees.
“Boss? Hey, boss man, you got to get up.”
Matheus heard Joan’s clothes rustle as she knelt beside him.
“Come on,” said Joan. “You’re going to make me lose it, too.” She shook Matheus’ shoulder. “Keep it together, okay?”
Matheus forced himself to exhale. He closed his eyes, counting in a steady rhythm. When he reached twenty-three, he raised his head. He wiped the wetness from his face, then looked at Joan. She gave him a wobbly smile, proto-tears shining in her eyes.
“Fucking A,” she said. “What a fucking pussy.”
“Hey,” said Matheus. He tried to come up with an argument to the contrary, but delusions only went so far. “Am not.”
“Are too,” said Joan. She stood, then jerked Matheus to his feet. “But, hey, pussies are pretty tough. You want to push a kid out through your dick? I don’t fucking think so.”
“I―I have no idea how to respond to that,” said Matheus.
“Damn straight you don’t.” Joan nodded as though she’d just scored the winning point.
“Right,” said Matheus, confusion dampening the initial rush of grief. “Okay.”
Joan gave him another whack on the biceps, then turned and marched toward the lobby. Matheus trailed after her. He felt like a sailor after six months at sea. The ground seemed to swell and sink beneath his steps, despite the conflicting evidence of reality. He paused at the top of the stairs, seeking out Quin without thinking.
Quin glanced around, as though he’d just received a tap on the shoulder. He turned, his gaze landing on Matheus. A nanosecond blinked past, and he’d already travelled half the distance of the room.
“What’s wrong? He asked.
“Nothing,” said Matheus. He moved away, down the steps, then came to an abrupt halt as Quin grabbed his wrist.
“It’s nothing,” Matheus hissed. He felt the score of eyes fixed in their direction. He shifted, trying to hide Quin’s grip from the rest of the room. “Heaven left.”
Quin tilted his head to the side, examining Matheus’ expression. “Math―”
“Not now.” Matheus jerked his arm, then stumbled down a step when Quin actually let him go. He gathered the remaining bits of his dignity. A low murmur rose up as he made his way over to Alistair. Joan spread the news of Heaven’s departure by the simple method of telling Blanche. By the time Matheus reached the front of the room, everyone knew what had happened. Matheus scanned the crowd of faces. Most seemed if not understanding, then at least resigned. A few cried, soft, muffled sounds, consumed by the heavy atmosphere. Matheus swallowed, shoving hard at the sickly, hollow feeling rising through his chest. Alistair leaned into him, wrapping an arm around Matheus’ waist and squeezing. Matheus stiffened his spine, refusing to look at Alistair. After a second, Alistair moved away with a soft sigh.
“Is there anything else to go over?” Matheus asked. He felt the set in his shoulders give way as Quin stopped at his side.
Alistair made a show of flipping through the papers on his clipboard.
“The door windows still need to be removed from the truck,” he said. “But we should have time to finish tomorrow.”
“I thought Mike was working on that,” said Matheus. His voice sounded like a stranger’s.
“He got into an argument with the electric screwdriver,” said Alistair.
“There are electric screwdrivers?”
“Aren’t they just drills?” Matheus asked.
Alistair shrugged. He scribbled something, then looked up at Matheus. “I don’t like the idea of you going off alone with―”
“Do you have a better idea?” Matheus waited half a beat. “I didn’t think so.”
“Alistair has a point,” said Quin.
Matheus yawned, stretching his arms to the ceiling. “I’m exhausted. Anyone else? Let’s go to bed.”
He spun, heading toward the theaters.
“I should have picked someone with less of a death wish.” Quin fell into step with Matheus.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Matheus. “You’d get bored.”
“I’ll be extremely bored when we’re both dead,” said Quin.
“Technically, I can tie you into a pretzel and ship you to Zimbabwe. Not first class, either. Parcel post.”
Matheus paused, his hand on the door to theater one. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“See that you do,” said Quin.
They waited for dawn. None of the divisions or boundaries remained. They waited in one group, piled together like puppies, drawing comfort from each other. Matheus rested his head on Quin’s chest, one hand stretched out to Joan. Alistair curled up at his back, Freddie curled up around him. Milo, head to head with Matheus, close enough that his curls brushed over Matheus’ ear. All of them together, waiting.
Darkness, smothering darkness, so alone, lost in the empty black, living nothingness, cold and wet and clinging, sinking into his skin, his lungs, and he couldn’t pull away, couldn’t find Quin. Alone and dying and where was Quin, and oh, God, he just needed the smallest molecule of light, a pinprick to cling to, anything, anything, anything―
Matheus opened his eyes to the dark. Panic lit through his body. Hands clenched, nails digging into his flesh, he forced a breath into his lungs. The details sharpened into place; the molding covering the ceiling, the cool weight of Quin’s hand on his stomach, the smell of dust and age in the air. Panic receded into the shadowed gray of reality. Dark, dim, but not the suffocating black of his dream. Sitting up, he scrubbed both hands through his hair, grimacing as he came across a piece of ancient bubblegum. He extracted the gum, flicking the hardened mess across the room. He rose, and picked his way through the field of temporary corpses. He still had twenty minutes before sunset. Hanging around a roomful of dead bodies did not boost his confidence for that night.
Wet footprints led from the emergency exit to the lobby. High heels, judging from the shape. Matheus followed the trail, fairly certain of the source. Other possibilities flashed into mind, but given the locked door and the sun’s position, only person really fit.
“Juliet,” he said. “I figured you’d turn up eventually.”
“Hello, pet.” Juliet perched on the countertop, her legs crossed, one knee-high boot bouncing up and down. Her coat sat in a pile of silky, chocolate brown furs next to her. She pouted at Matheus. “You don’t seem very pleased to see me.”
Matheus collapsed into Milo’s computer chair. The second law of thermodynamics sent him rolling back a foot or so. He contemplated scooting the chair forward, then discarded the idea. Moving around before dusk exhausted him. Every motion felt as though he’d attached lead weights to his muscles.
“What are you doing here?”
“You’ve got the Otherworld in a fizzle.” Juliet pulled a compact out of her bag. She peered at her reflection, tsking at the wind damage to her hair. She pursed her lips, tilting her face this way and that. From her clutch emerged a lipstick in the color Matheus’ Polish housekeeper used to call ‘whore red.’
“What have you heard?” Matheus asked.
“Oh, just rumors, pet.” Juliet daubed on the lipstick. “Apollonia has burned a lot of bridges over the years, and frankly, she’s become unbearable.” She closed her compact with a snap, then blew Matheus a kiss. “We’re all rather relieved you’re finally decided to step up. We were all getting worried we might have to interfere. Associating with humans, imposing rules outside her species, being an uppity little bitch.” Juliet shook her head. “As I said, she doesn’t have many friends.”
“Does that mean they’ll help?” Matheus had only a vague idea of the other species and cultures that made up the Otherworld. Quin had mentioned demons, and there had to be more werewolves besides Freddie. Not to mention unique cases like Faust. Matheus felt pretty confident that only one Faust existed. He knew there must be more succubae, but he’d never considered what else called the city home.
“Of course not. Apollonia is your kind, therefore your responsibility.” Juliet laughed; a shudder climbed gleefully up Matheus’ vertebrae.
“Why mine?” he asked, resisting the urge to look for a weapon.
“You volunteered.” Juliet swung her leg to an imaginary beat. Her nails tapped on the counter as she leaned forward. “You should have run, pet.”
“What about you?” Matheus asked. “Will you help?”
“Silly boy.” Juliet laughed again. “It isn’t my fight.”
“We’re family.” Matheus knew even as he said the words, they didn’t mean anything to Juliet. She looked at him, not unkindly, but not swayed, either.
“I must be going,” she said, gathering her coat.
“Don’t you want to see Quin?” Matheus exerted himself, and managed to roll the chair a foot closer to Juliet. “He’s back. I mean, his memories are back.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll catch up eventually.” Juliet waved her hand in an airy gesture, but didn’t move from the counter.
Matheus counted to ten, then heaved himself to his feet. He walked toward Juliet, making sure not to stand between her and the exit. He stopped a few feet in front of her.
“Why did you come here?” he asked. “Not to warn me about Apollonia. Not to see Quin. Is there something you wanted to tell me? What do you want, Juliet?”
He took a hasty step back as Juliet hopped off the counter.
“Despite my sister’s stupidity, I do retain some measure of affection for her.” Juliet swung her coat over her shoulders. Her boot toe tapped. Matheus bit back a curse as her human mask slipped away. Ice splintered through his veins as Juliet reached up to cup his face.
Matheus flinched as Juliet’s claws brushed his skin, but she held him gently. She tilted his face from side to side in the, catching the dim light of Milo’s computer screens.
“You carry a piece of her within you, however bastardized and corrupted that piece might be,” said Juliet. This close, Matheus smelt the sickly sweetness of rot underneath Juliet’s expensive perfume. He locked his knees.
“You look so much like your father.” Juliet’s voice deepened to hoarse whisper. Matheus felt the prick of her nails along his jaw.
“I didn’t choose my face,” he said. “Or my parents.”
Juliet sighed, and the smell of rot grew stronger.
“No,” she said, releasing Matheus. She stepped back, drawing her coat closed, once again the chic Chanel devotee. With her chin nestled into the fluff of furs, and the ivory and honey glow of her human face, she looked like a transplant from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Matheus imagined that even without her other gifts, men had an easier time stopping the tides than resisting Juliet’s requests. “Lenya asks after you, pet. It’s quite troublesome.”
“Oh,” Matheus said in the face of Juliet’s expectant expression. She looked at him as though waiting for the next line in the script. “I’m sorry?”
A tiny line appeared between Juliet’s flawless eyebrows. Then, with a shake of her head, it vanished. She smiled at Matheus, the kind of smile that sent men flying off to war.
“I know I shouldn’t spoil her, but they are only children for so long,” she said. “Did you know? Succubae eat their mothers. When they’re fully grown, of course, but before they’ve taken their first man. So our time with our daughters is limited. I do hate seeing them unhappy, pet.”
“Erk,” said Matheus.
Juliet gave wistful sigh. Matheus struggled to find a thread to which to cling.
“I feel like you are trying to tell me something,” he said. “It’d probably be quicker if you just told me what it was.”
“You have no subtlety, pet. You get that from your father.” Juliet cocked her head to the side. “Even I wanted to join your fight, the others would never agree to it.” She paused, snuggling deeper into her coat. “But perhaps I can convince them to provide a bit of help.”
“Why?” asked Matheus.
“For Lenya’s sake,” said Juliet.
“Right,” said Matheus. “I think I have an idea, and you can tell me if it works. Let me just find a pen…” He wandered toward Milo’s desk.
“Don’t dawdle,” Juliet called after him. “I do still have to make the arrangements.” She resumed her position on the counter, still swaddled in her coat.
“Yeah,” said Matheus, thinking about Juliet’s answer to his question. For Lenya’s sake. Matheus didn’t know if she meant her daughter or his mother, and something told him not to ask.
“Family is important to Juliet,” said Quin, strapping the last container of gasoline into the back of the truck. “It’s how succubae are designed. Would you want to have children knowing that you’d end up as dinner one day?”
“I don’t want to have children at all,” said Matheus. He knelt beside the open driver’s side door, a growing pile of screws next to him. He’d volunteered to remove the window. He needed something to occupy himself until Juliet got her people into place. “I get the whole genetic urge to protect your offspring. Not sure it applies to my father, but I understand how non-insane parenting works. Juliet seems a little conflicted about thinking of me as family, though.” Matheus dropped another screw onto the pile. “She called me a mongrel once.”
“Well,” said Quin. The truck shifted as he leaned against the side. “You’re a man.”
“It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part.” Matheus waved the screwdriver at Quin. “I don’t know about you, but my time as a mindless collection of cells didn’t include a preference questionnaire.”
“Neither did Juliet’s. Be happy with what you got, sunshine.”
“That wasn’t a complaint,” said Matheus. “I don’t want to be a woman. I mean, high heels. Why?”
Quin made a humming sound. “I’d like to see you in a pair of heels. Maybe a little skirt.” Quin’s voice thickened, growing abstracted. “You’d greet me at the door, all nervous. I’d follow you upstairs, watching your ass bounce under your skirt, getting harder and harder, until―”
“Quin!” Matheus knew he didn’t blush anymore, but his whole body felt as though he’d just been lowered into an active volcano. He shifted, trying to relieve the ache in his pants. “Jesus Christ.”
“No?” Quin asked with a note of disappointment.
“Yes,” said Matheus. “I mean, no. I mean, not now. Later. We don’t even have a staircase here.”
“Oh, I can find you a staircase.” Quin wiggled his eyebrows. “But my, frankly, quite wonderful imagination aside, I was referring to Juliet’s offer of help.”
“Right,” said Matheus. “That.” He worked the last screw free, and set the screwdriver aside. He’d opted for the non-electrical version. He didn’t understand the urge to mechanize everything. Some things worked fine without buttons and motors. With his non-existent nails, Matheus pried at the inner panel of the door. He managed to work one finger underneath, then another, then the whole piece of plastic popped free, smacking him on the chin. “Goddammit.”
“Your ability to do damage to yourself is astonishing,” said Quin.
Matheus scowled. He tossed the plastic door panel aside, then picked up the screwdriver. He attacked the screws holding the window in place in Quin’s stead.
Quin settled down to the ground, resting against the truck’s tire, and stretching out his legs. He watched over Matheus’ shoulder, ducking to avoid the occasional screw.
“Did your troubled youth involve an internship at a chop shop?” he asked.
“YouTube,” said Matheus. “You can find videos for anything.”
“Can you?” asked Quin. “Fascinating.”
Matheus wondered if he knew what YouTube was. He didn’t know if Quin even fully grasped the concept of the Internet. He twisted around; Quin’s face held nothing but mild interest. Innocence radiated out of him like the petals of daisy. Mothers would trust him with their babies; Little Red Riding Hood wouldn’t even think about questioning the size of his teeth. If he met the Pope, he’d be canonized on the spot.
“All right,” said Matheus. “What the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Quin widened his eyes, and blinked at Matheus.
“Don’t bullshit me, Quin.”
“Fine.” Quin shrugged, his expression returning to its normal cold, sharp cynicism. “It wasn’t my idea anyway.”
Matheus’ grip tightened on the screwdriver. “What wasn’t?”
“Some of the others think you shouldn’t be left alone.” Quin’s fingers trailed circles in the air. “I find you more tolerable than most, so I volunteered.”
“You find me tolerable?” Matheus asked. “Fucking tolerable?”
Quin smiled. He leaned forward, delivering a quick kiss to Matheus’ lips. “You are a constant delight, sunshine.” He arched an eyebrow. “Better?”
Matheus declined to respond. “What others?” he asked instead. “No, wait. It was Alistair, wasn’t it? I’m going to kill him.”
“Okay,” said Quin. “Is this something you’d like to do on your own, or would you like some help? Alistair is small, but he fights dirty. Then again, he does trust you, so you might be able to get in a surprise attack.”
“Quin,” said Matheus, clamping down on his growing smile.
“He means well.”
Matheus found he didn’t need to rein in the urge to grin anyway.
“Yesterday you wanted to staple his tongue to the roof of his mouth,” he said.
“I’m a forgiving person,” Quin said.
“You are not!” Matheus winced as he heard his voice break. He turned back to the truck door. Behind him, he heard Quin’s shoes scrap on the pavement. A shadow fell over him, but Matheus didn’t move. He stared at the screws, trying to remember the stupid mnemonic everyone whispers under her or his breath. His mind returned a 401 page, so Matheus stared at the ground instead. If he tilted his head just so, the oil stain to his right turned into a dead ringer for Richard Nixon. “What does Alistair think I’m going to do?”
“I imagine he thinks you might freak out,” said Quin.
“Why the fuck would I do that?” Matheus threw the screwdriver down. He shot to his feet, spinning to face Quin. “I mean, a whole lot of people are trusting me while I send them off to die, but hey, that’s nothing. I can totally handle that. And sure, Gwen and Eamon and Salvatore trusted me, and they all ended up killed or captured or worse, but why should I let that bother me? My father’s going to torture my pregnant sister to death, but hey, that’s two less Christmas presents I have to worry about. I’m supposedly responsible for two dozen people, and I don’t know what the fucking hell I’m doing, but who cares? Let’s have a fucking dance party!”
“She wouldn’t have left if she didn’t think you could handle it,” said Quin.
“Fuck!” Matheus slammed the door shut. The window, free of the trim and missing most of the its screws, slipped loose, shattering across the tar.
“Okay,” said Quin. “Sorry I brought it up.”
With a burst of manic laughter, Matheus fell back against the truck. He ducked his head, choking on hysterics, feeling the laughter turn to sobs. The tiny part of his mind kept separate, the observer, thought Christ, this is pathetic. His vision blurred, the edges darkening as a roaring sound drowned out the world. He didn’t know how many minutes passed before he realized Quin stood in front of him. Quin’s fingers threaded down through his hair, kneaded the rigid muscles along Matheus’ neck and shoulders. Whispers of Latin floated in through the roaring. Matheus leaned into the soothing touch. He had no idea what Quin said. The words ran together, too low and quick for Matheus to decipher.
Eventually, Matheus pulled away, keeping his gaze fixed on Tricky Dick. He cleared his throat, then wiped his face with his sleeve. Although, that probably did little except smear more filth around.
“Better?” Quin asked. He rested his hands on Matheus’ hips, lightly, not constraining, but with the promise of strength.
“I feel like an idiot,” said Matheus. “I don’t…” He trailed off.
“During my first battle, I was so frightened I pissed myself,” Quin said. “My commander never let me forget that.” He paused. “I suppose it evened out after I ate him.”
“Please tell me that was after you died.”
“He was my first meal.”
“Super,” said Matheus. He’d worked his gaze up to Quin’s knees, then his stomach, until finally, he’d reached Quin’s chin. He flicked a glance upward. Quin smiled at him. Something about Quin’s smiles reminded Matheus of the parable of the scorpion and the frog. Sure, on land the scorpion seemed friendly, even reasonable, but get to the middle of the river, and bam! Out comes the stinger. Any sane person would run. Except, when Quin smiled at him like that, Matheus only wanted to smile back. And then possibly find out what other fantasies Quin had tucked away in his head.
I’m doomed, Matheus thought.
“Do you really think this is going to work?” he asked, nodding toward the truck.
“Would you stop if I said no?” Quin asked.
“Then it doesn’t matter what I think.”
“Quin,” said Matheus. “It matters.”
Quin’s grip tightened on Matheus’ hips. He stepped closer. Matheus wondered when he’d forgotten how to breathe. A second later, air hardly mattered at all, because Quin’s lips moved against his, and Quin’s hands pressed him against the cold steel of the truck.
“Quin,” Matheus gasped, needy fear feeding into the rising lust. He felt Quin rock against him, and he whimpered. “Oh, God, quick, quicker!”
Quin thrust a hand between them, yanking at Matheus’ zipper. He wrapped his fingers around Matheus’ cock, moving with rough, frantic strokes.
“Sunshine,” he said, pleading into the crook of Matheus’ throat.
Dizzy from sudden departure of blood, Matheus groped for the fly of Quin’s pants. Swearing, he tugged at the button, nearly weeping with relief when it popped off, flying into the night. The zipper scraped Matheus’ wrist, but he didn’t care. Quin’s cock quivered in his palm. He matched Quin’s pace, their knuckles banging together, neither one slowing. Quin’s teeth sank into Matheus’ neck. No tenderness here, only raw, aching need. Matheus arched back, moans escaping into the night sky.
“Come for me, sunshine,” Quin whispered, his voice vibrating through Matheus’ nerves. “My beautiful, brilliant sunshine.”
“God, God, oh.” Matheus’ entire existence compressed into a single, infinitely small point, then exploded into a universe of stars. “Oh, my God, Quin! Oh, fuck, fuck.”
He felt Quin’s cock pulse, then a slick wetness coated his hand. Quin shook, his spine curving, his grip on Matheus’ hip harder than the steel frame of the truck. He collapsed against Matheus with a choking whimper.
The sound of their panting filled the air around them. Quin wrapped his arms around Matheus’ waist, brushing kisses over the bruising bites he’d inflicted. An internal warmth filled Matheus, the kind that had nothing to do with temperature.
“I really hope no one saw that,” he said.
Quin laughed, the sound muffled in Matheus’ neck.
“It’s not the worst situation I’ve been caught in.”
“I don’t want to know,” said Matheus. “Pervert.”
Quin laughed again. He pulled away, grimacing at the mess on his hand. “I don’t suppose you have a tissue.”
“Nope.” Matheus scrubbed his fingers over his jeans. Not his first choice, but considering the state of his clothes, a little semen didn’t make much of difference. “Hey! Use your own pants.”
“Too late,” said Quin. He fixed his zipper, then frowned at the missing button. “We really need to go shopping.”
“If we survive tonight, I’ll buy you whatever you what,” said Matheus.
Quin looked at him, a strange sideways smile on his face. “I’ve never been a kept man before.” He cupped Matheus’ jaw. “Better now?”
“Define better,” said Matheus.
“Sunshine, I’m going to tell the same thing my father used to tell. Stop whining or I’ll sell you to a brothel.”
“Charming. How is that supposed to help?”
“It doesn’t really,” said Quin. “I would like to add that I know a few highly illegal establishments overseas that would not be averse to making a deal.”
“You wouldn’t,” said Matheus.
Quin bent down and picked up the screwdriver. “Take out the other window,” he said, handing the screwdriver to Matheus. “We don’t have a lot of time.” He turned, walking toward the movie theater.
“I don’t believe you,” Matheus yelled after him. “There are no brothels. Quin!”
The door to the building swung shut.
“Shit,” said Matheus.
Juliet returned twenty minutes later. She confirmed the plan with Matheus, then vanished again, leaving behind a cloud of Chanel No. 5. Matheus passed the news to Alistair. They gathered the group together for one last meeting. Alistair gave a quick run-through, then stepped back, nodding to Matheus.
Great, thought Matheus. Another speech. He cleared his throat. Fuck it.
“This is probably going to end badly,” he said. “We’re outnumbered and out-gunned. Chances are a lot of us are going to die. So, um, there’s that.” He paused, scratching the back of his head. “It sucks, but it has to be done, and we’re doing it. Right.”
Alistair let out a groan. He covered his face with his hand, his head slowly shaking.
“So, uh, thanks for, you know, helping and sorry about the death thing.” Matheus stepped back, hoping that signaled the end of the speech, but no one moved. “That’s it. End of speech.”
“They’re waiting for you to give the order to go,” Alistair hissed around his hand. “Idiot.”
“Oh,” said Matheus. He looked over the crowd of horrified faces. “Um, okay. Go. Try not to die.”
“Fuck yeah!” Joan hefted a chainsaw skyward. “Group Let’s Kill Some Fuckers with me!”
Three others followed Joan outside. Matheus had the impression that all of them had matching jackets that the nice people at the hospital had given them. He wondered if Charles Manson had lost a few followers.
The rest of the room broke in the groups of two or three. Matheus saw Drew and a few others armed with enormous flashlights. They worked in pairs, one to do the blinding, and the other to do the maiming and slaughtering. All of them had sunglasses perched on the top of their heads. Milo nodded to Matheus as he walked past. He stuck a Bluetooth device in his ear, typing on his phone with his other hand. His handheld cannon hung under one arm. More people walked by, all of them making some kind of gesture to Matheus. Desdemona with the burnt sugar voice. The nervous brunette who called Matheus ‘Protos.’ Thomas, carrying a box of Molotov cocktails, and trailed by the survivors of his crew. Blanche, who despite being mostly concerned with the state of her nails, had managed to not only save herself from Apollonia’s attack, but also drag two others out with her. As each person passed, the barbed wire in Matheus’ gut twisted a little tighter. A parade, tossing guilt instead of candy.
“Brilliant speech,” said Quin. “Very inspiring.”
Matheus spun around, away from the line of future gravestones. “I can’t do this,” he said in a low, frantic voice. “Call them back.”
Alistair glanced up from his clipboard. He stepped closer, enclosing the three of them in a small, separate group.
“You can’t,” he said. “They’re going with or without you.”
“They’re going to die.”
“Yes, you covered that,” said Alistair. “I think it’d be best if you avoided public speaking from now on.”
“Alistair,” said Matheus. He raised his arms, then dropped them to his sides. “I don’t― This isn’t going to work.”
He saw Alistair flick his gaze toward Quin, then back to Matheus.
“Come here,” said Alistair, walking out of earshot.
The muscle in Quin’s jaw jumped, but he made no comment as Matheus followed Alistair. Matheus wondered if they’d spend the rest of their days locked in their own personal cold war.
“What?” he asked Alistair.
“Listen to me, darling,” said Alistair. “And remember I’m your elder, and know what the hell I’m talking about.”
Matheus crossed his arms. “You made Quin watch me like I’m a goddamned child.”
“Yes, and I’m not going to apologize for that. I know how you felt about Heaven. Your sister is in danger, and you’re under more stress than you’ve probably ever had to deal with before. I love that you want to keep everyone safe, but you can’t, and that’s winding you up like a guitar string. If you snapped, I didn’t want you to be alone.” He reached up, plucking a bit of fuzz off Matheus’ shoulder. “I thought you’d prefer Quin over me.”
Alistair shook his head. “It’s just how things are.”
“You’re my best friend,” said Matheus. He sighed. “Quin doesn’t…he doesn’t understand.”
“Quin grew up in a time when it was acceptable to leave deformed babies in the garbage dump,” Alistair said. “Sanctity of life is a modern invention.”
“Knowing that doesn’t help.”
“Nothing does,” said Alistair. “But look at it this way. Every one of those people is a freethinking adult. You didn’t lie to them. Lord, you told them outright they’re probably going to die. They could have run, but they didn’t. They made a choice. Don’t take that away from them. It would have come to this with or without you, Matheus. Maybe by being here, you’ve made things a little better.”
“Right,” said Matheus. “Thanks.”
Alistair raised his eyebrows. “That helped?”
“Not really, but I appreciate the effort.”
Matheus put on his blinker, and veered onto the exit. The wind rushed in through the glass-less windshield, reminding him of why he’d never liked convertibles. His hair whipped around his head, occasionally stabbing him in the eyes. He knew he’d swallowed a bug at some point. He wondered if he’d cough up a fly later, or if it’d stay in his stomach, rotting through the years. Assuming the bug died, and didn’t just stick around, buzzing. Matheus pressed a hand to his stomach. He really hoped he didn’t end up with larvae crawling up his esophagus.
“What did Alistair say to you?” Quin asked.
“Huh?” Matheus asked, still thinking about his new job as a maggot breeding ground. Quin repeated his question. “Oh. Why?”
“You were less tense afterward. Quin held his hand out the window, providing an excellent example of why airplanes fly. His other hand gripped the edge of the seat, his knuckles stark white.
“He told me the ancient Romans were baby-killers,” said Matheus.
“Only the ugly ones,” said Quin.
“Different times, sunshine.”
Matheus stopped for a red light. He spotted a cop car parked across the intersection. Readjusting his grip on the wheel, Matheus thought inconspicuous thoughts. His plan did not include time for a traffic stop.
“What did he really tell you?” asked Quin.
“Why are you so concerned?” Matheus rolled through the intersection at a quarter of his normal speed. He risked a glance at the cop car. Empty.
“Well, it worked.”
Matheus looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “He told me that by assuming everything was my fault, I was treating the others like children and I had to respect that they had a right to their own decisions. More or less.”
Quin let out a startled laugh. “Alistair knows you well.”
“You were lovers.”
“Jesus Christ, do not tell me this is when you choose to have this conversation,” Matheus said.
“There is no conversation,” said Quin. “I’m not jealous, Matheus. I’m just not used to sharing.”
“I’m not a bowl of ice cream,” Matheus said. He turned right onto Broadmoor Avenue, then cut over to the left turn lane. “You share toys, not people.” He drummed a staccato beat on the steering wheel. “Anyway, you don’t need to worry. I’m not sleeping with Alistair anymore. Freddie would rip my arms off.”
“I’m not worried,” said Quin. “You’re right, though. This is not the time to talk about this.”
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
“Oh, God, really?” Matheus groaned. “How about it waits until never?”
“Never doesn’t work for me,” said Quin. “I have a dentist appointment.”
The green arrow flicked on, and Matheus turned, scowling at road ahead of him. The engine squealed as the truck tackled the steep hill.
“For what it’s worth, if you hadn’t insisted on coming with me, I would have asked anyway,” Matheus said. He didn’t know how to put into words the difference in his feelings for Alistair and for Quin. Lust played some role; Quin suited his tastes in a way Alistair never managed. That didn’t explain everything, though. Vulnerability and safety, knowing that he could break down in front of Quin, but never Alistair, all things that played parts in the difference. Matheus trusted Alistair, but he knew if Alistair saw him sobbing the way he had earlier, things between them would have changed. Not a lot, not on purpose, but that moment would always have been there between them. Matheus knew Alistair wouldn’t hurt him, but he didn’t know the reverse. With Quin, Matheus felt safe to be himself.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” said Quin. “Considering what we’re about to do.”
Apollonia’s cottage rose into view, perched on the top of the hill. By now, Matheus’ people had positioned themselves, taking out the sentries in the small copse behind the house, waiting for the signal. Matheus revved the engine. He snapped his seatbelt, locking it against his chest. Quin copied him.
“Morituri te salutamus,” Matheus said with a reckless grin. He slammed down the gas pedal.
“Si post fata venit gloria non proper.” Quin squeezed his eyes shut, his face ashen.
“Don’t worry,” Matheus said. “It’ll only hurt for a minute.”
With that, he jerked the wheel, crashing through Apollonia’s white picket fence and into the picturesque front room of her quaint little cottage.
The story continues in...Real Vampires Don’t Sparkle, Episode 81: