Matheus hit the ground first. The air exploded out of his lungs; he felt like a popped balloon. The force of the impact knocked Quin out of his arms, but Matheus still took the brunt of the damage. He lay still for a second, listening to Apollonia shout orders, too dazed to remember how to move. His bones vibrated from the shock of sudden deceleration; his flesh felt as though he’d bathed in Novocain. Then the ache set in. Matheus groaned. He’d definitely broken his spleen this time.
Rolling onto his side, Matheus pushed himself upright. His legs wavered, but held steady. Behind him, he heard a door burst open and the crash of heavy footsteps. Matheus didn’t stop to look. He scooped up Quin in a fireman’s hold, knees dipping before Matheus gave them a stern talking to. Staggering and weaving, Matheus ran toward the copse of trees behind Apollonia’s house. Quin’s head bounced against Matheus’ back, accompanied by high-pitched whimpers.
A trail of blood marked the grass, leading to a wide gap in the tangle of vines around the trees. Matheus inhaled; the faint smell of rotten blood rose up. He dove into the screen of trees as the first volley of bolts whizzed around him. Shards of branches rained down. Matheus plunged forward, heading for the lights through the bare trees. Wooded areas in cities tend to be only so big. He glanced over his shoulder. Apollonia’s guards had followed him, but they lacked the blind panic-fueled adrenalin driving Matheus faster and faster.
He stumbled as his feet hit concrete. He’d emerged in a parking lot, half-full, with one very startled car thief. She paused in the middle of inserting a slim jim down the window of Honda Accord.
“Have you seen a―?”
Without changing expression, the thief pointed to the left.
“Thanks,” said Matheus. “You should probably run.”
The thief’s eyebrows wrinkled. She opened her mouth, but before she managed to speak, a bolt smashed through the front windshield of the Accord. Yanking her slim jim free, the thief took off. Matheus followed her example, turning left instead. He dodged down an alleyway, skidding to a halt as a man in a stained apron stepped out of a side door. Matheus dug out his wallet, slapping some bills into the man’s hand and nodding toward the door. With a shrug, the man held the door open. Matheus ducked inside.
Sounds of cutlery and voices came from one end of the hall. Opposite, two swinging doors led into the kitchen. A waiter walked out carrying a tray loaded with drinks. He gave Matheus a startled look.
“Too much to drink,” said Matheus. “Bathroom?”
The waiter pointed down the hall, his eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Matheus thanked him. He pushed open the door to the men’s room. The urinals were empty. Matheus crossed to the handicapped stall. He dumped Quin on the floor, then locked the stall door. He dropped next to Quin, too exhausted to care about the stains marking the linoleum. Quin curled into a ball, keening softly as he rocked back and forth. A large bruise covered his swollen ankle; scratches and more bruises covered his body. He cradled his arm to his chest, but Matheus didn’t see any breaks. Matheus wondered how long they had before the waiter called the cops. He slipped off his coat, and forced Quin’s arms into the sleeves. As he did up the buttons, he heard the door to the bathroom open. Matheus rose into a runner’s crouch, ready to attack. A pair of feet stopped in front of the stall door, then a pair of pants came flying over the top.
Matheus stood up. He opened the door a crack. The man who’d let him in stood there. He rattled off a long stream of language that Matheus didn’t understand. Matheus shook his head.
“Go,” said the man in a thick accent. “Now go.” He pointed toward the door.
Matheus nodded. He jammed Quin’s legs into the pants, ignoring Quin’s yelps as he touched Quin’s bruised ankle. The pants didn’t fit; they hung off Quin’s hips and reached mid-calf, but anything beat nudity. He got Quin to stand, slinging Quin’s arm over his shoulders and gripping his waist. The man followed Matheus open to the back door, shooing him down the alleyway.
Matheus half-carried Quin,who stumbled along, his head hanging down. On the street, Matheus looked left and right, but he saw no sign of Apollonia’s soldiers. A trail of blood droplets, smeared by something, ran down the sidewalk. Taking his time with Quin, Matheus followed the trail.
When the droplets stopped, so did Matheus. A private garden sat to his right, an ivy-covered gate across the entrance and high bushes hiding the interior. A small gap existed between the gate and the brushes. Several of the branches had been snapped, and holes dotted the crust of snow. Matheus squeezed through the gap, dragging Quin after him. Inside, mounds marked the flower beds hidden beneath the snow. Tall buildings surrounded the garden, blocking off the other three sides. A bench sat in the center, overshadowed by a massive oak tree. Freddie lay next to the tree, one massive paw resting on Alistair’s chest. He growled as Matheus approached.
“Hi,” said Matheus. “Good doggy. Huge, terrifying doggy.”
Another growl. Matheus thanked God that Kenderton hadn’t been built over a fault line. Freddie would have triggered a 6.5 earthquake. Matheus propped Quin against the tree. He held his hands palms out, inching toward Alistair.
“I’m not going to take him,” Matheus said. “I just want to―”
He jumped back as Freddie snapped at him.
“Okay, okay. I’ll just stay here.” Matheus made a big show of turning away. He checked on Quin, who’d passed out. He ran his hands over Quin’s body, searching for broken bones. Except for his ankle, Quin didn’t appear to have any major injuries, but Matheus didn’t know if the fall had hurt something internally. He’d have to wait for Alistair. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw that Freddie had changed into his human form. His quite naked human form.Quite, quite naked. Matheus snapped his gaze back to Freddie’s face, trying to suppress the sudden feeling of inadequacy. He cleared his throat.
“Thanks,” he said.
“It wasn’t for you,” said Freddie.
“Right. Um, do you want to take Alistair’s jacket? Maybe tie it around your waist or something?”
Freddie arched an eyebrow. The eyebrow said I have no intention of putting on any clothes at all and am rather enjoying making you feel like a eunuch.
Alistair stirred. His shirt had been shredded, the tatters smeared with blood. Freddie’s bite marks formed a dark circle on his shoulder, bruising surrounding the jagged wound. Alistair groaned.
“Matheus?” he said, struggling to sit up.
“Over here,” said Matheus. He pressed his arm against his chest, broken rib digging into his flesh.
Clutching his shoulder, Alistair turned. His eyes went wide as he saw Freddie looming over him. He scanned down, then up, then stopped somewhere around the middle.
“Hello,” Alistair said.
“Jesus Christ,” said Matheus. “Alistair!”
Alistair managed to peel his gaze free. He looked at Matheus, assuming what Matheus called his ‘doctor face’.
“You’re hurt,” Alistair said.
“We’re alive,” said Matheus. “Be happy with that.” He staggered to his feet, bracing himself against the bench for support.
“What happened?” Alistair asked.
“I’m going to steal a car,” said Matheus. “I’ll tell you on the way home.”
Alistair insisted they stop for medical supplies. Matheus let him into a darkened CVS, then circled the block, looking for a meal. He’d stopped breathing; every inhale only increased the stabbing pain in his chest. He needed to eat. Thankfully, they hadn’t stopped in the best part of town. Matheus left the would-be mugger in the alley, and walked back to the car. Alistair already sat in the back beside Quin, a plastic bag at his feet. His shoulder had healed, only smooth, silvery scars left from Freddie’s bite.
“Security guard,” he said at Matheus’ look. “He was watching TV in the break room. I took a bunch of painkillers, so the police should think it was just robbery gone wrong.”
“Except for the corpse drained of blood,” said Matheus, shifting the car into gear. He’d left the engine on while they’d run their errands. He glanced at Freddie, twisted around in the front seat, watching Alistair. He’d wrapped Alistair’s jacket around his waist, at least. Not that the jacket left much to the imagination. Matheus made a mental note to find Freddie a pair of pants as soon as possible.
When they returned to the house, Alistair closeted himself away with Quin. He muttered under his breath about always being the one who had to do the patching up. Matheus asked him why he went to medical school if it bothered him that much. Alistair responded by slamming the door in Matheus’ face.
Freddie hovered at Matheus’ shoulder. He stared at the door Alistair had just shut until Matheus dragged him down the hall. He growled, but allowed himself to be pulled away. He walked with his spine stiff, his shoulders hunched. He jerked to a halt as Heaven appeared at the end of corridor. His lip curled.
Matheus stepped between them, hoping Heaven hadn’t heard the low snarl.
“Hi,” he said. “We’re back.”
“So I was informed,” said Heaven. “Who is this?” She didn’t sound angry, only curious. Apparently werewolves didn’t fall into the same category as succubae.
“Freddie,” said Matheus. “He, uh, he helped us escape.”
“And you brought him here?” Heaven tilted her head to the side.
“He sort of tagged along.” Matheus shrugged. He didn’t know if Freddie had a home or a family, but he didn’t seem in a hurry to leave. Matheus guessed as long as Alistair stayed here, so would Freddie.
“Indeed,” said Heaven. She walked around Matheus, Freddie twisting to face her. She looked him up and down, a more academic appraisal than Alistair’s had been. “I do not know if the others will be pleased, but they trust you,” she said to Matheus. She nodded at Freddie, then continued down the hallway.
“That’s Heaven,” said Matheus. “She’s…” He waved a hand. “Important.”
“She isn’t the leader?” Freddie asked. He looked at Matheus, his eyebrows drawn together.
“No.” Matheus pushed open to the room he shared with Alistair. “I am.”
Freddie nodded. He circled the small room, then stopped in front of Matheus.
“This room smells like him,” he said, his gaze fixed on Matheus. “And you.”
“You mean Alistair? Well, yes,” said Matheus. “We sleep here.”
He turned toward the pile of clean laundry. He thought his pants might Freddie, although he didn’t know about his shirts.
“Together?” asked Freddie.
“Yeah,” said Matheus without thinking. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Freddie leap. Matheus dodged to the left, slipping on the sleek fabric of the sleeping bag. His shoulder struck the wall and he rebounded, landing hard on his ass. A large hand closed around his collar. Matheus found himself on his feet before he had a chance to react.
“Thanks,” he said. Freddie stood in front of him, his hands clenched in fists, his gaze pointed at his feet.
“Sorry,” he said in his rough rumble.
“Right,” said Matheus. He resisted the urge to edge away from Freddie. Closing the door behind them started to seem like a bad idea. He cleared his throat. “The last time I trusted one of you, she tried to kill Alistair and me. That’s where he got those scars.”
Freddie frowned at his toes.
“What happened to her?” he asked.
“I shot her in the face,” said Matheus.
Freddie didn’t say anything.
Matheus rubbed his forehead. At this rate he’d get into The Guinness Book of World Records for Most Bad Decisions Made By One Person. He already knew Alistair’s reaction, and he didn’t think that’d be the outlier.
“Do you have family?” Matheus asked. “Or a place to go?”
“No,” said Freddie.
“Do you want to stay here?”
Freddie looked up. “If he does.”
“Okay,” said Matheus. “I’m going to find you some clothes and a place to sleep. Then I’m going to take a shower. Do not attack anyone. If I have to babysit you all the time, you’re leaving, understand? That’s if you don’t get ripped to pieces first.”
“I’ll sleep here,” said Freddie.
Matheus opened his mouth to argue, then shook his head.
This is not going to end well, he thought.
“Matheus.” Milo called out of his room as Matheus passed by his open door.
“Can it wait?” Matheus asked. “I’ve just adopted a semi-feral werewolf, I smell like shit, and there’s a slim, but dwindling chance there might be some hot water left.”
“There isn’t,” said Milo.
Matheus sighed. Shifting his bundle of clothes, he stepped gingerly into Milo’s room. Cords snaked across the floor, out the door and up the hallway. Milo and Joan had been busy. They’d set up a generator, allowing Milo to rig together a makeshift system. The lone monitor hooked to a single laptop looked a bit pathetic after seeing Milo’s former layout, but at least he’d stopped moping. A stopgap while they figured out the best way to rip off the electric company. Currently, only the main room and Milo’s room had electricity, but Joan spent all her free time installing new wiring. Usually with a staple gun and a manic grin, but she hadn’t maimed anyone yet, so Matheus left her to it. Besides, she wielded a screwdriver in a very disturbing manner.
Milo sat in front of the monitor, the white glow the only light in the room. He rolled his chair out of the way as Matheus approached.
“It’s a good likeness,” he said.
Matheus stared at the pencil sketch. Milo had frozen a news report. Sports scores ran along the bottom of the screen. A bullet list of Matheus’ attributes rang alongside the sketch, along with a police hotline.
“Shit,” said Matheus. “Is my forehead really that big?”
“It can’t be,” said Matheus. “You could land planes on that thing.” He tried measuring his forehead with his fingers, then comparing the distance to the sketch. Milo slapped his hand away. With a glare at Matheus, he scrubbed at the fingerprints left on the screen.
“You left someone alive,” he said.
“I―” Matheus stopped, remembering the frat boy in the cemetery. So he had survived. “That was weeks ago.”
“A new body turned up. A pretty blonde girl.” Milo pulled up a photo. The girl looked about eighteen, with a smile comprised of perfect white teeth, complemented by her flawless tan. Matheus frowned, trying to remember if he’d ever seen her before. She reminded him a reality TV star, attractive, but generic.
“I didn’t kill her,” Matheus said.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Milo. “The police think they have a serial killer.”
“They aren’t entirely wrong.”
“Her family is making a fuss.” Milo looked up at Matheus. “This isn’t going to go away.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Matheus asked.
“Don’t get arrested,” said Milo.
“Thank you.” Matheus rolled his eyes. “Excellent advice. Can I go have my freezing shower now?”
Milo turned to face the screen. The glow brought out the deep blue highlights of his dark skin. His glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose. He pushed them up with his pinky before returning his hands to the keyboard.
“Joan wanted to see you,” he said.
“Has she electrocuted someone?” Matheus asked.
“Not someone. No one will work with her anymore.”
Matheus sighed, shifting his bundle of clothes to his other arm. He didn’t have much longer before dawn. At this rate, he’d never get his shower.
“I’m going to have to yell at people, aren’t I?” he asked.
“Play to your strengths,” said Milo.
Matheus resisted the urge to rub his fingers all over Milo’s sparkling monitor.
“You do it,” he said.
“I have things to do.”
“Like what?” asked Matheus.”You work for me, right? And I haven’t given you anything to do. Well, I’m delegating. Leaders are supposed to delegate.” He slapped Milo on the shoulder. “Good luck.”
He turned and fled the room, Milo’s response lost behind him.
Icicles formed in Matheus’ hair during his walk back to the house. He threw his dirty clothes in the pile destined for the Laundromat. Dropping onto the sofa, he glanced around the room. Thomas and Jonathan (or possibly John) sat in one corner, playing chess. Eamon sprawled in the battered armchair, reading. Gwen sat on the floor, her head resting against his leg, eyes closed. Eamon played absently with her hair, twisting and untwisting the dreadlocks around his fingers. Others sat in small groups, the occasional burst of laughter breaking through the murmuring quiet.
The voice came from down the hall, accompanied by pounding feet. Matheus sat up as Salvatore galloped into the room, Lenya perched on his shoulders. She gripped handfuls of his hair, shaking the locks like the reins of a pony. Salvatore raced around the room, upsetting Thomas’chess board, before skidding to halt in front of the couch. He grinned at Matheus, ignoring Thomas’ cursing.
“Juliet dropped her off while you were out,” he said.
“Obviously,” said Matheus. He looked up at Lenya. “Are you having fun?”
“Warm,” said Lenya, wrapping her arms around Salvatore’s head.
“It’s like carrying an ice cube with legs,” said Salvatore. He lifted Lenya off his shoulders, setting her on the couch beside Matheus. She snuggled up to him, her knees digging into his stomach, elbows bending in ways that seemed to violate nature.
“Oof,” said Matheus, attempting to disentangle himself. “Stop that.” He peeled Lenya loose and slid down the couch. She frowned at him.
“I’m cold,” she said.
“Go put a sweater on,” said Matheus. Now he sounded like his old nanny. Lenya looked about as pleased with his response as he had been at her age. Not that he actually knew her age. Did babysuccubae age like human children? Lenya looked about ten, but her vocal skills seemed like those of a child much younger. Salvatore dropped onto the other end of the couch. Lenya crawled into his lap, flashing Matheus a glare over her shoulder. Matheus decided he didn’t care. Let Salvatore handle babysitting duty.
“Did Juliet say when she’d be coming back to feed her?” Matheus asked.
Salvatore shook his head. “She sai―”
“Fucking useless motherfuckers!” Joan slammed into the room from the top of the stairs with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. She spotted Matheus, and zoomed toward him, a stray flap of her arms sending Thomas’ reset chessboard flying.
“Gods curse it!” Thomas shouted as Jonathan (or possibly John) knelt to scoop up the fallen pieces.
Joan ignored him. She planted herself in front of Matheus, hands balled in fists at her hips.
“I can’t fucking work with―”
“Milo,” said Matheus, pointing down the hall.
“―these goddamn fuckers who―what?”
“Milo’s in charge of the complaints department,” said Matheus. “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll be able to resolve any issues you may be experiencing.”
He gave Joan a bland smile and wiggled his finger toward Milo’s room.
“Since fucking when?” demanded Joan.
“Since I’ve had a long, terrible night and I’m cranky and don’t want to deal with it,” said Matheus.
“When aren’t you cranky?” asked Eamon without looking up from his book.
“When aren’t you?” asked Matheus.
“Eamon isn’t cranky,” said Gwen in a drowsy voice. “He’s Irish.”
“That’s just fan-fucking-tastic, but how the fuck―?” said Joan.
“Milo,” said Matheus. “Go on.”
With a dark look, Joan stomped toward the hallway, stopping short as Freddie appeared.
“Who the hell are you?” she asked, looking up at him.
“That’s Freddie,” said Matheus. “He’s new.”
“If you fucking bite me, I’ll cut your balls off,” said Joan, waving her finger in Freddie’s face. Freddie opened his mouth to reply, but Joan didn’t wait. Muttering to herself, she disappeared down the hall.
Freddie stood frozen in the doorway. All movement in the living room stilled, all gazes turning toward him. His spine stiffened as he took in the people scattered around the room, his eyes darting from one potential threat to another.
“Freddie,” said Matheus, waving his arm.
Freddie’s gaze snapped to him. He marched across the room to Matheus, taking a seat at his feet. Curling his lip, Freddie sent a glower around the room.
Thomas rose, his chess game forgotten. He started toward the couch, but Matheus shook his head, mouthing the word later. The last thing Matheus needed was Thomas going all small-town sheriff on Freddie. He’d already taken one freezing cold shower; he didn’t want to take a second one. Also, they’d managed to keep the furniture blood-free for this long. Matheus wanted to continue that trend.
Thomas didn’t look happy, but he returned to his seat without comment. He made a show of resetting the chess pieces, but kept glancing at the couch. Matheus didn’t know what he expected. For Freddie to go insane and start slobbering over everyone? They outnumbered him twelve-to-one. Freddie might have poor impulse control, but that didn’t mean he had no sense.
Lenya leaned across the couch, the dark holes of her eyes boring into Freddie. She crawled out of Salvatore’s lap, and laid a hand on Freddie’s cheek. He jumped, then growled. Lenya beamed at him.
“Warm,” she said, leaping into his lap. She snuggled against his chest, rubbing her cheek on Matheus’ borrowed sweater.
Freddie looked up at Matheus, his eyes and arms wide. Hesitantly, he pulled at Lenya, but she slapped at his hands and wiggled closer.
“So warm,” she sighed.
“I think you’ve been replaced,” said Matheus, looking at Salvatore.
“Women,” said Salvatore, with a shrug.
Gwen opened her eyes, giving him a look that promised retribution. Salvatore laughed.
“Matheus.” Brianne hovered in the hallway entrance. “Alistair is asking for you.” She looked at Freddie, her eyebrows drawn together. “Is that―?”
“He is,” said Matheus. He rose and so did Freddie, Lenya still clinging to him. “Salvatore, can you…?” he paused, trying to find the most diplomatic phrase. “Can you show Freddie around? Introduce him to everyone?”Make sure he doesn’t go on a maiming spree?he added to himself. “And keep an eye on Lenya? Please.”
“Sure,” said Salvatore. He gave Freddie a grin. Slowly, holding Lenya, Freddie sank onto the couch.
Matheus felt a twinge of sympathy for him. He knew what being thrown into a mad, alien world felt like. Beneath the air of defiance, signs of distress and confusion kept peeking through. Matheus wanted to tell him everything would be okay, but he’d never been that good a liar. Instead, he left Freddie to Salvatore, whom nothing seemed to faze. Maybe he’d be able to help convince the others, and calm Freddie down in the process. If not… Matheus decided to think about that later. At the moment, he had other things to worry about.
“How is he?” Matheus asked. He stood at the foot of Quin’s makeshift bed. Alistair had gathered as many spare sleeping bags as possible, setting up in a small unused room near the back of the basement.
“He’s sleeping,” said Alistair, pulling a blanket over Quin’s chest. “I gave him something for the pain. Not that he complained much.” He sighed, rubbing his arm over his forehead. “His ankle’s sprained, and you probably dislocated his shoulder dragging him around. There’s a lump on his head, but nothing serious, I think. A minor concussion, maybe, but it’s hard to tell when he’s…” Alistair waved a hand at Quin. “You know. Some bruising, but nothing internal, I think. You must have broken his fall.”
“Yeah,” said Matheus. “He’s okay, though?”
“At the moment.” Alistair’s gaze followed Matheus as he knelt on the other side of Quin. His lips pressed tight together, and he looked away as Matheus laid his hand on Quin’s chest.
Even through the blanket, Matheus felt the warmth of body heat. His hand rose and fell with each soft breath. He studied Quin’s face, the tiny shifts of expression, the flickering movements beneath his eyelids. He wondered if Quin dreamt of his old life. The hollow feeling expanded in his chest, accompanied by a yearning so strong, Matheus felt as though a rope had been tied around his heart. He wanted Quin back, his Quin. Demanding, and aggravating, and clever, and strangely alive. Matheus wanted all-out screaming matches; he wanted Quin to throw him against a wall and do everything that made Matheus shiver with aching need. The intensity of want shook through his bones, and filled him with a terror he’d never known before. Matheus’ hand clutched at the blanket. He ducked his head, blinking rapidly, trying to coax back the tears.
“Are you sure about this?” Alistair asked, his voice soft. “What if you turn him and he’s the same?”
Matheus inhaled. He pulled his hand away, folding his fingers together. He squeezed, feeling the bones bend beneath his skin.
“He can’t stay like this,” he said, staring down at his hands.
“No,” said Alistair. “I suppose not.” An odd note caught in his voice, one that Matheus had heard before.
“Alistair?” Matheus looked up. “What…?” Words slipped away at the sight of Alistair’s expression. Matheus felt the dizzying sense of déjà vu, a jarring familiarity. Not because he’d seen that look directed at him before, but because he’d felt it. He felt it just then, when he looked at Quin.
“I―” Alistair swallowed hard.
No, thought Matheus.
“I love you,” said Alistair.
The story continues in...Real Vampires Don’t Sparkle, Episode 58: