Fade Out
Chapter Seven

 Rachel Caine

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The next day, Claire sat through classes without any real sense of accomplishment, took a quiz - which she aced - and dropped in on Myrnin's lab around noon. It looked neat and clean again, which was two miracles in a row as far as she was concerned. She went to the bookshelves and started looking over journals, trying to find the most recent ones, although those would be the most difficult to figure out, given that most of his notes would have been taken when he was sick, and mostly crazy.
But she was curious.
She was struggling through last summer's book when Myrnin popped in through the portal, wearing a big floppy black hat and a kind of crazy/stylish pimp coat that covered him from neck to ankles, black leather gloves, and a black and silver walking stick with a dragon's head on it.
And on his lapel was a button that said, IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THANK A TEACHER.
It was typical Myrnin, really. She was surprised the bunny slippers were absent.
"I didn't know you were coming today," he said, and draped his hat, coat, and cane on a nearby coat rack. "And I assume it isn't just a random occurrence, like gravity."
"Gravity isn't random."
"So you say." He came to the opposite side of the table and looked at the book, then turned his head weirdly sideways to read the title. "Ah. Some of my best work. If only I could figure out what it actually meant."
"I was trying to figure out if you ever met a girl named Kim. Kim - " What the hell was her last name? Had anybody even told her? "Kim, something. Kind of Goth?"
"Oh, her," Myrnin said. He didn't sound too impressed, which made Claire just a little happy. "Yes, Kimberlie's known to us. She asked permission to film some of us, for the archives - a sort of permanent record of our histories. As you know, we do value that sort of thing. Many have agreed. She's been named our video historian, I believe."
"You haven't done it, though?"
"I write my own history. I see no reason to entrust it to a human with a video camera. Paper and ink, girl. Paper and ink will always survive, when electronic storage becomes random impulses lost to the ages."
"But the vampires do know her."
"Yes. She's a bit of a pet for the older ones. Besides me, of course. I don't like pets. They bite - ah! I almost forgot! Time to feed Bob." And Myrnin bustled off to another part of the lab, where presumably he'd stashed Bob the spider.
Or possibly Bob the auto mechanic - Claire wouldn't put anything past him. He seemed slightly manic today, from the glitter in his eyes. It made her nervous.
She was about to close the book, when she saw, in his spiky black handwriting, something about her:New girl. Claire something. Small and fragile. No doubt they believe that will make me protec tive of her. It only makes me think how easy it is to destroy her. . . .
She shuddered, and decided she didn't really want to read the rest.
She left Myrnin making little weird kissy faces to Bob the spider as he shook a container of flies into Bob's plastic case, and went to the archives.
Since the first time she'd seen the Vampire Archives - which had been on the run, in a time of war, and it had been a place they'd hit up for weapons - she'd been fascinated by the idea. The vampires were packrats, no doubt about it; they loved things - historical things. Also - apparently - junk, because there were entire vaults of stuff that nobody had gotten around to categorizing yet, and probably never would. But the upper floors were amazing. The library was meticulous, and there was an entire section that contained every known book, magazine, and pamphlet with anything about vampires in it, cross-referenced by accuracy. Dracula scored only about a six, apparently.
Apart from that, the vampires had donated, bought, or stolen six floors of historical texts, in a wide variety of languages. There were even ancient scrolls that looked too delicate to properly handle, and a few wax tablets that Amelie had told her dated from Roman times.
The audiovisual area was new, but it contained everything from samples of the flickers made for penny arcades in the early 1900s to silent film, sound film, color film, all the way up to DVDs. Again, most of it was concerned somehow with vampires, but not everything. There seemed to be an awful lot of costume drama. And, for some reason, musicals.
Claire found the digital video interviews on the computer kiosk, listed by the vampire's name and date of - birth? Making? What did they call it? Anyway, the date they got fanged.
The newest one was Michael Glass.
Claire brought up the player and blinked as Michael fidgeted in front of the camera. He wasn't comfortable. This wasn't being onstage for him, obviously. He messed with the clip-on microphone until Kim's off-screen voice told him to cut it out, and then he sat, looking like he wished he'd never agreed to any of this, until the questions started. The first ones were obvious - name, current age, age at death, original birthplace.
Then Kim asked, "How did you become a vampire?" Michael thought about his answer for a few seconds before he said, "Total stupidity."
"Yeah? Tell me."
"I grew up in Morganville. I knew the rules. I knew how dangerous things were, but when you grow up with Protection, I think you get careless. I'd just turned eighteen. My parents had already left town, my mom was sick and needed cancer treatments, so I was on my own. I wanted to sell the house and get on with my life."
"How's that going for you?"
Michael didn't smile. "Not like I'd hoped. I got careless. I met a guy who wanted to buy the house, somebody new in town. It never occurred to me he was a vampire. He - didn't come across that way. But the second he crossed the threshold, I knew. I just knew."
He shook his head. Kim cleared her throat. "Can I ask who . . . ?"
"Oliver," Michael said. "He killed me his first day in town."
"Wow. That sucks completely. But you didn't become a vampire then, right?"
"No. I died. Sort of. I remember dying, and then . . . then it was the next night, and I couldn't remember anything in between. I was fine. No holes in the neck, nothing. I figured maybe I'd dreamed it, but then - then I tried to leave the house."
"What happened?"
"I started to drift away. Like smoke. I got back inside before it was too late, but I realized after a few more tries that I couldn't leave. Didn't matter which door, or how I did it. I just - stopped being me." Michael's eyes looked haunted now, and Claire saw a shiver run through him. "That was bad enough, but then morning came."
"And what happened?"
"I died," Michael said. "All over again. And it hurt."
Claire turned it off. There was something wrong about hearing this, seeing him let down his guard so completely. Michael had always tried to make it all okay, somehow. She hadn't known how much it had freaked him out. And, she found, she didn't really want to know how it had felt when he'd been made a real vampire by Amelie, in order to be able to live outside of the house.
She knew too much already.
There were about twenty other video interviews in the folder, but there was one that made Claire hesitate, then double-click the icon.
The camera zoomed in, steadied focus, and then the lights came up. "Please give us your name, the date you became a vampire, your birthplace, and your death age." It was Kim's voice, but this time she sounded nervous, not at all the smart-ass Claire knew. "Please."
Oliver leaned back in his chair, looking like he'd smelled something nasty, and said, "Oliver. I will keep my family name to myself, if you please. I was made vampire in 1658. I was born in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, East Anglia, England, in 1599. So as you see, I was not a young man when I was turned."
"Was it your choice?"
Oliver stared at Kim, off camera, for so long that even Claire felt nervous. Then he said, "Yes. I was dying. It was my one chance to retain the power I'd attained. The thieving trick of it was that once I'd made my devil's bargain, I couldn't hold the power I sought to keep. So I gained new life, and lost my old one."
"Who made you?"
"Ah - do you want to say anything about Bishop - "
"No." Oliver suddenly stood up, fire in his eyes, and stripped the microphone off in a hail of static. "I'll do no more of this prying. Past is past. Let it die."
Kim, very quietly, said, "But you killed him. Didn't you? You and Amelie?"
Oliver's eyes turned red. "You know nothing about it, little girl with your foolish toys. And pray to God you never will."
Oliver knocked the camera over, and Kim yelped, and that was it.
Fade to black.
"Enjoying yourself?" Oliver's voice said, and for a second Claire thought it was on the computer screen, then realized that it came from behind her. She turned her head, slowly, to find him standing near the door of the small room, leaning against the wall. He was wearing a T-shirt with the Common Grounds logo on it, and cargo pants, and he didn't look like a five-hundred-year-old vampire. He even had a peace-sign earring in one ear.
"I - wanted to know about the historical interview project, that's all. Sorry." Claire shut down the kiosk and stood up. "Are you going to try to kill me again?"
"Why? Do you want to be prepared?" He cocked his head at her.
"I'd like to see it coming."
That got her a thin smile. "Not all of us have that luxury. But no. I have been schooled by my mistress. I won't raise a finger to you, little Claire. Not even if you ask me to."
Claire edged slowly toward the door. He smiled wider, and his gaze followed her all the way . . . but he let her go.
When she looked back, he was at the kiosk, clicking the mouse. She heard his interview start, and heard his nonrecorded voice murmur a curse. The recording cut off.
Then the entire kiosk was ripped out and smashed on the floor with enough force to shatter a window three feet ahead of her.
Somebody wasn't happy with how he looked on camera.
Claire broke into a run, dodged around another row of books, turned left at the German books to make for the exit -
And tripped over Kim, who was sitting on the floor of the library, staring down at the screen of her cell phone as if it held the secrets of the universe.
"Hey!" Kim protested, and Claire pitched headlong to the carpet. She caught herself on the way down, kicked free of Kim's legs, and crawled backward. "You okay?"
"Fine," Claire said, and got up to dust herself off. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Research," Kim said.
"In German?"
"I didn't say I was looking at the books, dummy. But I could read German. It's possible."
"Do you?"
Kim grinned. "Just curse words. And where's the bathroom, in case I get stuck in Berlin. Hey, what was the crash?"
"Oh. Oliver. He just found the interview you did with him."
Kim's grin left the building. "He killed my computer, right? He just went all Hulk Smash on it."
"He wasn't happy."
"No," Oliver said, and rounded the corner of the aisle. There were flickers of red in his eyes, and his bone-pale hands were curled into fists. "No, Oliver isn't happy at all. You told me you'd destroyed the interview."
"I lied," Kim said. "Dude, I don't work for you. I was given a job to do by the council, with a grant and everything. I'm doing it. And now you owe me for a new computer. I'm thinking maybe a laptop."
She looked way too calm. Oliver noticed it, too. "That wasn't the only copy."
"Digital age. It's a sad, sad world, and it's just full of downloadable copies."
"You're going to bring them all to me."
"Duh, no," Kim said, and closed up her phone. "I'm pretty sure I'm not. And I'm pretty sure you're going to have to just get over it, because this is Amelie's pet project. We didn't even get that far, anyway. It's not like you told me you collect Precious Moments figures or something embarrassing. Get over it." She checked the big, clunky watch on her wrist, and rolled to her feet. "Whoops, time to go. I have rehearsal in half an hour. And hey, so do you, Mitch. No hard feelings, okay?"
Oliver said nothing. Kim shrugged and headed for the exit.
"I don't like her," Claire offered.
"At last, we have something in common," Oliver said. "But she is right about one thing: I have to get to rehearsal."
That sounded very - normal. More normal than most things Oliver said. Claire felt some of her tension slip away. "So how's that going? The play thing?"
"I have no idea. I haven't done a play in a hundred years, and the idea of Eve and Kim being our leading ladies doesn't fill me with confidence." That just dripped with sarcasm, and Claire winced a little.
"A hundred years. What was the last thing you performed?"
Of course.
How rehearsal went Claire didn't know; she headed for Common Grounds, where she was set to meet up with (ugh) Monica. At least it was profitable.
"Money up front," she said, as she slid into the seat across from the mayor's favorite - and only - sister. Monica had done something cute with her hair, and it framed her face in feathered curves. For once, she was alone; no sign of Gina and Jennifer, not even as coffee fetchers.
Monica sent Claire a dirty look, but she reached into her designer backpack, got out her designer wallet, and counted out fifty dollars that she shoved across the table. "Better be worth it," she said. "I really hate this class."
"Then drop it."
"Can't. It's a core class for my major."
"Which is?"
It figured. "So where do you want to start? What's giving you the most trouble?"
"The teacher, since he keeps giving these stupid pop quizzes and I keep flunking them." Monica dug in her backpack and tossed over three stapled tests, which were marked up in green - the teacher must have read somewhere that red made students nervous or something, but Claire thought that with this many marks, the color of the pen was the least of Monica's problems.
"Wow," she said, and flipped the pages. "So you really don't get economics at all."
"I didn't pay fifty dollars for the pleasure of hearing you state the obvious," Monica pointed out. "So yeah. Don't get it, don't really want to, but I need it. So give me my fifty bucks' worth of a passing grade already."
"Well - economics is really game theory, only with money."
Monica just stared at her.
"That was going to be the simple version."
"Give me my money back."
Actually, Claire needed it - well, she needed to have had Monica pay it to her, really - so she came up with a few kind of cool explanations, showed Monica the way to memorize the formulas and when to use them . . . and before it was done, there were at least ten other students leaning in to listen and take notes at various points. That was cool, except that Monica kept demanding five bucks from each one of them, which meant that she got a free lesson.
Still, not a bad afternoon's work. Claire finished feeling a little happier; teaching - even teaching Monica - always made her feel better.
She felt much better when she saw that Shane had come to walk her home.
"Hey," he said as she fell in beside him. "Good day?"
She considered exactly how to answer that, and finally said, "Not bad." Nobody had gotten killed so far. In Morganville, that was probably a good day. "Monica paid me fifty for a private lesson." Shane held up his hand, and she jumped up to smack it without breaking stride. "And yours?"
"There was meat. I sliced it with a big, sharp knife. Very manly."
"I'm impressed."
"Of course you are. So, it's our anniversary - "
"It's not!"
"Well, I told Kim it was, and then I promised to take you out to a nice restaurant."
"With tablecloths," Claire agreed. "I distinctly remember tablecloths."
"The point is, I'm taking you out. Okay?"
"I don't think so. My face is just starting to heal. I've got bruises all over my throat. The last thing I want to do is go to a nice restaurant and have everybody stare at us and wonder if you're abusing me. I wouldn't enjoy my food at all."
"You think too much."
She took his hand. "Probably."
"Okay then. How about a sandwich offered up on a nice, clean napkin, in my room?"
"You're such a romantic."
"It's in my room."
They were about two blocks along from Common Grounds - about halfway home - when the streetlights began to go out, one after another, starting behind them and zooming past as each clicked off. It wasn't quite full dark yet, but it was getting there fast as the last hints of red sunset faded from the horizon.
"Claire?" Shane looked around, and so did she, feeling her instincts start to howl a warning.
"Something's wrong," she said. "Something's here."
A bloody form lurched out of the darkness toward them, and Shane shoved Claire behind him. It was a vampire - red eyes, fangs down, blood splashed on the pale face and hands.
Claire knew him, she realized after a second of pure adrenaline and shock. He was wearing the same ragged, greasy clothes from the last time she'd seen him: Morley, the graveyard vampire who'd tried to ambush Amelie.
He saw Claire and gasped out, "Fair lady, tell your mistress - tell her - "
He lunged for Claire, off balance, and Shane stiff-armed him away. Morley went sprawling on the pavement, and rolled up into a ball.
"It's okay," Claire said, and put a hand on Shane's arm. She carefully crouched down near Morley's bloodstained body. "Mr. Morley? What happened?"
"Ruffians," he whispered. "Tormentors. Hellhounds." Something made him flinch, and he listened for a second, then rolled painfully to his feet. Claire jumped backward, just in case, but Morley didn't even look at her. "They're coming. Run."
Something was coming, all right. Morley stumbled away, moving at a fraction of normal vampire speed, and Claire heard the distant sound of running feet, voices calling to one another, and excited whoops.
In a few more seconds, she saw them - six young men, most no older than Shane. Two wore TPU jackets. They were all drunk, mean, and looking for trouble, and they all were armed - baseball bats, tire irons, stakes. They slowed when they caught sight of Claire and Shane, and changed course to come toward them.
"Hey!" one of them yelled. "You seen an old dude running through here?"
"Why? What did he do, steal your purse?" Shane shot back. Claire dug her fingernails into his arm in warning, but he wasn't paying attention. "Jesus, you idiots, what do you think you're doing?"
"Cleaning up the streets," another one said, and twirled his bat as if he really knew how to use it. "Somebody's gotta. The cops don't do it."
"We heard that one killed a kid," said the first man - the least drunk, as far as Claire could tell, and, also, maybe the meanest. She didn't like the way he was watching Shane, and her. "Drained her dry, right on the playground. We don't let that pass, man. He has to pay."
"You have any proof?"
"Screw your proof. These monsters have been running around killing for a hundred years. We catch them, we teach them a lesson they don't forget." He laughed, dug in his pocket, and pulled out something. He tossed it on the ground in front of Shane's feet. Claire couldn't tell what the scattered pieces were at first, and then she knew.
Teeth: vampire fangs, pulled out at the root.
Shane said, "Knock yourself out, man. He went that way." He nodded in a direction Morley hadn't gone. "Keep up the good work."
"It's Collins, right? Your dad was one hell of a guy. He stood up for us."
Shane's father had been an abusive asshole who didn't care about anyone, as far as Claire had been able to tell; he certainly hadn't cared about Shane. The idea that Frank Collins was becoming the underground hero of Morganville made Claire want to puke.
"Thanks," Shane said. His voice was neutral, and very steady. "I'm taking my girl home."
"Her? She's one of them. One of the Renfields. Works for the vamps."
"No better than the vamps," another put in.
"I heard she worked for Bishop," said a third, who had a tire iron resting on his shoulder. "Carrying around his death warrants. Like one of those Nazi collaborators."
"You heard wrong," Shane said. "She's my girl. Now back off."
"Let's hear from her," said the leader of the pack, and locked stares with Claire. "So? You working for the vamps?"
Shane sent her a quick, warning glance. Claire took in a deep breath and said, "Absolutely."
"Ah hell," Shane breathed. "Okay, then. Run."
They took off, catching the minimob by surprise; alcohol slowed them down, Claire thought, and an argument broke out behind them over whom they should be chasing, humans or vampires. Shane grabbed Claire's hand and pulled her along, running as if their lives depended on it. The streetlights were all out, and Claire had trouble seeing curbs and cracks in the pavement in the dim starlight.
They made it almost a block before she heard a howl behind them. The pack was following.
"Come on," Shane gasped, and pushed her faster. It was harder for Claire; she was a bookworm, not a runner, and besides, her legs were about six inches shorter than his. "Come on, Claire! Don't slow down!"
Her lungs were already on fire. Need to exercise more, she thought crazily. Note to self: practice wind sprints.
Something hit her in the back, and Claire lost her balance and hit the pavement hard. Shane yelled, stopped, and turned to cover her. In seconds, the pack of guys was on them, and Claire saw Shane taking a bat away from one guy and using it to smack the tire iron away from another attacker.
A shadow loomed over her, and she looked up to see a guy who looked about ten feet tall raise a baseball bat over his head, aiming straight for hers.
Claire grabbed him around the knees and yanked, hard. He yelled in surprise as his legs folded, and he fell backward. The bat hit the ground with a clatter, and Claire picked it up as she climbed to her feet. Shane was swinging with precision, taking out weapons and maybe breaking an arm here and there if he had to. All she had to do was stand there and look threatening.
It was over in a few seconds. Something turned for the pack, and they'd had enough. Claire stood there shaking, bat still cocked in the ready position, as the last guy scrambled up off the pavement and lurched away.
Shane dropped his bat and put both hands on her shoulders. "Claire? Look at me. Are you all right? Anybody hit you?"
"No." She felt shaky, and she had some skinned knees and palms from her fall, but that was all. "My God. They were going to kill us. Humans were going to kill us. Because of me."
"It wouldn't have mattered," Shane told her, and kissed her forehead with burning hot lips. "They were going to go after anybody they came across. The vampire thing is just an excuse. God, Claire. Good job."
"All I did was hold the bat."
"You held it like you meant it." He put his arm around her and picked up both bats, slinging them over his left shoulder. "Let's get home."
When they got home, after getting the third degree from Michael, then Eve, they had to answer to the Founder. Not by choice; Claire was all for making a quick phone call to the police and letting it go through channels, but Michael thought Amelie might want to ask more questions.
He must have been right, because as soon as he hung up the phone, a wave of sensation swept through the house - like a gust of wind, only psychic. Claire actually felt the locks she'd put on the portals snap, and the connection open.
Amelie was coming in person.
Michael realized it, too - he and Claire seemed to be more connected to the house than Shane and Eve, generally. "That was fast," he said. "I guess we'd better go up."
"Up where?" Shane asked, frowning.
"Amelie," Claire sighed. "I was hoping for a hot bath, too."
The four of them, in the spirit of solidarity, trudged upstairs to the hidden room. The Tiffany lamps - minus that one pole lamp casualty - were blazing, filling the walls with color and light, but somehow none of it fell on Amelie, who looked pale as bone and just as hard. She was wearing pure, cold white, and her lips seemed almost blue. Her eyes looked more silver than gray, but maybe that was because of the metallic shine of her shirt under the tailored jacket.
Claire wondered why she bothered with the meticulous dressing, when Amelie rarely seemed to leave her home these days; she supposed that growing up as royalty in the distant past had made looking perfect a habit she couldn't seem to shake.
Amelie received the news of the gangs beating up on her vampires without much shock, Claire thought; she sat there looking cool and calm, hands folded, and listened to Shane and Claire's experience without any flicker of expression. There was something in her face when Claire described the handful of pulled vampire fangs that she'd seen, but what it was, Claire couldn't guess. Disgust, maybe, or pain. "Is that all?" Amelie asked. She sounded way too distant. "What of Morley? Did you see where he went?"
"We don't know," Claire said. "He looked - hurt. A lot hurt, maybe."
"I was afraid of this," Amelie said, and got up to pace the floor.
"Afraid of what?" Michael asked. He was leaning against the wall with his arms folded, looking very serious. "Losing control?"
Amelie stopped to frown at the broken pole lamp, trailing pale fingers over the neat slice through the metal. "Afraid that humans might lose their fear of reprisals if I offered too much leniency," she said. "The rules of Morganville existed for a reason. They were meant to protect the strong few from the fragile many. Even a giant may be destroyed by the stings of insects, if there are enough of them."
"That's not what your rules did," Shane said. "They just made it easier for vampires to kill us without letting humans hit them back."
Amelie sent him a cool glance, but didn't otherwise react. "I've received reports of other incidents, less serious than this. It seems these gangs of thugs are growing bolder, and that must be stopped."
"They said something about Morley killing a kid," Shane said. "Anything to that?"
"I doubt it." Amelie met his eyes for a few seconds, then continued to pace. "I've had no reports of children being victimized. As you know, that is strictly against all our laws, human or vampire. I can't say it never happens, but it happens in human society, as well. Yes?"
"Maybe, but why did they take it out on Morley?" She shrugged. "Morley is an easy target, like all the vampires who choose not to declare an allegiance. They are powerful in themselves, but vulnerable. Morley's lived rough and alone for some time. It's not surprising that humans are taking vengeance on those easiest to hunt. In other towns, they target the homeless, as well, do they not?"
"Aren't you going to do anything about it?" Claire asked.
"There are laws. I assume they will be enforced. Until these thugs are caught and punished, I will caution all vampires to be careful." Amelie smiled slowly. "And I will allow them latitude in matters of self-defense, of course. That should put a stop to things quickly."
Claire wasn't so sure of that. First, Morley and his vamps had gotten all pushy with Amelie, and then Oliver had seemed about to bolt from her camp and set up as a pretender to the throne. Now, there were humans roaming around looking for trouble, too. And Amelie just seemed . . . disconnected.
It seemed that, as much as they'd tried to pull Morganville together, it was unraveling all around them.
"I believe I have heard enough," Amelie said. "You may go. All of you."
She kept on pacing, as if she didn't intend to leave. Claire hung back, watching her, as the others descended the stairs, and finally said, "Are you okay?"
Amelie stopped, but didn't look at her. "Of course," she said. "I am - troubled, but otherwise fine. Why do you ask?"
Because you tried to kill yourself two nights ago? Claire didn't think it would be smart to bring that up. "Just - if you need anything . . ."
Amelie did look at her this time, and there was something warm and almost human in her expression. "Thank you." Amelie's personal winter closed in again, leaving her face still and cold. "There's nothing you can do, Claire. Nothing any of you can do. Now go."
That last thing wasn't a request, and Claire took it for dismissal. Shane was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, looking up with a worried not-quite-frown that smoothed away in relief when he saw her coming to join him. "Don't do that," he said.
"Do what?"
"There's something off about her right now. Don't you see that? Don't try to help. Just walk away."
Claire tapped the gold bracelet on her wrist. "Yeah, that'll work."
He pulled her out of the stairwell and shut the hidden door. Michael and Eve were already going downstairs, hand in hand. "It's getting late," he said. "You going or staying?"
"Does it have to be one or the other? Maybe I stay for an hour, then go?"
"Works for me," he said, and took her hand. "I've got a surprise for you."
The surprise was that he'd cleaned his room. Not just randomly picked up a few things, but really cleaned it - everything put away, bed made, everything. Unless . . . "What did you trade with Eve?"
He looked wounded and way too innocent. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. You totally traded with Eve to clean your room for you."
He sighed. "She needed some cash for something, so yeah. But it's good, right? You're impressed I thought of it?"
Claire suppressed a laugh. "Yes, I'm impressed that a boy thought about spending money on a clean room."
"Worth it, as long as you're impressed." He flopped on the bed, leaving space for her, and she curled up next to him in the circle of his arm. Her head rested on his chest, and she listened to the strong, steady beat of his heart. I wonder if Eve misses that, Claire suddenly wondered. I wonder if she forgets, and then . . .
"Hey," Shane said, and tickled her. She squirmed. "No thinking. This is the no-thinking zone."
"I can't help it."
"Guess I'll have to distract you, then."
She was going to say, Yes, please, but he was already kissing her, and his big hands slid around her waist, and all she could think was yes as her blood surged faster, hotter, and stronger.
It was more like two hours before she could even stand to think about going home. The temptation to stay here, curled in Shane's arms forever, was almost overwhelming, but she knew she had to keep her promises.
Shane knew it, too, and as he gently combed the hair back from her face with his fingers, he sighed and kissed her forehead. "You've got to go," he said. "Otherwise, it's parents with pitchforks and torches."
"Hey, me, too. I'll get the keys." He slid out of bed, and she watched the light gleam off his skin as he picked up his T-shirt and pulled it on. It was all she could do not to reach out and pull it off again. "And you really need to get dressed, because if you keep looking at me like that, we're not going anywhere."
Claire retrieved her pants and shirt and put them on, and caught sight of herself in the mirror - for once, in Shane's room, not obscured by random piles of stuff. She looked . . . different. Adult. Flushed and happy and alive, and not really geeky at all.
He makes me better, she thought, but she didn't say it, because she was afraid he'd think that was weird.
Shane borrowed Eve's car to run her back to her parents' house - her home? - and by midnight she was at her bedroom window watching the big, black sedan pull away from the curb and accelerate away into the night.
Mom knocked on the door. Claire could tell her parents apart by their knocks. "Come in!"
When her mom didn't say anything, Claire turned to look at her. She looked tired, and worried, and Claire wondered if she was getting enough sleep. Probably not.
"I just wanted to tell you that I left you a plate in the fridge if you're hungry," Mom said. "Did you have a good day?"
Claire had no idea how to answer that in a way that wouldn't sound completely insane, and finally settled for, "It was okay." She hoped the scarf she'd wrapped around her throat covered up the bruises, which were turning rich sunset colors.
Mom knew that was a nonanswer, but she just nodded. "As long as you're being safe." Which was less about the vampires than about Shane. Claire rolled her eyes.
"I'm serious."
"I know."
"Then stop looking like I'm being an idiot. I'm worried about you getting hurt. I don't doubt Shane means well, but you're just so - " Mom looked for another word, but settled for the obvious one. "So young."
"Not as young as I was when this conversation started."
"Sorry." She yawned. "Tired."
Mom hugged her, kissed her cheek, and said, "Then get some rest. I'll let you sleep in."
The next day Claire missed her first class, because Mom was true to her word and the alarm clock failed in its duty, or at least Claire turned it off before she really woke up. She finally got up around ten o'clock, feeling happy and humming with energy. It might have been the sleep, but Claire knew it wasn't.
She was running on pure Shane sunlight.
Walking to the campus was a delight - the sun was out, warming up the streets and waking a soft breeze that smelled like new grass. The trees were all full of new green leaves, and in the gardens flowers were blooming.
Claire was in such a good mood that when she saw Kim, armed with a video camera, she didn't actually wince.
Kim wasn't paying attention to her, which wasn't much of a change; she was focused on a guy in a TPU jacket tossing a football, who laughed at her jokes as she filmed. Kim circled around him, waved, and kept filming as she approached a group of girls camped out on the lawn under a spreading live oak tree. More laughter, and smiles all around.
Am I really the only one who doesn't like her?
Kim noticed her about the same time that Claire's phone rang. She turned her back on Kim - and the camera - and answered without checking the screen, because she was rattled. "Hello?"
"You bitch." It was Monica's voice. "Where are you?"
"Excuse me?"
"Are you on campus?"
Claire blinked and stepped out of the way of a crowd of students heading out from the English Building. "Uh, no. And why exactly am I a bitch, again?"
"I got that wrong. You are a lying bitch. I can hear the bells!" Monica meant the school's carillon, the tower bells that chimed out a silvery melody at the hour change. For some weird reason, it was playing Christmas music. Maybe somebody had forgotten to change over - or just really liked "O Holy Night." "Where are you - never mind, I see you. Stay right there."
Monica hung up. Claire looked around and saw that Kim was filming her - and Monica was charging down the steps of the English Building, heading her way and trailed by an entourage like a comet's tail. It wasn't just Gina and Jennifer this time; she'd picked up two strange girls wearing designer spring dresses and cute shoes, and a couple of big football-type guys - bland and handsome and not too smart, just the way Monica liked them.
Claire considered running, but not if Kim was planning on gleefully filming the whole thing. She could live with the shame. She just didn't think she could live with the reruns on YouTube.
Monica had gone with a floral pattern minidress, and it looked great on her; she hadn't let her tan go during the winter, and her skin looked healthy and glowy and toned. She strode up to Claire and came to a halt a couple of feet away, surrounded by her fashion army.
It was like being menaced by a gang of Barbie and Ken dolls.
"You," Monica said, and leveled an accusatory, perfectly manicured finger at her. Claire focused on the hot pink nail, then past it to Monica's face.
"Come here."
And before Claire could even think about protesting, Monica had her wrapped up in a hug.
A hug.
With Monica.
Claire got control of herself, at least enough to grab Monica by the arms and push her back to a safe distance. "What the hell?"
"Bitch, you are the best. Seriously, I cannot believe it!"
Monica was . . . excited. Happy. Not about to beat her up.
Wow. "Don't take this the wrong way, but what are you on?"
Monica laughed, reached into her messenger bag, and pulled out a stapled two-page paper. It was an economics test.
And it had, written in the corner in red, A.
"That's what I'm on," she said. "Do you know how long it's been since I got an A? Like, ever? My brother is going to fall over."
Claire handed the paper back. "Congratulations."
"Thanks." Monica's good mood faded, replaced by her more-normal bitch face. "I guess I got my money's worth, anyway."
For some reason, Claire thought about Shane paying Eve to clean his room. "There's a lot of that going around, trust me. Okay then. We're good?"
"For now," Monica said. "Stay available. I've got other classes I suck at."
Claire bit her tongue before she could say, I don't doubt it, and watched Monica and her swirl of hangers-on sweep away, laughing and talking as if they were in their own private shampoo commercial.
She'd almost forgotten about Kim, and when she caught sight of the cold gleam of the camera lens out of the corner of her eye she turned and said, "Cut it out, will you?"
"Not a chance," Kim said cheerfully, camera still running. "Not until I run out of tape."
"It's digital!"
"That's the point. Hey, so, tell me about you and Monica. Secret love affair? Mortal enemies? Are you each other's evil twins? Come on, you can tell me; I won't tell anybody!"
"Except everybody on Facebook?"
"Well, obviously, yeah. Come on, you're wasting my minutes. Talk!"
"I have two words for you," Claire said, "and the second one is off. Fill in the blank."
Kim lowered the camera and switched it off, shaking her dark hair out of her face. "Wow. Who got up on the grumpy side of breakfast?"
"I don't like being on camera."
"Nobody does. That's the whole point. I want to catch people as they really are. That guy, for instance, Mr. Football Dude? He's a douche. I got him to talk long enough that you could actually see he was a douche. It's fun. You should try it."
"No thanks." Claire didn't think the powers that be in Morganville would take especially well to guerrilla film-making, and she wondered if anybody had told Oliver. He didn't seem to like Kim's little projects much.
Maybe it was time for a mocha.
"Hey," Kim said, as Claire started to walk on. "About Shane."
That pulled her to a full stop. "What about him?"
"I just wanted to know - so, are you guys serious or something?"
"Yeah, we're serious." Claire said it flatly, trying not to imagine what Shane might say to the same question. He didn't like to commit. He was committed; he just didn't like to go on the record. "You been filming anywhere else?"
"Sure, all over," Kim said. "Why, you want to see?"
"No. Just curious. What are you planning to do with it?"
"You've seen Borat? Yeah, kind of like that - sort of a mockumentary." Kim gave a one-shoulder shrug, focused on whatever was playing on the tiny screen of her camcorder. "Only with vampires."
"You're filming the vampires."
"Well, not officially. It's a hobby."
It was a dangerous hobby, but Claire guessed Kim knew that. "Just don't film me, okay?"
"Seriously? I'll make you a star!"
"I don't want to be a star."
As she walked away, Kim said plaintively, "But everybody wants to be a star!"