Fade Out
Chapter Three

 Rachel Caine

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The ride in Michael's car felt like a nightmare. Eve had brought loads of blankets, and Claire was almost smothering under them, but she was still cold, and getting colder, as if her thermostat had gone drastically wrong. Her skin was turning white, her fingernails and lips blue.
She was starting to look . . . dead.
Even if she'd been trying to look where they were going, it wouldn't have done any good; Michael's car was vampire-standard, with ultratint on the windows. Human eyes couldn't get anything but murky hints of lights through it, so she just kept her attention on taking another breath, and another.
"Hey, Michael?" she heard Eve say. "Like, soon, okay?"
"I'm already breaking the speed limit."
"Go faster."
A surge of acceleration pressed Claire back in her seat. Shane was holding her, but she couldn't feel it. She'd stopped shivering now, which felt better, but she was also very, very tired, barely able to stay awake. At least the shaking had been something she could hold on to, but now there was nothing but cold, and silence. Everything seemed to be moving away from her, leaving her behind.
"Hey!" She felt something, a flash of heat against her skin, and opened her eyes to see Shane's face inches away. He looked scared. His hands were on her cheeks, trying to force heat into her. "Claire! Don't close your eyes. Stay with me. Okay?"
"Okay," she whispered. "Tired."
"I see that. But don't you go away from me, you hear me? Don't you even think about it." He stroked her skin, her hair, with hands that shook almost as much as she had before. "Claire?"
"I love you." He said it quietly, almost a whisper, a secret between the two of them, and she felt a burst of what was almost warmth travel through her chest. "You hear me?"
She managed a nod, and thought she smiled.
Michael brought the car to a quick, sliding stop, and was out of the car before Claire could register that they'd arrived at their destination. "Hey!" Eve protested, and scrambled out after him. Shane opened the back and lifted Claire out in his arms - or rather, lifted the bundle of laundry that Claire felt like, wrapped in half a dozen blankets.
Moonlight fell blue-white over grass, trees, and headstones.
They were at Morganville's official cemetery - Restland. "Crap," Shane breathed. "Not my idea of a great night out, you know? Claire? Still with us?"
"Yes," she said. She actually felt a little better, and didn't know why. Not good, of course. But not going away anymore.
Ahead, she could see that Michael and Eve were making their way together through the maze of leaning tombstones, crosses, and marble statues. A big white mausoleum dominated the hill at the top, but they weren't going that way - they veered off to the right.
Claire thought she knew where they were heading. "Sam," she whispered. Shane pulled in a breath, let it out, and headed in that direction, too.
It had been months since Sam Glass, Michael's grandfather, had died . . . given his life to save them all, really, but most especially Amelie. He was, as far as Claire knew, the only vampire buried here in the cemetery; he'd had a real service, real mourners, and he was maybe the only vampire Morganville had ever had who was universally liked and respected by both sides.
But he'd been loved, too - by Amelie. By vampire standards, Amelie and Sam's had been a whirlwind relationship; he'd been born in Morganville, hadn't even been a hundred years old when he'd died, but from what Claire had seen, it had been an old-style, intense love affair, and one they'd tried to deny themselves more than once.
They found Amelie kneeling at his grave.
From a distance, she looked like one of the marble angels - pale, dressed in white, unmoving. But her long, pale blond hair was down, falling in waves around her face and down her back, and the icy wind lifted and fluttered it like a flag.
As cold as Claire felt, Amelie looked far colder. There was no grief in her expression. There was nothing - just . . . nothing. She didn't seem to see them as the four stopped near her; she didn't move, or speak, or react in any way.
"Hey," Shane said. "Stop it, whatever you're doing. You're hurting Claire."
"Am I?" Amelie's voice came slowly, and it seemed somehow distant, too, as if she were miles away but speaking through the body in front of them. "Your pardon."
She didn't move. She didn't say anything else. Shane and Michael exchanged looks, and Michael clearly got the message that if he didn't do something, Shane would, and it wouldn't be pretty.
Michael reached out for Amelie, to help her up. And she turned on him, suddenly and completely alive and viciously enraged, eyes flaring bloodred in her stark white face, fangs snapping down in place in sharp, lethal angles. "Do not touch me, boy!"
He stepped off, holding up both hands in surrender. Amelie glared at him - at all of them - for another few seconds, and then returned her stare to the grave in front of her. The red swirled away, leaving her eyes pale gray and once again, distant.
Amelie's surge of rage had burned through Claire like summer, driving off the chill for a moment. She squirmed in Shane's arms, and he let her down. Claire shed blankets, except for the last one, and crouched down across from Amelie, facing her over the grave.
Amelie looked right through her, even when Claire lifted her wrist and showed her the bracelet. The gold was frosting over again, already, and Claire felt the insidious chill coming back.
"You're a coward," Claire said.
Amelie's eyes snapped into focus on her. No other reaction, but that alone was enough to make Claire want to shut up and take it all back.
She didn't. Instead, she took a deep breath and forged on. "You think Sam wants you to sit here and wish yourself to death? I mean, I get that you're hurting. But it's just so high school."
Amelie frowned, very faintly - just a tiny wrinkle of her brow. "What happened to your face?"
Oh. The burns. "Forget about me. What's going on with you? It feels - so cold."
While she was talking, she realized there was something strange about Amelie's hands. She was wearing gloves . . . dark ones. No, that wasn't it. There were spots of white skin showing through the . . .
The blood. Her hands were covered with blood. And there were slashes on her wrists, deep ones. Those should have healed, Claire thought as her skin tightened all over her body, and she shivered in panic-shock. She had no idea why Amelie's wounds stayed open, and kept on bleeding; vampires just didn't do that.
But Amelie had found a way. And that meant she was trying to kill herself, for real. This wasn't some melodramatic cry for help. She hadn't expected help, or looked for it.
That was why she'd been angry.
Claire felt a burst of absolute terror. What do I do? What do I say? She looked up at Michael, but he was standing behind and away from Amelie - he couldn't see what she saw.
Eve, though, did. And unlike Claire, she didn't hesitate. She flopped down on her knees on the cold grass next to Amelie, grabbed the vampire's left arm, and turned it so her wrist faced upward. There was something sticking out of the cut, and Claire might have gone a little faint when she realized that Amelie had stuck a silver coin into the wound to keep it from healing.
Eve pulled it out. Amelie shuddered, and in seconds, the cut sealed itself, and the blood stopped flowing.
"Idiot child!" she snarled, and shoved Eve back as she reached for the other arm. "You don't know what you're doing!"
"Saving your life? No, I pretty much get the concept. Now behave. Bite me and I swear I'll stake you."
Amelie's eyes swirled red, then went back to their normal, not-quite-human gray. "You have no stake."
"Wow, you're literal. Maybe I don't have one now, but just wait. You bite me, and it is on, bitch. . . . I don't mean you're a bitch; it's just an expression. You know?" Eve's chatter was only meant to distract. While she was talking, she took Amelie's right arm and pulled the silver coin out of that cut, too.
The flow of blood from Amelie's hands into the dirt of the grave slowed to a drip, then stopped.
And Claire felt the chill inside her own body fade, too, as Amelie healed. Finally, she could feel her life again - the heat in her body, the beating of her heart. She wondered if that was how Amelie felt all the time - that icy winter silence inside.
If it was, she understood why Amelie was here.
The night rattled through the branches of the trees and swirled Amelie's pale hair around her face, hiding her expression. Claire watched the wounds on the vampire's arms fade from red slashes to pale lines, then to nothing.
"What the hell were you doing?" Michael asked.
Amelie shrugged. "It's an old custom," she said. "Offering blood to the lost. It takes will and ingenuity to do it properly."
"Don't forget stupidity," Eve said. "That kind of thing would kill most people, never mind most vampires."
Amelie slowly nodded. "It might have." Michael, who'd been more appalled than any of them, from the look on his face, finally found something to say. "Why?" he asked. "Why would you do this? Because of Sam?"
That actually got a smile, or at least a suggestion of one, on her pale lips. "Your grandfather would be very angry with me if he thought he was the cause. He'd think me a helpless romantic."
Eve snorted."There's romantic, then there's dramatic, and then there's moronic. Guess which this would be."
Amelie's smile faded, and some of the spark came back into her eyes. She lifted her chin, staring down her nose at Eve. "And you do not wake up daily and paint on your clown makeup, knowing it sets you apart from your fellows? What's the phrase your generation uses? It takes one to know one?"
"I'm pretty sure that phrase was hot about fourteen generations back, but yeah, I get your point. And I may be into drama, but hey, at least I'm not a cutter."
"A what?"
"A cutter." Eve pointed to Amelie's bloody wrists. "You know, bad poetry, emo music, I have to hurt myself to feel, because the world's so awful?"
"That isn't why - " Amelie fell silent a moment, then slowly nodded. "Perhaps. Perhaps that is how I feel, yes."
"Well, too damn bad," Eve said, and there was some freaky chill in her voice that made Claire blink. "You want to waste away by your lover's grave, go for it. I'm Goth; I get it. But don't you dare drag Claire along with you, or I'll chase you down in hell and stake you there."
Even Shane was staring at Eve now as if he'd never seen her before. Claire opened her mouth to say something, and couldn't for the life of her figure out what it would be. The silence went on, and on, and finally Amelie turned her head toward Claire and said, "The bracelet. It warned you of my - situation."
"Warned her? It almost killed her," Shane said. "You were taking her with you. But you knew that, right?"
Amelie shook her head. "I did not." She sighed, and she looked very young, and very human. And, Claire thought, very tired. "I had forgotten that such a thing could happen, though now I think on it, it is very possible. I must apologize to you, Claire. You are feeling better now?"
Claire was still cold, but figured that it had more to do with the icy wind and the cold ground than any magic. She nodded and tried not to show any shivers. "I'm fine. But you lost a lot of blood."
Amelie shrugged, just a tiny roll of her shoulders, as if it didn't matter. "I will recover." She didn't sound overly thrilled about it. "Leave me now. I have amends to make to Samuel."
"You can bleed all over his grave some other time," Eve said. "Come on, lady. Up. Let's get you home."
She reached out, and once again, Amelie let herself be touched. Odd, Claire thought; Michael was the vampire, but Amelie trusted Eve more right now. Michael was feeling that, too; there was a complicated look on his face, mostly worry.
"No biting," Eve said, as she helped Amelie to her feet. The vampire gave her a withering look. "Hey, all my teachers said that repetition was the only way to learn. You got a car or something?"
"Um . . . what about your people? Lurking in the shadows, preferably with a limo?"
Amelie raised a single white eyebrow. "If I had brought an entourage, surely they might have objected to my purpose here."
"The dramatic death scene? Yeah, guess so. Okay, then, we'll give you a ride. Blood bank first, right?"
"Unless you are offering a donation."
"Ugh. No. And don't even look at Claire, either."
"Me neither," Shane put in. "Homie don't play that."
"I wonder, sometimes, if your generation speaks English at all," Amelie said. "But yes, if you would drive me to the blood bank, you may leave me there safely enough. My people" - she gave it just enough of an ironic edge to let them know she found it as funny to say as they did - "will find me there."
They were walking away from Sam's grave, moving slowly and in a tight group, when a shadow stepped out from behind the big marble mausoleum at the top of the hill. It was a vampire, but not the kind Claire was used to seeing around Morganville; this one looked like he lived rough, and without access to showers or personal-grooming equipment.
He also didn't look quite sane.
"Amelie," the man said - at least Claire thought it a man, but it was tough to be sure with the tangle of hair that hadn't been combed since the last century, and the shapeless mass of dirty clothes, topped by a filthy raincoat. "Come to visit your peasants and distribute charity, like olden times?" He had a thick accent, English maybe - but rough, too, not like Oliver's refined voice. "Oh, please, mistress, alms for the poor?" And he laughed. It was a dry, hollow sound, and it grew . . . until it came from all around them, from out of the darkness.
There were more of them out there.
Michael turned, staring into the night; maybe he could see something, but to Claire it was all just shadows and tombstones, and that laughter. Shane put his arm around her.
Amelie shook off the support of Eve's arm and stepped out from their little group. "Morley," she said. "I see you crawled out of your sewer."
"And you've come down from your ivory tower, my lady," he said. "And here we are, meeting in the midden where humans discard their trash. And you brought lunch. How kind."
Ghostly chuckles came from the dark. Michael turned, tracking something Claire couldn't see; his eyes were turning red, and she could see him shifting away from the Michael she knew into something else, something scarier - the Michael she didn't know. Eve sensed it, too, and stepped back, closer to Shane. She looked calm, but her hands were balled into fists at her sides.
"Do something," she said to Amelie. "Get us out of here."
"And how do you imagine I will do that?"
"Think of something!"
"You really are a very trying child," Amelie said, but her eyes stayed fixed on Morley, the scarecrow next to the marble tomb. "I don't know why I bother."
"I don't know why you do, either," Morley said. "Confidentially, your dear old da had the right idea. Kill them all, or pen them up for their blood; this living as equals is nonsense, and you know it. They'll never be our equals, will they?"
"Right back atcha," Eve said, and shot him the finger. Shane quickly grabbed her arm and forced it down. "What, you're Mr. Discretion now? Is it Opposite Day?"
"Just shut up," Shane whispered. "In case you haven't noticed, we're outnumbered."
"And? When are we not?"
Claire shrugged when Shane looked at her. "She does have a point. We usually are."
"You're not helping. Michael?" Shane asked. "What cha got, man?"
"Trouble," Michael said. His voice sounded different, too - deeper than Claire was used to hearing it. Darker. "There are at least eight of them, all vampires. Stay with the girls."
"I know you didn't mean that how it came out. And you need me. Amelie's weak, and you're way outgunned, bro."
"Am I?" Michael flashed them a disconcerting smile that showed fang. "Just stay with the girls, Shane."
"I'd say you suck, but why state the obvious?" Shane's words were banter, but his tone was dead serious, tense, and worried. "Go careful, man. Real careful."
Amelie said, "We're not fighting."
At the top of the hill, with the big white mausoleum glowing like bone behind him, Morley cocked his head and crossed his arms. "No?"
"No," she said. "You are going to walk away, and take your friends with you."
"And why would I do that, when you have such delicious company with you? My people are hungry, Amelie. The occasional rat and drunken stranger really don't make a well-balanced diet."
"You and your pack of jackals can come to the blood bank like any other vampire," she said, just as if she were in charge of the situation, even though Claire could see she was weak and exhausted. "All that's stopping you is your own stubbornness."
"I won't bend my neck to the likes of you. I have my pride."
"Then enjoy your rats," Amelie said, and cast a commanding look at the rest of them. "We're going."
Morley laughed. "You really think so?"
"Oh yes." Amelie smiled, and it felt like the temperature around them dropped by several degrees. "I really do. Because you may like your games and your displays, Morley, but you are hardly so stupid to think that crossing me comes without a price."
This time, it wasn't laughter coming from all around them; it was a low rumble of sound, picked up and carried all around the circle.
"You're threatening us," the ragged vampire said, and leaned against the tomb behind him. "You, who reeks of your own blood and weakness. Who stands with a newborn vampire as your only ally, and three juicy snacks to defend. Truly? You've always been bold, my highborn lady, but there is a boundary between bold and foolhardy, and I think that if you look, you'll find it's just behind you."
Amelie said nothing. She just stood there, silent and icy calm, and Morley finally straightened up.
"I'm not your vassal," he said. "Turn over the prey, and I'll let you and the boy walk away."
Claire guessed, with a sick sensation, that the prey meant her, Eve, and Shane. Shane didn't like it, either; she felt him tense at her side.
"Why would you think I'd do such a thing?" Amelie asked. She sounded only vaguely interested in the whole problem.
"You're a chess master. You understand the sacrifice of pawns." Morley smiled, revealing brown, crooked fangs that didn't look any less lethal for never having seen a toothbrush. "It's tactics, not strategy."
"When I want to be lectured on strategy, I'll consult someone who actually won battles," Amelie said. "Not one who ran away from them."
"Snap," Eve said.
"You know what they're talking about?" Shane asked.
"Don't need to know to get that one. She smacked him so hard his momma felt it."
Morley felt it, too; he took a step toward them, and this time when he bared his teeth, it wasn't a smile. "Last chance," he said. "Walk away, Amelie."
"I can open a portal," Claire whispered, trying to make it quiet enough that Morley, twenty feet away, couldn't hear. Amelie shot her a look, one of those looks.
"If I simply leave in that fashion, even with all of you, he can claim to have driven me away in defeat," she said. "It isn't enough to simply escape."
"Exactly," Morley said, and clapped. The sound was shocking and loud as it echoed off the tombstones. A flock of birds took off from the trees, twittering in alarm. "You must show me the error of my ways. And that, my dear liege lady, will be difficult. You're all hat and no cattle, as they like to say in this part of the world. Unless you count the three with you as cattle, of course. In which case you are short a hat."
"I'm bored with this. Attack, or do nothing as you always do," Amelie said. "We are leaving, regardless." She turned to the rest of them and said, in exactly the same cool, calm voice, "Ignore him. Morley is a posturing coward, a degenerate, a liar. He skulks here because he is afraid that standing with the rest of us will only show him for the sad, lacking beggar that he - "
"Kill them all!" Morley shouted, and blurred into motion, heading for Amelie.
Michael hit him head-on, and the two of them tumbled over headstones. Claire whirled as shadows appeared out of the darkness, moving too fast to see clearly. Her pulse jumped wildly, and she tried to get ready to fight.
And then Amelie said, "Oliver, please demonstrate to Morley why he has been so badly mistaken."
One of the shadows came forward into the moonlight, and it wasn't a stranger at all. Oliver, Amelie's second-in-command in Morganville, was in his kindly shopkeeper disguise - the tie-dyed shirt with the Common Grounds logo on the front, and a pair of blue jeans - and with his graying hair clubbed back in a ponytail, he looked like a typical coffeehouse radical.
Except for his expression, which looked like he was not pleased to be here at Amelie's beck and call, and even less pleased to be dealing with Morley. The shapes coming out of the darkness behind him weren't Morley's people after all, but Oliver's . . . neatly groomed, polished vampires with an edge of chill and distance that made Claire shiver. They were polite, but they were killers.
"Michael," Oliver said. "Let that fool go." Michael seemed just as surprised as Morley - or as Claire felt - but he let go of the other vampire and backed off. Morley lunged to his feet, then paused as he took in the sight of Oliver and all his backup. "Your followers - if one can dignify a starving pack of dogs by such a name - have been persuaded to leave. You're alone, Morley."
"Checkmate," Amelie said softly. "Strategy, not tactics. I trust you see the point."
Morley did. He hesitated a moment, then darted between the cover of tombstones and shadows, and then he was just . . . gone.
Crisis over.
"Well," Eve said. "That was disappointing. Usually in the movies there's kickboxing."
Oliver turned his head slightly, looking at Amelie in a fast, comprehensive glance that fixed on the blood on her hands. His mouth tightened in what looked like disgust. "Are you finished here?" he asked.
"I believe so," Amelie said.
"Then may I offer you an escort home?"
Her smile turned cynical. "Are you worried for me, my friend? How kind."
"Not at all. I am so gratified that I could be of use to defend your honor."
"Michael defended me," Amelie said. "You showed up."
Claire thought, Snap, again. She could see Eve thinking the same thing. Neither of them was quite brave enough to say it, though.
Oliver shrugged. "Strategy, and tactics. I do know the difference. And I have won battles, unlike Morley."
"Which is why I rely on you, Oliver, for your counsel. I trust I can continue to count on you for that."
Their gazes locked, and Claire shivered a little. Morley was bluff; Oliver wasn't. He was the kind of guy who'd do what he said, if he thought he could get away with it. He also wanted Morganville. Maybe not quite enough to kill Amelie to get it, but the line was pretty thin.
In fact, Claire could see the line right now, in the faint and fading scars on Amelie's wrists.
"Michael and his friends were kind enough to offer me an escort to the blood bank," Amelie said. "I will go with them. Perhaps you can summon my car to meet me there."
Oliver's smile was sharp as a paper cut. "As ever, I exist to serve."
"I sincerely doubt that."
Michael fell in next to Amelie, and the five of them moved down the rambling path toward where they'd left the car. When Claire looked back, there was no sign of Oliver and his people, or of Morley. There was just the silent cemetery, and the gleaming mausoleum at the top of the hill.
"Anybody else think that was weird?" Shane asked as they got into the car. Eve sent him an exasperated glance; the three of them were, of course, in the backseat. Amelie had the front, with Michael.
"Ya think? In general, or in particular?"
"Weird that we got through the entire thing, and I didn't have to hit anybody."
There was a moment of silence. Michael said, as he started the car, "You're right, Shane. That is strange."
When Michael parked at the blood bank, Amelie's security detail was already in place, with the limousine parked at the curb. Claire half expected to see those little devices the Secret Service wore curved around their pale ears, but she supposed the vampires didn't really need technology to hear one another. They did wear snappy black suits and sunglasses, though, and the second Michael's car came to a stop, one of them was opening the passenger-side door and offering Amelie a hand. She took it without a bit of awkwardness, graceful as water, and looked back before the door closed to say, "I thank you. All of you."
That was it. From Amelie, though, that was kind of a lot.
"Shotgun," Eve and Shane said at the same time, and promptly launched into rock-paper-scissors to settle things. Shane won, then got an odd look on his face.
"You take it," he said to Eve, who was still holding her scissors position, which had lost to his rock.
"Seriously?" Her eyes widened. "You're giving up shotgun? I mean, you did win."
"I know," he said. "I'd rather stay back here."
Meaning, with Claire. Eve didn't waste any time; she bailed and slipped into the front passenger seat, wiggling in satisfaction. Michael smiled at her, and she took his hand.
Shane put his arm around Claire, and she rested her head on his chest. Warm, finally. Warm, safe, and loved. "Man, dinner must be cold," he said. "Sorry. I know how much you like tacos."
"Cold tacos are good, too."
"Sick." He meant that in a good way. "So, after the tacos, you want to watch a movie or something?"
Claire made a vague sound of agreement, closed her eyes, and without any conscious decision to do it, fell asleep in his arms. She remembered waking up, vaguely, to Shane saying, "Better take her home," and then another very fuzzy memory of his lips pressed against hers. . . .
Then, nothing.
Morning dawned, and she woke up in her twin bed, at her parents' house. The first few seconds she felt nothing but a vague sense of disappointment that she'd wasted the opportunity to stay with Shane, but then all that was wiped out by the incredible heat she felt on her face. It was as if she'd fallen asleep under a sunlamp, except the room was pleasantly dim.
Claire slid out of bed, stumbled over the pile of clothes on the floor - she didn't remember taking them off, but she was wearing a mom-approved cotton nightgown, which meant Shane hadn't taken them off - and made her way into the bathroom.
The blinding lights came on, and they were cruel. Claire whimpered as she stared at the red blotch of her face, with white patches that must have been forming blisters underneath the first layers of skin. She pressed on her face, tentatively; it hurt - a lot. "Really going to kill you, Myrnin," she said. "And laugh, too."
The shower was horrible; hot water turned nuclear when it hit the burns, and she got through it mainly by gritting her teeth and chanting a variety of gruesome and creative ways she could kill her boss. Afterward she felt a little better, but she thought she looked worse. Not a great exchange, really.
She ran into her mother in the hallway, as Mom climbed the last few steps with a neatly folded stack of sheets and towels in her arms. "Oh, you're up, sweetie," Mom said, and flashed her a distracted smile. "Want me to change your - oh lord, what happened to your face?"
Mom fumbled the laundry, and Claire caught the toppling stack. "It's not that bad," she lied. "I, ah, fell asleep. In the sun."
"Honey, that's dangerous! Skin cancer!"
"Yeah, I know. Sorry. It was an accident. These go in the linen closet?"
"Oh - wait, let me take those. I have a system." The threat to take her mother's neatly folded laundry and mess it up had the desired effect; Mom left the subject of Claire's sunburn and focused on the task at hand. "Breakfast is ready downstairs, honey. Oh, dear, your face - can I get you some lotion?"
"No, I've got it already. Thanks." Claire went back to her room, finished dressing, and opened up her backpack. Truthfully, the backpack itself had seen better days; the nylon was ripped and frayed in places, there were stains that Claire was queasily sure were blood over part of the back, and the straps were starting to work their way loose, too. Probably that was because of the amount she crammed into it. She wiggled the books until she was able to pull out her Advanced Particle Physics and the sadly lame Fundamentals of Matrix Computations, which was just about the worst text ever on the subject. Behind that was the giant, backbreaking book of English lit, and all her color-coded notebooks. Behind that was the other stuff. Alchemy and the Hermetic Arts, which wasn't so much a textbook as an analysis of why the whole field was crap. Myrnin hadn't recommended it; Claire had ordered it off the Internet from a Web site run by a guy who was creepily paranoid. Of course, if he knew what she knew, he'd probably run screaming, so maybe paranoia was the right attitude.
At the back, in a special Velcro pocket, were her special supplies - the vampire-related ones: a couple of heavy, silver-plated stakes that she hoped never to have to use; a couple of injectable pens that she and Myrnin had rigged up with the serum Dr. Mills had developed, just in case there were still a few vampires around who hadn't gotten the shot and might be - to put it kindly - unstable. And she wasn't sure Morley from the cemetery didn't qualify, but she was glad she hadn't gotten close enough to use the pen, either.
Folded and shoved all the way to the back was the piece of paper Myrnin had given her with a sequence scribbled on it in symbols. As she did daily, Claire memorized it. She'd test herself later, drawing out the symbols and comparing them against the original. Myrnin had said the reset sequence was only to be used in emergencies, but she had the feeling that if it really got to that point, the last thing she'd have time for would be to try to figure out his sloppy drawing.
She repacked her bag, making sure she could easily slide the books in and out this time, and hefted it experimentally. The strap creaked, and she heard another thread snap. Really need a new one. She wondered where Eve picked up her cute patent leather ones, embossed either with the pink kitty or cute skulls; probably not in town, Claire guessed. Morganville wasn't exactly Fashion Central.
Breakfast was a family thing in the Danvers house, and Claire actually kind of looked forward to it. She didn't often make it back for lunch or dinner, but every morning she sat with her mom and dad. Mom asked her about classes; Dad asked her about her job. Claire didn't know how other families in Morganville worked, but hers seemed pretty . . . normal. At least in the abstract. The specifics were bound to be freaky.
Breakfast over (and, as always, delicious), Claire headed out for school. Morganville was a small-enough town that walking was easy, if you liked that sort of thing, and Claire did - usually. Today, with her gross-looking face throbbing with the heat of the sun, she wished she'd taken up her dad's offer of buying her a car, even if it had come with the attached strings of also seeing a lot less of her boyfriend. She hadn't told Shane that he meant more to her than having a car. That seemed like commitment any guy would find scary.
Claire stopped in at the first open store - Pablo's Market, near the university district - and found a black cloth cap with a brim that shaded her face. That helped, and it made her feel a bit less obviously disfigured . . . until she heard a horn honk behind her, and looked over her shoulder to see a red convertible gliding up next to her on the street.
Claire turned face-forward and kept walking. Faster.
"What is it?" she heard a voice ask from the backseat of the car. Gina or Jennifer; Claire could never tell their voices apart. "It looks kind of human."
"I don't know. Zombie? We've had zombies here, right?" Gina (or Jennifer)'s vocal twin said. "Could be a zombie. Hey, how do you kill a zombie?"
"Cut its head off," a third voice said. There was no doubt about whom that voice belonged to, no doubt at all: Monica. It was cool, confident, and commanding. "Let's find the brain-freak and ask her - she'd know. Hey, zombie chick. Have you seen Claire Danvers, Girl Brain?"
Claire flipped her off and kept walking. Monica - black-haired again, no doubt looking shiny and pretty - was just a vague shadow in her peripheral vision, and Claire wanted to keep it that way.
And she knew, fatalistically, that it was never going to happen.
In fact, Monica didn't like being flipped off. She accelerated the sports car, whipped it around the corner, and came to a hard stop to block Claire's progress across the street. Monica and Gina snapped at each other, probably arguing about the specifics of how to kick Claire's ass without breaking a nail or scuffing a shoe.
Claire gave it up and crossed the street.
Monica threw the car into reverse, and blocked her there, too.
They played the game two more times, back and forth, before Claire finally just stopped and stood there, staring at Monica.
Who laughed. "Oh my God, it is the brain-freak. You know freak is only an expression, right? You didn't actually have to become a circus attraction just for me."
"It's the new thing. High-speed tanning. I'm on the way to an awesome summer glow; you should try it," Claire said. Jennifer actually laughed. She looked immediately guilty. "I'm going to be late for class."
"Good. That'll move the bell curve back toward the middle."
"Only if you actually attended to drag it down."
"Ooooh, zing," Monica said. "I'm crushed, because brains are my only asset. No, wait - that would be you, right?"
Claire sighed. "What do you want?" Because it was kind of obvious they wanted something - and probably something other than just the daily harassment. Monica had worked at cutting her off, after all, and Monica just didn't do work.
"I need a tutor," Monica said. "I don't get this economics bullshit. There are fractions and stuff."
Economics, in Claire's opinion, was voodoo science, but she shrugged. Math was math. "Okay. Tomorrow. Fifty bucks, and before we get into it, I won't take a test for you, steal the answers, or come up with some high-tech way for you to cheat."
Monica raised her perfect eyebrows. "You do know me."
"Yes or no."
"Common Grounds, three o'clock. You buy the mocha."
"Greedy little bitch," Monica said. Business deal concluded, she flipped Claire off with a perfectly manicured finger, smiled, and said, "You look like shit. Love the hat - where'd you get it, Cousin Cletus on the short bus?"
Their laughter lingered, along with the exhaust, as the three girls sped off on their usual mission of chaos and destruction.
Claire took a deep breath, pulled the hat down lower over her face, and went across the street to enter the gates of Texas Prairie University.
Claire loved classes. Oh, not the actual lectures, really - professors were, as a rule, not that exciting in person. But the knowledge. That was right there for the taking, as much as you could grab and hold on to - more than you ever wanted, in some classes.
Like English Lit, which she still didn't know why she had to take, and which was her last class of the day. It wasn't as if the Bront? sisters were going to make a difference in her daily life, right? Not like math, which was underneath everything from cooking to construction to going to the moon. No, science was definitely cooler.
At least until today, when her attention was temporarily pulled in by the class assignment.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
It was the strangest thing to read those words of Oscar Wilde at the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and think of Myrnin saying them, because it was eerily like the kind of explanation he'd give. It gave Claire a strange little lurch, wondering if Myrnin had ever met Oscar Wilde, who had been quite a partyer, apparently. She'd never really considered the lives of vampires much, but now reality set in, and it was strange.
For Myrnin - and Oliver, and Amelie, and most of the vampires she'd ever met - history wasn't just stuff written in a book, or sometimes captured in an old, stiff photo. For them, history happened day after day after day. Oscar Wilde had just happened a whole lot of days ago.
She bet Myrnin had met him. Probably borrowed his hat or something.
That thought distracted her so much, she didn't hear her phone ring at first; she'd set it to ultrasonic, so the professor rambled on down on the stage of the stadium-seating room without noticing a thing. Those around her did, though, and she smiled an apology, switched it to silent, and checked the name on the tiny screen. It was Eve. Claire texted her back - IC for in class. It was their standard code. Eve texted CG ASAP OMG. Meaning, get to Common Grounds as soon as she could.
Claire smiled and folded up the phone, and refocused on the professor, who hadn't noticed a thing. The last ten minutes of class seemed to crawl by, but she did try to pay close attention. If she was going to seriously ask Myrnin about Oscar Wilde, it might help to actually know something about the dude. Something other than he was snarky, and more or less gay.
After class, Claire jogged through the campus quad, across the grass, and out to the gates. It was still midaft ernoon, so there was loads of time left before sunset. That was a good thing, because it was kind of nice to be out in the fresh air before it got, as Eve liked to title it, THTL - too hot to live, which lasted from about June through October. It didn't take long to make the trip to Common Grounds. Claire kept her head down, mostly using the cap shading her face to keep passersby from staring at her in horror.
She got to Common Grounds, and for the first time it occurred to her that the place might very well be totally packed, and she might really get stared at, for real. Wonderful. Well, nothing she could do about that.
Claire took a deep breath, pulled the door open, and stepped inside. The interior was dim after the brilliant sunlight, and she blinked away glare and looked around the room. It was crowded, all right - maybe forty people clustered around small cafe tables, drinking their mochas and lattes and espresso shots. Students, at this hour. The mix of caffeine enthusiasts changed after dark.
Everybody stared as she passed. Claire tried to pretend it was because of how fabulously cute she was, but that was a leap of faith she really couldn't make, and now her sunburn was worse because she was blushing on top of it, and also, ow.
Eve was all the way toward the back, jammed into a corner and defending an empty chair across the table with sharp glares and careful deployment of harsh words. She looked relieved as Claire dropped into the seat, leaned her heavy backpack against the table leg, and sighed, "I really need coffee."
Eve stared at her face for a few long seconds, then said, "And I can see why. Yo! Mocha!"
She snapped her fingers.
She snapped her fingers at Oliver, who was behind the counter pulling espresso shots. He looked up at her with blank contempt. "Yo," he repeated with poisonous sarcasm. "I am not your waitress."
"Really? Because we tip, if that helps. And you'd look really good in a frilly apron."
Oliver slammed back the pass-through hinged section of the bar and came out to stand over their table, giving them the full benefit of his presence. And that, to put it mildly, was intimidating. "What do you want, Eve?"
"Well, I'd like the blue-plate special of you thrown out of Morganville, with a side order of dead, but I'll settle for a mocha for my friend." Eve tapped purple metallic fingernails against the china of her coffee cup, and didn't look away from Oliver's glare. "What you going to do, Oliver? Ban me for life from your crappy shop?"
"I'm considering it." Some of the aggression faded out of him, replaced by curiosity. "Why are you challenging me, Eve?"
"Why shouldn't I? We're not exactly besties," Eve said. "And besides, you're a jerk."
He smiled, but it wasn't a nice sort of smile. "And how have I offended you recently?"
"You were totally going to screw us over last night, weren't you?"
Oliver's smile faded. "I came when Amelie called. As I always do."
"Until you don't, right? Sooner or later, she's going to ring the little bell and faithful servant Ollie isn't going to show up to save her ass. That's the plan. Death by slacking, and you don't even get your hands dirty."
"And how is that any business of yours, in any case?" Oliver's eyes were dark, very dark, and full of secrets that Claire wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"It's not. I just don't like you." Eve tapped her talons again. "Mocha?"
He glanced at Claire's blistered face and said, without too much sympathy, "That's quite disfiguring."
"I know."
"A week should see it right." Which was, weirdly, kind of comforting in its dismissal of her problems. "Very well, mocha." But he didn't leave. Eve widened her eyes and looked irritated.
"It's customary to pay for things you buy."
"Oh, come on. . . ."
"Four fifty."
Claire dug a five-dollar bill from the pocket of her jeans and handed it over. Oliver left.
"Why are you doing that?" she asked Eve, a little anxiously. Because hey, it was cool and everything, to get in Oliver's face, but it was also not exactly safe.
"Because they cast him as Mitch, which means I have to pretend to actually like the dude. Ugh."
"Oh, the play. Right. I, uh, looked it up. Looks interesting." Claire said that kind of halfheartedly, because it didn't, at least to her. It sounded like a lot of middle-aged people having melodrama.
"It is interesting," Eve said, and brightened up immediately. "Blanche is sort of really the symbol of the way women oppress themselves; she just can't live without a man. Come to think of it, based on that, I guess Oliver's casting was genius."
"So . . . you're playing a woman who can't live without a man?"
"It's a stretch, but the director wanted to do this post-modern kind of take on it, so he went with Goth girls for Blanche and Stella."
"Goth girls, plural," Claire repeated. "I kind of thought you were the only one in town."
"Not quite."
"Eve? You 911ed me?"
"Oh - uh, yeah, I did. I wanted you to meet - oh, there she is! Kim!"
Claire looked around. A girl had just come in the door of the coffee shop, not quite as Goth as Eve, but quite a bit farther down the curve than anybody else in the room. She had long black hair, dyed jet-black, with bubble-gum pink stripes. Her makeup was mostly eyeliner. She wore less-outrageous stuff, but what she did wear seemed kind of grim - black cargo pants, plain black shirt,black leather wristband, which had (of course) a vampire symbol on it.
Kim had signed up with a vampire named Valerie, apparently. Claire didn't know much about her, but she supposed that was a good thing. If nobody was talking about her, Valerie was probably playing by the rules. Mostly.
"Hey, Eve," Kim said, and slid into the third chair at the small table. "Who's the burn victim?"
Claire felt herself stiffen, she just couldn't stop herself. "I'm Claire," she said, and forced a smile. "Hi."
"Hey," Kim said, and dropped Claire like a bad boyfriend to focus on Eve. "Oh my God, did you hear they cast Stanley?"
"No! Who?" Eve leaned forward, wide-eyed. "God, tell me it's not that kid from high school."
"No. Guess again."
"Um . . . no clue."
"Get out!" Eve jiggled in her chair, grabbed Kim's hands, and then they both let out a wild, high-pitched scream of excitement.
Claire blinked as a mocha was thumped down in front of her. She looked up at Oliver, who was studying her with cool, distant eyes. He raised his eyebrows, didn't speak, and went back to his job.
"Who's Radovic?" Claire asked, since he seemed to be the most exciting thing since indoor plumbing. She couldn't remember which character Stanley was, but she thought he was the wife-beating rapist - not somebody she felt inclined to squeal over.
"He runs the motorcycle shop," Eve said. "Big biker dude, shaved head, muscles TDF."
"TDF?" Claire cocked her head. "Oh. To die for." She lowered her voice. "So, is he . . . you know?" She mimed fangs. Both of the Goth girls laughed.
"Hell no," Kim said. "Rad? He's just cool, that's all. In that dangerous kind of way. I think he's way more scary than any of them I ever met." By which she meant vampires.
"I guess we don't meet the same ones," Claire said.
"Because mine? Plenty scary." And . . . she knew that all of a sudden, she was trying to one-up Kim, and she didn't like that about herself. She also didn't like Eve and Kim being besties all of a sudden while she was sitting like a poor, pathetic lump on the sidelines with her disfigured face, with Oliver bringing her sympathy mocha.
That was just sad.
Kim barely glanced at her. "Yeah?" She sounded totally uninterested. "Hey, E, can I catch a ride to rehearsal tonight? Would you mind?"
"Nope. Hey, can I come in and see what you're working on?" Eve threw Claire a quick smile. "Kim's kind of an avant-garde artist. She's really cool; I love her stuff." There was a real glow in Eve's eyes, an excitement that made Claire feel cold and a little pissed off. I'm your friend, she wanted to say. I'm cool, too, right? So she wasn't some weird artist type who made art out of used toilet paper rolls and chicken bones - so what? What made that cool, anyway?
Eve didn't hear all the mental arguments. Kim said something about the script, and they both got out their copies and flipped pages, talking about theme and motif and things Claire honestly couldn't care less about, because she was now officially in a miserable mood.
She gulped the mocha as fast as humanly possible, given that Oliver had heated it up to the surface temperature of lava. She felt truly betrayed, not just because Eve had dragged her into the middle of Common Grounds with her face looking like undercooked hamburger, but because she was sitting there chattering away with Kim, ignoring Claire's presence entirely now.
As Claire got up, though, Eve blinked and looked at her. "You're leaving?"
"Yeah." Claire couldn't bring herself to sound too apologetic. "I need to get home."
"Oh. I'm sorry, I just thought - I thought you'd like to meet Kim, that's all. Because she's cool."
"It's nice to meet you," Kim said. She didn't sound all that sincere about it, but more like she wished Claire would hurry up and hit the bricks so she could get back to her BFF-fest with Eve. "Hey, you guys live in that house with Michael Glass and Shane Collins, right? What a couple of hotties!"
Claire didn't like that Kim had even noticed Shane, much less knew his last name. Eve didn't seem to mind at all. She just nodded, eyes wide. "They are, right? Man candy. We know!"
Claire grabbed her backpack. "I really have to go."
"Claire - you okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. Kim was kind of smirking at her behind her drink, and Claire had a wild impulse to dump that coffee all over her.
But she didn't.
"Bye?" Eve said, and made it a kind of pathetic question. Claire didn't answer. She just pushed past Kim's chair, not being too careful about it, and headed for the door.
Behind her, she heard Kim's clear, carrying voice say, "Wow, what crawled up her ass and didn't die?"
Claire threw a venomous look back over her shoulder, and saw Oliver watching her with a very slight frown grooving his forehead. Eve looked stricken, clearly surprised at Claire's departure. Kim . . . Kim wasn't even watching her. She just lifted one shoulder in an I-can't-be-bothered shrug.
Then Claire was outside, taking deep breaths of the dry air and lifting her face to the sudden, swirling push of the wind. Sand hissed over the sidewalk, blown in from the desert.
Claire, miserably aware that she was in a horrible mood, walked home with the feeling that everyone, absolutely everyone, was watching her.