The alarm clock woke Ivan Jones just before dusk, launching into some millennial (was it zoomer now?) talk radio:
“...Pill testing saves lives—”
Ivan smacked the radio into silence with a closed fist. He didn’t need to hear about pill testing anymore. He wouldn’t be going to any music festivals anytime soon.
Five minutes later, the radio started up again:
“...Far as I see it, both parties—”
Thwack. Ivan didn’t care about politics anymore. Even when he did, he usually forgot to vote. Nick had yelled at him when he’d admitted that.
“...This album has such a chill vibe—”
Thwack. Tremontaine desperately needed a good rock station.
When the clock worked up the courage to speak again, Ivan opened his eyes to find his best friend’s ghost standing at the end of his bed. He was naked as a body awaiting the mortician, confronting Ivan with the awful sheen of his skin, deathly white and almost mineral. Knife tipped fangs protruded from his top lip.
Great, he thought, fighting back the wave of guilt that accompanied the image. I hate this nightmare. He rolled over in his bed, curling an arm over his head, trying to block the perfect young corpse from view. "Get it over with," he groaned. "Tell me how it's all my fault."
Instead of letting loose with the usual accurate and damning accusations, Nicholas Collins tilted his head. “What’s all your fault?” he asked, in his real voice, not the raspy, pained hiss that Ivan’s dreams gave him, but painful in its own right. “Did you leave the milk out again?”
"Oh," Ivan groaned. "You're really here. Thank fuck."
Ivan winced as Nick definitively confirmed his presence by jabbing him in the foot with a sharp toenail. “Lay off the smoke, man, it’s making you weird. Now get up, Nessa’s gonna be here in like, half an hour.”
Barbarously, Ivan brushed his teeth over the kitchen sink, all the better to watch the stream playing on his computer in the living room. The wifi speed in the Tower of Nod was probably proof against Einstein’s theory of relativity. It was the one thing Ivan liked without reservation about his apartment. It wasn’t a bad place at all. In fact, it was better than Ivan probably deserved. Nick’s… new mothers had been kind to him. But he always felt like an intruder inside it. Its surfaces were all black marble and silver trimming, with thick carpet of maroon velvet. The walls were adorned with oil paintings, faintly Biblical seeming but somehow wrong even to Ivan’s agnostic brain. A couple had troubled Ivan so badly, he’d gone so far as to take them down and stuff them into the closet, replacing them with band posters scavenged from his old apartment. They honestly matched up well with the decor, in a much more brainlessly metal way. But Ivan still didn’t like how well the curtains blocked sunlight…
"Alright, Sylvernus, roll for intimidation against the gnoll sentries."
"That's a thirteen, Nate."
Ivan shared a wince with his favourite dungeon master as he ran his toothbrush across his molars.
"Oof. Tough break, Syl. Looks like these ones don't really speak the common tongue, and you're just not quite scary enough to get the point across."
"Nate, we're being raided."
"Oh, hey! So we are. Welcome aboard. Looks like we have some raiders from Under The Hammer Gaming™!”
Cheers and “yays” echoed from the computer’s speakers.
“Great to have you with us, guys,” said Nate. “Now, Ursula, you wanted to set off a fireball if Syl couldn't scare them away?”
"Well, now's the time. Let me just roll for dex and—Damn! Nailed them!"
Ivan whooped and pumped his fists in the air, toothpaste scrum falling from his mouth like rabid foam. “Fuck yeah, Urs. Give it to 'em!”
"This is shiiiiiiit," Nick droned, legs dangling over the back of Ivan's couch, sporadically kicking at the air.
Ivan jabbed a finger at him. “You get your naked butt off my good leather, boy.”
“I don’t sweat or piss, Ivan,” Nick retorted. “And it’s the Moms’ leather anyway so nhha.”
Ivan didn’t like being reminded of the particulars of Nick’s new biology. He also didn’t like him calling the Lennox sisters “The Moms.” Did Val know about that?”
“Syl lands a critical hit on the gnoll chief!” Nate roared triumphantly.
“Laaame,” said Nick. “You know video games come with pictures, too? Sometimes the voice actors are even good.”
Nick’s tiny hipster bullshit, though, was a welcome distraction. Ivan managed a crooked smile. “Shut up, man. Just because we aren’t all into podcasts about the French Revolution and fucking Power Rangers…”
Nick managed to flip into a standing position on the couch cushions, folding his arms. “I do not watch Power Rangers.”
Ivan laughed. “I’ve seen our Netflix history, kid. Don’t front. Are you planning on getting dressed today?”
“Yep,” said Nick. He grinned, revealing all his pearled, incredibly regular teeth. “Agatha’s got some stuff she wants done. Important, she says.”
Ivan shoved his toothbrush into his mouth and scrubbed furiously. It was the only way to stop himself from frowning. Was Agatha the new him? Ivan gargled and spat out the mint tainted water. Then he washed the flecks of toothpaste out of his new beard. He’d grown the thing on orders from Winona Lennox, lest somebody recognize him from the news. It still itched. He’d managed to deodorize and pull on his intermediately fancy work shirt when there was a knock at the door. “I’m decent!” he called.
Inessa Lennox opened the apartment door. She was unambiguously Winona’s daughter, with the same desaturated tan as her mother, aunt, and baby siblings. Ivan liked that tan. It made them look less dead than white folk vampires. She looked about Ivan’s age, which he guessed meant she was in her seventies, or even eighties. Her hair was dyed in bi-flag blues, pinks and purples, which Ivan was told led to interesting results when she assumed feline form. With her patch-mottled leather jacket, artfully torn denim jeans and neon green lipstick, the only thing spoiling her anime punk look was a complete dearth of piercings. Too much trouble, she said. They healed too fast.
Nick waved casually at the vampiress. “Hi, Nessa.”
Ivan blushed and pointed at Nick. “Ah, I should've said, he isn’t decent.”
Nessa snorted. “Like I was at his age. Ready to embrace the night?”
Right as she asked, Nate Rhodes said, “That’s a wrap for now, Rhodes Bros™. Next time, the Riverlands Adventure Company™ faces the Marquis of Tears!”
One of the party members laughed. “Spoilers, man!”
Ivan smiled at Nessa. “Right in time, actually.”
Nessa and Ivan made their goodbyes to Nick and headed out. Ivan tried not to wonder what the night held for his friend.
“So what was that on your computer?” Nessa asked as they waited for an elevator.
Ivan smiled. Nessa was the DJ at Gethsemane, Winona’s oldest standing nightclub, and the best boss Ivan had ever had. Sometimes, Ivan forgot that was the deal between them. She was the kind of person who asked you questions for no other reason than to hear you speak.
“Nate Rhodes. Podcaster. Runs these awesome Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.” Ivan had been a fan of Nathaniel Rhodes for years. It was hard to avoid. The man had an impossible number of projects going at any one time. He’d started out reading silly product reviews with some other fellas whose names Ivan couldn’t remember. They’d all retired, faded away, or been outright cancelled since, but Nate Rhodes had risen and risen, defying all career entropy. Since then, he’d dabbled in true crime, media crit, stand up, done guest spots on every podcast worth listening to, and of course, gaming campaigns. Ivan had been following those since before… everything that happened.
He suddenly remembered how old Inessa was. “Ah, you know what Dungeons and Dragons is, right?”
Nessa laughed as the elevator doors slid open, gently but firmly pulling Ivan inside with her. It felt like a practised movement to him. “Ivan, I was running homebrews when you were still stuck in your dad’s nethers. I remember when they started letting non-human PCs have classes.” She thumped Ivan on the shoulder. “You guys have such sour grapes.”
Ivan couldn’t help but laugh. As they descended, Nessa started talking shop, “Christmas is heading for us like a fucking bullet train—”
Didn’t have to tell Ivan that. He could already hear the fucking Christmas music drifting up from the lobby. He’d started counting all the times they’d played “Christmas Wrapping” at the club. Hundred and twelve, already, and Christmas was still five days away. Still, he liked tending the bar at Gethsemane. He was learning to mix some badass cocktails. He liked talking to folks who breathed.
“...My lot don’t like being out and about on Christmas. Bible-thumpers and church bells and Santa and all that—”
Ivan took it for granted Santa was real now. Everything else was. The elevator doors opened onto the lobby and Mariah Carey.
“...Me and mine will all be wanting to have our fill before the old saint rides out, so from now till Christmas Eve, all drinks are half price. Mom’s orders. Feeding goes way smoother if your kind’s already out of their heads a bit.”
Ivan nodded automatically. “I got it.”
Gethsemane was a cool joint. It was also a feeding ground for the Old Colony’s vampires. Drunk chicks and college kids with false IDs would be pulled into the shadows and drained to the boundary of survival and satiety, the vampires’ relying on their magic spit to stop them bleeding out or realizing what was being done to them. Nessa’s music covered up the cries of anyone who reacted badly. Ivan’s job was to get them drunk enough in the first place that they didn’t notice the fangs. Very humane, Winona had told Ivan.
“Got all that, Ivan?”
Ivan nodded again.
Nessa grinned and slapped him on the back. “Right on, man. You’re way better than the last bar guy. Total fuck-up. We had to…” Nessa thought better of continuing with that. “...Fire him.”
Ivan smiled wanly. “Sure you did.”
Clear glass doors parted. Ivan Jones stepped out into the cold, the dead-born woman following close behind.
Nick waited till nightfall to head out. Agatha had made him promise. Tabby was right: Glasses Mom could be totally overprotective. She’d been iffy about Nick moving into Tremontaine proper, but Winona had brushed aside her sister’s objections.
“It’s the 21st century, sister. He’ll be fine.”
In the end, Nick didn’t really move out of the Lennox house. They were his family now. But every good cat has two homes.
Nick used the time to devour a couple of oranges and a banana, dance to some femmy old 80s music he wouldn’t have dared to have in his search history back when he’d felt shame, and checked for one of his mother’s coded emails. Nothing today. Nick considered sending her one himself. Would it be weird for a vampire to say “Merry Christmas” to his half Jewish mother? Maybe just Happy Holidays? It’d probably make the Minister’s ears burn. He decided to wait till New Year’s.
He dressed as darkness finally settled over the city. All the clothes the Moms had stowed in the apartment for Nick had a faint 70s whiff about them, but that was okay. Nick had gotten used to being dressed again occasionally. Shoes, though, were still inventions of the Old Father designed specifically to punish Nick. His current pair of ratty sneakers had lasted five days, a record.
As he slipped his jacket over his striped sweater and corduroy trousers, Nick regarded one of the apartment’s oil paintings. Most of them he’d come to recognise. A young Lilith, barely older than Nick himself, favouring a distant Adam with a last sad glance as she left him behind. A crowd of lilim filing into the mouth of Leviathan to escape the Great Flood. Lilith as a grown woman, a snake coiled sensually around her body. That one was the work of a human artist, according to Agatha. But there was one painting whose subject Nick had no clue of. It depicted a young man—a teenager, really—in a loincloth, weeping with his back against a tall white rock. A naked girl was crouched before him, seemingly trying to examine his tears. Nick assumed from the red hair that it was Lilith, which also made him think the boy must’ve been Abel. Except that didn’t make sense. Lilith had only… met Abel after he’d died. And the people in the picture were the same age…
Eh. Nick still reckoned it was all bullshit anyway. He doubted he’d ever care enough to ask Aggie or Winona. He took up the saddle bag containing the cargo Agatha had trusted him with, and headed out. As he strolled down the quiet hallways of the apartment building, Nick decided to take the high road tonight.
Nick ducked into the stairwell and started climbing upwards. He passed a janitor sweeping on one of the landings. “Merry Christmas, Hal.”
“Merry Christmas, Nick,” grunted the old man. He didn’t question why Nicholas was heading for the roof exit. Children that pale and that pretty did what they liked in the Tower of Nod, and Hal wasn’t one for questions anyway. Not with a good paying job and a sickly granddaughter. Promises had been made, but those promises had conditions…
Nick opened the heavy door and stepped out onto the building’s roof. Broken glass glinted from dark concrete and slicks of snow. Shimmering nimbuses of hot air rose from farms of air conditioners, red and orange nebulas to Nick’s thermal sensitive eyes. They could even make out some stars behind Tremontaine’s protective haze of light pollution. Pinprick satellites and airplanes glided through the still lights like fireflies flitting past veins of diamond.
The high winter air struck Nick, dancing through his open jacket and tickling his face and hands. Vampires still felt the cold. It was simply interesting. “It’s a bit like jumping in a swimming pool… full of air,” he’d tried explaining to Ivan. He hadn’t understood.
Nick didn’t think Ivan understood much about what he was now. The first night he’d visited the apartment, Ivan had thought he had to invite Nick in. As if Tabby hadn’t come and gone as she pleased back at his old place. Sometimes it was funny, other times it was deeply annoying. It didn’t help that he'd gotten so serious lately. Ivan now insisted they not just order pizza or Chinese every night. He tried to make Nick eat with a knife and fork and bathe every single night. He’d even yelled at Danny once, just because he’d dropped in while nobody was home. What was he supposed to do, stand outside? Ivan didn’t even say thanks for the defragging!
Nick shook his head. No use worrying about Ivan. Nessa was looking after him. He was making dentist money for pouring drinks. He’d get over this pretend grown-up thing. And if the cops or the Sons of Hel or anyone else came looking for him, Nick would tear their frickin heads off.
Nick made sure his bag was closed tight, hugged it to his chest, turned eastwards, and ran for the edge of the roof. He leapt into the open air, tucking his legs into his chest and letting the world tumble around him. He bounced off the roof of the squat office building next door, then sprung off the side of the Tower, landing deftly in the alley between them. Nick entered the stream of humanity flooding the streets with a huge smile. If anyone had seen him jumping down from the tower, they didn’t say anything. Nick wasn’t surprised. Humans never looked up. They didn’t notice that his breath did not fog, or that the snowflakes that settled on his exposed skin did not melt. Nobody even cared that he was a child alone on the streets. It was the most perfect form of freedom: indifference.
Christmas Eve was still far enough away for the cheer in the streets to feel real. The crowd was thick, but not rushed. People walked with steaming coffees and paused in front of lavish window displays. Red and green Christmas lights complimented the white fluorescent bulbs installed in old gaslight fixtures. The humans themselves only added to it; walking riots of crimson and gold, wrapped up tight to keep their colour from bleeding away into the cold air. Snatches of the same old Christmas songs escaped from every open door, lyrics so drained of meaning by endless repetition they’d become a kind of animal bleat, like Pokémon repeating their names. Little of this was new, of course. Nick remembered the first Christmas decorations being put up days before Halloween, but now the season was ripe enough for consumption.
The bells of the nearby Cathedral of the Holy Cross rang out the hour, stinging Nick’s ears. Damn churches. But it also reminded him of his first errand for the evening. He turned into a cobblestoned pedestrian arcade, where buskers and bums alike competed with Salvation Army Santas for coins, and ducked inside an ice-cream bar.
Nick ordered a strawberry milkshake while he waited. The pop-singer singing over the store PA desperately tried to infuse the syllables “rum-pa-pa-pum” with more meaning and emotion than they were ever meant to bear. Nick spotted the guy the second he walked in: a tall, skinny dude with a long narrow beard. The only difference between him and Ivan’s old clients were the blue stars tattooed on his palms. Agatha had told Nick to look out for those, and they were hard to miss with how much the guy was fretting his hands.
Nick bounded over cheerfully to the man and hugged him round the waist. “Hi Uncle Ted!”
“Uncle Ted” flinched briefly, before looking down and letting out a dry, pained chuckle. “Ah, hi… sonny.”
Nick beamed up at the man with his eye-teeth, arms still wrapped tight around him. “Did you bring me a present?”
The two found a table. Nick’s uncle-for-the-moment didn’t order anything. He was busy staring at Nick’s pink milkshake. The child sipped from his paper straw, then tilted the cup towards him. “Want a sip?”
The man suppressed a shudder. Nick smiled. This was the big difference from his days with Ivan. He’d never been able to intimidate their clients. Lilith knows he’d tried. Nick reached into his bag and removed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box, sliding it halfway across the table. “My mom got you this.”
Uncle Ned’s eyes darted about the place, and he forced a smile. He hastily unwrapped the box, opened the lid, and counted the ten thousand dollars inside. His smile became a touch more genuine. “Thanks.” He too removed a box from his own bag. Much to Nick’s displeasure, it wasn’t gift-wrapped. Was he the only one making an effort?
Nick sliced the box open with a fingernail. Inside was a yonic pendant carved from bone, with minute, obscure symbols scrimshawed around the cleft. Nick looked up at Uncle Ted. “African, right?”
The warlock scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah. Mali, I think. Can I go now?”
Nick was a vampire, not a wizard, but touching the thing felt like sticking his hand in a bubble bath, and it looked like Agatha said it would. It would have to do. Nick made a shooing gesture, not looking at Uncle Ted.
The man walked hastily back out onto the street, Nick’s “present” held close to his heart. Some things never changed.
Nick sat under the restaurant table, scratching carvings into the underside and resisting the temptation to interfere with the three sets of legs encircling him. He’d come to name each diner after their shoes. Kitten Heels was currently talking about a Housing Association Meeting, where she and her cohorts had succeeded in making her neighbourhood much worse for the foreseeable future:
“They were talking about a two-fifty parking maximum. Utter shambles…”
Next to Kitten Heel, Ugg Boots was scrolling on her phone, the lucky bitch. Opposite both of them, Target: Derbys was making vaguely affirmative noises, throwing in the odd “Yes,” or “I can imagine,” clearly biding his time till he could retake the reins of the conversation. Nick had his ears peeled for a waiter. You knew this place was expensive, because it took them ages to take your order. That and the vaguely Christmasy muzak playing had no lyrics.
“We can’t let transients run our whole community—”
“Are we ready to order?” cut in a young, feminine voice. Nick suspected it was the lady who served them when he and Agatha had scoped out Esposito's.
Please be ready, please be ready—
“Ah, yes, I think so, aren’t we girls?” said the target: Derbys.
“I am,” said Kitten Heels. Nick heard Ugg Boots grunt in acquiescence.
“Thank Lilith,” Nick subvocalized.
They then spent way too long arguing over wine. But then Kitten Heels said, “I hear the wedding soup here is wonderful.”
“Right, that then,” said Derbys.
As soon as the waitress scribbled down the shoe family’s order, Nick burst out from under the tablecloth, so fast he was perceived only as a breeze. He slithered in and out from under tables till he made it to the Italo-Mexican fusion restaurant’s kitchen. There wasn’t really anywhere he could hide for more than a few seconds at a time, so he never stopped moving. It would’ve been marginally easier if he was a cat, but Nick figured on the off chance he was caught, it’d be better if he wasn’t naked. He crept under and between every harried, myopic field of vision. To the overworked chefs and cooks, he was less than a shadow.
Tabby and Zeke couldn’t have done this, Nick knew. They could sneak, sure, but they had loud souls.
Nick kept a close eye on the portage chef as he prepared Derbys’s soup. Agatha had made him memorize Esposito's menu, with photo references. It’d been quite the education. When Nick judged the wedding soup near completion, he took a glass vial out from his bag. He thought about blood, and about kids back in Laflech he didn’t like, of which there was no shortage.
The spit came readily. Nick had held off on feeding for just this occasion. He squeezed his eyes shut.
The clatter of pots and pans and the sizzle of oil and grease ceased. When Nick opened his eyes, the portage chef was frozen in place, a pepper grinder raised over the soup. Nick was relieved. His personal miracle still didn’t always perform on command. Quickly, he flitted to the chef’s side and poured his spit into the soup, stirring it into the soup—
The portage chef twisted the grinder one last time, satisfied. He swore he felt a gust of wind against his back. Some idiot had probably left the back door open.
Nick watched from across the road through the window as the shoe family were served their food. Derbys (perhaps he ought to be renamed Grey Temples) sipped his soup, nodding approvingly.
Nick smiled. Derbys was a local politician. For reasons even Nick didn’t find interesting, Agatha needed him out of the way, though she judged it imprudent to send him to the cornfield. Better the pasture. But her detectives hadn’t been able to dig up anything particularly ruinous. Even his affairs were all with the opposite sex, and no money had been exchanged. That wasn’t enough to sink a man of his political party these days. Something had to be manufactured.
The spit had been Nick’s idea. It’d earned him a smile.
Derbys had abandoned his soup for the moment. He was sitting in his chair like his spine had been replaced with a steel rod, his eyes unblinking. Kitten Heels noticed the look on her husband’s face. For a human child in his position, this would’ve been a silent film, soundtracked by street sounds instead of piano, but Nick could hear her just fine:
“Vance, are you—”
Vance Hoffman swept his family’s food off the table. Ugg Boots finally deigned to speak:
“Dad, what the hell?”
Vance clambered on top of the table, screaming at the top of his lungs, “The Mayor of Venus! He’s coming for us!” He looked down wildly at his suit jacket. “Bugs! He’s put bugs in our clothes!” Hoffman ripped the jacket and his undershirt off his pale, flabby torso, before jumping off the table and grabbing a waiter by the shoulders. “The spiders are in the water!”
Vance grabbed a candle and swung it in the server’s face, driving the poor boy back screaming. Vance spread his legs and continued his tirade, eyes casting about widely:
“Jesus and Satan live together in Hell above, sucking each other off in a great big circle of holy sodomy! The stars are where the goblins crack their knuckles and…”
Much to Nick’s disappointment, pedestrians flocked to the restaurant’s window, blocking his view of the new John the Baptist. What didn’t disappoint him was the phones being raised to record the sermon. No doubt it would momentarily be posted online from a dozen different angles. Nick dusted his hands theatrically, purely for his own benefit. Agatha owed him so many presents—
His thoughts were cut off by an insistent dryness in his throat. The downside of fasting was, it made you hungry.
Nick spotted Santa Claus ringing his bell standing down the street, either oblivious to the commotion at Esposito, or completely enthused by the spirit of charity.
How could Nick not?
Nick walked up the street towards Santa. He stuck a couple of fingers in his mouth and dabbed under his eyes, figuring it’d do for tears. When he was within earshot of the man, he said, “Excuse me, sir? I’ve lost my mommy…”
Santa Claus turned to regard Nick. The boy could see the straps of his cotton beard. He tutted. “Oh, that’s no good. Don’t worry, I’ll help you find her.”
Nick wondered what Santa would see.
There was no question of Nick not spending Christmas Eve with the Lennoxes. It was less a question of family togetherness as it was security. Agatha and Winona had gone so far as to invite other children of the Old Colony to “hunker down” for Christmas Eve, which mostly meant watching old kids’ movies in the theatre room.
“The light’s pretty,” Simeon commented. “I like how the angel’s wings are all bony.”
“Isn’t this stupid human garbage?” Nick asked .
Simeon shoved his hand in Nick’s face. “Quiet, newbie.”
“Why can’t we watch Curious Fate?” asked Joey Windholme. “Season Three’s really good—”
The werewolf’s sister shoved him in the arm. “You’re just saying that cuz you’re in it.”
Nick rolled his eyes. Of all the famous people he got to see naked, why did it have to be Joey Windholme? It didn’t help that, indirectly, Windholme would be playing Nick soon:
“Wait,” Nick had said the night after Halloween. “You’re not gonna punish me?”
Agatha hadn’t looked up from one of the videos taken at the party Nick “dropped in” on. “I think knowing you’ve brought another Terminator sequel into existence is punishment enough.”
Agatha sat in front of the fireplace, a scotch in hand. For the first time since Nick had moved in, a fire blazed.
The children were only allowed outside once the sun had well and truly set on Christmas Day. They had a lot of energy to work off.
Nick ran bare skinned through the snowy field like a human child through summer waves. Tabby and Zeke’s small, brown forms appeared against the treeline either side of Nick, strafing him. That was one advantage he had over the Lennox kids, Nick thought: natural winter camouflage. He’d be sure to bring it up if the Sons of Hel ever visited. Snowballs flew at Nick. He leapt over them, or bent almost horizontally at the waist to let them sail over him. Nick had become an enemy in a rail shooter. If any of the snowballs had hit a human boy, they’d have shattered his bones, if not bored clear through their body. They almost melted from air friction.
Two feet ahead of Nick, Gren exploded out of the snow. A fellow member of the whitest kids in town, she’d gone so far as to work crushed ice into her dark red hair, like a powdered wig. Nick was impressed, so much so he didn’t register the snowballs Gren had ready in each hand. She hurled them overarm at Nick. He braced himself—
The snowballs stopped less than an inch from Nick’s eyes. Gren’s face was frozen halfway between determined and smug. Nick plucked one out of the air and threw it back the way it came. He took a great, arching leap over Gren’s head. No footprints.
The world started again just as Nick dived under the snow-fleeced canopy. Gren yelped and sputtered backwards as her own snowball struck her in the face. Nick watched her from behind a skeletal tree, smiling to himself. Round one clearly went to Team Thundercat.
A hand tapped Nick on the shoulder. He swung around and hissed. Danny and Simeon hissed right back.
“...Oh. Hey guys,” said Nick, well below the range of human hearing. He grinned and jabbed a thumb behind. “Did you see me own Gren?”
“Yeah,” said Danny flatly. “It was great.” Danny had a way of making the most sincere compliments sound like sarcasm.
Behind him, Gren’s voice gave a low growl:
“I’ll get you for that, Nicholas.”
The three fell silent. Danny gestured for them to run.
It was ten or so minutes later, having finally shaken their pursuer, that Nick finally had the space to say more than a whispered direction to his new companions.
The three had crawled under the low branches of a barren berry bush, their tracks carefully hidden by moving tree to tree.
“What do you guys want, anyways?” Nick asked. “I’m sorta busy owning people.”
“Well—” Danny started.
“Group maneuver,” Simeon said, more direct. “There’s no way we can take out Joey and Angie solo.”
“...Go on,” Nick said.
“Triangle of attack,” said Danny. “You take them from the north, cuz you’re the sneakiest, me and Simeon flank ‘em from east and west.”
Nick nodded. Sounded like a winning plan. Kinda unfair, actually. Three against two. Still, the chance to beat Joey Windholme…
It didn’t take the vampires long to triangulate the werewolves’ position. Their scent was much stronger. Nick watched the wolf siblings hidden in a tree like an arboreal gargoyle, waiting for the other two to get into position.
To Nick’s eyes, the wolves’ bodies glowed like burning halogen. Any snowflake that landed on them was doomed. A human kid would’ve been a guttering match beside them. Their breath and heartbeats were slow and languid, but even and consistent. The Windholmes appeared to have forgotten the snow fight, not that it would save them. Instead, they were building a snowman:
“You should quit,” Angie said, picking through the snow for suitable stone eyes. “Staying up all day, it’ll rot your brain.”
Nick nodded to himself. Yes, Joey Windholme should quit. And people should start making TV shows and movies set after his mom was born again, too.
“It’s not that bad,” said Joey, rounding off the snowman’s head.
“You de-boyed Ari.”
“...I needed that nap.”
Angie threw her arms up in exasperation. “You were napping! At night! Like a human!”
Joey Windholme shrugged. “Gotta sleep sometime.”
“And the sunburn! You’re leaving skin all around the burrow. It’s gross!”
Nick was somewhat chuffed by the image of Joey Windholme burning lobster red after every shoot.
“I mean, the burrow is made of dirt anyway.”
Angie glared narrow eyed at her brother. “You’ve been hanging out way too much at that apartment.” She sniffed. “Not that you’re ever around anyway…”
Joey sighed, running his hands through his matchstick red hair. Tabby told Nick that was considered auspicious among lilim. The Dark Mother herself was a redhead. Because of course she was. “Well, you’re getting your way. The Sisters say I have to quit next year. In a car crash.” Joey shuffled his feet. “People are starting to notice I’m not really getting taller… yeah.”
Nick wasn’t shocked that it was the Moms’ call. The Old Colony celebrated freedom. Agatha and Winona insisted.
“Oh.” Angie cast her eyes downward. “...Maybe you could put something in your shoes.” She wrinkled her nose. “Shoes.”
Joey smiled wistfully. Any of his directors would’ve been proud. “It’s fine, Angie. It was fun while it lasted…”
Nick rolled his eyes. Crybaby. Got to violate the Statute of Secrecy for three years and make bank doing it. Meanwhile everyone back in Laflech thought Nick had swallowed some random pills and died. Like a baby. And he still didn’t get a phone!
Nick spotted Danny in a tree across from him. Simeon soon joined them on Danny’s left. Without body-paint, his skin had a faint golden tinge. A human might have mistaken him for a beach baby. Still, the wolves hadn’t noticed.
Danny gave the signal. The three vampires raced through the ring of trees like greyhounds around a racetrack. They snatched handfuls of snow from the branches and threw them hard into the clearing. The trees had become an icy stoning circle, but the werewolves dodged admirably. They danced and cartwheeled around the snowballs, laughing all the while. The laughter stopped abruptly when a snowball hit the snowman, exploding its head into slurry. Angie growled and scooped up a handful of snow. She compacted it tight and hurled it into the trees. Simeon gave an exaggerated shout as he fell from one of the trees.
Angie and Joey shared a look and nodded. They screwed their eyes shut. Their hearts began to race in their chests…
A sharp crack echoed through the trees. Nick dropped a snowball, transfixed by what he was seeing. The Windholmes rippled and vibrated with change. Their bright red heads of hair began to shift, drifting down along their skulls, shoulder blades, and backs, joined by strands of white worming out the pores of their pink, blemishless skin. Crimson manes shot through coarse winter pelts.
Their fists clenched, fingers flourishing and elongating as delicate nails curled and yellowed into thick, raking claws. Their rib cages ballooned. Angie’s spine seemed to stir and elongate, before erupting just above her buttocks in a half-haired tail. A moment later, Joey’s did the same.
Neither child seemed to care, both scanning the treeline with whiteless jade and amber eyes even as their thighs snapped and folded into new knees. The whole transformation was horribly audible, all grinding, popping, clicking bones and sloshing, liquid tides of flesh. It was the sound of a child growing up, played on fast forward.
Nick grimaced. Turning into a cat was nothing like that. He’d been planning on transforming in front of a time-lapse camera. Not so much now. Werewolves are fucking gross.
Their noses flattened and darkened as their faces elongated and narrowed into snouts. Joey fell forward onto arms that were now a compromise with forelegs, and let out a gurgly, triumphant howl. Angie helped her brother to his long, digitigrade feet. The two bipedal, lupine horrors stood proud in the moonlight—five feet tall with a hunch—maws packed to bursting with knife sized fangs. Joey growled in rasping Enochian:
“Sniff ‘em out, sis.”
Nick was horrified. Also jealous.
Danny was still speeding laps around Nick:
He finally came to a stop on the branch next to Nick. “—Seen a werewolf in kill-shape before?”
“No, no I haven’t, Danny,” replied Nick curtly. “Because I was a human four months ago. Can we do that?” Nick imagined himself as a hulking, pantherine monster…
“Nope,” said Danny. “Werewolves are special.”
Nick snarled. “Of course he is.”
“And Angie,” added Danny helpfully. “She’s my girl—aaaaghh!”
The tree he was perching in exploded as Angie tackled it. Danny tumbled to the ground, rolled over, and treated the beast looming over him to a rare smile. “Looking good, Angie.”
Angie was rolling a snowball the size of a horse’s head. “Thanks.”
Nick rolled away as Angie slammed the snow-boulder down on top of Danny. At the same time, Simeon slammed into her side. There’d be time to avenge them later, Nick thought. He had his target.
Joey tried to join his sister in the melee, but Nick blocked his path, David before Goliath. Or Fenrir. “God, you’re ugly,” jeered Nick. “So glad werewolf junk comes with a sheath.”
Joey chuckled, an evil, rumbling sound. “Cats have hooks, dude.”
Nick knew he walked right into that one. “Are you hiding out here from people who watched Curious Fate 2?”
More laughter. “I should be. Season Two was so much worse!”
Nick bristled. Did this boy have no pride? “It sucked ‘cuz you were in it!”
Joey let out a guttural huffing noise. His massive, wet tongue lolled like the excited dog he was. “I know, right? I should’ve died in the caverns at the end of Season One! Would’ve been a way better ending for Steven. I know they had me under contract for two seasons, but flashbacks are a thing, guys.” He shook his enormous, wolfish head. “Humans are cowards. Especially when they’re executives.” With claws that could shred steel, Joey scratched the back of his neck. “Um, by the way, Agatha showed me that video of you on Halloween. Totally badass. Wish I had the guts to do that.”
Nick stared at Joey Windholme. Then he screamed and ran at the werewolf. He slid under the beast’s legs, sprung back to his feet, and started scooping up snow. By the time it hit the back of Joey’s head it was as hard as ice. Joey swung around and made a poor attempt to shield his face, laughing. “Quit it!”
Joey started swiping his claws at Nick in great, clumsy sweeps. Nick avoided them with ease, continuing to pelt Joey. For a golden moment, he forgot why he’d wanted to mess with the other boy. “Can’t get me, can’t get me—”
Joey’s arm struck Nick in the side like a steel beam, sending him flying into the shadow of the trees. He landed with a thud.
“Sorry!” called Joey.
“Sure you are,” Nick muttered.
An approaching flutter of footsteps. Tabby ran past her prone friend. “Nessa’s car’s coming!”
Nick sat up. Why would Inessa bother taking a car to the house? Be faster just to run. Shrugging, he decided to check it out.
As he ran through the forest, he noticed both the werewolves running on all fours a few trees to his left. As he watched, their hulking forms shrank and lost all vestigial signs of hominid heritage, becoming true, half-grown wolf cubs as smoothly as Nick became a kitten. Much to his annoyance, he also discovered that werewolves were faster than vampires in a straight line.
The children beat the car to the house, of course. Nessa’s lovingly restored Mercury Super-Marauder pulled up with a skid out front. Really, anything else would’ve been a waste of a car called that. Ivan Jones flung the passenger door open, glancing about like a frightened rabbit.
Nick waved. “Merry Christmas, Ivan!”
Ivan didn’t return the greeting. “Where’s Agatha? Or Winona.” A thought seemed to cross his face. “Preferably Agatha!” Despite the winter chill, he was sweating. He caught sight of Joey, now in human form again. He looked sorrowfully at Nick. “Oh, Nick. Don’t tell me you’re going to eat Joey Windholme!”
Tabby put a reassuring hand on Ivan’s arm. “It’s alright, Mr. Jones, Joey’s a werewolf! You met him at Nick’s reclaiming!”
Joey waved. “Hi!”
“Oh,” said Ivan, remembering the puppy he’d drunkenly rambled at. “…Tried Dead By Daylight yet?”
“Going to! Sounds fun.”
Inessa was out of the car by then, still dressed for a summer night at an outdoor rave. “Focus, Ivan.”
Ivan shook his head. “Really need to see the sisters!”
“What’s the matter, Ivan?” asked Nick.
Ivan’s lip twitched with consideration. In the end, he answered by pulling out his new phone (of which Nick was terribly jealous) and bringing up his podcast app. He turned the screen to Nick. His own face—circa age seven and in black and white—frowned back at him. Ivan pressed the play button. Nathaniel Rhodes spoke:
“From the team that brought you The Haunting at Stannmouth, Painted Dolls, and In the Company of Thieves, I’m proud to present The Ragnarok of Nicholas Collins: a tale of police corruption, white supremacy, and the drug trade, and how they together consumed the life of one young boy.”
Nick couldn’t speak. He became aware of Joey Windholme looking over his shoulder.
“Crap, dude,” he said, with perfect sincerity. “This is bad.”
Nick broke the werewolf’s nose.