I got home and saw my door had a giant crack running through the middle, like someone had been kicking it for an hour or more. I stopped dead on my front stoop. I'll admit it-I wasn't much interested in finding out who had broken in. Nope, forget it, I'd had enough. Whoever it was, they were welcome to my cotton sheets, dirty dishes, and awful light orange living room rug.

I was turning away, possibly to go find my mom and cry on her shoulder for three or four hours, when...

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"Bets! Is that you?" Jessica's voice.

"Get in here quick!" Marc's.

What fresh hell is this? I pushed the door open and walked inside. At least Jess was okay-sounded okay. Shanara couldn't have hurt her too badly. Jeez, had she bushwhacked us in that alley only three hours ago? It felt like three years.

My friends were kneeling beside a big pile of rags in the middle of my bedroom floor. Marc had a neat white bandage on his neck and was still wearing the bracelet they'd given him at the hospital. Jessica looked perfectly fine. "Are you guys okay?"

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"Yeah. Are you, girlfriend? You look a little white around the gills. More so than usual," Jessica chortled. Then she sobered up and pointed to the rag pile. "You got problems, Betsy. I mean, besides the ones we've already been dealing with."

Marc gently prodded the pile...and it was Nick! He looked unbelievably bad-like he hadn't eaten in three days, slept in five, bathed in ten. His hair was a mess of greasy tangles. His eyes rolled toward mine. They were so deeply bloodshot they were more red than white. "More," he husked. "Moremoremore."

"No, oh no!" I rushed to him. "Jesus, Nick, what did I do? What did I do?"

"Exactly the opposite," Sinclair said thoughfully, "of what I do."

I whirled. Sinclair, Tina, and Donald were standing just inside my bedroom. I'd never heard them come in. Never sensed their presence. Neither had Jessica and Marc, because they both let out little screams. Nick was oblivious. He'd started rocking back and forth on the floor in an effort to soothe himself, and never looked away from my face.

"You gotta be Sink Lair," Jessica said.

"Hi, Mr. Sinclair!" Marc trilled. He even waved. "You guys drop by for a snack?"

"You three get out of here!" I hissed. "I've got enough problems right now, thanks."

Sinclair pointed to Nick. "That one is of your own making, I think...I can smell you on him. Under about six layers of dirt, that is." He said it so carelessly I wanted to kill him. My hand went to the cross Tina had given me. Would he sound so cool and unconnected if I jammed this little baby in his eye?

But Sinclair was already striding toward us. "Tina," he said quietly, kneeling beside Nick, "help me." His actions were such a diametric opposite of his words that I was left confused (surprise!). The guy obviously hid a lot behind that smarmy cool façade...trouble was, did I care?

"What's wrong with him?" I cried. "Is he becoming a vampire?"

"No. He craves you. He's an addict, now. You can't just have them and release them, Elizabeth. You fled my home after you saw a-certain aspect of the vampire lifestyle. But I would never do to mine what was done to yours."

That stung. A lot. "He's not mine. I barely even know him."

"Well." Donald cleared his throat. He was crouching over us, resting his hands on his thighs. He looked like an undead umpire. "That's worse, you know."

"But I didn't know!"

"I warned you," Sinclair said. He was shrugging out of his topcoat and putting it over Nick's shivering form. "You don't know the rules. Most vampires would learn or die. But you were born strong, and you have few of our weaknesses. So while you're learning, the innocent are being hurt. Is my offer of help still so completely unacceptable?"

"Okay, okay...tell me what to do. How to help Nick. And I'll-I'll take your Vamp 101 class, Sinclair. But only after Nick is better."

"Your word on it, Elizabeth."

"She already told you she'd let you help," Jessica said, and her voice was like ice. She might think Sinclair was yummier than a triple fudge sundae, but nobody was going to question her best friend in her own home. "If that's not enough, Sink Lair, don't let the door hit you in your big white ass on the way out."

"Please don't pronounce my name like that," he sighed. He lifted Nick easily into his arms. Then, "Big white ass?"

"Just bring him to the bathroom," Tina said. "Donald and I can take care of him."

"But-" I closed my mouth with a snap. Nick was almost as tall as Sinclair, which made him two heads taller than Tina and Donald. Never mind. They could probably muscle a Volkswagen into my bathroom if they had to.

Sinclair carried Nick to my bathroom and laid him on the floor. Donald stripped him while Tina started the shower. Meanwhile, Sinclair put a hand on each of my shoulders, turned me around, and marched me out. Of my own bathroom!

"Hands to yourself, buster," I warned.

"You-uh-want something to drink?" Jessica was standing in the doorway. She blushed, which isn't easy to tell with her. "I mean, like tea or something, Mr. Sinclair?"

"Please call me Eric. Any friend of Elizabeth's, and all that."

"He likes plum wine, get him a glass of that," I said irritably.

"I'll get it!" Marc said. He'd gone to throw Nick's rags into my washing machine, but leapt for the doorway the instant Jessica did. They became jammed at the shoulder, Three Stooges style.

"No, I'll get it!"

They struggled and then both popped free of the doorframe. I heard pounding footsteps as they raced each other to the kitchen, and put a hand over my eyes. Friends...the ultimate mixed blessing.

"A pity you are not as fond of me as your companions are," Sinclair teased.

"They don't know what a creep you are," I said sourly. I was annoyed to see Giselle purring in his arms as he absently tickled her under the chin. Fickle feline tramp! I snatched her away and tossed her in the direction of her cat door. With a snooty backward glance, she went. "If they had the slightest clue how wretched and nasty and despicable you are..."

"Now, Elizabeth, how can you say that? You know I tried to help you at the mausoleum, and I sent Tina to help you at Nostro's home tonight. If she hadn't given you my gift the Fiends would have torn you to pieces."

"Your gift?"

"The cross belonged to my sister."

My fingers went to the cross instantly, fumbling to take it off, but he stopped me with a shake of his head. "Keep it. I can't wear it, and it might help you again."

Shocked, I said, "It was your sister's."

"And now it's yours."

"Well...thank you. But-and it's not that I'm not grateful-"

"Not that, never that," he said mockingly.

"-but if you're so concerned, why didn't you come yourself tonight?"

"I did come," he said innocently. "More than once, in fact. I thought you were watching."

I felt my face get red-a good trick, since I was dead. "Very funny! You know what I mean."

"Alas, too well. Unfortunately, one of the conditions of Tina's release from Nostro was that I never set foot in his territory. I can send envoys, but I myself must stay clear. The mausoleum where you first met Nostro is neutral."

"Oh." Dammit! Hearing more details about how he got Tina away from Noseo made me start to hate him not so much. Which was not a good way to feel about a character as slippery as this guy. My hand went instinctively to the cross again. "Well, I'd thank you-"

"My heart! Can it stand the strain?"

"--except I know you've got some sneaky motive for helping me out."

"My anti-Nostro, pro-Elizabeth stance has been clear for a few days, there's nothing sneaky about it. I was sorry to hear I'd missed you earlier this evening."

"Let's not talk about it."

"An American prude born in the late twentieth century? I hadn't thought such creatures existed."

"Just because I don't think you should be gaily boinking with multiple partners-at the same time!-doesn't mean I'm a prude."

He gestured toward the bathroom, where poor Nick was being ministered to by Tina and Donald. "I don't think you're in any position to question my judgment. My ladyfriends know what they're getting into."

"You're still a pig," I said bitterly. "I saw you. It didn't matter what three women were there-you didn't care. They were for you to use. That's not how you treat a friend."

"Well." His brows arched in though. "Perhaps I simply haven't met the right woman."

"Or perhaps you're a pig!" I threw my hands in the air. "Did you really need three of them? I mean, come on. Realistically. Three?"

"Well." He smiled slowly, and I felt my stomach tighten. "Does anyone ever really need a banana split, when a single scoop sundae would do?"

"These. Are. Human. Beings." I was pushing the words out past gritted teeth; I was so pissed my eyes were crossed. "Not. Ice cream. Sundaes. Pig."

"Then I have the bargain of the century for you, Elizabeth. I will give up their friendship at once, and all others. Tonight. If you take their place in my bed."

My mouth fell open and I gaped at him like a landed trout. A zillion emotions-outrage, curiosity, fear, lust, shock-screamed through my head in half a second, and before I knew I was going to do it, my hand leaped to his face and slapped him hard enough to drive him a step back.

He felt his jaw and looked at me. His black eyes glittered and I swallowed the phrase...

I take it back!

...that wanted to come out.

"Nice," was all he said. "I didn't see that one coming. Although I should have."

I tried to say something appropriate haughty and scathing, but couldn't think of a thing.

"Thank you," he said, soooooo polite, and took the glass Jessica was offering him. Marc was right behind her with a tray of cocktail accessories: marachino cherries, lemon slices, olives. They hadn't seen the slap. Heck, I had barely seen it-it was like my hand had moved quicker than thought.

"All that stuff for wine?" I sighed, rolling my eyes and rubbing my palm-smacking Sinclair had been like smacking a chunk of granite. "Get real, you guys."

For spite (must have been!) Sinclair carefully selected a lemon slice and dropped it into his wine.

Jessica peeked into the bathroom, then hurried back to report. "They got that boy stripped mother naked and they're scrubbing him with your brand-new loofah."

I winced. Thirty-seven ninety-nine at The Body Shop, kaput. "Fair enough. It's my fault he's in this mess. What happens after he's clean, Sinclair?"

"Eric."

"Errrrrrric..." Jessica and Marc repeated in dreamy chorus.

"Don't you two have anything else to do?" I practically screamed.

"This is the most interesting week of my entire life," Marc pointed out. "Vampires! Queenmaking! Alliances! Gorgeous good guys. Sneaky bad guys. Fighting the good fight! Why in the world would we go find something else to do? What am I going to do? Fight red tape at the hospital, beg HMOs to do the right thing while a kid dies? What's Jess going to do-count her money?"

"Besides, we're your sidekicks. Part of the team. Anything that involves Liz here involves all of us," Jessica added.

"I shall endeavor to keep that in mind. To answer your question, Liz-"

"Don't you dare."

"Then no more Sink Lair, yes?"

Dammit! "Yes."

"Very good. As I was saying, once Detective Berry has been purified, Tina or Donald will relieve his immediate need by feeding on him. Then we will make him forget he ever knew you as a vampire. He'll wake up in his own bed, with a week's worth of stubble, feeling like he's been quite ill. So he would have been-only he'll think it was the flu."

"But I don't want this to happen to anyone again," I said. "I mean, your plan sounds like a good one, and God knows you've had a lot of years to perfect it, but I'm looking to treat the disease, not the symptoms."

Sinclair had winced at 'God', but answered smoothly enough. "Then pick one-or two-or three lovers who don't mind sharing blood along with their bodies, and use them as often as you must. Or they wish."

"Do not even think of glancing in my direction," Jessica ordered.

"Seriously," Marc added. "Unless you've managed to grow a penis in the last couple days."

Sinclair ignored them. "You will find it's quite a satisfactory arrangement."

"Well, that's one of the big differences between thee and me, Sinclair, because I disagree!"

"She's a poet," Marc informed us, "and she didn't know it."

I glared at them, but they smiled back and didn't budge. I turned back to Sinclair. "It's like-it's like making a human being your-your pet or something." I'd never forget the coolly amused look on his face while he took one of his ladyfriends, then the other, then the other. They could have been anyone-he absolutely didn't care who was in his bed. I'd never do that to a person, make them feel like they're interchangeable parts of someone's machine. Never.

"Did you not eat meat before your accident?" he asked. "You were strong and to keep yourself strong, you used the weak. That's what predators do. That's what vampires do. Otherwise you're like those fools in P.E.T.A. who think we should all nibble grass and drink nectar."

"Oh, Lord, here we go," Jessica muttered. "Save yourself, Eric."

"I'm a member of P.E.T.A.," I said. "I ate meat, sure, but I don't think we should pour shaving cream down a rabbit's throat, or rub eye makeup onto a dog's eyeball so American women can have lush lush lashes. It's one thing if you need the protein, but it's another if you want to hang a big dead stuffed head on your wall, or design a deodorant that makes your armpit smell like a flower patch."

"A vampiric P.E.T.A. member." Sinclair couldn't quite keep the smile off his face. "That's something new."

"You're one of them?" Marc said, horrified. "Oh, cripes! I had no idea. Jesus, I feel dirty! Why didn't you tell me?"

I blinked. "My being a vampire doesn't bother you, but giving money to P.E.T.A. does?"

"Hey, it was one thing when you were a soulless underling of Satan, I could work with that, but belonging to P.E.T.A...ugh! I've got my pride, dude."

Jessica got the giggles, then started to laugh. Before long she was having one of her gut-busters and hanging onto the wall to keep from falling over.

Sinclair grinned, watching me.

"I'd better go check on the others," I said at last. I passed them on my way to the bathroom and ignored the evil eye sign Marc forked at me.

Marc was still freaking out. "P.E.T.A.! Man, I'm gonna have to sit down and think this one over. Didn't mind being the sidekick of a bride of Satan, but a tree-hugger..."

"Perhaps you should sit down," Sinclair suggested solicitously.

I passed Donald on my way in. "We'll need some clothes for your Nick," he said over his shoulder. "Something he can wear home, that he can't trace back to you."

"I've got some old sweatsuits I never wear anymore-bottom drawer on the left. They don't have my name on them or anything. They'll be a little small, but they'll get the job done." Then I was stepping into the bathroom. Nick was looking a little livelier, and well he should, since his head was pillowed on Tina's breasts and she was slowly, luxuriously working soapy lather over the muscles in his back. He was, as a matter of fact, extremely happy to see her. This was a great relief to me. When I saw the wreck that was the former Detective Nick Berry on my bedroom floor, I was afraid he'd never be happy to see anyone again.

"How's it going in here?" I asked. Squeaked, actually-I was a little nervous to be talking to Tina. I could still feel that kiss.

"He'll be all right. Do you think you could assist me? I would ask Sinclair or Donald, but-"

"It's my mess. Yeah, I'll help." I slipped out of my clothes, then slid the shower door aside and stepped in. "What-uh-what do we do now?"

"Now I fall upon you with ravenous hunger and hump your brains out."

I burst out laughing. I was scooched as far away from her as I could get, and that was a fact. I also felt a little weird about being naked in front of a lesbian. I probably had been before, at one time or another-public showers, that sort of thing-but you don't know for sure, right? You just assume everyone else is straight, and if someone's staring at your tits you figure she's working up the nerve to ask who did your boob job. "Very funny. Sorry."

"I'm the one who's sorry. I abused your trust and put everything in jeopardy." Her voice was so bitter it shocked me. "All because I couldn't keep myself to myself."

"Hey, whoa, calm down, sunshine. It was just a kiss, it's not like you knifed my puppy. Besides, I owed you a favor, right? From the pit?"

She shifted Nick as easily as a grown man shifted a kitten. "So," she said, straight-faced, "I risked my life and faced the prospect of a horrible death to save you, and in return you allowed me to kiss you, and now we're even."

"Right." I smirked.

She rolled her eyes. "The devil helps us if you really are the queen." But she said it with a smile, and I knew she was teasing to make me feel better. She'd probably prefer to kiss my feet some more, but was well aware of my anti-tootsie smacking policy. "Very well, then. To business. If you'll drink from his throat, I'll take him inside me. He'll have relief and then we'll be able to plant the suggestions we need to."

"Take him-oh. Oh! But you don't-you don't like-I mean-oh, fuck."

She laughed. "All those things are true, but exceptions must be made."

"Yeah, but...like I said, it's my mess."

"Yes, but you don't want to do it. You never meant to in the first place, and don't want to now, particularly with several people waiting right outside the door, and that's fine." Seeing the look on my face, she softened her tone. "It's all right, Betsy. I truly don't mind. It's nothing to me, and everything to him. Besides...aren't you thirsty?"

I was. I hadn't fed yet tonight. Or last night, for that matter. But... "Why does it have to be both? Why do we have to drink and fuck?"

"We don't," she said, "but they do. If we take from them, they need us in the way that they've never needed anyone before. I guess it's like-like masturbating but not letting yourself reach orgasm. What's the point? It's frustrating and leaves everyone unhappy. We could take and not give ourselves to them in return, but it's a rotten thing to do."

"This is very weird and disturbing, and time's a'wasting and my water heater is only so big, so we'd better get cracking, and I am thirsty, but if you do this for me I owe you another favor. All right?"

She looked at me, and her little pink tongue came out and tapped one of her canines thoughtfully. "A kissing favor," she said finally.

"Awww, Tina, I told you," I whined, "I don't play that way." So why does the idea thrill you right down to your undead toes, you liar?

"Not in life, certainly. But vampires have to adjust to many things...and quite a few of us find that after death we are-ah-flexible."

It was all very strange.

"Okay," I said with a convincing display of reluctance. "A kissing favor. But later."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to do it today," she assured me. "I'd want to wait until we had...leisure."

"You know, those pauses you and Sinclair do before you finish a sentence are really terrifying."

"Why do you think we do it? And who do you think taught him?" she asked merrily. She rinsed the last of the soap from Nick's body, then beckoned me closer. I came out of my corner, ran my hands up his back, then put my hands on his shoulders, leaned in, and bit him. Hot salty life trickled into my mouth and Nick straightened up in a hurry, completely losing the apathy that had cloaked him all night. He tried to turn to face me, but I wouldn't let him.

"Here, to me," Tina said in her sweet, almost musical voice. Nick lunged forward, picked her up, and drove into her. Her back slammed against the tile and her legs were forced up and around his waist. Tina let out a squeak of pain, and Nick started thrusting against her so hard I lost my grip.

"Oh my God, is he hurting you?" I was horrified. I was ready to pull him off her and put him through the shower door, and never mind that he was the victim.

"...nothing. It's nothing."

It occurred to me that a woman who didn't choose to couple with men was taking a pounding on my behalf, and didn't even have the pleasure of the drink to ease things. Because she wanted me to drink. Which I had, like the selfish cow I was.

It's just...I hadn't thought he'd be so rough! So-so brutal and mindless. Of course, he'd been like that with me, but I'd given it right back to him and besides, I liked men. But Tina-

Nick seized her by the thighs and wrenched her further apart; she cried out before she could lock it back.

"Screw this," I said.

I started to pull him off her, but stopped at her sharp, "Do not! Else it's for nothing!"

So I held her hand instead. She squeezed back, tightening painfully as Nick speeded up toward his climax. Then he was done and collapsing to his knees, already half unconscious, and I caught Tina as she fell forward. "That's it, sweetheart," I told her, brushing damp tendrils of hair out of her eyes. "That's the last bang you take on my behalf."

"Done, and done," she said, and we staggered out of the shower together. I remembered to turn off the water before Nick drowned. But I still felt like putting him through the wall-how's that for irrational?

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