Not really feeling up to a heart-to-heart, I gave him a brief look. "What do you mean by that?"
"I said, you and I are alike, in some ways. You try but you never quite say the right thing, even though you mean to." He leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers together behind his head. "I don't fit in my world, you know. I'm good at what I do, but I don't enjoy it."
That wasn't quite what I'd expected to hear. "Oh, come on. You're telling me that you don't like sucking the life out of people through their dreams? But isn't that what you do best? I thought demons got off on hurting people."
I couldn't help being snarky, even though I wanted to be polite. With all that had happened lately and with the demons holding Chase captive, I wasn't feeling particularly generous.
He frowned. "Now you're being deliberately insulting. I understand, though. Really, I do. Some demons are like that. Karvanak likes nothing better than to destroy the will of his subordinates, whether they've been captured, bought, or hired. Rāksasas are born mean, and they're arrogant."
"Yeah. I got that impression," I said, playing with my cookie. Vanzir had been one of Karvanak's victims, too. While it was harder for me to feel sympathy for him, I forced myself to stare him straight in the face.
He returned my look, open-eyed. Vanzir was wiry and lean. His eyes, glimmering like a prism, betrayed his heritage. I'd expected them to be bloodred like Menolly's eyes turned when something set her off. But they weren't. They were a rainbow of colors. Against the platinum of his shaggy hair, his eyes stuck out, brilliant and shining, and he'd outlined them in dark kohl. Still silent, I lowered my gaze to his lips. They were thin, like those belonging to a number of men, and pale as the night. Dimples punctuated his cheeks, even as gaunt as they were. After another moment, he hiccupped and broke into a slightly mocking smile.
"You finished, or are you still looking for signs of the dogfaced boy?" he said. Pointing to his head, he added, "No horns in sight. And I guarantee you, no pointed tail, either. Nothing's barbed. Not my fingers, toes, or cock."
As I blushed, he pursed his lips and blew me a kiss. "Oh, poor puddy. Did I embarrass you? How does it feel to be the butt of a joke? That's what Karvanak put me through every day. And he made me feed. I'd managed to go for thirty-five years without draining anybody's dreams, and the motherfucker made me feed."
Vanzir suddenly leaned across the table. I jumped, but he just slid his hand next to mine. He didn't touch me, just tapped his fingers on the table. "I'm like an alcoholic, you see. Once I taste the energy, I want more. But I don't like what it turns me into. The Rāksasa knew I'd taken a vow to stop, and he threatened to kill his-my-victims if I didn't drink from their souls. So I did, to save them. I siphoned their souls and fed on their hope and their love and their life force. But at least they were alive when I left their dreams. So, Miss Delilah, maybe you're right not to trust me. I can live with that. But stifle the wisecracks until you've walked in my world. You aren't as funny as you think you are."
I felt sick to my stomach as images from my childhood welled up to flood my mind.
. . . a ring of children dancing around my sisters and me, chanting, "Windwalkers, Windwalkers, got no home . . . Nobody wants you, you're all alone!" They kept it up all the way home until Mother heard them and came out, shooing them away. We didn't let her see us cry; we didn't want her to feel bad because it was her blood that made them taunt us . . .
. . . one of my uncles pointing at us as we walked into his home during his midsummer gala. He whispered to his lady friend, "Those are the three I was telling you about. My brother's dirty little half-breeds . . ." Camille and I forced Menolly to keep her mouth shut so Father wouldn't know . . .
. . . the neighbor boy racing after me with his dog, making me so afraid that I transformed. They treed me, and I couldn't come down for hours. Camille finally noticed what was going on and beat the living crap out of him, then climbed the tree to coax me down. We never told anybody . . .
And here I'd been, doing the same thing to Vanzir because of what he was. It wasn't as if he were still our enemy. The ritual had provided us with a safety net. We could kill him on a whim, and he couldn't raise a hand to defend himself against us. And I'd been taking advantage of that.
I glanced over at the sink, where Camille was studiously ignoring us, arranging more cookies on a plate while Iris checked the tea. Menolly had hovered her way up to the ceiling and was hanging there, midair, eyes closed. I knew she could hear our conversation, but she'd chosen not to interfere. Voices from the living room told me the boys were coming back.
Hurriedly, I leaned across the table to whisper in Vanzir's ear. "I'm sorry. Truly. I've been an ass, and I apologize." I swallowed my pride. "I've been through it before. We all have. I guess sometimes it's easy to become the very thing you hate."
His gaze still fixated on my face, Vanzir nodded. "Yeah, I know. It's all too easy to slide into the slot you really don't want to fit in. Been there, done that, don't want to go there again." He stretched. His Death Zombies T-shirt was ripped, safety-pinned in a few places, and his black leather pants were dusty, but not dirty. He definitely had the rocker dude look going, I thought.
At that moment, Smoky and Morio entered the room, Zach and Roz trailing behind them. Roz turned to Menolly, his face deadpan. Whatever the guys had discussed, I had a feeling they weren't going to share it with us.
"I'll go with you. I want Zach to come, too. You may think he's too naïve, but trust me, he'll be a good ally. And my ex-wife likes Weres," Roz added softly, glancing at me. "Make no mistake: She plays both sides of the fence."
"I guess we should head out," Menolly said. "Even if Fraale isn't there anymore, somebody's bound to have noticed her. Kitten, you need to change."
Wondering just what kind of getup she was going to stuff me into, I slid out of my chair. "Coming. Camille, can you and Morio try to pinpoint Chase with your magic? There are some of his things in my room, if you need them."
Camille nodded. "We'll get right on it. Smoky's going to head out to his land to see if the Triple Threat has heard anything." We'd begun using the nickname for Titania, Morgaine, and Aeval sometime back, but usually we only used it between ourselves. Now, the guys glanced at her.
"The Triple Threat? And they know you call them this?" Roz asked, grinning like a bean Sidhe.
"Of course not, you idiot," Camille bantered back.
"What about you?" Roz turned to Smoky
. "You call them that to their faces?"
Smoky let out a low harrumph. "They're a pack of kooks, but I'm always a gentleman-"
As Camille, Menolly, and I let out a collective snicker, he just arched an eyebrow. "At least you have to admit that I have more manners than my beloved wife." He leered at Camille. "Isn't that right? Anyway, I have nothing to fear from them. They aren't a threat to me."
"Face it, love, you're stuck with me," Camille said, fondly patting his hand as he laid it on her shoulder. "Rude, crude, and totally lewd."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said, leaning over to kiss her. "Even though I do have to share you with the fox. And the Svartan." And then, like a silent shadow in the night, he slipped out the back door and was gone in under a minute flat.
I whistled. "When the dude moves, he moves."
"You can say that again," Camille said, a sly smile on her lips.
"Oh for criminey's sake . . . I didn't mean it like that-"
"Kitten? Get a move on!" Menolly's voice echoed from the stairwell, and I headed toward the living room.
Menolly was waiting for me by my closet, looking disgusted. "Can't you be a little more girly? I mean, come on Kitten-your underwear's okay, but don't you own anything but tank tops and ripped jeans?" She held up my most comfortable pair of jeans, with the knees and the thighs ripped. "Don't you have anything with a little lace or some glitter?"
Oh great gods. She was nitpicking my wardrobe? "Are you serious?"
"You want to get into the club without arousing suspicion or not? You've got to look like my pet. And that means showing some cleavage, or leg, or whatever."
I grimaced. "You're going to laugh your ass off. I've never worn this," I added, digging through a box in the back of my closet. "I bought it in a fit of insanity. The moment I left the store, I knew I'd made a mistake, but I was too embarrassed to return it, so I hid it before you or Camille could find it and make fun of me."
I so did not want to show Menolly my secret shame, but she wouldn't rest now that I'd let the cat-metaphorically speaking-out of the bag. I pulled a plastic shopping bag from the bottom of the box and, rolling my eyes, tossed it to her.
She yanked it open. As she withdrew the gold lamé pants and the matching fringe halter top, she began to shake, the smirk on her face growing.
"I told you," I muttered, trying to snatch it back from her.
"No you don't!" she said, darting away. "You are so wearing this tonight! I know it . . . isn't exactly your style-"
"That's an understatement." Glaring at her, I flounced over to my bed and flopped down on it, bemoaning my fate. "Being caught out in public decked out in that getup is going to be the most humiliating night of my life . . . well . . . other than walking in on Chase when he was dipping his cock into Erika's pussy."
"Somehow, that strikes me as more infuriating than humiliating," she said. "You shouldn't feel embarrassed. If he needs some sniveling, snot-nosed debutante to make him feel like a man, it's not your fault. But . . ." She paused, looking hesitant, like she wanted to say more.
"What is it? You obviously have an opinion on the subject that you haven't shared with me." I sat up, waiting.
"Yeah, I do, but I don't know how you'll take it."
"Just say it, then."
"All right." Menolly stared at me. "If you want my opinion, Chase was looking for reassurance. It can't be easy, Kitten, to be an FBH and have your lover not only be stronger than you, but faster, more magical, and more sexual. Let's face it. Any one of the three of us is a handful for any man-or woman. It takes a strong person to stand beside a partner with Fae blood without feeling emasculated. Chase has been overwhelmed keeping up with both facets of his job. He sees you outfighting and outshining him all the time. I'm just saying, it's got to sting his ego."
I stared at the quilt on my bed, fighting back a desire to smack her across the face. I never treated Chase like he was subpar. Never. Then I stopped. We all did. Not intentionally, but there was no way around it. We were always telling him to get out of the way in a fight, or get behind us, or stay behind because it was too dangerous. But that was for his own protection, not because we thought he was "lesser" than we were. For the first time, I realized that he might not see it that way, though.
"Oh my gods," I whispered. "You're right. He was an ass for lying to me, but you're right. He might have turned to Erika because he needed to feel like the strong one for a change." I stared at the pattern on my quilt. "Mother never felt like that around Father. Do you think?"
I'd never once heard a word of complaint out of our mother's mouth about Father being so strong or long-lived. In fact, she'd refused the chance to grow far older with him than her life span normally allowed because she didn't think she could handle the extra years.
Menolly sat on the bed next to me and took my hand in hers. "There's no telling. Not now. But I do know this: Mother never wanted to be a Guardsman. She never aspired to a life outside of being a good wife and mother. Hearth and home was her domain, and Father didn't intrude, so there was no competition between them. We don't know if they had problems in the bedroom, but their dynamics were totally different than the dynamics between you and Chase. Why do you think I've been so hesitant about supporting your relationship?"
"I just thought you didn't like Chase," I said in a small voice.
"At first, I didn't, but no. That's not the reason. He's one of the good guys. Someone we need, someone we can trust. But he's FBH, and that makes him vulnerable. Since we're all embroiled in dangerous work, that puts the both of you on the same playing field. And it isn't level, Kitten. Let me tell you that." She shrugged. "Even if we manage to save him, I have no idea how you can overcome this obstacle. Not unless he can detach and not take it personally."
I stared bleakly at the floor. She was right. How could I have been so blind? But I didn't have much experience with relationships. I wasn't used to handling the nuances of sharing my life with someone else. This whole love thing was new to me, and now I wondered, was I cut out for it? I was a cat, for the sake of the gods. Cats were notoriously solitary.
"Kitten? Are you okay?" Menolly stood up and kissed me on the forehead. "We'd better get moving."
"Okay? I have no idea," I said softly. "But you're right. We've got work to do." I forced myself to stand as she stuffed the clothes in my hands. Right now, rescuing Chase took priority. "Are you sure that I have to wear this crap?"