“You’re back!” Heather ran to greet him as soon as he pushed the door open. “Where were you? I was starting to get worried.”
“I had an errand to run,” Marc answered, eyeing the cut-glass cup in her hand with more than a little curiosity. “What’s that you’re drinking?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth he realized how stupid they must sound. It was blood, obviously. What else would it be? But why from a glass? “Where is everybody?” Certainly it was late enough in the evening for at least a few humans to have shown up. “What have you done with them?”
“Relax, dude,” Nighthawk said, as he joined them. He carried two more cups, one of which he handed to Marc. “It’s Christmas Eve. All the good little humans are likely safe at home, tucked in their beds and waiting for Santa, same as every year. But this one,” He nodded at Heather. “still wanted to party. So me and some of the guys went out and robbed a blood bank and knocked over a coupla thrift stores. I hope you don’t mind.”
Marc glared. “You did what?”
“Come and see,” Heather urged. She grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him deeper into the warehouse. “They even got trees!”
“I’m just kidding about the robbery thing,” Nighthawk confided as he fell into step beside Marc. “We did hit the hospital up for a few small withdrawals, but we covered our tracks and our asses and no one got hurt, ‘kay?”
Marc barely heard him, his attention caught by the small forest of pine trees that had sprung up in the center of the warehouse, all of them decorated with an odd mix of ornaments that shimmered and glowed in the low light filtering in from the windows set high on the warehouse’s outer walls. The couches had been drawn up close together, to form a circle within the ring of trees and, in the middle of that circle, stood a folding table topped with stacks of cups and a large, matching punch bowl filled with blood. “Where did all this come from?”
“Thrift stores, like I said,” Nighthawk answered. “But it’s all legit. They were selling most of the stuff off cheap ‘cause of the holiday. And we didn’t steal nuthin’ but the blood. Not even the trees. Those were all leftovers that had been thrown out.”
“Oh,” Marc said faintly. “Okay. Well, it looks great. Good job everyone.” He gazed at all the expectant faces turned his way and mentally kicked himself for his lousy timing. Christmas Eve. Damn it, he’d completely forgotten what day it was. He felt like the Grinch now, dropping in just in time to steal the Whos’ Christmas. Perfect.
“What’s wrong, Marc?” Heather asked frowning up at him. “You’re frowning. Don’t you like it?”
“She wanted a party,” Nighthawk repeated. “You said I should give her what she wanted, so that’s what I did.”
“It’s not that.” Marc sighed, wishing he’d waited until after the long, holiday weekend was over to confront Conrad. He emptied his glass in one long gulp. How could he tell them now? Wouldn’t it be better to just pretend nothing was wrong, let them enjoy their party, wait for a better time to tell them? But wasn’t that exactly what Conrad and Damian had done to him, what they were all still doing to Julie? Didn’t they all deserve to know the truth? “I’m not upset about what you’ve done here. I went to see Conrad tonight.” He blurted the words out before he could change his mind.
“Ah, crap.” Nighthawk looked away. “What happened? What’d he say? Nothing good, I’m guessing.”
“He said Audrey lied to you. He said there’s no way that he, or anyone else, could ever claim you as their own. No one would believe him if he did, he said, and it wouldn’t change anything anyway. It wouldn’t make you part of his House. I’m sorry.”
Heather scowled. “Why’re we talking about that bitch for anyway? Of course she lied. Only an idiot would have taken her word for anything in the first place.”
“I guess we all know who you’re calling an idiot, right?” Nighthawk glared at her.
Heather ignored him. “And why would you think we need to be part of someone else’s House? We have our own House, don’t we? Right here?”
Marc had no answer. Technically, he supposed Heather was part of Conrad’s family now, just as he was. In theory, that meant he should be able to take her home with him. It was all the others who were screwed, left out in the cold, doomed. And there was not a damn thing he could do to change that.
Nighthawk met Marc’s gaze for a brief moment, then glanced away. His expression was grim. “All right, so, how bad is it? How long did he give us? When do we have to be out of here?”
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Marc told him. “You can stay here as long as you want. He gave me his word.”
“Right. ‘Cause everyone always keeps their word where we’re concerned. ‘Scuse me for bein’ a li’l skeptical ‘bout that. I guess the question I should be asking then is how soon are you leaving?”
Marc ducked his head. He hadn’t been expecting it to come to this—not yet, anyway. “I don’t know. I haven’t really…whenever I guess.” He thought he’d have more time. He didn’t think they’d be this quick to turn their backs on him. He glanced at the ring of pinched and anxious faces, wanting to ask if Nighthawk spoke for all of them, if there was no one at all here who wanted him to stay, but what good would that do? Before Marc had come along, Nighthawk had been the closest thing they’d had to a leader. He’d brought them together, kept them together, tried his best to keep them safe. What good would it do to undermine his authority now?
Disgust twisted Nighthawk’s features. “Yeah, that figures.” Turning away, he hopped over the back of one of the couches and sat with his back to Marc. A couple of the youngest of the ferals pressed close to Nighthawk. He threw his arms around their shoulders and hugged them tight. The rest of the troupe continued to shoot worried glances at each other or in Marc’s direction, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet their eyes.
“You’re not leaving us are you?” Heather pressed close to Marc and gazed up at him piteously.
“What choice do I have? I can’t very well stay where I’m not wanted, can I?” Not that he had any idea where he could go. Conrad hadn’t exactly thrown him out, but he’d been angry. A lot more angry than Marc had expected him to be. And, despite what he’d said about the mansion being Marc’s home he’d made it pretty damn clear he didn’t really want Marc there right now.
Perhaps Damian could change his mind, but Marc had burned that bridge pretty good as well. Maybe he could try Drew and see if he could be persuaded to let Marc crash on the couch in his office at the bar. Or would his friend be too fearful, too reluctant to incur Conrad’s wrath?
“Now you’re just being stoopid.” Heather frowned at him. “Of course you’re wanted. What are you talking about?”
Marc shook his head. “That’s not how it looks from where I’m standing.”
Heather bared her teeth in an angry little snarl. “Nighthawk! Get your ugly butt back over here!”
“No!” Nighthawk answered from the couch, still refusing to turn around. “Leave me alone, woman.”
Heather took hold of Marc’s hand and pulled him toward the couch. Marc followed along reluctantly, ditching his cup on an empty table along the way. Nothing about this scene was sparking his appetite in the slightest.
Heather continued to drag him around the couch until they stood right in front of where Nighthawk was seated. “Tell Marc you don’t want him to go,” she ordered the feral.
“No.” Nighthawk glared at her—and continued to ignore Marc. The two youngsters who had snuggled up next to Nighthawk also kept their eyes averted.
Marc sighed. “See? What’d I tell you?”
Heather rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t mean he wants you to go, Marc. He’s just being dumb. And you don’t want to go either, right? You want to stay here, don’t you? With us?”
“Of course I want to stay. But…how can I? I failed, sweetheart, and you’re the only one who doesn’t seem to realize that yet. I was trying to get a second chance for everyone. I wanted to make sure all the ferals were safe. But you—they—need a leader for that, someone who can protect you all. That’s why I went to Conrad. I thought, if he would agree to adopt everyone…”
“But Marc, we don’t need someone else to do that for us,” Heather insisted. “We have you. Everything’s so much better since you’ve taken charge. I can’t believe you don’t see that.” From the corner of his eye, Marc saw several of the others nodding in agreement.
“She’s right, you know.” Nighthawk glanced up briefly and then away again. “Not that I didn’t try but… I dunno. Seems like the harder I tried, the worse I fucked things up.”
Heather snorted. “That’s ‘cause you’re a moron.”
“Nice,” Nighthawk muttered beneath his breath. “Thanks.”
“Cut him some slack,” Marc told Heather, still trying to readjust his thinking. Could he stay after all? Did they really want him to? “He did his best, right? I guess that’s all any of us can do.”
“What I don’t get is… Why’re you even here?” Nighthawk asked, seemingly of his shoes, since he still refused to meet Marc’s gaze. “I get that you had your fun slumming with us, but why d’you want to waste any more time hanging around?”
Marc glanced around, surprised to see the same expression on just about everyone’s face: anxious, hopeful. “Who said it’s a waste of time? And where else would I be?”
Nighthawk frowned. “You have a home, don’t you? A family? And it’s Christmas-fucking-Eve. Even if you don’t do holidays—and I know, most vampires don’t—I still don’t understand why you aren’t there with them. That’s where you belong, right? I mean, if I had a home, I’d sure as hell wanna be there tonight.”
The answer was so obvious Marc was surprised he hadn’t figured it out weeks earlier. “This is my family now, and right here is all the home I’m looking for. Trust me, I fit in a lot better here, with you all, than I do anywhere else.” It was strange, coming face to face with that realization, but it was true all the same. He felt stronger somehow, calmer and infinitely more comfortable here on misfit island than he had even earlier this evening with Conrad and Damian.
“Yeah?” A suspicious warmth colored Nighthawk’s cheeks. But if he was pleased—and Marc was pretty sure he was—he did his best to hide it behind a snarky attitude. “Well, shit, if that’s the case, you’re even more fucked up than I thought you were.”
“You still want him here though, don’t you?” Heather demanded.
Nighthawk smirked. “What are you crazy? ‘Course I do. I’m not that big an idiot.”
Heather shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I never did think we needed anyone else you know,” Nighthawk said, finally addressing Marc directly. “It’s just…you kept talking about passing us off to someone else, maybe getting Quintano to take us on—and no lie, that’d be awesome, no one’d dare mess with us then. But I figured what it really meant was you didn’t want to get stuck dealing with us on your own. I mean, I don’t know how these things are supposed to work out, how houses and sires and stuff are decided or founded or whatever—especially when it comes to our kind—but you’ve been more of a sire to us than most of us have had in years. Of course we want you to stay. And if you’d be willing to take us on, I for one would be proud to say I belonged to your House.”
His own house? Could he really have that? For the life of him, Marc could not find the words to respond. He’d never even considered the possibility, although… He had to admit the idea held a lot of appeal. He couldn’t imagine what Conrad would have to say about it when he found out, and he was absolutely certain it was nothing like what Damian had in mind when he’d begged Marc to keep up appearances. For once, however, Marc didn’t care. This felt right. And if he was really as different as everyone said he was, maybe this kind of thing made sense for him.
“See?” Heather beamed at him, obviously pleased with herself. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now where’d you put your cup? We need to have a toast.”
“What are we supposed to be toasting to?” Nighthawk asked, climbing warily to his feet. The look he shot in Marc’s direction was laced with trepidation, reminding Marc he’d yet to give him an answer.
“To us, of course,” he answered, finally finding his voice.
“To all of us,” Heather added. “To our family.”
“Exactly.” Marc met Nighthawk’s eyes and smiled. “Let’s do this.” A fresh cup of blood was pressed into his hand. Marc raised it high. “To us. Our family. Our house.” My house.
“All right, then.” Nighthawk lifted his own cup in a return salute. “It’s about fucking time. Fischer House. Long may it stand.”
Heather is having the worst Christmas ever! Or, at least, the worst Christmas since she was forced to become a vampire. Her sire's distracted, her nestmates have forgotten her, weirdos have taken over the lair. The only bright spot in her life right now is Drew--who didn't even used to like her! She knows he's fond of her now, but 'fond of' is not enough for her. She wants more. She wants everything. She wants him. And she's not giving up.
Drew Geiger gave up on love a long time ago. Such tender emotions have no place in a vampire's heart. But, somehow, the girl he once described as a "feral kitten" has got her claws in him, and she's not letting go. That would be fine, if only someone didn't want her dead--and if her sire didn't recall that it was Drew who once suggested that maybe she'd be better off that way.
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