The next couple of days were filled with as much planning and administrative details as we could manage. Cynthia, well aware her activities might be being spied on by a rogue techno vampire, looked for remote houses that sounded like a good hideout for Ian, coming up with several potential options and trying to make it deliberately look like we were being unclear on purpose, so that if anyone was spying on her, they wouldn’t know which house she picked so they wouldn’t know where he ended up without checking each one personally.
George decided to park himself over at Ian’s – with his rat trap in place – and Jo served as the messenger whenever we needed to communicate with him. We couldn’t count on phones and were even concerned about the cameras in Ian’s place being used to spy on Ian – and us – so they had to be careful about exactly what they said or even letting the trap come within sight of the cameras. George actually carried the pieces in separately and assembled it inside, away from any potential electronic eyes, and then waited to see if a trained rat did, indeed, show up in his trap.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the phoenix was up to – she was pretty quiet, actually. Not broody, really, just sometimes I got the impression she was more used to observing than to participating. She didn’t seem standoffish, though, and was somewhat interested in listening to me explain about the Hunter weapons and our eventual plan to cut off supply of such weapons if we could – for Lynn’s sake, if no one else’s.
Meanwhile, Lynn and Cassie hit it off. Apparently the ghost was highly entertained by Lynn turning random objects into gold for her and kept asking her to try something else – like a piece of paper or a bit of food or spare change or some other random object, and Lynn actually seemed to be enjoying the apparent excitement Cassie had for her abilities. I was happy for her, because I knew how hard that magic was on Lynn, limiting her interaction with the world so severely, so the fact that she was getting some enjoyment out of her magic for once seemed like a good thing to me.
The phoenix seemed to catch my feelings when I glanced over at Lynn, pleased to see her smiling about something as she shook her head and rolled her eyes a bit, but obliged with turning whatever new object into gold at Cassie’s request.
“She’s good about that,” the phoenix said quietly. “Cassie, I mean. Helping people appreciate things they’ve forgotten to enjoy. I hadn’t been really living in decades, centuries maybe before I met her. Just existing, unhappily for the most part. She reminded me how to enjoy life again. Reminded me to enjoy simple things that I’d long forgotten to appreciate. I wish you could communicate with her more directly, because she has a way about her that helps those around her. You’ve all been pretty burdened with this hunting Hunters thing, haven’t you? You possibly most, I can tell.” She gave me a sympathetic half smile. “I’ve been around long enough to be able to recognize when someone is haunted by the past. Or the present. I didn’t need Cynthia to tell me you struggle with what you do to see it. I wish you and Cassie could talk directly so she could help you, too. She’s a siren, you know – they tend to be pretty charismatic. Most ghosts lose their magic when they die, but sirens are an exception, and for Cassie, I think her magic mostly comes out in being able to remind people to find the joy in life again, because she enjoys life so much. Her own happiness gets reflected to those around her.”
I rested my shoulder against the archway to the living room, my eyes still on Lynn. “Well, at least the others can get some help from her, then. I’m not the only one who’s spent years doing this. George loves robotics, he wants to get back to that. Jo wants to go back to school and be a psychiatrist. Lynn obviously has trouble interacting physically with people or things. We all have our struggles, and even if Cassie can’t help me, it’s nice just to see Lynn enjoying her magic for once. And if she helps the others, I’d be even happier.”
“They’re your family,” she observed.
I blinked, startled. I hadn’t ever thought of it like that, even though Cynthia had called us a weird sort of family, but she was right, wasn’t she? We’d been living together and sharing some fairly intense things for over a decade now. I spent more time with them – and knew them better – than my own parents.
We’d all lost family and friends before we’d started this anti-Hunter thing together, and while I’d never thought of them as family, just as coworkers, we were more than simple colleagues, weren’t we? Maybe we wouldn’t call it family, but we were definitely something more than coworkers. We would do anything we could to help each other and protect each other. That was obvious from even the decision to change our focus. We were all trying to look out for each other and that resulted in moving away from what we had been doing.
The phoenix seemed to realize she’d surprised me, but she seemed slightly amused about it. “Family isn’t always what you’re born with and sometimes you don’t even have to say you’re family to know you are.”
She wasn’t wrong. Cynthia always felt like a mother to me, maybe because I knew she was old enough to actually be my mother, while Jo was more like a sister and George was something of an older brother. We really were a family, weren’t we? A weird one that went and hunted Hunters together, but hey. Some families are weird.
“What’s that look for?” Jo demanded as she stomped inside. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
I rolled my eyes. “Haha, very funny.”
Apparently the ghost I couldn’t see heard this and joined in, and the others all laughed at whatever joke she made at my expense, while meanwhile I met Lynn’s eyes and jerked my head towards the kitchen. “Want to make supper with me?”
She hopped up eagerly. As it had turned out, gold plating had worked to prevent Lynn’s powers, so we’d basically gold-plated a lot of the handles on our kitchenware so that Lynn could use it. Lynn had nearly cried the first time she’d actually be able to cook something, a dream she’d long since given up on only for her to finally have it handed back to her.
I liked cooking with Lynn. I hadn’t cared much one way or the other about cooking before now, but I sort of saw it as an activity we could do together – carefully – that Lynn loved and I enjoyed getting to watch her as she carefully followed the recipe and then looked so happy every time we tried whatever new thing she’d cooked and all – pretty much without exception – told her it was good. Cooking was now a happy time for me, something I hadn’t had in years. It was nice.
After dinner, I had an idea for watching a movie with Lynn. I took an extra large pillow and put it between us.
“We can lean against it,” I explained. “It’s got a cotton pillowcase, just to be safe, but you don’t turn things gold from your elbow up anyway, right? So we can sort of sit closer, just carefully.”
Lynn immediately sat down and then made an impatient gesture for me to do the same, snuggling into the pillow the moment I complied. She let out a happy sigh when she leaned against my shoulder through the pillow.
“This is nice,” she murmured. “Like, I can feel you there and all and it’s nice.” She tilted her head to look at me over the top of the pillow. “Thank you, August.”
I felt relieved that she liked the idea. I wished there was a way I could give her what she wanted – physical contact – but we could work with this. Maybe eventually we’d find a way to use Hunter weapons to give Lynn a more normal life, but for now, we could figure out how to make our relationship work with tricks like this.
We weren’t even halfway through the movie, though, when it became clear that Lynn wasn’t really paying attention to it. She seemed comfortable and happy, but then she kept glancing at me like she wanted to ask something but wasn’t sure if she should.
I finally paused the movie and looked down at her. “What is it?”
She immediately burst out with a question I hadn’t expected at all. “What was your friend like?”
I knew instantly who she meant, and after blinking in surprise, I slowly began to try to introduce her to Ollie. “He was a nerd, usually quiet, but he’d get passionate about stuff and forget that he didn’t like attention. And he had a mischievous streak that didn’t always show up unless you know him pretty well. He was like me about not always caring about the rules – that’s how we became friends in the first place. We were pretty small, kindergarten I think, and I was sneaking out of the class to avoid mandatory nap time because I thought it was stupid, only to find him pulling the fire alarm for the same reason. We took off running together but didn’t even make it to the front door. We got in big trouble for it but came out with a best friend, so we never really cared. Everyone called us Auggie and Ollie after that, like if there was one of us, the other one was always there, too. We were kind of a package deal.”
I smiled briefly at that memory, but then the memory faded into the last few times I’d seen him. “When he told me he was a shifter and had accidentally caused my sister’s death, he was terribly nervous. Now I know he was risking a whole lot to reveal the supernatural world to me – and he didn’t even have to, he just felt so bad about it and wanted me to know the truth – and I…I didn’t reward his trust. I thought he was crazy and then turned to the internet, which led to Hunters brutally murdering him and his entire family.” I dropped my head against the back of the couch, feeling the regret I could never entirely wash away. “I’ll never stop regretting that I didn’t just go and ask him – or even his parents – outright about whether he was okay and just talk to him, you know? If I had, if I’d gone to him instead of to the internet, he’d be alive today.”
“But you didn’t know that Hunters were even a thing and that you were putting him in danger by doing that,” Lynn offered gently. “Normally when we tell humans, we do try to have a plan in place, unless it’s completely uncontrolled. Ollie could have asked you to not talk about it until you talked to him again, but he didn’t.”
I’d thought through all that over the years. A lot. I’d probably obsessed over it more than was healthy. “I know. Ollie could have approached me about it better – not bringing it up when I was grieving, or even simply just showing me that he could shift so I didn’t think he was crazy, but he’d never tried to reveal the supernatural world to a friend before and didn’t realize all the potential complications. I’m guessing he didn’t talk to his parents about it – that was like him, really. Once he set his mind to something, he just ran with it. He didn’t like to confide in people until after the fact. His parents could have coached him through it better if they’d known what he planned to do, or talked to me themselves, or even taken the family away for safekeeping, so I have to assume they never realized what happened with us. And I – I was trying to be considerate, trying to avoid telling his parents he was maybe crazy and trying to see if maybe there was some way he actually wasn’t crazy. Neither of us had ill intentions, we were just young and didn’t understand the potential consequences of our actions. The Hunters took advantage of that. I know it’s not my fault, exactly, but at the same time, I still regret it, because I know that my actions resulted in their deaths. Even if it was innocently intended.”
I folded my hands together, trying not to get too upset about a past I couldn’t change no matter how much I might wish it, and just continued. “I joined the Hunter clan after that, but my plan was nebulous. I wanted to make things right and see them punished for what they did, but it wasn’t until I was training with them that I realized I was in way over my head. I had this sense of justice but no real plan, no real method for carrying it out. That’s when Cynthia ran into me. She was tracking the clan because it was the same one responsible for wiping out her coven. She’d noticed me just because I was a new recruit and thought maybe I could be unintentionally helpful to her, but then she caught me one day when I went into the woods by myself to rant out loud about how entirely overwhelmed I was and how I had no idea what to do.” I rolled my eyes, smiling a bit. “I probably looked like a scared deer when I realized there was someone else in the woods with me and that she’d clearly heard a lot of what I said. She’d at least heard enough to realize what my intentions were with the clan, and figured out we could work together. Having her help probably saved my life, but definitely saved my mission. We did take care of that clan.”
Then my smile faded. “I had a bit of a tough time handling things after that. I’d never killed someone before, never done anything even close to that, and while I knew they were awful people – for what they did to Ollie and his family, and Cynthia’s coven, and more that I heard about while there – it didn’t change the fact that I hating having to be the one to end someone’s life. Cynthia stayed with me, though, while I was working through that. She acted a lot like a mother to me and while I knew she didn’t feel the same sentiments about what we’d done, she never condemned how I was feeling about it, either. She just…was there. Helping. Being someone who understood. The only person who understood. She probably saved me from a complete meltdown.”
I owed a lot to Cynthia in a way. Sure, she had really been responsible for a career that I hated, even if I thought it was necessary, but she’d also been the one over the years to hold me together and keep me from giving up.