There's a girl.
Not a girl who needs to be saved, which is pretty awesome. Most of the girls Loren meets on the road are victims, terrified and shaking and pretty sure they're going crazy. Sometimes they end up dead. Mostly, Loren can save them.
Mostly, Loren teaches them how to save themselves. And that's great, them not being victims anymore, because really? Lots of girls are smart and strong, they've just been taught so long not to fight back, shown that they can only be victims and if they do fight back, they're villains.
Loren knows about all that. She's watched the horror movies. Hell, she's lived them.
So when she meets this girl on a hunt and the girl's already a fighter, already has all the right weapons loaded with all the right ammo, already knows exactly what she's facing, it's the best kind of surprise in a world full of bad ones.
Loren's been following this werewolf for almost a week. Some of the werewolves have heard of her now -- or maybe, once she's faced with this other armed and competent girl, she thinks they've only heard that someone's hunting them, they don't know actually know who -- and the ones that have, and don't discount her because she's human or she's young or she doesn't have a dick, are more careful.
Generally she doesn't mind the extra work it takes to find and kill the ones that are more careful, but she's tired and the summer's almost over and she's supposed to go to college in two weeks and she really doesn't want to go. All she wants to do is hunt, but that doesn't actually pay the bills and Mom expects her to go to school, graduate, get a good job, and start a family. All those good, normal things.
She's not been normal for awhile. She'll never be normal again.
Anyway. She tracks the guy down to an apartment building. That's a little weird, they don't like to share their space and even if this one lives alone in the apartment itself, werewolves have a highly developed sense of territory. Probably it's pissed all over the building. The alley at the back certainly smells like it, garbage and wet dog and brimstone -- somewhere there's a hound of hell -- and werewolf stink.
Loren still prefers her crossbow, but it doesn't always reload fast enough, so she keeps a handgun loaded with silver bullets at her hip. She goes up the fire escape. Redd's coming in the front door to flush the werewolf and Loren has to be ready and waiting.
Two gunshots, right together, come before she's in place. Shit. He moved too soon. Again. Redd's a much better hunter these days, but sometimes he gets all cocky. Fucks it up.
She scrambles up the rest of the stairs. The window's unlocked. The window's open. The full moon is rising somewhere but the buildings block it. The city presses in around her. Too many neighbors who might end up dead. Too many witnesses who could pin the break-in on a girl in her late teens.
Too many people who'll get in the way.
A snarl inside and then a crash. Loren dives through the window and scrambles back to her feet, crossbow loaded and held ready in front of her. The bolt is wicked and sharp, the entire length of it silver.
Another crash off to the left. The room's empty of furniture. Clean at first glance, but then she sees streaks of blood on the walls near the floor. This one's sloppy. She eases open the door and fast checks the hallway in either direction. Nothing.
The door to the next room is closed. She takes a step toward it, reaches for the handle. It doesn't matter how soft she walks, the werewolf will hear her. Nothing she can do about that. Her fingers brush cool metal and then the door explodes.
Loren skips back quickly, keeping the crossbow up. Someone was thrown through the door, smashing it open, and it's not Redd. It's not the werewolf she's been hunting, either. It's a girl, with blonde hair back in a ponytail and a big ass shotgun.
She swings the shotgun up, fires, and hits the door frame. The werewolf was there a second ago. Now it's in the hall, with the girl on the floor in between it and Loren.
There's no light on in the hallway and it's mostly in shadow. Its eyes spark silver, reflecting the little bit of light in its face. A square of light from the light in the other room falls across shotgun girl.
Loren's done this so many times she doesn't need much light. Aim, steady breath, fire. The bolt hits true, right in the damn thing's chest. The shotgun goes off again a second later and his stomach opens up. That's not going to be the worst of it. Loren reloads the crossbow as fast as she can, quick as a wink and a half, maybe two winks, and shoots one at his face.
Of course it hits the target too and then she's frantically backing away because she knows what happens next, that's why she does the killings outside mostly. Sure enough, with a sick, slick slurping sound the head explodes and the blood goes everywhere. She barely has time to turn her back. Another shirt ruined. Good thing she left her jacket with the bike.
"Fuck." Shotgun girl tries to wipe off her face but only manages to smear everything worse. She was pretty much ground zero for the blood spray and Loren feels sorry for her. "That's sick."
"First werewolf, huh?" Loren turns to face her again and stretches her neck, first one side, then the other. There's something chunky and wet behind her right ear. Gross.
"Yeah. No one told me they explored."
"Me neither, my first time."
"You've done this before? And you don't have an umbrella or something?"
"Can't carry it and all the weapons too."
"At least a rain slicker?" Damn it. That's a good idea. Shotgun girl sits up and then puts a fist at her lower back. "Man, that fucking smarts."
"Next time maybe you shouldn't open the door by going through it."
"Yeah, cause this is exactly how I planned this job going." She gets her feet flat on the floor but doesn't stand up. Instead she rests the shotgun across her knees and stares at Loren. "I didn't know there was another hunter on the job. Didn't mean to poach."
Loren shrugs. "Whatever. As long as it's dead, I don't care who did it."
Both eyebrows shoot up. "That's unusual."
"I'm not looking for trophies."
"Most of the guys aren't either. Still don't want someone barging in on their kills."
Loren puts one hand on her hip. "You know many people who hunt werewolves?"
She huffs a laugh. It isn't a very happy sound. "You'd be surprised. Though most of them don't specialize or anything. Werewolves, ghosts, demons -- whatever's out there killing people, they'll hunt it."
There's a moment when all the breath goes out of the room and Loren's left with this strange tightness in her chest. She's been very careful not to consider what else might be out there -- what else might be real now that she believes in werewolves -- but she's known she can't avoid it forever. Looks like her time is up.
"Ghosts," she says. Her voice is surprisingly weak and she clenches her free hand into a fist. There's no time for that. Not now. "Oh, yeah. Demons. Did you see a hound of hell? A demon dog running around protecting that thing?"
Huh. The hallway opens into an empty room. No demon dog there. There's a noise from the door at the other end of the room and she quickly shoves another bolt into place. She's just gotten the crossbow up when the door bursts open and Redd comes rushing in, rifle at the ready.
"Sorry I'm late." He flashes her his I'm-a-famous-hunter grin. "Got the hound of hell out of the way.
"That's good. While you were playing with the puppy, we took out the werewolf."
"Oh." His face falls a little. He looks older when he doesn't smile. He looks older ever since she showed him werewolves were real. Mostly she doesn't blame herself, but sometimes it gets to her. At least they're saving lives, even if they're changing in the process. "Who's we?"
"She means me." Shotgun girl gets up in an easy movement, her gun aimed at Redd. "He's with you?"
"Yeah. He's one of the good guys. Generally."
"Generally," Redd agrees and gives a little bow and flourish. Such a showoff. Not half bad as backup. "Redd Tucker, werewolf hunter extraordinaire, at your service."
"Yeah, okay then." Shotgun girl lowers her gun and turns to Loren. She keeps her back to the wall, though. Not very trusting, that one, but it makes Loren grin. "And you?"
"Jo." She wipes ineffectively at the blood on her face again. "You're a pretty good shot."
"I've had lots of practice."
They're all three silent for a minute. It's pretty weird for Redd to be quiet around someone new. He's watching them and she doesn't recognize his expression even though he's smiling and she always thought she'd seen most of his smiles. Whatever.
"I'm starving." She rests the crossbow on her shoulder. "Anyone want to get food?" But she's looking at Jo when she says it.
Jo shrugs and disappointment is bitter on the back of Loren's traitorous tongue. Then she says, "I know this diner that makes great blueberry waffles. Sound good?" And she smiles at Loren.
It sounds great.
It looks even better.
They split up long enough to get cleaned up and reconvene at the diner. Redd starts off at the booth with them, but pretty soon he's off at the counter flirting with their waitress. She brings over their plates of food but gives him his where he's sitting and leans against the counter while he eats, talking to him. She's undone the top button on her shirt and when she smiles really big, she's got two perfect dimples.
He'll probably go home with her. He usually does, and meets up with Loren in the morning. Usually she likes the arraignment because it gives her time alone in the hotel room to study and sleep. Sitting across the table from Jo, two plates piled high with thick waffles and big mounds of whipped cream and fruity syrup over everything, Loren's not sure she ever wants to sleep again.
They're sharing a pot of coffee. Jo leaves hers plain, no cream, no sugar, and takes the first drink. She's almost poker faced after, but the corners of her mouth go really tight. Loren manages not to snort.
She stirs three tablespoons of sugar into her cup and splashes real milk in until it's a swirly brown. Then she unwraps a Werther's Original, drops it in, and lets it sit for awhile. Even with the milk, the coffee is still hot enough to melt it.
Jo frowns and Loren offers her one, too. "You should try it. It's really good this way. Sweet." After a second, Jo takes it and gets her coffee all put together. While they're waiting for their drinks to be ready, Loren digs into her waffles.
"You're right," she says around a mouthful, "these are delicious."
"I know. My favorite place in this damn town."
Loren chews and swallows. "Is this home?" she asks. Maybe she's the one poaching.
Jo presses her lips together and stares resolutely at the table. She scrapes her fork across the edge of her plate and finally looks up again. "No. I don't really--" but whatever she's about to say, she cuts off. When she continues, Loren's pretty sure she's decided on something different to say. "Stay anywhere very long. Gotta travel a lot, go where the hunting is. You know."
Sure she does, but Loren goes home all the time. She spends more time there than not. She doesn't say any of that, though. Obviously there are some things Jo doesn't want to talk about and that's fine.
"What do you hunt mostly, if not werewolves?" Loren asks.
Jo shrugs. "Whatever's out there. Mostly ghosts. How'd you get started?" She shoves a huge bite of food into her mouth.
Loren methodically cuts up the rest of her pancakes to maximize how much syrup she can get on each bite. "Bad luck, mostly. This guy moved in next door. He was a werewolf, but I didn't know that at first. I just knew he was creepy as hell. I mean, god, he was old and he kept looking at me like he wanted to eat me. And not in that werewolf way, either, which would have been bad enough."
Jo chokes on her laughter and her mouthful of food and pounds her chest, trying to clear her throat. "That's so wrong."
"I know, right?" She grins, pleased with herself. With the whole world, really, because Jo's really cute and she hunts monsters and the food is delicious and her coffee is nearly perfect and she's killed another werewolf. Life is good. "So I figured out, you know, werewolf, because I'm not stupid and he had all these signs and then I killed him."
"Just like that?" Jo looks impressed.
"Well, it was a little more complicated than that but in the end, he was dead and almost everyone I loved was still alive -- oh, and Redd was too -- so I guess it was mostly a win."
Jo's eyes are soft and her voice quiet when she says, "Almost?" And then she looks down at her food and takes her time cutting her next bite. It's an out, and for a minute Loren really considers taking it, but she thinks Jo probably knows about losing people, too.
"Almost." Even after she decides she's going to talk about it, it takes her a minute to actually say anything new. "He killed my best friend, Angie. It was really stupid. She knew things were weird and went off parking with her boyfriend anyway." For a second, Loren feels like crying, both for her loss and because she's being so judgmental about it. "That's not true. I mean, she was the one who first said werewolf and she listened to all my theories, but she didn't really believe. Why would she? And maybe he killed her because he heard her call him a werewolf first. I don't know. I miss her." Her voices breaks and she stops. It's been awhile, but it never gets any easier.
"Of course you do. It's sad. My dad was a hunter, too. He died and I'll never stop missing him."
They're quiet for awhile after that. Loren finishes her food and sips her coffee and enjoys just being around another girl. Hunting werewolves is lonely work and even though she has partners -- Redd and her brother Kyle and their friend Steven -- they're all guys.
"Do you many women hunters?" She asks suddenly. "Like us?"
Jo shakes her head. "There are some, but not very many." She looks thoughtful. "Or maybe they just keep to themselves. My mom, she owns this bar, and hunters gather there. A lot of the guys are sexist assholes. Maybe the women just don't come around."
"Hey, Loren!" Redd's using his t.v. star voice, which is pretty hilarious because he was a fake hunter with a crappy show not even anything all that interesting. Whatever, he's happy, that's good. "They've got good pie. I'm buying slices for everyone, what kind do you want?"
Loren gets chocolate crème and Jo gets strawberry rhubarb which sounds just nasty but actually tastes pretty good when Jo forks her out a bite. They get glasses of ice cold milk and more coffee and after she's done, Loren feels delightfully full.
"I've gotta go," Jo says after they've been sharing tips about weapons and monsters and their favorite movies and things for a couple hours, drinking coffee and taking up a booth. "I've got this job and I'm already late." She makes a face.
"Hey, yeah, it's okay, I'd probably better get some sleep tonight. We've got a long drive home tomorrow."
"Oh." Jo looks down at her empty coffee cup. "So you're taking off already?"
"I guess. I'm supposed to be spending time with my family before I leave for college."
"You've got a normal life?"
"I don't want it. It's just -- that's what my mom expects. She doesn't know about all this."
Jo sighs. "You're lucky that you can do both."
"It's hard." There's a lot Loren's not saying. Probably it's the same for Jo. "I couldn't not do this, though. I didn't know anyone else was and, well, how could I not? There are monsters and someone has to stop them."
Of course she does.
They exchange cell phone numbers and leave Redd flirting with the waitress. Jo drives this ratty old truck. She leans against it while Loren puts on her leather jacket and gets the bike ready to go.
She fingers her helmet strap and then leaves it dangling from one of the handlebars as she goes over to stand very close to Jo. She takes a deep breath, rocks back on her heels and then forward again. She's not felt this way about a girl for awhile, not since her biggest worry was whether she'd play well at her next soccer game.
"I'm really glad I met you," she says and touches her fingers lightly to Jo's wrist. For a lot of reasons, but she doesn't really have the words for everything.
"Me too." Jo's smile is beautiful. "We should hunt again sometime."
"Yeah. I'll call." She means it, too. "And if you're in the area, even if you're not hunting, let me know, okay?"
Jo nods. Before she says anything else, Loren leans forward and kisses her. She puts her hands on Jo's hips and Jo slips her hands beneath Loren's coat to stroke her back. Jo's a really good kisser, firm lips and not too wet and she presses against Loren in a really nice, distracting way.
"Work," Jo says when she finally breaks away and smiles sheepishly. "I would just skip but then I'd get fired and I really need the money before I take off."
"No problem. Next time."
"Yeah." Jo's voice is husky and she dips her fingers under Loren's shirt, traces her nails over bare skin, and it makes her shiver. "Next time."
Loren really, really hopes next time comes soon.